TOM SWIFT LIVES!

TOM SWIFT AND HIS

ELECTRONIC HYDROLUNG

 

 

 

 

 

This unauthorized tribute

Is based upon

the original TOM SWIFT JR. characters

 

SCOTT DICKERSON, AUTHOR.

 

As of this printing,

copyright to

The New TOM SWIFT Jr. Adventures

is owned by

SIMON & SCHUSTER

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This edition privately printed by

 

RUNABOUT

2011

www.tomswiftlives.com

 

PRINTED IN THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA


 

 

 

 

TOM SWIFT AND HIS

ELECTRONIC HYDROLUNG



 

CHAPTER 1

 

 

 

          THE PIRATED PROBE

 

 

 

 

TENSE, excited men gazed spaceward from the ships and planes of the Mid-Atlantic task force, eyes striving to pierce the barrier of a lustrous blue sky. Other watchers waited breathlessly in the control room of the mammoth ship Sea Charger. Among these was Tom Swift, whose family’s fantastic invention factory in Shopton, New York—Swift Enterprises—had developed the advanced design of the high-tech vessel.

“How close to earth is the stardust catcher now?” Bud Barclay asked Tom excitedly.

The slender blond youth beside him, in striped T-shirt and dark slacks, shot a glance at the dials of the tracking equipment. “Three minutes closer from the last time you asked, Bud. Eight thousand miles from this spot. It should land here in fifteen minutes. If you think you can wait!”

“Sure. And ‘land’ is the key word, genius boy. Land, as opposed to hit the deck!”

Tom, his father Damon Swift, Bud, and a host of scientists, Navy officers, NASA representatives, and newsmen were crowded aboard the Charger, big as an aircraft carrier, floating calm as concrete in the Atlantic waters east of Barbados in the Caribbean. Most excited of all were the designers of the returning deep-space probe, a team of astronautics scientists and technicians from Japan who had launched the challenging venture on its voyage to the far-distant edge of the solar system nearly two decades previous. “We are greatly confident in imminent success for our mission, young man,” admonished Hideki Moritsu coldly, the official chief of the team, representing the Japanese government’s investment in its national space program. “I am told all readings are precisely as they should be.”

“No offense intended, sir. It’s just that this whole thing is pretty complicated for a guy like me to get his brain around. But just think!” Bud exulted. “Pretty soon you’ll have data that no one on earth has yet been able to get, from way out where the sun looks like a star!”

If we recover the probe capsule safely,” Mr. Swift spoke up hopefully. The elder scientist’s voice was quiet but taut with the strain of waiting. The two Swifts resembled each other closely—each had deep-set blue eyes and clean-cut features—although Tom was somewhat the taller and rangier, and his father definitely the grayer.

“You’re right, Dad,” Tom agreed. “And I guess I’m as nervous as Bud. If we don’t catch the Gojira and set her down safely, the whole project will be a total loss to Mr. Moritsu’s space program! And I wouldn’t blame Japan for blaming us in that case, since we came up with the means of landing it.”

At Tom’s words, the watchers and crewmen who were crowded into the Sea Charger’s control room stirred restlessly. Its bulkheads were banked with radar and telemetering devices. Tension had been mounting throughout the morning aboard the ships and observation planes of the task force as everyone awaited the climax of science’s deepest penetration into space so far.

Tom stepped away to stretch his aching shoulder muscles, clenched tight by the morning’s tension. Bud followed him. “What do you mean, a total loss?” Bud argued quietly, trying not to stare too obviously at the rather stolid Mr. Moritsu. “Even if the recovery operation’s a flop, the shot will still pay off in valuable information, won’t it?”

Tom shook his head grimly. “I haven’t explained all the details to you, pal. The main purpose of the mission wasn’t to record instrument data but to carry back its payload of Kuiper matter to Earth.”

“Kuiper matter? You mean the cosmic dust?”

“It’s more than dust, chum. What we do know is that the Gojira probe found ice, rock granules, hydrogen compounds, even micro-sized particles of metal out in the Kuiper Belt—the leftover building blocks of the primordial solar system. But almost none of the info has been radioed back to us.”

“How come?”

“Power problems,” Tom explained. “Gojira was supposed to be solar-powered during the first years of the trip, but the collector panels didn’t open properly. They’ve been running it off battery power throughout the mission and didn’t want to use it up on telemetry transmissions across billions of miles. Draining the batteries would have prevented completing the real goal of the mission—collecting the stuff and bringing it back home. It was a jerry-rigged emergency fix. and they had to make every volt count.” Tom concluded by noting that digital recordings had been made by the probe’s instruments throughout the journey, to be studied after the landing.

“I get it,” Bud nodded. “Kind of ironic, though. One of your Swift solar batteries would have made all the difference in the world. But it hadn’t been invented yet.” The remarkable power source, compact and lightweight, was manufactured 22,300 miles above the earth at the Swift Enterprises outpost in space.

Tom leaned closer and lowered his voice. “There are a lot of things Enterprises might have done to assist this project, Bud. We could easily have met the probe out in space in one of our spacecraft. But Mr. Moritsu’s people wouldn’t hear of it. They want things to proceed as closely as possible to the original plan from the Stone Age of space travel—national pride, I guess. All we were allowed to do was to update and redesign the ‘catcher’ missile for them.” Bud shot his friend a wry look to show he understood.

Outwardly calm, Tom was seething with inner excitement. Although to the eye he seemed no older than a teenaged youth—the same age as his husky, dark-haired pal and copilot, Bud Barclay—Tom was a world-famous prodigy in scientific invention. He had been first choice for the job of directing the recovery phase of the Japanese government’s Gojira Probe mission. The Swifts and their rocket research staff had built the special recovery missile that would intercept the probe’s payload package as it approached the earth and gently carry its fragile cargo to the deck of the Sea Charger.

Whew!” Bud gave a nervous whistle as the two strolled back to the controls. “I’m about as tense as you are. With all our eggs in one basket, we sure can’t afford to get butter-fingered with the Kuiper probe.”

Admiral Walter, a tall, distinguished man, graying at the temples, smiled. “It’s what we call in warfare a calculated risk, Bud,” he said. “But with Tom in charge, I believe we have nothing to worry about.”

Mr. Swift’s eyes shone with fatherly pride at the admiral’s remark and Bud whacked Tom heartily on the shoulder.

“Better save your orchids and keep your fingers crossed, flyboy,” the young inventor advised with a wince. “The rocket’s not home yet.”

“I know,” responded the ex-footballer. “But it’s just about time to go out for that long pass!”

Radio telescopes, both on land and aboard the ships of the task force, were following the probe’s progress as it drew closer to earth. All were feeding a steady stream of information to the ship’s computers. In addition, the Deep-Space Tracking Network was keeping watch from orbit by radar, as was the Swifts’ outpost space station with its powerful telescope.

“How soon will the primary retro-rockets fire, Tom?” Admiral Walter inquired presently.

“In about ten seconds, sir,” Tom replied, eyeing the digital clock readout before him.

Moments later, a red light flashed on the master control panel. Far out in space, the retarding rockets in the nose of the probe capsule were triggered for a long and powerful burst. Returning from the outer solar system at tremendous speed, Gojira would hurtle to flaming destruction in the fringes of the atmosphere without this measure.

“We’ve picked it up on ship radar!” shouted a radarman.

Bud gave a whoop of excitement and everyone crowded around the bank of radarscope monitors. Tom’s steel-blue eyes checked the blip, noting that the capsule was slightly off the correct path. A new flow of information now began pulsing in as other ships’ tracking radars recorded its course. The data was being fed automatically to the “capture” computer which would calculate the correct flight path for the recovery missile, to be launched in moments from the Sea Charger’s floating launch platform. This mini-rocket was designed to seize the returning traveler from space in mid-flight and bring it safely home.

The excited buzz of voices in the compartment gradually quieted as the clock ticked steadily toward the next step in the recovery operation.

“Stand by for missile firing!” Tom snapped over a loudspeaker.

A seaman relayed the order over the ship’s intercom. An electrified silence fell as Tom’s eyes followed the patterns sweeping across an oscilloscope screen.

“All clear for blast-off!” came the report from the launch pad—from a reporter.

With a glance at his father and Bud, Tom pressed the master firing button that authorized the final ignition sequence. A split second later the listeners’ eardrums throbbed to a muffled roar from topside as the slender recovery missile shot skyward. Through the window they could see the launch platform rocking convulsively despite its inbuilt gravitex stabilizers. Then it steadied again as the advanced devices damped out the vibrations.

“Wow!” Bud heaved a sigh of relieved tension. Then he dashed from the compartment and onto the main deck for a quick look at the rocket as it disappeared into the blue.

Tom watched the catcher missile, the Recoverer, intently on the radarscope.

“Nice going, son,” said Mr. Swift quietly.

In response to his father’s reassuring grip on his arm, Tom flashed him a hasty smile. For the first time, the young inventor realized he was beaded with perspiration and that his pulse was hammering.

“Quite admirable, I should say,” muttered one of the Japanese scientists, Dr. Otsukora. His white-coated countrymen, standing together, murmured and nodded.

“It’s a case of wait and hope,” Tom murmured in response. “We’ll know in a few minutes.”

Across half the world, and 22,300 miles deep into space, eyes were glued to radar screens and electronic monitors. To Tom Swift’s eyes, two small blips were visible—one the incoming probe capsule, now barely beginning to skim the atmosphere; the other the recovery missile, moving on a course that would soon intersect its quarry.

One of the NASA observers suddenly spoke up. “Swift!—am I seeing things, or is Recoverer deviating from course?”

Tom checked the readouts. “She’s automatically compensating for changes in the Gojira’s trajectory, updating her course with her inbuilt tracking system.”

The youth’s voice trailed off uncertainly, and Mr. Swift put a hand on his shoulder. “Such last-minute deviations are to be expected in a ballistic reentry, son.”

“I know,” replied the young inventor. “Except—the capsule hasn’t entered the denser atmosphere yet. I don’t like the look of what I’m seeing. The probe’s course seems to be flattening out considerably.”

“Is this a difficulty?” demanded Mr. Moritsu.

“I’m hoping Recoverer will be able to compensate, as it was designed to do,” Tom said. “Its onboard computer can virtually think for itself.”

But just as Bud returned to the compartment, several of the watchers gave startled gasps. “You can’t call that a normal variation!” declared one of the engineers. The glowing line on the monitor, projecting the Gojira’s heading forward and back, had developed a noticeable kink!

“Telemetry still nominal,” announced one of the flight engineers. “No problem with the retros or the vernier thrusters. Whatever’s affecting Gojira has nothing to do with its own instrumentation. There’s some external cause.”

“It’s gone completely off course!” Admiral Walter exclaimed. “What’s happening?”

“I ask the same question, young man,” grated Moritsu, not bothering to look Tom’s way.

Tom stared at the moving blips. The Enterprises recovery missile was clearly falling behind as the Gojira probe seemed to glide sideways across the screen. It was all too clear that by the time the Recoverer reached the newly plotted meeting point, Gojira would be somewhere else!

Damon Swift looked up from the monitor bank and gazed steadily at Mr. Moritsu and his colleagues. “I’m afraid we must face facts, gentlemen. We can not compensate sufficiently to intercept the probe with our recovery missile.”

“It’s a thief missile! A pirate!” Tom cried out in fury. “Some enemy’s trying to steal the probe payload!”

“Good night!” Bud gulped. “Do you see it on the scope?”

“No,” Tom muttered tensely. “But what else could it be? Some kind of interceptor vehicle with anti-radar protection must have latched onto the capsule. Gojira’s being dragged away to another landing site!”

Pirated!” Admiral Walter sounded as if he had paled under his deep military tan. In stunned silence, the Navy officers and scientists of two nations watched as Tom’s sinewy hands manipulated the control dials.

“I’m trying to speed up our recovery missile,” Tom explained as he focused his attention on the board. “Throwing everything we’ve got into it! Looks like a slim hope, though, from the way Gojira is pulling away.”

“But at least the probe has slowed tremendously,” Mr. Swift noted. “Whatever’s taken control of it isn’t letting it burn up.”

Wordlessly admitting failure, Tom rose from his chair and began to pace angrily. “I can’t believe some enemy has access to all the precision data they’d need to catch the probe in midflight, as we’d planned to do. They may just be diverting it somehow, knocking it out of our hands so they can recover it later.”

A newsman asked Dr. Otsukora, “What happens if it’s allowed to splash down? Will the matter-retrieval experiment be ruined?”

“I will not say ruined,” was the reply. “The findings will have been compromised. But the contents will surely be of scientific interest, nevertheless.”

Tom continued the thought. “If they let the probe capsule fall into the sea, and the impact doesn’t destroy it, there’s only one hope of recovery—to plot the exact geographical position and then get to the spot before the enemy does!”

“Roger!” Bud agreed with excitement. He was ready for the chase!

The Sea Charger’s radar dishes had been shifting constantly to keep their focus on the two targets. Now the chief radarman reported: “Gojira’s off the scope, over the horizon.”

“The probe’s guidance system is no longer acknowledging our signals!” one of the telemetry scientists called out. “It’s blacked out. We’re not getting a peep back from her.”

Admiral Walter was engaged in animated conversation with Mr. Moritsu and his technical team, and more than a few arms were making like dignified windmills. Then, as the admiral snapped out orders to his own Navymen, Tom exchanged a brief worried glance with his father. Each was pondering the same thought.

Could Tom find the priceless deep-space probe? Or would it soon be in possession of a mysterious enemy?


 


 

 

 

 

CHAPTER 2

 

 

          SARGASSO LOOK-SEE

 

 

 

 

ADMIRAL Walter, grimfaced, flashed a questioning look at Tom. But what it expressed was not really a question. “Then recovery has failed?”

“I’m afraid so, sir.”

The sole remaining blip, the Recoverer, was still visible on screen as the radar dishes tracked it, moving in a way that indicated the steep downward plunge of their target. Its desperate and futile race had finally exhausted its fuel. This missile, at least, would be buried at sea.

For a moment Tom felt numb with despair. But he set his jaw firmly and turned to the admiral. “Sir, I’d like helicopters readied for take-off immediately,” Tom said. “As soon as we get data from the tracking instruments on the more distant ships and whatever the space station picked up, there’s a good chance we’ll know where Gojira finally comes down. If it’s not too far distant I’ll be able to lead the chopper fleet to the general location in my jetrocopter. There are special sensor instruments aboard that could make a difference.”

Admiral Walter nodded tersely. “Very well. Then what?”

“It depends of the details,” Tom replied. “If she’s gone into the water, we can mark the site with a constant-position radio buoy. Then...”

Then you’ll do whatever you think up during the flight!” declared Damon Swift.

Crewmen were detailed for the trip. Meanwhile the international media crowd was milling about restlessly. “What about us?” asked a woman whom Tom recognized as a respected network broadcaster.

“You all have the right to report this matter as you see fit,” responded the Admiral. “But I’d ask you to be responsible enough not to sensationalize what you’ve seen. This ‘pirate missile’ business is unconfirmed speculation. We still have every reason to hope for a complete recovery of the probe.”

“In this case,” muttered Bud with a wink, “every reason is one big reason—named Tom Swift!”

Bud’s best pal shrugged off the compliment, but the news people couldn’t help nodding. Ever since his first adventure in his Flying Lab, the youthful inventor had been involved in any number of daring exploits and thrilling situations. Time and again, Tom had had to combat enemy spies and vicious plotters bent on stealing the Swifts’ scientific secrets or foiling their bold endeavors.

Tom’s research projects had taken him from one end of the world to the other, far into outer space and into the depths of the ocean. His latest achievement, receiving the visitor from Planet X, had been to construct a robot body for the mysterious brain energy from that distant, nameless star-world. Now, Tom realized, he was on the brink of another adventure which might—surely would!—hold unexpected dangers. As a matter of fact, he thought wryly, the “unexpected” has already happened!

He and Bud rushed onto the deck where the craft that had brought them to the ship, named the Skeeter Two, awaited them. This was the most recent model of the jetrocopter line manufactured by Swift Enterprises’ affiliate, the Swift Construction Company. The jetrocopters were compact, streamlined vehicles that could hover on pulse-jet rotor blades like a helicopter or soar at high speeds by means of tail jets. The wingless helicraft was supported during forward flight by the unpowered free action of its rotor blades, which functioned in the manner of an autogyro to provide lift.

The youths lifted off at jet speed in the direction in which the Gojira capsule had disappeared, Tom on the stick and Bud taking the copilot’s chair. Other choppers from the Charger and the rest of the recovery fleet joined them. But Tom had soon left them far behind.

“Call me impatient,” he murmured to Bud. “We’ll radio our position when we find something.”

Readings on the course of the probe were pouring in from a variety of sources, fed into the craft’s guidance computer automatically. “So where to?” asked Bud as the Skeeter began to bank in a curve.

“A little west of due north, looks like.” Tom brought up a map on the control board monitor screen. “In the direction of the Bahamas, roughly.” Bud asked if the highjacked probe were still descending. “From the last reports, apparently so, though very shallowly. That’s reassuring, at least. Whoever snagged it must know that the particle collection cells can’t stand too much of a shock.”

We’re the ones who got the shock,” Bud retorted.

Wryly agreeing, the blond-haired young inventor chuckled at his black-haired friend. “It’s all very weird. Gojira is clearly under someone’s physical control. Yet its speed and trajectory suggested that it was still following a modified ballistic course. Despite what I said about a missile, Gojira hasn’t been snapped up, just diverted and slowed.”

Unfortunately, the jetrocopters were not designed for supersonic flight. It seemed to the boys that a great deal of time was oozing by. They continually corrected their heading as they received updated information. “Well, Gojira is now outside the ground-space radar window,” Tom reported. “And the outpost scope can’t pick it up anymore either, even with electronic enhancement. Too deep in our muggy, murky atmosphere.”

“Jetz!” grumbled Tom’s black-haired copilot. “What can we do?”

Tom brushed his hand through his blond crewcut. “By extrapolating the course heading and rate of descent, we have a general area to search. But that’s assuming the pirates don’t change its course toward the end just to throw us off. For the time being, though, it’s all we have to go on.”

“Then let’s go take a look-see, Skipper!”

Finally Tom slowed the Skeeter, switching over to hover mode. Bud craned his neck, gazing down intently through his half of the double-domed cockpit viewport. “Just where are we, Tom? The ocean’s a funny color, with big dark patches all over the place. What are they, rocks?”

Tom shook his head. “Sargassum, pal—great big tangled clumps of floating seaweed. Welcome to the Sargasso Sea!”

Bud had heard of the Sargasso, of course—the legendary, notorious “Sea of Lost Ships” that had awed and worried Columbus during his voyage. “Glad we’re not down there in a boat,” he remarked. “I hear the stuff gets tangled in the screws. And if you try to cruise through it in a sailboat, be prepared to spend a few centuries as a skeleton!”

Tom managed what passed for a smile. “The Sargasso has quite a rep, even going back to the days of Roman triremes, who knew of its eastern extension near the Azores. Gojira’s floating somewhere below—or more than likely somewhere on the bottom and not floating. We’ve got to find it.”

“C’mon, genius boy. You never fail! Like they say, it’s not a problem, it’s a challenge.”

“Well,” said Tom, “I’m glad you’re optimistic! So far this morning I feel like I’ve let down a whole country.”

Bud gave his chum a look of affectionate wrinkled-brow sympathy. They sat quietly for a time as Tom guided the chopper back and forth over a range of hundreds of miles.

“There’s gotta be a way to narrow things down,” Bud muttered. “Can’t you drag out a new Tom Swift invention or something?”

“Funny you should say that, flyboy.” Tom gave a grin and jerked his thumb backwards over his shoulder. “Maybe it’s time to give our own ‘precious cargo’ a try!”

Bud twisted in his seat, looking for the first time into the open hold just behind the cockpit. Mounted on what looked like a swivel-base of some sort was a long flat-sided object, very narrow. “Hmm. Could be a box for some very long-stemmed roses. Or maybe a coffin for some guy who got caught in a taffy-pulling machine.”

“Remind me to laugh after we find the probe. Anyway, it’s my new LRGM.”

“Right,” said Bud dryly. “Tom, whenever one of your gizmos has initials instead of letters, I get nervous. Know why? Because if it’s too complicated to give a real name to, chances are I won’t be able to understand it at all!”

“This one’s not so bad,” was the response. “It just means Long Range Gravitoscopic Mapper.”

Just?”

The young inventor laughed. “Okay, pal, you got me laughing after all. Now listen.”

“Uh-huh. A Swift-Barclay explanation moment.”

“Its major intended use, a pretty important one, will be to detect fissile nuclear material from a distance—from a plane, for example. The gimmick is to detect the greater atomic weight of plutonium or other such stuff directly. Not by its radiation, in other words.” Tom noted that the device would be much more sensitive and accurate than his previous radioactive ore detection invention, called the Damonscope. “That one sensed the effects of radiation in an indirect way, and wouldn’t work if the target material was too deeply buried or shielded. But the LRGM just laughs at barriers!”

“Good for it!” retorted Bud. “Do I dare ask how it works?”

“By gravitation.” Tom explained that the long rectangular chassis enclosed several thousand precisely tuned laser beams running parallel to one another down its length, through a vacuum. “Now you’ve heard of the red shift, haven’t you?—the cosmic Doppler effect?”

“It’s how they came up with the idea that the universe is expanding.”

“That’s right. When astronomically distant objects are receding from our instruments very rapidly, their characteristic spectrum-lines get shifted toward the red—the lower-frequency—end of the spectrum, and the degree of shift tells you how fast the source is moving.”

“Just as I thought. I did read the first chapters of all those books, you know.”

Tom continued: “What you may not know is that gravity also causes a similar shift. The wavelengths get stretched in a G-field, and the amount of stretching tells you how strong the field is. What the LRGM does is measure the slight shift of frequencies that can be attributed to variations in gravitational tension, which is exactly proportionate to local mass—the greater the mass, the stronger the gravitational effect. By measuring these variations along a straight line as we scan back and forth, the pattern of masses can be mapped out by a sort of triangulation.”

“Which lets you pinpoint where the nuke slugs are.” Tom’s pal gave an appreciative whistle. “You know, I followed that pretty well! So how do you use it to find the Gojira capsule?”

“You can use it to detect any sort of substance, not just nuclear material, provided the amount is great enough to produce a detectible ‘bump’ in the ambient gravitational field. The LRGM might be able to distinguish the metal of the capsule from the water around it, or the sea floor beneath.”

“Fantazmatic!” exulted Bud. “But I know these gravity-bumps aren’t strong enough for a regular guy like me to feel—even if I do have the bod of an athlete who likes to play for fun! The thing must be pretty tightly calibrated, hmm? Real sensitive.”

Tom gave Bud a familiar look that said: that’s a mouthful, pal! “Chum, the mass of the capsule is so slight compared to the surrounding ocean and the earth that it’s like trying to take a snapshot of a human hair on a barbershop floor—from Mars! But in theory the system is just that sensitive.” He added that utilizing the gravitational effect offered a great advantage, as nothing could block or shield this fundamental force of nature.

After laying in a search pattern on the Skeeter’s guidance computer, the young inventor activated his machine and oriented it downward to begin the scanning process. Its tiny electric motors whirred as it swung gently back and forth on its gimballed supports.

“Anything, pal?”

“Not nuttin’, flyboy,” was the reply. “But we’ve just started.”

The jetrocopter paced back and forth across the calculated target area, which was roughly 60 miles in diameter—more than 2700 square miles of water! “And that’s assuming she didn’t make any last-minute turns, or get gobbled-up by some sort of recovery craft,” Tom noted in a tone of tired discouragement. “The pirates could have had a ship waiting on the surface.”

“Don’t give up the waterlogged ghost just yet,” counseled Bud. “At least your gravy-scope’s panning out fine.”

Tom snorted. “Nice nickname. But you’re right. The LRGM is giving us some great topographical data. Not to mention a sunken ship or two!”

“Yeah,” Bud added nervously, “with real Sargasso skeletons aboard. I never have gotten over—”

“Hey!” Tom interrupted. “What’s that?”

Bud looked past his chum’s pointing finger to the glowing readout monitor. Superimposed over the multicolored contours of the sea floor was a strange dead-white shape. It was somewhat triangular, like a broad and curving spearhead, moving along slowly across the scope.

“Looks like one of my old pals,” Bud said. “A Devilfish. Seriously, is it a manta ray?”

Tom’s reply was faint with sheer bewilderment. “Ohhh, no—it’s not a fish. Look at the settings dial. The area of the monitor sweep is almost a mile square!”

“Good night! Then that thing must be about a half mile across!” Bud could hardly believe it. The object was larger than the Sea Charger—far larger than the biggest of aircraft carriers!

Tom clenched his hand on the pilot’s stick. “I’m steering us closer, right over it.” In a moment he half-turned to his copilot. “Its size isn’t the only thing that gets me, Bud. The shape shows on the scope as white because we’re not getting anything from it. Nothing! It’s not only not producing its own gravity distortion, it’s actually blocking out the ambient field from below! But physics doesn’t allow—”

His words were choked off as the Skeeter abruptly woggled to the right, then to the left. And then, her deck tilting violently, the chopper lunged downward in a merciless dive!

Tom fought the controls, but it was no use. “We’re going to hit!” he cried.

 



 

 

 

 

CHAPTER 3

 

 

          THE TREACHEROUS TRIANGLE

 

 

 

 

THE Skeeter Two was foundering as if caught in the world’s champion downdraft! Despite the pulse of the rotors straining above their heads, the waves were drawing nearer by the second.

Suddenly Tom reared back as Bud’s arm shot across in front of him. The black-haired youth flopped a switch over with the back of his hand, grabbing the copilot’s stick with the other. Then he began, frantically, to manipulate the controls on the copilot’s board. The rotor jets fell silent as the craft’s tail engines came on line with a roar. Bud was trying to punch his way to safety!

It took a moment—too long a moment!—for Bud to use the jetrocopter’s gyros to reverse the slant of the deck. The Skeeter’s nose now angled skyward, her engines seaward. The powerful forward thrust would now work against whatever unknown force was dragging them down.

The little jetcraft shook, rocked, vibrated like a guitar string. Then with a sudden leap she broke free.

Climbing sharply, Bud put in a good vertical mile, then leveled off. “Figured the tail jets would give us more muscle than the hover blades,” he explained to Tom, voice unsteady.

“Flyboy,” Tom gasped, “that was—”

“You would have thought of it, Skipper. I was just a nanosec ahead of you.”

“No. I don’t think I would have, not in time.” The young inventor’s voice was sober. “You came through, Bud—as always. I push us into danger; you pull me out.”

Bud Barclay turned his gray eyes toward his friend. “The day I can’t be by your side anymore, doing whatever it is I manage to do, is the day I head for the clouds without a plane. You know that, don’t you? It’s not just your life, Tom.” He looked away. “Control back to pilot.”

They flew on for a time, taking care to avoid the area of the ocean that the mysterious craft seemed to have been heading toward. Tom’s “gravy-scope” revealed nothing else of interest. Finally they radioed the helicopter fleet, still en route, to turn back unless ordered otherwise by Admiral Walter. “There’s nothing here, folks. No sign of the probe.” He then contacted the Sea Charger and reported to the Admiral and his father. Tom had decided not to mention the weird phenomenon they had encountered—not over the open radio frequencies.

The last leg of their aerial search had taken them on an easterly heading. Now Bud remarked, “Boats down below, small ones.”

“These are fishing waters,” commented Tom. “Warm and pretty shallow in parts. They’re probably out of Dauphinville on Mer-Soleil.”

“Are we close?”

“Mer-Soleil’s about 330 miles to the southwest.”

Bud knew that the big Caribbean island sported a vigorous fishing industry. “You know, maybe we could ask around among the fishing crews. They might have seen the capsule come down.”

Tom nodded. “Good idea. Hopefully the political problems on the island wouldn’t get in the way. I’ve heard things are a little hot for Americans right now. Anyway, we might as well head on home to Shopton, since Dad plans to stay on the Charger until she docks up north tomorrow.” He added, “From the way he sounded on the radio, I think he’s doing a little damage control on behalf of Swift Enterprises.”

“Enterprises nothing—on behalf of his genius son!” retorted Bud.

As the jetrocopter streaked northward at jet speed, Tom continued to scan the ocean with the LRGM. Fascinated, Bud watched the monitor screen with keen attention. “Looks like the sea floor terrain is changing down there,” he said presently. “If I’m reading the contour colors right, it’s getting deep all of a sudden.”

Tom glanced at the navigation readout. “That’s the Nares Plain below us. We’re a little south of the Tropic of Cancer.” He switched his attention to the LRGM screen. “I see what you mean. Looks like the sea floor drops down a couple thousand feet or so. I think it’s what they call a ‘sinkhole’—big, from the looks of it.”

In an hour the discouraged twosome landed at Fearing Island, the Enterprises facility off the coast of Georgia. Here they refueled the Skeeter for the last leg of the journey north. After some delays they finally touched down on the Swift Enterprises airfield. Darkness had fallen.

“Want to come over for supper?” Tom asked his pal.

Bud laughed. “Supper? It’s almost time for a midnight snack!” Drowsy, Bud begged off, planning to placate his stomach with a fast-food stop on the way back to his apartment in town.

Presently Tom’s low-slung sports car pulled to a stop in front of the Swifts’ big, pleasant house on the outskirts of Shopton. Sandra, Tom’s blond, vivacious sister, greeted him at the door.

“About time!” she teased. “We were beginning to think you two sea-searchers had taken off somewhere.” Not wishing to worry his mother and sister, Tom had called home from Fearing during the stopover.

“Think I’d skip town while you and that fried chicken are in Shopton?” Tom grinned.

“What a line!” Sandy’s blue eyes twinkled. “We know it’s the fried chicken you’re really interested in, Tomonomo. But supper’s been over for hours. How does the genius inventor feel about cold mashed potatoes?”

Tom shrugged wearily. “San, today cold mashed potatoes is about all the ‘genius inventor’ deserves. Where’s the rest of that ‘we’ you were referring to?” he inquired. “Has Mom gone to bed?”

“Here I am, dear.” Mrs. Swift, slender and sweet-faced, gave Tom a hug—with one arm, as the other bore a warm dinner plate. “Late or not, you don’t think I’d miss this rare opportunity to chat with my favorite, and only, son and daughter, do you?”

Over the delicious dinner Anne Swift had saved for Tom, the conversation turned to the mysterious theft of the Gojira capsule. “We have no real idea how they managed it,” Tom explained. “But it was way too high for any kind of conventional aircraft. We assume it’s a missile.”

“Who on earth could have fired it?” Sandy asked.

Tom shrugged. “No telling—yet. There’s more than one unfriendly country which would give a lot to embarrass the U.S. and mess up our relations with Japan.”

“Is the Gojira valuable in a monetary sense? Some pirate may be planning to make a few doubloons off it!” speculated Mrs. Swift. Then her voice became serious as she added, “You aren’t expecting more trouble, are you?”

Her son grinned. “Mom, it’s the unexpected that I worry about!” He noted reassuringly that the probe thieves might now have everything they had been after, and would have no reason to target Tom or anyone else.

Tom had passed the question off lightly in order not to alarm his mother and Sandy. But inwardly he was none too sure of what his further recovery efforts might encounter in trying to locate the lost probe capsule. One thing was certain. Pirates or no pirates, he and Swift Enterprises were not about to accept defeat!

Next morning at Enterprises the young inventor spent hours in the office he shared with his father trying to work out the next steps in the search. The search area needed to be narrowed down if they were to have any real hope of success. Bud’s suggestion might be the best way to go, he thought. We might as well try to find someone who saw the Gojira come down—or something else suspicious. As he gazed at the models of his inventions that lined the office shelves, he decided that an undersea survey of the region would be the best way to start.

“We could easily combine a survey trip with trying to interview the locals,” he murmured to himself.

Tom repaired to his personal lab in the building next door. Midmorning was heralded by a twangy foghorn.

“Tom! Tom!”

“What’s up, Chow?” Tom asked in surprise as the rotund ex-Texan, ex-range cook, and fast friend, came bounding into the lab in something of a panic.

“Boss, it ain’t what’s up that bothers me, it’s what’s down—down in th’ ocean!” gasped Chow Winkler in breathless excitement.

“You mean the lost probe?”

“Wa-aal, not the probe s’much as where it is! That feller Ned, the jet mechanic—he says he heard about what happened and figgered you’d be going down there agin to try’n find her with a sub. Is that true, boss?”

Puzzled, Tom nodded. “That’s the plan for now.”

The westerner plopped down on a lab stool, which almost seemed to groan beneath him as it vanished from sight. “Lissen here, that there stretch o’ ocean is haunted—spooked! Ned gave me th’ address fer one o’ them websites, an’ I jest now looked it up on my kitchen computer thingy. Son, it’s the blame Devil’s Triangle!”

The young inventor gave his much-older friend a blank look. “What do you... Oh, what they also call the Bermuda Triangle? Is that it?”

“Abserlootly!” cried the cook vigorously. “An’ I read all about it. Boats go into it and show up gone. There was this plane that flew over it on a trainin’ flight, an’ all a-sudden they radioed back that they ’as travellin’ through another d’mension, not o’ sight er sound but o’ mind!” He shuddered. “Never heard from agin! And then there’s this big ship that up and disappeared and wound up in Philadelphia—Philadelphia, mind you! Kin you b’lieve that?”

Tom spoke with cautious affection. “Pard, those are just old rumors that a few people have sensationalized to sell books.”

“I dunno, son. Sounds t’me like that there triangle’s a mighty treacherous place.” Then he paused thoughtfully for a moment. “Though come t’think on it, I guess there were some books on that website thet they said you could order.”

The young scientist-inventor put a hand on his friend’s shoulder. “Chow, thanks for the warning. Tell you what—come down there with us. Maybe you can steer us away from trouble.”

“M-me?” Chow paled slightly. “Er, wa-aal—guess I’m not one t’turn you down. Been on enough o’ them exper-dishuns to write one o’ them travel books. And I’m still alive, ain’t I?” After patting his midsection as if to confirm the supposition, he made up his big mind. “Right then, I’m in! Guess I ’as bein’ a mite foolish, wuzzen I.”

“Not a bit, pardner,” Tom reassured him. “As a matter of fact, ‘devil’ or not, it turns out there really is something strange and important about that part of the Atlantic. It just might have been the site of an attack from outer space that changed human history forever!”


 


 

 

 

 

CHAPTER 4

 

 

          DEEP-DOWN JUNGLE

 

 

 

 

CHOW WINKLER’S eyes bulged out even further than before. “Now Tom, jest remember—I kin change m’mind about goin’ with you any time! You mean t’tell me some o’ them space friends of yours landed in th’ ocean just like they did over in Yucky-tan?”

While on a recent scientific project in Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula, Tom and his companions had found astonishing evidence that the friendly if mysterious extraterrestrials, with whom he had been in remote contact, had sent an expedition of their own to the jungle ages ago. The area was not far at all from the southernmost reaches of the so-called Devil’s Triangle.

But Tom shook his head with an apologetic grin. “No—this time I’m the one being ‘sensational’. The attack wasn’t an invasion by aliens, but a devastating strike by a meteor or some other kind of big object from space. It happened thousands of years ago. Here, Chow, I’ll show you.”

The cook stood up, surprised. “You mean you got a picture of it?”

“Not a picture, but a computer simulation of the sort of thing that might have happened, based on the evidence used by the scientists who have advanced the hypothesis.” The young inventor switched on his computer terminal monitor and accessed a program he had downloaded. “I was looking at it the other day—a reconstruction of the sequence of events, applying mathematical and dynamical principles and our knowledge of planetary space. Now watch and I’ll tell you what’s happening.”

The screen first showed an “overhead” schematic of the solar system, with dots representing the planets whirling along in their orbits. “This hazy ring at the outer edge of the solar system is the Kuiper Belt, the same region the Gojira probe visited. As you can see, it’s full of all sorts of floating junk and fragmentary debris.”

“Uh-huh,” said Chow. “Sorta a great big junkyard.”

“Right, pardner. Or since you’re a cook you might call ’em leftovers. Anyway, all these millions and billions of things drift around in orbits of their own, one for each; and pretty often they cross paths and collide—see?” As he pointed, two of the objects came together and shattered into many pieces. One piece was sent on a curving trajectory toward the inner solar system. “That fragment looks small on the screen, but it could be huge, tens or hundreds of miles across.”

Chow inquired, “What’s she made of? Hear tell it’s ice, mostly.”

“Sometimes,” agreed Tom. “But some of the larger chunks end up as the nuclei of comets, and we know now that such objects aren’t just ‘dirty snowballs’ as was once thought—they can be fairly solid, rocky masses.”

“An’ yuh’re sayin’ that this one here came right down on our heads?”

“That’s the theory.” Tom explained that such a long-orbit object would probably circle the sun thousands of times before passing close enough to a planet like Earth to be diverted by its gravitational field. But if the delicate orbital mechanics came out just right, its trajectory could eventually cause it to plunge deep into our atmosphere. “As a matter of fact,” he continued, “that’s what probably gave us our moon. A massive collision splashed enough material out into space that it fell back together as a separate body.”

Chow studied the screen, which had jumped to a much greater magnification, showing Earth as a disk. “Looks like this one’s gonna hit, all right.”

The simulation showed the space stranger skimming the earth’s envelope of air at a flat angle. At first it broke into a few smaller fragments which rebounded back into space, making several high orbits before touching the atmosphere again. Eventually, though, a herd of fragments entered deeply. With the screen showing an outline of the American continents, the watchers could track the fragments on a shallow arc across North America from the northwest to the southeast. They finally plunged into the ocean beyond the Bahamas, due east of the Straits of Florida and well out in the Atlantic.

“An’ that’s right inside the Triangle,” declared Chow. “Which means it’s also where you’ll be pokin’ around fer that rocket.”

Tom switched off the monitor. “In fact, I think we passed close to one of the supposed ‘impact craters’ when we were flying home yesterday. There are two main ones, big oval depressions—and I do mean big! Almost the size of Cuba.”

“Which makes them jest finger-food compared to Texas,” pronounced the cook with satisfaction.

Anyway it happened thousands of years ago, if it happened at all,” Tom noted. “It’s just a theory. But it’s possible the spreading effects of the impact—monster-sized tsunami waves and fracturing ripples through the Earth’s crust, as well as steam and dust in the upper atmosphere that could have blocked the sun for years—well, it could have destroyed early civilizations emerging in the Americas. It might even be what sank the island of Atlantis!”

“Yup—the sunken city o’ gold we went to.” As Chow, thoughtful and momentarily calmed, went on his way back to the kitchen, the postulated ancient cataclysm stuck in Tom’s mind. I sure would like to look for scientific evidence while we’re down there on the ocean floor, he told himself. But finding the capsule has to be the first goal.

Early the next morning the majestic Sky Queen was lifted into daylight from its underground hangar berth. This mammoth, solar-powered skyship had been Tom’s first major invention. A three-deck craft known as the Flying Lab, it was equipped with complete laboratory facilities for research in any corner of the globe. Jet lifters in the belly of the fuselage enabled the craft to take off vertically and also to hover.

The ship roared skyward with Bud at the controls and Tom working out some ideas in one of the work cubicles. Along with a small crew, Chow was aboard and already cooking a late breakfast in his well-seasoned galley.

As Bud watched New York turn to New Jersey en route to Fearing Island, he was surprised by a familiar voice greeting him from behind. “Hey, Doc!” responded the youth as he swiveled to face Doc Simpson, Enterprises’ talented medic. “What’re you doing up here in the sky? Somebody got the sniffles?—or are you on hand in case Tom or I get conked on the head?”

“That’s a given!” the young physician gibed. “Actually, I invited myself along to Fearing to make one of my periodic checks on the undersea farm. Got to make sure the fish haven’t turned it into a cafeteria.”

Bud knew what Doc was referring to. A researcher in medicine as well as a practicing medical doctor, he had recently been working on a project involving some plants that he had run across in New Guinea on one of Tom’s expeditions which had since been genetically altered. The hybridized, gene-spliced organisms were being grown underwater in the warm shallows next to Fearing’s shore, and Doc—like Tom and Bud an expert skin- and scuba-diver—monitored their development with frequent visits. His hope was to develop a medication that would counteract some of the physical effects on humans of lengthy work in extreme environments, such as under water or up in space.

“Have you had much luck in your project?” Bud inquired. “I heard you’d already begun some testing on animals.”

“That’s right,” was the reply, “and the results have been very promising, with no signs of toxicity. And by the way, speaking of rumors—I hear there’s been a secret test or two on a human subject. Namely the researcher himself!” As Bud chuckled, Simpson added with a wink, “Can’t do science without a few calculated risks. Those wonderful computer simulations only take you so far!”

“Yeah. Which is exactly why Tom and I get conked on the head every third Tuesday,” remarked Bud dryly.

Time flew like a jet. It wasn’t long before the supersonic craft came in sight of Fearing Island base, a few miles off the coast. After transmitting the coded clearance signal to the fleet of drone miniplanes that guarded the aerial perimeter, Bud circled the island once. Though primarily the launch and control site for the Swifts’ various spacecraft, Fearing also served as a berthing and supply base for Tom’s advanced submersibles—the seacopters and jetmarines. Bud smiled as he saw the crimson Sea Hound seacopter gleaming in the Atlantic sun far below. The saucer-shaped craft had carried Tom and Bud into many an undersea adventure. It sported an enclosed central rotor well outfitted with reversible-pitch blades to switch from air-cushion lift to undersea diving. Superheated steam jets provided forward propulsion in either element.

The Sky Queen settled down on its special landing pad and its crew disembarked, and Doc Simpson headed off to suit-up for his underwater inspection. Tom supervised the transfer of a special piece of cargo from the Queen to the seacopter. For purposes of the subocean search, he was adding his new LRGM device to the seacop’s arsenal of detection instruments.

As the van carrying Tom, Bud, and Chow drew near the seacopter dock with the gravy-scope snugged away in back, two figures in the Sea Hound’s command compartment waved through the curving viewpane. One was Zimby Cox, a veteran seacop pilot. The other was husky Mel Flagler, a talented technician and deep-water engineer who, like Zimby, had recently been part of the Swift expedition to Aurum City, the undersea city of gold.

Zimby poked his head out the small hatch atop the flat hull. “All set on our end,” he called. “Lead the way, Cap’n Tom!”

“Aye-aye!” Tom replied. “Just as soon as we’ve got the LRGM on board and battened down.”

The atom-powered seacopter was able to travel through the ocean depths nearly as fast as a surface speedboat. They reached the search area for the lost probe before the sun had touched the top of the sky. Already on hand were ships of the Navy task force assigned by Admiral Walter to participate in the ongoing search operation. The Sea Hound buoyed up and settled onto the surface of the water, and Tom spoke to the Admiral for a time by radiocom.

Tom learned that as yet no sign of the lost far-space prober had been detected. “My men are disappointed, as you can imagine,” Walter reported grimly from his post on the Sea Charger. “As for our colleagues from Japan—well, your Dad’s been sweet-talking them on the subject of the wonders of science and technology and future joint efforts. But I’d say we have a quiet diplomatic crisis on our hands. Moritsu has already flown out, back to home. Happy he’s not. Most of their technical team is still here, though.” In reply Tom again promised to do his best. “I’ll gladly take you up on that, son,” declared Admiral Walter. “I’m afraid all we can do up here is wish you luck.”

Diving into the turquoise depths, the Sea Hound began a predesigned survey pattern. “I’m hoping we’ll get some help this time from some of our other detector instruments, now that we’re under the surface,” Tom explained to Bud and Chow. “But I’ll still keep the gravy-scope active.”

“Say,” Chow remarked, “that there’s a right nice name fer an invention.”

For several dull hours the effort proved fruitless, and all the crew could do was marvel at the weird submarine jungles of this shallow part of the fabled Sargasso. They were at the very margins of the subsea Great Bahama Bank, only a few miles from the cliffs that edged into the deep waters of the Nares Plain. The nearest landfall was the Turks and Caicos island group to the immediate southwest, then Mer-Soleil further southward.

“Man, look at that stuff!” Bud exclaimed as he gazed at the tangled expanse of subsea foliage. “Like they say, it’s a jungle out there!”

“Sure is,” agreed Zimby. “I’ve studied up on aquatic vegetation. ‘Seaweed’ comes in all sizes and kinds, but it really is weed—tough, resilient, and it grows just about everywhere.”

“It’s great big algae,” Tom remarked; “like the gunk you get on your bathtub or in a swimming pool. But whatever it is,” he continued, “if Gojira came down in shallow waters, we’ll have to deal with it.”

Presently Mel Flagler called out that he had received an encouraging signal on one of the detector instruments, the sono-resonance locator. “The SRL’s getting something from portside, about 39 degrees. The frequency mix makes sense, but the source is all blurred out. I can’t pinpoint it.”

“Still, it’s our first lead!” Tom declared excitedly. “Let’s cruise around and see if we can triangulate on it.” The plan was only partially successful. The source of the resonance-tone, whatever it might eventually turn out to be, could not be localized to less than a region occupying several square miles of sea-bottom real estate.

“The densest part of the seaweed jungle, naturally,” complained Bud.

“Maybe we’ll get lucky, flyboy,” Tom told Bud. “Let’s try the Fat Man suits first.” Turning to Zimby Cox, the young inventor added, “Take over, will you, Zim? Mer-man Barclay and I may cover quite a bit of acreage with our suit jets.”

“Righto. We’ll stand-to and wait.” Cox eased into the pilot’s seat.

“Got a job for me, Skipper?” asked Mel.

“Just keep watch on the detector instruments, please. We can’t predict when something might happen to show up.”

“I’ll sonophone you if anything shows.”

Chow frowned. “Don’t hear you givin’ me a job, boss. Seems t’me I recollect you makin’ a point of askin’ me along on this here drive.”

“I do have a job for you, pardner, and its important,” replied Tom. “I hereby deputize you Acting Captain of the Sea Hound. If you catch Zim or Mel kicking back or goofing off, you’re authorized to clap ’em in irons!”

“You may think yuh’re joshin’ with me, Tom,” retorted the cook; “but brand my submarine sixgun, these two young hoots better not test me!”

Making their way back to the Sea Hound’s cramped airlock hold, Tom and Bud each climbed into a Fat Man suit and went out through the hatchway. The suits, shaped like huge steel eggs with an ultrastrong Tomaquartz viewdome at the top, had mechanical arms and legs that responded delicately to the operator within. Several intense underwater lamps provided illumination, and small swivel-jets gave them mobility.

Entering the weed-jungle, the boys waddled about on their robotic legs, the built-in searchlights of their suits piercing the murky gloom surrounding the tall streamers of Sargassum bacciferum that dangled from above or rose from rocky anchors below. They seemed to be making their way through a dense forest of waterlogged weeping willow trees! But they saw nothing on the ocean bottom but the deep accumulation of sand and silt, which made the going even more difficult.

“This is too slow,” Tom called over his sonophone in frustration. “We’ve been out a half-hour and we haven’t covered more than a few acres between the two of us.”

“I know,” came the reply signal. “Let’s try cruising along on the suit-jets a little higher up, where the weed thins out.”

“Good idea,” Tom approved. “I’ll head off eastward, you take the west. But remember, don’t get up too near the surface—the sun-glare in this murky water makes it like trying to see through a gauze curtain.”

Setting off on his own, Tom prowled about for several minutes, alarming a few fish but accomplishing nothing else.

Tom! Help! Help me!”

Tom’s blood froze. An alarm signal from Bud—and it sounded like a matter of life and death!


 


 

 

 

CHAPTER 5

 

 

 

          IN SEARCH OF AN INVENTION

 

 

 

 

“BUD! Where are you? I can’t see you!” Tom’s sonophoned voice was frantic with alarm—the dark seaweed jungle blocked his view in all directions.

The young inventor ascended another fifty feet with his suit-jets. But as predicted, the wavering emerald sunlight from above only masked the distant gloom with a nearby glare.

He repeated his call again and again, receiving no answer back from his friend. Switching frequency, he called the Sea Hound and breathlessly explained the situation.

“Can you see Bud’s Fat Man on any of the instruments, Mel? Sonarscope, metal detector —anything?”

Maybe, chief! Pretty strong readings delta northeast from you, 17 degrees.”

Distance?”

About a half mile, little less. But with all the weed, I can’t quite—”

Never mind! I’m on it!”

Tom jetted in the indicated direction, ordering Mel to switch over to the LRGM. He realized with despair that neither Mel nor Zimby had been given more than the briefest instruction in the operation of the new invention. Nevertheless, Mel quickly called back—the gravy-scope showed what was almost certainly Bud’s Fat Man suit dead ahead!

“I see him!” Tom cried. “He’s all knotted up in the weed!”

Arm-thick streamers all but completely covered Bud’s suit top to bottom, wrapping about the metal egg like yarn about a yarn-ball. But though Tom could not see his pal’s face, the Fat Man’s metal arms were writhing and chopping frantically, trying to tear away the weed. But the stuff was tough as burlap, and the athletic young aquanaut seemed to be making little headway.

More alarming was the fact that a thick plume of bubbles was rising from the weed-masked bulk of Bud’s suit. Good grief! Tom thought in fear. The suit’s leaking air!

Jetting up close, Tom lent his own metal claws to the desperate struggle. The combination of forces turned the tide of war against the stubbornly clinging seaweed, and Tom was finally able to wrench his pal free. He was limp with relief to see Bud’s head through the viewdome, redfaced and panting violently but surrounded by open air, not shrouded in invading seawater.

“I—I couldn’t—catch my breath enough to talk,” Bud gasped with heaving words. “I g-got cocky and—fouled the suit in the weed stalks. Trying to twist my way out just—”

“I get the picture,” Tom sonophoned.

“Then I started getting a spray of water—”

“The bubbles are coming from a point on your hatch-seam, righthand side. How deep is the water inside?”

“Not deep. It mostly pooled down in the leg hollows.” Bud added: “Sure is wet, though!”

“I’ll bet,” Tom replied. “Let’s get the Hound to come pick us up.”

A quick exam aboard the seacopter showed that Bud was damp but none the worse for wear. “But I didn’t see a thing out there, Tom,” the youth admitted ruefully. “From up above you can’t see down into the weed, but down on the sea floor you practically need a machete to get anywhere.”

“Yes, the Fat Men are just too big and bulky,” the young inventor declared.

“I’m still getting my readings, but no luck zeroing in on the capsule,” Mel reported.

Chow added officiously: “An’ I hereby certify that these two have been tryin’ their darndest the whole time.”

Zimby asked what Tom planned to try next. The young inventor did not answer, deep in frowning thought.

“Kin I say somethin’, boss?”

Tom gave a distracted nod, and Chow continued. “Wa-aal now, whyn’t you set up one o’ them air bubbles over this whole stretch o’ land, jest like you did at the city of gold? Then mebbe you could go through an’ cut down all that snakeweed out there, so’s we could see.”

“I gave some real thought to setting up a hydrodome, Chow,” the young inventor responded. The dome was a huge underwater bubble of air, created by Tom’s repelatron device which actually pushed the ocean water away. The air supply inside was kept pure by one of Tom’s osmotic air conditioners which made use of the oxygen dissolved in the water. “It makes sense. But for all the advantages, there’s one big problem.”

“Figgers. What is it?”

If what we’re picking up on the instruments happens to be the Gojira, we still haven’t been able to pinpoint it. That means we’re going to have to comb over many square miles of sea floor, too much to just crawl along on one of the mobile platforms. And even the most powerful water repelatron, like the one we use in Helium City, can’t produce a bubble more than a few acres in area. Water’s just water, but when you start measuring it out by the mile it weighs far too much for our puny machinery to handle.”

As Chow nodded his understanding, Mel added, “Even if you could build a great big repelatron and set it up next to its own atomic reactor, the back-pressure from holding up all that weight would drive it right down into the ground like a tent stake.”

“Okay, scratch one idea,” said Bud. “But there must be other things to try.” Silence answered.

Finally Tom said, “Bud, we could skin-dive at this depth.”

“With scuba tanks? Let’s give it a whirl,” Bud urged.

The seacopter surfaced again, while the boys donned flippers, masks, and air lungs from the Sea Hound’s supply locker. The gear had been modified by Swift Enterprises ingenuity. Most prominently, the full-face Tomaquartz masks were unobstructed by the air-hose hookup, which was underneath the chin.

Tom and Bud dropped over the side and made their way slowly downward into the gray-green depths, accustoming themselves gradually to the increased pressure.

“A lot more freedom of action,” Tom told his pal through the miniaturized sonophone unit in his facemask.

Bud replied, “Check! If only we could move along faster than flipper-speed. Jetz, we’ll empty our tanks before we’ve poked through a hundredth of this fish-feed factory!”

Tom conceded the point. Not only was the difficulty of merely getting around in the weed growths a daunting factor, but they didn’t even know if the vague detector-response was the probe in the first place! But our mystery rivals must know exactly where she came down, was his further grim thought. All they have to do is get together the right equipment and come pluck it up! The Gojira could be lost for good any day now—any hour!

“Back to the Hound, flyboy. I think this problem is going to take some inventing.”

“Tom Swift, those are the words I’ve been waiting for!” Bud exulted.

The boys surfaced and reentered the bobbing seacopter. Tom spoke to Admiral Walter and his father, reporting with regret his lack of progress.

After Tom had signed off, Mel Flagler approached him. “Skipper, I sure don’t mean to add any discouraging words to the list, but...”

“Has something happened?”

“Nothing good. That resonance-source I was picking up on the sono-resonance locator has disappeared.”

Tom groaned softly. “All of a sudden?”

“It just faded out in a blurry-flurry. Since then I’ve picked up a few more—some on the metal-detector, too—but they’re all over the place in this weedy region, and I can’t pin them down. At any rate,” he concluded, “they can’t all be Gojira—and maybe none of them are.”

Chow reacted sympathetically to the expression on his young boss’s face. “Now son, don’t get yerself discouraged. Mebbe that new gravy-scope’ll turn the trick!”

But Tom could only shake his head listlessly. “I’m afraid the ‘gravy-scope’ is just another Swift flopperoo, Chow. It does okay with larger bulks like the Fat Man suit, but it can’t separate out the mass-density gradients of smaller objects such as the probe—not with all that floating gunk everywhere.”

Bud gave his chum a friendly nudge. “Just get a few circuit boards in front of you, genius boy. You’ll lick this thing by morning!”

With a wan smile, Tom ordered Zimby Cox to submerge and head back toward Fearing Island. “One day—lost,” he muttered.

After an early supper Tom plunged into the work of invention in his private lab on Fearing.

It seemed to help him clarify his thoughts to carry on a running conversation with himself. “Okay. Definition of problem: finding a small metal capsule that might be somewhere inside a seaweed forest miles across. What are the options?

“Some more sophisticated kind of detector device? Hmm.” He went through a little process he called checking in with my brain. “Nope. Don’t feel anything along that line up there waiting to pop out, and time’s a-wastin’.

“So maybe we’ll just have to eyeball it. If someone saw where Gojira hit the water, a thorough yard-by-yard search of the bottom could be practical after all. But...”

Tom visualized trying to mount such a search with several score aquanauts in Fat Man suits. He frowned disgustedly. “We’d spend half the time untangling the searchers from the seaweed, as with Bud. That’s not it. What’s really needed is...”

An idea was beginning to break through the murk!

Suddenly Tom was startled by a sharp rap on the lab door. He glanced at the wall clock—‘suddenly’ had taken up seven hours of concerted work! With a chuckle he set aside a knot of circuitry and opened the door. “Bud! And...?” He didn’t recognize the young man standing next to his pal.

“I’m Jay Willembart, Tom—night shift guy in the communications room.”

Tom nodded, shaking hands, and turned to Bud curiously.

“Jay asked me where your lab was, and I walked him over,” Bud said. “Besides, I was looking for an excuse to come bug you. And this is a good one, pal!”

Willembart held out a scrap of paper. “I thought it might be better to come here with the written message rather than call you. It came by radio from Mr. Swift on board the Sea Charger.”

Tom read over the short message.

Tom, at four-twenty AM your time, go to the island videophone. Kaye will put you in touch with a woman from the State Department, Oriella Carne. Admiral Walter was just informed that the Japanese have received a ransom demand for the Gojira probe.

Tom gasped in Bud’s direction.

“Ransom!”

 


 


 

 

 

 

CHAPTER 6

 

 

         RANSOM DEMAND

 

 

 

 

AT THE appointed time a physically weary but mentally energized Tom Swift stood before the videophone console in the Fearing Island communications center. Here he waited for whatever details of the alarming event were to come through the private satellite-linked television network that served Swift Enterprises and its affiliates from sites across the country.

The newscaster at the Key West studio, Graham Kaye, appeared on the screen and introduced the attractive African-American woman seated next to him, who then introduced herself again. “Tom, good to meet you—at this late, or rather too early, hour. I’m Oriella Carne. I don’t suppose you’ve run across my name, have you?”

Tom gave her a polite nod and said, “Well, I know I’ve seen your name...”

She laughed daintily. “Thank you for being frank. Most people don’t quite get what my job is, and whom I work for. I actually earn my paycheck as a part of what’s called ‘the executive offices of the President of the United States’. So I report to the big guy when he wants me to. But I spend most of my day hangin’ around the Department of State.”

“That’s pretty impressive, ma’am.”

This brought another pleasant laugh. “Oh my, I’m talking to Tom Swift and he’s impressed with me!” But then, as if a button had been pushed, she lost her laughter and turned serious. “Let me explain what’s going on—I’m sure the Admiral and your father told you a bit of it.” When Tom bobbed his head in confirmation, she continued: “Lately I have been working as a special liaison between our State Department and the American Interests office in Dauphinville, Mer-Soleil. As you know, a few years back the aggrieved citizenry burned the American Embassy to the ground—burned down several city blocks, in fact. So we now run a little office inside the Brazilian Embassy. Do you follow me?”

“I do, ma’am,” was the reply.

“I’m quite sure I got this job because I look like the locals—maybe also because my father emigrated from Cuba as a child. They seem to like me, anyway. Even the head of the ruling junta, Colonel Maximille, seems to like me. I’ve never been bothered by the Voudon-Machéte.”

Responding to the puzzled look crossing Tom’s brow, she explained, “The Voudon-Machéte are the personal ‘police’ the junta uses to maintain a nice, well-respected reputation among the populace. Street thugs and murderers on the government payroll, basically. In Mer-Soleil, you really can’t fight city hall.”

Tom remarked wryly, “Sounds like a typical setup.”

“Absolutely. And the point is, Maximille and his party deny their existence. Which means they can saunter away whistling when a message gets passed along by a known Voudon-Machéte contact—to the Japanese Ambassador, Mr. Saikura, in the present case.”

“I gather it had to do with the Gojira probe,” prompted the young inventor.

Carne nodded. “It stated that the capsule had come into their possession, that they know it is of great value to the Japanese government, and that they would consider turning it over—if!”

If a ransom is paid?”

“Not a money ransom, Tom,” she responded. “A ransom in human form. They are demanding that Japan trade Jean-Sancte Léonide for Gojira.”

That was a name Tom had definitely heard of! “Léonide! The ex-President?”

“Oh yes indeed,” she confirmed, “the famous, controversial, much loved, much hated President of Mer-Soleil—democratically elected, deposed in a violent coup, flown to safety in his mother’s native country, Japan. Where he has lived ever since in a sort of cordial house-arrest situation.”

“As I recall,” Tom said, “he was sort of the champion of the poor in Mer-Soleil. Didn’t his followers charge the U.S. with being behind the coup?”

Oriella Carne gave an eloquent shrug. “Let’s not debate the mysteries of history, Tom. The poor people of Cité Quai, the slum district of Dauphinville—about four-fifths of the city!—worship their ‘Papa Sancte’. Others call him a complete fraud and demagogue who looted the National Treasury, such as it was. All we need to consider now is that the Maximille faction wants him extradited back to Mer-Soleil. Supposedly to try him on various charges; in reality to eliminate him as a symbol. In State we have a pool running—how many minutes after arrival before his assassination by those mysterious fun-loving guys, the Voudon-Machéte?”

“Japan hasn’t cooperated, though.”

“Not to date. But they might well be induced to do so if the reward is the return of their precious Gojira.”

It was Tom’s turn to nod. “I see. Léonide’s life for Kuiper dust. But how do you know the claim isn’t bogus? Does anyone really think Mer-Soleil, or those Voudon-Machétes, have the technology to snatch the probe right out of the sky?”

“As to your first question, the ransom note was accompanied by some electronics parts that the Japanese are examining to determine if they were indeed part of the probe capsule. No conclusion yet. As to the question of high-tech—does the name Li Ching ring a bell?”

Tom couldn’t help groaning inside. A stateless international criminal specializing in technological theft, Li Ching had recently shanghaied the Sea Charger using some very high-tech methods indeed! Defeated by Tom, he had escaped by jet. His present whereabouts were unknown. “That puts it in a new light, ma’am,” admitted the young inventor. “My father and I suspect Li has been able to get ahold of advanced scientific information from the extraterrestrials, the beings on what we call Planet X.”

“Mm-hmm. And of course the quake-maker technology got into the hands of the Brungarians from a similar source.” Miss Carne was referring to the recent crisis that transpired while Tom was involved with the visitor from Planet X. Unlike the group known as the Swifts’ space friends, who were stationed within the solar system, the authorities on their world of origin had shown themselves willing to interfere in Earthly society heedless of consequence as part of their scientific studies of the human species.

The memory of the huge gravity-free shape he and Bud had detected suddenly rose in Tom’s mind! Could the weird phenomenon be some sort of advanced craft designed on another planet and piloted by the Voudon-Machéte gang?

But Tom was not yet ready to share the inexplicable sighting with anyone outside his circle of close and trusted associates. Instead he said, “I understand the general situation, Miss Carne. But what exactly are you asking Swift Enterprises to do?”

She smiled a cool and rather charmless smile. “Only to continue to use your scientific methods to search for the probe’s present location, at least until we confirm that the Mer-Soleilans really do have their hands on it. I’ve provided this backgrounder so you’ll have all the current information. And of course, if you happen to run across any relevant evidence out there under the ocean, we’ll need to know about it immediately. This is an election year in Japan, Tom. Given the role of our Japanese colleagues in supporting us in the Korea face-off, the whole thing is a very delicate diplomatic matter.”

“I realize that,” replied the young inventor. “We’ll do everything we can.”

The last thing Tom noted as the screen went dark was the strange, stern, half-hopeful expression on the face of Oriella Carne.

After a few hours of haunted sleep, Tom returned to work on his solution to the challenge of finding the Gojira probe. When Bud dropped in with a lunch tray Chow had prepared, he found his friend gazing into a large transparent tank with a froth of breaking bubbles at its surface.

“Feeding the fish, genius boy?” Bud asked as he set the tray down within Tom’s reach.

“Just putting my new underwater breathing apparatus to the test.” The young inventor indicated a shoebox-sized bulk of wires and components resting on the bottom of the tank. “I call it my electronic hydrolung.”

Bud bent down to scrutinize the device, which was producing a steady stream of bubbles. “Tell me something. Why do you need a new approach in the first place? We breathe okay in the Fat Men.”

“We sure do,” agreed his pal. “But those ultra-compressed air cartridges require a lot of de-compression support equipment. Altogether it amounts to almost half the weight of the suit.”

“Fine. How about the system we use in the hydrodomes?”

“The osmotic air conditioners?” Tom shook his head with a rueful smile. “They function on the principle of fish gills, drawing dissolved oxygen from the seawater. But have you noticed how big they are, flyboy? You have to move quite a volume of water through the machinery in order to extract enough oxygen to live off of—and the deeper you go, the rarer the dissolved oxygen is. Even the fish have to hold their breath when they dive deep!”

Bud crossed his arms with a smile of resignation. “Not like I didn’t know you had your reasons! So. What’s with Mr. Bubbly in there?”

Tom leaned close to the tank, his young face illuminated by the soft light from inside. “Do you know how semiconductors work?”

“A little bit. Sort of. No!”

“Semiconductor materials—we found some varieties in New Guinea, you remember—conduct electric currents, but weakly. You use ’em in circuit components when you’re looking for control and information transfer rather than raw power.”

“Sure! Transistors.”

“Among other types. The way semiconductors work is that loosely-bound electrons jump from one atom to the next—there’s your current. And each time they do they leave behind a gap or ‘hole’ which has many of the physical properties of an electron, but with a reverse charge.” Tom explained how, under the influence of electrical “pressure,” the electron-current would run in one direction along the material while a sort of “hole-current” would flow in the opposite direction.

“I follow you so far,” Bud declared. “So how does that help a guy breath underwater?”

“It doesn’t,” Tom conceded. “But the general idea sort’ve sparked off my creative instincts. I got this picture in my head of a kind of whole-atom semiconductor that would pry the oxygen atoms loose from the hydrogen atoms in water molecules—which have two atoms of hydrogen for one atom of oxygen. The idea, in other words, is a setup in which the separated oxygen flows one way, the hydrogen the other.”

“But that stuff isn’t new,” objected Bud with a head-scratch. “Back in high school chemistry, I remember a demonstration of how you could use an electric current to do the same thing, by putting the terminal leads in water.”

“It’s called electrolysis,” Tom said. “But that sort of approach wouldn’t be efficient or safe to use as part of the equipment of individual divers. What I want is something that produces a good volume of oxygen in an efficient manner, using very low power.”

“And you’ve found it?”

The young inventor gave the tank a tap. “Inside the hydrolung are long strips of artificially engineered material that look like lengths of recording tape. They’re basically dense arrangements of nanotubules winding between microscopic chips made of rare-earths composites. When a low current flows down the strip, the atoms of the water molecules inside the tubules become ‘decoupled’ from one another and are forced to migrate in opposite directions by what are called Van der Waal forces, which are extremely weak except right at the surface of the material. As a result, oxygen micro-bubbles accumulate on one side of the strip, hydrogen on the other. Then we just sweep ’em together in opposite directions—and there’s your breath of air.”

“Hmm!” Bud looked impressed. And he was impressed with himself for having understood! “That’s the oxygen. What about that leftover hydrogen?”

“It gets combined with carbon dioxide exhaled from the diver’s lungs, using what amounts to the same process, but in reverse. The resultant hydrocarbons are vented into the surrounding water in a very dilute form, safe and practically undetectable. The whole gizmo,” concluded Tom, “is powered by just one of my little solar batteries.”

Bud gave a couple claps of applause. “So when do we test her out—you and I?”

“Now that I know the system works, it won’t take long to miniaturize it. Give me a couple hours! For the test, we’ll just hook the hydrolungs up to a regular scuba air-feed and face mask.” He added that an amount of compressed helium gas would be mixed into the oxygen flow, to replace atmospheric nitrogen.

The afternoon’s test took place in a large saltwater tank near the submersibles pier that was used to check out replacement parts for the jetmarines and seacopters. Tom and Bud wore the new hydrolung units, about the size of portable CD players, attached to their weight belts. Chow Winkler, wearing two big fretful eyes, insisted on standing by.

“I’m gonna jest wait at the top o’ this here ladder,” he announced. “An’ if you two young’uns don’t come out when you say you will, brand my sea monkeys, I’m gonna dive right in after you!”

“That’s one quick way to empty the tank,” Bud gibed.

The two dropped in feet-first and settled down to the bottom. Bud made the OK sign at Tom, and the young inventor could almost hear his thoughts: still breathing, pal!

Tom had planned the test to run for one hour. An hour underwater in a barren tank proved to be a long long time! After some playful aquabatics they sat down on the bottom, and Bud finally stretched out and pretended to fall asleep. When they climbed out at last they found Chow still at his post, looking fully as bored as they felt. “Wa-aal,” said the cook sarcastically, “I sure hope you two had fun down there.”

“Fun or not, I feel great!” Tom declared happily. “The hydrolungs worked perfectly!”

Bud clapped him on the back and chortled: “Now back to the briny deep!”

“But first,” Tom said, “since you don’t seem to like ‘flipper-speed,’ chum—I have some ideas for a propulsion unit that—”

Excuse me—Mr. Swift!” Tom turned as a man in the garb of Island Security came trotting up to him. He handed Tom a cellphone. “Got a call for you, sir, from the Sea Charger.”

The caller proved to be Tom’s father. “Son, Admiral Walter just spoke to the woman from the State Department, Miss Carne.”

“A new development?”

“Yes, new and disappointing, I’m afraid. The Japanese group in charge of the Gojira mission determined that the materials enclosed with the ransom note definitely came from the probe.”

Tom groaned. “Bad news. That means we won’t be searching the bottom for the capsule itself anymore, but for clues as to where they took it.”

“Tom, I’m sorry to say—that wasn’t all I meant by disappointing,” continued Damon Swift gravely. “It seems the Japanese authorities have told the United States that they want to deal directly with the pirate group in their own way, through a process of negotiation. They may consent to making the trade. We are to keep out of it. The search is over!”


 


 

 

 

CHAPTER 7

 

 

 

          HUMAN SUBMARINES

 

 

 

 

TOM was amazed, dismayed—and angry! “Dad, that’s terrible! There wouldn’t be any need to risk that man’s life if we could find—”

“I feel as badly about the developments as you do, Tom,” Mr. Swift interrupted. “Admiral Walter is here with me, and he’s nodding—he regrets it too. But he has his orders.” There followed a long pause. Tom waited curiously. Was there more? “Well, that’s all. I know you’ll do the right thing.”

After the security staffer had left with the cellphone unit, Chow exploded! “Back off! Run away! Give in! Golsarn it, that sure ain’t the way we do it in Texas, Tom Swift!”

“Lay off, pardner,” said Bud quietly. “Tom feels lousy enough.”

Tom suddenly grinned! “Lousy? Hey, I feel fine!”

Bud was flummoxed. “Huh?”

“Did I hear wrong?” asked Chow. “Ain’t we supposed t’leave off the search?”

“Actually, mateys, Damon Swift, CEO of Tom Swift Enterprises, didn’t order us to do, or not do, anything!” Tom declared with a mischievous chuckle. “He was just passing along what Admiral Walter had been ordered to do! Did you guys overhear anything like ‘Tom, go home’?” As Bud and Chow shook their heads with vigorous excitement, Tom continued: “Neither did I! And what Dad said about doing the right thing—I’m taking that as a hint that we should go right ahead and see what we can do to find Gojira on our own.”

“In other words,” said Bud, “unofficially!”

“In other other words,” said Chow, “we’re playin’ dumb!”

Tom just smiled. “I’d sure like to know if they’ve got that capsule in their little pirate paws.”

“You and I both, pal!” Bud agreed as Chow bobbed his head enthusiastically. “Hey! Why wait? We could use the electronic hydrolungs for scouting around right now!”

“I intend to,” Tom said. “But we’ll need speed to cover the area. So first I want to add an ion drive to our equipment.”

“Say, I ’as thinkin’ that too!” declared Chow. “Meanin’ about the speed part, not th’ iron part.”

“Ion drive? For underwater?” Bud, who was familiar with ion propulsion for spaceships, wrinkled his brow in a challenging frown.

“A goofy idea occurred to me, but I think it may work out,” Tom replied. As the three strolled back toward the main facility buildings, he began explaining what he had in mind, thinking out loud. “The idea of so-called hydromagnetic drive—sending an electric current through water so the water can be pushed around by an electromagnetic flux—isn’t new. Great-Grandpa Tom’s ‘submarine boat,’ back before the First World War, made use of the principle, matter of fact.”

But the device Tom had in mind would be rather different. The drive unit would take seawater into itself and pass it through a series of permeable membranes that would convey an electrical charge to the fine particulates floating in the water, such as salt, gold, manganese, calcium, and dissolved rock silicates.

“Now look here,” Chow objected. “You mean t’say that when we go swimmin’ out in th’ ocean, we’re swimmin’ through all that gritty stuff?”

“You sure are pardner. Fortunately, the granules are mostly too small to be seen, except when they accumulate. The unit will expose the ionized—that is, charged-up—particulates to an electric field flux, which will push them along very powerfully. As the particles are thrust back toward the exhaust nozzle, the water that they’re still floating in will be swept along with them. Thus a stream of water will be forced out the rear thruster nozzle. In turn, that’ll set up a siphoning action through a central tube—in effect, creating a small but powerful water-jet motor.” Tom added that high-conduction vanes inside the exhaust chamber would carry off the electric charge, leaving the granules harmless.

“We’ll be human submarines!” Bud exclaimed.

Approaching the residence units near the lab building, Chow announced that it was time to begin working on supper for the boys and the Fearing executive staff. “How about making it a fast-food delight, huh, Chow?” Bud asked. “Doing nothing for an hour gave me a big appetite.”

Tom begged off. “I want to start in on my propulsion gimmick right away, while it’s fresh in my mind. You go ahead with our cowboy chef, Bud. I’ve still got half a sandwich in the lab fridge.”

Tom plunged into work on his newest invention like a famished man wolfing down the most appetizing meal on Earth. The idea was simple enough in itself, Tom felt. The main problem would be the design job—laying out a compact, lightweight unit which a diver could easily carry on his back.

Fascinated, a little obsessed, the young inventor worked late into the evening, stopping only in response to his youthful body’s need for a few hours of rest on the lab cot. By midmorning the next day, Tom had assembled a pilot model of his ion-drive hydrojet. In appearance, it was a slender metal cylinder, two feet long. An inner concentric tube, flaring out at each end, extended its length a bit further. On one side of the unit was a small streamlined stanchion that would be fastened to crossing straps on the wearer’s back.

Tom had set up a tank in his laboratory to test the device. The long, narrow enclosure was filled chest-deep with seawater, and the hydrojet was mounted on a metal unitrack running the length of it on the bottom. Tom set up his control board alongside, with the main power switch within easy reach. The drive unit was connected to the board by a suspended cable.

He decided to enter the tank for the first run of tests, to make it easier to adjust certain mechanical elements in the device as needed. “Boy, this’ll be like playing with a speedboat in a bathtub!” Tom thought with a chuckle as he changed into swim trunks.

He climbed into the tank and slid the drive unit to one end of its track. Then Tom metered out power slowly. With a gentle whoosh, the ion-drive unit whizzed along the unitrack to the other end of the tank where it was caught by a cushioned bumper.

“Not bad,” Tom muttered, a pleased grin on his face. “At least it works fine if you don’t want to get anyplace in a hurry! Now I’ll rev it up a little.”

He slid the drive unit back to starting position at his end of the tank, then opened the power switch wider to what would be its standard setting. The ion-drive unit responded by taking a little jump down the track—and then the unexpected intervened! With a sudden gurgling roar, the hydrojet went violently streaking down the rail trailing a backwash of froth. Tom had just started across the tank when he found himself knocked backwards by an overwhelming force, powerless to move.

Tom was pinned helplessly against the end wall of the tank by the fierce water-jet exhaust! And the control switch was beyond his reach!

Good grief! I’m trapped! Tom squirmed desperately in a vain attempt to free himself. The ion-drive unit had hurtled to the far end of the tank, its nose pressed against the catcher. But its exhaust tube was still jetting out a current of water with stunning force, like the piledriver column from a water cannon. Tom could feel the near-crushing pressure against his chest, even the full length of the tank away!

“H-h-help!” Tom gasped. He could barely gulp enough air into his lungs to force out a peep. He felt as if his last ounce of breath were being squeezed out by the viselike pressure, as if the skin of his chest were being water-blasted away.

Moments dragged by in a cloud of agonizing spray. Suddenly a gravelly Western voice reached him, singing “Home on the Range.” It drew closer, swelling into a foghorn drone as the lab door swung open.

Good old Chow! Tom thought. Thank heavens! The grizzled, bowlegged cook ambled cheerfully into the laboratory, pushing a midmorning snack cart. But, to Tom’s dismay, he cast only a passing glance at the figure in the tank on the far side of the room.

“Pastry break, son!” Chow announced loudly over the liquid roar. Evidently he had not realized the stricken young inventor’s dilemma! “Extra good today too, if I do say so m’self,” the old Texan went on, pouring out a tumbler of chilled milk. “Fresh made! Wa-aal, come on, buckaroo! Them inventor chores’ll wait five minutes. Brand my cactus salad, if there’s one thing that riles a cook—”

Summoning all his foundering strength, Tom croaked out weakly: “Chow!... Help!”

At the strange sound of Tom’s voice, Chow jerked around. His eyes bugged out at the look on the young inventor’s face, the stark redness of his pummeled chest. Then he dashed to his young friend’s side. “Wh-what do you want me t’do?” Chow yelled. Tom couldn’t muster the strength to answer! The roly-poly chef was quivering in panic—and then his prairie eye caught sight of the control board. He dashed to the board and slammed shut the main switch, cutting off power to the ion-drive jet.

“Tom! Aw son, speak to me!” Chow cried in fear.

 


 

 

 

CHAPTER 8

 

 

 

          PORPOISE TAG

 

 

 

 

THE VICTIM of high technology coughed violently—and moved! “Whew! Th-thanks, pardner!” Tom’s chest was heaving as he gulped in air to relieve his tortured lungs. Presently, muscles quivering like jello, he gestured for the cook to help him climb out of the tank.

“B-b-brand my rhubarb rockets,” Chow stuttered. “What in tarnation happened?”

“Guess I gunned my new hydrolung-diver jet a bit too hard,” Tom said sheepishly.

The ex-Texan gulped. “I should say! You sure one o’ them blame sea swimmers needs all that much throttle, boss?”

Still panting, Tom waggled his head. “No. Something went wrong. The drive unit started off just fine when I upped the power. Then a second later—whoosh! I’ve got to weed out the malfunction or the diverjet is useless.”

Chow was staring at his friend with big eyes. “Say, Tom—did you useta have hair on yer chest?”

“Er, not much.”

“Whew-ee! Guess it’s okay, then.”

After fussing over Tom for a while and gently forcing a cruller down his throat, Chow left the aching youth alone to contemplate his wayward invention. An hour later Bud came bursting into the laboratory. “Hey! What’s this I hear about your getting hammerlocked by a water jet?” the muscular young pilot asked.

Tom laughed good-naturedly. “Nothing serious. In fact, I felt pretty silly,” he told his chum. “My ion-drive gizmo—I’m calling it a diverjet—decided it didn’t like me. But I found what went wrong, thank goodness. The intense field-flux was creating an electromagnetic ‘hot spot’ in the guide rail next to it, by induction, which interfered with the thrust damper. The overall shape of the rail was the main culprit.”

“Can you fix it?”

“It’ll need to be re-thought, actually. But for now, all we have to do is stay at least a hand’s-breadth away from anything long, narrow, and metallic.”

“Definitely!” Bud picked up the cylindrical assembly from the workbench. “This it?” he asked, his curiosity immediately aroused. “Sure weighs a lot less than those scuba tanks.”

Tom nodded and demonstrated the device in the test tank—from which the offending rail had been removed. Bud whistled with glee. “Man! With this rig, we can scoot around like a pair of barracudas!” he exclaimed. “When do we slip under the waves for a real test?”

“Any time! Let me put together a second unit and we can do some diving off Radar Point, where Doc has his sea farm. He can watch over us!”

“Let’s make sure he has his doctor’s black bag with him!”

By four o’clock Tom had the apparatus perfected in duplicate. Carrying the equipment in a small jeep, he met Bud and Doc Simpson at the stubby promontory dominated by one of the island’s radar towers. “If you had three of ’em, I’d sure be happy to join you,” Doc remarked with a smile. “The hydrolung would make my underwater harvesting a breeze! But I’ll just poke my head under and watch you through my scuba mask. Stay clear of my farm, by the way—those delicate plants are showing a lot of promise.”

“That’s great to hear, Doc,” Tom said.

Tom and Bud donned their torso straps and weight belts, with the hydrolungs attached, and connected the hydrolungs’ oxygen outlets to the air-hoses that snaked up to their scuba masks. Then they helped each other strap on the ion drive diverjets, which were controlled by knobs on a small box affixed to their weight belts on the side opposite the hydrolungs.

“Down we go, into the wilds of sharks!” Bud chortled lustily. “Watch your step, Tom.”

“Just make sure you come up again in one piece,” said Doc with a grin. “And don’t get carried away with that ion squirt gun and take off on a round-the-world underwater cruise.”

“Who knows?” Tom joked. Adjusting his face mask, he plodded down the beach sand and slipped under the gentle waves. Bud followed.

Down they glided into the sea-green wilderness. Leveling off parallel to the ocean floor, they tried their drive jets. The effect was thrilling! Zip... Whoosh! They darted to and fro like human torpedoes.

“Hey, there’s Doc’s ‘Mermaid Gardens’,” Bud called over his mask sonophone. Row after row of odd cactus-shaped plants could be seen behind billows of netting.

“Looks about ready to harvest,” Tom remarked. “Let’s head for deeper water, flyboy—not too deep, though.”

Bud added: “And watch out for those long, thin, metal objects!”

Tom twisted a control knob and immediately he swerved off to the north as the diverjet’s thrust nozzle slightly shifted. A reverse twirl sent him hurtling in the opposite direction. Bud, watching with wide-eyed excitement, began experimenting on his own.

Soon the boys were engaging in all sorts of underwater acrobatics. At one point Tom jetted off into the gloom and was lost to sight. Presently Bud felt a thumping nudge in the back that sent him hurtling, jet-propelled, a dozen yards through the water. Snuck up on me, eh, pal? he thought with a brain-chuckle. Okay, Tom old boy, here’s where the undersea terror strikes back!

Swooping around to return the compliment, Bud gulped in surprise. Instead of his chum, he found himself face to face with a bottle-nosed native of the sea! “Good night!” Bud said aloud. “A porpoise! So you’re the joker who nudged me!”

With a playful toss of its rounded comical-looking snout, the porpoise swam off, as if inviting Bud to join in the fun and games. A whole school of the creatures cavorted into view.

“Okay! If you want to play—!” Chuckling, Bud darted in pursuit, whacked the porpoise that had nudged him, and jetted off again. The porpoise gave chase, whistling and grunting audibly in his undersea voice. Returning, Tom joined in the fun, and soon a rollicking game of underwater tag was in full swing. The smoothly streamlined creatures seemed as playful and mischievous as small children.

Twenty minutes later the boys surfaced and hauled themselves up the sand to the beach. Both tore off their masks, shaking with laughter. “Hey, you fish stalkers, let me in on the joke!” Doc demanded humorously. When Tom told him about the dolphins, he too burst into laughter—then pointed out to sea. The school of dolphins had risen into view as if to bid their strangely shaped playmates goodbye!

Tom was so jubilant over the performance of the new hydrolung gear that he decided to press his unauthorized search for the lost—or captured—probe immediately. Soon after sunrise the following morning the Sea Hound took off from Fearing and jetted southward toward the Bahamas and the jungle of seaweed. Only Zimby Cox joined Tom and Bud. Chow had stayed behind, mentioning that he needed to prepare a welcoming meal for some visitors to the island that were expected by midday.

Dazzling morning sunshine sparkled over the sea when they reached the search area. As expected, the Navy fleet had departed, and Tom knew that the Sea Charger had sailed north to drop off Mr. Swift at the Enterprises dock facility on the Long Island coast. “None of those ‘official’ prying eyes,” Bud said with a nudge.

The young inventor gave orders to submerge. As soon as the seacopter touched the shallow bottom, Tom and Bud swam out through the airlock with their hydrolungs.

“Jetz, what a fantastic feeling!” Bud sonophoned as he aqua-soared with his jet purring on his back.

But Tom was focused on the mission. “Up ahead’s where the weed starts getting really thick,” he advised his pal. “We’re near the spot where you had your tangle with the Stalks of Doom.”

“Let’s start off a ways up nearer the surface and see what we can see,” urged Bud. “We don’t need to get down into the thick of things right away—with these hydrolungs we don’t have to stop until we get hungry!”

They probed about for another half hour, swerving around the hanging streamers at a height of a few yards above the denser seafloor growth. Ranging further and further from the Sea Hound, they finally settled down on a small rise poking up from the endless jungle of Sargassum and cut their diverjets.

Tom stood looking off into the dark distance when he felt a touch on his arm. He turned and saw Bud pointing off excitedly to the right.

A strange, uncanny shape, looming impossibly huge, was moving slowly toward them!

 


 


 

 

 

 

CHAPTER 9

 

 

 

          A CATACLYSMIC THEORY

 

 

 

 

TOM SWIFT could scarcely believe his eyes!

The object seemed like a huge thundercloud scudding over the submerged countryside. But it was definitely no natural phenomenon!

The sleek contoured hull of the sub-ship was not polished like metal but dulled, bringing to mind the shell of an egg or the brushy surface of a plant-leaf. Though the material was slightly phosphorescent, its color was hard to discern in the quivering gleam of sunlight from above.

It cruised along with an elegant, dreadful majesty, a lazy colossus of the deep, its shape molded of graceful curves, shallow and spreading wide, somewhat boomerang-like in overall form.

Other than its mountainous size, two things chilled the eye—a weird, intensely glowing circular depression like the eye of a cyclops, set in its underside—and its utter, ghostly silence!

Bud tapped Tom’s shoulder to get his attention, then raised a finger to his lips. In sign language he told his friend: Keep quiet. Get out of sight. Seaweed.

Keeping their diverjets silent, they swam down into the weed jungle, elbowing the stalks and streamers aside, finally pausing to see what they could of the ship.

Heading northeast, Tom thought, away from Mer-Soleil and the Caribbean. He wondered: could the sub be hunting him and Bud?

Tom’s thoughts were rudely scattered as Bud suddenly clamped a hand onto his forearm, painfully! Startled, the young inventor turned to look at his pal’s face. The youth was grimacing in silent agony! Before Tom could react, he himself suddenly felt a strange sensation up and down his bare arms, legs, and chest, as if sharp thorns were being dragged across his skin.

He and Bud began to shake violently, their breathing labored and panting. But if they tried to flee, or if the pain made them cry out, they would be detected and caught!

How long can we stand it? came Tom’s fearful thoughts.

He forced his wracked body to swivel, and he managed a glance through the gap in the seaweed. The giant ship had moved on out of view.

Seacopter,” Bud signed, and activated his diverjet, muscles knotting. The two hurtled away at top speed, staying low as they could, alert to any reappearance of the subocean phantom. After a few minutes, Tom risked using his sonophone to contact Zimby Cox.

“Zim, come meet us! We’re in bad shape—hurry!”

In six minutes the two were crumpled on the deck of the main compartment, muscles twisting, skin puckered as if burned. “Hold still, guys, if you can,” Zimby pleaded, the seacop’s emergency medical kit in hand. He rubbed a lotion on their skin, then tried injections of an antidote to the paralyzing poison secreted by some common Caribbean sea-dwellers. Nothing worked!

“W-water!” Tom gasped weakly. “Fresh water—cold—not to drink—splash all over us!”

Zim wondered if Tom were becoming delirious, but complied with bottled water from the refrigerator in the Sea Hound’s stern compartment. The stricken youths yelped through chattering teeth at the shock of cold. But to the crewman’s delighted amazement, their skin seemed to be quickly returning to normal.

“J-Jetz, that was worse than... ohhh!” Bud gasped, still shivering—but from cold.

Tom sat up, rubbing his arms and torso, voice faint. “You probably just saved our lives, Zee.”

“But what happened? What was it?”

Tom could only gulp the air for a moment before answering. “My guess—acid!”

Bud had now regained control of himself. “Acid from where? You think that sub was dumping it?”

“No,” Tom replied. “My brain’s starting to chug again, and I think it’s something secreted by the seaweed in that area, that spot where your Fat Man got snared. In fact, it may have been a concentrated dollop, maybe from a bursting plant pod, that ate away a speck of the sealer in your suit hatch.”

“Good grief, an acid that can do that to Tomasite?” Bud boggled. “You and I should be nothing but a pile of bones by now!”

“It may have a particularly strong reaction to some substance in the Tomasite formulation,” Tom pointed out. “I’d guess we got a very diluted amount smeared on us when we took cover in the weeds.” Tom looked at Bud’s skin and his own. “Yep, signs of a chemical burn, but very superficial despite how it felt. It must have reacted with the nerve endings. We’ll be fine if we dress in some of those healing-bandages overnight.”

Zimby asked, “Skipper, how did you know cold water would help you?”

“I didn’t know,” was the reply. “But I thought that since salty lukewarm seawater didn’t neutralize the stuff, maybe cold fresh water would. Lucky guess, huh!”

The seacop headed for home on Fearing, her crew discussing not only the bio-acid, but the eerie vessel they had watched, clearly several thousand feet broad at the beam.

“El Blanco may be a big blank spot to gravity,” Bud remarked; “but not to the eye, at least.”

“Not to sonar either,” Zimby put in. “The scope picked it up, but it was so enormous I assumed there was a malfunction.”

Bud continued, “You think it might have to do with Li Ching, Tom? Or brought to you by the good folks on Planet X?”

“Bud, I’ll say something very wise,” responded Tom ruefully. “I have no idea!”

“Well, pal, I’ll wait. Think about it!”

Arriving at Fearing Island they stowed their equipment and changed into shorts and tanktops, then rushed to the base medic, Dr. Carman, who dressed their skin with the time-release bandages as Tom had suggested. They finally made for the big guest dining room to look in on Chow Winkler—and their jaws dropped as they opened the door!

Sandy! Bashalli!”

Greetings and avast, salty seamen!” called Bash. “We’ve been waiting for you.”

“Yes, waiting, waiting!” Sandy said mischievously, “It was as if we were on a date.”

“But how—” Tom turned to Chow, who had just entered with a big grin. “I get it. So these are the ‘important visitors’ you were expecting!”

“Called me last night, boss. Asked me t’keep my big mouth shut fer once,” the westerner explained.

“We assumed we’d be a pleasant surprise,” said Sandy as Bashalli nodded.

“Wow, you sure are!” Bud exulted. “Anything to get genius boy here away from his sea-search bit.”

“Oh, we don’t expect to work miracles,” Bashalli declared smugly. “But this is an island in the ocean, after all, with a beach and bright sun. It seemed we might vacation here for a couple days on our way to our real week’s vacation in Florida with those friends of yours, the Lawsons.”

“We’ll try not to be too much of a bother,” promised Sandy with a twinkle.

“It’s great to see you two,” Tom responded, “though I guess I should warn you that the probe business is pretty urgent and a major distraction right now.”

“My, what unexpected news, Sandra,” commented Bash. “The boy inventor is distracted by a crisis.” She gestured at their bandage wrappings. “And already, their supple young bodies are disfigured by injury. What was it this time, a shower of meteors? A rain of molten aluminum, perhaps?”

“Just some savage seaweed,” Bud responded with a chuckle that he hoped sounded convincing. He didn’t want to alarm the visitors with talk of danger.

The four exchanged warm hugs. “I’ll try to make up for my ‘distractedness’ by letting you have a little fun with my new invention, the electronic hydrolungs. Between sessions in the sun, you can take a stroll on the ocean floor.” Tom explained how the device worked, and Bud noted that he discreetly avoided mentioning the diverjets, which might prove a bit challenging for casual vacationers.

The girls were thrilled, but it seemed fate had other plans. The next morning, after the two of them and Bud had spent some time sporting about with Tom’s hydrolungs, the young scientist-inventor hailed them from an electric nanocar. “How’d you like to postpone your stay with the Lawsons for a couple more days?”

“Got a better offer, Tomonomo?” asked Sandy. “These hydrolungs are just incredible!”

“Well, what say we take a little trip to Madeira Island?”

Ohhh!” The girls were stereophonically thrilled!

“So what’s up, Skipper?” inquired Bud. “You’re famous for inventing—not for being spontaneous!”

Tom laughed at the sure truth of Bud’s statement. “Remember Professor Taclos, astronomer, marine biologist, and weather guy?”

“Barely met the man, actually,” Bud retorted; “even though you and I saved his hide!” Taclos, a Portugese living on the outskirts of Porto do Moniz on Madeira, had become involved—greatly to his eventual regret—with murderous scientist-technicians working against the mission of Tom’s first diving seacopter, the Ocean Arrow. Tom and Bud had rescued the man from death in a captive diving bell. Taclos had later been cleared of any culpable involvement in the plot. “Planning to pay him a visit, Tom?”

“Sure am,” was Tom’s reply, “given what I’ve come up with via the internet!”

Bashalli gave one of her signature sarcastic smiles. “Has that disgusting man involved himself in further scientific skullduggery?”

“Far from it,” Tom declared. “It turns out that some years back he wrote an important paper on a subject that just might have a bearing on our Gojira search—an ancient oceanic cataclysm caused by a meteor strike, or something similar.”

Bud Barclay’s forehead curled. “You told me about that seafloor crater business, and I know it’s supposed to have happened near our search area. But what’s the connection?”

Tom described for the girls the theory of the ancient earth disaster, and then proceeded to give a quick version of his and Bud’s encounter with the giant submersible. “It came to me that the ship wasn’t heading toward Mer-Soleil or the Bahamas or any other local landfall—but in the direction of the subsidence features, the ‘craters’.”

“But so what?” asked Sandy skeptically.

“It may be nothing, just pure coincidence. But we ran into some, mm, peculiarities in the sea life in that area, as one approaches the crater slopes. And also, one theory says that the cataclysm was caused by the impact of cometary matter, and—”

“Ah!” exclaimed Bash. “The probe capsule was itself bearing a load of such material! You see, Sandra dear, the clues are mounting.”

“At least there’s a slight connection,” Tom agreed. “What if our enemies, whoever they might be—but probably the crew of that sub-ship!—what if they diverted the Gojira to that particular area for some reason? What if they have some sort of hidden base in the impact zone? There could be a reason nobody suspects, somehow connected to the ancient impact. I’m willing to spend a few hours talking with Professor Taclos about his own theories, and the information he has to back them up.”

“Well, Tom, it’s mighty slim from an evidentiary point of view,” sniffed his sister archly. “But I suppose Bashi and I wouldn’t mind a brief jaunt to, what is it, this ‘Madeira Island’ of yours.” Then she and Bashalli squealed with pleasure!

Having made hasty arrangements with Taclos and the local authorities, the Sky Queen took off for Madeira at noon, Tom at the controls. Big as it was, the three-decker skyship sported an advanced form of automatic control, and Tom, Bud, and the girls were a completely adequate crew for the flight.

In fact, however, there was one further passenger, whose request to join them had been instantly granted. “Thet shor was a pretty place, that there island,” Chow Winkler exclaimed. “Mebbe it ain’t Texas, but it’ll do.”

“Do you plan to buy one of your colorful shirts in Porto do Moniz, Charles?” inquired Bashalli with a warm smile. Chow was well-loved by everyone.

“Right likely, ma’am,” he replied. “Either that or try some o’ that skinny-diving.” He pretended to ignore the strangulatin’ sound from Bud.

As prearranged, they set down in a broad open area between the Taclos residence and the town of Porto do Moniz. As it was walking distance either way, Tom and Bud decided to “leg it.”

“We’ll be shopping with Chow while you two are enjoying the company of that stuffy astronomer,” Sandy teased.

“Let us be hopeful the Queen will be able to accommodate our purchases on a single trip,” was Bashalli’s contribution.

“Have fun,” said Tom. “But please—keep to the public, tourist sections, won’t you? No bargain hunting in dark alleys!”

“I’ll watch ’em, Tom,” said Chow with a bit of prairie pride. “They cain’t get in trouble with Ole Chow around.”

The trip to town by foot was a brisk twenty minute walk in the late afternoon sun and fresh sea air. Soon the girls and Chow were prowling the long main street of Porto do Moniz, lined with its many quaint stalls set flat on the broad sidewalk, one next to another. They had already traversed one end to the other and back again, becoming laden with bags and packages in the process, when they were surprised as a man in a short-sleeved official uniform—evidently a police officer—bustled up to them. He was followed by a short and very fat Madeiran with white-streaked hair and a curling moustache. And, on his wide round face, an expression of grim determination.

“Excuse me, much pardon,” said the officer to Chow in broken but adequate English. “You are from the Tom Swift group? The great aeroplane?”

“Sure am, son,” was Chow’s puzzled reply. “What kin I do fer ya?”

The policeman turned and conferred with the other man in an oddly-accented language chock full of smooth vowels—an animated discussion with much arm-waving. Then he turned back to the Shoptonians. “Do forgive me. We spoke the language of the Euscaldunac, the people of the Pyrenees Mountains. This man is a Basque, you see.”

Chow Winkler frowned. “Wa-aal, you know the feller better’n I do. But I gotta remind you—they’s ladies present, so watch your language.”

This gentlemanly remonstrance seemed to bring smiles of gratitude to the faces of the two ladies in question. The officer looked bewildered, and Sandy spoke up. “Officer, can we help you? Is anything wrong?”

“Ah well, perhaps so,” he replied. “This gentleman here, Senhor—that is, Mister Abyoza Ubzguilgee—he states to me that he makes a civil complaint against you, sir, and demands that I take action under the laws and customs of Madeira.”

“He’s complainin’ about me?” Evidently so—the policeman was nodding in the direction of Chow!

 


 

 

 

CHAPTER 10

 

 

 

          CHOW WINKLER, HEARTBREAKER

 

 

 

 

TOM and Bud sat in Professor Taclos’s big and rather untidy drawing room, with its world globes and sea charts and high shelves of scholarly-looking books. And one small television—black and white.

The sun-bronzed native of Portugal, perhaps sixty years of age, offered them tea, which he poured himself with a delicate hand. “I must tell you how pleased I am with this meeting between us, Tom. I had feared a degree of awkwardness. My conduct in the—unusual affair—which brought about our previous acquaintance is something I recall with shame.”

“You were misled by others, sir,” Tom reassured him; “by a pair of greedy, ambitious men who only pretended to be motivated by science, as you were.”

“Nobody wanted to blame you when we found out what had happened, Professor,” Bud added.

“I thank you. A sad thing, was it not?—for myself and my late colleague Wickliffe. But now then,” he went on, “you have an interest in my work on the Nares Impact Event, as one calls it in English?”

Tom and Bud knew that the word Nares referred to the Nares Plain, the undersea geographical feature near the Bahamas where the two subsidence regions were located. “As you know from the news,” began the young inventor in answer, “there is reason to think the Japanese probe capsule was diverted to an area many hundreds of miles north of the planned descent site, and almost certainly came down in the ocean—the Nares Plain region or thereabouts.”

Taclos raised his graying eyebrows. “Do I understand you to say diverted? I knew there was an unfortunate deviation from course, but I believe ‘diverted’ implies something done with intent—does it not?”

“You got it, sir,” declared Bud.

“The news reports have softened the story a bit,” Tom explained. “And it’s true—we don’t know for certain that there was deliberate interference in the recovery operation. But it could hardly be otherwise.” Tom knew it would be rash to mention the ransom demand that confirmed the act of piracy.

“Then is it possible Gojira was not destroyed by its final impact?”

“Some of us think it was brought down gently, to preserve it for some further purpose. It may be somewhere on the Nares Plain—or someone may have recovered it from the sea bottom, perhaps leaving evidence behind. We’ve been searching with my subs.”

The Professor nodded. “Yes, the well-known submersibles, fruits of your own genius, eh?” Tom politely acknowledged the compliment. “Now tell me, Tom. How can I with my meager skills, an educated dilettante at best, be of assistance to you?”

Bud rushed in to say, “It’s that comet thing. The space probe was coming back from the comet belt, and Tom thinks there might be a connection.”

“I do not understand. A connection between the Impact Event and the theft of the probe capsule?”

“You’re not the only skeptic, Professor Taclos!” Tom grinned at his host. “I’m not sure I can explain the basis of my intuitions. But we’ve detected signs of unusual underwater activity by a submersible we can’t identify. It shows a use of advanced technology, and—”

“Yes!” Taclos interrupted in anticipation. “To alter the trajectory of the returning probe, one would need such technology, surely.”

And the super-sub was heading off in the direction of those impact craters,” exclaimed Bud excitedly.

“We think—just maybe—the pirate group may have established some sort of deep-water base of operations in one of the subsidence plains, where the depth would help them remain unseen. I thought some detailed account of any unique geological features in that area would give us a lead as to the exact location of such a base, which may also be where the probe capsule has been concealed.” Tom concluded by noting that Professor Taclos’s studies of the subocean topography might have already brought together the data that Tom was seeking.

The man rose thoughtfully to his feet. “As I would expect, your insights are superb.” He walked up to a bookcase, paused, searched, and pulled down a single volume. “This book was written some years ago by a German scientist and engineer named Otto H. Muck.” Taclos opened the book and began flipping through the pages. “It was he who did the most to popularize the theory of Atlantic seafloor impacts during the millennia following upon the end of the last ice age. My own research built upon this foundation. One thing I now recall—let me see, there was a chart...”

He gave a crisp nod and brought the open book over to Tom and Bud. “Here, you see. He speaks of what he terms ‘the stub of the shattered Puerto Rico plate’—shattered, that is, by the double impact.”

Tom examined the chart with growing excitement. “Shattered! And if the crust, the bedrock beneath, was violently broken, it must be riddled with faults, fissures, collapsed seamounts...”

“And caves, Skipper!” added Bud enthusiastically. “Maybe even some big enough to hide a submarine bigger than twenty football fields laid end to end!”

“You have seen such a thing?” asked Taclos with a soft gasp of disbelief.

“We have,” Tom confirmed. “And luckily, it didn’t see us.”

And as Tom Swift was speaking excitedly, so was his friend, cook, and pardner, Chow Winkler.

“Now looky here,” the westerner exclaimed, trying his best to project a layer of indignation over his startled nervousness. “I ain’t never seen this here feller afore in my life!”

“Charles, are you absolutely sure?” asked Bashalli, no longer bantering.

Chow stared at the man, frowning deeply. “Wa-aal, unless...” He addressed the little man in a louder voice. “You wasn’t once known by the name o’ Elmer Treadloe, mebbe? Catter out o’ Oklahoma City?” The man glared fiercely. “Naw, guess not.”

“Does this man even know our friend’s name?” demanded Sandy Swift.

“No. He identifies him by sight, and says he is most certain,” replied the officer. “Your name, sir—what is it?”

“Chow—mean t’say Charles—Ollaho Winkler,” Chow said. He spelled it out, and the policeman wrote it down. “But if’n you use my middle initial, it’s ‘Q’, b’cause otherwise it spells out—”

“Yes, I see. Well now, Mister Winkler, this gentleman is Basque, as are many here in Madeira,” the man noted. “By long tradition, they are allowed to resolve disputes among themselves or with others, where there is no allegation that Madieran law has been broken, in a somewhat informal manner according to their ancient custom. We police officers of the city are sworn to provide cooperation, as it keeps the peace. But both parties, the aggrieved and the accused, must agree to this resort to the Disputaçiones Eusquerreria. Once agreed, you must abide by the judicatióne thereby rendered. Do you consent to this method, sir?”

The officer waited respectfully for Chow to answer, eyebrows raised.

The ex-Texan scratched his head and gave something of a shrug. “Ya say it’s kind o’ casual? Ya don’t hafta go t’court?”

“There is no court, no judge, no arrest, no jail. The matter is placed before a man or woman chosen for that purpose long before by the local community of the Euscaldunac, a person of good repute who has served as an apprentice. He must be not less than fifty-one years of age, and have two ears and two eyes.”

“Makes sense. Guess I wouldn’t mind it,” Chow declared. “Sounds like it’d get this loco business over with right quick ’n simple-like.”

“Perhaps you should not be hasty,” Bash whispered. But the cowpoke shrugged it off.

“Do you then agree?”

“I do!”

“Very good, then. I will take you to the chamber of Disputaçiones. It is not far.”

The officer, who gave his name as Sgt. Alfarao Gonçalves, led them down a side street and into a very old building. He asked them to wait in a comfortable if dimlit room as he and the complainant, Ubzguilgee, passed through an ornate door and closed it behind them.

“Chow, I’m afraid Bashi may be right,” said Sandy fretfully. “We don’t know the customs of these people.”

“That ain’t all we don’t know!” Chow huffed. “My blame dignity as a born Texan has got itself insulted, and I wanna know what fer. Jest imagine, someb’dy havin’ a complaint about me. Not my cookin’—me personal!”

Gonçalves reappeared and motioned the three Americans to enter the room. A dignified elderly man, introduced as Senhor Ichasoa, sat behind a desk of dark wood, its polished surface bare of all items. There was not even a pen.

Only the adjudicator was permitted to sit. “I am a speaker and hearer of English,” he pronounced. “As a courtesy, and for fairness, we shall conduct this inquiry in the language of the guests of Madeira. Sgt. Gonçalves will provide translation for the complainant and his zacjgei—that is, the one who was wronged, whom he represents.”

“Your honor,” Sandy began, “our friend is—”

“Only those involved may speak, madame,” cautioned the Basque. “But you may observe.” Senhor Ichasoa looked with stern dignity at Gonçalves, then at Ubzguilgee. And then his officious cadences signified the start of the proceeding. “There comes before me this day a man of honor, Abyoza Luiz Ubzguilgee, born of a Guizpúcoan father of the race of Eusquerreria, speaker of the tongue Euscara, a respecter of our ways. He gives me a complaint of grave injustice against a man of Texas, America, of the name Charles Ollaho Winkler. The nature and patronage of this complaint is a breach of a promise to wed an innocent young maiden, the daughter of Senhor Ubzguilgee.”

There were a few gasps and choking sounds from the Americans, who found the general concept difficult to grasp! “Now wait, wait here,” cried Chow in disbelief. “You mean—some woman is sayin’—”

“In good time, senhor,” interrupted the adjudicator calmly. “Sergeant, please admit the zacjgei, the young maiden Culba Maria Ubzguilgee.”

Goncalves opened the door and politely admitted a small but very rounded woman in colorful native garb and billowy chin, evidently the daughter of Senhor Ubzguilgee, who grasped her hand.

“Say!” whispered Chow with a nervous glance at Ichasoa. “That there lady shor does look fermiliar at that! Cain’t quite place her, though.”

At a nod the woman now began to speak in very imperfect English, with many haltings and corrections. “I have told my father this story, and he has told the sergeant, and now I tell you, honorable Senhor Ichasoa.”

“Tell me, too!” Chow demanded, which earned him a glare.

“This man, he came to me one day as I sat upon my mat selling my honest wares, not so many months ago. He was with two others of America, one with light hair, one with black hair. He spoke sweetly and lovingly into my ear, and I blushed before him and gave him a gift, a small turtle of stone, a piedra verde, for which I asked nothing. In return he gave me something indeed worth nothing, beads. This is the way of man with maiden, is it not? Tokens of love and promise? I await his return, days, months—he does not return. I am rent, cut deeply, in the heart. I can see no other man, though many approach me.

“Now within the hour, I see him on the boulevard and run in tears to tell my father, and he goes to get the sergeant. Now I come to you for justice, that you will cause this man, whose name I never knew, to fulfill his promise and claim his reward.”

Chow had long since turned very pale. “Promise? Reward? Ma’am, I recollect you now, you an’ that there phony sea-turtle, from when we ’as here afore in Tom Swift’s seacopter. I’m mighty sorry if’n you got th’ wrong idee a-cause o’ my natural charm an’ such. But you cain’t rightly hold it agin me. I ’as born into it. You got no call t’ build it all up into some kind o’ proposition o’ marriage! Good gosh a’mighty!”

This speech was translated, and the father of the would-be bride responded with red-faced anger, speaking his native language. “Sim, sim. He says—to summarize—that his daughter now is ruined and no good for marriage because of the careless actions of Mr. Winkler,” explained Sergeant Gonçalves. “Her heart is captive to him alone.”

“It is a serious and hurtful matter, Mr. Winkler, deserving of recompense and satisfaction,” stated the adjudicator.

“No offense meant,” gulped Chow, “but if satisfaction is what’s wanted, I shor don’t see it comin’ down this here road!”

There was a voluble argument joined by all sides in several languages. Culba Maria Ubzguilgee was mostly silent. But within that silence she was slowly becoming distraught, and her eyes welled over. Suddenly she rudely pushed her father aside and strode up to the desk, pounding a fist on it!

She spoke shrilly and at length in the language of the Basques as the adjudicator listened intently and her father protested weakly and futilely. Finally she stopped and stood with her arms crossed, tears running down her full-figured cheeks.

Sim. The matter is ended, justice served,” said the adjudicator gravely.

“Y-you don’t mean I gotta marry her,” choked the ex-Texan, “do ya?”

“The complaint against you has been withdrawn, senhor, by the complainant. All is done. You may leave.”

Chow was joyous if somewhat dizzy. Bashalli marched forward and demanded, “What is this nonsense? A prank? Played on two and one-half Americans?”

“Aw, let’s jest go, Basherelli,” urged Chow nervously. “My charm might start t’work agin any time.”

The three from Shopton left the chamber accompanied by Sergeant Gonçalves. “You understood what she said,” Sandy told him. “At least tell our friend why she changed her mind. Was it just some kind of tourist scam?”

“Oh no,” he replied. “I am quite sure she was sincere.”

“No s’prise at that,” Chow commented. “Guess she got smarted up at th’ last minute—decided she didn’t want one o’ them love-free marriages.”

“That is not the reason she gave,” said Gonçalves. “What she said was, now that she has seen you again, she longs for you no more. You are not as she remembered. You have changed.”

“Hunh?”

“She says, now you are too fat.”

As to Tom and Bud, they dined with Professor Taclos at his invitation and arrived back at the Flying Lab mid-evening, the Atlantic sky clear and almost milky with starlight. In the top-deck lounge they found Sandy reading a paperback novel, Bashalli intent upon a travel brochure, and Chow plopped in front of the television, which had a satellite feed.

“We had a great afternoon, vacationers!” Bud exclaimed happily. “That Portugese-Madeira food was worth three servings. And of course I had one more for luck.”

And we also managed to accomplish a few other things,” noted Tom dryly. “I think we have some clues as to where to look for Gojira. How about you three? Have a good time in town?”

“Most picturesque,” said Bash, not looking up.

“Good shopping,” added Sandy, turning a page.

“All that walkin’ made me a scootch tired,” declared Chow, eyes fixed on the screen.

The three had taken an oath. Texas dignity remained intact.

Next morning the Sky Queen made for Fearing Island, outracing the sun. After Tom had seen the girls off to Florida on the next leg of their vacation, he left Bud for a time, spending hours out of sight in his private apartment. When the dark-haired pilot finally scouted up his pal, Tom’s dinette table was covered with paper—sketches and notes and arcane calculations.

“Looks like you got hold of a little inspiration, genius boy,” Bud commented.

“Yup. Sure did. For the next phase of the search.”

“A new invention?”

“Something old, something new,” replied the young inventor. Then a grin peeped out. “Basically, flyboy, my plan is to turn the two of us into fish!”

 


 

 

 

 

CHAPTER 11

 

 

          A PLEA FOR HELP

 

 

 

 

BUD BARCLAY nodded a very calm and unfazed nod. “I see. Swift and Barclay, fish. Scales, tails, gills. Sounds good. Anything else?”

He sat down at the table, smiling blandly and expectantly.

“Okay, okay!” laughed Tom. “I see you’re finally beyond being surprised. Look at this sketch I made.” The sketch showed a man in some sort of full-body protective suit and facemask.

“A fish suit, hmm.” Bud looked up at his friend. “So why? To protect us from that seaweed acid?”

“That’s one reason,” confirmed Tom. “But more importantly as far as the mission is concerned, this diversuit will allow us to scout around freely at depths where the pressure would be deadly to unprotected swimmers.”

Bud understood immediately. “You plan for us to go down into those craters.”

“Right, chum. Some parts of the subsidence plains—the sinkholes—run more than 3300 fathoms. Almost four miles down!”

Now Bud was impressed. “Ohhh-kay. Guess I see why we might need a little extra protection!”

The young scientist-inventor chuckled at the expression on his companion’s face. “Don’t get too shook, Barclay. We won’t be going anywhere near the deepest parts, not in the diversuits.” Tom explained that he planned to limit his surveys to the much shallower rims of the craterlike features. “That’s where we’re most likely to find El Blanco’s cavern hideout—if it exists.”

“With the probe waiting inside! So shall I have Chow pack away dinner and breakfast aboard the Sea Hound?”

Not just yet! I’m going to digi-fax my preliminary sketches and specs to Enterprises. Another of our typical full-speed-ahead-and-then-some jobs.” He added: “And something else too, Bud. I’m going to put together a message for Nels Gachter to send into space over the magnifying antenna.”

“About time!” Bud pronounced enthusiastically. “The space friends could be the key to El Blanco and everything else!” Bud knew that the extraterrestrials, who communicated with Earth in a language of mathematical symbols, had proven themselves adepts in the mysteries of space and time, matter and energy. The colossal gravity-blocking vessel would not be the first awesome achievement to confront Tom and his associates!

But to the youths’ disappointment, next morning’s word back from Enterprises led them no closer to the truth. “Nels says the response was brief—Described Earth planet phenomenon is unknown to us.”

Bud shrugged. “That’s that, I guess.”

“We still can’t rule out the possibility that Li Ching, or someone else, has been able to communicate with the Planet X people through an unannounced side-channel, as the Brungarians did,” Tom pointed out.

His athletic comrade reluctantly agreed. “Or maybe those ‘Voudon-Machéte’ guys stumbled across a way to eavesdrop on the space friends or their way-out bosses.” Bud asked Tom what his plans were.

“Mainly to wait for the suit prototypes to be delivered here. Dad promised to ride herd on the project and oversee the early testing at the plant. It’ll surely take several days.”

“We both hate to wait,” Bud sighed.

One afternoon during the course of this impatient several-day hiatus, Tom was unexpectedly summoned to the island communications center. Kaye was on the videophone from Key West.

“Is Oriella Carne there with you?” Tom asked.

The response surprised him. “No, Tom. The woman here asking to be put through to you is Régine Léonide.” Tom recognized the name immediately—the wife of Jean-Sancte Léonide!

“Good day, Mr. Swift,” said the attractive African-American woman. “I hope you don’t mind, my approaching your television broadcaster in this manner.” Her accent bespoke the French background of Mer-Soleil.

“That’s what our system is designed for, ma’am,” Tom replied, “to make it easier for people to get in touch with Swift Enterprises and share information.”

“What I have to share, Mr. Swift, is a plea for help.”

“Regarding President Léonide?”

She gave a sad smile, no illumination to it. “I thank you for your kindness in using his title. The newspapers call him ‘the ex-President’. Or worse. Mr. Swift, our family retains many contacts within the international community. We are privileged to know things that are withheld from the general public.”

“About the lost probe?” Tom guessed.

“Indeed so—the stolen probe! More to the point, we know of the ransom demand. We know of the negotiations between the government having custody of my husband, protecting his safety, and the horrible macoutes allied with Col. Maximille and the junta. Those who pretend to rule Mer-Soleil while they loot it.” There were tears not in her eyes but in her voice. This was a brave woman.

The young inventor spoke carefully. “I suppose you know that we’ve been ordered to stop trying to find the Gojira capsule—to leave everything to the two governments directly involved.”

“Yes. I know.” She gave Tom an earnest look. “And I also know that when orders are given, young men do not always hear very well.”

Tom had to smile. “Guess that’s so, ma’am. Is there something specific you’d like—someone—to do?”

C’est vraiment. I would like this someone, who I believe is clever in oh so many things, to go to Dauphinville. Now, while there is time, before matters are concluded and a bargain struck.” She dropped all pretenses. “In these present circumstances, of necessity, you are, as they say, beneath the radar. Otherwise, your searching the ocean would be prevented.”

“But what can—”

“Please listen. You have detection devices, ways of hearing and seeing what is not to be heard or seen. I have read accounts of this. With such devices you may be able to do what the friends of Papa Sancte cannot do, to uncover what the corrupt ‘police’—they hardly deserve the name—labor so faithfully to conceal. Use this science of yours, Mr. Swift. You must find who, high in the government, runs this scheme, this plot against my husband.”

“Ma’am, isn’t it obvious? It must be Maximille, surely.”

But she shook her head. “No doubt he and the junta and the others surrounding him know of the scheme and gave their approval. Very likely, they themselves commanded it. But they are high up. They will have protected themselves from exposure. No use at all to go after them, not to start with. There must be one or more lower down, perhaps the unnamed leader of the Voudon-Machéte, who is in charge, who has stolen the space missile and concocted the ransom scheme on behalf of the junta. We know he hides in Dauphinville. Find this man, Mr. Swift. Expose him to the world. Or very soon a good man will be taken back to my poor Mer-Soleil against his will. And then soon after, he will be dead.”

When Tom recounted the conversation to Bud and Chow later, he included its sequel. “I talked to Dad for a long time, and then, when he finally said to go ahead, I called Mom and then Sandy at the Lawsons’.”

“Bet they’s already worried silly, yer mom and sister,” declared Chow.

“They all are, pard. Dad too.”

“But this is the sort of thing you do, Skipper,” said Bud seriously, warmly. “Now and then you save the world and fly to the Moon. But everything you do, every invention that pops out of your big crewcutted head, is for people—persons—one by one. However many of them there are.”

Chow unconsciously doffed his big cowboy hat. “Reckon this one cain’t help it, Buddy Boy. Can you, boss?”éô

Tom could only shrug. The moment of decision was behind him—behind them all. But the danger lay ahead!

 


 

 

 

 

CHAPTER 12

 

 

          FABULOUS FISHMEN

 

 

 

 

AN AMPHIBIOUS model of the jetrocopter, called a Whirling Duck, at long last delivered the hydrolung diversuit prototypes to Fearing Island. The interminable wait had occupied three days!

Tom proudly displayed his new concoction to a small group of his friends—Bud, Chow, Mel Flagler, and Zimby Cox.

“Well,” Bud remarked hesitantly, “I don’t think you’ll be winning any fashion awards, pal.”

“Mebbe you oughta try givin’ it a little color, boss,” was Chow’s contribution. “How ’bout a nice Navajo pattern? Cause right now—she looks a mite like she ’as sewed t’gether out o’ octopus hide.”

Tom conceded that there was something in what his western friend said. The suits—four had been fabricated—were slick as oil and shiny as metal, but of a very dark blue-green shade, almost black. Only the bulging, wraparound face masks, covering the face, chin, and jaw, broke the stolid monotony of the one-piece outfits.

“How do you even get into it?” demanded Mel.

“It has several hidden seams that seal together along—well, I guess you could call ’em flexible flanges. They have thin strips of transifoil inside.”

“Oh, right,” said Zimby. “That metal that coils up when you run a current through it.” Tom had invented the material for use in his space solartron.

“Yep. The current is very weak, but it’s enough to cause the seams to snap together all the way along.” Then he added: “For safety’s sake, it’s formulated a bit differently from standard transifoil. You don’t cut the current to make it unfold or uncoil—you send a current through in the reverse direction. With no current it just stays as you’ve left it.”

Bud picked up one of the suits and examined it curiously. “It sure is lightweight, and I don’t see any holes! But it’s stretchy, and it flexes like super-thin rubber or latex—you know, like they use in—”

“Now look,” Chow interrupted. “How’s that skinny stuff gonna keep off the weight o’ all that dang water? Or even keep ya warm down there?”

Tom’s eyes glinted mischievously. “Down there?—down below your waist, you mean?”

The cook gave an involuntary glance down at his generous beltline. “Aw, you know what I mean. Down there at the bottom of th’ sea.”

“Watch.” Tom carefully draped one of the diversuits between two sturdy chairs that were about three feet apart. The suit’s unsupported midsection immediately sagged down to the floor. “Mighty flimsy, hmm? Now c’mere, cowpoke.”

Chow approached and Tom carefully stretched out the suit between the chairs again until it was more or less taut and sag-free. Then he seemed to pinch something at the wrist of one of the suit sleeves. “Okay,” he said to Chow. “Give her a good push down, right here in the middle.”

The ex-Texan advanced skeptically and pushed downward with one extended finger, delicately. The suit section didn’t slide and sag down, but remained immobile—it had become rigid. “Go on!” Tom urged. “Apply some pressure!”

“Throw your weight into it, wrangler!” Bud urged excitedly.

The big cook did as he was bade. He pressed down harder and harder with his palms, leaning over further and further. The chairs creaked but the strange “fabric” would not budge. Chow glared at it with determination. “Brand my barbells! Let’s see ’er stand up t’this!”

Raising a booted foot as high as he could manage, he scrambled up on top of the prone diversuit! As he stood upright, tottering precariously, Tom fretfully motioned him to get down.

“Fantastic!” Mel breathed. “The material isn’t bending or creasing under him, not one bit!”

Bud chortled, “Man oh man, this is really a pressure test! We could walk around at the bottom of the Marianas Trench in that high-tech tailoring job!”

The diversuit didn’t give way, but one of the chairs did. A metal leg suddenly bent with a creak, and Chow awkwardly clomped down to the floor.

After comforting his friend with a clap on the back, Tom plucked up the suit from the chairs. It hung limp on his forearm like a fresh-caught fish!

“Tell us the secret, Tom,” demanded Zim with wide eyes.

The young inventor nodded happily. “More transifoil, in part, activated when I touched a little slide-switch I installed for test purposes. But the real secret is how this mite-ugly suit material is put together down at the micro-level.” He explained that the fabric consisted of layers of unseeably minute D-shaped segments, interlinked like the individual links of a chain-mail cloth. “Think of them as big ‘designer molecules’ interlinked, woven together. The transifoil filaments toggle them back and forth between two stable orientations. One allows them to bend freely in either direction, but when the other is put into effect, they lock together so tightly that even tremendous pressure can’t make them ‘give’. The segments just slide along one another, frictionlessly.”

“But when the stuff is in its rigid mode, how can you move your arms and legs?” Mel Flagler asked skeptically.

In response Tom opened up a seam at the front of the diversuit so he could grasp its inner surface with one hand. He slid the switch again with the other. “See, folks? When it’s toggled to mode two, the material, duraflexon, can still bend outward freely, but won’t give a micron in the inward, concave, direction. It’s like a hinge that can swing one way but ‘catches’ in the other. It won’t impede bodily movements one bit.”

“Sure, why not?” remarked Bud. “There’s such a thing as one-way glass. Now we’ve got one-way titanium-steel plating!”

“Actually, flyboy, the individual links are made primarily of Neo-Aurium, that metal ore we found near the submarine city of gold,” his pal corrected him. “Each link is then coated with a thin, very hard shell of a composite of Inertite and the new Tomasite formulation, ‘newly improved’ with Antitec doping.”

Chow scratched his head. “I know two o’ them things, boss, but what’s that ant stuff?”

Bud was able to answer the question. “That’s what genius boy named Li Ching’s anti-energy glaze that we, er, stole. Nothing gets through it!”

“Except gravity, of course,” Tom said with a slight frown. “But all together this combo will hold in body heat, keep out radiation, and do an even better job than good old plain Tomasite at sponging-up radar and sonar signals. The hydrolung fishmen will be all but invisible to remote detection.” He finished by inviting Bud, Mel, and Zimby to join him shortly at Radar Point to give the outfit an undersea tryout.

“I know you ’as about to invite me t’try one out too, boss,” Chow said with just a scootch of prairie irony. “But if’n it’s all the same to you, I’d as soon jest watch.”

At Radar Point the four test-aquanauts, already wearing their suits, helped one another mount the ion-drive jet unit onto their backs. Straps were no longer needed; its support stanchion clicked firmly into a line of gripper clasps running along the spine of the diversuit itself. “I’ve redesigned the jet for use with the suits,” explained Tom. “The hydrolung electronics are now inside the diverjet stanchion, making use of the jet intake and out-thrust for its own water circulation.”

“But where’s the air hose, chief?” asked Zim Cox.

“There are microcapillaries inside the suit layers to carry the oxygen mix to the mask and to draw off what you exhale. The mask now has two layers with a space between, and the tubes open into it. The inner plate has several dozen tiny holes—air-in on the far right and left, air-out in the middle. By the way, that inner mask-plate also does double duty as a ‘microphone’ and ‘speaker’ for the suit sonophones. In-out sound-drivers in its frame pick up the vibes your voice makes in the plate, and also make the plastic vibrate to produce sound—in stereo! “

“Good night, we’ll be weighted down like an electronic Christmas tree with all the high-tech equipment you’ve crammed inside!” Bud gibed with a grin. “And you say you’re not done with it yet?”

“Not yet, flyboy. I want to add sonarscope capabilities to the hydrolung suits,” responded the young inventor, hand poised to pull his facemask up into place. “In other words, they won’t be able to see us, but we’ll be able to see them!” What an amazing fish-man the wearer would be, Tom thought, if his project succeeded! It would enable a lone deep-diver to operate indefinitely under water at jet-propelled speed—invisible to enemy “eyes,” yet able to spy out any stalking undersea prowlers of hostile intent.

After a lesson on how to operate the simple control boxes lashed to their forearms, Tom and his three comrades made for the waves and ducked from sight. Chow, who had been joined on the shore by Doc Simpson, could only frown disapprovingly. “Guess I shoulda known—can’t see a blame tick of ’em from up here.”

“I’m afraid the Fishy Four are on their own for a while, Chow,” Doc replied. “But just so you won’t be bored, I have a little experiment of my own to show you.”

After forty minutes of subsea play, the hydrolung divers surfaced again, exclaiming and laughing as they pulled off their masks. “Word o’ words, chief, this is as much an advance in recreation as in science!” Mel Flagler declared with gleeful enthusiasm.

“What a rush!” agreed Zimby.

“Hey, Doc!” Bud called out. “What’s up with you two?”

Doc Simpson was seated comfortably on the sand next to a broad, flat rock, upon which a puddle of seawater had been trapped. His right hand rested in the water. He smiled innocently and sent a wink toward Chow, who stood nearby. “Hi, fellows. What’s up? Oh, nothing really.”

“Doc’s had his hand in that water for near on fifteen minutes now,” Chow told the dripping aquanauts. “Come on close and take a gander, you boys.”

“At Doc’s hand?” asked Tom, mystified.

As they drew close Doc pulled out his hand, carelessly wiping it dry on his T-shirt. Then he held it up for the others to examine.

“Still four fingers and a thumb,” pronounced Bud. “So?”

Tom’s comment was more substantial. “Fifteen minutes under water, Doc? But your skin—”

“Not a wrinkle on it!” chuckled the youthful medic. “Normally just a few minutes would be enough to shrivel the skin as the water lifts away your natural skin oils, pumped out by your sebacious glands.”

His young boss grasped the solution almost instantly. “Does this have to do with your sea farm?”

“It sure does, Tom. Look.” Doc pulled from his pants pocket a small flat box and popped open the lid. Inside were a number of pinkish capsules.

“Looks like those time-release cold capsules,” muttered Zim.

“You’re right about the timed-release part,” Doc responded. “The main ingredient is named—in the best Swift Enterprises tradition—aquadapticum. The hybridized sea plants produce it.” When Bud asked its effect, Simpson continued: “You’ve just seen one effect. It temporarily modifies the chemical ‘factory’ in the sebacious glands, causing them to ooze out a skin oil that’s more clingy and water-resistant. There are also improvements in circulation and respiratory efficiency, and it seems to inhibit muscular cramping and certain pressure effects on the inner ear which can cause divers to become disoriented.”

Tom nodded. “Yes—some deep-divers have drowned because, apparently, they were no longer able to tell up from down.”

“But what’s most important is the effect I was looking for from the start. Aquadapticum inhibits the formation of nitrogen bubbles in the bloodstream caused by too-rapid changes in ambient pressure.”

“Jetz!” Bud cried. “A cure for the bends!”

“Not a cure, Bud, but a preventative medication.”

Bud snorted. “You couldn’t have come up with it a few months back?” He and Tom had personal experience of the painful condition.

Tom was thrilled by Doc Simpson’s discovery and congratulated him warmly. “Most of those problems wouldn’t affect divers in this new long-underwear of mine. But if you’re sure it’s safe, it might be a good idea if my hydrolung sea scouts made a practice of taking a capsule each time they go out.”

“It’s safe—I’ve been taking it in pill form for a while now and running regular tests. No toxicity or bad reactions,” Doc reassured him. “It takes a while to put the capsules together, but you’re welcome to use up the stock I’ve already made.” When Tom thanked him, the physician added. “One condition, though, Skipper. Give me a chance to have some fun in those hydrolung suits!”

That evening, as Chow served Tom and Bud a well-spiced Texas supper, the young inventor laid out his plans for the upcoming several days. “The clock is ticking as far as the Mer-Soleil business is concerned, flyboy. I’m anxious to start nosing around down there, in Dauphinville, as Mrs. Léonide asked.”

“Finding the capsule isn’t exactly irrelevant to knocking the wind out of the Voudon-Machétes’ sails,” Bud pointed out.

“I know. I’m going to try to do both. But it’s getting clear that to do any really serious searching in the ocean, we’ll have to use individual divers with deep-water capabilities.”

“Your hydrolung sea scouts.”

“Right. Which means I have to add the final touches to the diversuits as quickly as possible. But I’m a little stumped at this point.”

“What point is that, son?” asked Chow as he hovered around the table, plates in hand.

Tom smiled up at the grizzled cook. “Weeelllp, pardner, it’s more a design problem than a scientific one. I was able to miniaturize the hydrolung apparatus and fit it into the ion-drive unit, but I’m having difficulty with the personal sonarscope system, which I think will be important during the search. There are mechanical or ‘analog’ elements to transmitting sonar sound waves out into the water and receiving the bounceback, and miniaturizing the components can only go so far. Furthermore, there’s one chink in our armor of undetectability—the drone of the diverjets. It’s not loud, but directional hydrophones could use it to pinpoint us. I want to mask it somehow. Yet I can’t stuff any more bulky equipment into the suits.”

Trying to cheer Tom, the cowpoke nodded understandingly. “I get it. Don’t wanna weight-down them diver folk with a whole buncha boxes an’ wires an’ suchlike electrical plumbin’. Brand my mermaid salad,” he chuckled. “If fishes could talk, I reckon you’d scare ’em half to death in sech a rig!”

“Fish do talk,” the young inventor said, his mind elsewhere. “At least they make noises. Don’t you remember how, in those underwater elevators, you could hear the sounds coming right through—” Suddenly Tom paused, his mouth dropping open.

“Stand back!” gibed Bud.

Chow! You’ve just solved my problem!” Tom exclaimed.

“Yeah, well... I have?” Chow goggled at the young inventor.

“You sure have!” Tom bounced off his stool and began pacing about. “Now, take porpoises. They utter all sorts of sounds—grunts, squeals, jawclaps—and one particularly characteristic sound, like the grating of a rusty hinge. The noise was all around us when Bud and I were playing with them the other day.”

Chow scratched his chin uncertainly. “Wa-aal, what about it?”

“Suppose I used that rusty-hinge noise to mask-over the diver’s jet noise.” Tom turned and stabbed the air with his finger. “I could also use that same sound output as the search pulse for my mini-sonarscope!” In this way, Tom explained, he could eliminate part of his bulky equipment.

“Y’see there, Buddy Boy?” said Chow proudly. “Ain’t nothin’ to it, this here inventin’ business. Jest need th’ right in-spee-ration.” He felt mighty pleased with himself as he cleared the table for dessert.

Eyes half-closed, Tom was silent for several minutes, and Bud and Chow took care not to break in upon his thoughts. Abruptly he glanced up at them and said, “You two up to a trip tomorrow?”

“Anywhere!” Bud exclaimed.

“Long as it ain’t back t’ Madeira,” added Chow with an unexplained frown of memory.

The next morning found the three of them again aboard the Sea Hound as Zimby Cox guided the craft southward via the air route, altitude about nine feet. “Okay, we’re on our way,” Zimby declared. “Now tell me nice and slow—just why is it we’re heading out to Key West?”

“Tom’s going to interview some fish,” Bud explained nice and slow.

“I’ll be making digital recordings of some sounds produced by the local marine life,” Tom re-explained patiently. “We’ll be using the Winkler Method”—Chow beamed—“to mask the sounds of the diverjets with something authentic. And those same sounds, many of which have high-end frequency elements, will act as our sonar output.”

“But don’t sonar scan pulses have to have a very precise frequency? Won’t the sounds you record be just jumbled-up noise—many tones overlaid?”

“In this case that’ll work fine,” Tom replied. “What I have in mind is something I call ‘quality analyzer sonar’. A computer chip tied in to special receiving phono-filters will isolate the varying frequencies, just as polarized lenses do with light. Each separate frequency will have a characteristic reflection profile, and the computer will combine the partial information into a single detector output.”

“Tom did something like that before, Zee,” Bud remarked. “We used it in tracking down the Sea Charger after Li Ching jacked her to the Sea of Siberia.”

“But now all this talk has given me a question,” Chow put in. “Why’n you just make records o’ them porpoises near t’ Fearin’ Island?”

“The school’s migrated on, apparently,” answered the scientist-inventor. “Besides, we want quite an array of sea life sounds, not just porpoise talk.”

“Big barrel o’ noise, huh?”

“Exactly.”

The flight to the Florida Keys from Georgia waters was a short one. Tom had Zimby settle the seacopter down onto the surface a few miles southeast of the Swift facility on Key West, where Kaye’s videophone studio was set up. “No time to pay a visit this trip,” Tom remarked.

The Sea Hound was submerged, touching the nearby sandy bottom on its extensible tractor-treads. As planned, Zimby remained aboard with Chow, eyes glued to the various scanning instruments for signs of menacing intruders, while Tom and Bud exited through the craft’s underwater airlock hatch. Carrying their small recording units with directional microphones, they zoomed away into turquoise space.

The boys separated. Their sensitive digital units were highly directional, and the strength of the sounds conveyed back to their faceplate “speakers” told them where to look. Over the course of an hour they collected two very full barrels of noise.

“Guess we’re about done, Bud,” Tom sonophoned. “No porpoises, unfortunately, but I think I can work with what we have.”

Bud responded and the two glided closer in the translucent depths, looping back toward the Hound side by side, keeping in close range of each other. The sea was alive with shimmering fish of every hue, darting among the shallow-bed coral.

Suddenly, as Tom veered slightly to glance back at Bud and make a comment, his eyes widened in horror.

A vicious-looking hammerhead shark was zeroing in, directly behind his friend!

Bud! Look out! Behind you!” Tom yelled frantically over his sonophone.

 


 

 

 

 

CHAPTER 13

 

 

          SMILEY THE SEA COW

 

 

 

 

BUD BARCLAY twisted around in the nick of time. The monster shark was bearing down on him like an undersea express train! Overcoming a moment of panic, Bud gunned his ion drive to dodge the attack.

Tom came swooping back. But what can I do? Charge him? As he watched in agonized suspense, he saw the shark’s jaws open and shut in a lightning snap at Bud’s outstretched arm. Its razor-sharp teeth, like the white talons of some giant hawk on the swoop, missed their target by inches!

As the shark swerved away, Bud’s gasp of relief was audible over Tom’s receiver. “Let’s get out of here!” he cried, arrowing away from the man-killer.

Suddenly Tom realized the full extent of their peril. A long, sweeping coral reef, which extended above water, now lay between them and the Sea Hound. Unless they could round the reef in time, the shark, who was even now circling back toward them, had them trapped!

“Quick! This way!” Tom exclaimed.

Unwilling to be cheated of his prey, the shark was closing in at torpedo speed. As if sensing the boys’ plan of escape, it launched itself in a wide curving sweep to cut them off.

“We can’t make it!” Tom gasped. “We’ll have to fight!”

“Aye-aye, Skipper!”

Both swimmers were armed with skin diver’s knives as a precaution that they had hoped never to use. The two maneuvered to meet the killer’s onslaught. This time its broad nightmarish head was aiming straight at Tom. He jetted off to the right, but the monster veered instantly. As Bud tried to cut in, its lashing tail gave the athletic youth a stunning blow that sent him reeling away helplessly, snagged in his personal ion jetstream.

Looming, the shark’s jaws gaped for a bite. But Tom had anticipated the move. He zoomed underneath the maneater and slashed its belly with his knife.

The shark, maddened, thrashed the water in a frenzy. Tom moved like lightning to dodge a deadly blow from its bony tail. Again and again he felt the horrifying brush of the killer’s fins or armor-tough hide. By this time, Bud had regained his senses and returned. Repeatedly the two dived to jab and slash at the shark’s soft underbelly.

The predator didn’t surrender his life easily. Both air dwellers were nearly exhausted when the monster at last went limp and floated slowly up toward the surface in a cloud of dark crimson. Pale with shock and fright, Tom and Bud jetted back to the Sea Hound, barely able to speak.

Zimby and Chow were startled by their faces when they clambered aboard and ripped off their masks. “What happened to you two?” Zim demanded.

Tom told him, trembling. “Good night on th’ Pecos!” Chow cried out. “Go back t’ the cots and lie yerselves down, both of you!”

“Okay, Chow,” Tom said weakly. “But cruise around for at least a while, Zimby. I’d still like to record some porpoise sounds. Come get me if you see one.”

The two friends trudged back to the stern compartment of the seacop through the narrow connecting corridor, and Chow pulled the hatch shut on them. “What’s he thinking, that we’re gonna sleep?” Bud commented wryly.

Yet it turns out that concerted shark fighting lulls one into a drowsy stupor. It seemed like only minutes had passed—not two hours—when Chow opened the door a crack. “Say there, buckaroos. You think mebbe you kin get up?”

“Did you find a porpoise?” asked Tom, swinging his long legs down to the deck.

“Come on an’ see, son.”

Tom and Bud rushed forward into Compartment A. The young inventor stared out the window into the water. “I don’t see anything, guys.”

“Look over here!” called Zimby with a twitch of smile. He was standing next to the porthole of the airlock hatch door.

The youths approached curiously and looked within. “Good grief!” Bud gasped in amazement.

A big, streamlined, bottle-nosed figure—a porpoise—was waggling back and forth in the water-filled airlock chamber!

Tom’s eyes were wide over a big grin. “How in the seven seas did you do it?”

“Chow’s idea, Tom,” replied Zim. “We sighted this baby after cruising around for quite a time, and our veteran cowpuncher here thought just maybe I could go out in one of the hydrolung suits and herd him into the airlock. I took a lamp with me to get in his face, you might say. And after a lot of bobbing and weaving, he poked enough of himself into the compartment that we could close the hatch on him before he could twist around and get out!”

“Jest basic cattle herdin’, that’s all,” declared Chow. “An’ this here porpoise is jest a big wet sea cow, far as I’m concerned.”

Still amazed, Tom thanked them both. “But with the lock flooded, how’d you get back in, Zimby?” he asked.

“No prob—just had Chow surface and I climbed in through the top hatch.”

“Great! Now let’s drain the lock a couple feet and give our guest some air,” directed Tom. “Porpoises are mammals, not fish. They have to surface and breath.”

The Sea Hound rose up into the morning air and began the short flight northward. The boys and Chow couldn’t help keeping an eye on their captive prize, who was scolding them with squeaks and squawks. “He sure doesn’t like being in there. Why didn’t you just record his sounds and turn him loose, Skipper?” inquired Bud.

“If he’d been left outside in the water, I would have. But since we have him for a lengthier time, I’ll use some more elaborate equipment to record a wider variety of—whatever he feels like saying.” Tom added that the porpoise could be returned to his home by evening. Zimby had already volunteered to carry out the simple task.

“I’m glad o’ that,” said Chow. “I’m feelin’ a mite guilty, boys. Don’t care t’mess up that there balance o’ nature.”

“That’s right nice, pardner,” Bud remarked dryly. “But don’t forget, out by that reef the balance of nature just about messed us up good!”

Tom radioed Fearing and arranged for a big, high-sided Tomaquartz tank to be set up in his lab. As soon as the seacopter arrived on the island he oversaw the careful transfer of the porpoise to its temporary home. Seeing that Chow was still fretting, Tom said: “Listen, Chow, I know you have a western way with animals. Why don’t you ride herd on your sea cow and try to gentle him down?”

“Now that’s one smart idee, boss!” Chow stared through the tank glass at the restless creature, and the porpoise stared morosely at Chow. The cook knew that porpoises were not only playful but highly intelligent and, in their way, sensitive. The kindly old Texan’s heart was touched by the odd sea-dweller. To his delight, it soon responded to his friendly overtures and quickly recovered its native high spirits. Over just a few hours, as Tom made his recordings with the help of some of the island technicians, Chow’s soothing ways paid off. Soon the porpoise was playing catch with Chow, or else swimming over to have its back scratched. The delighted cook named it Smiley.

“You got to talk to my Smiley like any critter that you want t’get used to you!” he told Tom, and Tom grinned at his friend’s sentimental enthusiasm.

Finally came the hour when Smiley was to be transferred back to the seacopter for his trip home. “Where’s our big porpoise-handler?” Bud asked. “He and Smiley bonded pretty well. I figured he’d at least want to say goodbye and give a parting back-scratch.”

Tom shrugged. “He went off a while ago without a word.”

Suddenly the lab door swung wide and Tom and Bud gaped in amazement, startled into shouts of laughter that they tried quickly to stifle. It was Chow Winkler in an alarmingly colorful swim outfit—voluminous “jams” down past his knobby knees, and a tanktop with horizontal stripes of turquoise on black! But he still wore his ten-gallon cowboy hat perched on his bald head.

As Chow approached, Tom asked in a calm if strained voice, “Wh-what are you planning to do?”

“Gonna say goodbye to m’friend Smiley in my own way,” was the reply. “I got him brought into this here world o’ ours, and now I’m gonna join him in his world!” Before Tom and Bud could comment, Chow had waddled up the metal ladder to the tank brim. He summoned the porpoise with a whistle and, with a mighty swing of leg, straddled its back.

“Jetz, Chow!” Bud cried out. “What in the name of holy aquanautics do you think you’re doing?”

“Givin’ Smiley some affection. As fer you two sprouts, jest stand clear’n I’ll show you a real bronco-bustin’ act in the water,” Chow bragged.

Smiley glided off gently at first, Chow fanning the air with his hat and yipping like a rodeo star. He did, in fact, cling to his slippery perch with considerable skill.

But suddenly, as if in a playful rebuke to his human captor, Smiley began bobbing and humping like an eel. Chow’s face froze in alarm. A moment later the porpoise dived and the cook let out a yell of terror. “He-e-elp!”

Swashed off the porpoise’s back, Chow made for the ladder, spouting water. Tom and Bud were helpless with laughter. “Guess he ain’t quite broke yet, pardner!” chortled Bud.

“Blame mischief-makin’ varmint wouldn’t know a friend if’n he had one ridin’ his backside!” grumbled Chow. But then he softened. “But I’m sure-t’-hey gonna miss you, Smiley!”

The clock was ticking for Tom’s mission, and the young inventor was determined to perfect and finish the diversuit immediately if not sooner. He worked most of the night in his lab, finally retiring to his apartment for a few winks of sleep as the eastward sky was starting to turn pale, the dinette table again cloaked in his notes and sketches from the day’s efforts.

Tom fell asleep thinking of the problems in front of him. Got the control setup wired—literally! he thought wearily. But the transceiver... how? He was stymied, baffled. But there’s always an answer, he insisted to himself. Always! And that was his brain’s last word on the subject.

He was awakened at nine by a circumspect knock on the door. He stretched, rubbed his eyes, and opened it.

One of the three figures, the one who had knocked, was familiar. “Um, good morning, Tom, Jay Willem—”

Tom cut him off. “I know, Jay.” He was eyeing the cleancut young man and young woman standing behind him, dressed neatly in suits. Confident young professionals—with tiny, knowing smiles.

Willembart continued: “I, uh, tried to call you when these gentlemen—I mean, this gentleman and his, uh—”

“I turned off the ringers to get some shut-eye.”

The man stepped forward and withdrew a wallet from his pocket. He flashed a badge that displayed in big letters: FBI. “Agent Fred Mulrayne, Mr. Swift. This is my partner Donna Skelton.”

The woman nodded politely, her coppery wave bouncing. Tom said: “Sorry to be a little rumpled. What can I do for you, Agents Mulrayne and Skelton? I take it you flew in?”

“No, sir,” responded Agent Skelton. “We have an official-issue cabin cruiser over at the pier. We had prior authorization to land, of course. Mr. Willembart, with whom we had spoken by radio, was good enough to escort us here.”

Tom frowned. His frown was clearly a demand for explanation.

“Tom Swift,” said Mulrayne in the all-too-familiar voice of unforgiving pronouncement, “we are placing you in our temporary custody pending your imminent arrest on charges of criminal violation of federal regulations. Please come with us!”


 


 

 

 

 

CHAPTER 14

 

 

          A DOUBLE GAME

 

 

 

 

JAY WILLEMBART was all but beside himself. “Tom, I mean Mr. Swift, they gave me no choice—said I was required to lead them here!”

“Don’t sweat it,” Tom said, keeping his voice calm and level. He pulled the door shut behind him and met the gaze of Agent Mulrayne, who seemed the more laid-back of the two. “I have no idea what’s behind all this, but we have a legal department at the plant in Shopton. If someone has made a charge against—”

Mulrayne was politely unyielding. “Please come with us, Mr. Swift. This doesn’t need to be difficult.”

“That’s true—if you start off by telling me what I’m charged with and where you plan on taking me!”

The FBI agents seemed slightly amused as they exchanged glances. It was Donna Skelton who answered Tom’s question. “The charge, sir, is a violation of Federal regulations issued under color of the Species Protection Act and related statutes, said violations having taken place on Federal property. Fearing Island is leased Federal property.”

“I’m well aware of that!” snapped the young inventor. “What sort of violation is being alleged?”

“Porpoise abuse!” Mulrayne replied briefly. Was there the hint of a chuckle? Even a wink? “We received a credible report that you captured, and conveyed to this facility, a protected marine mammal, and subsequently engaged in unauthorized experimentation on said mammal.”

“Good night. Smiley! But—but Enterprises has authorization to—”

If you’ll please accompany us to our vehicle, perhaps this whole matter can be cleared up without delay.”

Tom sighed. “Quite an assignment you two have,” he commented dryly.

“We’re used to unusual assignments, Mr. Swift,” responded Skelton with a glance at Mulrayne.

Tom complied, telling Willembart to contact his father at Enterprises in Shopton. He followed the agents to the boat dock, stepping aboard the cruiser marked with the nation’s flag and a bold “FBI.”

Inside the cabin, a figure rose to meet him with hand outstretched. “Hi again, Tom,” she said brightly.

“I don’t like your methods, Miss Carne,” was his cool reply.

The government official invited Tom to sit, dismissing the FBI agents with a wave. “Well now. Porpoise abuse. I was shocked to learn of it.”

“It must reassure you to know that your ‘porpoise police’ are operating at top efficiency,” said Tom with simmering anger. “The whole thing took place yesterday afternoon, and—”

“And I’m told the poor victim has already been returned to his natural environment. Which is certainly a mitigating factor in the case. No use our beating a dead porpoise.”

“As far as I know, you’re not with the FBI or the Environmental Protection Agency—or whoever’s in charge of species protection,” the young inventor declared. “So I take it this is all about sending a message. Right?”

Oriella Carne gave a shrug. “Can you think of a message I might wish to send you, Tom?” Tom was silent. After a moment she continued. “You know what occurs to me? The government of our country extends Tom Swift Enterprises many courtesies, offers many favors, recognizes many special privileges allowed no one else.”

“Most people seem to think what we give back is worth it, ma’am.”

“Oh, I think so too,” she said. “So does the person I report to, the President. Of the United States. You know? We have no wish to get strict and bureaucratic, to clamp down on your inventive creativity. Even if there was, arguably, a technical violation with regard to your drafting that friendly porpoise as an experimental subject, it’s the sort of thing we have the inherent flexibility to overlook.”

But,” said Tom pointedly, “you do expect me to play ball.”

“Goes without saying. Don’t you think?”

“Tell me what you want, ma’am. I need to get back to work.”

She leaned forward intently. “And I need to make very sure one young man hears what I have to say, whether he wants to or not. No doubt by this time Régine Léonide has contacted you, begging you to intercede in the interest of her husband. I suppose I should have warned you of this.”

“Are you asking me a question?”

“No, no,” she replied. “Just a statement of fact. Ready? Your government requires of you that you set your inventive ego aside for a little while, in the interests of—what shall we say? World peace? Your search for the Gojira capsule is over. The owners of the capsule insist upon it. So does the State Department. So do I. The matter is closed. Go invent something, Tom.”

Tom Swift could feel his face reddening with anger. “Since you didn’t ask a question, Miss Carne, I don’t need to answer you. Obviously you know—in the same spy-fi way you knew about the porpoise—that I’m in the process of testing a new kind of diving apparatus. I intend to test the apparatus in a place that suits my needs. In international waters, as a matter of fact. It’s my right to do so.”

“Yes indeed. Your right to do so. But also,” she went on, “speaking in a very frank manner, the United States has the right to decide who shall receive its special grants funding, who shall be allowed to operate its sensitive facilities—this one, for example. Now please don’t take that as some sort of melodramatic threat, Tom. But, you know, I’m only in the middle, not at the top. I don’t make the final decisions. All I can do is give you information. A few matters to consider. Just keeping you up to speed. We really do have to be on the same page.”

Tom knew the meeting was at an end—message delivered! He rose and went up on deck, and Oriella Carne followed as if to bid him a pleasant goodbye. The two agents stood on the pier, watching.

The young inventor paused and glanced back at Miss Carne. “I don’t know if I’m exactly a ‘scientist’ or not, ma’am. I guess I’m more a tinkerer than a researcher. But I love science, and I love the way science is done. It’s honest and open, and it’s about something—not just itself. Hidden agendas, threats, messages, politics, shading the truth... People like me don’t want any part of it.”

“I suppose that’s exactly why there are people like me,” she replied smoothly.

Tom went to his apartment and called his father, inviting Bud to listen in. After hearing the details, Damon Swift said: “This is an outrage. What gives these people the right to comment on your...” He paused, very significantly. “...scientific work?” Somehow Tom could feel covert quotemarks around the word scientific!

“Thanks for trusting me, Dad.”

“You’re my son. We have what one might call a father-son relationship.”

Tom laughed. “We sure do!”

“Take care, Tom. I know you’ll do the right thing.”

“Say, I think you said that before.”

“And I still mean it.”

Tom turned to Bud after his father clicked off. The young flyer’s mouth was already in motion. “Good night, Tom, if they’re hauling in the FBI—that’s pretty serious stuff!”

“Serious stuff, flyboy. But what stuff?” Tom stood musingly at the window, looking out at the island’s airfield and row of launch pads. “Miss Carne slipped up.”

“Huh? How so?”

“She said something that pretty much echoed what Mrs. Léonide said, sort of a saying about young men not hearing what they don’t want to hear. The same words, more or less. I don’t think she meant to say it. It was just sitting there in her mind, and when she got into her smug showoff mode it just got dredged up.”

“So now you know she eavesdropped on that videophone conversation,” Bud declared. “But the digital coding on the satellite feeds isn’t especially tough, chum. Is it really a surprise that the FBI can crack your signal encryption if they happen to feel like it?”

“No,” said Tom wryly. “Our Enterprises communications are—as we’ve found out many times—about as full of holes as that futile magnetic alarm field around the house in Shopton. But what I have to think about is this. She knew Léonide’s wife had already been in touch with me, but she pretended otherwise. Why? And also, Miss Carne started off by contacting me herself over that same videophone setup. She obviously knew it wasn’t safe, that it could be electronically ‘tapped’. She and her people were already doing it, I assume for a long time. And if our agencies in the U.S. know how to do it, there’s a fairly good chance other countries can too—not to mention outlaws like Li Ching. So the question is—”

Seeing the point, Bud nodded. “So the question is, Why communicate about sensitive diplomatic stuff knowing that it could leak out? You think little Miss Carne, government bigshot, could be playing her own double game?”

Tom rubbed his chin. “That’s the question, all right. And as to why, someone once said to me: the outcome is the reason!”

The deadly clock was still ticking! Tom set the mystery aside and returned to the difficult task of enhancing the diversuit, miniaturizing and building in the new sonarscope and sound-camouflage elements. He had just finished wiring an ingenious control unit when Chow wheeled in a lunch cart.

“Got some dee-licious steak-and-kidney pie today,” the cook announced, setting it out.

“Swell,” Tom said absent-mindedly.

Chow frowned but left without interrupting the young inventor. Twenty minutes later the cook poked his head into the laboratory again. Tom had not yet touched his lunch.

“Brand my sea vitamins, start eatin’, boss!”

“Sure, Chow.”

By this time, however, Tom had become so absorbed in the task of assembling some tiny monolithic blocks for the computer circuits of his phono-frequency analyzer that the lunch remained untasted. It had turned cool as cardboard. When Chow returned a third time, Tom was startled by his bellow:

Get your nose out o’ that work, buckaroo, and eat!”

Realizing Tom’s pie had cooled off, Chow brought another serving, hot from the oven. Seeing the stern look on the Texan’s face, Tom burst out laughing and obeyed meekly.

“I declare!” Chow clucked. “Seems t’me I spend as much time bein’ a mother as a cook! One o’ these days I’ll have to force-feed you if you won’t pay no mind to your own nourishment!”

“Sorry—Mom!” Tom smiled. “Sometimes I do get a bit wrapped up, I guess.”

“Oh well, cain’t complain too much, son. It’s my own idea yuh’re busy with.”

The day wore on. Hour after hour, Tom stayed glued to his workbench, sometimes busy with delicate electronic gear, sometimes lost in thought as he pondered a tricky problem in circuit design. By supper—which he took great care to stop and eat—Tom had all the apparatus assembled. He was just trying on the modified diversuit for a tank test when Bud made his expected appearance.

“Great sufferin’ jetstreams!” gasped Bud in mock alarm. “Don’t tell me you’re planning on a dive without a lifeguard handy!”

“Oh, I knew you’d show up in the nick of time, flyboy,” Tom joked in response.

Bud scrutinized the suit as Tom stood like a fashion model at the bottom of the tank ladder. “For a couple days’ work, I don’t see much difference,” he remarked.

“Everything’s hidden under the suit layers,” Tom said. “Flexible printed circuits!”

“But what about the sonar transducers and the output speakers for those fish squawks?”

“Remember how I inventively rigged up the inner layer of the faceplate to act as both microphone and speaker for the communications setup? I’m taking the same approach to the quality analyzer sonar and noise ‘blind’.” He tapped the outside of the wraparound faceplate, which lay open on his upper chest on a special hinge attached at the front of his neck. “The outer layer produces the general sound frequency complex and beams the high-tuned sonar portion off in whatever direction the mask is facing. The tough part was figuring out how to use that same Tomaquartz plate to act as a receiver at the same time it’s transmitting. Man, what a headache!”

“I’ll bet!” said the young pilot. “By the way, how will the diver see the scope response, anyway?”

“Microlasers paint a simplified grid and location blip right on the inside of the mask, in front of your eyes. You toggle it on and off.” Tom held up the left arm of the diversuit. “All the controls are now hidden under an opaque membrane, like a covering sleeve, here on the inner forearm. See these markings in luminous paint? The units underneath are pressure-sensitive—press at a spot and slide your finger along to make various adjustments.” He added that a safety catch would prevent activating the controls by accident.

Bud clapped his friend on the back. “Okay, Tom, you have my permission. Let’s see you show off in that tank without all that electronic weight sending you straight to the bottom!”

The tank test was a total, joyous success. Tom jubilantly ordered the Fearing technical staff to install the system in the remaining three suits. He was promised completion of the task by early the next morning.

“Great work!” declared Tom. “Tomorrow at eight it’ll be full speed ahead—back to the Devil’s Triangle!”

 


 

 

 

 

CHAPTER 15

 

 

          HOTEL INTERLOPER

 

 

 

 

THE SEA AIR was still cool the next morning as the big Fathomer scudded along southward with Tom Swift and friends—and four diversuit ensembles—aboard.

“This here’s a mighty big sub fer some’n who don’t wanna be seen, boss,” remarked Chow. The Fathomer was one of Enterprises’ three mantacopters, double-breadth seacopters with dual prop wells that Tom had designed for carrying freight and Enterprises’ larger-scale sea expeditions.

“There’s a good reason, pard,” replied Tom. “We’ve just started applying the new Tomasite formulation to our various craft, and the Fathomer is the only submersible completely sheathed and ready. I’m less worried about being visually detectible than about setting off sonar alarms, or showing up on somebody’s radarscope while we’re up above the surface as we are now.”

Marie Casey, who had joined the crew as one of Fearing’s top submariners, spoke up. “Tom, I know you and Bud plan to do some detective work on Mer-Soleil while the sub-search goes on. But are you sure the dock at Dauphinville is equipped to handle a funny-shaped ship like the mantas are?” Marie had special charge over the docks and submersible services on Fearing.

“It won’t have to be,” Bud replied for his pal. “After we make a first sweep along the edge of that super-comet strike zone, we’ll surface and Slim Davis will hook up with us in one of the Whirling Ducks.”

“It’ll make for less comment and gossip in Dauphinville,” added Tom. “Though I’m afraid we won’t go completely unnoticed.”

“That’s the penalty for being the famous Tom Swift,” chuckled another of the crew, Red Jones. “But neat-gosh!—it should happen to me.”

Leaving behind the Bahama Banks, the Fathomer submerged at the designated point, skirting along the low, rolling inclines and occasional rippled cliffs that outlined the enormous ovals of the subsidence plains.

“That ‘savage seaweed’ goes right on down the slope into deeper water,” noted Zimby Cox, who was piloting the manta.

Tom nodded with furrowed brow. “Doesn’t seem to mind colder water, high pressure, or the relative absence of sunlight. The Sargassum weed is extremely hardy, but this stuff is hardier!”

“A mutation of some kind?” asked Marie.

“Of some kind. I hope to find out.”

They followed the curve in a counterclockwise direction far out into the mid-Atlantic, hour after hour. Nothing remarkable showed up on the detection instruments, and there was no sign of the phantom colossus they had nicknamed El Blanco. “If Gojira is out there somewhere, it’s well hidden,” Tom said in discouragement.

Zimby asked why Tom was still searching the seas. “After all, we know the probe is in the hands of that gang that’s trying to ransom it.”

The young inventor shook his head thoughtfully. “I’m not so sure we do know that, Zim.” When Zimby and the others expressed surprise, Tom explained. “I may be grasping at straws, but I have to wonder if Mr. Moritsu and his staff—the people who verified that the provided components came from the capsule—aren’t being tricked in some way. El Blanco must have some connection to all this, and I’m still having a real problem believing that the Mer-Soleil toughs are inside the thing running it. How in the world could the Voudon-Machétes or their bosses manage to construct a giant, advanced vessel like that—in secret? We sure couldn’t do it at Enterprises!”

“Can’t argue with that,” agreed Marie.

Tom concluded, “If we expect to find any real clues as to where Gojira is, my bump of intuition is telling me that we’ll have to plunge into some serious searching in the hydrolung suits.”

“That’s what they’s there for, boss,” commented Chow. “I jest wish I could get out there an’ help, while you and Buddy Boy go lookin’ around in that city. But you didn’t make them suits with us mansized hombres in mind.”

Tom smiled affectionately. “But thanks for the offer, pard. I guess you’ve gotten over your worries about the Triangle.”

“Had to, son. Brand my fishhooks, I can’t stand t’be left behind on a trail drive like this!”

It was late afternoon when the Fathomer broke off the survey and surfaced for the scheduled rendezvous with Slim Davis and the Whirling Duck. They hadn’t long to wait.

“Here he comes,” sang out Zimby. “Is he planning on an amphibious landing?”

Tom shook his head. “No need for that. The Duck can set down on the hull easily enough, for a couple minutes anyway.”

After greeting Slim by radio, Tom and Bud scrambled topside. Slim, who would remain aboard the mantacopter to aid in the search, climbed down from the Whirling Duck. After a quick handshake, he headed down the Fathomer’s top-hull hatchway.

Boarding the Duck, the youths found an unexpected passenger awaiting them. “Doc!” said Tom with a grin. “You decided not to fly back to Shopton after all!”

Simpson nodded. “After you left this morning, I got to thinking that I ought to be present aboard the Fathomer just in case anyone had a reaction to the aquadapticum tablets. And also,” he added with a wink, “I don’t fathom why Red Jones and the others should have all the fun, zooming around in those outfits of yours!”

“Join the club!” Bud chortled. He then helped the medic carry several pieces of medical test equipment down to the manta’s small sickbay.

Finally the Whirling Duck was on its way southwest to Mer-Soleil, Bud on the stick. As they approached the island, one of the largest in the region of the Caribbean and the Bahamas, they again saw convoys of small fishing boats streaming along below them.

“We’ll make sure to interview some of those guys while we’re in Dauphinville,” muttered Tom. “Even though we’re trying to solve Mrs. Léonide’s mystery, uncovering the Voudon-Machéte mob boss can’t put the Gojira hunt too far in the shade.”

“Right,” Bud responded; “but don’t forget, solving one may solve the other as well—a two-for-one bargain!”

Soon they were passing over the glittering Bay of St. Charles, upon which Dauphinville had been founded more than four centuries previous. By prior arrangement they made a water landing and taxied to a semi-private dock, where the jetrocopter would be berthed during their short visit. Enterprises had hired several trained security guards to keep watch over the craft.

The boys unloaded a couple travel bags and took a cab to their hotel at the edge of the city’s modern, bustling tourist district.

As they got out, Bud looked over the front of the hotel and nodded approvingly. “L’Hote des Chevaliers,” he read. “Not bad. Suitable for distinguished visitors, I’d say.”

“Or even for Swift and Barclay,” needled Tom. “You’ll note that we have to carry in our own bags.”

At the long, polished counter within, a smiling be-suited attendant approached Tom. “Bon soir, Monsieur.”

“Bon Soir,” replied the young inventor. “We have a reservation—Tom Swift and Bud Barclay.”

The man clattered at a keyboard, eyes on the monitor. The eyes became slightly clouded.

Ah. Oui, mais...” He turned to Tom. “But surely, sir, you have checked in already, have you not? This morning?”

“No. We’ve just arrived, by air.”

“I see. You will excuse me for a moment, oui?”

What’s up?” Bud asked quietly. Tom shrugged.

Several minutes passed. Another, older man approached them. His face bore what might be called a smile of anxiety. “Good evening, gentlemen. I understand you have a reservation?”

“Yes,” Tom replied. “I made it myself, by telephone last evening. I have a confirmation number, if you need it.”

“No, no,” said the man.

“Is there a problem, sir?”

The man, whose name badge said Pierre Emoril, answered with another question. “And you are Mr. Tom Swift? You have just arrived?”

Bud stepped forward. “Don’t tell me you don’t recognize Tom Swift!” he demanded.

“Well, you see... I surely do, but perhaps not all of our employees...” He paused as if to carefully assemble what needed to be said and place it behind his teeth. “Our employee, Miss Quannaise, appears to have checked-in a certain young man earlier today, who called himself Tom Swift. He was given his key-card and shown to his suite. I see by the register that there was no baggage—he said it was being sent over.”

Tom was puzzled but not yet alarmed. “Then there’s been a mistake. Perhaps Miss Quannaise merely misunderstood.”

“I am afraid not, sir. I just spoke to her, and she confirms all I have said. This man, indeed, he did not look like you en précis. Yet there was a resemblance—blond hair and so forth.”

“Wow, blond hair!” Bud gibed in evident disgust. “Next you’re going to tell us he had blue eyes, too!”

A trace of indignation peeped out through the man’s apologetic attitude. “Monsieur, he did provide identification, a driver’s license of the State of New York, bearing his name and photograph.”

“I understand,” Tom said calmly. “I suppose she took down the number on the license—the issuance number? I’d like to compare it to mine, if I may.”

Emoril swiveled the monitor around, inviting Tom to look for himself. “The number’s a fake,” declared the young inventor. “The real New York numbers have a different kind of sequence now, for about six years running.”

“Then the regrettable truth is this,” said the man in reply. “Someone has been admitted to your suite who was not entitled to be there. Our hotel security will investigate. Now, allow me to arrange for a new room for the two of you, with our full apologies.”

Bud put a hand on his pal’s arm. “Tom, we ought to—”

“Way ahead of you, flyboy.” Tom gestured toward Mr. Emoril. “Sir, we don’t require an apology or even another room—not yet. But you must allow us to inspect the suite this man entered. We need to identify who’s trying to interfere in our business here in Mer-Soleil. It’s very important.”

“Yes, Monsieur Swift, I’m sure it is. Very well then.”

Mr. Emoril and a security staffer accompanied Tom and Bud as they elevatored to the fourth floor. A key-card admitted them to Room 411.

“No one is here,” said Emoril. The beds were made, and it seemed nothing had been touched.

Without explanation, Tom scanned the room with a small pocket-scaled instrument designed to detect electronic devices such as hidden microphones—or the detonation circuitry of a bomb! “Nothing,” he mouthed silently in Bud’s direction. “Mr. Emoril—is there anything about this room that’s a bit out of order? Not the way it’s usually prepared for guests?”

Emoril looked about again—and frowned.

“The closet door. It is open. Normally the preparations staff would have shut it before leaving, merely as a matter of our established procedure.”

Tom scrutinized the door and the closet itself. “Nothing here. But please have the police check the door for fingerprints, Mr. Emoril. Maybe you could ask your employee to work with a police sketch artist, to give everyone—including my friend and I—a clue as to who we need to watch out for.”

The young inventor turned to Bud. “My guess is the phony was looking around for any luggage of ours that we might have sent on ahead.”

Jetz!” Bud cried, startling Emoril and his security man. “I’ll bet that’s it! We’re not the only ones searching for clues here in Dauphinville!”

 


 


 

 

 

 

CHAPTER 16

 

 

          CREEPY LEN UNGER

 

 

 

 

EVENTUALLY Tom and Bud set the mystery aside. They dined at an elegant restaurant, strolled about the brightly lit streets, and finally retired a bit before midnight.

The police of Dauphinville lived down to their reputation. There were vague promises of an investigation, but no one showed up to take fingerprints. Nevertheless Tom was able to find and hire a private portrait artist who turned Miss Quannaise’s description into something tangible.

“The guy looks like the definition of creepy,” Bud remarked as he eyed the sketch. “Not one bit like my handsome pal Thomas Edison Swift!”

“Stop buttering up the boss,” Tom snorted with a wink. “To some people’s eyes, Tom Swift must look like a weasily guy with stringy blond hair.”

They carried the sketch with them as they headed down toward the Port of Dauphinville area. They had been directed by a nervous Mr. Emoril to a certain row of piers used especially by fishing boats. “But I cannot recommend this tour. You see, the entire Port district is part of—”

Tom interrupted Mr. Emoril. “I know. Cité Quai.”

“Alas, it is dangerous.”

“There are two of us,” Bud said, “and one of them is me! We’ll be safe.”

But in the actual event, matters seemed less certain and their blithe confidence began to look like rashness. The blocks of ancient warehouses were grim and threatening, even in bright sunshine. Scores of slitted eyes regarded the interlopers with suspicion, resentment—and possibly, hope of sudden enrichment. Their taxi driver refused to park and wait for them. “You have your cellphone, M’sieu. Use it to call someone when you are ready.” Pulling away, the driver added. “Then again, the service does not always work. Almost never!”

“Maybe we should have brought along a couple impulse guns,” Bud muttered nervously.

“And risk having them get ciped by a few Voudon-Machétes? I don’t think so, flyboy.” It was the policy of Tom and his father to carry arms only in cases of obvious necessity. Which meant, as a practical matter, anticipated necessity.

The youths had picked up a smattering of French, just enough to get by on; and it developed that nearly all Mer-Soleilans spoke a rich patois that mixed in enough Spanish and English for even a pure English-speaker to be understood. Strolling along the fishing piers, striving to appear unthreatening, they spoke to a variety of rough-edged seamen. Sometimes they received only a vague response—or a silent stare. One man mouthed a word that both Tom and Bud could understand.

Voudon-Machéte,” Bud murmured. “These guys are afraid.”

“But it shows a tie-in.”

Finally they found an old man who was relatively garrulous. “Ah, my boys, you wish to know of something falling from the skies? I have seen it!” A yellow-white grin split his black face. “Do you, perhaps—value this information?”

Tom smiled at him but shrugged. “It all depends. What you tell me has to be true, monsieur, or the cost to us will be too much! If I offer you money—”

Oui-ess. Yeah. Some would make it up, whole-so. So now, perhaps if I tell a part of it, you will have the trust, eh?”

“Maybe.”

“This falling thing—shaped, I think, like a big barrel, an oil drum, oui? Big, big. Once silver, like metal, but now as it falls, all poor-blackened avec the soot. Ho, but you can see a little of a word on the side, in green.”

Tom applied a test. “Just a few letters? What were they?”

The old man chuckled. “So clever, to trick me to guess letters like the usual kind. And so I would guess, if I were lying, eh? Mais non, these were like at the Chinese restaurant, squiggles.”

Realizing that the man might have simply read of the lost probe and its origins in the newspapers, Bud asked: “Okay, so what do you think the thing might have been? Any idea, from the look of it?” The man paused. Would he mention something that would give away prior knowledge of the Gojira?

But he shrugged. “Who can say? Perhaps one of the big jets blew up high in the air, poor thing. D’mage. Maybe?”

Tom was curious about one point. “If it were falling and moving fast, how could you make out so much of it?”

“Ah, I have quick eyes—ask any raton if Honoré does not! But also, I will say this, it seemed to these eyes that the barrel fell too slowly, so-too, as if it had a—” He sketched the air with his hand. “Oui, a parachute! But there was not one.”

Tom gave the man a goodly sum as Bud blocked sight of the transaction from onlookers. “Now, Honoré—where did you see it? Where was your boat?”

The man was a professional sailor and gave precise coordinates. Tom and Bud recognized them, but did not speak until they had walked away from the chuckling fisherman.

“Tom, that’s dead-on the seaweed jungle where we started searching!” Bud exclaimed.

“Yup!—and also where we first tracked El Blanco from the Skeeter! But,” Tom added with a sigh, “I doubt the probe’s still there now. Remember how we picked up some ‘pings’ in the Sea Hound? But then they jittered away before we could zero in. I think Gojira was actually being moved, towed off somewhere—maybe into one of the sea craters!”

“Still, we’re on the right—” Suddenly Bud gulped and subtly touched his chum’s elbow.

“What?” Tom asked.

Bud replied in a whisper, not turning toward Tom’s ear. “Skipper, I think I just saw you-know-who—Creepy Guy! Half-hidden behind that wood fence up the street there. He leaned out to take a look at us, then back. Let’s go!”

But Tom held him back. “Bud, let’s not go running wildly through the streets. We can play it smart this time.”

The youths worked out a plan, trying to look as though they were merely having a casual conversation. When momentarily blocked from view, Bud took off running, darting through weedy lots and behind low buildings of grimy brick and rotting wood as he circled around to trap his quarry. Meanwhile Tom strode forward at a calm but brisk pace, senses alert to any sudden lunge from the shadows.

A man, hair dirty-blond and stringy, erupted from a doorway ahead and took off running up the street, heading toward the mouth of an alley. Tom gave furious chase and had halved the distance between them when Bud suddenly came jetting around a building, legs thudding like a footballer eating up the field. The dark-haired youth reached Creepy Guy in eight long steps, gripping his shirt collar and yanking him into a whirl that ended on the ground at Bud’s feet.

As Tom ran up, the man panted, “What is this? You gonna rob me?”

“Stand up,” demanded Tom coolly. The man complied with a gulp. “Who are you?”

“What’s it to ya?” He was clearly American or Canadian—or a good actor.

Tom reached for the wallet bulging in the man’s rear pants pocket. The man backed away. “Lemme alone! You got no right to get into my business an’ frisk me.”

“So true. Neither do I,” said Bud happily, plucking out the man’s wallet and flipping it open. “Well! So you’re Tom Swift! Always wanted to meet you, guy.” Bud tossed the wallet to the ground and searched the indignant man’s backside a bit deeper. Another wallet appeared, which Bud handed over to Tom.

There was no drivers license inside, but there was a credit card bearing the man’s image. “Len Unger.” Tom looked at the man. “So tell me, Len, what’s with pretending to be me?”

Unger shrugged. “Just a joke, man. So what?”

“So—you also joked your way into our hotel room. And here you are spying on us. Your reputation is fading fast.”

The man came up with a snarling half-grin. “Not the way I see it, Swifty.”

Bud leaned close to Unger’s face, dead-quiet and gleefully menacing. “What Tom means is your rep with your Voudon-Machéte pals. Maybe they won’t feel too appreciative, your getting caught like this out on a job.”

Bud’s words seemed to strike home. Staring at Bud, Unger paled. Then he reared back a wiry arm and threw a fist at Bud’s jutting jaw!

 


 

 

 

 

CHAPTER 17

 

 

          PASSAGE TO THE UNKNOWN

 

 

 

 

THE UPPERCUT didn’t connect, brushing Bud’s nose as he jerked back. But it provided Unger with a window of escape. He tore out in the direction of the alleyway and had ducked down it before Tom and Bud could muster a reaction.

Even as they ran up to the alleyway, they heard the growl of a car being gunned. At the far end, Unger was piling into the passenger side of a beat-up sedan, its driver obscured. Before the door was shut, it had screeched away.

“Jetz!” grumbled Bud. “I’m sorry, Tom. I let him brush me back.”

“Don’t worry about it. Better the tip of your nose than your jaw! At least we know the name of one of our enemies—maybe an alias, but it’s something.”

“Yeah,” Bud said. “Now we can give the info to the police.”

A pause. They both burst out laughing at the absurdity of the idea. Then Tom cellphoned for a courageous or foolhardy taxi.

Back in their suite, Bud asked his friend if it was time for them to check out and join the ongoing hunt beneath the sea. “Or do we strike while the Unger is hot here in Dauphinville?”

“I’d bet that particular hot trail has gone cold already,” replied Tom. “The Voudon-Machétes may be thugs, but they seem to know the finer points of organized thuggery very well. We’ll have to work up some sort of plan over the next couple days—and it’d be just as easy to do it under water.” Tom decided to retain their room pending their return to Dauphinville.

The boys contacted the Fathomer from the hovering Whirling Duck via drop-buoy sonophone. Soon they were back aboard the mantacopter while Slim Davis was piloting the Duck back to Shopton, with a refueling stop at Fearing Island.

“Sorry to report that there’s nothing to report,” said Zimby Cox. “We’ve parked at a dozen likely sites—areas showing fissures and possible cave openings—and scouted around in the hydrolungs. Not a trace of anything.”

“Includin’ that there El Blanco,” Chow added.

“El Blanco’s been on my mind a lot,” said Tom. “I think I might be able to re-tinker the LRGM to make it more effective in ‘seeing’ the exact opposite of what it was designed to see—the absence of gravitation, in other words.”

Tom’s re-tinkering of the gravy-scope, which had been bolted down in one of the big cargo holds, was the work of several hours and most of his sleep period. “Son, if you don’t stop—” began Chow. But Tom interrupted.

“I promise I’ll sleep for a week back in Shopton—Mom!” And then came a mighty yawn.

Finally Tom sat at the main control board in the “wheelhouse” of the Fathomer, adjusting dials and gazing intently at the LRGM’s monitor output as his companions craned their various necks.

“I—er—don’t suppose that spot on the right is anything—is it?” asked Marie Casey.

“Just a scanning glitch. I’m still tuning up, Marie.” But a moment later Tom let out a gasp of excitement! “Look—there it is! I’m sure of it!” he cried.

A sleekly curved, triangular form—a weird melded compromise between a boomerang, a spearhead, and something like a soaring gull—had popped into view!

“I’ve got the coordinates,” reported Red Jones. “Distance about twelve miles. She’s running right along the berm-edge of the subsidence zone. But—” he continued in a bemused voice, “we searched that area in the diversuits just yesterday.”

“There could be a camouflaged entrance of some kind,” Bud pointed out.

Marie was incredulous. “An entrance a half mile wide? No way!”

Tom noted that the possibility of a hidden base for El Blanco was only speculation. “For all we know, she may just keep cruising around—like the jets they used during the Cold War that were refueled in flight without landing. But still, there could be some kind of small installation where they’re keeping Gojira. Or at least a clue of some kind.”

Resting their hopes on the new Tomasite-Antitec sheathing, the mantacopter began a cautious, remote pursuit. After only a few minutes, Red announced that El Blanco had come to a stop. “She’s just standing-to at a spot where several small crevices come together, like the points of a star. We digitally mapped the area the other day.”

Doc Simpson spoke up. “If there’s some sort of hatchway or access tunnel there, it would have to be well hidden. Those ‘crevices’ are just narrow cracks in the sea floor, barely wide enough for a diver to fit in.”

“Besides which,” added Zim, “the whole slope is all choked-up with seaweed—that deeper-water kind that exudes the acid. If one of the cracks leads to an opening in the ridge, it would have been totally blocked from view.”

“Wa-aal,” Chow said skeptically, “if’n it’s not only too tight fer big ol’ me but fer anybody, how kin them missile rustlers get themselves back and forth?”

“Only one way to find out!” pronounced Tom, and Bud cheered softly.

As soon as Red reported that the phantom vessel had resumed motion eastward in the direction of the center of the plain, the two youths began to suit up, the Fathomer resting immobile on the bottom. “El Blanco’s suddenly moving very fast,” declared Red presently. “She’ll be over the horizon in minutes.”

Doc approached the divers. “Mind if I join you?” he requested. “I’d like to take a sample of this deep-water weed to see how it matches up to the ones I already collected at other locations.”

“Sure Doc, come on along,” Tom grinned. “El Blanco’s gone now. I don’t think we’ll be doing any hand-to-hand combat on this little scouting jaunt. And don’t forget, we’ll not only be wearing ‘invisible suits,’ but the fish-sound system will also camouflage our sonophone communications.”

“Fishmen unite!” Bud exclaimed happily. “Onward, hydrolung sea scouts—for the honor of Tom Swift Enterprises!”

Amen!” whooped Chow.

Tom, Bud, and Doc exited the manta and streaked away like three subsea comets. They covered the several miles that separated them from the area of the fissures in minutes.

“The suit-sonars work like a charm,” Doc sonophoned.

Replied their inventor: “Too bad there’s nothing for ’em to see.”

They surmounted the much-eroded rise that bordered the vast, deep sinkhole. Finally they slowed to a wavery halt, floating above the fingers of seaweed that rose from below.

“Now how in heck are we going to find anything down there?” demanded Bud in disgust. “You can’t even see the floor!”

His pal gestured. “You can off that way—and there are the cracks Zimby and the others mentioned. We can follow them toward the embankment. Let’s plunge in and root around in the roots.”

The three entered the seaweed warily, keeping a careful eye on the diversuits in case the coatings and Neo-Aurium composition should prove less adequate than expected. But there was no trace of a problem with acid, and Doc paused now and then to take some minute cuttings, storing them in acid-resistant packets in a lined pouch in his suit.

Doc’s actions had released some scraps of weed. As his eyes followed them, he suddenly called out, “Hey! There’s some kind of strong current over this way!”

Tom and Bud drew nearer and Tom noted: “Not running in a natural way, but down toward the base of the slope.”

“An opening?” Bud suggested hopefully.

“Sure could be, hydro-boy!” Tom led them cautiously through the thick weed that seemed to grab at them as they passed. Like the others, he had a small but penetrating lamp attached to his left forearm that illuminated the darkness ahead.

“Man, that current’s getting pretty strong,” Bud warned suddenly.

“I know,” Tom replied. “When we reach the slope, let’s peel off and—nnk!” His words were choked out as a powerful force gripped him, thrusting him forward! “Bud—Doc—pull away! The current’s too strong!”

It was too late. Like a siphon, the freakish sea current was sucking all three of them toward the boulders that covered the rise. For a moment it seemed to Tom that he was about to be dashed hard against the rocks, putting his pressure suit to the ultimate test—which might prove to be a test-to-destruction!

But the veil of weedstalks concealed a narrow gap in the rocks of the slope. Tom was pulled in, the other two following helplessly. As their light-beams splayed about uselessly, they were dragged and bashed through a cave that zig-zagged and twisted, not wide enough for even two divers to fit side by side. Nor was there room enough to turn about.

For once I appreciate the weed, Tom managed to half-think. It’s a pretty effective cushion!

At one point he managed to snag a thick stalk in the crook of his arm, trying to hold back his lunging body. But Doc and Bud rammed him from behind, and the stalk seemed to slip away.

“J-jetz, this stuff is lubricated!” Bud choked with many pained interruptions. “Like it’s covered in oil!”

The tumbling trip could hardly have lasted more than a minute, but it was more than long enough. Tom glimpsed, in his beam, a cave-mouth flashing past him as he shot out into some much-larger open space. A moment later his shoulder slammed hard against a wall of rock. The fierce current had ducked down into a lower channel—but Tom had buoyed up!

Stunned, the young inventor floated, having long since switched off his suit jets to prevent any acceleration of his speed. Darkness surrounded, then two darting points of light.

“Tom!” Doc called. “Are you hurt?”

But before Tom could gather the strength to answer, Bud’s frantic voice crackled over the sonophone. “I—I can’t—I can’t breathe!”

Something had gone wrong with Bud’s hydrolung! And as far as they were concerned, air was as far away as home!

“Doc!” Tom shouted. “Grab Bud—help me pull him upward! There may be a little air trapped higher-up.”

It seemed a wan hope, yet hope it was. They rose, yard after yard. Then suddenly, impossibly, there was light shining from above! They struggled through more of the vegetation—and broke the surface!

Tom could make out a shallower area, a rock shelf, just ahead of them, with a rugged and gravelly beach beyond. He and Doc thrust Bud ahead into the shallows, where the youth twisted free and reared up on his knees, clawing at his faceplate.

“Bud, wait!” warned Tom frantically. “The air may be no good—gases from the seaweed!”

“N-no choice, pal!” Bud gasped. He swung down his mask, gulped the air, and fell back, sitting down suddenly in the water. Then, panting convulsively, he looked at Tom. “It’s okay—just a little musty.”

Tom and Doc got their feet under them and cracked their masks. The air smelled bad, but was breathable. “What happened, Bud?” Tom asked.

“Don’t ask me, genius boy—I’m just a tourist!” the dark-haired pilot faintly responded. “Suddenly I wasn’t getting any air.”

Tom took a puzzled glance at the diverjet on Bud’s wide back. “Intake isn’t blocked,” he murmured. “Must be something wrong at the component level. But—where did we end up? Where are we?”

Even as the young inventor started to turn to survey the beach, Doc’s hand touched his side in a silent warning. And a voice came forth from the beach behind him.

Where are you? You are where we are. Welcome!”


 


 

 

 

 

CHAPTER 18

 

 

          CAVE DWELLERS

 

 

 

 

THE MAN behind the words was smooth-faced, ragged-haired, tall and slender. Even in the soft light, dim as starlight, Tom had the impression that he was very pale, almost bleached. As if he had not seen the sun for a great long time.

Tom responded to the accent. “Are you British?”

The man nodded curtly. “I am, sir. Capt. Nigel Allocet, Inneswick. Come closer, won’t you? No need to shout at one another, eh?”

Tom and his companions splashed up the shallows and onto the beach, small and crescent shaped. Overhead, rock walls curved together to form a ceiling. They were in a high-roofed cavern attended by a small, still lagoon.

Capt. Allocet offered his hand. “And whom have I the honor of addressing?”

Tom shook the hand, which seemed weak and fragile on the other side of his gauntlets. “Tom Swift, Shopton, New York—oh! Good grief, there might be acid on my—”

“Ah, not to worry, Mr. Swift.” The man held up his unaffected palm. “The vegetation here, in these waters close to air, produces nothing harmful. No acid.”

“Okay, mister, so where is here?” Bud demanded. “And please don’t just say it’s where you are!”

Allocet regarded the youth, his face impassive. “Not all questions have answers, I’m afraid.”

Meanwhile Doc had taken a few steps down the beach, looking up and around. “There’s no island in this part of the Atlantic, not this far east. Are we under—inside—some kind of seamount?”

“Here, you are, I should say, one or two hundreds of feet beneath the sea floor, which is in turn some number of fathoms beneath the true surface. But come along, won’t you? I’ll explain as we stroll to the encampment.”

A passage between high rocks, open above, led away from the beach. “We call that beach Beach William. We’ve named our little beaches in honor of the monarchy, in their order—William, Victoria, Edward, George. Reverse order. William is the last to be discovered, end of the line, at least as far as those we can reach either by passages like this one, or by going out into the water a bit. This cavern of our is long and sinuous, like a snake. Our camp is on the largest beach, Victoria, next one up.”

“I’m surprised you didn’t start off honoring the current monarch,” Tom remarked pleasantly, trying to take a low-key approach to their guide in this bizarre circumstance.

“Not done. Not respectful,” Allocet replied.

“Weren’t you going to tell us your story?” persisted Bud impatiently.

“My story?”

“Look,” said Doc, “we’ve got a big sub out there waiting for our return. Whatever your story is, we need to contact them.”

The Captain raised his shaggy eyebrows. “A submarine! Well! To go with these marvelous rubber suits, eh? Hunting for treasure down here, I’d suppose.”

“Of a sort,” Tom confirmed. “We’ve been trying to find the Gojira.”

Allocet nodded thoughtfully. “I see. Well, there’s many a poor ship down here on the bottom. But in this case, I fear you may not like what you’ve found.”

“Mister whatever-you-said, you wouldn’t be threatening us, would you?” Bud asked evenly—but with a threat of his own.

After a second he broke into mild laughter. “No, no, you’ll pardon my poor phrasing, young—Barclay, did you say? We have every intent of making your stay a pleasant one, my companions and I.”

Trying to smooth matters over, Tom asked anew how Allocet and the others had found their way into the underground, underwater space. “Ah, the great question—how!” responded the man. “How indeed. We came, not by submarine, but in a once-fine diesel yacht, the Pellucid, of which I am the owner. There was a terrible squall, quite unexpected, and we sank.”

Sank!” boggled Doc Simpson.

“Just so, Doctor. Some got off in the lifers, deserting us. But most of us went down with the ship. As we were carrying a variety of scientific instruments and crated supplies—ours was a voyage of ichthyological research—I had had the large hold made watertight, lined and reinforced by fine aluminum.” Allocet pronounced it al-yoo-min-ee-um. “The Pellucid was listing and taking on water, yet we thought to ride out the storm sealed below deck. But it soon became obvious that we had sunk beneath the waves, far beneath.

“For days and days we dragged along the bottom, nudged on our way by the currents, living off our plentiful stores of food and casks of water, and the large volume of air trapped in the hold with us. Quite suspenseful. Suddenly we began to move very fast, with a rolling motion that almost cost us our lives. Reconstructing matters, I believe we were swept into a deep oceanic cave, obviously broad enough to accommodate the battered hulk in which we rode. We seemed to angle down, then buoyed up again a ways.

“We stopped, and there were signs we had penetrated the surface and into the air. But the hatch only opened upon Beach George, as we christened it. We had no flag, yet I suppose we’ve claimed this undersea land for England! And so, here we are.”

“That’s a fantastic story,” Tom commented softly. “Obviously there aren’t any upper outlets from the cavern—otherwise the air would have leaked out.”

“No outlets of any kind, unless you plan to dive rather deeply. We’ve thoroughly explored.”

Tom nodded. “I see. How many days have you been trapped down here?”

“If only it were a matter of days,” declared Allocet. “You see, we had no clocks in the hold and have rather lost track of time. But to judge by our sleeping patterns and the decline in our food supplies, we have surely been down here for months now.”

“Jetz! Months!” gaped Bud in astonishment.

“You must have tried to escape through the water,” declared his friend.

“Oh, of course. Hope, you know. Under the several lagoons are various little tunnels and cracks and so on, of the sort you three came through—coming up the pipe, one might say. But we have no pressurized suits, no canisters of air. Those who essayed an exploration could hold their breaths only long enough to locate the mouths of the tunnels. One could hardly expect to swim through them and live to speak of it.”

“But we can do it, in our gear,” Tom said confidently. “Though one of our devices is malfunctioning. When we return to our sub, we’ll come back with special escape suits to get you and the others out one or two at a time.”

“Ah, then your visit is a lucky one after all. To think I was only out for a bit of a stroll.”

Amid all that was incredible, a couple points troubled Tom Swift’s scientific mind. “Where does the light come from? And the air we’re breathing?”

Before Allocet replied, the pass opened onto another, much larger beach area. A number of canvas tents had been set up, and a small crowd of men, women, and a few children stood about waiting in silence. The mystery of the light was immediately revealed: several large floodlights had been set up, reflecting off the ceiling of the cavern and off the glassy surface of the lagoon, the light bouncing along everywhere through the interconnected spaces.

“Batteries?” Tom asked.

The Captain nodded. “Very large chemical batteries, with a store of chemicals to reinvigorate them as needed. I had planned to use them, and the lamps, to light the sea beneath the ship during my researches.”

“Maybe you should have invested in a couple Swift Solar Batteries,” Bud remarked a bit sharply. “This guy here is the Tom Swift, you know.”

“So I have assumed. And now, Tom Swift, as to your other question,” continued Allocet, “this trapped pocket of air is produced by the seaweed on the bottom of the lagoons. They emit, continuously, tiny bubbles of oxygen and nitrogen which collect under our nice rock roof. One could live quite a span down here.”

“No thanks!” chuckled Doc. “But it still makes for a great tale.”

One little girl was standing near them, gazing at Tom with wide eyes. “Daddy,” she piped, “did they come through the Slick?”

Allocet looked at the girl but did not reply.

“What’s ‘the Slick’?” asked Bud. “The pass we walked through?”

The Captain still looked at the girl, not at Bud. “Ah. Nancy, my little dear.” Then he turned to his guests, smiling pleasantly. “Just a name we’ve given the oil that floats on the lagoon water. It seems the sea plants manufacture it in place of the acid.” He pointed across the beach to the glassy lagoon, and the three Shoptonians noticed how the surface shimmered with bands of color, like an oil slick on a cement driveway.

Suddenly there was a sound of rocks scuttling and falling. A teenage boy had been standing on a little ledge-path notched about twenty feet up the cave-wall slope. He was losing his balance! Even as they saw him, he tumbled off into space!

Though blocked from sight by tall boulders, they all heard him strike the base of the rocks with a loud thud. “He hit hard—he’ll be hurt!” exclaimed Doc. Before anyone else could move, he ran off to assist the boy.

Bud and Tom started to follow, but Allocet thrust a hand onto Bud’s shoulder. “Let’s leave the doctor to his work, shall we? Not much elbow room behind those rocks.”

Tom was amazed and troubled by the man’s peculiar calm. Then, glancing about, he realized that none of the others had shown concern, looking off casually but otherwise unmoving. “Who are his parents? Or didn’t they survive?” asked Tom.

“He is my son,” Allocet replied. “My son Kenneth. Many of these are members of my family. His mother chose not to join my voyage on the Pellucid. But you see, Tom, Kenneth is quite durable. You mustn’t worry.”

“But—man! It looked like he would’ve broken a bone or two, the way he was falling,” declared Bud. Capt. Allocet made no response, but seemed perfectly content to stand and wait.

Doc reappeared around the rocks. He had removed one of his gauntlets, which he was now pulling on again. “I took his pulse, as a precaution,” he explained in a voice oddly hollow.

Allocet gave his calm smile. “Did you really?—quite thorough. And what did you find, Dr. Simpson?”

Simpson frowned at the man. “The boy’s all right—see for yourself.”

Kenneth had followed Doc. He walked along easily. There was no sign of injury.

“You’re a lucky kid,” murmured Bud.

“As I said, very durable.” Capt. Allocet gestured broadly at the other men and women. “We had to be, you know, down here. Matter of survival.” He suddenly turned toward Doc. “But you needn’t be demure, Doctor. Perhaps you have one or two points you’d like to mention to your friends.”

Is there something, Doc?” asked Tom.

Simpson nodded, slowly, reaching for the words to reply. “The boy was just sitting on a rock, as if nothing had happened. I asked him if he were in pain, and he just shook his head. I saw no sign of broken bones, no concussions—not a thing, not a bruise or a bloodstain. So... I pulled off the glove, to take his pulse...”

Doc again slipped off the gauntlet, and showed his fingers to Tom and Bud. They were red—burned!

The acid!” Bud gulped. “Where was it?”

Doc opened and closed his palm, wincing in pain, before he answered. “On his arm. All over his skin.”

“What!” The young pilot’s eyes went wide. “You mean he’s immune to it?”

“So it seems,” was the reply.

“Captain, whatever this is about, it’s already clear that most of what you’ve been saying is a lie,” Tom said coolly. “You spoke of the nearby seaweed not producing acid. How did you know anything about the acid in the first place? According to your story, you didn’t get out of your sealed-up boat until it washed up in the cave. But of course you do know of the acid. Your son, if that’s who he is—has it all over him.”

“Yes,” nodded Allocet. “We all do. Gets onto everything over time. Hard to clean off. You’d have discovered this fact much earlier if you had followed polite custom and removed your glove when you shook my hand.”

Tom persisted, growing more heated. “Nothing else makes sense either. There was no major squall in this area during the last few months. Your people here show no signs of illness, no bruises, no physical effects at all from your weeks underground.”

Bud joined in. “And then the kid falls from high up onto the rocks—and he’s just fine.”

“And yet, and yet... our clothing is obviously tattered, worn, yellowed from our experiences,” said Allocet. “Surely that lends support to my fantastical tale.”

Tom surveyed the group. It was as the man had said—worse, if anything. Their clothing was in rags, nearly falling to pieces. “That’s true,” conceded the young inventor, puzzled.

“Is it the seaweed? Or the oil you call the Slick?” asked Doc pointedly. “Something that helps you recover from injury—even to the point that the acid doesn’t harm you? It sure did burn me!”

In the stillness that followed, Allocet only gazed calmly at Doc.

“The whole thing is bogus, Tom,” Bud declared. “This is something our enemies set up for some weird reason. This phony British guy must be part of the Voudon-Machétes!”

“How about it, Captain?” murmured Tom quietly. “Is anything in your story true? Where’s that ship of yours?”

Allocet answered this one. “The Pellucid? As I believe I said, she’s in the cave at the other end, the one we call Beach George.”

“Right, Beach George. Not named after England’s reigning monarch, out of respect.” When Allocet shrugged slightly, mildly, Tom added with a sharp edge: “I’d like to see that yacht of yours. Now, please.”

“You’re sure of that, eh, Tom Swift?” responded the man. “But as you wish. Come along then, you—outsiders!”

As Allocet led the three toward another pass in the rocks, Tom took a look back at the small captive community. At first he had thought them weakened, or traumatized by their ordeal. Or frightened. Now he revised his opinion. They’re listless, he told himself. Nothing matters to them anymore.

They crossed another beach, small and empty, then followed a further pass that opened out suddenly. This cavern was huge, many times larger than any of the others, perhaps larger than the other three combined. The lagoon filled it almost entirely, the iridescent oil almost glowing in the floodlights that had been set up.

The beach itself was very narrow, no wider than a city sidewalk, tilting down into the lagoon. It was completely dominated by a dark, looming hulk. Its ripped, battered side still showed its name—Pellucid.

Tom approached a gaping gash in the side of the yacht. Wooden planks stuck out into the light at crazy angles. As the others watched, Tom grasped the jutting end of a plank in his gauntleted hand and gave it a gentle, tentative pull.

The end of the plank splintered away from the hull. Tom held the broken piece in his hand, close to his keen eyes. “This may be what’s left of the yacht. But it hasn’t been leaning on this beach for just a few weeks or months. The wood has completely rotted out. The hull is falling to pieces, just like the clothes.”

Doc Simpson suddenly gripped Allocet’s arm. “Now you’re going to tell us the truth. When did the ship go down?”

“Oh well now, let me see,” responded the man. “It was not an attempt at drollery, my speaking of the difficulty in telling time down here. Perhaps one of you will be so good as to supply today’s date.

“But you asked a most specific question, doctor. And this question does indeed have an answer. A terrible storm sent the Pellucid to the bottom at a bit after eleven in the morning, March the 8th, in the reign of His Majesty King George VI, in the Year of our Lord 1932.”

 


 

 

 

 

CHAPTER 19

 

 

          ANCIENT MARINERS

 

 

 

 

BUD was the first to find a voice. “Th-then it’s true—about the Sargasso Sea—the Devil’s Triangle! The ships get stuck permanent in the seaweed, and you end up—”

“It preserves your life,” stated Capt. Allocet. “That is to say, what the seaweed produces does, the exudation that floats to the surface of the water here. The Slick.”

“This story is no better than the other,” Tom stated flatly. “Even if it’s true.”

“You claim that all of you have been trapped down here for more than seventy years?” Doc exclaimed with scornful unbelief. “So those children are well into their dotage, and you, Captain—!”

“Well into my second century.”

“Let’s pretend, for the moment, that you’re telling the truth,” Tom said. “How does it work? How does this ‘Slick’ keep you alive?”

“Alive and well, Tom. Don’t forget our immense durability—as you’ve just seen demonstrated.” Allocet took two steps to the edge of the lagoon and crouched down, extending his flat palm above the surface. “Let’s see what sort of mood he’s in.”

The three from the Fathomer gasped in an astonishment wedded to something like horror. A mound of water, like a liquid stalagmite, had risen from the surface to touch, gently, Allocet’s palm!

“It’s an organism,” whispered the young scientist-inventor. “Not just some kind of oil the weed stalks give off.”

An organism?” echoed the Captain. “Or perhaps many organisms, eh? A vast crowd of tiny things able to communicate with one another and work cooperatively. This floating, transparent sheet of oil is not a liquid, gentlemen, but a coherent mass, flexible and somewhat elastic, able with ease to shred itself apart and join together again.”

“Jelly!” cried Bud. “Good night, the Slick is some kind of big, floating jellyfish!”

I see we have a scholar in our midst,” remarked Allocet condescendingly. He stood up, and the mound of Slick plopped back down, flat. “But I’ll concede a degree of truth to your bold conjecture, Mr. Barclay. Like the common Scyphozoa, second class of the phylum Coelenterata, the body of the Slick is composed of inter-branching water-vascular canals and more minute fibrils, splitting and branching down to an ever smaller scale only evident to the microscope—so I believe. Stretched between the interstices are tiny ‘pods’ or ‘cells’ of transparent exudate, constantly replenished, chemical composition unknown. One might compare it to the cytoplasm of the living cell. But as in the slogan of a certain soap, it floats.”

But where does it come from?” inquired Simpson. “A further mutation of Sargassum seaweed?”

“No,” pronounced Tom quietly. “It doesn’t come from anywhere around here. It was brought here.”

Carried here, in fact,” confirmed Allocet. “And very long ago. It rode on some sort of meteor—that is my impression—from elsewhere in the depths of ethereal space.”

“The comet impact,” Tom said. “An extraterrestrial lifeform from the Kuiper Belt at the edge of our solar system.”

Captain Allocet shrugged. “Not my field, I’m afraid. But you must not think of the Slick as some sort of inert, blind mass of spores or bacteria or plant fibers. It thinks, gentlemen! It has an awareness of the world around it, the sea where its gestational form, the weed, has spread. It possesses a mode of psychical sensitivity, one might say. And in that manner it knows something of our thoughts. Yours too, I’d venture.”

“You’re saying it has some sort of intelligence?” Bud demanded.

“And just what is this ‘intelligence’ of yours, Barclay?” was the response. “How ‘intelligent’ is the vaunted race of Man? Is the ape intelligent? The crow? The bee—that magnificent engineer? What of the porpoise? The Slick tells us things, not in words, I’ll grant you, but in a language of feeling and... simple knowing. It—He!—has desires, a personality. He knows us, and we know him.”

Tom, overwhelmed but far from knocked flat, ran a hand through his spiky crewcut. “You say it preserves you. Why?”

“Because it loves us, Tom. You’ve seen that sort of love, haven’t you? Loyal devotion? What you saw just now with your own eyes was a wise and caring master giving his pet an affectionate pat.”

Doc gaped at the thought. “You consider the Slick your pet?”

Allocet laughed gently. “But naturally, that would be your assumption, the human assumption. No, Simpson. The Slick was patting the palm of my hand with its instantaneously created pseudopod, lovingly. The Slick is the master. We are its pets.”

Capt. Allocet led them back to the encampment. The Americans were voiceless. They felt drained of emotion.

“Funny how we can accept things like this,” Bud muttered to Tom. “A thinking jellyfish colony from outer space keeping shipwrecked humans as pets—underneath the ocean! Seems like I ought to be crying, or barfing. Or something!”

There was a glint in Bud’s voice that made Tom turn to look sharply at his best friend’s face. “You sound strange, flyboy.”

“Do I? Well hey, things are strange here at the bottom of the sea! Guess I’m a little blitzed. You know. Listless.”

Listless! Tom reacted to the word with sudden alarm. “Bud, listen to me!” he whispered urgently, low as he could manage. “The Slick has a two-way psychic connection with these people—and I think it’s creating the same connection with us!”

“So?” Bud responded “So what? Does it matter?”

“Don’t you get it? It’s a symbiotic organism! It may ‘love’ its precious pets, but it also takes something from them as part of its life cycle, some kind of vitality that it needs. And in return it provides oxygen, heals them, maybe even sustains them directly. It keeps them alive to keep itself alive! Good night, they couldn’t possibly have stretched the food supply from the yacht for seventy years!”

What Bud supplied was an odd, dreamy sort of smile. “Aw, genius boy, long as I’ve known you, you’ve taken life way too serious. These people here are pleasant, friendly. It’d be like living in an old-fashioned country village, you know?”

What would be?”

“Don’t you get it? We could relax, stop running around, just sort of enjoy life. The big jelly-belly is like Santa Claus. He’ll take care of us and keep us happy. You’ll see, Tom.”

Yes, thought Tom. Bud’s right. What am I fighting against? I’m supposed to be scientific and analytical, but it’s just prejudice to assume that our lives here will be any less valuable than the other life—back in... gee, that place I used to live... seems I should recall the name... An explosion of shock sent the bogus thoughts flying! “It’s eating our memories, siphoning our will—our individuality! Bud, Doc, we’ve got to get away!”

Tom sprinted forward, practically dragging Bud and Doc Simpson along as he forced Capt. Allocet aside against the rock.

“What’s that shouting? Wh-where are we going?” Doc asked groggily. “I’m feeling a little sleepy.”

“Just run!”

They trotted through the encampment, and finally staggered onto the beach where they had first entered the little captive world. “We know we can get through down there,” panted Tom. “Now that we’ve been able to turn around, we can use the jets to fight our way back up the pipe against the current!”

Bud shook his head, not in objection but as if trying to clear it. “O-Okay... Tom... you always know best. But, but—my hydrolung doesn’t—”

Tom groaned. Another item forgotten! “Quick, let me open it up and look at the circuitry.”

He did so. Then the scuff of shoes against gravel made him look up. Led by Capt. Allocet, the entire company of Pellucid-arians was filing onto the beach!

They all stopped dead, standing in a half-circle and gazing calmly at Tom, Bud, and Doc. Then Allocet began to speak. Weirdly, horrifyingly, his every word was silently mouthed by all the others, in unison! “You’ll forgive me my original deception, won’t you, Tom? Couldn’t have you just turn around and leave us. We had to allow Him to get to know you a bit, to take your measure. For it is to be deeply hoped that He will take you on, just as He did us, we fortunate few. And so, indeed, it was. He came to know you. Now He has made himself part of you, to share with you his bounteous love.”

“Listen, please listen, all of you!” cried the young inventor feelingly. “Whatever the Slick has done for you, he’s also robbed you of your individuality, your will and curiosity, your human essence! That’s a horrible price—tranquilized immortality in a few barren acres of rock and water! Don’t you remember what your lives were like, up above—before?

“Let us leave! I promise, we’ll come back for you, take you back up into the sunlight and the world of man!”

Allocet’s voice bore a trace of pity. “How little you understand. This is our home now, here with Him. We are serene, quite content in every way. We have no wish to abandon Him. He would be lonely. He loves us, and we love Him. Thus it is, thus it shall ever be.”

The Shoptonians knew further argument would be useless. “Do you intend to prevent us from leaving?” demanded Doc.

“We’ll fight!” stated Bud simply.

“Prevent you?” echoed Allocet. “By no means. You see, He knows you now—and must reject you. From your reaction to Him, it is quite obvious. You are incompatible. You bear within you something harsh and poisonous. However great His all-forgiving love, we know now the truth. Your presence here would be fatal.”

Tom exchanged glances with his friends. Did they dare trust what they were hearing? Or would the Slick engulf them the instant they entered the lagoon?

Trust us,” urged Allocet. “Trust Him. All will be well. All manner of things will be well.”

“It seems we have little choice.” Tom continued to tinker with Bud’s hydrolung circuitry. At last he clamped shut the access panel. “It’s jerry-rigged. I don’t know how long it’ll last, Bud, or how much oxygen it’ll make for you. But it’s all I can do.”

“Bud,” said Doc, “if you remained behind, Tom and I could return in hours with—”

With a wry grin, Bud cut him off. “Too much of a brain drain around here, Doc. And my place is with my pal the genius. Let’s go—ready or not!”

They plunged deep into the lagoon, dropping down to the jetstream-current and turning into its rush with their ion-drive diverjets. “Still breathing over there, flyboy?” Tom sonophoned.

“Yep!”

They forced their way forward, a nightmarish trip. Yet, battered and shaken, they made it, rising through the stand of weed into the turquoise light—and the aqualamp beam of the Fathomer. “Thank th’ good lord above!” came Chow’s weepy voice. “We been lookin’ all over! Where’d you three cusses get to?”

Just open the hatch,” Tom said. “Bud—after you.”

Inside the mantacopter they told the astonishing story in bits and pieces, fits and starts. Tom would take no questions. “We can get into the details later. Right now I want to check out Bud’s hydrolung. If there’s a design flaw, it could affect all the units.”

Tom studied the hydrolung in the ship’s “workshop” cubicle, as Bud sat quietly nearby. Both of them—Doc Simpson, too—were surprised to find themselves strangely energetic and invigorated after their ordeal.

“Maybe the Slick had a healing effect on us, too,” Bud remarked.

Tom looked up from the hydrolung. “That’s a real possibility, flyboy. I could tell when I opened ’er up that my quick electronic rigging had given up the ghost almost right away. From the time we jumped back into the water until you took off the mask, you were barely drawing an oxygen flow—almost nothing!”

“Hunh? How’s that possible? How did I keep from suffocating?”

“You can think of an answer to that, can’t you?”

“You mean—the Slick?”

Tom shrugged. “It had some sort of power to preserve life. That’s probably why we feel so good right now.”

“Okay. Then I owe the Slick a few dollops of gratitude,” Bud stated. “Though I can’t guess how you say thank you to oil! But why would it help me? Or any of us? Weren’t we its enemies?”

Tom shook his head thoughtfully. “No—just something he couldn’t use. Maybe he felt he had no reason not to help us! Resenting whatever doesn’t serve our momentary needs is something humans feel.” As Bud indicated that he understood, Tom added: “By the way, Doc thinks it was the aquadapticum in our bloodstreams that the Slick couldn’t tolerate. I’m not so sure, though. More likely the Swift-Barclay-Simpson stubbornness was starting to give him indigestion!”

Bud’s laughter was broken by the beep of the intercom. It was Zimby in the forward compartment. “Tom, I’ve got Fearing on the communications link. It’s urgent!—that Mer-Soleil ex-President is going to be assassinated in just a few hours!”

 


 

 

 

 

CHAPTER 20

 

 

          A PRIZE PUZZLE

 

 

 

 

THE VOICE on the other end of the Fathomer’s longwave aquarad unit proved to be that of Jay Willembart in the communications center. “I just received a telephone call from that woman, Mrs. Léonide!”

“A telephone call?” repeated Tom. “Are you certain it was her?”

“I recognized her voice! She asked for you. When I told her you were off-island, she got real nervous—said she had just a few minutes before ‘they’ would realize she was on the phone to you.”

“What was her message for me?”

“I have it here—wrote it down. ‘My informants have learned that the Japanese have negotiated an agreement with the probe ransomers and are about to turn Jean-Sancte over to them. Your government has not been informed of this. He has already left Japan and will arrive, as a prisoner, at the airport in Dauphinville tomorrow morning. He will be given up to the custody of the Maximille government, then assassinated on the way to the place where they pretend he is to be questioned. There is only one hope left, Tom. My informant has learned the location where the Voudon-Machétes have concealed the space missile.’” Willembart then provided Tom with the details of the location. “At the end, she said she had to go into hiding—you won’t be able to contact her. But she’s begging you to do what you can to save her husband!”

After Willembart signed off, Tom studied his notes very gravely.

“So this means the Mer-Soleilans have the Gojira capsule after all,” muttered Red Jones. “This whole search has been one big waste of time!”

“What’re ya fixin’ to do, boss?” asked Chow.

The reply came slow. “I’m still not convinced the Voudon-Machétes have the probe. Mrs. Léonide’s informants might be wrong. But if there are only hours to go, we have to assume the tip’s legit.”

“So the only way to screw up the ransom trade is to steal Gojira back from right under their noses!” Bud exclaimed. “And we can do it, too, genius boy—thanks to your ‘invisible’ sea suits!”

“I don’t understand,” said Doc, who had just then entered the compartment. “If the probe is in the city, how are the diversuits important?”

“Because of where in the city Gojira’s being kept,” Tom explained. “The informants say it’s locked up in the basement of an old warehouse. The ground floor is well defended, but apparently there’s a way into the basement directly—we can sneak in undetected if we approach through the freight canal, underwater.”

Marie Casey raised an objection. “Do you really think you can just float that big capsule away, back down the canal?”

Tom replied, “We won’t have to. The valuable part is the collector-cell unit, and it’s so small and light we can slip it in one of the diversuit pockets.”

“What’s that there name you ’as sayin’ when you made yer notes—sumpin about a grave-digger? Don’t sound s’good to me!” fretfully declared Chow Winkler.

“That’s what they call the canal, pard—Gravedigger’s Ditch. Bud and I know a little about it from when we were walking around. It was dug when Dauphinville was new, to barge freight from the dock area to the merchant and warehouse district in the center of town. Runs straight in from the Bay.”

Bud continued Tom’s account. “They stopped using it eventually, and most of it is covered over now, by streets and buildings. But it’s still under there—and still wet!”

“Okay,” said Red Jones. “You take the collector unit and the ransom’s off. Which of us go along with you two?”

“No one,” Tom said. “I can’t repair the one hydrolung, and I see a second one is about to fail. So we only have suits for Bud and I.”

Bud grinned. “Not that we really need extra help, of course.”

It was after midnight when two diversuited and hydrolunged figures came jetting into the mouth of the covered channel where it met the Bay of St. Charles. Their hearts were thudding. “Skipper, I sure am glad we’re not blipping all over somebody’s sonarscope,” Bud muttered.

“And if they pick up our sonophone talk, they’ll just think a couple porpoises are arguing about where they took a wrong turn.” Tom guided his friend up the dark channel, their lamps illumining big stone blocks, rusted iron bars, and ancient pilings all but rotted to stumps.

Mrs. Léonide’s directions had provided some underwater landmarks, and in minutes Tom saw the sign that they had reached the place in Gravedigger’s Ditch where barges had once docked at the warehouse. The two cautiously broke the surface. The roof—the underside of an arching bridge—was yards above them. In front of their eyes was a blacked, mucked slab of concrete just inches above the waterline.

They clambered up upon the narrow landing and opened their faceplates to see more clearly. “Okay, there’s the wall and the door,” Tom whispered. He stepped forward—then froze! “Bud! Back in the water!”

What’s wrong?”

“That’s not a door, just an old iron plate bolted into the wall. We’ve been had!”

Then came a splash behind them as a dark silhouette rose up onto the concrete. It was a figure in a hydrolung suit—a duplicate of the boys’ own!

With one hand the intruder held an evil-looking spring action speargun, its point aimed at Bud’s unprotected face. The other hand swung down his faceplate. Len Unger!

“How’s tricks, Swifty? You too, Jaw Boy. I been hangin’ loose down there for more’n an hour now. This oxygen deal’s mighty cool! But I was gettin’ afraid you might be standing me up.”

“How did you find us out, Unger?” grated Bud. “Since you’re in a talkative mood.”

The man grinned, but it was Tom Swift who answered. “The only way he and his cronies could get detailed equipment specifications was through my own notes and sketches,” he pronounced. “And the person that fed them that is also the person that fed us the bogus message from Régine Léonide that got us here.”

“Nice to have a buddy in the communications center, even a dweeby loser like the Willembart kid,” remarked Unger. “Y’know, Swifty, next time a couple FBI agents walk you away, you’d best think to lock your door. Not that there’s gonna be a next time. Oh, and I get the impression your pal here is about three seconds from tryin’ to charge me. Maybe you should remind him that there’s nothin’ between that pretty face and the tip o’ my spear—except air.”

“We both get the point, Unger,” said Tom dryly. “What now?”

“You dangle your long legs in the water over there at the end of the block, where I can see you. I’ll be a little distracted—not much, though, Swifty. You don’t wanna risk your pal’s life.” Tom did so, and Unger tied Bud’s wrists and ankles with many turns of fishing line, pulling the knots painfully tight. “Enough outta you for a while, kid. Only wanna handle one of you at a time.” He turned to Tom. The grin was gone. “Seal your mask. You’re gonna slide into the water at the same time I do. Then you’re gonna stick to my side, not ahead, not behind. You may be wearin’ metal armor, but I bet shootin’ you with a speargun will knock you right off your pins.”

In the water Unger herded Tom further up Gravedigger’s Ditch. “I take it your Voudon-Machéte bosses plan to hold me for ransom,” Tom said by sonophone.

“Way we do things, bo,” was the reply. “You two’ll give our glorious President a little background leverage to get things done. Maximille just needs some elbow room—has a great economic policy, I can tell ya!”

“Gojira wasn’t enough?”

“Hey, is it okay t’ laugh in these things?” sneered Unger.

Tom got the idea instantly. “Just as I thought. You don’t have the probe and never did. All a bluff.”

“Pretty nicely done, doncha think? Just needed a few electronic parts, with faked serial numbers, from a bought and paid-for amigo in the Japanese space team.” He chuckled wryly. “Aw man, we sure did waste time tryin’ to find the thing. Nothin’ doin’. Not like we have any of those Tom Swift super-subs.”

That settles that! Tom thought. The Voudon-Machétes have nothing to do with El Blanco.

The young inventor made a grim decision. Tensing his muscles and sucking in his breath, he suddenly swerved the diverjet toward Unger, trying to ram him. But the crook seemed to have an animal instinct. He darted out of reach, then aimed his speargun at Tom—and fired!

The spear point nicked Tom’s shoulder, jarring him but not penetrating. It ended protruding from the side of the canal.

“Hey, can’t blame you for tryin’, Swifty!” mocked Unger. “But I heard about you. Like, everybody knows Tom Swift.” He gestured from Tom to return to position. As the youth turned, his fingers brushed the spear shaft and closed on it. “Uh-uh,” Unger cautioned. “Just hand ’er on over. Somethin’ tells me I oughta reload.”

Tom held the spear at arm’s length. “You know how I’d describe this, Len? It’d call it a long, thin, metal object.” He flicked the spear toward Unger, knowing it would pass behind him, close to the ion-drive housing.

At first Len Unger was all yawp and yelp as his wild—and suddenly unnervingly fast—diverjet carried him arrowing down Gravedigger’s Ditch. It seemed the jet had an impulse to play billiards with its captive. There was many a bank shot against the canal walls, and after two or three the man fell silent. Tom’s suit sonarscope led him to his would-be kidnapper, sliding along the rough wall, suit jet gushing. Showing mercy, Tom switched off Unger’s jet unit.

It took a few minutes for the man’s eyelids to flicker. “Now then,” said Tom, “got any more of that fishing line?” He bound his disspirited prisoner, leaving sufficient line free to tow him along behind him as he returned to the warehouse dock.

Unger whined as Tom freed his chum. “Look, Swifty, you’re gonna have a few deaths on your conscience if you leave me tied up here for the Voodooers to find. I know things. That guy the ex-President’s gonna get offed in a few hours, an’ I know the details.”

“Typical,” declared Bud, rubbing his wrists, and whatever else he could reach. “You’re what they call a real raton, Creepy Guy.”

“We’ll decide what to do with you, Unger, after you start singing the blues in our key,” Tom said.

“Er, genius boy,” said Bud with a wink, “don’t forget—all the bad dialog goes to me.”

Creepy Len Unger identified the man who served as the secret point of contact between the Voudon-Machétes and the rebel government of Mer-Soleil. “Name’s Victor Beaudoin. Make-believe commissioner of the make-believe police—the gendarmerie, they call it here. He’ll be the official ‘greeter’ at the airport, they guy they’ll be handing Léonide over to. Plans to make a speech. Democracy, the law, justice.”

“So what do we do?” Bud asked Tom. “Expose Beaudoin publicly?”

“No time, flyboy. It’s four AM, and the turnover’s in less than four hours. Léonide will be dead before anyone—and I don’t know who!—could take action.” Tom rubbed his chin, a symbol of thought. “Let’s take Len here, who I’m sure will be a good boy, to the hotel. We need street clothes, anyway.”

They frog-marched Unger past the boggling night clerk at the Hôte des Chevaliers and locked him in the bath of their room as they changed clothes. Then Tom knocked politely on the door. “Say Len? We’re leaving now. I’m disabling the electronic lock on the room door—I wouldn’t expect they’d be able to spring you before lunchtime. I don’t recommend making a fuss. If the manager can hear you, the Voudon-Machétes might find out as well.” The young inventor disabled the door mechanism as promised. As he and Bud left, he turned the card hanging from the handle from a request for maid service to the side that said: Shssssh!

Two crowds had gathered at the Dauphinville Airport at 7:43 AM to greet the prisoner—from Osaka, Japan, by way of Hawaii. One crowd, in suits and official uniforms, stood behind a cordon of police. A larger crowd, the citizenry—of a sort—spread out of both sides of a tarmac aisle. There were cameras, media people, the world’s press. There was, however, no red carpet to mark the return of the notorious Papa Sancte.

From the standing mike in front of pompous Victor Beaudoin, a thick cable snaked across the airfield to a cluster of amplifiers and commonplace sound equipment, then splitting off to the several loudspeakers resting on the tarmac. Tom Swift and Bud Barclay followed these cables up to the edge of the waiting crowd.

A portly man eyed them. “American?” he asked. When they nodded, he continued: “Surprised they let you in. We were told to dress a bit for the ceremony. Look good, stand, applaud, cheer, leave promptly.”

“We’ll do the last part, at least,” said Bud.

The jet landed and taxied up close, as arranged. The hatch opened, and Tom recognized the middle figure standing in it. Then his gaze shifted to the group of officials. Régine Léonide stood among them like a statue. Tom muttered to Bud: “The ultimate humiliation. The wife is forced to pretend she’s a part of this farce. Wonder if they plan to have her nearby when they murder him.”

“Probably. Real macho guys.”

Beaudoin tapped on his microphone for silence. He cleared his throat and began to speak. For a moment, to himself, he might have sounded eloquent. It was the others who first realized that something was wrong. They looked at one another, bewildered.

Because for all they could tell, Commissioner Beaudoin was speaking porpoise.

Strange high-pitched bleatings and squawks, staccato quacking sounds—that was how the speech commenced. Beaudoin stopped, wideeyed, furious. He barked in French: Fix it! Fix it! But those around him only looked at one another blankly.

“I can help, sir,” called a voice from the crowd. “I’m Tom Swift. I can fix the microphone for you.”

Beaudoin frowned stonily, then smiled and gestured for Tom to step forward. “Ah, indeed, the famous Tom Swift has graced our ceremony. Eh bien, surely you of anyone can make right such a simple problem.” The microphone echoed his words in pure gibberish.

As Tom drew close to the man, he said, “Are you surprised to see me, sir?”

Beaudoin’s cold eyes all but disappeared into their wrinkles. “Ah, what shall I say?—that we had expected to find you rather tied up this morning?”

“We have Unger, you know. He’s talking.”

“Good for him.” The man’s voice was deep and oily, but he took care to speak softly, almost gently. “We must always expect these betrayals, we Voudon-Machéte. My associates and I have taken exquisite care to hide the bad evidence and plant the good.”

Tom pretended to examine the microphone. “What if Mr. Maximille decides to turn against you?”

The Commissioner snorted even as he grinned at the crowd. “Maximille. We own the man, Mr. Swift. Oh, how very deeply he is in all this, this man we created from a cheap street thug. But Léonide was a fool to sack him, was he not? It cost him his job. And now, this morning, his life. Tragic accident.” He shrugged at Tom, as if having essayed a pleasant joke. “Really, you should laugh. But perhaps you cannot hear me, eh? These sounds—most annoying. Your work, I trust? It will make no difference. If I must speak to the world without a microphone, why not?”

Tom smiled. “Make your speech a good one, Mr. Beaudoin. Better than the one you just gave the world. I suppose it would have been polite to mention to you that my sound device is only patched in to these speakers here in front with us. The others should be carrying our voices just fine.” He gazed out toward the edge of the crowd. “Right, Bud?”

Bud waved back and shouted, “Perfect!”

It was two busy days later, after the re-installation of President Léonide, after his and his wife’s expressions of deep gratitude, after Maximille and friends fled Mer-Soleil—unwisely into the arms of the United States Marines—that the mighty Fathomer happened upon a prize at the bottom of the double subsidence plains. “Brand my ol’ needle in a haystack!” crowed Chow. “I shor never thought we’d find it!”

Tom grinned happily. “My gravy-scope turned the trick after all. But I’ll tell you this, pardner—I’m sure the Gojira hasn’t been lying here all this time.”

“I agree, Tom,” said Zimby Cox. “This was one of the areas we covered thoroughly the first time. Something tells me El Blanco came sailin’ through and dropped it off.”

“Should I be able to figure this all out?” asked Bud with a wry expression. “Tom Swift I’m not! How and why did this little can of stardust wind up on the ocean floor?”

“Well, I am Tom Swift, and I’m puzzled too,” chuckled the young inventor. “But if you’re keen on hearing my usual theorizing, I’m thinkin’ that what we call El Blanco is a spacecraft—a combined spacecraft and seacraft—from the Kuiper Belt.”

“Y’mean where that probe came from?” demanded Chow.

“And comets, too—including one that fell into the Atlantic thousands of years ago, with something fantastic living inside it, something that lived to tell about it!”

“Yeah,” muttered Bud. “The Slick.”

Tom went on, “I think the Kuiper inhabitants followed Gojira back to Earth, maybe just to take a look at the sort of weird beings that created it and sent it to them. But there was also another factor, which is why they decided to divert it when they realized we were about to take possession.”

“What factor, Tom?” asked Doc.

“I can only guess that there was something inside the probe, something in the specimens of Kuiper matter that it collected, that the Kuiperites don’t want us crazy Earthlings to study.” He paused thoughtfully. “It could be that they were afraid we’d learn too much about their physical form and their vulnerabilities.”

“If they spent even a few minutes studying our news broadcasts—I can sure see why they’d be afraid of an invasion,” commented Bud.

Tom agreed. “We’re not exactly all sweetness and light, like our pal the Slick is. More than that, they may find our mode of living totally incomprehensible. There may not be ‘Kuiperites’ but just one Kuiperite!—a single personality woven together out of all those telepathically joined spores and fibrils stretched out over billions of miles of space. They—He—may find inconceivable the idea of the existence of another separate person in the universe, a second individual!”

Chow nodded. “I kin see how that’d make a feller feel a mite spooked.”

Bud wasn’t satisfied. “But if they had the probe in their, mm, tendrils all that time, why not keep it or just destroy it? Man, it looks like they didn’t even open it up.”

“Weirdness,” declared Red Jones.

When Tom finally returned to Shopton, he had a telephone call to return.

“Just thought I’d add my congratulations, Tom.”

“I’m surprised to hear it, Miss Carne. I didn’t choose to follow your clearly stated orders.”

“Oh, not a problem,” she replied briskly. “You might picture the reactions of those above me, and those above them, who found Mr. Léonide rather troublesome. He seemed somewhat lax in his duty to support the present administration’s wise and forward-thinking policies. Not that they would ever wish the man harm.”

“I could never be a politician, ma’am,” Tom said.

“For which those who are politicians sincerely thank you. But all’s well, don’t you think? Mr. Léonide has his job. And golly—I still have mine!”

The young inventor had already commenced a new project, his Triphibian Atomicar, when he received another call, this one from Japan. It was from one of the members of the Gojira team, Dr. Otsukora.

“Now, Tom, there is news that my poor superiors do not know how to announce to the public. We finally opened Gojira in its special chamber—and it was empty! That is to say, the collection cells contained nothing, as if the intake ports had never opened at all!”

Tom was amazed. “But the digital records and instruments—”

“Indeed, all confirmed proper functioning. Yet we find the accumulation membranes quite sterile—and the probe capsule unopened, sealed tight. How such a thing can be, there is no official opinion. But alas, I fear my superior Moritsu will soon find himself without employment.”

When Tom related the conversation to Bud, the black-haired pilot could only shake his head in frustration. “Jetz, the puzzle never ends! So whatever was cruising around in El Blanco removed the particles without opening the capsule?”

“Or at least without damaging it,” Tom stated. “It could be their ethics, flyboy. They returned all our property to us—minus the property we had no right to take in the first place.”

Bud couldn’t do better than take a look out Tom’s office window at the starry sky above Swift Enterprises. “How can something so different from us lousy humans come up with a technological civilization to begin with, Tom? I mean, they don’t even have ground out there to stand on!”

“Pal, they’ve had a few billion years to hash over the problem.”

But—!”

Smiling, Tom held up his hand. “Bud,” he said, “not all questions have answers!”