TOM SWIFT LIVES!
TOM SWIFT AND HIS
This unauthorized tribute
Is based upon
the original TOM SWIFT JR. characters.
SCOTT DICKERSON, AUTHOR
As of this printing,
The New TOM SWIFT Jr. Adventures
is owned by
SIMON & SCHUSTER
This edition privately printed by
PRINTED IN THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
TOM SWIFT AND HIS
“TOM, your new atomic sports car is absolutely dreamy!” enthused Bashalli Prandit.
Young Tom Swift grinned at the pretty, dark-haired girl’s excitement as his sleek, bronze racer glided along the highway leading out of Shopton. “Don’t forget, Bash, it’s not actually an atomic sports car—not just yet. But thanks for the compliment.”
The Pakistani managed to combine a nod with a frown. “Every now and then I run across an English term that I don’t quite understand, I fear. Does not ‘dreamy’ mean ‘like something seen in a dream’?”
“Well, in a way. Say, you’re not withdrawing the compliment, are you?”
Now she smiled reassuringly. “Of course not, Thomas. I am in love with this car. Even its peculiar dreamlike shape. That is, eventually.” As her companion laughed, she went on: “You see, as an artist I am very attuned to shape and form. And this car of yours—how could one describe it? Rather like a lady’s high-heeled shoe. With fenders and a cockpit dome, of course. Stylish? I am not so sure!”
Tom was well aware that his new invention had drawn its share of puzzled looks from the passing parade of Shoptonians. They were accustomed to encountering the strange engineering products of Tom Swift Enterprises, the huge world-famed invention factory run by Tom’s father. They had seen the strange parade of wingless cycloplanes, terrasphere tractor-tanks, hulking robots, and, not long before, Tom’s giant multi-ringed moonship the Challenger. But they had seen nothing like this four-wheeled stalker of the highways, with its teardrop-shaped dome that swept back to meet the high finlike tail of the car, which rose to a pointed apex. It looked a little like a jet plane that had somewhere misplaced its wings.
“She may look a little ‘out there,’ but the body shape has been developed on computer and tested in a windtunnel,” declared the young inventor.
“I have no doubt of that.”
“It has two planes of airstream stability, you know, at right angles to one another. She’ll cut through the air like a knife!”
“So you have said. But I must say, in my life I have met many people with enviable airstream stability—and homely looks.” Bashalli leaned back in her contour seat, languidly gazing out the dome at the passing scenery. They had now left the main part of the little town and were humming down the long lakeside road that ultimately joined the Interstate. Lake Carlopa, lazy and sparkling in the afternoon sun, rolled along past them only yards from the roadside. “At least she is silent—‘unlike many women,’ as you are surely thinking. You should call her the Silent Streak!”.
“Good name, Bash,” Tom agreed, “but George Dilling’s publicity releases will call her a triphibian atomicar. When she’s ready for her official debut, that is.” George Dilling was Swift Enterprises’ chief of Communications and Public Interest.
The two young people shared a friendly, contented glance, Bash thrilled with the exciting life that came with knowing an inventing prodigy with a taste for high adventure. But the glance was interrupted by a shrill buzz from the car’s low-slung instrument board, spread wide in front of Tom at waist level. A red warning light was flickering like a strobe, demanding urgent attention!
Bashalli gasped. “Tom!”
An oncoming minivan had drifted across the line and was barreling toward them like a brick wall on wheels!
The young inventor forced himself to remain calm. One finger moved, pushing the slider-switch on the side of the unicontrol joystick in his right hand. With a whoosh! the Silent Streak curved smoothly up from the highway and took to the air. Her dangling tires cleared the top of the minivan with inches to spare, soaring out over the lake and looping back in a lazy half-circle.
Before settling back down on the pavement the atomicar cannonballed across the bow of the speeding van, and the startled driver dropped his cellphone and honked out his indignation at the air hog. Bashalli replied with a few apt comments in English and Pakistani, concluding with: “Can you hear me now?”
“May he lose his connection and suffer exorbitant roaming charges!” she fumed. “Alas, he cannot hear me through your sealed dome windshield.”
“I—I think he got the gist!” Tom pronounced, wide-eyed. His thoughts added: Bash sure has mastered the language! Then he suddenly realized that his friend was trembling.
“Oh, my g-g-goodness!” she quavered weakly, bravado exhausted. She was white-faced and breathless from the near accident—no more so than Tom Swift himself.
Hoping to comfort her, Tom essayed a tentative joke attended by an unconvincing chuckle. “This is what’s known as getting the bugs out of a new hot rod—the hard way!”
“Please! Let’s not joke about it!” said Bashalli. “And do not dare tell me how much vital information you have learned from this experiment.” But after a moment she relented. “Still, Thomas, in serving as a guinea pig I have spent more time in your company than on our last two dates!”
“And our drive isn’t over,” Tom added sheepishly.
They soon forgot the frightening experience in the sheer exhilaration of spinning along as quietly as a breeze. The lack of engine noise, Tom explained, was due to the car being driven by four small electric motors, one mounted at each wheel.
“And that steering lever does everything?” Bash asked, nodding at the unicontrol stick springing from the driver’s right armrest.
“Practically everything,” Tom said. “Accelerates, slows, stops, turns, or reverses—depending on how you move the stick. And you’ve seen my demonstration of the lift-off control.”
“And your safety buzzer. Which I must say is much more useful than those annoying seatbelt beepers your American cars are required to have.”
“The system is an adaptation of the cybertron we use in my cycloplane,” explained Tom, not bothering to conceal from Bashalli a note of pride. “It uses radar—a kind that can see around obstructions—to create a ‘mental map’ in its electronic brains, a three-dimensional simulation that is updated four thousand times a second!”
“Ah! My current pulse rate.”
Passing motorists goggled admiringly—or more often just goggled—at the bubble-hooded phantom. As Tom drove farther into the country, the highway skirted pleasant green woodland on the left, allowing only an intermittent glimpse of the blue waters of Lake Carlopa beyond.
“How about that triphibian feature you mentioned, Thomas?” Bash asked. “I know that ‘tri’ signifies three. Driving on the ground is the first of the phibians, flying is the second. What of the third? Can the Silent Streak fly to the moon, perhaps?”
“Just wait!” the young inventor shot back happily. “You know what amphibian means—something that works on both land and water? For example, the Marines make amphibian landings, and amphibian planes like our Whirling Duck jetrocopters can take off from land or water.” When the young Pakistani nodded, Tom continued: “Well, my atomicar is triphibian—meaning it can get around on land, through the air, or in water.”
To demonstrate, Tom again slid the switch on the lever, and again the car’s wheels soared gently up off the road. “A bank of mini-repelatrons does the trick,” he explained. The repelatron was a highly selective repulsion-ray device which Tom had utilized to drive his revolutionary spaceship, the Challenger.
“But I understood that your magical machine could not be used for propulsion so near the surface of the earth,” objected Bashalli.
“Very true,” he conceded. “There’s a lag effect that prevents the repelatron from adapting itself to the changing mixtures of compounds so near the ground. And so—I’m not using it to repel the ground! Instead, the force-radiators are attuned to the mix of oxygen and nitrogen in the atmospheric air, forming a stable ‘cushion’ of high pressure just underneath the body, between the wheels. It’s the air pressure that lifts the atomicar up.”
“I see! Like bringing your two palms together to enclose something from both sides. But― ” She suddenly broke off with wide eyes. “What are you doing?”
Tom had dipped the nose of the Silent Streak and was now lunging toward the surface of the lake! “The third phibian!” he exclaimed as the atomicar settled onto the mild waves, bobbed calmly for a moment, and then, at the touch of a control, began smoothly to submerge.
“Oh Tom, this is—this is fantastic!” breathed Bashalli in awe as the blue-green waters closed in over the top of the viewdome. “It is indeed like something from a dream!”
The car sank lower into the shallow waters, coming to rest on the bottom. The dome of the passenger compartment was as transparent on top as all around, and the waves above sent diamond-shaped patterns of light across their faces. “A little too much shade down here on the bottom,” commented Tom. “But I can do something about that.” He manipulated a trackball under his left palm, selecting an option from a list that appeared in glowing letters on the inside of the dome, right before his eyes. Instantly a powerful glow lit the lake bottom in front of them.
“Much better!” Bashalli congratulated him. “Now we can avoid underwater potholes.”
Tom fed power to the wheel motors, and the Silent Streak bounced forward over the uneven floor of sand, mud, and clay. “Just in case you’re wondering how we can get such good traction down here, the atomicar has a couple of my gravitex machines built in to it. They push it down firm against the ground, and my special ‘gripper’ tires do the rest.”
Bash’s eyes were pretty and luminous against the background of green-blue light. They twinkled as she said, “I do presume, professor, that you have a means to get us back up onto dry land? Or shall we simply drive across the lake to the pier?”
Tom adjusted the controls with a warm smile. The Silent Streak bobbed up to the surface, then up into the air again. “She has a buoyancy control setup of the sort we use in our underwater escape suits, the Fat Men.”
“The big steel eggs, high fashion beneath the seas.”
“Yep. And these long pods running the length of the body on either side are actually pontoons filled with plastic aero-foam, to let us ride high when we want to make like a boat.”
“Great for a fishing trip!” said Bashalli.
“It’ll be great for all sorts of transport purposes,” Tom said in response. “But its real scientific purpose, Bash, is exploration. There’s a whole lot of Planet Earth that can’t be thoroughly investigated by satellite mapping, or even from a plane or helicopter.”
“Uh-huh. The great deserts, jungles, polar ice ... ”
“Sure! This baby can cross rivers and operate in, or over, any terrain—swamps, wild bush country, even mountainous areas.”
“Can it also deliver little children to kindergarten?”
“One scientific challenge at a time, please!”
Tom flew the car back to the lake road. Finally rounding the end of the lake, they headed back to the parking lot at Swift Enterprises, where Bashalli had left her car for the afternoon.
Bash pointed. “A reception committee!”
“Sandy and Bud! Something’s up.” Sandy was the famous inventor’s year-younger sister, as blond and animated as Bashalli Prandit was dark and exotic. Athletic Bud Barclay was Tom’s dark-haired best friend and constant comrade-in-arms on his many scientific adventures.
Sandy glanced elaborately at her wrist watch as Tom and Bash exited the viewdome. “About time! We were ready to launch a search by radar-bloodhound!”
“What have you kids been up to?” needled Bud. “All science and no play, I trust.”
Tom raised his eyebrows, puzzled. “Good to see you too! Was I supposed to be someplace, for something?”
Suddenly Bashalli groaned. “Gracious! How foolish! This ride’s been so thrilling, I completely forgot to give Thomas the message. Sandra, I’m so sorry.”
Tom was still puzzled. “Message?”
Bud chuckled as Sandy replied. “We’re to meet Cousin Ed at the airport at four-fifteen!”
Tom whistled. “Ed’s coming in?”
“Mother took the call this morning, after you and Daddy had left. Our Miss Prandit here was supposed to― ”
Bashalli hung her head at the mock-scolding. “I expect grave punishment for this.”
“An hour of genius boy’s science lessons is more than enough of a penalty,” Bud joked. “But we’d better get a move on! Shall we take the atomicar and dazzle the natives?”
Tom shook his head. “Not if we plan to give Cousin Ed and his luggage a lift! She only seats two.”
Bashalli begged off with regret, a shift at The Glass Cat coffee house waiting for her in town. After the atomicar had been garaged inside Enterprises grounds, Sandy drove Tom and Bud to the airport in her own car, which was more capacious than Tom’s little sports car or Bud’s red convertible. “Ed’s on his way back from England,” Sandy explained, “and headed for Mexico. But he managed to work in a visit to his doting aunt in between.”
Ed Longstreet was the son of Tom’s mother’s older brother Quentin. That branch of the family was well-monied, and Ed had never needed to work for a living. Instead he had become a world traveler with a zest for exotic locales and challenging off-the-map explorations.
“It’ll be great to see Ed again,” declared Tom.
Added Bud: “I’ll say—especially since I barely got to see him at all last time he passed through.” Ed’s prior visit had coincided with Bud’s being held captive in New Guinea, a tale told in Tom Swift and His Ultrasonic Cycloplane.
The Shopton Airport was modest, but growing rapidly as the world beat a path to the door of Tom Swift Enterprises. There was no need for Sandy to find a parking spot, as Cousin Ed’s jet had already landed and its passengers were streaming through the terminal exits. “Oh, there he is!” she exclaimed.
A slender young man of twenty-five with a good-humored grin, and somewhat less than a full ration of hair, Ed Longstreet had been one of the first passengers off the plane.
“Hi, Ed! How’s the world traveler these days?” Tom said, jumping out and shaking his cousin’s hand.
“Just great! And say! Who’s this blond charmer?”
Sandy giggled and leaned out the window to give Ed a quick kiss.
“Since you didn’t call me a charmer, you’ll have to settle for a handshake,” joked Bud. “Good to see you!”
“But where’s your luggage?” Tom asked.
“Oh, I always travel light, you know,” was the breezy reply. “Easier—and more fun—to just buy what you need when you get there. I just have my one travel bag to pick up at the luggage carousel. Now that I know you’re here, let me― ”
His remarks were interrupted as a tense voice blared out over the terminal’s public-address system:
“Attention please. Everyone leave the terminal area at once! Repeat—leave the terminal at once! There is no cause for panic, but please get out quickly! Go to your cars immediately!”
There was a stunned hush, then an excited babble as people began hurrying across the parking lot, glancing back in puzzlement and fear. Tom grabbed Ed’s forearm and spoke to his cousin. “Come on, Ed! Let’s go! We’ll come back for your bag when they give the all-clear.”
Ed was just about to pile into the front seat next to Sandy when a loud thudding blast was heard, shaking the terminal’s big glass windows and provoking cries of startled alarm from the surging crowd. Smoke billowed from the airport building.
“A bomb!” Tom cried.
THE RUBY MYSTERY
FIRE TRUCK sirens were already screaming in the distance. In a short time a hook and ladder arrived, followed by a police car, another fire truck, and an unmarked official van that discharged several running men in helmeted, thickly-padded work outfits.
“Emergency bomb squad or something,” Ed murmured.
Bud nodded. “Shopton’s got its own anti-terrorism office these days,” he commented.
Sandy gasped at the thought, but Tom spoke reassuringly. “Terrorists don’t usually give advance warning, guys. More than likely this is just a prank.”
The displaced crowd remained in the parking lot, milling about. In twenty minutes exhaust fans had cleared away the last wisps of smoke, and the same voice—much calmer now—was announcing:
“Ladies and gentlemen, we regret this inconvenience, but the terminal is now perfectly safe. The blast was caused by a smoke bomb, and we hope the police will soon arrest the person responsible!”
Most of the crowd showed signs of relief, although some were still angry and shaken.
“Well, well,” joked Ed Longstreet, mopping his high forehead with a handkerchief. “Quite a welcome you folks arranged for me—as usual!”
Tom laughed wryly and told Sandy to take their cousin to the car while he picked up Ed’s suitcase. Soon the Swifts and their guest were driving home.
When they arrived, Tom’s parents greeted Ed warmly. Then Mrs. Swift, slender and pretty, served glasses of iced fruit juice while their visitor settled himself in an easy chair and Sandy recounted the airport bomb scare. Mr. Swift, tall and athletic-looking, with steel-blue eyes, listened with keen interest.
“Sounds as though someone has an unpleasant sense of humor,” he remarked quietly. The distinguished scientist and his famous son bore a close resemblance, and they shared similar temperaments. Tom knew his father was wondering if the incident had somehow been aimed at Tom. It would hardly be the first time!
“Got something for you, Aunt Anne,” Ed spoke up. He reached inside his suit-coat pocket and brought out a leather case which he handed to Mrs. Swift. Her eyes danced in anticipation.
Inside lay a delicate silver necklace supporting a blood-red ruby pendant. The jewel flashed with fiery brilliance as Mrs. Swift held the necklace up to the light.
“This is magnificent,” she said.
“Try it on,” Ed urged with a smile.
“You surely didn’t bring this for me?” Mrs. Swift’s voice trembled in genuine awe.
Ed nodded and produced a smaller box for Sandy. It contained a silver ring with a ruby that looked like a twin to the one in the necklace. Sandy bubbled with delight. “Oh, it’s beautiful— just beautiful!”
Both she and her mother smiled happily as they expressed their thanks and displayed the gifts to Mr. Swift, Tom, and Bud. Ed’s grin showed his pleasure at their reaction.
“Don’t give me too much credit, you two. Actually the stones were a bargain,” he explained. “I bought them unset at the bazaar in Teheran.”
“That’s the capital city of Iran, isn’t it?” asked Sandy, more fascinated than ever.
“Yes. Always in the news these days. By the way,” Ed went on, “there’s a mystery connected with those rubies, from way back when the country was still called Persia.”
“A mystery!” Sandy was wide-eyed.
“Ah hah, still a mystery-lover, I see!” Ed’s eyes twinkled. “No doubt you’ve read in the newspapers recently about Kabulistan—a little speck of a country near Iran and Afghanistan which just gained its independence. Well, according to the jeweler I went to in London, a famous ruby mine was once located there, called the Amir’s Mine. Today no one knows where it is—the mine’s been lost for two centuries.”
“Jetz! You don’t mean these two rubies came from that mine?” asked Bud with an excited look in Tom’s direction.
“You’ve guessed it,” said Ed. “I took the stones to London to be mounted—and because of their color, the jeweler suspected they had been taken at least three hundred years ago from the fabled lost mine of Kabulistan!”
“Oh, how fascinating!” Sandy exclaimed, and her mother added, “What a treasure trove if someone could find it!”
Ed winked at his aunt and smiled. “Believe it or not, I just happened to have the same thought. In London I tracked down a book which gives a few clues to the mine’s location! It’s my gift to Tom and Uncle Damon. But if you worm the secret out of it, you’ve got to promise to take me along to Kabulistan!”
“It’s a deal!” Tom laughed.
Going over to his bag, which had been placed on the stairway, Ed opened it and delved inside. In a moment he had pulled a tattered, faded volume, obviously very old, from a secure pouch. “According to the antiquities dealer who sold it to me, this may be the only copy in existence.”
“The only one! In which case it’s worth a fortune if it really holds the secret of the Amir’s Mine,” said Mr. Swift thoughtfully, taking it from Ed’s hands with a nod of thanks.
“What’s the name of the book?” Sandy asked.
“Travels in Remotest Araby,” Ed replied, “written in 1728 by an Englishman named Dalton.”
Ed explained that after hearing the jeweler’s chance remark, he had used his London contacts to seek out books of the period which told about the Kabulistan region, then a part of old Persia. He had eventually been put in touch with the antiquities dealer, who had advertised that Travels in Remotest Araby included an account of the author’s own visit to the mine. “I don’t imagine the bookseller realized that the mine was lost to history, or that the book could contain some clues.”
“We’ll send him a ruby or two when we find it,” Bud declared with a grin. “And you know what, everybody? Tom’s flying ‘electric runabout’ is perfect for lost-mine hunting!”
Bud’s comment intrigued Cousin Ed, who asked Tom about his new invention. The discussion continued as they sat down for dinner.
“Right now my test model runs off a bank of our Swift solar batteries,” Tom explained, “which the company manufactures in orbit, in the space outpost.”
“And they’re not enough?” asked Ed in surprise. “I thought they were super-advanced.”
“They are, and in fact the batteries are already in use for powering electric-motor vehicles. But my flying car’s repelatrons are real energy hogs, Ed. I didn’t mention it to Bashalli today, but we really couldn’t have spent much more time in the air than we did—our available power was down almost ninety percent by the time we returned, from just a few minutes of repelatron use.”
“Not exactly a selling point,” Bud gibed.
Tom continued, “That’s why my goal is to make it a real atomicar, a private vehicle running off its own atomic power source.”
Commented Ed with a snort, “You must be making the Nuclear Regulatory Commission very nervous.”
“Tell me about it!”
“We have all the necessary certifications for prototype development,” noted Damon Swift, “but we had to give strict assurances that we won’t use dangerous fissile materials, such as the Veranium we utilize in the jetmarine reactors. Nowadays they don’t want too much of such materials floating around in public.”
This puzzled Cousin Ed. After a moment he inquired, “Maybe I’m not up on the latest in atomic energy, but—how can you have an atomic reactor without the stuff that makes it go?”
It was Bud who answered the question. “Genius boy’s foolin’ around with fusion!”
“Really, Tom? Tabletop fusion? You found a way to make it work?” Ed was excited but incredulous.
The crewcut scientist-inventor gave a modest shrug. “Maybe. Sort of. I think so.”
“Tomonomo’s already tested it out!” enthused Sandy with sisterly pride. “It’s already almost as powerful as a solar battery.”
“Which is far from enough,” Tom declared. “But I’m continuing to experiment with my atomic power capsule, as I call it—another test tomorrow.”
Tom’s mother now entered the conversation, a worried tone in her voice. “Son, your power capsule could have quite an impact on world energy production, and that makes it extremely valuable—and threatening to certain interests, don’t you think?” When Tom nodded agreement, she went on: “Couldn’t that airport bomb scare have been more than a prank? And more than a coincidence?”
Trading a glance with his father, Tom said, “Believe me, I’ve thought about that.”
“Me too,” Bud stated. “Except—how does pulling a stunt like that at Shopton Airport affect your experimentation?”
The young inventor admitted that he could see no connection. “But it’s enough of a coincidence for me to want to find out a little more about it.”
After supper was concluded, Tom strode to the phone and dialed his friend Captain Rock at Shopton Police Headquarters. After telling the reason for his call, Tom asked for details on the bomb incident.
“More anti-Swift shenanigans, hmm? Maybe so. Soon after your cousin’s flight set down, we got an anonymous phone tip that a bomb had been set to go off in the terminal,” Rock said. “Naturally I called the airport and ordered them to clear the building at once. No sense taking chances! We’ve traced the warning call to a booth right there at the terminal, which makes it look like a typical prank.”
“Did anyone notice the caller?” Tom asked.
“Yes, and it wasn’t some school kid with too much time on his hands. An airline clerk gave us a description—a tall, sallow-faced man with several gold teeth, wearing a light-colored suit. Back in my misspent youth, we called ’em tropical-style.”
Tom turned and repeated the description to Ed. “Why, that fellow sat right next to me!” Ed exclaimed. “He tried to draw me into conversation! But I sort’ve ignored him. I’m not into being stupefied with boredom on air hops.”
Tom passed this information on to Captain Rock. “Good lead,” the officer remarked. “We’ll check the airline passenger list, although the man may have been using an alias. But Tom, my friend?”
“D’you suppose we could arrange for this not to turn out to be a spy, just for a change of pace? My guys are getting tired of having to always turn their cases over to the good folks at the FBI.”
Tom laughed. “I’ll see what I can do! But I’m afraid it’ll be up to Harlan Ames.” Ames was the seasoned head of Swift Enterprises plant security and well known to the Shopton police.
When Tom hung up, Ed commented, “The usual Tom Swift murky-murk, eh?”
Bud stuck out his hand for a congratulatory handshake. “Let’s hope so!”
In the morning, while Mr. and Mrs. Swift and Sandy prepared for a day’s sail aboard the Swifts’ beautiful ketch Sunspot, with their guest and Bashalli Prandit’s family, Tom sped off to one of his private labs at Swift Enterprises.
The sprawling, four-mile-square enclosure of gleaming modern workshops and laboratories was the experimental station where Tom developed and tested his scientific marvels. Tom was eager to run the final tests on his new midget power plant. Now that his atomicar was ready for public presentation, the only step remaining was to install the atomic power capsule—provided it checked out satisfactorily.
“A big if!” Tom thought wryly.
A cubicle of concrete and magtritanium metal, radiation-shielded by the company’s amazing superstrong plastic, called Tomasite, filled one corner of the high-pressure test laboratory. A special exhaust system was provided to dispose of dangerous atomic vapors. The booth also had a Tomaquartz view window and an outside instrument panel. Inside, mounted on a test stand, lay the power capsule—about the size of an ordinary automobile battery but far lighter in weight.
As Tom was busying himself with the final hookups, Bud, always welcome, came ambling in. “Hi! I want to see how the Mighty Midget over there pans out.”
Bud watched eagerly from the doorway of the test booth as Tom tightened a cable connection and inspected a few final details.
The power plant was housed in a small, rectangular, capsulelike casing. It had a copper boss at each end, one positive and one negative, through which the electrical output would be drawn off. A sheathed cable led from the capsule to a small control box, which was connected to an outside control panel.
“Keep your fingers crossed, pal,” the young inventor muttered as he emerged from the booth and latched the door with the twirl of a lever—like that on a bank vault.
Bud, a young flier from San Francisco, the same age as Tom, had shared many adventures as Tom’s copilot. More than that, he had watched the development of all his chum’s major inventions, and he never failed to feel a thrill when Tom tested some new brain child.
“Good luck, genius boy!”
Tom handed him dark goggles for extra protection, donned a pair himself, then threw a switch.
The needle of the output wattmeter swung sharply to the right. “This is great!” Tom breathed. “Good night, we’ve already more than quadrupled Monday’s highest― ”
The final words were never uttered. Both boys were jolted off their feet as the entire laboratory shook from a terrific blast!
TWO BIG WHEELS
A DISASTER siren, activated by automatic sensors, wailed across the experimental station as an orange-red inferno glowed behind the Tomaquartz window of the test chamber.
Slowly Tom and Bud sat up, struggled to their feet, and eyed the wreckage in the laboratory with dismay. Books, file cabinets, electronic gear, and other valuable equipment lay tumbled about the floor, amid the shattered glass from fallen racks of test tubes. Smashed bottles of chemicals sent reeking fumes through the lab.
“Good grief! What happened?” Bud gasped.
“Isn’t it obvious? The atomic power capsule exploded—generated too much pressure and blew up,” said Tom grimly. He stepped up to the instrument panel, which had not been damaged, and replayed its final readings.
“What’s the verdict?” asked Bud eagerly. “Did the capsule live up to expectations?”
“It exceeded them,” was the dull reply. “In a big way. I thought the matter-lenses would retain coherence all through the process, but they failed in the end. The ion pressure was just too great to be contained.”
“But you’ll be able to patch ’em up, Skipper. Won’t you?”
Tom shrugged. “I don’t know. I don’t see how. This was a pretty edgy approach, but it was the only method that seemed at all promising. Now― ” His voice trailed off listlessly, and Bud put a comforting hand on his pal’s arm.
Though dazed and bruised from their fall, neither youth was injured. Already shouts could be heard outside the laboratory as plant employees rushed to investigate the explosion.
“Bud, tell everyone to keep out!” Tom directed, listless. As Bud hurried to comply, Tom glanced quickly at a radiation-level indicator. “Thank heavens!” he muttered. Evidently the reaction products had been safely confined within the test booth.
Tom snatched up the telephone and contacted Ames at Security. “Bud and I are okay,” he reported, “but an atomic reaction got out of hand. Get the decontamination squad here pronto, won’t you, Harlan?”
“Will do, boss. I’ll calm the place down, too, as best I can.”
The next few hours were spent in harried efforts to cope with the lab disaster. Tom finally organized a procedure to draw off the radioactive residue safely from the booth after the reaction had cooled. This would take several days. Then the chamber itself would have to be dismantled and construction materials carefully disposed of. Fragments of the power capsule, super-propelled, had become embedded right in the solid walls!
He and Bud were just completing their tasks when a wavering signal tone erupted from the lab phone. Recognizing it, the two jerked to attention. “The main radar alarm!” gasped Bud. “Somebody’s messing with our air space!”
Tom Swift Enterprises, which often took on projects funded by the government, was treated as a heightened-security facility. The entire plant was protected by a “bubble” of constantly scanning radar that alerted security personnel, and company executives, in the event of any unauthorized intrusion by air. Flicking on a monitor and accessing the main patrolscope, Tom saw a blip of light moving in a rapid curve about the center of the screen—evidently an aircraft!
Tom snatched up the wall phone and beeped the airfield control tower. “What’s going on out there?”
“A small jet’s circling the plant,” the tower operator reported. “There was no advance—oh, now they’ve heard from him. The pilot requests permission to land. Says his name is Simon Wayne.”
The name sounded familiar, but Tom couldn’t place it immediately. “What’s his business?” he asked.
“Let’s see... He claims he wants to see you personally on an important matter. They’re saying he refuses to elaborate.”
Tom hesitated. “Okay. Set him down. I’ll meet up with him on the airfield.”
Bud volunteered to remain behind to attend to the final cleanup details. Tom left the lab building and went outside. He shaded his eyes as he looked skyward. A sleek jet, bearing a red-and-black insigne, came whistling down onto one of the concrete runways. Tom hopped into a midget electric vehicle, called a nanocar, and sped out to meet it.
Another nanocar from the Enterprises Security Office in the administration building joined Tom as he reached the station airfield. Its driver was slim, dark-haired Harlan Ames. Ames leapt out of his car and stood beside Tom as the young inventor waited to greet their visitor, wary and annoyed.
The pilot of the jet proved to be a huge, ruddy-cheeked man of about forty. But even more imposing than his size was an enormous blond handlebar mustache which stuck out on either side of his bluff, weather-beaten face.
“Tom Swift?” he boomed. “Well, of course you are!”
Tom nodded and shook hands. “This is Harlan Ames, head of our security staff,” he added.
The visitor shook hands with Ames. “I’m Simon Wayne,” he explained, “American representative of Europa Fabrikant—as you probably guessed from the symbol on my little jet.”
Europa Fabrikant was well known, at least by name, to both Tom and Ames. It was a European firm, belonging to one of the biggest industrial cartels in the world.
“Rather an informal way to drop in, wasn’t it?” said Ames.
Wayne’s eyes froze on the security chief, then he burst into a deep chuckle. “When I do things, I do ’em in a hurry!” Wayne said. “It’s why they pay me a salary, boys—only way to meet business competition these days. I wanted to see Tom Swift and happened to be flying this way, so here I am!”
“What did you want to see me about?” Tom broke in politely. He had decided he was too busy to be impressed by the big man.
Wayne abruptly turned serious. “Where can we talk business?” His eyes shifted to Harlan Ames. “If you don’t mind, I’d prefer to speak to Tom privately.”
Minutes later, Tom faced his visitor across a broad modern desk in the big sunlit double office which he shared with Mr. Swift, models of many Swift family inventions looming on all sides.
“I’m listening, Mr. Wayne.”
“I’ve been reading in scientific journals about your new miniature power plant,” Wayne began. “Impressive stuff. But you don’t need flattery. Do you? To skip to the bottom line, Europa Fabrikant can use that process. We’re aiming to go beyond materials fabrication and get involved in other areas of manufacturing—high-tech stuff. And we can use you, too, m’friend, to ride herd on developments. Name your price. I’m authorized to make a good-faith down payment on your retainer today.” He took out a checkbook and poised a fountain pen over it. His bushy eyebrows were lifted in anticipation.
Tom grinned. “I’m flattered after all, Mr. Wayne, but the rights to my midget power plant are not for sale. Nor am I looking for a job. If you’ll pardon me, my dad and I think we have the finest scientific setup in the world right here. And I don’t care to work overtime.”
Wayne named a huge figure, then doubled it. Tom shook his head. “Sorry, but my answer remains No.”
Wayne laughed. “Very well. I like a young fellow who knows his own mind.” He replaced his checkbook and pen, then took a card from his wallet and handed it to Tom. “But if you should change your mind, the offer’s still open. Please think it over—personal favor, hmm?”
As the man blustered off, Tom wondered why, precisely, he was presumed to owe Simon Wayne a personal favor.
Tom had arranged to meet with his family, Ed, and the Prandits for lunch, at the Yacht Club restaurant.
“What a wonderful morning,” said Moshan, Bashalli’s older brother, with whom she lived. “The lake is superb, is it not?”
“My own morning was pretty eventful,” commented Tom. He briefly mentioned the capsule test, downplaying its more dangerous elements and his own disappointment in the outcome. Then he gave a humorous account of the Simon Wayne visitation. His impression of the robust industrialist brought the others to laughter.
“I have heard of this man,” said Bashalli abruptly. The Pakistani’s face was no longer gleeful.
Tom asked if Wayne had a poor reputation, and Moshan answered, “Perhaps so, if you live in our part of the world. Europa Fabrikant is one of the great multinationals who are rather careless of our customs and our national feeling, our sensitivity to the appearance of exploitation by Europeans.”
“Yes, and by us Americans as well,” noted Mr. Swift understandingly.
“May I say also,” added Mrs. Prandit, “that there have been industrial accidents, spillage of dangerous chemicals. Whole villages are thought to have been made sick. Some have died, it is said. Our own government does not like to admit these things.”
“But let us be fair,” Bashalli broke in. “It is surely not this Mr. Wayne himself that we object to. He is sometimes in the papers, the face of his employers. But he cannot be held responsible for what is done by Europa Fabrikant.”
“Well, Tom’s pretty good at sticking to his guns,” said Sandy. “We’ve seen the last of old Handlebar Hank.”
The conversation turned to other matters. Tom’s mother asked Ed Longstreet if he had ever visited Kabulistan in his travels.
“Oh, I tried to, not long ago,” was the reply. “But independence has sent world business interests flocking there—a real flood of The Suits. The few scheduled flights are sold out far in advance.” Ed threw a glance at Tom. “Speaking of big wheels and big deals, last week in London I met a banker named Provard who was very much interested to hear that I was related to the famous Swift inventors.”
“An American?” Tom asked.
“Yes. I got the impression Mr. Provard might get in touch with you.”
“Maybe he wants Tom to invent a new burglar alarm for his bank vault.” Sandy giggled.
“More likely he’s checking up on our credit,” Tom said dryly. “Dad, you’d better make sure my atomic power capsule experiments aren’t putting us in the red.”
Mr. Swift laughed. “No danger yet, son. I have an idea the capsule could be the most profitable project Swift Enterprises has ever undertaken!”
It was late afternoon when Tom finally slumped into a chair in his office to relax over a pot of hot cocoa with Bud. The young inventor had been working for hours in front of his design flatscreen, attempting to find some new route to success for the atomic capsule. Thoughtful and discouraged, he told his pal that nothing had yet turned up.
“Tough luck, Skipper,” Bud sympathized. “Did you expect this might happen?”
Tom shrugged. “I knew the risk was there. But I thought I had the pressure problem licked. This time it looks like the scientific establishment is right. ‘Tabletop’ fusion just can’t be tamed.”
“So it’s back to the drawing board,” Bud declared. “Flatscreen, that is.”
Tom plowed his fingers through his crew cut and grinned ruefully. “This means our atomicar announcement will have to be postponed, and I won’t even be able to use the special lab for the next few days.”
That evening, after the others had retired, Tom brought his father up to date on the day’s events. Then he said, “Dad, I’ve just been reading some reports from the Citadel. They’ve made a little progress in this area that I was unaware of.” The Citadel was the Swifts’ atomic research plant in New Mexico.
As Mr. Swift listened with interest, Tom explained that he was impressed by the data on a stable isotope of one of the new manmade elements. Its physical and chemical properties sounded as though the isotope might be promising in developing a new fusion technique for the atomic power capsule.
“In fact, I think I’ll fly out to the Citadel and work on it in the lab there for a few days,” Tom said.
An excited voice suddenly burst down the stairwell from the upper floor. “Oh! What a super idea!” cried Sandy from her invisible perch. “Bud will be going, I suppose, and school’s out, so why don’t Bashi and I go too?”
Another voice joined the discussion from above. “Don’t forget Cousin Ed, world explorer!”
Mr. Swift laughed. “Tom, for your next invention, how about a silencer for our house!”
For better or worse, the matter was settled. The next day at noon, the five young people watched as the Sky Queen was lifted into the sunlight from its underground hangar at Swift Enterprises. The Queen was a staple of the young inventor’s exploits. This huge solar-powered skyship, often called the Flying Lab, had carried Tom on his first adventure when he found himself enmeshed in intrigue in South America. Most recently, it had carried Tom to Madeira in connection with his search for a lost space probe with his electronic hydrolung.
The Flying Lab needed no large crew despite its great size and advanced capabilities. Bud and Tom would copilot the craft, and other than his cousin and the girls he had invited only one further crew member, Swift Enterprises’ talented modelmaker Arvid Hanson.
“I hope I’ll be of some use to you, boss,” he told Tom. “I’ve never really gotten involved in automotive design—except in my head.”
“It’s your expertise in miniaturization that I hope to tap,” Tom replied. “If this new lead pans out, the power capsule will have to be completely reconfigured. I’d like to be able to test it out right away, at the Citadel.”
They boarded the skyship, and in minutes it had risen aloft on its bank of jet lifters. Bud set a course for New Mexico as Tom made his guests comfortable in the lounge, which was at the front of the topmost of the Sky Queen’s three decks.
“I love this ship,” exclaimed Ed. “Sure beats the commercial jetliners. Wish I could borrow it for all my travels.”
Reclining luxuriantly on a padded sofa, Sandy asked, “Tomonomo, will Chow be joining us?”
“That’s the plan, sis. I phoned him last night. He’ll meet up with us at the Citadel—tomorrow or the day after.”
Big Texas-born Chow Winkler, Swift Enterprises’ executive chef, was a close friend of the Swift family. He had flown to his native Texas the week previous to attend a funeral, and Tom and Bud felt his absence.
The Sky Queen’s mode of travel made New York and New Mexico near neighbors. Streaking westward at supersonic speed, the sleek wingless craft reached New Mexico in an hour.
As the rugged desert rolled by beneath them, Sandy pointed out the lounge’s floor-to-ceiling windows. “Look, Ed—that’s Purple Mesa, where Bashi and I and Bud were marooned!”
“Oh, right,” nodded her cousin. “When Tom’s helicopter was wrecked. How long were you trapped up there?”
“It was a terrible ordeal,” replied Bashalli with twinkling eyes. “We were completely cut off from civilization for—how long was it, Sandra?”
Sandy reddened. “Long enough. It was getting dark and turning cold.”
“Luckily, we managed to survive,” continued Bashalli, “the entire five hours!”
As the painted canyons and mesas flattened into barren scrubland, the Citadel came into sight below—a pinwheel formation of ultramodern laboratory buildings and dormitories, grouped around a massive central dome of white concrete which housed the main reactor. The whole research plant was ringed with barbed wire and guarded by drone planes and radar.
As soon as they landed, Tom buried himself in his private laboratory. He was still deep in work the following morning. Bud, Ed, and the two girls, knowing it was useless to disturb him, drove off in a jeep for a picnic at one of their favorite spots off the highway to the nearest town, Tenderly.
Suddenly Bud braked the jeep to a halt on the sandy side road. “Hey, what’s that joker doing up there?” he muttered suspiciously.
On the low mesa just above them, a figure was seated on a small camp chair, peering through binoculars. They could see his car parked at the foot of a rough trail leading upward to the mesa top.
As they watched, the distant figure raised what appeared to be a camera. “Looks like a photographer,” said Bashalli. “I’m told nature studies are very popular. I myself have seen many such photographs in dental offices.”
“Then why is he snooping at the Citadel through those glasses?” Bud demanded. “It’s not exactly one of nature’s wonders!”
The man again raised his binoculars, and the glasses certainly appeared to be trained toward Enterprises’ nuclear research facility.
“I’m suddenly overcome with sheer curiosity,” declared Cousin Ed. “Shall we strike up a conversation, Budworth?”
“I’m game, Edgar.” Bud and Ed jumped from the jeep and scrambled directly up the boulder-and-brush-strewn slope, ignoring the heat. The two girls, rolling their eyes, decided on the more leisurely trail route.
Ed Longstreet, in a competitive mood, beat his younger companion to the top. “Say there!” he panted out. “What’s the idea of those glasses?”
The figure, a youngish, wiry-looking man with tousled, carrot-red hair, jumped to his feet, startled, almost dropping his binoculars.
“To see better,” the man replied tersely, but with a hint of a mocking grin. “Why d’you think—old-timer?”
Ed unconsciously ran a palm across his scalp. “I’ll bet,” he growled, knotting his fists, ready to defend his honor as a Balding American. “I think you’d better hand over that camera, Red.”
His opponent drew away protectively. He paused long enough to carefully set the camera on the ground behind him. “Touch my camera, man, and you touch me first.”
Ed stepped forward to do just that, when a voice behind him threw off his rhythm.
“Aw, good grief,” exclaimed Bud Barclay. “Now I know we’ve got trouble!”
ECCENTRIC THIRD WHEEL
“HEY THERE, Bud!” called out the diminutive redhead with a broad grin. “Been a while, hmm?”
“I take it you two are acquainted,” Ed noted sourly.
Bud looked a bit grim. “You might say that. Ed Longstreet — Gabriel Knorff, ace photographer and freelance expert on getting underfoot.”
“Just call me Gabe,” said the young man, offering his hand. “I like it better than what Bud here calls me under his breath.”
As Ed shook his hand warily, Bud explained that Gabe had been part of the Swift expedition to Little Luna, Earth’s phantom satellite Nestria. “He has a real talent for inserting himself in other people’s business.”
Gabe laughed. “Well—it’s something.”
Bud wasn’t ready to be friendly. “In case you don’t know it, pal, that’s a top-secret research station you’ve been poking your nose into!”
“I’m not likely to steal any secrets at this range.” The red-haired young man looked Bud up and down. Then he raised the binoculars to his eyes again.
Irritated by Knorff’s careless attitude, Bud snatched the glasses from his hand.
“Come on! Give those back, please,” the photographer demanded.
“I’ll give you a poke in the jaw if you don’t explain what you’re doing here!” Bud stormed, grabbing him by the front of his polo shirt.
“Oh, Bud! Stop it!” Sandy commanded as she and Bash came running up from the trail. “Honestly!”
The young co-pilot snorted but calmed himself and let go. “Okay. Sorry, Gabe.”
Knorff shrugged. “I know I get under your skin. It’s my hair—like when a bull sees red.”
Bashalli giggled. Bud seemed less amused.
“Nice to meet you—I think!—but we still have a right to know what you’re up to,” said Ed evenly.
“Can’t blame you for being suspicious. I guess I shouldn’t have been conning the Citadel with binoculars.” Gabe seemed to be weighing how much of an account he ought to provide. “Well—I was just doing a job. Real freedom-of-the-press stuff, you know. I was working on a freelance assignment over in Socorro when someone called me with a big money offer if I’d get some photos of Tom Swift inside the installation and email them to him.”
“But why?” asked Sandy.
“He said he wanted to verify, absolutely and definitely, that the reports he’d received were accurate—that Tom was really there. Swift Enterprises has been quick on the ‘no comment’ lately, you know.”
“My cousin’s a little tired of the world always getting in his way,” Ed noted dryly. “Mighty eccentric method to verify where somebody is, though.”
“The guy is pretty eccentric. But he sure does have money!”
“Okay, so who is it?” Bud asked.
“Ever hear of Milt Isosceles?”
Bud had indeed! His jaw dropped. “Good night, the car guy?”
Sandy asked Bud to explain. “He’s the president of Imperative Motorskill,” was the response. “A major magnate!”
“Imperative Motorskill,” repeated Bashalli softly. “Yes, the car company. I believe they call it ‘Number Four’. And I have read that he is regarded as a bit peculiar in his temperament and ideas.”
Gabe chuckled. “He says it makes him creative—helps sell his product. Anyway, he didn’t say much more than what I’ve just told you. I’ve managed to get a couple nice telephotos of ol’ TS walking around, and I’ll be sending them to Isosceles later today. If Bud doesn’t chew up my camera!”
Bud scowled but admitted that he had no right to prevent Knorff’s actions.
“This may even be a good thing, in a way,” Ed suggested. “Milt Isosceles isn’t exactly some sort of phantom spy. Whatever he has in mind, it may be something Tom and Damon will be glad to find out about.”
This proved to be the case. When Bud phoned his friend from the jeep, Tom told him to relax. “There’s nothing out in the open here that we wouldn’t want getting out. As for me—well, if Mr. Isosceles needs to know, absolutely for sure, that I’m here at the Citadel, it must be because he plans to fly in and meet me here for some reason. I’d like to find out what it is.”
“Must have to do with the atomicar,” Bud suggested. Tom agreed.
Gabe Knorff, his mission concluded, had ambled down the trail to join them. At Ed’s query he began to talk about the two previous occasions on which he had become involved in the affairs of Swift Enterprises. The saga was cut short as Sandy gasped in dismay. “My ruby ring! It’s—gone!”
The ring, a bit too large, had evidently slipped off her finger when she had returned to the jeep. They all embarked on a frantic search. Bud’s face flamed with embarrassment when he discovered the ring under his foot—the metal band badly bent.
“Bummer,” said Gabe, wincing. “But listen, here’s an idea.” He suggested that the ring could be repaired by a famous jewelry designer in Taos, some miles away. “I was planning to head that way anyhow, to transmit my photos. Maybe, if it works out, we could pick up my old chum Mr. Invention and make an afternoon of it.”
Both Sandy and Bashalli were delighted at the idea of visiting the famous art colony. Before the conversation ended, Gabe had accepted an invitation to join their picnic. If Bud was somewhat unenthused at the notion of spending a day with Gabriel Knorff, he managed not to voice it.
Returning to the Citadel after the picnic, Bud and the others persuaded Tom to take an afternoon off from his lab work and drive with them to Taos, taking a company minivan and following Gabe’s car. The highway wound along the Rio Grande amid rabbit brush and wild flowers. Taos itself proved to be a quaint old Western town nestled at the base of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Some of the huge cottonwoods shading its dusty streets had been there since the days of Kit Carson, its most famous citizen.
They strolled about as a group for a time. Then, Gabe leaving them, Tom drove through the bustling plaza to the Indian reservation three miles distant. Taos Pueblo, built before Columbus discovered America, rose from a plain at the foot of the smoky-blue range like a child’s brown mud castle. It was rectangular and terraced, with crude wooden ladders leading from one story to the next higher one. Black-haired Indians, garbed in blankets, sat before the turquoise and red doors of their apartments.
“How fascinating!” Bash exclaimed.
Ed Longstreet nodded. “It is. And yet—not so different from the traditional village lifestyle you find all over the world. Something like this must be the default state of the human race.”
After touring the settlement, Tom drove back to the town. Here an Indian shop owner directed the five visitors to the adobe studio of Benn Garth. The jeweler’s eyes lighted as Sandy showed him her mangled ring.
“I’ve never seen a ruby quite like this before,” he said, examining the stone through a jeweler’s loop. “Looks rather like the kind from Afghanistan, but this has much finer fire.”
“Do you think it came from Kabulistan?” Tom asked casually.
Garth looked up at him. “Oddly enough, I do. I’ve seen only a few museum specimens from the Kabulistan mine—it’s lost, you know—but this certainly resembles them in color. I’m not a mineralogist, but I’m told these rubies have some unusual structural features.”
At that moment Bashalli gasped and pointed toward the window. As the others turned, they saw a dark-featured man in an Oriental turban suddenly duck out of sight!
A LASSOED SNOOPER
BUD whirled into action and darted out the front door of the studio. He collided head-on with the man in the turban!
The jolt left Bud speechless for a moment as the man stared at him with wounded dignity. Recovering, Bud gripped the man’s arm and demanded, “Why were you spying on us?”
“I beg your pardon, but I was not.” The dark-featured man shook off Bud’s arm contemptuously. “I was merely passing the window on my way to enter the studio and happened to glance in. Now will you please allow me to get by?”
“Okay.” Bud stood aside and stared at him in baffled surprise. The stranger adjusted his white, gold-threaded turban, then walked in.
“My name is Mirza,” he said to the entire shop. “Is Mr. Tom Swift here?”
Everyone looked at him in surprise. Tom spoke up. “I’m Tom Swift.”
The man bowed and made a gesture of salaam. “I am the secretary to Mr. Nurhan Flambo, the head of Pan-Islamic Engineering Associates. Mr. Flambo is now at your atomic research station and urgently wishes to confer with you.”
Mr. Flambo, the secretary explained, had flown from the Middle East via New York for the sole purpose of seeing Tom Swift. After landing in New Mexico he had taken a car directly from the airport to the Citadel. There, Mr. Flambo had learned of Tom Swift’s trip to Taos and had sent Mirza to summon him back at once.
“And how did your Mr. Flambo learn that our Mr. Swift was here in New Mexico?” asked Bashalli with a withering look.
Bud frowned. “From a guy named Gabe Knorff, maybe?”
“I do not know that gentleman,” was the stiff reply. “From Manhattan Mr. Flambo spoke directly to Mr. Damon Swift in Shopton, by telephone. Knowing of Mr. Flambo’s international reputation, Mr. Swift was more than cooperative.”
“Why didn’t he bring his ‘international reputation’ to Taos himself?” Bud demanded. Mirza merely shrugged.
Tom, too, was somewhat irritated by the highhanded demand. Evidently this Mr. Flambo was accustomed to having people jump when he issued orders. On the other hand, if he had flown all the way from the Middle East, there must be an important reason and it seemed only polite to see him.
Ed Longstreet chuckled. “My gosh, cuz! You must be the one with the rep—everybody’s trying to get some face time with you!”
Tom frowned a moment, then said, “Sorry to bail on you, guys, but maybe I’d better go back. You four go on with your day. Mr. Mirza can drive me back. If he doesn’t mind.” Mirza gave a polite nod.
Arriving at the Citadel after a strained, silent ride, Tom found his visitor pacing back and forth in the lobby of the reception building. Flambo, a plump, hawk-nosed man with a trim black beard, greeted Tom with an angry glare.
“I have been waiting here for over four hours,” he complained as they shook hands. “My time is of value to me.”
“As is mine. A call that you were coming would have saved us both some inconvenience,” Tom returned evenly. He suddenly realized that his father would surely have tried to contact him immediately at the facility. If he had missed the call, it meant that Flambo and company had flown to New Mexico as quickly as had the Sky Queen the day before! “I hope you have been comfortable.”
Flambo snorted. “A ridiculous-looking cowperson brought me what he called lunch—a concoction of rattlesnake meat. An insult to my culture and beliefs, as I have come to expect among Europeans and Americans. Naturally I was unable to touch it.”
Tom repressed a grin. He could just imagine!—and now he knew that Chow Winkler had arrived. “Chow probably thought he was paying you an honor, sir. He does prepare—er—unusual delicacies at times.”
As he spoke, Tom looked over his visitor carefully. Flambo was dressed impeccably in a suit of shimmering gray silk. Tom’s eye was caught by his ruby tie clasp.
“Perhaps we can talk more comfortably in a private setting,” Tom said. The man nodded curtly, dismissing the hovering Mirza with a wave of his hand.
As they walked across the grounds toward one of Tom’s lab buildings, the young inventor remarked, “I can’t help admiring your tie clasp, sir. That’s a Kabulistan ruby, isn’t it?”
Flambo bared his white teeth in a sneer. “I fear your knowledge of rubies is not so expert as your scientific skill, my dear Mr. Swift. This happens to be a pigeon’s-blood ruby—a gift from a colleague in India.”
“My mistake,” Tom said with a smile. But he was not entirely convinced.
When they reached the office adjoining a lab, Tom offered his guest a chair and sat down behind his desk. He wanted to look unintimidated. “What can I do for you, Mr. Flambo?”
There were no further pleasantries. “My company—no doubt you have heard of Pan-Islamic Engineering Associates—is making a great contribution to the Middle East, as you prefer to call the Muslim world,” Flambo said proudly. “We are building roads, bridges, and refineries—all with technicians from our own countries. A far better way than letting greedy outsiders get a foothold!”
Tom nodded. “I believe science knows no national boundaries. All countries have a right to share in scientific progress.”
Flambo scowled. “Unfortunately some countries use their scientific leadership to impose their will on less advanced areas.”
“Some do,” Tom agreed coolly. “Not the United States.” Tom bristled instinctively. But then he recalled that his father had acknowledged, to Moshan Prandit, that such feelings were understandable.
Flambo shrugged impatiently. “It is no matter. My company could make good use of your new small-sized atomic dynamo, which we have read about in the journals with great interest. You must surely realize that such a power source has uses much more valuable than to run an electric automobile, even one that flies through the air. We are therefore prepared to offer any price within reason for the sole industrial rights to your invention.”
Tom was startled. Then a smile spread over his face. “That’s the second time in a few days I’ve had such an offer, Mr. Flambo. My answer to both offers is No. When and if my midget power plant is perfected, I intend to sell or lease it for use wherever it can help mankind. That’s the way the Swift family does things, and it’s the policy of Swift Enterprises. We avoid politics if we can.”
Flambo’s eyes blazed. “Meaning you and your government will make it available wherever you can use it as a tool for getting advantage over weaker countries!” he stormed.
The telephone bleeped. Tom picked it up, listened a few moments, then replaced the receiver with an amused look. “Excuse me a minute, sir,” Tom told Flambo calmly. “Your secretary Mirza seems to be trying to get a foothold where he doesn’t belong.”
Tom hurried outside and found Chow Winkler holding Mirza tightly bound in the loop of his lariat, a security man with a cellphone standing nearby.
“Caught the sidewinder sneakin’ past my galley window—snoopin’!” the born Texan reported. “Jest enough time t’ grab my lariat and make a catch fer you.”
Mirza was quivering, either from anger or fear, Tom could not decide which. The secretary’s face looked livid as he muttered something unintelligible.
“All right, let him go, Chow. I’ll take over,” Tom said, taking over the rope. He warned his prisoner, “An atomic research station is a dangerous place to go wandering around, Mirza. Don’t try it again.” He removed Mirza’s bonds, returning the lariat to Chow with a wink of gratitude.
“Reckon you’d better keep an eye on that boss o’ his, too,” Chow warned. “I never did trust a critter that don’t appreciate good vittles!”
Tom grinned and started back to his office. Mirza accompanied him silently. In the meantime, Flambo’s temper seemed to have died down.
“Your answer to my offer, then, is a flat refusal?” he asked Tom.
“I’m afraid it will have to be, sir.”
“Then there is no further point in my remaining here.” Flambo turned and snapped an order to his secretary in what sounded, to the young inventor’s barely tutored ear, like Farsi or Arabic. Politely but firmly, Tom insisted on accompanying them to their rented car. Then he watched until the guard at the gate flagged them through.
Good night! he thought ruefully. Now I know what they mean when they say “everybody wants a piece of me”!
Twenty minutes later he was pouring a batch of molten metal from a miniature electronic furnace into a keg. The white-hot mass was a new alloy of the metal called Neo-Aurium, mined on the floor of the Atlantic, bonded to radiation-resistant Inertite. He was creating a container with a series of minute, bubble-like hollows in the center, into which the newly discovered stable isotope, a granule smaller than a grain of salt, would be inserted. Tom was wearing protective dark goggles and asbestalon-Inertite gloves and apron.
Suddenly, as he finished pouring, Tom’s ears caught a hissing, crackling noise behind him. He turned and gave a gasp of fear. His workbench was a mass of flames—which were shooting perilously close to a shelf full of flammable chemicals!
Tom pushed an alarm bell and grabbed up a fire extinguisher. Luckily he was able to douse the flames even before help arrived.
“What happened?” the chief of the facility fire crew asked, after making sure the danger was past.
“I’m not sure.” Tom shoved up his goggles and began poking among the scorched debris. “Oh-oh! Here’s the answer,” he announced a moment later. “The electrical lead to my glass pyrometer rod must have shorted. There’s a kink here, where the insulation probably frayed. Just an accident.”
The crew left. Then Tom repaired the damaged electrical lead and went back to work. That evening, when Bud, Ed, Sandy, and Bash returned from Taos, the five young people enjoyed a snack of hamburgers and milk in the laboratory. Bud scowled suspiciously after hearing of the blaze and asked: “Did you say Flambo stayed in your office when you went out to rescue that sneaky secretary?” Tom nodded. “Then how do you know he wasn’t responsible for that electrical short?” Bud demanded. “He could have slipped into the lab while you were gone.”
Tom frowned. “It’s possible. But why should he? I mean, I turned down his offer, but that’s hardly a reason to threaten my life.”
“Some people take perceived insults very seriously in that part of the world,” Ed cautioned.
“And of course, he may just be what Chow calls plumb loco!” offered Sandy.
Tom snorted. “We’re getting way ahead of the evidence!” Nevertheless, before going to bed that night, Tom sent an email message to Harlan Ames at Enterprises. He asked the security chief to check on both Flambo and Pan-Islamic Engineering Associates.
Some time after midnight, Tom was aroused by the telephone burbling on his bedside table. “I don’t know why I even bother closing my eyes,” he mumbled to himself. He groped sleepily for the instrument. “Hello?... Tom Swift speaking. I think.”
“This is Benn Garth in Taos,” said an agitated voice at the other end of the line. “I just surprised a thief breaking into my studio. Thought I’d better let you know right away. He was that man with the turban who came here looking for you!”
“YOU mean Mirza?” Tom sat bolt upright, completely awake.
“Right. My studio is wired with a silent alarm because of the precious stones and valuable jewelry I keep here,” Garth explained. “When the alarm went off, I jumped out of bed and dashed to my workshop just in time to grab him. But he put up a nasty fight and finally escaped out the window.”
“What about my sister’s ruby ring?” Tom asked.
“Don’t worry. It’s still here in my safe. In fact, he didn’t take anything, so far as I can discover. I don’t know what he was after.”
Garth added that he had called the police and they were mounting a thorough search for the suspect.
“Good deal,” said Tom with a shrug in his voice. “Maybe he admired your jewels when he was there today—er, yesterday—and thought he saw an opportunity.”
“I called partly to warn you that the fellow is a criminal—maybe even dangerous,” Garth said. “Also to find out if you had any information about him.”
Tom told as much as he knew about Mirza and his employer. “When they left here this afternoon, Flambo claimed they were going to fly back to New York,” Tom concluded. “We should ask the police to check with the airport at Albuquerque.”
“Good idea. I’ll notify the officer who’s my contact on the matter.”
After Garth beeped off, Tom lay awake for over an hour, thinking. Had Mirza just been tempted by the sight of valuable jewelry lying about the studio? Or after all, was it Sandy’s ruby that Mirza had been after? But if so, why that gem in particular?
Mirza’s first appearance at the studio window had certainly seemed furtive and suspicious. And Garth had just been saying, at that moment, that the ruby might have come from the Kabulistan mine! Tom recalled. In either case, where did Mirza’s employer, Flambo, fit into the picture?
The thought of Flambo’s ruby tie clasp flickered through Tom’s mind as he finally dozed off.
As Chow served breakfast that all-too-soon morning, Tom discussed the late-night incident with Bud. “About time things got hot on this ‘case’!” declared the dark-haired pilot. “Er, no pun intended.”
“So far this is much more mystery than thriller,” chuckled his pal. “Smoke bombs, a few accidents, a breaker-inner, various weird industrial types—not much to shake a fist at.”
Bud glanced up at Chow, pouring orange juice. “Good to see ya, wrangler man—though at first I thought somebody had left the door to the reactor open!”
“Fer once I agree, buddy boy,” replied the rotund ex-Texan, glancing down at the explosive clash of colors on his billowy western-styled shirt. “Had t’pick up somethin’ kind o’ on the spur of the moment, fer the funeral. Leastways it’s got black in it.”
The former chuck-wagon cook from the Texas Panhandle had first met the Swifts on one of their trips to New Mexico while planning the construction of the Citadel. On this morning, as usual, the roly-poly chef was decked out in a ten-gallon hat and gaudy sport shirt. Everyone who knew him considered it something of an official uniform.
Tom asked about the funeral. “Mighty nice,” responded Chow, “takin’ account that y’got a dead body right spang in the middle of it. Good ole Pappy Burge!”
“Did you know him well?” inquired the young inventor sympathetically.
“Never met the feller. Jest went a-cause I knew a bunch o’ my old ranch pals’d be there.” The cook approached the boys and spoke confidentially. “But y’know somethin’, you two? Dang if half o’ those old guys ain’t gettin’ fat and turnin’ bald! Brand my vitamin pills.”
Soon Sandy and Bashalli arrived to join Tom and Bud for breakfast. When Tom told them about Mirza’s breaking into the studio, Sandy exclaimed, “And to think it might have been my ring he was trying to steal!”
Bud lifted a forkful of bacon and eggs. “Don’t take it personally, San. Maybe he can’t help it. Maybe he’s the Thief of Baghdad.” Sandy, who was just finishing her orange juice, choked and sputtered with laughter.
Bud slapped her vigorously on the back, then turned to Tom. “Seriously, Skipper, I warned you the turban-engine creep and his boss were up to no good!”
“Right again, flyboy,” Tom conceded with a grin. “When’ll I ever learn?”
“Don’t give this’n so much credit, boss,” urged Chow. “It’ll make the muscles in his head grow as big as the others!”
Later that morning a phone call from the Taos police informed Tom that Flambo had arrived on schedule in New York. “But Mirza was not with him,” added the police lieutenant.
“How come?” Tom asked.
“Flambo told the police that just before taking off from Albuquerque, Mirza had informed him he was quitting his job and refused to accompany Flambo on the flight back. Apparently Flambo was angry at his employee. He stated that he knew nothing about Mirza’s present whereabouts and cared less. I’m summarizing.”
“That clears Flambo of suspicion—if he’s telling the truth,” Tom mused. “Thanks for letting me know, officer.”
As the morning progressed, the girls and Bud gathered in Tom’s laboratory, Ed Longstreet having decided to take a drive to Santa Fe for the day. They watched quietly as Tom prepared to test a new material he had been working on for some time at Enterprises. The young inventor had extruded several rods which he now installed in a strength-testing machine.
He explained as he worked, “If this stuff pans out, I’ll be using for the body of the finished atomicar.”
“Did you say it’s a plastic, Thomas?” Bash asked in amazement.
“Technically, yes,” Tom replied. “But in all its properties, the material is more like a tremendously strong, hard, featherweight metal. It’s a further development of the material I used on the hydrolung suits, which I named duraflexon.”
“Uh-huh,” Bud said, “molecule-sized chain mail that morphs and flexes when you push a button.”
“Ordinary duraflexon is only super-tough on a small scale—that’s the problem. This new formulation, Durastress, can be manufactured in large, contoured panels. But let’s see.”
When the rods were installed, Tom flipped a power switch and slowly advanced a control lever. He watched the gauge needle creep around its dial as hydraulic pressure built up inside the machine. Soon the sample rods were being subjected to enormous stress. One was being pulled at each end to test its tensile strength. Another was being compressed under crushing pressure. Still another was being bent, while a fourth was being twisted.
‘I don’t see much happening,” said Sandy in a puzzled voice.
Tom grinned. “Neither do I—and that’s good. It means the stuff is as strong as I had hoped.”
His jubilation increased as the torture tests continued. When the rods were removed from the machine and measured, they showed only a small amount of deformation! “And watch this, ladies and gentleman!” Tom attached wired alligator clips to each end of the rod he was holding, then fed in a trickle of current. Instantly he bent the rod into a U-shape, effortlessly. When he let go of one end, it sprung back like rubber.
“Jetz! Looks as if you really have something here, Skipper!” said Bud excitedly. “When do you switch out the Silent Streak’s body material and switch in the new stuff?”
“Soon as we get back,” was the reply. “But I’ll be needing to do some body redesign work first. Arv Hanson’s working on some ideas right now, over in Building 7.”
“Maybe you could start making the Pigeon Specials out of Durastress,” suggested Sandy dreamily. “Then they really couldn’t crash—they’d just bounce!” Tom’s sister had a steady job demonstrating these compact commuter planes, manufactured by Enterprises’ affiliate, the Swift Construction Company.
The young inventor laughingly acknowledged the idea. But then his face grew serious. “I just wish I’d make more progress on the really important part of the trip here—solving the problems with the power capsule.” He reported that his experiments with the new isotope had not born fruit, and the others were sympathetic and as encouraging as non-scientists could manage to be.
It seemed Tom’s work was foredoomed. He was interrupted by two more calls that morning. The first was from Harlan Ames at Enterprises. The security chief reported that he had checked on both Flambo and Pan-Islamic Engineering Associates. “So far as is known, there is nothing detrimental against either the man or his company. Actually, your Dad had already asked my opinion before giving him your whereabouts, but your own request allowed me to look in more detail. No apparent problems—the man’s worked productively with several governments, and with the United Nations.”
“Good to know. Thanks much, Harlan.”
Near lunchtime, as Tom was “cooking” a bubbling brown mass of chemicals in a complicated hookup of retorts and glass tubing, his father telephoned from the Swift home.
“Sorry if I’m interrupting a big scientific breakthrough,” Mr. Swift teased, “but I thought you might be interested in this item of information I just dug up. It concerns the mystery rubies.”
“I sure am interested, if it has anything to do with those rubies,” Tom said.
“Well, son, I’ve been reading that gift book of Ed’s, Travels in Remotest Araby, and I’ve reached the chapters that deal with the Kabulistan region. Guess why the Amir’s Mine was abandoned?” he challenged.
“I give up. Why?”
“Because it’s cursed—by the devil himself!”
ARTISTS AND MODELS
TOM couldn’t take seriously his father’s statement. “What’s the joke, Dad?”
“I’m not joking—and I don’t think the author was, either. An imam, or Islamic holy man, decreed that the mine was accursed by Shaitan,” Damon Swift reported. “Shaitan, you know, is the Muslim name for Satan—and for evil demons in general. The thought of that curse scared everyone in Kabulistan so much that the mine workings were abandoned. It’s an easy guess that they were later filled in. That was two centuries ago and no one has even dared look for it since.”
“I suppose the devil’s curse would scare a lot of people,” Tom said thoughtfully. Then he told his father about Flambo, Mirza, and the attempted burglary.
Mr. Swift was intrigued by the news. “Looks as though you may be getting mixed up in this ruby mystery yourself, Tom,” he remarked.
Tom gave a dry chuckle. “I hope not. After all, I am right in the middle of a hot experiment.”
“In that case, I’ll hang up.” The older scientist laughed. “But please keep me informed of developments, Tom. And not just for my sake. George Dilling is starting to get on my nerves!”
After working at his typically frenzied pace through most of the weekend, with only time out for a church service, Tom decided on Monday to accompany Ed and the girls to Taos to pick up Sandy’s ring. He wondered if Garth, or the police there, might have fresh news about Mirza.
“Will not Bud be joining us?” asked Bashalli. “Tom Swift without Bud Barclay seems rather lopsided!”
“I’ve asked Bud to stay and give a hand to Arv in the modelmaking shop. He’s helped Arv before, you know.”
Chow, too, begged to go along. “Brand my apple dumplin’s, you ain’t headin’ off agin without me, are you, boss? This here’s my country, you know!”
“Sure you’re coming, pardner,” Tom said soothingly, throwing his arm around the seasoned, and somewhat weathered, Texan. “We planned this trip on such short notice, I forgot to let you know.”
“S’whut I figgered. Reckon I’ll mosey around in town a bit while you buckaroos are gettin’ that ring,” he said. “T’ tell the truth, I prob’ly should buy a new shirt before I start in payin’ calls on my friends in Tenderly.”
As soon as the minivan arrived in Taos Chow hurried off with a wave.
“Don’t buy any Indian shirts with purple-and orange thunderbirds on them!” Sandy called.
Chow turned to give a dignified sniff. He had hardly taken two steps forward again when a plump woman with orange-yellow hair and jangling silver earrings pounced on him with a glad cry. She wore a paint-smeared artist’s smock.
“Oo-ooh! What a colorful character!” she shrilled in a piercing voice. “A perfect Western type! Such rugged, sun-bronzed features!”
“Huh?” Chow gulped. “Beg pardon, ma’am?”
His remark sent her into fresh gales of excitement. “And the voice too! You positively must pose for a painting!” she declared. “Naturally I’ll pay you the top model’s fee!”
Chow’s face took on a pleased smirk as he realized that she was an artist and wished to paint his portrait. “Wa-aal now! Reckon it’s natural to want the real thing if you’re lookin’ fer a rugged, straight-shootin’ cowboy,” he said, doffing his ten-gallon hat. “I don’t mind posin’ fer a spell.”
Sandy and Bash giggled as the woman dragged him off triumphantly, and Ed joined in with a chuckle. The watchers saw them enter a low adobe house halfway down the street.
“I think that was Lady Thunderbird herself,” Tom confided in a low voice. “Come on! Let’s get Sandy’s ring.”
Benn Garth greeted Tom and his companions at his studio and produced the new ring setting he had fashioned for Sandy’s ruby. Ed gave a whistle of admiration and both girls gasped with delight.
“It’s beautiful!” Sandy declared, holding out her hand like a queen for all to see. “A perfect fit, too!”
The silver ring now consisted of twining serpents, their heads and tails forming the setting for the stone.
“It’s certainly a fine piece of craftsmanship,” Tom remarked. Yet he frowned thoughtfully. The serpents reminded him of what his father had told him—the curse of Shaitan! He had refrained from mentioning this to the others.
“Sandra, you are most elegant,” stated Bashalli admiringly. “You may even earn a look or two from our dear Bud—if you are ready for such a heart-stopping event.”
Garth invited the four to have refreshments at his studio and Tom took the opportunity to inquire about Mirza. “The police have no fresh clues,” the jeweler said. “The funny thing is, where could he have gone in the wide-open country around here? Of course he may still be hiding in Taos. Actually there’s no easy way to identify him without his turban. And the town’s always thronging with tourists at this time of year.”
“Mr. Garth, are you very sure the burglar was Mirza?” Bashalli put in.
Garth frowned thoughtfully. “It’s true I couldn’t see his face in the darkness very well. But the burglar did have on a turban—and I’ve never seen anyone else around here wearing one.”
“But that could be just what an impostor thief could be counting on!” exclaimed Sandy with a shrewd look. “It’s what I’d do.”
“You would make a marvelous criminal, Sandra,” commented her Pakistani friend.
Presently, and with many expressions of thanks to Mr. Garth, the four young people took their leave and strolled along the pleasant, quiet street, seeking out the cool shadows. Presently Sandy noticed that her brother was walking more slowly and had fallen behind.
“Come on, Tom! Oh, let me guess—you’ve got some new invention hatching up there under your crewcut, right?”
Tom’s answer was in low tones, his eyes narrowed. “Just keep walking, please. I think we’re being followed.”
Ed Longstreet looked back up the block, startled. “You must have X-ray eyes, cousin. I don’t see anyone anywhere. Must be siesta time.”
“No no,” whispered Bash. “I understand, for I see him too. We are being followed from the front!”
Sandy gave her friend an incredulous look, but it was easy to see that Bashalli and Tom were both serious. Now she noticed, turning her gaze, that they were not alone on the block after all. Some ways ahead a lone figure was ambling along, his back toward them. “You’re right, Tom!” Sandy whispered, more enthused than alarmed. “I noticed him earlier too, watching us from a distance.”
“Watching you from a distance watch him from a distance,” added Ed dryly.
“He’s been keeping pace with us,” Tom said, “carefully slowing when we slow and walking faster when we do. And he must have just waited somewhere while we were with Mr. Garth.”
“Surely he is casing the joint—for another robbery!” hissed Bash. Sandy gave her a poke, and they both giggled with excitement.
Tom had noticed that the man risked a concealed backwards glance at them every ten steps or so. Immediately after the next such glance, Tom suddenly sprang into motion! Like a track-team runner he sprinted up the block, silent in his tennis shoes, overtaking the startled man in moments and grabbing the back of his shirt.
“Okay, mister, what’s with you?” demanded the young inventor.
The man tore himself loose from Tom’s grip with a powerful lunge. “What? Get away from me!”
Tom took his opponent’s measure. The man was on the youthful side of 30, it seemed, muscular and broad-shouldered. His close-cropped hair was an off-shade of dark auburn. The young inventor couldn’t help an inward gulp. Sure wish Bud had my back right now! he thought. His quarry looked like he wouldn’t be at all easy to handle!
“You’ve been spying on me and my friends for some reason,” declared Tom flatly. “You’re not leaving until you tell me why!”
“I don’t have to tell you anything!”
The man started to turn away. Tom threw himself forward, again grabbing for the man’s shirt—but this time his opponent was ready for him! A forearm whipped up against Tom’s jaw, rocking him back. And the fight was on!
As the two bobbed and weaved along the sidewalk and into the street, Ed and the girls came running up, shouting words that Tom did not pause to comprehend in the heat of battle. But the girls managed to separate the opponents—and then the words made sense. “Tom—this is Orton Throme! He’s the famous abstract painter!” cried Sandy.
As Tom, panting, gaped in astonishment, Ed added, “And Mr. Throme is also a well-known war hero and jet pilot.”
“We have studied him in art school,” was Bashalli’s contribution.
Tom stopped short as he suddenly remembered various magazine accounts he had read about “Ort” Throme and his exploits in the wars of the Middle East.
“Good grief! I—I’m sorry, Mr. Throme,” he said, thrusting out his hand. “Guess I acted too fast, without... well, just without.”
“Pretty powerful left hook you throw.” The ace chuckled, shaking hands. “Call me Ort, by the way.”
“You are shaking the hand of Tom Swift, world famous boy inventor,” pronounced Bashalli Prandit. “He cannot paint. But he has been to the moon!”
Now Ort Throme seemed as astonished as Tom had been! “Go tell! You never know who’ll you’ll run into in this town! But I don’t think you came at me to trade autographs, hmm?”
Tom explained shame-facedly, and Throme burst out laughing. “Okay, now it’s all clear. And I guess I was acting a little suspicious. You see, I noticed you earlier, Tom, and as an artist I have a pretty good eye, if not a great memory. I couldn’t place you, and it kept buggin’ me. I’m afraid the situation brought out my stubborn streak. That’s why I kept hanging around...well, and also― ” To the onlookers’ surprise, the artist blushed! “Also, I—that is, two pretty girls, and I, I was trying to figure out― ”
“Oh my word, you wished to make our acquaintance!” Bashalli’s voice showed that the wave of astonishment had now spread her way.
“As the only one here who is neither pretty nor a celebrity, we’d be delighted if you’d join us at dinner, Ort,” stated Ed Longstreet. The others added their urgings, and Throme finally accepted.
“In fact,” he said, “if you don’t have a restaurant in mind, I’ll guide you to one of my local hangouts. Wonderful food.”
“Actually, we have one more in our party, Mr. Throme, who’d surely like to meet you,” Sandy said. She glanced at Bashalli. “I wonder how Chow is getting along with Lady Thunderbird.” She turned to Ort and explained: “Our friend is in there, probably posing for Custer’s Last Stand.” Throme chuckled.
“We can all see for ourselves,” Bash continued mischievously, pointing to the artist’s house far down the street. “Mr. Throme, too. You’ll like our friend—he is colorful!”
As they passed the driveway beside the house, Sandy glanced into the back yard and clapped a hand over her mouth. “Oh, no!” she exclaimed, struggling hard not to burst out laughing—and the laughter was winning!
In the yard, seated before an easel, was the stout lady artist. She wore a blissful expression. Her subject was not so happy.
Chow’s leathery face bore a scowl. He wore a gaudy silk neckerchief and bearskin chaps as he posed beside a discontented, even downright surly, cow.
“Now pick up that branding iron,” the artist ordered, “and pretend you’re branding the bull.”
“You don’t brand ’em standin’ up!” Chow protested. “An’ besides, I keep tellin’ ya, this ain’t no bull!”
As if in total agreement, the cow turned her head and licked Chow’s face. “Git away!” the cowboy stormed.
Unable to restrain themselves any longer, the watchers burst into shouts of laughter. Chow’s neck reddened with embarrassment. “Sorry, ma’am,” he apologized, doffing his big hat, “but this stuff ain’t fer me, I guess.”
The woman appeared stricken. “Ohhh, dear. But Mr. Winkler, you’re so perfect!”
“Ye-ahh, that may be, little lady, but I ain’t no model.” He handed her the chaps and kerchief she had provided. “And that’s no bull!”
Looking straight ahead, the flustered cowboy stomped out of the yard. Tom clamped a hand on his shoulder as he passed. “Come on, old-timer. What you need is a good, juicy, three-inch steak!”
Chow brightened. “Now you’re talkin’, boss. An’ loaded with ketchup, too!”
The chef was introduced to Orton Throme. “Say, it’s a right honor. I got a book o’ your pictures back in Shopton!”
“What do you think of them?”
“Don’t rightly know. Never did open up the book, t’tell it straight.”
They dined in a small cafe. Throme talked of his experiences in the Afghanistan conflict, and Tom spoke of his triphibian atomicar. He avoided all mention of the ruby mystery, and his subtle glances warned the others to do likewise.
“A flying, swimming supercar, eh?” The artist’s face assumed a thoughtful look. “What’s it look like, Tom?—if you don’t mind my asking.”
“Not at all,” said the young inventor. “There’ve already been news articles about it.” Taking out a pen, Tom sketched out a rough drawing of the prototype. He pointed out its various key features. Ort gazed at it in silent fascination, then produced a pen of his own and commenced drawing on his dinner napkin.
“Lovely!” exclaimed Bashalli when she saw the result.
“Just doodling,” Ort replied with a smile. “Call it one possible direction your prototype could evolve toward.”
The sketch presented a sleeker, more attractive version of the atomicar’s body shell and overall configuration. The teardrop dome now completely enclosed the upper part of the vehicle, nose to tail, without a break in its smooth line. Throme had added some chrome trim, and had moved the forward wheel cowlings further toward the front, so that they now extended slightly beyond and below the enclosed nose. “Wow!” grinned Tom, very impressed. “The future on wheels!”
Ed studied the drawing. “Mounting the wheels so far forward really changes the look.”
“Now the Silent Streak looks more like a leaping jaguar!” Sandy exclaimed. “I’ll bet Enterprises’ll sell a million of ’em!”
Tom handed the sketch back to Throme. “Ort, would you be interested in selling us this design of yours?”
Grinning, Throme waved off the napkin. “No, Tom, keep it—it’s yours. Send me a release to sign if you want. I don’t care to become a paid automotive designer.”
“Son, you stick to yer picture-paintin’, ’specially western stuff,” advised Chow. “Never goes out o’ style!—an I been in plenty o’ motels.”
Darkness had fallen when the group finally started back to the Citadel, with Tom at the wheel. Sandy and Bash were still chatting excitedly about the day’s sightseeing and their encounter with the celebrated Orton Throme. The highway was almost deserted, moonlit and star-lit except for a pair of lights far behind them. Eventually even that disappeared.
About ten miles out from Taos, the van’s engine suddenly began sputtering and coughing. “Wonder what’s wrong,” Tom said.
“Frankly, cousin, it sounds as if we’re out of gas,” Ed said cheerfully.
“We can’t be. Look at the gauge needle.”
A moment later the engine died abruptly. Tom barely managed to steer off the road before the van rolled to a halt. The three menfolk got out to check the tank, lift the hood, and offer unneeded advice.
Suddenly a distinctive-looking pair of headlights flashed on some distance away on the highway. The car that had been behind now overtook them and pulled off the road just ahead of the van. A bareheaded man leapt from the car, brandishing a revolver.
“Raise up your hands, all of you!” he snarled in a voice that had a familiar foreign accent.
No turban. But it was Mirza!
AS HE strode toward Tom, Ed, and Chow, Mirza’s face was starkly revealed in the glare of the Citadel van’s headlights. He looked pale and unshaven. His eyes gleamed fanatically.
Moving past the three men, Mirza jerked open the rear door. “You women, if you please—step outside!”
“At least you asked politely,” commented Bashalli with calm dignity.
Sandy followed Bash out. Mirza motioned for the girls to join the others.
“I suppose you drained our tank while we were having dinner back in Taos,” Tom accused Mirza. “And then doctored the fuel gauge.”
“Most clever of you to guess,” the man sneered. He turned to Sandy and held out his free hand. “I will take that ruby ring, please!”
As Sandy stepped back defiantly, Tom snapped, “Go ahead, take it from her. I want to watch what happens when you touch it!”
Mirza froze. “And what is this?”
“In case you’ve forgotten, the rubies from that lost mine in Kabulistan bear the curse of Shaitan! Did you forget what happens to one of the faithful who defies the words of an imam?”
Tom’s words were a mere shot in the dark. But the effect was startling. The former secretary’s face contorted in fear. “What does a young American fool like you know about the curse of Shaitan?” he blustered.
“I know that it’s already bringing you bad luck,” Tom said smoothly. “Every word we’re saying is being picked up—which means a State Police car is probably on its way here right now!”
“Take a look for yourself at the cellphone on the dashboard,” Tom prodded. “It’s on. Did you think we wouldn’t guess that we were being followed, just because you switched off your headlights?”
“We spend half our time in public being followed,” Sandy added. “We’re very used to it.”
Mirza took the bait. He edged toward the open door of the van. As he bent forward slightly to glance inside, Chow’s gnarled fist shot out in a whirling uppercut!
The punch caught Mirza on his outthrust chin. He tottered backward and Ed dived at his legs in a tackle that brought the man crashing to the ground. Before Mirza could bring his revolver into play, Tom wrested the gun from his hand.
“Don’t try any stunts!” Tom warned.
Said Bashalli mockingly, “The stunts are to be all on our side! Unfair, is it not?”
Mirza struggled like a madman, but Ed and Chow pinned him relentlessly to the ground by the power of muscle and unforgiving gravity. Tom quickly got a length of rope from the van, and Mirza was finally subdued and bound.
“Brand my tumbleweed soup!” Chow panted, when it was all over. “Back in the noose! Yuh’d think the critter would learn.”
Mirza gasped out a torrent of abuse in his native language. Several times his listeners caught the word “Shaitan.”
Tom asked Bashalli if she could understand any of it. “A little bit,” she replied. “Most of which I shall not venture. I am too refined. As to the rest, it appears he is unhappy with you and rather upset. And he advises the devil to shift his curse onto your shoulders, Thomas.”
“Let’s jest hope he ain’t listenin’,” declared Chow nervously.
Tom made use of the van’s dashboard phone. Soon a State Police car arrived. The sergeant in charge tried to question Mirza, but the prisoner gave only raving, disconnected replies.
“Beware! The Amir’s ruby must be returned to Kabulistan, or hurled into the depths of the sea!” he stormed. “If not, the curse of Shaitan and his afrites will fall upon you!”
“I guess that’s all we’re likely to get out of Mirza,” Tom murmured. “Might as well show him his cell, officer.”
The sergeant agreed in disgust. “I’d say this guy belongs in a padded cell.”
After Tom put some gasoline into the van’s tank from the police car’s emergency supply, he and his companions continued on to the Citadel.
“Tom, do you suppose Mirza really believes in that silly curse?” Bash asked a few moments later. “Or was the whole thing just an act?”
“If you ask me, he was just covering up to keep from answering questions,” Ed Longstreet said flatly.
Tom agreed. “For all we know, he may still be working for Flambo!”
Sandy shuddered. “If that business about the curse was just an act, he deserves an Oscar!”
For a thoughtful moment Tom did not comment. Then he said: “Frankly, I’m not worried about any ‘curse.’ But there is something I wonder about. We would have left Taos a lot sooner if we hadn’t spent a long dinner chatting with Orton Throme.”
“You’re thinking he might be in league with Mirza?” asked Ed in surprise.
“What I’m thinking is, that extra time allowed Mirza to do a number on our car after it got dark.”
“Never did trust them artistic types!” snorted Chow. “No offense, Bashalalli. Jest mean the men.”
The next day Tom reported the incident to Citadel security and by phone to Harlan Ames. He soon forgot about Mirza and the attempted burglary as he plunged back to work in his laboratory. A study of the new isotope’s atomic characteristics had sparked a different train of thought.
“Maybe I’ve been thinking too narrowly,” he said to Bud Barclay. “Why think in terms of a miniaturized atomic reactor in the first place?”
Bud grinned. “Because otherwise you wouldn’t be able to call it an atomicar?”
The young inventor laughed. “But there may be an entirely different way to utilize atomic reactions to produce power.” Tom explained to Bud that, some time previous, he had run across a report in an internet journal concerning a novel theoretical approach to using neutron decomposition to induce electric current. “In fact, we were given permission to repeat the article on our own website, ForeSite. This was back when I was trying to solve the power problem on my space solartron.”
“You solved that problem with your antiproton device,” Bud observed. “Couldn’t you use the same thing in your cars?”
“The energine?” Tom shook his head. “It runs on Exploron gas, remember, and the stuff is very limited in quantity—we don’t know how to manufacture it.” Switching on his computer, Tom visited ForeSite and brought up its archives. “Here’s the article,” he muttered. “Hmm! That’s interesting.”
“I’d forgotten—the original research was funded by Imperative Motorskill!”
“Ah hah! That must have something to do with Mr. Isosceles wanting to see you!” The dark-haired flier asked if Tom had yet heard from the eccentric businessman.
“Not a peep,” Tom answered. “Strange, isn’t it? In any event, I don’t need to speak to Isosceles at this point, not about the neutron research. I’ll contact the company scientist who worked on it. Let’s see—the name is Rosso Freegler.”
“Jetz!” Bud chuckled. “I’m sure glad I don’t have to come up with these names! Sometimes you gotta wonder what parents are thinking.” It was a matter very familiar to young Budworth Newton Barclay. And to his childhood schoolmates.
Tom began making calls. To his dismay he soon found that Dr. Rosso Freegler was no longer in the employ of Imperative Motorskill, “where skill is the last word.”
“I’m sorry, but it’s against our policy to give out information on our former employees,” pronounced the head of human resources. “It’s a liability issue.”
“I understand,” Tom said. He made several other calls—to his father, to various contacts in science, industry, and government. Finally he hung up in disgust.
“Guess the guy doesn’t want to be found,” Bud suggested.
“Maybe not.” Then the young inventor decided to try another approach. “Bud, there’s one thing about us scientist-inventor types—we can’t help commenting when we think we see other people heading off on the wrong track, scientifically.”
“So I wouldn’t be at all surprised to find that Freegler has sent letters to various scientific journals since he left Motorskill. I’ll put a few search engines on the scent—we might be able to dope out his location!”
Tom’s strategy began producing answers almost instantly. “Thank goodness the guy has an uncommon name! All these ‘hits’ must be the man we want.” It developed that Freegler had written several letters to scientific publications and research journals. One printed letter gave a partial address!
“Cygnus Crossing, Wyoming,” repeated Bud. “Never heard of it.”
“According to the net-atlas, it’s about eighteen miles southwest of Cody. Good night!—population 38.”
“Counting the mules?”
As expected, calls to directory assistance yielded nothing. But ultimately the town police station had an answer for him. “Sure enough, that Freegler fella lives just outside town, in Nameless Creek Pass. Little shack, not much more’n that.” Tom asked if the officer had a telephone number. “Nope. No phone out there, far as I know. No lines, no cell service, nothin’. Comes wanderin’ into town now and then for food and such—that’s all.”
Tom took down directions from the officer, then ended the call and turned to Bud triumphantly. “Shall we pay a visit? It’s still morning.”
“Great! Always wanted to meet a real hermit.”
“We’ll take the SwiftStorm.” This was Tom’s wingless cycloplane, a supersonic jetcraft capable of hovering on a pair of spinning cylinders. The SwiftStorm was carried aboard the Flying Lab as an auxiliary craft.
They flew north, just skirting the mighty Rockies. It was not long before Tom could announce that the small scattering of buildings in view below was the tiny hamlet known as Cygnus Crossing. “And that section of woods over there between the hills—must be Nameless Creek Pass.”
Bud snorted. “If that little squirt of a creek is Nameless Creek—no wonder it’s too embarrassed to give its name!”
Coming in low, they set down the SwiftStorm in a clearing among the trees about fifty yards from the small rough-hewn house that was the only sign of human habitation in the area.
As they climbed down to the ground, Bud said: “Let’s just hope this guy― ”
A shot cracked out, splintering a bough on a nearby tree!
“—isn’t the type to take a shot at unannounced drop-ins!” he finished wryly.
THE TWO youths stood with hands in the air as the echoes of the shot died away. A crunch of leaves underfoot turned their attention to a man making his way toward them with a determined stride and a rifle.
The man was quite a concoction of humanity. He appeared to be about forty years old, with dirty blond hair straggling down to his narrow shoulders from a bald spot at the top of his head. His pointed chin bore a blond goatee of nearly equal length, making it more a facial ponytail than a goatee. He was dressed in old worn jeans and a stained and dingy blue-striped T-shirt.
Two pale, bloodshot eyes blazed in the direction of Tom and Bud.
“Dr. Freegler? I’m Tom Swift,” said the young inventor, cautiously lowering his hands.
“Yeah?” The man looked Tom up and down. “Guess you are at that.”
“Mighty hostile way to greet a fellow scientist!” snorted Bud.
“You’re on my land. Didn’t invite you here. Besides, I wasn’t aiming at you boys—saw a squirrel in the tree.”
Tom glanced around. “Looks like you missed it.”
“I’m a lousy shot. Now let’s get everything out on the table, hmm? You here from him?”
“Him?” repeated Tom. Then he made a guess. “Do you mean Milt Isosceles?”
“Shoulda known,” responded Freegler with a sour nod. “Figured he’d track me down.”
“I’m not representing anyone but myself,” said Tom coolly. “By the way, this is my friend Bud Barclay.”
“I know. In news photos he’s the one always standing next to― ”
“Now that we all know each other,” interjected Bud forcefully, “do you suppose we could sit down and talk?”
The man shrugged. “Now why would I want to talk to either of you? I happen to like my privacy, boys—I cherish it. Whatever you want to talk about, I’m pretty sure it’s something I’ve left behind, out there in the world. Now you just climb back on that cycloplane of yours and forget me.”
Tom responded with brusque anger at the man’s hostility. “The fact is, Dr. Freegler, it seems Mr. Isosceles has been trying to get in touch with me—or plans to do so. If he’s some sort of threat to you, it might be in your interest to find out why I’m here.”
“I take it you’re used to having things your own way.” Yet Freegler seemed impressed by Tom’s reasoning. “Okay. Come with me.”
He led Tom and Bud across a dilapidated wooden porch into his home, a shack-like structure of warped unpainted planks and boarded-up windows. But stepping through the doorway, they stopped in amazement. The interior—disorderly though it was—had the general appearance of a modern research laboratory!
“I live off the grid, boys, to keep our paranoid, busybody world at arm’s-length,” Freegler explained. “But the work continues.”
He motioned the Shoptonians into chairs, and pulled up a lab stool to face them. “What sort of work are you engaged in, sir?” Tom asked, hoping he would not seem to be prying. “Are you still engaged in work on neutron decomposition under relativistic time dilation?” Bud’s eyes widened humorously at his chum’s ten-dollar words.
Rosso Freegler made a gesture of contempt. “That’s not important. My old life is not important. I won’t let the devil and his minions drag me back into it.”
“I take it you mean Mr. Isosceles.”
“I’ve identified him, Tom. He’s the Consuming Fire.”
Tom wondered if he had heard right. “Excuse me?”
“Look around you!” commanded the researcher, indicating the mounds of notes thrust here and there all over the room. “Like Isaac Newton, I have entered upon a quest for the transcendent. Even when I worked at Imperative Motorskill, I had begun my investigations. When I confirmed that the Consuming Fire was to burn the Tree of Wisdom, I quit and covered my tracks. Someday Isosceles will find me. It is written! I hope to make it a distant day.”
Freegler stood and began to pace about the room. Bud whispered softly to Tom: “Another one, pal.”
The young inventor addressed Freegler in sympathetic tones. “Perhaps if we understood more, Bud and I could help protect you from the Consuming Fire.”
“What is predestined cannot be denied,” was the response. “I see now—you are the Hawk Fish, coming down from the sky.” He stared at Bud. “You—I don’t know who you might be.”
Bud shrugged. “A Californian.”
“Where do you get this... information?” Tom asked gently.
Freegler’s eyes lit with enthusiasm. “Ah! Count the letters of the Hebrew Book of Genesis, dividing them by the decimal expansion of Pi. Consider the proportions found in certain old paintings, the orientation of the Great Sphinx with regard to Primordial North, the layout of old cowpaths in England and France.”
“Er... all right.”
“Have you ever noticed the suspicious fact that the disk of the moon just happens to fit precisely over the disk of the sun? It happens only now, during Man’s time on Earth, for the moon is slowly receding and the visible disk will soon be too small. Is this coincidence? I think not, Tom! We scientists can’t be expected to believe in coincidence.”
Tom nodded gravely. Freegler was becoming more italicized with every passing moment.
“I’ve found the secret, my friend. Mathematical symbols expressing concepts—a universal language! Ever thought of that?”
Tom smiled. “It has crossed my mind, sir.”
The man nodded. Suddenly his tone and expression changed to one of impatience. “Why are you here, exactly?”
“I’m in the process of perfecting a new kind of vehicle,” responded the young scientist-inventor. “It has an advanced design, but I’m having trouble solving the problem of a power source. Your work on neutron decomposition might be the key to it, if you’ve progressed beyond what you indicated in your published article.”
Freegler seemed bewildered for a moment. “Article?” But then he snapped his fingers. “Oh yes. My foolish work at Motorskill. You’re looking for the final tensor manifold equations, I suppose.”
“That’s right, doctor.”
“I’ll give them to you. It’s all part of the old life. Fingernail shavings.” Freegler spent a few minutes—quite a few—digging through his papers before finally holding up one sheet in triumph. “Here it is! As you can see, I wrote the equations in green crayon. Color is very important, an underrated property of matter.”
“I’ve often thought so,” Tom agreed politely. “May I see them?”
“Oh, take them, take them. They aren’t mine, you know. How can you own an idea? Truth and wisdom come from the universe. We mustn’t horde them.”
As Tom and Bud left, Tom expressed his gratitude. “These formulas are a great achievement, Dr. Freegler. You’ll receive full credit. Swift Enterprises will provide generous compensation for your giving them to me, I promise.”
“Compensation? Ah well. The best compensation would be for you to take a gun and shoot Milton Isosceles,” said the man with a pleasant smile. “Goodbye, boys. Nice to see you again.”
Bud frowned. “Again?”
“I told you, I’ve seen both of you in photos. And so, now I see you again. Right?” He closed the door on them. From the inside.
Tom looked at Bud and said: “Jetz!”
Back at the Citadel, Tom began working with Arv Hanson on translating Freegler’s findings into a power plant for his triphibian atomicar.
“Man alive, this stuff is so fascinating I almost don’t mind the fact that my last few days of work are completely down the drain!” chuckled the broad-shouldered Scandinavian.
“For that, I’m sorry. But if this new ‘neutron dynamo’ shows promise, you’ll be able to play around with Orton Throme’s design for the atomicar.”
“Which looks like a great deal of fun!” Hanson declared. “So let’s have the basics of this neutronamo of yours.”
Tom explained how, in principle, accumulated positive and negative charges produced through the controlled decomposition of neutrons would induce a powerful current flow. “The new isotope plays an important role,” he stated. “It’s the source of our neutrons.”
With the basic conceptual problems overcome by Freegler’s equations, Tom and Arv had soon put together a test prototype, which they proceeded to test and tweak over several days. “I’m satisfied that the neutronamo is the way to go,” grinned the young inventor at last. “I think it’s time to head back home.”
Departing at dusk the majestic Sky Queen zoomed northeast, a shielded canister of the new isotope cradled securely in the skyship’s hangar-hold.
In the lounge Sandy asked Cousin Ed if he would be continuing on to Mexico from Shopton. “Not right away, cuz. I’ll be visiting Mom and my stepdad in Vermont, then Dad and my stepmom in Providence. And then― ” His eyes twinkled with mystery! “Then I have a new destination.”
“Oh really, Ed? Where?” Bashalli asked.
“Place called Kabulistan.”
“Kabulistan!” cried Sandy. “Oh Ed, take me along, won’t you? We can solve the ruby mine mystery!”
“As a matter of fact, I have a notion to look into it—that’s why I changed my plans.” His face assumed an exaggerated expression of regret. “But as for you—alas! Your esteemed brother tells me you have a few responsibilities to take care of in Shopton.”
Sandy gave a sigh. “My esteemed brother can be a stodgy spoilsport. And he worries about me too much.”
After a restful night at home in Shopton, Tom plunged into the redesign of the atomicar with great and infectious enthusiasm. He was just concluding a late lunch when Arv Hanson dropped by with a detailed model of the new body shell in his hands.
Tom whistled in admiration. “What a beauty, Arv! This will be a big help in putting together the full-sized version for the demonstration model. And by the way ... ” continued the youth with a sheepish look. “Can I count on you to ride herd on the project? With Hank away, you’re the only one I’d trust to take on a hurry-up engineering job like this.” Hank Sterling, Enterprises’ chief engineer and a close friend, was taking a long, much-postponed vacation with his family.
“You can count on me, boss. It’s just a question of whether I can do it. What sort of turnaround are you looking for?”
“As fast as you and the fabrication shop can deliver the goods. George Dilling is― ”
“Yeah, I know. No blueprints, eh?” Arv considered a moment. “Well, give us forty-eight hours if you want a real slick paint job.”
“Good enough,” Tom said gratefully. “We’ll mount it over the weekend, and I’ll tell George he can set up a press conference and demonstration for Monday morning!”
As soon as Arv left the laboratory, Tom plunged into a flurry of activity that spread to many offices at Swift Enterprises. Press releases had to be prepared, invitations sent to all media news services and automotive editors, and a test track laid out, with a viewing stand for the spectators. Tom arranged to set up the track on one of the runways at the Swift Construction Company on the other side of the town.
On Monday morning Swift Construction hummed with excitement. A throng of newscasters, press photographers, and television camera techs crowded the stand as Tom displayed the futuristic new scarlet atomicar, its sleek dome gleaming in the sun, and explained its operation and propulsion principles.
“Sorry that I can’t reveal the details of my atomic power plant just yet,” Tom told them. “However, it provides a smooth flow of power to a small electric motor at each wheel, without any need for a bulky or complicated transmission.”
Tom proceeded to describe each feature of the advanced vehicle. The name of the present model, he concluded, was the Silent Streak.
The visitors elbowed each other to get in their many questions. Tom spoke at length. “Forward motion during flight, and on or under water, is provided by the wheels. The synthetic material of the tires can be caused to sprout tiny scoop-shaped ‘fins’ all along the surface which will catch the air or water and drag it around the circumference. The close-fitting cowling inhibits the flow on the forward or rear side of the tire, and it’s the buildup of pressure that pushes the car.”
“What about lubrication?” asked the reporter from Today’s Vital Lubricants magazine.
“No lubing needed! There’s no axle, no pivot—in fact the wheels aren’t even connected to the body of the car. You see, ultra-intense permanent magnets in the cowling interact with coils in the wheel, allowing it to float between the cowling’s sides without actual contact. So there’s no friction at all.”
“Then how do the motors make the wheels turn in the first place?” demanded the skeptical, and disappointed, reporter of lubricants.
“The electric motors I’ve mentioned are of a new type. They produce an electrical flux effect that forces the floating wheels into a rotation. As for turning the wheels in steering, we can turn each of the cowlings independently—up to 180 degrees.”
The crowd momentarily satisfied, next came a test run of the atomicar, with Tom the driver. This included a breathtaking demonstration of its flying and hedgehopping abilities, then a plunge into a huge tank of water with transparent walls. Tom wound up by skimming the roof of the Administration Building in full view of his audience, as the stand rocked with cheers and applause—even from Mr. Lubricant. Several of the newsmen, chosen by lot, were then allowed to try out the Silent Streak themselves as Tom sat in the passenger seat.
“And now,” Tom announced over his public-address microphone, “I’d like to show you something very important, the atomicar’s special safety feature, which will be standard equipment on all atomicars. We’ll be putting a couple crash-test dummies in the passenger compartment, and I’ll operate the car by remote control, through the cybertron. The Silent Streak and a heavy truck,” he went on, “also operated by remote control from the airfield tower, will be driven head-on toward each other at top speed. Let’s see if the dummies survive!”
One watcher, with a cigarette dangling from his lips, broke into a loud guffaw. “Looks like you don’t have much faith in your own invention, Swift!”
“What makes you think so?” Tom asked calmly.
“That remote steering gadget,” the man taunted. “If your safety setup is really foolproof, why not drive the car yourself?”
Tom eyed the reporter coolly. “Good point. I will drive it myself!”
AN APPREHENSIVE murmur arose from the spectators. After ordering the driver-dummy to be removed, Tom turned to enter the cockpit. The woman sent by the Shopton Evening Bulletin to cover the event rushed forward and clutched his arm. “Are you sure you know what you’re doing, Tom?” she whispered. “There’s bound to be some risk. That guy’s just sore because he missed out when they drew lots!”
Tom murmured something to the reporter, who nodded and returned to the viewing stand. Then the young scientist-inventor climbed into the Silent Streak and addressed the crowd via loudspeaker. “As you can see, I’m not wearing a safety belt, or any kind of restraining harness.” As he settled back into the contour seat and activated the various controls and sensor devices, Tom grinned and held up crossed fingers to the spectators. Then he rested his hands on the joystick lever to his right, and the trackball at his left.
There was no sound—not from the car, not from the apprehensive crowd.
But suddenly the silent Streak and the big truck were hurtling along in rapid motion. The two vehicles sped toward each other along the narrow track, faster and faster. The onlookers gasped in horrified suspense as car and truck accelerated to startling speed!
Within inches of a crash, the two vehicles slammed to a halt as if momentarily frozen in time! Then they rebounded safely from each other. Though the front of the heavy truck was crumpled in, its windshield shattered and its doors wrenched from their frames and hanging open, the much smaller and lighter atomicar seemed utterly oblivious to what had happened!
There was an instant of awed silence. Then the spectators burst into thunderous cheers. Tom waved and flew the atomicar back to its spot in front of the stands.
“So how did you do it, Tom?” yelled one of the TV reporters as Tom exited the vehicle.
“It’s those darn repelatrons again!” he laughed. “Inside the viewdome are several very small repelatrons that are bolted to the frame of the atomicar. By means of automatic spectro-scanners they tune themselves to the body composition components of the passengers, particularly to the body’s water content, which pervades our cell structure. A mild repulsion force helps keep you in your seat, and when the cybertron senses that a crash is imminent, the system produces a big surge of repulsion power to hold you back safely.
“And that’s not all. The materials of the shell—the dome in particular—are made of a material called Durastress, which can be caused to be flexible and somewhat elastic. It rebounds immediately from any crumpling force.”
“But the truck never even touched the car!” a reporter called out. “How’d you manage that?”
“There are other small repelatrons hidden inside the wheel cowlings, aimed forward. As the oncoming danger will usually be visible for several seconds before impact, the sensors have time to analyze the approaching vehicle’s composition and beam out enough repulsion force to cancel out the relative motion between the two vehicles.” To further applause, Tom stated that he called the technique a repelatron anticrash system.
The excited crowd dispersed until only a few were left—Bud, Chow, Tom’s father, publicity chief George Dilling—and the man with the cigarette who had dared Tom to put himself in harm’s way. Dilling was shaking the man’s hand. “Beautiful job, Art! Wonderfully effective way to make the point—and pretty entertaining, too.”
Art Wiltessa, key supervisor of Enterprises technical assembly, gave a crisp nod. “Glad to help, George—though I don’t really like to think of myself as a shill.”
“Come on now, Art, not one word was false!” laughed Dilling. “Can we help it if people assumed you were one of the reporters?”
Tom gave George a chiding look. “You may be right. I don’t like misleading people, though, even if our intentions were pure.”
“Well, I’d take the blame for it if anybody found out and objected. Hardly a major ethical breach, Tom. And of course no one knows about it.”
Tom grinned and gave Dilling’s shoulder a squeeze. “They will tomorrow. I leaked it to the reporter from the Evening Bulletin. Glad you’re not worried, George!”
With Tom in the passenger seat, Bud flew the Silent Streak the few miles back to Swift Enterprises. “Man oh man, Swift does it again!” he cheered.
“Now that you know how to drive-fly-swim her, you’re my number one choice for official chauffer!” his pal joked.
“Any time, Skipper!”
After the atomicar was safely garaged, Bud followed Tom up to his office. He was still energized. “Say—how about if I put in a little more flying time in the Streak?” he urged.
“Fine with me, flyboy. You know the ropes. I won’t even say, be careful!”
As Tom ducked into his office, Bud turned to leave. Then he noticed that the Swifts’ office secretary and receptionist, Munford Trent, was standing nearby with a hesitant expression on his face. “Hey there, Mun—er, Trent,” nodded the young flyer. “How’s it going?”
“Oh, fine ... ” replied the secretary. “Um... but ... ”
“Oh no, no. I just― ” He came closer and lowered his voice, glancing at Tom’s office door. “I’m really embarrassed to ask this, Bud.”
Bud smiled. “Don’t be. Ask away.”
“Well, since you’re going back up in Tom’s flying car, do you suppose I could ride along with you?”
Bud was surprised. Though he saw and spoke to Munford Trent nearly every day, the man had always seemed very withdrawn and private, and slightly annoyed with life in general—definitely not the adventurous type! “I don’t see why not, Trent. I’ll ask Tom― ”
The secretary looked stricken. “No, please don’t bother him with this. It was just a thought. I—I’ve just been curious about what it’d be like, that’s all.”
“Afraid he’ll say no, huh?” Bud chuckled. “Okay, man, we’ll do it on the sly.”
“That’s wonderful! I’ll take my lunch hour up in the air!” Trent grabbed a brownbag from his desk.
Soon the scarlet atomicar was back in the clouds, dipping and darting around Shopton and Lake Carlopa. Trent’s face was flushed with sheer excitement. “I can’t believe how exciting this is! You know, Bud... I really don’t have the opportunity to have much fun. My life’s a little on the dull side.”
“Maybe you should get out more, pal.”
“Oh, I try. It’s hard to make friends. Frankly, I’m a little shy. Other guys always made fun of my idiotic first name. Matter of fact, so did Mom! But maybe they saw the truth. I guess I really am a Munford.”
The secretary looked downcast, and Bud tried to express sympathy.
Presently Bud said, “Well, what have we here?” He pointed downward through the viewdome to a cluster of viewing stands, some colorful tents, and a long and twisting dirt track. A few race cars were speeding along it, raising trails of dust.
“Tryouts of some kind,” said Trent. “I think I read something about a county-wide race coming up this weekend.”
Observation made it clear that any competition below was an informal one. The various cars were feeling-out themselves and the track. “Reminds me of something, something I read,” Bud remarked. “Tom gave me a Jules Verne story to read, about a man who invented something like a flying car. He barged into an auto race to demonstrate what it could do.”
Trent was silent for a moment. Abruptly he exclaimed: “So? Why not?”
“Huh? You want me to― ”
“They call you a hot rock and a daredevil around Enterprises, Bud. So now I’m daring you!” Trent’s narrow, sallow face was bright with a grin of sheer excitement.
The gulp was Bud Barclay’s. But he had never been one to turn down a dare!
With a deep breath, and not a word, he eased down the slider switch on his unicontrol lever. Like the auto-airship in Master of the World, the Swift atomicar plunged into full swoop!
In truth, the swoop was a bit steeper than it needed to be. So you want a thrill, hmm, Trent? thought Bud mischievously. He was satisfied to see the secretary’s face take on the slightest tinge of sea green. Trent’s comment on the situation was succinct: “Aaaaaaaaaaa!”
Bud skimmed the lead car, almost scraping its roof, and plopped down a few yards ahead of the astonished driver. Then he opened her up! There was no sound as the advanced electromotors twisted their fields of force about the suspended wheels, pulling them harder, spinning them faster. No whistle, no whoosh of cleaved air penetrated the Durastress viewdome. But the atomicar leapt ahead on the track, widening the gap with its follower as if the racer had stalled out.
“G—g—g― ” choked out Munford Trent.
“Good grief?” suggested Bud.
Guided by the all-wise cybertron brain, the hidden gravitexes allowed the Silent Streak to take the track’s sharp, unexpected curves without hesitation, repelatron forces holding her passengers firmly in their seats. But the repulsion effect did not apply to their inner ears. The turns left them woozy.
In a matter of seconds the atomicar had completely covered the course, lapping the half-dozen others, worming through their ranks with ease. But as they approached the lead car again from behind, now at track level, the driver seemed to panic. The race car swerved aside, tilting up on its side wheels as if it were about to whirl out of control, disastrously!
With a startled cry Bud brought his lightning reflexes, well-honed, into play. The Streak rose into the air, adding the bite of its ultra-fast wheel-blades to its momentum. They darted off to the side of the stricken race car as it began its tumble. Bud forced the atomicar into a quarter-rotation, her nose pointing at the race car, and activated the anticrash repelatrons in the forward cowlings. For second the two vehicles, one airborne, one halfway to catastrophe, kept pace with one another as the repelatrons took hold in one direction, the stabilizing gravitex devices in the other.
The race car slammed back down onto four wheels, and ground to a rough stop in a flurry of dirt and dust.
“I—I think—that driver might be a tad put out,” observed Trent.
Bud picked up the dashboard microphone and spoke through the car’s external speakers. “Sorry folks! Minor malfunction! Have a nice day!”
Neither of the passengers spoke as the Silent Streak zoomed back to Enterprises. Their thudding chests did their speaking for them.
As the atomicar settled down onto its parking pad, Bud wheezed out: “So Trent—enough fun for a while?”
“I—I don’t think I’ll be having any lunch today. But—thanks, Bud—buddy!”
The youth returned a wan smile. “Any time.”
The next day brought a surprising message to Enterprises public e-mail, directed to “Damon and Tom Swift.”
“As you may know, I had a most pleasant conversation with Ed Longstreet recently in London. I’m taking the liberty of inviting the two of you to spend a weekend at my hunting lodge in the Adirondacks. Would this coming weekend prove convenient? I believe you two dedicated inventors will find the outdoors environment most relaxing. Asa Provard”
“That’s the banker Ed told us about, Dad!” Tom said, after reading the message from his monitor. “You know, the atomicar project is in pretty good shape now. Taking a breather might be a good idea.”
“As far as you’re concerned, Tom—I agree. But right now I can’t accept, since I’ll be flying down to Fearing Island this weekend to show off our rocket facility to some Washington bigwigs,” Mr. Swift said thoughtfully. “But you go on. Have Bud take my place. If this Provard wants to talk business, he can send his feelers your way as well as mine. Go see what’s on the fellow’s mind.”
“Sure. It might be fun. What can we lose?”
Tom contacted Provard’s office to confirm the arrangements.
Late Friday afternoon, as prearranged, the financier’s private plane arrived at the Enterprises airfield to pick them up. The sleek twin-engined jetcraft landed and a grinning, auburn-haired figure climbed out to meet them.
“Orton Throme!” Tom was amazed—and wary. “What’s going on here?” he muttered under his breath.
“FANCY meeting you here!” said Bud dryly as he shook hands with the artist-pilot. “Missed out on it the first time.”
Tom merely grinned, somewhat cautiously. “Hi, Ort!”
“I suppose you guys are pretty surprised to see me.” The ex-military airman looked a bit embarrassed. Even two bits! “Hop in. I’ll tell you all about it after we take off.”
The two boys climbed aboard and took seats inside the luxuriously fitted cabin. Ort revved the jet engines, and on signal from the tower taxied along the runway for takeoff.
When they were airborne, he flashed the boys a grin. “Well, here’s the story. I fly, off and on, for Asa Provard,” Ort explained. “You see, Provard was mighty good to me when I first tried my hand at painting after I got out of the service. He paid for two years of study in Paris and bought my paintings when no one else would. I guess you could say he believed in me, and that’s mighty important when you don’t fit well with the world of business.”
Tom nodded. “I know the feeling, Ort. I’m on the edge of that world, but it’ll never give me the kind of creative life I really want.”
“It can be rough. They make you feel like a kook, a misfit. You know what it’s like.” Ort continued, explaining that Asa Provard allowed him to live at his country estate year round. “I guess I’m a sort of live-in caretaker and handyman, and it’s a perfect environment for my painting. Asa doesn’t ask much of me. I get to travel, too—sometimes I carry out various special assignments for him around the world, sort of as a special personal representative.”
“I’m beginning to think our meeting in New Mexico was no accident,” Tom remarked.
Bud added with a wink Tom’s way, “Scientists don’t believe in coincidence, y’know, Ort.”
Ort flushed. “You’re right. I’d been planning a painting trip to the Southwest. Provard learned from his business contacts—believe me, they know everything!—that you were leaving to work at your nuclear installation. He asked me to—well, sort of size you up.”
“Which was the purpose of the dinner,” pronounced Tom with a nod. “You’d have suggested it if we hadn’t. And that bit about trying to place me, wanting to meet the girls― ”
“What can I say, Tom?” Throme grinned apologetically. “I’m afraid I sort of... trailed you from the Citadel to Taos. But needless to say, my report back was highly favorable.”
“This is what happens when you leave your right-hand guy behind, genius boy,” stated Bud with a nudge.
“I’m curious,” said Tom, “to know why Mr. Provard sent for me. What was I being sized-up for?”
“Honestly, I don’t know,” Ort confessed. “All I can tell you is that he’s the head of one of the biggest banks in New York. He has several other bigshot financiers waiting at his lodge to meet you. Trust him, Tom. He’s a great guy, and I know him as well as anyone. Better.”
Tom and Bud exchanged meaningful glances. It was clear that whatever Provard wanted, it must be highly important—in his own mind, at least.
The flight took them over a green wilderness of rugged, forest-clad slopes and sinuous mountain lakes. Presently their pilot murmured, “Here we are!” and set the plane down on an airstrip carved out of the mountainside
Bud gave a whistle as they climbed down. “Some layout!”
Just below the airstrip stood a magnificent low rambling lodge built of rough-hewn logs and fieldstone. On one side lay a row of tennis courts, and on the other a huge swimming pool.
A bald-headed man, with twinkling blue eyes and gold-rimmed glasses, came strolling up the slope to greet them. He was wearing a polo shirt and khaki shorts.
“I’m Asa Provard,” he announced, smiling and thrusting out his hand to Tom. “Delighted you were able to accept my invitation.”
“Sorry my father wasn’t able to make it,” Tom said. “This is my friend, Bud Barclay.”
“Ah, Barclay! I know who you are, son.”
Don’t say it, moneybags! Bud grumbled to himself as he shook hands.
When they reached the lodge, three other men, named Tompkyns, Ruthers, and Grane, were introduced to the boys. To Tom’s surprise, there was no talk of business. Provard suggested a few sets of tennis. Later came a dip in the pool, a hearty leisurely dinner, and early bedtime.
“I still don’t know what’s going on,” Tom said to his pal.
“I just don’t want it to stop!” was the happy reply.
After breakfast the next morning, Tom and Bud wandered into their host’s gun room. The walls were lined with several racks of rifles and shotguns, with fishing and hunting trophies mounted overhead.
Bud idly picked out a foreign-made shotgun with damascened barrels and silver-ornamented stock. “What a beauty!” he murmured.
“Expensive enough, but not half so much gun as this good old American twelve-gauge semi-automatic,” said a voice. Ort Throme had come up behind them.
Bud read superiority in the man’s tone and felt a surge of irritation. “You’re quite an expert on a lot of things, aren’t you, Ort?” he needled.
The painter grinned. “Some things. I’m not much of a hunter, but I do a bit of shooting.”
Bud, who was a skillful marksman, decided that the time had come to show some superiority of his own. “How about shooting a few clay pigeons? We’ll make it a match.”
Ort agreed politely. Each chose a gun and they went outside. Tom volunteered to throw the targets from a hand trap.
Taking turns, Bud and Ort each hit five of the first ten targets. The next one Bud missed, while Ort scored another bull’s-eye. Angry at himself, Bud missed two of the next four. Ort, however, continued to blast every clay pigeon thrown, with monotonous accuracy.
Bud began to perspire and turn red in the face. When the match was over, he had knocked down eighteen out of twenty-five targets. Without breaking a sweat, Ort had racked up a perfect score of twenty-five hits!
“You’re probably off form today, Bud,” he said good-naturedly. “I just had a lucky streak.”
“Lucky my eye,” grumbled Bud. “You’re good!” Later, as he and Tom returned the pieces to the gun room, Bud mopped his brow. “Whew! I’m glad that warfare wasn’t for real!”
Tom chuckled and slapped his chum on the back. “I guess the moral of that little contest is, never shoot against a guy whose life depended on shooting!”
The rest of the morning was spent on a leisurely hike through the woods. Then, after a lunch of sizzling fried trout, Provard gathered his guests on a circle of lawn chairs outside the lodge. “No doubt you’re wondering what’s behind this weekend invitation, Tom,” the banker said.
“Frankly, sir, I am.”
“Forgive the air of mystery. I’ll explain,” Provard began. “My colleagues and I are underwriting a private foreign aid project of our own—with no assistance from Uncle Sam. It’s a way to put forward what’s best about our country without getting enmeshed in today’s international political disputes. As you might guess, ‘official’ development help from the U.S. is unwelcome in some parts of the world.”
“Tiresome nonsense,” pronounced Mr. Grane.
“We need the kind of technical help, however, that only you Swifts can provide.” The project, he went on, was an attempt to industrialize the new country of Kabulistan almost overnight. “Lift it by its bootstraps, so to speak,” Provard added.
Kabulistan! Tom and Bud were excited by this announcement.
“Understand, we aren’t starry-eyed idealists,” put in Ruthers with a cough. “We’re out to make a profit. But at the same time we believe we can help Kabulistan raise the living standards of its people— with no strings attached.”
“Our aim,” Provard said, “is to develop the country’s resources as quickly as possible.”
“Before others do?” asked Tom in all innocence.
“We’ll do a better job, young man,” declared Tompkyns over the bristle of a gray mustache. “They’ll thank us some day.”
“We’ve identified one impoverished region to start in,” continued Asa Provard, “and in fact we already have a troop of workers in place. Ultimately this project will mean building industrial plants, dams, roads, bridges, schools, and hospitals.
“We think the project is important to the whole free world, Tom. And you’re right. If we don’t succeed, Kabulistan may soon fall victim to foreign powers who wish to use its strategic location to foment war against the ‘infidel’ West. Certain neighboring countries are already being unduly friendly and offering technical help.”
The banker said he and his group were only financiers—money men. They would need an engineering firm to mastermind and carry out such a big-scale technical program. All were agreed that Swift Enterprises was the scientific organization best fitted to tackle the job.
The talk went on throughout the afternoon and evening. Tom was thrilled by the scope of the project. On Sunday, before Ort Throme flew him and Bud back to Shopton, he gave Provard and his group a tentative Yes on behalf of Tom Swift Enterprises—subject to his father’s approval when he returned from his work on Fearing Island. “Oh, by the way,” he added before boarding the jet, “I was wondering—are you acquainted with Simon Wayne? Or Milton Isosceles?”
Provard shrugged. “Our paths have crossed now and then, of course. Can’t say I know them. Why?”
“Nothing important. They both seem to have an interest in working with Enterprises, just as you do.”
“Good businessmen,” stated Provard noncommitally.
After bidding farewell to Ort Throme on the Enterprises airfield, Tom sat down with his father and his father’s longtime friend Jake Aturian, head of Swift Construction Company.
“Dad, I think it’s a fantastic chance to help the Kabulistanis. Also, it’s a chance to prove how free scientific knowhow can benefit all humanity.”
“Chalk up points for enthusiasm! What’s your opinion, Jake?” Mr. Swift asked.
Mr. Aturian frowned thoughtfully. “Our manufacturing setup isn’t geared for something of such magnitude.” he said. “But it seems Provard’s group is more interested in our technical consulting expertise—and maybe the Swift imaginative bug—than in any massive production turnout. Damon, I agree with Tom. This project is something we can’t afford to pass up.”
Mr. Swift’s blue eyes brightened. He was as stirred by the idea as his son. “Glad you think so, because I agree wholeheartedly!” Turning back to Tom, he addled more seriously, “This will be a terrific undertaking, son, and you’ll have to bear the brunt of it. But it’s hardly the first time. ‘If we can put a man on the moon—’, etc.! I’m confident you’ll do an A-1 job.”
“Thanks, Dad.” Tom’s voice was quiet, but his heart was pounding.
“It’s settled, then,” his father concluded. “Jake, suppose you get in touch with Provard and see about the paper-pushing end of things.”
As the three rose to leave the Swifts’ office, Jake Aturian suddenly snapped his fingers. “Oh—wanted to mention something. Got a call this morning from none other than Milton Isosceles!” His mistook the expression crossing both Swift faces for a lack of recognition. “You’ve heard of him, haven’t you? President of Imperative Motorskill?”
“We’ve heard of him,” pronounced Damon Swift somewhat wryly.
“In fact, Uncle Jake, I was expecting to hear from him some time ago,” Tom said. “What did he want?”
“As you say, it was you he was concerned with, Tom. He wanted to set up a private meeting with you to discuss working out some kind of arrangement to manufacture the new atomicars for public purchase. I told him right off we might have an interest—no way are the Swift companies going to turn themselves into automobile plants!” Aturian smiled knowingly. “I think his purpose was to get me to use a bit of my personal ‘pull’ with you gentlemen. But I’ll let the guy carry his own water.”
“I’ll ask Trent to get back in touch and set up a meeting,” promised Tom. “This should solve at least one of our mysteries!”
Two days later the young inventor was hustled into the big, strangely cramped office of the auto magnate, which had a view of the beautiful capitol dome of Madison, Wisconsin.
A gaunt, waspish man of few words, years younger than his wizened appearance, Isosceles got right to the point. “Thanks for taking the meeting, Swift. I guess you know my objective here. What do you say? Interested in working with IM? We may be Number Four, you know, but we have Number Two in sight.”
“I’d say we’re very interested in looking at some ideas, Mr. Isosceles,” replied the scientist-inventor. “Our company has a project that will be occupying us for a time—but you’d hardly start turning out our atomicars right away.”
“Of course not!” he snapped. “We have to make sure the public wants to buy it first. We have to talk about the advertising pitch, about price. I make it a practice to get ahead of my board of directors, but ultimately they’ll wade into the whole pile of slush before committing.”
Tom nodded. “That’s good to hear. I was a little concerned, frankly. You seemed to be going to some—er, extreme ends to meet with me.”
“What’s that? Extreme? Calling Aturian direct was standard business practice.”
“I meant the business about using Gabriel Knorff to photograph me at the New Mexico facility. He told me all about your call to him.”
Milton Isosceles glared at the young man sitting across his desk. “Gabriel Knorff? Photographs? Swift, what in the name of holy petroleum are you talking about?”
A BOOK GOES BAD
SHOCKED though he was, Tom knew instantly that Mr. Isosceles was telling the truth.
“I’m sorry to have mentioned it, sir,” Tom said after a moment. “It seems I’m mistaken.”
“Well, clear it up quick!” the man commented brusquely. “Let’s have no misunderstandings. This is big business. Want to know something? Life itself is big business. Go home and write that down.”
As Tom left the building, he thought to himself: Good night, I’m just glad I didn’t bring up Rosso Freegler! Isosceles’d throw me through his plate glass window!
But now there was a new mystery—a hoax! Was Gabe Knorff behind it?
It took a good long while for Harlan Ames, intrigued and alarmed, to put Tom in touch with the peripatetic photographer. “Gaggo, Tom, this is unbelievable!” he exclaimed. “I—man, I don’t know what to say!”
“I’m not blaming you, Gabe,” Tom assured him. “But what can you tell me?”
“Not a whole lot more than I already have. I was called on my cell in Socorro by someone office-y who said I should hold the line for Milton Isosceles. I knew the man’s name, of course. So a voice comes on, makes the offer, sets out all the details, and clicks off.”
“Were you ever paid?”
“Sure was. He did as he said and transferred my payment directly into my poor little bank account.” Knorff’s voice sounded as if it were scratching its head. “He’d given me a return number—said it was his private line, direct. I never had to use it, though. And of course I have the e-mail address I sent the digital photos to.”
Tom wasn’t completely dismayed. “A couple clues, anyway. I’ll hand you off to Harlan—he’ll take down the info and see what he can come up with.”
“But what’s up with all this, Tom? Have I been duped by a spy ring or something?”
“Maybe,” said Tom. “You know, Gabe—you journalists are supposed to verify your sources. Right?”
“I’m not a journalist, Tom. I’m a photo-journalist.”
Ames and his assistant Phil Radnor pursued Knorff’s meager clues. But when the security chief strode into the Swifts’ office at the end of a long day, he had few answers. “Here it is, guys,” he told the two. “The e-mail account was one of those ‘you can’t find me’ temporary online mailboxes that anyone can set up, no questions asked. The telephone number was also a come-and-go, according to the private phone service that created it. It was disconnected immediately after Knorff’s photos were received, apparently.”
Mr. Swift asked, “All right, but can’t we follow the money? If these things were paid for by cash, the fellow would have been seen—if by check, identification would have been required, surely.”
“So it must have been by credit card,” Tom deduced. “Only way to do it.”
“That’s right, Agent Swift. Online transactions. The card number is assigned to― ” Ames pulled a note from his shirt pocket. “A Mr. Helmut Moorg of Suenneburg, Germany. Except, of course, Mr. Helmut Moorg, traveling businessman, claims very convincingly to know nothing about it. Putting it all together, Rad and I think someone picked Mr. Moorg’s pocket, made a quick scan of the card with some portable device, and then slipped card and wallet back into the guy’s pants without being detected. Two minutes tops.”
“The work of an expert,” stated Damon Swift. “Do we have an idea where this took place?”
Harlan Ames smiled grimly. “Ohhh yes. For the last few weeks our traveler happens to have been visiting Shirabad—capital of Kabulistan.”
Tom slammed a fist down on his desk. “Then this stuff has nothing to do with the atomicar or an Enterprises invention. It must be tied in with the ruby mine business.”
“And thus,” his father pointed out, “with such shadowy characters as the gold-toothed smoke-bomb planter, the would-be ruby thief—Mirza?—and very possibly Nurhan Flambo!”
“Uh-huh,” agreed Tom Swift. “And taking all that into consideration, it just may be that the real target of all this has been Cousin Ed! He’s the one who purchased the rubies and found that telltale book.” He continued, speculating that the gold-toothed man had kept tabs on Ed in Shopton, and had alerted Mirza, a crony, upon determining that Ed had flown to New Mexico. “Though where Gabe’s photos fit in—that one I can’t guess.”
“Your instincts are usually pretty solid, Tom,” Ames commented; “although so far I can’t put the pieces together any better than you can. But I’ll get in touch with Longstreet in Kabulistan and give him a head’s-up. He could be in real danger.”
“He sure could, Harlan,” said the young inventor worriedly. “Especially if he tries to use the clues in that book to search around for the lost mine.”
Soon after, as Tom prepared to follow his father home for supper, the old book, Travels in Remotest Araby, seemed to occupy his mind. Mr. Swift had brought the book to Enterprises for Ames to look through; now it sat lifeless on his desk. As Bud walked in, he found his chum leafing through it curiously.
“Looking for fingerprints, Tom?”
The youth shrugged. “I’m not sure what I’m looking for. There’s something about this book... Do you suppose the purpose of that bomb scare at the airport was to give someone time to rifle through Ed’s luggage—maybe to steal the book?”
“Well,” said Bud, “if that was the idea, it didn’t pan out.”
Tom stared at his friend silently, frowning. Abruptly he motioned for Bud to follow him. Carrying the book, Tom made his way downstairs and across the grounds with a determined stride, heading for the plant’s main photographic laboratory. Inside the lab, the young inventor headed for one of his more recent inventions, a boxlike console on adjustable support struts that resembled an unorthodox television camera. “I get it!” Bud exclaimed. “You’re gonna retroscope it!”
Tom’s electronic retroscope camera had the astounding ability to photographically roll back the sands of time, allowing the operator to view, in reproduction, the original surface of long-eroded objects. But as Tom set the book on a counter in front of the retroscope’s tubular lens, he shook his head negatively. “The camera doesn’t work well on cellulose material like paper, flyboy. Besides, this book hasn’t been exposed to centuries of cosmic rays.”
“Then why― ”
“The master time dial. I suddenly have an urge to measure the book’s age.” Tom adjusted the device’s various settings, then activated the age-scanning mechanism, which used a different process from that of the image restorer.
Watching over Tom’s T-shirted shoulder, Bud gasped in surprise. “Hey! It’s only― ”
“Right,” gritted Tom. “Despite its appearance, the darn thing is only a couple months old at most. It’s a fake!” Tom realized that the replica must have been treated chemically and exposed to low heat and various radiations to simulate its dry, yellowed, aged condition. “Mr. Gold-Tooth didn’t fail after all, Bud. The whole idea was to switch the original book with this copy.”
“But why? To sell the original?”
“That’s possible,” Tom conceded as he switched off the retroscope. “But then why bother planting an elaborate copy in its place? Why not just snatch and sneak away?”
Suddenly Bud clamped a strong hand on Tom’s arm. “Got it! Taking the original was secondary. The main purpose was to give Ed a substitute version with false clues about the lost mine!”
Tom leapt up from his lab stool and rewarded his chum with a bearhug. “That must be it!”
Bud managed a look that was immodestly modest. “Nothing to it, really.”
That evening Tom was relieved when he was finally able to contact his cousin by telephone. “Sorry not to have responded to Ames’s message right away, cuz. I’ve been spending some time sightseeing Shirabad—before commercial interests and fast-food stands take it over completely. Fascinating, romantic stuff—exotic Persia, the silk road, all that.”
“I’m glad you didn’t go charging off after the Amir’s Mine!”
Ed chuckled. “Oh, I’ve lain in bed looking over the copies we made of that one chapter. Phony though it may be, it’s good reading! Say,” he continued, “that man you were mimicking the other day—Wayne?”
“Simon Wayne? What about him?”
“Maybe nothing, Tom, but I think I saw him today, here in Shirabad! At least it was some blustery-looking guy in a suit matching your description—handlebar mustache and all.”
Tom was intrigued. “It could well have been Mr. Wayne. Kabulistan is where he does a lot of business on behalf of Europa Fabrikant.”
“I didn’t speak. But if I see the man again, I will,” Ed promised.
Before ending the call, Tom told his cousin about the big Enterprises project about to start up in Kabulistan. “We’ll be flying into Shirabad in the Sky Queen day after tomorrow. Provard’s people want me to meet with the group’s engineering team, which they’ve already deployed to a camp in the wilderness.”
“Then I’ll see you and Bud at the hotel. Unless I run across a few lost rubies and decide to do some real traveling!” Ed joked.
The next two days were spent in feverish activity. As an additional step, Tom had decided to undertake a quick survey trip while in Kabulistan to familiarize himself with the country. And who knows?—clues to the ruby mine mystery could turn up anywhere! he thought with a smile.
Supplies were ordered and loaded aboard the Queen. Besides Bud and Chow Winkler, Tom chose Arv Hanson and his and Bud’s friend Slim Davis to accompany him on the flight. An accomplished pilot, Tom knew Slim could take charge of the Flying Lab while Tom and Bud were off scouting about.
Shortly before boarding, Slim approached Tom and said, “Hey, Skipper, I see you’ve loaded your new atomicar into the hangar-hold. Don’t you plan to remove the SwiftStorm?”
“Nope,” was the reply. “There’s room for both, and I don’t want to put all our flying eggs in one aerial basket.”
Slim nodded wisely. Then he said: “Excuse me?”
Tom laughed. “Sorry! All I mean is, the Silent Streak hasn’t yet had a real shakedown in rough, geologically varied terrain of the Kabulistan sort. For all I know, ground temp variations could cause freak air pockets, and so on. If something unexpected starts to act up, I’d like to have the cycloplane available as a backup.”
“Now that makes sense.”
Finally jet-lifting away, the Flying Lab streaked over the Atlantic Ocean to Europe and the Middle East. Then carefully skirting Iran, which had denied passage permission to the great skyship, they crossed the central plateau and Eastern Persian Highlands to wartorn Afghanistan and its new little brother Kabulistan.
Its capital city of Shirabad lay spread out along the sloping floor of a mountain valley. Sunlight twinkled from its whitewashed buildings and tile-domed mosques.
“Sure don’t look like much of a airport fer us t’ land on,” Chow grumbled with his customary prairie joie de vivre.
Bud agreed. “Looks as though they just finished hacking it out with a bulldozer.”
In spite of the field’s size and indifferently paved runways, a surprising number of planes were clustered on it. At a signal from the tower, the Sky Queen touched down on its jet lifters in a corner of the facility that appeared unfinished.
“What’s this—a welcoming committee?” Hanson murmured to Tom as the travelers clomped down the craft’s extensible boarding ramp.
Tom felt a twinge of alarm. A number of soldiers, in ill-fitting khaki uniforms and armed with rifles, had come rushing out of the main airport building toward them. Before Tom and his friends knew what was happening, the soldiers were grabbing them roughly.
“Hey, watch it!” cried Slim.
“Oh no you goldurned don’t, buckaroo!” Chow bellowed, lashing out at a young soldier who laid hands on him.
A rifle butt whacked the chef on the side of his head, and Chow exploded. In a moment a wild melee had broken out!
PUZZLE AND PALACE
ENRAGED by the blow dealt to Chow, Tom and his friends fought back vigorously, punching and elbowing right and left. The soldiers, meanwhile, milled about in a tight tangle, swinging their rifles with hoarse, angry shouts.
Arv’s beefy fists sent one man sprawling, while Tom doubled up a wild-eyed sergeant with a right to the solar plexus. Slim almost went down with his forehead bloodied by a slashing rifle butt. Chow, dazed but angrier than ever, sailed into Slim’s assailant like a fiery-eyed gamecock. As for Bud Barclay—the impulsive ex-footballer was everywhere at once.
With a sickening feeling Tom suddenly realized that the whole project might be ruined before they had scarcely glimpsed the host country they had come to help! “Everybody hold it! Stop!” he shouted frantically.
After repeated pleas and gestures, Tom finally managed to calm the combatants. “No sense starting a war the minute we land,” he pointed out to his companions. “Besides, we can’t take on their whole army. Let’s go along peaceably and find out what this is all about.”
Reluctantly the others followed his example and allowed themselves to be taken in charge. The soldiers promptly herded the visitors aboard a waiting truck.
The man who had struck Chow glared at him like a fierce hawk. But the words out of his mouth were: “You—you fight good!”
The westerner nodded. “You too, son. Hope my head didn’t dent yer gun.”
The soldier looked over the butt of his rifle. “No. Okay.”
The five were driven to an Army barracks not far from the airport. A colonel with a jet black mustache glanced up and glowered fiercely as they were marched into his office. “Ah, yes! Prisoners!” he said in English with a heavy accent. He stood up stiffly and strutted up to Tom. “Tom Swift. So! Now you surely will say, What is the meaning of this outrage!”
“What’s the m― ” Tom began. Then he changed course. “What’s the matter with you?” he demanded, stepping up boldly to meet his captor. “We land here on a technical mission to help your country, and your soldiers attack us without cause!”
The colonel stared at Tom in surprise. Then he stroked his mustache and sneered like a melodrama villain. “Technical mission! That, of course, is your story. Unfortunately for you, we have already been—how do you say?—tipped over that you are dangerous enemy spies.”
This time, it was Tom’s turn to gape in surprise. Recovering, he burst out with a rueful laugh. “I guess your soldiers can prove that we are rather dangerous!” Tom said. “Even though we’re completely unarmed.”
“Unarmed? This is true stuff?” the colonel asked the sergeant in charge. The officer nodded sheepishly. In response the colonel muttered something in his language that sounded unkind—perhaps a harsh personal observation.
“As for our being spies,” Tom went on, “we have visaed passports and papers signed by your own ambassador in Washington, inviting us to come here at the request of your President. You know—tall guy? Pays your salary?”
The colonel frowned and stroked his jaw as Tom took out a sheaf of credentials, many stamped with elaborate gold seals. Reading them over, one by one, the man flushed and began to perspire heavily. Suddenly he sprang up.
“Salmut-e-Salaam!” he exclaimed, bowing crisply and snapping his heels. “It is clear there has been some mistake in our information, and I apologize most deeply. I dedicate my life to discovering the traitorous fool who imposed upon me these absurd orders, which I obeyed by compulsion, most unwillingly. Colonel Kazar, at your service!”
Chow and the others grinned through their bruises. Tom smiled and shook hands with the officer. “By the way, sir, do you mind telling us who the, er, traitorous fool was?”
The colonel stroked his mustache and looked uncomfortable. “Um—ah—the orders were received in a circuitous manner, if you see,” he mumbled. “Most unfortunate. I should prefer to say no more about it. But by jingo!—do rest assured that suitable action will be taken against those responsible. You Yankee Americans are hereby our honored guests.”
Tom guessed that the call had been anonymous, and although very curious as to the identity of the culprit, felt that it would be wiser to let the matter drop.
“Of course. In any case, Colonel, we’re due at the presidential palace for a meeting with His Excellency,” he went on. “Perhaps one of your men could show us the way.”
“But yes. And perfectly.” The colonel leapt into action. He barked out orders and the sergeant bolted off on a run. Minutes later a large, glistening, but somewhat antiquated limousine was driven up to the front door of the barracks.
Colonel Kazar escorted the five Americans out, with profuse apologies and somewhat surreal compliments. The sergeant helped them climb aboard. Tom’s companions were in a giddy mood as the car pulled away.
“Brand my pomegranates!” Chow declared. “I’ll bet we left that hombre stewin’ in the juice!”
The presidential palace, an ancient structure, was a large white building topped by graceful minarets and a gleaming dome that glinted as if encrusted by jewels. After an hour’s wait, Tom’s group was ushered into an office richly furnished with satin draperies, upholstered chairs, and an Oriental rug.
Habib Qassir, the Western-educated ruler of Kabulistan, rose from his desk to greet them.
“I am most grateful,” he said to Tom, “that you have come to help my people with your scientific prowess. Even in Kabulistan we have heard of the exploits of the two famous Tom Swifts, old and new. And look!” He held up a paperback book with a gaudy cover. “Outpost in Space—a gripping story!”
Tom blushed slightly. “Thank you, Your Excellency. The fictionalizations are very popular, though my father and I—well, the book authors sensationalize the facts and usually get the science all wrong.”
“No matter. It is exciting. Is not inspiration the true breath of life?” The President shook hands with each man in the group, then turned back to Tom. “You are free to survey and inspect the entire country at will. Come to me and my officers at any time you need assistance.”
“We’ll do our best to justify your confidence, sir,” Tom replied. “I say that not only on behalf of the Provard group, but on behalf of my father.”
On their way out of the palace, Tom’s group went through an anteroom crowded with people awaiting meetings with President Qassir’s ministry officials. Tom noticed a heavyset, black-bearded man pacing back and forth—a fuming pace Tom found familiar. He was wearing a ruby tie clasp!
“That’s Nurhan Flambo!” Tom whispered to Bud.
Chow grimaced. “Uh-huh. Jest hold me back. Leastwise he don’t have his dang flunkey with him.”
At that moment Flambo caught sight of Tom. His hawklike eyes flashed angrily as he strode forward. “So!” he hissed. “It is clear now why you refused my offer! I have heard about the cunning project by which you seek to gain a business advantage here in the Middle East!”
Bud was about to retort when Tom stopped him. “If you’ve heard about our project, Mr. Flambo,” Tom said calmly, “then you know we were invited here by the President. It would be an insult to decline—wouldn’t you agree? Come on, fellows!”
Outside the palace, Bud said hotly, “Ten to one he was the sneak who gave the colonel that phony tip about our being spies!” Arv and the others were inclined to agree, but Tom refused to jump to conclusions.
“I don’t know, guys. We may have worse enemies than Flambo prowling around.”
The limousine had not waited. Tom had a suspicion its owner was unaware it had been borrowed for “reasons of state.” Slim Davis hailed a rickety taxi and the group returned to the airport long enough for Chow to serve them a dinner of steak and French fried potatoes aboard the Sky Queen—with an optional persimmon topping. Then Tom, Bud, and Arv Hanson sauntered out to explore the town, leaving Slim and the loyal Texan to hold down the skyship.
As they strolled down the crowded streets, Bud nudged his friend. “Know what this place reminds me of, genius boy? That city in Montaguaya!” Tom agreed. Like the capital of the South American country, Shirabad was a strange jumble of the old—very old!—and new. Ancient mosques and houses of sun-baked mud or brick stood within sight of modern highrise buildings of glass and steel. Many of the streets were unpaved, yet flashy-looking automobiles sped past donkey carts that might have come from the era of Marco Polo and Kublai Khan.
“Quite a contrast!” Arv remarked. “You can read about it, but seeing it is something else.”
Veiled women and fierce-faced men in turbans and baggy trousers rubbed shoulders with hurrying Europeans in well-cut business suits. Yet the Kabulistanis were darkly handsome and dashing, both men and women as well.
“Jetz, Europeans and Americans all over the place, not to mention the Japanese! Provard and his partners must have beat out a lot of competition to sell the Big Cheese on this deal,” Bud remarked.
Tom said thoughtfully, “I guess that’s why Flambo was so sore. Some people feel the world is getting too small. I sometimes wonder if they might not be right.”
“It would be a tragedy if the beauty of a city like this were buried under layers of office buildings,” agreed Arv Hanson.
The Shirabad bazaar, which had been the local market place for millennia, was a dirt-floored arcade, covered over by an arching brick roof of modern vintage—only two centuries old! Tom and his two companions strolled inside. The narrow inner lane was lined with booths and stalls where craftsmen and merchants displayed their wares.
“Hey! A bookstall!” Bud said. The boys, intrigued, stopped to examine the volumes, some of which were old, and many printed in different languages.
Tom became excited as he noticed one old book entitled The Jewels of the East and Their Romance. He flipped through its pages as the proprietor stood by eagerly. The volume was written in English and had been printed in 1810.
“Look!” Tom exclaimed softly. “Here’s a chapter on famous ruby mines!” Turning to the proprietor, he asked the price.
The shop owner started to name a sum, but suddenly paled and stopped short with a gasp. “N-No! A mistake! This book—not for sale!” he mumbled.
Obviously, ominously, something had badly frightened the man. Tom whirled just in time to see a tall, sinister-looking, turbaned Kabulistani not far away. He was scowling and fingering a knife at his belt!
ED’S ACHING HEAD
CAUGHT in Tom’s startled glance, the stranger darted away and vanished hastily among the crowd of shoppers.
Bud and Arv had not seen what Tom saw. “We want to buy this book! How much?” Bud persisted. But the proprietor no longer seemed to understand English. He shook his head, snatched the book away, and thrust it out of sight.
The shop owner remained adamant. Finally the Shoptonians gave up and left. Tom then described the man he had seen.
“Ten to one the guy’s been tailing us!” Bud grumbled.
“You’re probably right,” said Tom. “But on whose behalf?”
“Like you said, boss—we have more than one enemy,” was Arv’s comment. “Might as well just pick from the list.”
Thinking over the incident in his bunk aboard the Sky Queen that night, Tom felt sure the book might contain a clue to the Amir’s Mine, a clue someone didn’t want him to have. The next morning he and Bud decided to return to the bazaar, and headed for the bookseller’s stall. To the boys’ astonishment, it was shuttered and empty! They tried to question the merchants nearby, receiving back many mumbles and blank stares, but no enlightening answers.
Suddenly a voice behind the boys asked, “Trying to buy something?”
Tom whirled in surprise. A huge, ruddy-cheeked man with a blond handlebar mustache grinned and stuck out his hand. “Mr. Wayne! So you are here in Shirabad after all!” Tom said, explaining that his cousin had glimpsed him, and introducing Bud.
The man chuckled. “I get around, don’t I? Came here to land some business for Europa Fabrikant! What about yourself? Oh, that’s right—I read about the development project. Asa Provard—good man.”
Tom commented guardedly and changed the subject by mentioning the incident with the bookseller.
“Hmm.” Wayne frowned and twirled his mustache. “That fellow who scared the proprietor may have been a member of the Hassassin. It’s an ancient cult, an underground group of religious fanatics who specialized in murder. It’s where our word ‘assassin’ comes from.”
“Oh swell,” muttered Bud.
Wayne seemed to enjoy his listeners’ discomfiture. “The leader of the sect, known as ‘The Old Man of the Mountains’, once had his stronghold in the Kabulistan highlands. Tell me, did the book have anything to do with the mountainous interior of the country?” he inquired.
Tom hesitated. “Yes, I think it did.”
“That probably explains it,” Wayne said. “I’ve heard a few rumors that the cult is active again—in a new, updated-for-modern-readers version, you might say. The cultists may be trying to keep outsiders from learning anything about the territory where they hide, the Tulq’ha Nur.
“And there’s another angle, boys,” Wayne continued less jocularly. Bud shared an uneasy glance with Tom. “Today’s big motive tends to be training and mission planning for terrorists, aimed at the ‘infidel invaders’ from the world of the decadent faithless—that is, everywhere but here. Such people are going to cover their tracks by any means necessary.”
Tom thanked the businessman for his information and concern, inviting him to dine with the visitors and Ed Longstreet that evening. “Sorry, boys. Got to be off. Business to do. Good to see you, though—you too, Barclay. Keep your friend out of trouble, hmm?” And he was off and gone like a desert whirlwind.
After Wayne and his handlebar mustache had bustled away, Bud remarked with a gulp, “Let’s hope we don’t get our throats cut, poking around these hills!”
Tom and Bud dropped by Ed Longstreet’s hotel, but Tom’s cousin was out, leaving a message at the desk suggesting that they meet him that evening for dinner at a restaurant he had discovered. The Shoptonians gathered there at the appointed hour, but there was not a sign of the balding world traveler.
“You worried yet, Tom?” asked Slim Davis, only half joking.
“Getting there,” was the reply.
But Cousin Ed arrived a few minutes later, safe and sound and bearing a wrapped package under his arm. “Sorry if I set off any alarm bells, folks,” he apologized. “But after I talked to Tom the other day, I had my own inventive brainstorm. Fifteen minutes ago, it panned out!”
“Sounds like good news, fer a change o’ pace,” declared Chow in his foghorn voice, which caused some of the other patrons to turn and look.
“What have you got their, Ed?” Tom asked, eyeing the package.
Ed undid the elaborate wrappings and held up its content. “You guessed it, gentlemen—Travels in Remotest Araby! My special-hire sources—who are now what passes for rich around here—swear they found it by accident. Even without doing the retroscope thing, I’m sure this one’s not a fake.”
The group was energized and exuberant! Tom carefully turned the yellow, crumbling pages to the chapter that made reference to the Amir’s Mine, as Ed lay out the folded copies of the ersatz version that he had brought to Kabulistan. Tom compared the two minutely.
“Do I see a frown on that angelic face?” asked Slim. “Don’t tell me it is a phony after all!”
“No,” Tom responded. “It’s obviously real. But instead of solving the puzzle, it opens up a new one!” He explained that this book, the original, did not provide greater detail concerning the location of the lost mine. “Just the reverse! It’s the fake version that provides the detail!”
“Okay now, I’m as lost as that mine, boss,” declared Hanson. “You’re saying—Mr. Gold-Tooth substituted a phony book that actually helps us find the Amir’s Mine?”
“But looky, mebbe it’s jest another helpin’ o’ bogus stuff,” Chow objected. “You know—like as t’ throw us off.”
It was Ed who answered. He had been reading over Tom’s shoulder. “No, Chow, I don’t think so. The details in the faked version are entirely consistent with the various mentions in the original—including a few references that are somewhat obscure without the additional explanation, but which now make clear sense. Faking that would be difficult. We can’t know absolutely, of course. But I have the impression someone wants to steer us right, smoke-bomb or no.”
Tom shook his head in frustration. “But why?” The question lingered through the delicious, exotic dinner and long after, as the little troop of Americans strolled the neon-illuminated boulevard of Central Shirabad.
The Americans noted that the women of Kabulistan attired themselves in a variety of styles. There were those almost completely covered up in their traditional black chadors or burkhas, and others who wore a colorful scarf on their heads. “They are honoring the cultural tradition of the hijab,” Ed explained. But many women went about with their heads uncovered, in the modern European manner.
As they stopped at the edge of a crowded plaza, Tom noticed one young woman, wearing a simple headscarf, staring hard at them. He suddenly stiffened as the woman began to stalk toward them at a determined pace.
Arv Hanson saw her too. “Fellas, she doesn’t look like a ray of sunshine for our dreary lives. Maybe we should move on.”
“Good night, she could have a dagger!” Bud gulped.
I was too late to turn tail! The Kabulistani took three more big steps in Ed Longstreet’s direction, raised a hand, and slapped him a loud and furious whap! across the face! Then she turned smartly and stalked back into the thick of the crowd.
Ed stood with his hand on his cheek.
“Friend of yours?” Tom asked dryly.
“Not at present, it seems.” The traveler rubbed his face. The others guffawed.
“Wa-aal, Ed boy, lookit ’er this way,” said Chow when his laughs had run down a bit. “It’s a sight better to get your head slapped than blame cut off!”
“Please!” Ed protested. “Don’t give her any ideas!”
As they approached the corner of the street where Ed’s hotel was located, he nodded at the book under his arm, which he had carefully rewrapped. “Guess my big find wasn’t much use to us after all, but it is valuable in and of itself. I’ll have the hotel put it in their security safe until I’m ready to ship it home to the U.S.”
He bade them goodnight. Bud called after him, “Watch your head!”
They wandered further away from the corner, discussing whether to call it a night or continue their tour.
Suddenly they heard a commotion behind them—voices, shouts, shoes running on pavement.
“Sumpin’ goin’ on?” asked Chow.
A well-dressed man—a business sort, with an Italian look later matched by an accent—suddenly came sprinting around the corner. He saw Tom’s group and began to gesture frantically! “You! You, come! Your friend!”
Bud was first off the mark, Tom almost on his heels. They took the corner around which Cousin Ed had vanished a minute before, and saw an excited crowd milling about ahead, near the entrance to Ed’s hotel.
On the sidewalk in their midst lay a still form—Ed Longstreet. Blood rushed from a crescent gash on the side of his head, on his right temple.
Tom was relieved to note his cousin’s eyelashes twitching as consciousness flickered back into place.
And the young inventor noticed something else, too. The book, Travels in Remotest Araby, was nowhere to be seen!
“ALL I KNOW is that I glimpsed someone rushing my way out of the street—a man this time, by the way,” stated Ed Longstreet, an ambulance ride and doctor visit behind him, and a few stitches stinging in his head. “Hit me with something.”
“Something blunt, fortunately,” said Tom. “Then he grabbed your book and ran. The police say they could get nothing useful from the onlookers.”
“But that Kazar feller made all sorts o’ promises to move heaven n’ Earth,” Chow reported. “Which my Texas good sense tells me is jest more noise.”
“And all for what? For nothing!” Ed declared in disgust. “The book won’t even lead you to the mine. Sacred Simoleons!—it’s just literature.”
“But he might not know that,” Tom pointed out. “And of course, you may just have been the victim of an ordinary street mugger. He might not have had any idea what was in that package.”
“Well,” said Ed indignantly, “he could have asked!”
Though Ed’s injuries were not too serious, he needed a few days of quiet recuperation, and at Tom’s urging he chose to take them aboard the Sky Queen with the others.
The mystery, ever more convoluted, weighed upon them all. “Book, book, who’s got the book?” muttered Bud. “Good books, bad books, fake books, real books—even books we’re not allowed to read!”
A new day confronted Tom with the inescapable fact that there was work to be done. It couldn’t all be fun and cranial injuries. The young Mission Chief laid out a plan of action. Arv would stay in Shirabad that day to see about recruiting local workmen for the project. Meanwhile, Tom and the others would take off in the Sky Queen for a survey flight over the region of the mountain-girded country that was the target of the Provard Group’s development project. “We’ll also land at the workers’ encampment they’ve already set up,” Tom explained to Slim Davis, the pilot for the jaunt. “I’ll give you the coordinates Provard provided.”
Soon they were winging across the rugged interior, cruising slowly at a moderate altitude. The steppes and plateaus were almost barren, but there were pasture lands and farm villages on the upward slopes, watered by melting snows from the peaks. They skirted the mountains, looming ever mightier and more forbidding, along slopes clad in a greenish-brown stubble of camel grass. As they traveled higher, leaving the flat settled areas far behind, the uplands became more fertile. Dense shrubbery and wooded patches appeared.
“No big towns,” Bud commented. “No highways, no railroad tracks, no nothing.”
“But in some places the actual population is fairly large, though it doesn’t show from the air,” said Tom thoughtfully. “These people are very poor, Bud, at least by our standards. They are why we’re here.”
Before long even the rarefied traces of human habitation had disappeared. Spread out below them was a strange, forbidding region, a harsh topography Tom had never seen before. Long, low hillocks and narrow ridges with razorback spines radiated from the bases of block-sided mountains. These narrow features were separated from one another by deep gashes that were narrower still, virtual cracks in the ground, their floors deep in shadow.
Tom consulted a detailed map, and broke out in a disbelieving chuckle. “Might have known!” he said to Bud and Chow. “This area is called the Turq’ha Nur—the place Wayne said the Assassins cult is supposed to be hiding.”
“You surprised, boss? I already got my ol’ sixgun all oiled an’ ready!” Chow snorted.
“I wonder what the name means?—probably Keep Out!” Bud speculated.
“Let’s see.” Using one of the Enterprises videophone satellites as a relay, Tom accessed the Internet and found a website discussing the origins of geographical terms. “In the local dialect, Turq’ha Nur means ‘The Sharp Talons’. ‘The name is attributed to the talon- or claw-like appearance of the elongated ridge features’.”
Chow stated, “Boys—I cain’t say it sounds friendly.”
“The region sure isn’t friendly to overflight surveying by the Sky Queen,” Tom noted. “If we’re going to map out the local resources effectively, we’ll have to get down between those canyon walls.”
“The atomicar?” suggested Slim.
“Let’s give the cycloplane a try first,” Tom decided.
Soon a portion of the underside of the hovering Flying Lab slid downward, and Tom’s streamlined ultrasonic cycloplane zoomed away into the upper air, riding the rapidly spinning cylinders that provided its lift in the place of wings or rotor-blades. The SwiftStorm dropped close to the plateau-like top of one of the mountains, then slowly worked its way down into a ridge-walled canyon.
The zig-zagging fissure was several hundred feet deep in many places, its walls drawing together quickly as they descended from the upper opening, which became a jagged slot of blue sky high above. Presently an alarm sounded.
“That’s the cybertron,” Tom told his black-haired copilot, “telling us we can’t go any lower. The canyon walls are starting to distort the ultrasonic air flow.”
Bud nodded and craned his neck to see as far down as he could manage. “Good night, we’re still a few stories off the bottom! Is that good enough, Tom?”
The young inventor returned a shrug. “We might be able to live with it. It depends on how much ground we can cover in forward motion—and how fast.” Unfortunately, disappointment loomed up almost right away. The canyon not only narrowed unpredictably, but made strange, sharp turns right and left, which the cycloplane could only manage at a snail’s pace. Finally Tom gave up and sent the craft humming skyward.
“This is no good,” he pronounced. “And this crack doesn’t look to be any worse than the rest of them. If we’re going to really survey the Tulq’ha Nur― ”
“It’ll be in your triphibian atomicar!” Bud finished with a subdued cheer.
They flew back aboard the Flying Lab and traded the cycloplane for the much smaller and nimbler Silent Streak. In minutes they had touched down on the relatively flat bottom of the same canyon they had been following before.
“Now this is what I call exploring!” exulted Bud as the atomicar sped along effortlessly on its magnetically suspended wheels. “No pith helmets, no surly camels, no sun in your eyes. Just atomic electricity and contour seats.”
“Not to mention air conditioning and glare–free headlights,” Tom laughingly continued. The vehicle’s electronic lamps illuminated the canyon ahead of them in a crisp, diamond-bright glow.
Allowing the cybertron to guide them robotically, Tom made a check of several instruments he had installed in the Silent Streak for the special needs of the Kabulistan trip. “The penetradar shows an interesting water table configuration down beneath us,” he reported. “I’m beginning to see how volcanism and water erosion worked together to form these weird features. The valleys just beyond these hills are arid and uninhabited right now, but an efficient irrigation system could easily be created using deep wells.”
“Any sign of—oh, let me pick something at random—rubies?”
“Sorry, flyboy,” Tom chuckled. “Wrong kind of dirt—so far.”
Tom periodically activated the pressure-cushion repelatron bank and floated the atomicar up to the top of the canyon, where he was able to contact the Sky Queen. “Glad things are going so well,” Slim Davis said. “Will you be breaking off and heading back to us soon? I assume you want to reach that camp before sundown.”
“Give us another forty minutes,” answered Tom. “The map says this canyon ends in a wide valley—sort of a walled plain—a few miles ahead. I’d like to take some readings there; then we’ll call it a day.”
Presently the canyon widened out as the tops of the ridges enclosing it angled lower. An abrupt turn, and the Silent Streak was engulfed in late afternoon sunshine. Before them was an oval-shaped valley several miles long. Its desolate floor was relatively flat, cupped between high looming mountains. In the distance they could make out the glint of sun upon thready waterfalls that descended into pools that fed a webwork of shallow, rock-rimmed creeks. The creeks in turn fed a small lake at the center of the plain.
The two boys started out across the valley plain, the atomicar raising a plume of dust in its wake. “I don’t want to take to the air, because some of our detector instruments need to stay close to ground level,” Tom explained.
“Skipper, what’s that over there?” Bud was pointing toward a rust-colored bulk rising out of the arid terrain a ways to their left. Tom steered close. Then, curious, he elevated the vehicle to twenty feet so as to fly over the object. “It’s a tank,” he pronounced. “At least, all that’s left of one. It’s been pretty much stripped to the bone, and rust and weather have done the rest.”
They now became aware of other, similar masses here and there around them. “What in the world is a tank battalion doing out here?” Bud asked in surprise.
“I’d say they’re Soviet tanks left behind in the collapse of the Afghanistan occupation, decades ago.”
Tom landed the atomicar and they resumed their drive across the eerie, silent plain—for at first the exterior microphones detected nothing but the sigh of the wind.
Suddenly the boys were startled by the sound of thundering hoofbeats from the cabin speakers. They gaped in surprise as two fierce-looking hill tribesmen came galloping over a low rise on horseback, as if they had been concealing themselves. The turbaned, baggy-trousered riders were shouting and brandishing long glittering spears.
Bang!... Bang!... Bang!
To Tom and Bud’s horror, a band of the same fierce-looking horsemen, this time armed with modern, powerful-looking rifles, came charging around the same rise. Riding at a gallop, they closed the distance to the Streak in a matter of seconds!
Instantly Tom fed power to the electromotors. The scarlet-trimmed car shot forward like a puma, acceleration throwing the youths back into their seats. Then it became airborne for a moment—a leaping puma! The tribesmen seemed startled by the sudden move, rearing off in two directions, which allowed Tom and Bud to cut through the middle and put some space behind them. Spears hurtled through the air at the car, futilely.
“Okay—now we can relax!” grinned Bud, easing back. But Tom wasn’t so sure!
The atomicar’s flying speed was far more limited than its ground speed, due to its manner of forward propulsion, but it seemed they had safely outdistanced their pursuers. Tom warily brought the Streak down to the ground again and they surged forward. It instantly became clear that they had been tricked! Rifle reports began to pop fiercely to the rear, and spurts of sand and dust jetted up on either side. “They’re getting closer!” Bud exclaimed, staring at the cybertron’s radar output. “How can that be? Can’t you get this bucket going any faster?”
“Not safely,” Tom muttered. “Even with our magnetic wheels, the car isn’t designed to make 100 miles per hour over this kind of rocky terrain. Guess we’ll have to risk flying out of this, even if it makes us sitting—flying!—ducks for those guns.” He slid the unicontrol switch and the atomicar rose into the air, ten feet, twenty feet—and then it began to shudder as bullets caromed off its underhull.
Tom eased her down to the ground again. “The bullets can’t penetrate the Durastress shell, but they could knock out the Lunite antenna rods in the repelatron radiators,” he explained tensely. “When we lift off, we don’t have our dust cloud making us hard to target.”
Bud understood. “And if we stay on the ground, they catch up to us—horsemen catching an atomic car! Jetz, Tom—we’re sunk!”
“Maybe,” gulped the young inventor. “But maybe not!”
A MISSING CAMP
THE TROOP of horsemen followed the ragged cloud of dust across the floor of the walled valley. Now and then their gleaming quarry could be glimpsed at the front of it, and now and then they fired their rifles. But they saw that they were closing the gap, and were confident.
Yet as the low-slung, hesitant wind began to disperse the dust, their confidence also faded, turning to puzzled amazement.
Where was the red demon on wheels?
They followed the tracks of the Silent Streak all the way up to the edge of the lake. There, with a few score feet left to go, the wheel tracks simply stopped, as if the strange rolling phantom had simply evaporated like a desert mirage.
One horseman invoked the beard of the prophet, another his blessed tongue.
Another just shrugged. “And just how do you plan to explain this, Abou?” he muttered to a companion.
“Excuse me? Explain what?” was the rejoinder. “Did you see something, Hadj? Not me!”
After a tiny hop through the air at a one-foot elevation, Tom’s atomicar had plunged into the water and driven right across the bottom to the center of the lake, which was deep. Here the youths sat, breathing by means of the hydrolung system that fed air to the passenger cabin.
“Shouldn’t you kill the lights, Skipper?” Bud urged. “If they know we’re down here― ”
“The light can’t be seen, except by us through the viewdome,” Tom murmured, his thoughts very much elsewhere. “The aqualamp principle.”
Realizing they were trapped, both youths tried to keep a bold front.
“This can’t last long,” pronounced the young scientist-inventor. “They’ll get bored and ride off in a while.”
“Absolutely!” agreed his chum heartily. “We’ll just wait ’em out! And say—maybe you can tell if they’re there with your all-angle radar gizmo.”
“Afraid not,” was the reply. “Not through water.”
“Okay. So we wait. I’m not in a hurry. You got anything going for tonight, Skipper?”
They waited. An hour seemed sufficient. At length, with a gulp, Tom adjusted the atomicar’s buoyancy control and allowed the foam-filled pontoons to carry the Streak up to the surface.
It seemed an hour was not sufficient after all.
Where once there had been a dozen, now there were as many as fifty horsemen, mounted and silently lining the banks on both sides of the lake. At a shout and a hand signal, they aimed their rifles at the atomicar bubble.
“Call the Queen!” Bud whispered. “They can be here in ten minutes!”
“We can be dead in five. Durastress is strong, but if they fire enough bullets, they’re bound to hit a door panel seam—and that’ll be a sad story for Tom and Bud.”
“Fine. Then let’s polish our credentials as ambassadors of good will!”
They made gestures of surrender, and Tom slowly guided the Silent Streak to shore next to the man who seemed to be Commander-In-Chief.
Tom opened the door panel on his side and stood up. “We’re friends!” he cried, raising his voice. “Why attack—when we come in peace?”
His words were drowned by the furious shouts of the horsemen. Reining up sharply, those closest leapt from their saddles and swarmed about the two young Americans, wading into the lake. Both boys were pulled from the car, roughly. The tribesmen shouted again as Tom managed to signal the cybertron to shut the doors, which were cut with such microscopic precision that the hairline edges vanished to sight as the doors sealed themselves. The viewdome appeared unbroken.
In a few moments Tom’s and Bud’s hands were bound behind them by strong, rough cord.
Then the bearded leader drew a curved, scimitarlike blade from his gaudy cummerbund. He brandished it menacingly at the boys.
Tom and Bud paled. “Looks as though he means business!” Bud gasped.
The Americans silently uttered prayers as the Kabulistan chieftain, ranting at them loudly, flicked his scimitar closer to their faces.
Tom felt utterly helpless. Were he and Bud really about to be killed? Would he never see his mother and dad, or Sandy and Bashalli again?
Suddenly a distant shout broke in on the chieftain’s tirade. Tom and Bud stared. A horseman, wearing a sun helmet and khaki riding breeches in the European style, came galloping across the valley. Two other riders followed close behind. The boys’ captors turned to face the newcomers.
The leading horseman was hawkfaced and black-bearded. Something about him seemed familiar, ever more so as he neared them. Suddenly Tom gasped. “Flambo!”
Bud scowled, half in rage and half in fear. “I told you that guy was our enemy!” he muttered. “I’ll bet he’s the one who started these hotshots gunning for us!”
Flambo reined in his horse with a splatter of dust and gravel, then sprang to the ground. Boldly striding forward he barked something at the chieftain in a guttural tongue. Soon all the tribesmen were chattering back at him. They gesticulated wildly, first at the two boys, then toward the atomicar.
“Ke jaw!” Flambo waved his hand to quiet them. Then he said to the two boys, “You have been most unwise.”
“You mean coming here unarmed?” Tom retorted. “We’ve done nothing. Why should your men attack us?”
The swarthy engineer-industrialist frowned. “These are not my people. They are Baluchi tribesmen—somewhat wild, as you see, but perfectly willing to be friends. Unfortunately, at their first approach, you frightened them out of their wits by zooming off in your flying car.”
The tribesmen, Flambo went on, had concluded the car was bewitched, and that its riders must be in league with Shaitan. “Do not insult them by scoffing. In this part of Kabulistan, it is best to be known as a supporter of traditional family values—and they are all family.”
“That’s just great. So what were we supposed to do, pass out chewing gum?” Bud growled. “The way those spearmen came whooping down on us didn’t look like any game of tag. A fine way to make friends!”
Flambo chuckled, showing his white even teeth. “Ah well. A bit terrifying, no doubt. It took years for me and my employees to earn their trust. You see, the mountain tribes in this part of the world have always been free as hawks, since the world’s first morning. Next to his horse, a spear or a rifle is a man’s best friend—and he is apt to use it out of sheer high spirits. They say they were greeting you with joy, not trying to wound you. But then they became afraid.”
Bud rolled his eyes unseen. But Tom spoke sincerely. “We’ve come here to help them keep their freedom,” he said.
Flambo eyed the young inventor keenly, then murmured, “Yes, I think I believe you.”
He turned and spoke to the tribesmen for a few minutes. Their leathery, sunburned faces gradually broke into friendly grins. At a word from their chief, two of them untied Tom and Bud.
“This is Fedzir Duurq,” Flambo said, introducing their leader.
The chief laughed, slapped the boys on the back, and pumped their hands in a sinewy grip. As he did so, he poured out a flood of words.
“He is inviting us all to be his guests,” Flambo translated. He added dryly, “I think it would be wise to accept.”
Tom smiled. “We’ll be honored.”
The boys were allowed to go back in the atomicar and drive it out of the water. The tribesmen eyed it suspiciously at first. But seeing that Tom and Bud made no effort to fly off, the men were soon riding alongside, cheering and playfully firing off their rifles into the air. During the course of the trip, Tom radioed the Sky Queen and explained the situation. “So we may be delayed a while, but everything seems okay.”
“Rather than run out our fuel, I’ll set her down in the desert,” Slim said.
The triumphal procession proceeded to the Baluchi camp, tucked into a canyon several miles away. Veiled women and bright-eyed children came from their tents to stare at the strangers. Many wore bangles and earrings.
As Tom and Bud got out, they heard one word among the mutterings repeated over and over: aghashi! “A word borrowed from the Persians. What does it mean? Evil eye. They are afraid you two djinn will curse them,” Flambo explained.
In the gaily carpeted chieftain’s tent, huge silver samovars were brought out and the guests were served tea. Then later came a huge feast. The main course was roasted sheep’s head. The meal ended with melons, figs, and pomegranates for dessert.
Fedzir Duurq made a long speech of welcome. Tom replied, with Flambo acting as interpreter. He tried to give the Baluchi an idea of the purpose of the Provard project. Then the Q’han, as the leader was called, presented each boy with a curving, intricately carved sword of Damascus steel. They acknowledged the gifts with gestures and smiles.
“What can we give, Skipper?” Bud wondered.
“A thrill,” Tom whispered back. “Hopefully an honor.” Again asking Flambo to translate, Tom Swift faced Fedzir Duurq and said, “Q’han of Highest Honor and Repute, may your fame shine as widely as the sun. I ask you to accept my humble gift in return.”
The Q’han nodded gravely.
“I ask most respectfully that you appoint three who have earned your favor, those three most blessed with fierceness and courage, to permit me to carry them into the sky in my, er, special car. Naturally, you will go before them.”
Q’han Fedzir clearly was delighted with Tom’s invitation. He pointed out three men, then immediately set off toward the Silent Streak.
“Be sure he understands—no weapon firing inside the passenger dome,” Bud said to Tom with a chuckle.
The Chieftain commenced his flight stoically enough. But soon he was howling with glee as the car soared and hedgehopped and, at his gestured command, buzzed his entire horseman-army. Then the three warriors had similar rides, one by one.
Finally, back on the ground, Flambo said the Americans were free to depart. “You have been wise after all,” he said to Tom. “Now this tribe is an ally and friend.”
Darkness was falling. Tom radioed the Sky Queen and directed them to home in on their locator beacon. Then he spoke again to Nurhan Flambo.
“I would like to invite the three men the Q’han selected to travel with us in my airplane, and stay with us for a few days. They could really help us when we meet other locals, I think, and I know one of them speaks a little English.”
“Yes. Ishad Rullza worked for an American as a young boy, in Islamabad.” Flambo described the plan to Fedzir Duurq and the three men, and they readily consented.
“Tom, you’re a major diplomat,” Bud whispered admiringly. “Where’d you get all that flowery language, though?”
“From an old movie!”
Awaiting the arrival of the Flying Lab, Tom decided to ask Flambo about the secret Assassins cult which Simon Wayne had mentioned.
Flambo’s voice dripped contempt. “Your cosmopolitan friend Wayne has his geography a trifle mixed up. The cult never centered here in Kabulistan. Their stronghold was the Rock of Alamut in the Elburz Mountains of northern Persia. The notion of some sort of revival here is merely another absurdity given instant credibility among outsiders.”
Tom felt relieved. “Thanks,” he said to Flambo as they shook hands. “You’ve not only saved our lives—you’ve also taken a load off my mind.” He promised to discuss with Provard bringing Flambo’s Pan-Islamic Engineering Associates into the development project.
“I thank you. We shall see,” he replied with a slight bow.
There was no room for the Sky Queen to land nearby, but Tom ferried the three guests to the skyship via several atomicar hops. The men were wide-eyed and clearly overwhelmed. But there was not a word of aghashi among them.
Slim Davis reluctantly reported a new mystery. “I’ve been trying for hours to radio the workers camp, but I can’t get anyone to answer,” he stated.
“They were fine when we contacted them earlier,” Tom noted. “It may just be a problem with their equipment.”
“Right, Cuz,” said Ed Longstreet. “I suppose you’re talking in theory.”
The Sky Queen flew to the coordinates Tom had been given, a desert plain at the base of rugged foothills. A fading twilight and sky blooming brightly with stars justified Ed’s skepticism. “Good night, if there ever was a workcamp there, it’s sure gone now!” groaned Bud. “Not a sign of anything.”
“Let’s go lower and use the searchlight,” Tom directed.
The bright beam showed scuffy traces of a camp, but no tents, workers, or equipment. “Looks like they pulled up roots in a hurry,” Chow commented. “Mebbe we kin use Injun skills t’ track ’em down.”
“Not at night, pardner,” pronounced the young inventor. He turned to Slim. “Set her down on the plain and we’ll spend the night. We’ll see what the sun has to show us tomorrow.”
As twilight gave up the ghost, the plain in which the camp had been located soon cooled off from the day’s heat. A bracing breeze blew down from the mountain peaks. After having talked to Arvid Hanson in Shirabad, and to Asa Provard in the United States, Tom stood with the rest of his small crew next to the ship, enjoying the spice-scented air. He wondered if this would be his last moment of relaxation and quiet for some time to come.
The morning sun revealed that the entire encampment had motored eastward into the hills, presumably only hours before the Queen’s arrival. “We didn’t see any sign of them in the hills yesterday, but that was from the air,” noted Tom. “We shouldn’t have any problem if we use the atomicar.”
In his halting English, Ishad Rullza, the Baluchi, asked if Tom wished him to go along. Tom explained that there would be no need at present. “But you will be of great value to us when we begin our real work,” Tom said.
Tom and Bud followed the trail of thick tires, easily visible, into the hills. They found themselves on a crude road that was sometimes indistinguishable from a washed-out gully as it wound upward. “I’d say the ol’ Silent Streak has really proved herself!” Bud declared with a grin. “The gravitexes keep us from slipping or tipping, and when we get to a big pothole or a break in the road, we just air-hop over it.”
Presently Tom halted the atomicar. A tall, turbaned man on horseback waited immobilely in the middle of their crude roadway.
“Jaywalker!” Bud grumbled humorously. “Wait’ll he sees us take the sky route over him.”
Tom shook his head. “He may have some information about the workers. Let’s see if he understands English.” He used the exterior speaker, wondering if the man would be startled or fearful. “Good morning!” Tom said in a friendly tone. “Do you speak English, sir?”
The man nodded in a half-bow of confirmation. His voice now came through the speakers in the passenger cabin. “I do indeed. Are you by chance Mr. Swift?”
Tom was pleased and amazed! “I sure am!”
“So I thought. I have been a guest at the camp of the workers. I know they were expecting you, and they told me something of your great flying ship and your automobile that floats in the air.”
“They moved their camp, and we’ve been trying to locate them. Do you know what happened?”
The man nodded again. “It is my privilege to say, Yes. I am Gursk, a trader of fine cloth by profession, well known to the villages. I came yesterday to the camp and was made welcome. Late in the day, there came a warning by radio, from the only town close by, called Pagh Komr. One of our great storms of rain and wind was coming. There would be danger of—you say, flash-flood. Blessed was my presence, for I told them of this road, which leads to higher ground, the valley of Dirri. A treacherous path, but not too far for them to go with their trucks and machinery.”
Tom and Bud exchanged glances. Did Gursk’s account really make sense? But perhaps the difficulties involved only the man’s limited grasp of English. “Let me try something,” Bud whispered, taking the microphone from Tom. “Say, Mr. Gursk, who was in charge of the camp—the man who okayed the move? Do you recall his name?”
The two Americans tensed as Gursk stood silently, not answering. Then suddenly he said: “Yes, I do remember. The name was Eigon Corger, an odd name for an American.”
“That’s right,” Tom muttered to Bud. “We might as well trust the guy. We’re pretty well protected inside the Streak.”
“Sure, Skipper. Unless they throw spears!”
Gursk rode back up the trail, which had a number of forks that might have led them astray. In less than an hour they descended into a small valley. Tom and Bud were overjoyed to see the tents of the workers camp and a row of flatbed trucks and jeeps. Gursk led the Silent Streak directly to the edge of the camp. As the workers began to gather excitedly, Tom exited the vehicle and offered his hand to their guide. “You’ve been very kind, Mr. Gursk.”
The man did not shake Tom’s hand, but only bowed and backed away. “It is my privilege to serve you.”
As Gursk rode off, Tom spoke to the muscular chief of the camp, Eigon Corger, explaining what they had been told. “We haven’t seen any sign of that rainstorm,” Tom said.
“Neither have we,” Corger declared irritably. “Guess that’s the way it is with weather reports.” Bud then asked why they hadn’t maintained contact with the Sky Queen. “Why? Hey, we’d have loved to, pal! But the camp shortwave unit went dead on us yesterday just after we got the message from whatchacallit Pagh Komr. Got one of my guys workin’ on it, but couldn’t spare the time yesterday, what with all the takin’-down and settin’-up.”
The camp was humming with midmorning activity. Tents, metal shacks, and prefabricated mini-warehouses had already been unloaded from the trucks and set up. Two midget bulldozers manned by Kabulistani workmen were busily smoothing out an airfield. “I wonder if they’re Baluchis like our pals,” Bud commented. He and Tom had given Corger a brief account of their recent adventures.
“Nope,” said Corger. “You wouldn’t want to use Baluchis in this kind of work—more than likely they’d just wander off. These guys belong to the Zadthar tribe. Real reliable.”
Corger knew that per Provard’s orders he was to cooperate fully with Tom, and the young inventor had decided that there was no immediate need to relocate again to another site. They could change the order of the camp’s initial run of tasks, which involved creating a usable base from which to make surveying forays into the range of hills. After making a report to the Sky Queen from the high-flying atomicar, Tom spent the rest of the afternoon and evening checking over every detail of the camp setup. “Now that it doesn’t matter, since we can use your car unit, my guy tells me our camp radio’s still dead and he can’t figure out why,” Corger told Tom. “Have to buy a new one. Never know what happened to it, I guess. Used to say a tube blew out, but they don’t use tubes no more.”
Tom and Bud were issued a tent. As darkness fell, they fell asleep gratefully on their air mattresses.
Some time after midnight Tom was awakened by a disturbance outside in the camp. He jumped from his bunk, pulled on khaki slacks, and stepped into his trek shoes. He hurried outdoors, Bud following sleepy and barechested.
In the bright glare of the dynamo-powered floodlights which ringed the little camp, Provard crew members and hired native workers could be seen rushing out of their shacks and tents.
“Tom!” Bud gasped, snapping wide awake and pointing off into the distance. Something small, glinting with reflected stars, was just disappearing over the summit of a nearby hill. “Tom, that’s― ”
“I know, flyboy.” The young inventor’s face was agonized, beaten. “The Silent Streak. We’ve been carjacked!”
“I TELL YA, Swift, I been workin’ big engineering operations like this for near thirty years, and I never, never had such headaches in my life!” Eigon Corger rubbed his eyes and stared off into the night sky. “Don’t ask me how someone got into your car. Were the doors locked?”
Tom replied with chagrined bitterness. “I didn’t think it necessary, frankly. I didn’t expect anyone here to even know how to operate it.”
“Yeah, well—surprise. Couple of my men saw someone come sneakin’ down from the hills and they spread the alarm. Said he climbed right into the car like he owned it, and took off.”
“Did they recognize the guy?” Bud asked. “Could they describe him?”
“Oh sure, the floodlights caught him pretty good, and he was only over at the edge of the camp. Tallish, the usual robe-and-turban outfit, some gold teeth showin’ in his mouth. Guess he grinned at ’em the whole way through.”
Bud exclaimed, “Tom, it’s gotta be Mr. Gold-Tooth! The smokebomb guy.”
Corger chuckled hollowly. “Kid, we already know his name. You mean you guys didn’t know who I meant? Sorry. The man I’m talkin’ about is Gursk.”
Tom groaned in disgust. The man who had led them to the camp had been one of their mysterious enemies! “Mr. Corger—it looks to me like the rainstorm business was a hoax.”
“I think so too. But what was the point?”
“I’m afraid quite a few things that have happened lately haven’t had a ‘point’,” responded Tom wryly. “It might have to do with his wanting Bud and me—and the atomicar—to be separated from the Sky Queen, which can’t land in this little valley.” But the young scientist-inventor added that the camp’s isolation would only last for as long as it took Slim Davis to suspect trouble and come hunting for them. “The cycloplane can land here easily. So I suppose we don’t have too much to worry about.”
“So that’s what you suppose, hunh?” But Corger had another and less reassuring idea. “Now chew on this. The guy’s got the camp relocated to a much more vulnerable spot. With or without the shortwave, we’re pretty cut off here, more so than out on the plain.”
“I get it now,” Bud pronounced. “Gursk and his henchmen could start picking us off from the hills—or lobbing grenades.”
“Sure. Or dropping bombs on our heads from your fancy flying car!” snorted Corger.
Morning dawned pale and hopeless. Joining Mr. Corger and a few of the others, the two disconsolate Americans ate a halfhearted breakfast of tinned bacon and potatoes with gravelly coffee, cooked over a blazing campfire.
“Uh-oh! We ain’t alone, boss,” one of the Provard engineers said suddenly to Corger. His keen eyes had detected a movement on the skyline.
“I see ’em,” responded the crew chief. “Could be the locals keeping an eye on us. They’d be Zadthars too, like my guys.”
Tom conned the hilltops through binoculars and made out at least two figures—evidently lookouts watching the camp.
The morning light began to creep down the hills into the valley. Suddenly a flare shot up and burst with a Bang! that echoed back from all sides!
Was it a signal? Were the campers about to be attacked?
Tensely Bud eyed the cliffs from which the flare had appeared. “What if they jump us?” he muttered. “I’ll bet they’re in cahoots with Gursk. Man alive, Tom, I’d like to charge right up there and take ’em on!”
“Uh-huh. And if they’re what you suspect, flyboy, you’ll get a nice round hole in you for your trouble. There’re probably ten we don’t see for every one we do.”
“I’d guess all these hills around us are full of them by now,” remarked Corger. “Waiting’s about all we can do, boys.”
The eerie silence grew nervewracking. The only sounds were the chirping of insects and an occasional distant screech of a hunting hawk.
The daybreak hour passed slowly, with no further incident. The lookouts seemed to have vanished from the barren cliffs—at least none could be detected through binoculars. A degree of cheerfulness returned with the rising sun, and all three felt somewhat foolish about their fears of the early morning.
“No bombing run or sniper fire,” Tom remarked with a wan smile. “It’s a cinch someone’s interested in us, though.”
“Maybe it’s the Kabulistan branch of the Tom Swift Fan Club!” Bud joked, high spirits back in place.
The two from Shopton stood with a knot of workers watching one of the Zadthari—a young man named Arrib, who had sat with them at breakfast—as he used a bulldozer to clear a patch of brush, just beyond the edge of’ camp.
BOO-OO-OOM! The ground shook beneath their feet as hunks of earth and stones exploded through the air and showered down in all directions! The brush-laden patch of ground beneath the bulldozer had erupted like a bomb!
Project men ran from all corners of the encampment, exclaiming in shock and fear. When the billow of dust began to clear, the patch of brush was now a gaping hole, ten feet wide. Down inside it Tom and Bud could see the blackened, smoky hulk of the bulldozer, overturned.
Eigon Corger was first into the crater. He scrambled to the far side of the bulldozer, reappearing in moments, face grim and troubled. He spoke softly to a couple of the tribesmen standing nearby, who put their hands to their faces despairingly. Then he faced the boys.
“Arrib’s gone,” he said simply. “Didn’t have a chance.”
Abruptly new shouts were heard in the camp, and fingers pointed skyward. Tom and Bud flinched as a shadow passed across them.
“I am here. Look up. I am Gursk!” came an amplified voice from above. The atomicar! The scarlet vehicle was drifting slowly across the valley, not very high. “And now you know what I have done. Dirri is mined, on all sides of your camp. My friends and I, we have set them out with great care, and now you have been shown with what deadly efficiency they work. Yet I led you mercifully, Tom Swift, in perfect safety, across the one place where the mines were made inactive. But now, by a signal, those landmines have also been made deadly. And so you see, you can not leave, Mr. Swift. Nor anyone.”
Tom yelled furiously at the top of his lungs, assuming Gursk had activated the exterior microphones as well as the speakers. “You’ve murdered a man, Gursk! What are you after?”
“That, Mr. Swift, is not your business or concern. I only say this—do not leave the camp, not one of you. Ah, but alas, perhaps your scientific friends will come to rescue you from out of the sky. You are expecting this, are you not? In that case our watchful instruments will detect them and detonate all the mines together, every one. What terrible destruction all about you, surely many deaths, eh? And oh my!—perhaps even an inquisitive hawk will cause this to happen. Very sad, very sad.
“Yet you are known to be most clever, boy. At least there is a chance that, by signs and gestures and even thrown rocks, you will prevent any crossing of our prison wall of air. I shall be anxious to learn the outcome.”
The atomicar banked, climbed, and vanished across the hills.
The Provard Project camp was stunned, horrified, anguished. Tom learned that some of the men were not only of Arrib’s tribe, but were of his own family. Now their mourning was joined to terror for their own lives!
Eigon Corger had a few things to say, and he said them, loudly. Then he stalked over to Tom and Bud. “Did I mention something about headaches? Okay, Swift, here we are, stuck in a valley in Kabulistan with bombs all around us and everybody getting hysterical. The hysterical part, I’ve seen before. Men go nuts and start shootin’ up the place. Hear me? Now I’ll wait calmly while you tell me what Asa Provard told you to do in this situation!”
Before Tom could respond, two of the workers, American engineers, began to shout at Corger abusively, incoherently. In moments the commotion began to spread to the rest of the crowd. Great space, they’re about to riot! Tom thought in dismay.
Corger whirled and faced the louder of the two engineers. “I won’t have it, Mike,” he stated coldly. “Not just now.” Before Tom could stop him, he lashed out a fast uppercut that knocked the man head over heels.
“Cut it out, Corger!” Tom snapped, grabbing the crew boss’s arm and jerking him away from the cowering man. “That’s not going to help any!”
“Then tell us what is!” someone else retorted. “I sure don’t want to be the next guy who steps on one of those mines!”
“First, second, what does it matter?” put in a mechanic named Tillotson. “Even one’s too doggone many for comfort if we don’t know where it’s planted! Gursk says to stay in the camp—so just where is the border, huh? Where exactly?”
Tillotson’s words were backed up with a murmur of agreement. Seeing the Americans’ worried reactions, the hired Kabulistani workmen, some of whom had not grasped Gursk’s threat, began to chatter loudly. Tom gathered that they were pleading to be paid off at once—so they could leave!
“Quiet! Everyone!” Tom shouted. Turning to Corger he said, “Please tell them they have nothing to worry about. I’ll check over the whole camp area myself and map out every single landmine—if there really are any more. Most of what Gursk said could be to terrorize us and keep us put. In the meantime, warn them to stay right where they are!”
Bud grinned. “Sounds good, anyway. I’m bursting with confidence! What’re you going to do, Skipper?”
“What can you do?” Corger joined in.
“You’ve heard of mine detectors, haven’t you?” Tom countered.
“Have you got one?”
“I’ll make one.”
Corger frowned in skepticism. “Tom’s really good at this stuff,” Bud Barclay reassured him.
After deep thought and a few calculations in his everpresent notebook, Tom hurried to the tent where the disabled shortwave unit was housed. Cannibalizing various components he quickly rigged up a simple, but highly sensitive, detection circuit. He fitted it into a flat plastic case and jointed on a length of rigid pipe-tubing—thus making a long-handled pancake probe. To this, he wired a set of earphones from the shortwave console. “Here goes!” he told Bud.
The American crewmen and hired workmen looked on appreciatively. Side by side with his pal, Tom began the slow process of probing the camp grounds, working gingerly outward toward the perimeter. In twenty minutes he heard the first buzz over his earphones.
“There’s one, Bud. Mark it on the map Corger made.”
They prowled along slowly and cautiously, noting one mine location after another. Hours later, they had returned to their starting point. “Okay, fellows!” came Tom’s hoarse, weary shout. “That’s all of them next to the camp. I guess it’s all clear if you stick close by.”
The milling camp broke into thunderous cheers, and the faces of the workers were wreathed in smiles of tearful relief. Even Eigon Corger set aside his gruffness for a moment. But as for the young inventor himself, he could feel the cold drops of perspiration trickling down his back.
Seeing his chum’s limp-rag reaction, Bud gave his shoulder a squeeze. “If I hadn’t known what a scientific whiz you are, pal, I’d be a quivering mass of jelly by now! You should consider doing this for a living!”
Corger approached them. “You’ve proved yourself, Tom, and we’re all mighty grateful. But the problem’s far from solved. Like the man said, a bird could set the devilish things off any time.”
“That was probably a bluff,” Tom said.
“Yeah. But your people could fly in looking for you two.”
Tom managed a weak grin. “Not now. Before I began making the mine detector, I was able to get the radio unit working—I’d guess Gursk managed to foul it up while he was here. Anyway, I’ve already spoken to Slim Davis. I explained what had happened, and told him to hold off for now.”
Bud boggled at his friend. “Fantastic! And when he radioes Arv and the police― ”
Tom cut him off. “No. I asked him not to contact anyone at all. We don’t need any well-intentioned folks thinking they can outwit Gursk’s system and accidentally blowing up the whole valley.”
“Might smart, crewcut,” growled Corger with gruff appreciation. It seemed young Tom Swift had now proven himself twice over.
Night fell on the imprisoned camp. After supper, Tom drew Bud aside, whispering to him to act casual. “Got something to tell you, flyboy.”
Behind one of the storage structures, Bud said quietly, “I figured you’d be working up a plan, genius boy. So give! How do we get out of here and bring in the cavalry?”
Tom smiled back at him—tensely. “Gursk’s cronies weren’t as thorough as they thought they were, Bud—more likely they just didn’t think things through. There is a way out of the camp! And we’re leaving now!”
THE AMIR’S MINE
“I’M ALL ears,” whispered Bud excitedly. “But if it’s super-dangerous, which I’m sure it is—you can leave those details out, please. I don’t need headaches any more than Corger.”
“It’s the landmine that went off, the one that killed Arrib,” Tom explained. “I took a look at the hole it made and went around it with the detector. The blast was so huge because the first mine set off several others around it!”
“I get it! They forgot that if one of the mines actually went off, it’d take others with it—put a hole in their perimeter!”
“In other words, Gursk ended up accidentally clearing that spot of landmines.” Tom gave a brisk nod, eyes darting to detect any listeners. “I’ll take the detector along, but I think we now have a safe little path to walk out through. There may be more mines further out, but it’d be very logical for Gursk to have put most of them close to the border of his ‘safe ground’—see? They’d be set more closely together right at the perimeter, like fence posts. And that’s just where the mine went off.”
“I take it you don’t want to tell anyone else.”
“Not those hotheads. Basically, it’s the same reason I didn’t want Slim to pass the word along,” said Tom. “That, and—well, what if I’m wrong?”
Bud gulped. “A little too much info, Tom. Let’s get going.”
A few minutes and the mine detector showed that Tom’s misgivings were groundless. There were no landmines between the crater area and the first of the hills that surrounded the Valley of Dirri. They paused in the deep night shadows and Bud asked: “Now what? To the Sky Queen?”
“I’d like to. But not by the road we came on—if we could even manage to figure its twists and turns where it forks. Whatever Gursk and his guys are up to, they’re certain to be keeping watch on the road for any would-be groundlevel rescuers.”
“True. Didn’t think of that.”
Tom sat down on a low rock and thought intently. At last he said: “If I remember our map download well enough, if we head south over these hills, we’ll hit a dry riverbed that eventually reaches that town Gursk mentioned.”
“And then the next step!—whatever it might be.”
Tom and Bud worked their way across the hill in shadow, as well as the next and the next. By the time morning hit, they were trudging along the ancient rock-riddled watercourse, stumbling from ache and weariness. “Flyboy, I’ve been thinking about Gursk’s hoax,” murmured Tom presently.
“Getting the camp to move, you mean?”
“Right. As I recall, there are plenty of isolated valleys like Dirri in these hills, with road-paths leading to them from the plain. But there’s one thing about Dirri that makes it stand out.”
“According to the details in that bogus book of Ed’s, it’s smack in the middle of the corner of the Turq’ha Nur where the Amir’s Mine is supposed to be located!”
Bud whistled softly. “Then... then what? Gursk feeds the info to Ed, moves the Provard camp near the mystery mine—and then pens everybody up in a minefield. Other than the word ‘mine’ there’s nothing that links it all together.”
“I’ll tell you one thing, pal—it’s not just coincidence.”
“Yeah. I hear scientists don’t believe in that.”
Another hour passed, and the sun blazed hot on their foreheads, already sunburnt.
The harsh voice barked down from above them, from a gully-wash between two low hillocks. Several men in the traditional robed garb of Kabulistan stood with rifles pointed!
“Up here, you both! Come now or we shoot!”
“Then I guess we’ll ‘come now’,” said Bud softly.
“They could be friends,” Tom pointed out as they climbed.
“Sure, professor. Another one of those theories.”
There were four Kabulistanis in all, and it was clear they spoke no more English than what the youths had already heard. But the gestures of their rifles were not only adequate but eloquent. They forced Tom and Bud up the gully and deep into the hills. Finally, after weary hours, they descended next to a rushing stream with the hulk of another of the old Soviet tanks rusting on its banks. “Those Russian guys really got around,” Bud observed sourly.
The tribesmen motioned for the boys to clamber up onto the top of the tank, then down its circular hatchway. Inside was a metal ladder extending downward well past the body of the tank and into the ground itself. Light shined up from below.
Tom was first to set foot on the floor of the rocky, cavelike tunnel at the base of the ladder.
“Ah, here we go now. Welcome, my friends! Welcome to the Amir’s Mine.”
The voice was booming, hearty, and familiar—as was the handlebar mustache. “Hello, Mr. Wayne,” Tom said very calmly.
Bud answered. “You were just one on a list of five or so. That works out to one-fifth surprised.”
Simon Wayne roared with laughter. “You’ll have to admit, son, it’s an original way to bag guests!”
They were standing at the high end of a twisting, downward-slanting tunnel braced with ancient black timbers and polished new steel girders. Bare lightbulbs hung here and there from a line draped overhead. Far in the background was a low, throbbing, rhythmic sound, machinery of some sort.
Wayne reached over to a small metal plate on the wall and touched a button. Instantly a panel swung shut above them, blocking most of the ladder shaft. “I should explain something right away, you two, lest there be any awkward misunderstandings. I’m unarmed. No guns are trained on you down here, nor will there be. And I’ll refrain from tying you up, handcuffing you, gassing you unconscious, that sort of thing. No need! Because, now here’s the point, when the hatch-plates that cover our several entrances are locked, the only thing that’ll make ’em open is my own vocal pattern saying a few code words into one of the wall mikes. Nifty, hmm? And here’s something really neat. If I should say the wrong words—whoa! My loyal employees come running from all directions to rescue their meal ticket. So just play nice, please.”
Wayne motioned them forward in a chillingly friendly way. “Let’s stroll along this miracle of ancient engineering, shall we? Since I won’t have the opportunity to rant and rave in front of bound captives, I’ll use our walk to lay out my ingenuity for you to marvel at. After all, book authors never hesitate to show off all the picayune details of their convoluted plots. Why deny ourselves the pleasure in real life?”
“I’m glad you’re enjoying yourself, Mr. Wayne. If you’re taking questions, you might start by telling me what’s behind Gursk’s actions,” Tom said.
Wayne glanced at the young inventor curiously. “What’s the name? Gursk? Not one of mine.”
Bud interjected sarcastically, “We call him Mr. Gold-Tooth. He’s a fun guy. Plays with smoke-bombs in airports.”
“No doubt that’s some of your famous banter, hmm, Barclay? Nope, nope, means not a thing to me.
“Now let’s see. I’ve rehearsed this account so many times in my mind. Please be a good audience, won’t you?
“We could start with the Amir’s Mine itself and its terrible curse. Never happened, boys. That Englishman, the one who wrote the book, made up the whole bit to add some spice to his account. In actual fact, it was fighting between rival warlords that made continuing the mining operation impractical. So they sealed up the entrance not long after Dalton’s visit. And then they stupidly misplaced the detailed directions to finding it again. The sultan probably ended up regretting having beheaded everyone who knew anything about it. Behead in haste, repent at leisure.
“So—flash forward to a few years ago, when a business contact in this country—Europa Fabrikant has to bribe them, naturally—discovered that some of the locals had actually stumbled on the mine and were beginning to play around with the rubies without informing the authorities. I was quick to get involved, quicker still to revive the ‘curse of Shaitan’ rumor to get these superstitious people out of my hair.”
“Was your company backing you?” Tom inquired.
Wayne laughed pleasantly. “No, old EF assumed I was here in Kabulistan just doing my job, like a loyal corporate subject. Actually I was engineering my own advancement up the ladder, so to speak. I made plans to resume mining operations. I have a nice little home office down here in the tunnel, which is exactly where we’re headed.”
Bud interjected: “Okay, you say you had nothing to do with Gursk and his substitute book and all that. So how about Mirza?”
“Now that name I know! Gee, poor Mirza—wouldn’t have used him if I’d known what a demented fanatic he is. I planted him in Flambo’s retinue, mainly to keep an eye on Pan-Islamic Whatnot.”
“You couldn’t have them running across the mine,” Tom declared.
“Would have screwed up the operation! But now, boys, we get into some more complicated stuff, if you can believe it.
“I instituted a policy of buying up all remaining copies of that Travels book of Dalton’s, which seemed to be the only source of info on the location of the ruby mine, vague though it was. Smart business move, don’t you think? My boys responded to the bookseller’s advertisement about four hours too late—a certain Edgar Longstreet had already purchased said book and was en route to the United States.”
Tom could guess the next few steps. “Next discovery: Longstreet is Tom Swift’s cousin, and Shopton is where he’s headed. But lo and behold, he’s staying at the Swift home, protected by a sophisticated alarm system.”
The corporate rep gave the young inventor a thump across the shoulders. “You’re good! And if you had accepted my offer to you, you might now be working here with me as my colleague. I should add that Europa really did authorize the offer—they want dibs on the power plant.”
“It gave you a chance to size me up.”
“Yes. It did. And my appreciation of your principled tenacity is boundless, Tom.”
“Now let’s hear about Gabriel Knorff,” demanded Bud.
“Then let’s go back a step. I knew you were flying to your nuclear station, and your cousin was with you. Presumably the book was with him, in his luggage. A little vacation reading.”
“Well actually,” Tom remarked, “it stayed home. Ed had given it as a gift.”
Wayne chuckled. “Oh really? Well. Sometimes hunches don’t pay off.”
“I have a few hunches myself all of a sudden,” stated Bud Barclay. “I think you used Knorff to get a clear record of Tom’s movements in the Citadel, so Mirza could break into the right spot and steal the book during Flambo’s visit. And you picked Knorff because you figured we would trust him.”
“You’re on the beam, Barclay. But I was also interested in placing Longstreet, naturally. Yet your gullible photo-journalist might have been overly intrigued if I had over-prepped him—hard enough to get him to spy on a nuclear facility while thinking good thoughts! And of course, there was always the possibility that he’d be detected, as indeed he was, so the less he knew the better. My mimicking Isosceles was a nice stroke, playing upon your current invention project, Tom, your atomicar. I’d heard Milt was thinking over a production deal with Enterprises.”
“You took a big risk, though, getting Mirza involved in jewel theft,” Tom pointed out. “Seems to me you have all the Kabulistan rubies you need.”
“Can one ever have too much wealth?” responded the man rhetorically. “Still, you’re right, my only error was hiring Mirza. He decided to take matters into his own hands. Not just for the money. Brownie points with Allah, a better couch in paradise, something along those lines, I gather. Imagine the gall, betraying the very man who had induced him to betray his employer! So please accept my apologies for what he put you and your sister through.”
They now stood in front of a large ornate door of dark polished wood, set into the wall of the mine tunnel. Simon Wayne paused a moment, hand on the doorknob, and gave Tom and Bud a politely quizzical look. “But let’s finish our conversation before going inside. Any more questions? Comments?”
Tom took advantage of the invitation. “I suppose we can assume it was one of your men who threatened the man in the bookstall, in Shirabad. And then he slugged Ed and stole the book he’d just found.”
Wayne shrugged. “The latter incident was indeed my doing. When the man I had tailing your group reported that Longstreet had made a very recognizable book purchase—well, I had to complete my collection, you know. But you must admit, he was gentle, by my orders. Minimum force necessary. As to this bookstall business, it was surely just one of the local enforcers of virtue and morality, who prowl about intimidating anyone too friendly with the ‘infidel invaders’. Gave me a chance to bring up the Assassins tale, though. You don’t discourage easily, Tom. Even my effort to get your whole party arrested, via a bogus tip to the police, didn’t stop you. And that’s admirable! All my hard work to keep you away from this mine...
“Well, the fates seem to want you here. And here you are.”
Wayne politely swung the heavy door open and gestured for his involuntary guests to enter. Tom and Bud gaped in stunned surprise—and not merely at the sumptuous office with its modern-style desk, halogen lamps, overstuffed chairs, and its bookcase crowded with tattered copies of Travels in Remotest Araby.
Tom could scarcely choke out the words.
THE SECOND SECRET
“HELLO Tom, Bud,” said Asa Provard, half rising from his chair, utterly calm. “Wayne told me you’d be dropping by.”
“Dropping by?” Bud repeated in disbelief.
Provard ignored Bud’s retort and faced Simon Wayne. “How did our young visitors like the tour? Quite a setup.”
“I trust they were duly impressed,” Wayne replied with a wink Tom’s way.
Tom was flushed with anger. “Mr. Provard, we trusted you! Was the whole development project just some sort of hoax—a ploy to kidnap me?”
Provard’s eyes flashed back and forth between Tom and Simon Wayne. “What is this, Wayne? You told me Swift Enterprises was already on board. Now Tom’s accusing me of kidnapping!”
Mr. Wayne gestured Tom and Bud into seats, then sat himself down behind his desk. “Asa, my apologies. I chose to refrain from telling you that I had changed my mind. We don’t really need any partnering involvement by Enterprises. I’ve sensed certain reservations on their part. Yes, I told you this morning that I’d been in touch with Tom out in the field and secured his cooperation, blah blah et cetera. But for sound business reasons I felt a need to shade the truth a bit. I’m sure you understand.”
“This is most embarrassing!” Provard told Tom Swift. “I gather you know nothing of my personal participation in Mr. Wayne’s project here in Kabulistan.”
Tom smiled. “We’ve been let in on a few things,” he said dryly. “Perhaps you can bring us up to date.”
Provard nodded, sending Wayne a disapproving glare. “I certainly will! After I sent you off on the development project, which is absolutely legitimate, Wayne contacted me and described his acquisition of this source of the unusual rubies needed for our mutual business venture, a matter I assumed would be none of your concern, Tom. But when he explained about the mine here, in the very region of your own work, I insisted that he get in touch with you to keep you informed and enlist your support. Hours ago he said he had done so!”
“Again, Asa—I do apologize,” said Wayne.
Bud exclaimed heatedly, “So this ruby mine business and spy stuff is just one of your money-makers, Provard? A little side income?”
Asa Provard appeared shocked. “Then you haven’t even been told—?” The financier pulled out a handkerchief and mopped his brow as Simon Wayne looked on with an expression that suggested amusement. “We’re not marketing rubies, boys. The Amir’s Mine is an important industrial resource, to the eventual benefit of this country and the whole world. It’s true, I’ll make a good profit, and so will Wayne, but this aspect of development― ”
“Wait!” Tom interrupted. “What sort of ‘resource’ are you talking about?”
“Why, the rubies, of course!—to be used in Wayne’s photronic processor chip. As he has explained it to me, the unique crystal structure of these rare rubies make them necessary if the processor is to function. And they cannot be produced artificially, not yet.”
Wayne rose to his feet theatrically. “Tom, my private contract employees—not like I want to spend my life at Europa Fabrikant!—have developed a new kind of data processor, one that directly integrates memory storage into its calculational function. Puts ’em together, a golden handshake. No, it’s not the long sought quantum computing breakthrough. But it does advance computing by a century or so, they tell me. Photronic processing! We compute with frequency-modulated laser beams, thin as an atom, circuits of pure light replacing not only electrical impulses but even certain of the processing components themselves, using analog rather than digital principles.”
“I see.” Tom nodded thoughtfully. “And the Kabulistan rubies are used to produce the kind of laser beam you need.”
Wayne laughed. “Billions of such beams, Tom, pulsing from corundum-chromite granules no bigger than a medium molecule. Forget cellphones, we’ll soon be wearing high-power supercomputers on our wrists!”
“And at present Provard Financial is the principal investor in Mr. Wayne’s startup venture,” Provard continued. “Now Tom, I’m well aware that Wayne’s business model involves a degree of aggression.”
“We compete very vigorously,” commented Wayne. “Have to.”
“There has been some bribery, which is a part of the local culture. He spread misleading rumors—not an uncommon business practice. And, yes, I imagine he has rather skirted the regulatory laws of Kabulistan. But surely the Kabulistanis will gain huge financial benefits from this natural treasure!”
Tom raised his eyebrows. “Is theft and assault also okay by you, Mr. Provard? Or didn’t he tell you the lengths he’s willing to go to, to keep the Dalton book out of the hands of any ‘competitors’?”
Provard turned to Wayne in surprise, who said a bland shrug: “One does what one needs to do in big business. Don’t I owe you that, Asa, as my main investor? If I had informed you, you would have been exposed to some personal liability. Can’t have that.”
“As far as I’m concerned you’re in hot water anyway, Mr. Provard,” grated Bud. “Did you really never think old Handlebar-Face here might be cutting a few corners in this secret deal? There’s such a thing as asking questions, man! And you know... Ort Throme admires you. He thinks you’re this great guy, out there helping whole countries. What’ll he think of you after this is all over with?”
Asa Provard reddened with anger. “You have no business commenting on my relationship with Orton Throme, Barclay. But I’ll tell you this—it’s because of Ort that this investment was of such importance to me. I’ve intended for years to leave him most of my fortune and estate. But now it seems certain of my relatives intend to contest the matter in court, maliciously.”
“Not everyone appreciates abstract art,” Tom remarked with dry irony.
“In any event, this startup investment is vital to giving Orton Throme the secure future he deserves.”
Tom stood up from his chair as Simon Wayne watched him with eyes of ice. “Then I’m sorry to say you’re in for a big disappointment, Mr. Provard. The whole thing’s bogus!—a scheme by Wayne to wheedle investment bucks out of you!”
“Ridiculous!” cried Provard.
“Think so?” Tom strolled over to one of the ancient wooden beams shoring up the office ceiling, taking a key from his pants pocket. He slashed the key across the timber, gouging into it. The mark it left was light in color, contrasting starkly with the sooty black of the surface around it. “Does that look centuries old to you? Hollywood stuff, I’d guess.” He turned to face the two men, and Bud—wide of eye and mouth. “Maybe there is an Amir’s Mine out there somewhere near. The books say so. But this isn’t it. Is it, Mr. Wayne?”
The big man showed his teeth in a fierce grin. “No.”
Provard was pale, distraught. “What is this? What is this?”
“What is it, Asa? Business.” Simon Wayne walked slowly around his desk. And now, discarding his earlier promise, he held a revolver in his hand! “Something give me away out there in the tunnel?” he asked Tom. “Wood chip out of place? I’m baffled as to what reason you had to suspect my setup.”
“You can hear the reason,” was the reply. “The sound of pumps running continuously to keep the phony ‘mine tunnel’ from flooding. I’ve taken a look at the unusual geology of this Turq’ha Nur region where you’ve set up shop. Those ridge formations show that the water table is very high, and has been fairly stable for many thousands of years. No preindustrial people could possibly have worked a mine at this level—it would have constantly flooded out. Just as this excavation of yours has been, repeatedly, Mr. Wayne, ever since you had it dug. You can see the traces clearly at the bottom of that nice wooden door of yours!”
Wayne shrugged good-naturedly. “Ah well, at least I dug myself a nice office HQ out here in the wilds. Who knows, maybe we will run into a ruby or two down here. Could happen.”
“But—but—!” Provard was aghast, understandably. “But Wayne demonstrated the processor to me, to my engineers!”
“Please, Asa, nowadays it’s child’s play to fake almost anything,” chuckled Wayne. “And not to disillusion you, but even engineers can be bribed. For a man with so much at stake, you’re mighty gullible. Well—perhaps that does make a fellow overanxious, hmm?”
“Good lord! You’ve ruined me!”
“Oh no, not just yet. The hour is early, the day is young. Until your decease becomes known, we’ll still be partnering. You’ll be what we call a silent partner.” The gun motioned Provard, Tom, and Bud out the door. “Let’s head over to one of the storerooms. You’ll all keep there for a while. I have a bit of future-minded planning to do.” As they walked along, hands raised, Wayne mused aloud, “You pesky boys ended up in my neck of the badlands despite all my efforts to keep you safely away. I never expected to have to go this far, to have my men snap you up and deliver you to me. Because that fool Dalton book was floating around, I had to locate hereabouts, more or less, to be credible as the ‘cursed mine of fantastic rubies.’ Of course it was the basis of my cleverly phony investment opportunity. At the same time the book posed a danger if the odd mine hunter started lurking around. But I thought the level of detail actually wasn’t enough to lead anyone almost to my doorstep. Strange. But whatever you ‘scientists’ believe, coincidences do happen.”
The storeroom had unyielding walls of fitted rock, a concrete floor, and a door of steel. There was little else inside. The ceiling was twenty-five feet above them, air and some daylight coming down through a grated well-like shaft at the ceiling’s midpoint. “Anything more to be said?” asked Simon Wayne, about to slam the door on them. “Hmm. Can’t think of a thing.” The door clanked shut.
Bud turned to Tom, his faced flushed with the excitement of mortal danger. “Up through the shaft?”
Tom studied the possibility, as Provard, a broken man, looked on with little hope or interest. “The grating looks like it could be worked free without too much effort. But even if we three stood on each others’ shoulders like circus acrobats, we wouldn’t come close to reaching it,” he pronounced.
Tom wandered over to one wall, where a white plastic tube, arm-thick, passed through the chamber at an angle. He put an ear against it. “You can hear the sound of the pumps—it’s a water pipe.”
“Then I have a great idea!” Bud grinned. “It may already be your idea, genius boy—but I’ll say it first!”
The plan was set forth. Then, the three putting all their weight into it, they began to tug at the pipe until, suddenly, it gave. Water jetted into the room! It flooded the floor and deepened with each passing moment. Soon the three were afloat, treading water. The liquid roar made talking difficult.
“W-will it reach—all the way up?” gasped Provard.
“I think so, sir,” Tom called back. “Looking at the colored strata in the rocks on the side of the shaft, I think the highpoint of the water table is just a foot or two below the rim.”
Up they floated, all three of them. As they neared the grating Tom and Bud braced themselves against the shaft edge and commenced to force it free. At last, with a creak, one side pulled away from the wall. Soon they were rising up the shaft with the water, toward sunlight.
“Think they’ll be waiting for us, pal?” Bud asked.
“Who knows?” And Bud knew that Tom’s response meant probably. They would be like fish in a barrel—but there was no other way.
The rise of the water ended about two feet below the opening, as Tom had predicted. “Here goes,” Tom whispered. “Me first.”
“Of course,” was Bud’s reply—as he thrust his pal aside and hoisted himself up ahead of him. Tom and Provard saw Bud push himself up on his elbows. “Ohh!... okay, guys. I—I’d say it’s just about as safe as it could be. Come on up.”
Bud scrambled out onto the ground and helped the others up.
The view in the bright sunlight was sickening. The little cupped clearing holding the top of the airshaft was littered with human bodies! Blood was caking on innumerable bullet wounds.
Tom sank down to examine one of the bodies. “This is one of the men who led us here,” he stated grimly.
Asa Provard spoke in a faint, horrified voice. “And this body—oh lord. This is Simon Wayne.”
“They were all up here waiting for us to pop out,” Bud said. “But someone else was waiting for them.”
“And I guess I know who,” pronounced Tom Swift. “I see the top of the atomicar dome over there.”
Gursk appeared, automatic weapon in hand. “Again, I show mercy to you, Tom Swift, by saving you from these evil ones. And surely it is fair that I do so, for at last you led me to this lost mine of the Amir. We have sought this for quite some time, my employer and I.”
“How did you trail us, Gursk?” Bud asked, playing for time as he looked for a route of attack.
“How? So easy. I had to do little but float above like a cloud, just out of sight. My employer, and others in his employ with certain precise skills, have made a very thorough study of this sorcerous car, Mr. Swift, even before your first flight in it.” Gursk laughed cruelly, eyes boring into them. “A very good joke, I think! You have such a superb radar system, able to detect so much all about—and I merely permitted it to serve me, as you fled the camp, as you were captured and marched here.”
Tom kept his face and voice expressionless. “What do you want of us, Gursk? You have the ruby mine now.”
“And indeed, I have you as well. Come up here, Tom Swift. Join me. We shall take a nice ride in your Silent Streak. As to you others—shall I leave you to fend for yourselves in the Turq’ha Nur, to climb and wander through the maze until thirst overtakes you? Or shall I show mercy and shoot you now? No, my mercy does not extend so far, I think.”
Tom worked his way up to the recessed ledge in the hillside where Gursk and the atomicar awaited him. In moments they were soaring high, Tom at the controls, Gursk sitting next to him with the tip of his rifle barrel braced inches from the young inventor’s head. Tom asked coolly: “Where to?”
“We are going to a meeting with someone who wishes very much to see you, sirrah.”
“May I know his name?”
Gursk chuckled. “My employer? If it is his will, he will tell you his name by his own mouth. He is a businessman, one might say, a man of international interests. He wishes the wealth of the rubies—and such wealth as can be procured from the brain of young Tom Swift.”
Tom found it wisest not to disclose that Simon Wayne’s excavation was as phony as a movie set. “All right. I’ll be cooperative if I can. But what about the work camp, the Provard people?”
“They have nobly served my purpose, have they not?” growled Gursk. “First, to serve as bait to draw you deep into the Turq’ha Nur, for we knew this Simon Wayne would not allow you to wander freely if you came so close—and so would capture you and thus lead us the rest of the way, the last little bit. For the mine entrance was well-concealed, eh? We knew where it was with much more precision than the old English writer Dalton, enough to urge you near by the counterfeit book I planted. Alas, not enough to lay hand on it, not in this land of mountains and bones. We thought the presence of the camp, captive in one spot, would panic Mr. Wayne into some visible activity that would give him away; how delightful that you escaped, to become our little bird with the green sprig in its beak—perhap you will understand if I say, our Geiger counter.
“But still, the Provard workers are now serving as hostages. They will be fine hostages, eh? To procure your own services, however briefly my employer may require them. And then, what matter?”
“It mattered to the family of the man you killed with your landmines,” Tom spat out bitterly.
“Poor man. But he had no future anyway, did he? To be a poor worker, that is not a future. But my employer, a bold and clever man—he is the future. It was by his ingenuity that we produced so quickly the false copy of your cousin’s book, containing further slight details that we had found from other sources to guide you as close as possible to the mine, and to Wayne. As I flew comfortably across the ocean with your cousin beside me, the book was being fabricated in Shopton, to await my arrival and my little ruse. Not enough, but at long last the web caught you, Mr. Swift. And did I not follow the thread?” He laughed.
The real Amir’s Mine is still hiding somewhere in these hills, Tom thought. If I get out of this, I could help the Kabulistanis find it again!
Suddenly Gursk muttered something in his native tongue. Then he said, “Look! Something approaches in the air, over there. An airplane? So fast—ai, a missile?”
The words seemed to leap by themselves from Tom Swift’s lips! “The Sky Queen!” Jets roaring, the mighty Flying Lab was winging right for them. “They’ve locked onto us, Gursk. No escaping now. There’s the radio mike.”
“Outrun it!” Gursk demanded, poking Tom’s head with the rifle. “Do it! Or I shoot you now and take the control myself!”
Tom flashed the man a tense look. “I’ll take alternative number one. But hold on. And kindly keep that gun barrel out of my face if you want to live!”
Tom slammed on the atom-power, spinning the electromotor wheels like fan blades. It was nothing close to jet speed, or even the speed of a standard prop plane. Yet the Streak accelerated smartly. And as Gursk glanced aside, Tom secretly increased the passenger-restraining repelatrons, making the acceleration feel all the greater.
“Stop, fool!” shouted Gursk. “Idiot!”
The atomicar was streaking toward the nose of the oncoming skyship like a javelin!
The Sky Queen put on the brakes and tried to swerve aside. But Tom Swift did not. A shattering collision was now unavoidable, and Gursk shrieked in terror!
Then, for one instant, the Silent Streak was suspended mere feet from the Flying Lab’s fuselage, held in place by the anticrash system. And then, as it rebounded, Tom jerked the rifle from the clutch of the panicked Gursk. A single sweep of Tom’s hand switched control of the atomicar over to its cybertron.
“And now, Mr. Gursk, unless you’d like me to open your sidedoor and tip you out—I believe we have a few landmines to deactivate.”
After the Provard camp was made safe again, Tom flew Gursk to confinement in the Sky Queen, then used the cycloplane to pick up Bud and Mr. Provard.
Back aboard the skyship, Bud asked, “Just how is it that the Queen was prowling the airways in the first place, Skipper? Didn’t you order them to stay put?”
“You can thank, or blame, Chow for that,” explained Ed Longstreet. “He couldn’t stand the wait—beat up poor Slim Davis so much with that gravelly bellow of his that we were practically forced to try making an overflight, to see if we could spot anyone in the hills.”
Tom grinned broadly. “Good old Chow!”
They radioed Col. Kazar to arrange to turn Gursk over to him in Shirabad. To their surprise, he provided other coordinates. “I am making an inspection tour some miles from the city, in my jeep. But there are trustworthy horsemen, officers, along with me. After I question this Mr. Gursk, I will continue my tour, and they will take the prisoner back to Shirabad on horseback, in handcuffs—not so comfortable for him, I think.”
With matters settled, the Provard development project went forward, with much success. Eventually the participants were to receive rewards and honors conferred by the leader of the grateful country. In honor of Chow Winkler’s special part in the rescue of Tom, Bud, Provard, and indeed all the camp workers, His Excellency Habib Qassir presented the roly-poly cook with an ornate turban and a shimmering robe of rainbow-hued silk.
“You can’t top that getup, pardner,” Tom whispered with a chuckle as flashbulbs popped and television cameras recorded the scene. “Better trade in your ten-gallon hat and all those wild shirts!”
Chow laughed gleefully. “Mebbe you’re right, boss. Jest watch me make ’em popeyed in San Antone, wearin’ these duds!”
Back in Shopton at last, Tom turned to new challenges. Yet one day, curious, he contacted Col. Kazar in Shirabad to ask about the trial of Gursk. “I still don’t know the identity of the man he called his employer,” said the young inventor, doodling absent-mindedly.
“Alas, we may never know, sir,” Kazar replied. “For you see, Gursk is dead.”
“No. It was a most strange occurrence. As I told you, he was taken back to Shirabad on horseback, by my mounted officers, who are recruited from the men of local tribes. When I myself returned, I received the disturbing news that Gursk had slipped off his horse along the way.”
“The fall killed him?”
“In a certain sense. You see, he fell directly upon the spear carried by one of my men!”
Tom gulped incredulously. “Colonel, those men—were they of the Zadthar tribe, perhaps?”
He could almost hear the man’s smile. “As a matter of fact, they were. As am I. Indeed, my friend, I have a suspicion they were of the very group of tribesmen that watched you from the hills, as if watching over the foreign encampment invading their little valley. Ah, how it must have saddened them, the death of their fellow tribesman. Too bad, eh?—that the murderer Gursk escaped justice.”
“I think justice can take more than one form,” said Tom wryly.
Clicking off, he glanced down at the doodle on his desk pad that he had made, half-consciously, as he and Kazar were discussing the mystery of Gursk’s employer. It was a sinuous form that resembled a snake about to strike—like one of the devilish snakes on Sandy’s ruby ring.
The final chapter to Tom Swift’s triphibian atomicar adventure came weeks later while he was working to perfect his new remarkable invention, the Megascope Space Prober. A letter was delivered to the electronics lab, where Bashalli Prandit was visiting him.
The letter bore a familiar letterhead as well as a familiar signature. “It’s from Milton Isosceles!” Tom noted with eyebrows raised. “It’s about time we heard from Imperative Motorskill.”
He read it and began to laugh, handing it over to Bash to read as well.
DEAR TOM SWIFT,
PLEASE BE ADVISED THAT WE HAVE EVALUATED WITH GREAT CARE THE PROPOSAL TO ADD YOUR ATOMIC CAR TO OUR FINE LINE OF MOTOR VEHICLES. WE HAVE CONDUCTED SURVEYS AND FOCUS GROUPS AND TABULATED THE RESPONSES.
PLEASE NOTE THESE SUMMARIZED RESULTS WHICH ADDRESS THE QUESTION OF THE PROFITABILITY OF THE PROPOSED VENTURE:
(1) IMPERATIVE MOTORSKILL: “COMMITTED TO CLEAR STEERING.” IN VIEW OF CURRENT PUBLIC CONTROVERSIES AND THE REGULATORY ENVIRONMENT, OUR COMPANY PREFERS TO STEER CLEAR OF ISSUES RAISED BY THE USE OF NUCLEAR POWER.
(2) IMPERATIVE MOTORSKILL: “YOUR NEEDS. OUR BUSINESS”. AIR OR WATER TRAVEL IS NOT RELEVANT TO THE DAILY COMMUTER NEEDS OF OUR TARGET CUSTOMER BASE.
(3) IMPERATIVE MOTORSKILL: “WE BELIEVE IN SAFETY.” THE NOTION OF THE SO-CALLED “ANTICRASH SYSTEM” PROVOKES NEEDLESS ANXIETY BY SUGGESTING THE POSSIBILITY THAT MOTOR TRAVEL IS UNSAFE.
(4) IMPERATIVE MOTORSKILL: “LOOKS COUNT!” THE RATHER UNIQUE OVERALL STYLING OF THE SWIFT ENTERPRISES CAR FALLS WELL SHORT OF THE AESTHETIC DEMANDS AND EXPECTATIONS OF TODAY’S MOTORING PUBLIC. STUDIES HAVE LONG CONFIRMED THAT AUTOMOTIVE CHOICE IS LARGELY DETERMINED BY THE WILLINGNESS OF THE TYPICAL MALE DECISION MAKER TO IDENTIFY EMOTIONALLY WITH THE LOOK OF THE VEHICLE. YOUR DESIGN IS DESCRIBED AS RESEMBLING A WOMAN’S HIGH HEELED SHOE.
FOR THESE STATED REASONS, IMPERATIVE MOTORSKILL MUST DECLINE THE OFFER TO PARTICIPATE IN THE MANUFACTURE AND SALE OF THE ENTERPRISES VEHICLE, FOR THE IMMEDIATE FUTURE.
“As they say so aptly in this country, Thomas, now it is back to the old drawing board for you,” Bashalli pronounced. “Flatscreen, that is.”