TOM SWIFT LIVES!
TOM SWIFT AND HIS
MEGASCOPE SPACE PROBER
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
MEGASCOPE SPACE PROBER
“TOM! Someone has stolen your invention!” gasped Bud Barclay as he scanned a news story on the front page of the Shopton Evening Bulletin through the plastic cover of its streetside rack. Tom Swift, a crewcut blond youth who was Bud’s closest friend, looked over in astonishment.
“Stolen my invention?” Tom echoed. “Which one?”
The pretty dark-haired girl standing next to Tom also looked over. “Yes, Bud, you must be specific. Tom has ever so many inventions to steal, you know.”
The last member of the strolling foursome, Tom’s blond younger sister Sandra, giggled at her friend Bashalli’s ironic remark. “What is the latest one anyway? I’ve sort’ve lost track.”
“Your new machine for fooling around with molecules, Tom!” Bud continued with a humorously rankled look at the two girls. “Look, here it is on the front page.”
Tom approached and leaned down to study the article. “Hmm! Well...” Dropping in some coins he pulled the newspaper from its rack and began to read, flipping to an inside page as the others waited expectantly.
“What does the headline say?” Sandy asked Bud.
“Something like, French Scientist Goes Swift One Better With Matter Machine,” was Bud’s reply. He added disgustedly: “Pretty typical pot-stirring from our pal Perkins.” Dan Perkins, editor of the Bulletin, had long had a somewhat strained relationship with Tom Swift Enterprises, where Tom and his father developed their renowned inventions. He had proven himself quick to report the advances and discoveries of Enterprises’ presumed “competitors.”
Tom read the story with growing excitement, commenting aloud for the benefit of the others. It stated that Roland Galaspain, a French engineer, had developed a revolutionary method of manipulating certain of the fundamental properties of matter. Details of his invention were not given, but a demonstration would take place Monday of the following week in Paris, to which scientists from all over the world were being invited.
Bud pointed. “No details—but that photo sure shows a gizmo like the one you were showing me just yesterday! And the basic idea sounds like the same deal!”
“Quite a coincidence,” Tom murmured.
“Coincidence my hat!” snorted the black-haired flyer angrily. “You perfected the same kind of machine just a few days ago, Skipper!”
“Bud does have a point,” Bashalli said softly. “When lightning strikes twice, you have to wonder about it. And run for cover.”
Tom nodded. “I know. But lightning sometimes does strike twice, guys, and this Galaspain fellow might have thought it up himself. But I’ll ask Harlan what he thinks when I come in to work tomorrow.” Harlan Ames, a former member of the Secret Service and the chief security officer at Enterprises, had dealt with many instances of theft and espionage at the high-security Swift installation.
The four friends were taking a relaxed stroll down Shopton’s Commerce Avenue. They had just taken in an early-evening movie and were headed toward a restaurant down the block. In the distance they could see the reflections of the setting sun on Lake Carlopa.
“This is enough to spoil a person’s dinner,” Sandy grumbled. “Bud and Tom finally manage towork us into their labors-of-Hercules schedule, and now this.”
Bud broke the mood with a sudden grin. “Don’t fret, ladies—I still have an appetite.”
Tom’s sleep was troubled by questions that night. He drove to work early the next morning, waiting in the spacious office he shared with his father for Ames, who had the adjacent office, to arrive. Soon he was engaged in spelling out the story as the lean older man listened attentively across his desk.
“I read the story myself, yesterday,” Ames stated. “But I didn’t think a whole lot about it. You say the man’s invention resembles your own?”
Tom nodded. “Very much. Of course it’s true that the science dictates the engineering on things like this. But the photo shows certain details that strike a little too close to home.”
“All right. But just what is this new invention? What does it do?”
“I call it a matter translimator.” Tom smiled at the wry expression on Ames’s face as he encountered yet another opaquely-named Tom Swift invention. “The ‘lim’ part comes from ‘sublimate’—the phenomenon of solids turning directly to gas without a liquid phase.”
“Like with dry ice?”
“Uh-huh.” The young inventor explained that he had devised a scientific means of changing the state of matter without heating or cooling, or altering the ambient pressure. “In other words, a piece of metal could be liquified without melting it, or water could be turned to ice without freezing it. It uses a variation on the matter-lens technology we developed for the space solartron.”
“I see. Now, boss, tell me how such a thing would be valuable enough to be bait for a thief.”
For a moment Tom was quiet and thoughtful. “Harlan, I pretty much work up these inventions for the fun and the science—plus the personal challenge. But ultimately the translimator could have all sorts of applications in materials engineering. If we could find a way to stabilize what it produces—right now ‘solid helium’ lasts about three nanoseconds outside the receiving chamber before falling apart!—all sorts of unexpected super-technologies could come over the horizon.”
“All right, then,” said Ames crisply. “So in the long run it has tremendous potential. The supposed ‘inventor’ could peddle it to any number of manufacturers.”
“Yes, or perhaps lease it out in some way and collect fees.”
“Which leads to the next all-too-obvious question, my friend. If the French version is stolen, how did they do it?” The security chief looked grim. “Where’s the leak?”
Tom shrugged. “I’ve gone over and over the whole thing in my mind. I just don’t see how it’s possible. This isn’t a case where some rogue employee could be acting as a spy. I’ve never allowed the blueprints or guide-models out of my sight. At night it’s all locked away in the security cabinets.”
“Which only unlocks for someone with Tom Swift’s DNA. And of course, the patrolscope radar system should reveal any intruders on the plant grounds. It had better after all the money you folks spent improving it since the last time it let us down!”
Tom laughed. “Right. But despite all precautions our thief might have stolen one of the improved deactivator amulets. Or come up with a bootleg version despite all our copy-defeat gimmicks.”
“Let’s try another tack. What about tapping one of your computers?—remotely, maybe.”
“Not possible. I haven’t put anything about the translimator in my daily journal, since we know that isn’t completely secure. I haven’t used a server or network of any kind, internal or external.”
“Then what about the physical hard drive on your lab computer?” Ames speculated. “You do a lot of computer-assisted design. You must save your work.”
“Sure. But I save it all directly to a removable hyper-density chip, which goes in the secure cabinet like everything else.” Tom pointed out that even the very slight radio-pulses caused by his keyboard strokes and mouse movements—which conceivably could be electronically monitored from a distance—would be blocked by the special coating of the lab’s walls.
“Okay, Tom. You’ve convinced me.”
“Yeah,” Tom responded ruefully. “And you know what, Harlan? I’m convinced that I’m wrong!”
Troubled and uncertain, Tom left the administration building and hopped into a nanocar, one of Enterprises’ electric micro-jeeps. Seeing Bud on one of the moving ridewalks, Tom invited his pal to join him. When they reached a modernistic glass-walled building of striking design, Tom braked to a halt. Inside was his private design laboratory, crammed with the latest in research equipment. This was where the matter translimator had been worked out, and where the prototype model Tom had demonstrated to Bud—constructed within its secure walls—had been thoroughly tested, then immediately dismantled.
“Guess I should have used the underground lab,” Tom fretted. “But it’s set up for testing, not design work.”
“I take it you think there might be something to my suspicions—now,” remarked Bud with raised eyebrows and a hint of friendly irony.
The boys sprinted to the lab, where Tom beamed an electronic key at its reinforced door. The door swung open and Tom approached the row of safe-like security cabinets, built directly into the thick wall. He touched the DNA-reader pad next to one of them, and its covering panel slid aside. “Pal, if something’s missing, you’ll have to scrape me up from the floor!” Tom muttered to Bud.
Tom hastily ruffled through a sheaf of blueprints, sketches, and printed data sheets. He picked up several of the oblong data chips and read-off their classification index numbers. At last he sighed with relief.
“Nothing missing,” be announced.
Bud, a tall muscular youth who, like Tom, appeared no older than 18, glared at the mass of papers. Then he shook his head, unconvinced. “Then mystery isn’t solved, Tom—it’s worse! I still think there’s something fishy about that guy coming up with the same invention! And I know you do too.”
Securing the cabinet, Tom gazed off into blank space, a worried expression on his face. “I’ll admit I’d like to have a look at Galaspain’s machine.”
Bud snapped his fingers. “Hey! Wait a minute! Didn’t that news story say scientists from all over the world were being invited to Galaspain’s demonstration? So that includes you. Right?”
“But Dad and I haven’t received an invitation.”
Bud thumped his fist angrily on the laboratory workbench. “There’s your answer, pal. Tom and Damon Swift are two of America’s most famous scientists. I mean, genius boy, you’re practically a brand name! If anyone rated invitations, you both did—which proves Frenchy wasn’t taking any chances on being found out!” Tom conceded the point, and Bud continued stubbornly, “If Galaspain stole your idea, I intend to find out.”
Tom looked quizzically at his friend. “That’s great, flyboy. So how? It looks to me like we’ve hit a dead end.”
The young flyer grinned back. “Dead end? No such thing! I’ve already put a plan together. I’ll contact the guy for an invitation to his big show and hop over to Paris. And don’t think I won’t fire plenty of questions at him! It’ll make him nervous. Maybe he’ll panic and confess the whole thing right in front of the news cameras.”
As Tom looked on skeptically, Bud picked up a pad and roughed out an e-cablegram to be sent to Galaspain. It read:
I AM ENGAGED IN LOW-TEMPERATURE RESEARCH ON EXOTIC PHYSICAL STUFF. HIGHLY INTERESTED IN EXAMINING THE MACHINE YOU CIPED FROM TOM SWIFT. PLEASE RUSH ME AN INVITE.
PRESIDENT AND RESIDENT GENIUS,
CRYONAUTICS RESEARCH CORPORATION.
Tom burst into laughter. “What, no Ph.D. after your name, President Barclay?”
Nothing more was said. But unbeknownst to Tom and his father, Bud did send a message to the French scientist, having found a contact address on the Internet. He stated that he would like to bring the famous Swifts to the demonstration. During the next two days, Bud checked his home computer frequently. But no reply from France was received. Lotta nerve, he grumbled to himself, blowing off a message from Tom Swift’s best friend!
Saturday evening, as the Swifts were enjoying a week end at home, Bud dropped in for a brief visit. He discussed the Galaspain mystery with Tom and his father in the den. “It does seem odd,” admitted Mr. Swift, to whom Tom bore a striking resemblance.
Bud now told them about his emailed message. “Galaspain paid no attention. What’s more, I called ten different people around the country from Rafe Franzenberg’s list—outstanding American scientists, all of them—and not one of them has received word one from the guy.”
“Evidently he doesn’t trust anyone from our country,” said Mr. Swift soberly. “One wonders why, hmm? But national pride plays its role in science, as in everything else. We’ve been on both sides of it at Enterprises.”
As Bud started to comment, Tom interrupted him by suddenly bolting to his feet from his chair. “Good night! I just realized― ”
Mr. Swift looked alarmed. “What is it, son? What’s wrong?”
“I—I think I’m the cause of the information leak,” replied the young inventor. A stricken expression had settled on his young face. “And if I’m right, Galaspain and the others at that demonstration are in terrible danger!”
A DEADLY MALFUNCTION
STARTLED into silence, Bud and Mr. Swift waited for Tom to continue. The youth ran a nervous hand through his spiky crewcut. “When I tested my original design,” Tom explained, “a few bugs showed up, pretty serious ones. Dad, you remember how I had to redesign the register.”
“Yes. You said the carbon bonds were flash-vaporizing.”
“Right, producing unmanageable backpressure in the chamber.”
“So?” Bud put in with a puzzled look.
“I redesigned that feature of my machine and had Arv Hanson work up a second prototype, the one you saw the other day, Bud,” Tom replied. “But Galaspain may not know that.” The youthful inventor added excitedly, “Unless he perfected the register himself, the machine may blow up!”
Bud gave a low whistle. Mr. Swift’s expression was grave and thoughtful.
“But what’s this bit about you having leaked the plans to Galaspain?” asked Bud.
“I completely forgot. When I was trying to solve the problem, I asked Dr. Roggarson to look over the specs and blueprints.”
“Irv Roggarson?” repeated Tom’s father. “But he’s― ”
“Up at the space outpost,” Tom concluded, referring to Swift Enterprises’ space station orbiting 22,300 miles above the equator. “I transmitted the materials up to him over the high-baud lasercom!”
Damon Swift shook his head. “Let’s take a breather for a second. Irv Roggarson himself is surely above suspicion. Are you suggesting that someone tapped into the laser communications beam? Tell me how that’s possible, Tom. You have a tight beam a few inches in diameter linking Enterprises and the outpost for no more than a few seconds. A spy would have had to position himself precisely in the way—invisibly, as he went undetected—then intercept the beam, record the signal content, and then retransmit it along its way. All in a matter of moments!”
“I’m not saying I know how it was done,” admitted Tom. “But there’s the weak link we’ve been looking for. The question right now is, should I warn Galaspain, Dad? Maybe try to stop the demonstration?”
The elder scientist again shook his head. “Frankly, I’m afraid there’s nothing you can do. If you tried to stop Galaspain, he and the authorities might construe it to mean you’re calling him a thief.”
“Which would be true,” Bud noted wryly.
The young inventor looked resigned. “But Dad’s right, Bud. It would complicate getting him to act on the warning, because he would be afraid that acting on it would come across as admitting the accusation,” said Tom. “And yet we have to do something. We can’t just let the man blow himself up!”
Bud shrugged with a look that told Tom he understood—but didn’t entirely agree.
After some thought Tom called Harlan Ames and asked him to use some of his contacts in government to allow Tom to pass along a message that would appear to have a degree of official sanction behind it. He worded the message carefully, politely mentioning his own work in a “similar area of research,” and noting the problem that had cropped up.
All of Sunday passed by. There was no response back from France. “He’s a well-known engineer,” pronounced Mr. Swift. “He may have been able to correct the problem using your input, though he doesn’t choose to acknowledge it.”
Tom said with worry in his voice, “Let’s hope he knows what he’s doing.”
The demonstration in Paris was scheduled for six o’clock Monday morning, which would be one A.M. in Shopton, New York. Bud and the Swift family planned to watch the proceedings on television. Despite the shadow over the event, Sandy was delighted when she heard of the late night gathering. “A TV party! Wonderful!” she announced with a giggle. “I’ll ask Bashi over to share the popcorn.”
Sunday evening Bud brought Bashalli over to the Swifts’ home in his convertible. Mrs. Swift, a slim and pretty woman, welcomed the guests warmly. After one of her delicious chicken dinners and dessert provided by Bashalli, the young people played music and videos, danced, and chatted until the time for the demonstration approached.
“Will we be receiving the picture direct from France?” asked Bashalli as Tom switched on the living room’s big, elaborate TV screen.
Tom nodded. “That’s right, Bash. Via our outpost in space.” The space station not only engaged in research and in manufacturing work, but was also used for relaying high-definition television signals from point to point around the world. “We’ll be getting a simultaneous audio stream from news sources on the Net, too. The Paris broadcasts wouldn’t be in English, of course.”
“Inconsiderate of them,” stated Bashalli, a native of Pakistan, with a smile.
The Paris network—evidently a channel devoted to science and technology—came into focus on the screen. From the audio setup came: “We bring you now on-the-spot web coverage of an important news event, direct from Galaspain Laboratories in Paris.” As the commentator talked about the machine and its potential industrial significance, the TV camera panned across the device itself. The picture briefly zoomed in on Galaspain, a hawkfaced man with spectacles and a ragged, dark moustache. The engineer made a brief speech in French, pointing out the features of his invention.
“That phony!” Bud gritted. “His machine looks just like yours, Tom!”
His friend was too absorbed to comment. The whole group, now including Mr. and Mrs. Swift, watched the screen closely as the engineer threw a switch to start his machine in operation.
The audio announcer spoke softly, as if narrating a crucial golf match. “We’re informed the machine has performed well in small-scale testing, but today we’re promised something dramatic that hasn’t been tried before. We’ll see the result any minute now.”
Galaspain watched smugly, strutting about the room and occasionally checking a valve or dial. There were murmurs of appreciation from his onscreen audience—men and women in white scientific coats, business persons, media techs.
Suddenly there came a loud explosion! As the picture quivered on the screen, Tom shot his father an anguished look. When the image settled into focus again, the demonstration hall was in turmoil, filling with a haze of white smoke and echoing with the shouts and groans of the injured. The horrified viewers in the Swift living room saw that the matter-control machine had blown apart. Some parts of the wreckage flickered with sparks or flames. Debris was scattered about and a number of people, including Galaspain, had been knocked off their feet.
The reporting announcer was beside himself with the thrill of fresh catastrophe. “You heard it, folks! Something has gone tragically wrong!” he shouted above the screams of the audience. “That blast you heard was the machine blowing up! And what a blast it was.”
“You tried, Tom,” said Mrs. Swift comfortingly. “This wasn’t your fault.” Her son could only nod, with a shrug of regret and lingering shock. Bud put a hand on his shoulder.
Later in the day the media were reporting the grim effects of the explosive malfunction. Several members of the audience had been rushed to the nearest hospital in serious condition. And there was one fatality. Standing closest to the machine, Roland Galaspain had borne the full force of the blast.
“I wonder if this is the end of it,” Tom murmured.
“It never is,” Bud declared. “Someone was behind it, Skipper, and we’re sure to hear from him again.”
Tom spent the afternoon making triply sure he had solved the destructive problem in the translimator. At eight o’clock he and Bud left the plant to catch a late snack together before going their separate ways.
He still feels like it’s his fault, Bud thought, looking on with concern at the bronze-hued two-seater in front of him.
The narrow highway into the main part of town ducked through the lightly wooded area that skirted Shopton. Suddenly Bud’s musings on his chum and the mystery were interrupted as he saw Tom’s car veer wildly into the opposite lane, tires screeching.
“Hey! Watch it, pal!” Bud gasped. Had Tom fallen asleep at the wheel—or blacked out?
For a moment it looked as though Tom had brought his car under control, and Bud breathed a sigh of relief. But the next instant Tom’s car shot off toward the shoulder of the road, teetered on the edge of the ditch that ran alongside, spraying gravel—and then turned over!
LADY WITH A RAY-GUN
HAD Tom been hurt, perhaps seriously?
Bud, thoroughly alarmed, slammed on the brakes of his own car and swerved the convertible toward the side of the road. As the wheels screeched to a skidding stop, and he leapt right over the door like a pole-vaulter, Bud caught a momentary glimpse of a figure darting off among the trees and underbrush. Could he have had anything to do with Tom’s accident?
Can’t waste time on him, Bud thought.
Bud turned toward the ditch and scrambled down the sloping shoulder. Tom’s sportscar rested propped up on its side, wheels still spinning, headlights still beaming. A hopeful sign! But how the heck can I get him free? the young flyer worried. The passenger side of the car was pressed against the ground, and the other was level with the top of Bud’s head, the door handle well out of reach!
“Okay now—this is a thinking challenge,” he muttered to himself frantically. “What would Tom do?”
As a thought struck him, he ran to one of the roadside trees. Using all his strength, the ex-footballer ripped down a thick, sturdy bough and dragged it back to Tom’s car, propping it up at a sharp angle between ground and underside.
Bud began to rock the car, and it began to slip and tilt. Abruptly it overbalanced and fell against the bough full force, just as Bud had hoped. The bough bent, splintered, and gave way—but it had managed to cushion the car’s fall, preventing a jolt that might have caused Tom further injury.
Bud managed to lunge through the shattered driver’s window to kill the power, then knelt beside it in a frenzy of fear. The young inventor was slumped inside, not moving.
“Tom! Tom!” Bud cried out, testing the door handle.
To Bud’s immense relief, his pal moved and opened his eyes. “Ohh!” Tom said and rubbed his forehead dazedly.
“You’ll be all right,” Bud said hopefully.
“Yes, I’m all right—I guess,” Tom murmured. “Just shaken up. The anticrash system kept me in my seat at first, until it cut out.” The youth was referring to an automatic protective mechanism he had first developed for his most recent invention, his triphibian atomicar. The setup used his force-ray repelatron in place of the usual safety straps. “Guess the impact jarred something loose... You know, I really should embed the control circuitry in― ”
“Yep, you really are all right, genius boy!” Bud commented with a relieved grin. He made sure his friend had suffered no broken bones or other serious injury, then helped Tom to his feet. The young inventor’s face was only slightly bruised, and his blue-striped T-shirt had come through the ordeal unscathed. “It was just the sudden stop that acted as my knockout punch,” said Tom.
“What happened to your car?” Bud asked with a puzzled frown. “I mean, before it kissed the ground!”
“Search me. The car went out of control all of a sudden,” Tom said. “Wouldn’t seem to answer the wheel. Weird. I’ll check right now.”
“I don’t think so,” Bud retorted as Tom started toward the dented sports car. “What I think is, you’re going straight to sickbay and let Doc Simpson do the checking up. He said he’d be working late.”
Overriding Tom’s rueful protests, Bud guided him up to the red convertible and helped him inside. Then, taking his own place at the wheel, Bud sped back to Swift Enterprises, contacting Simpson on his cellphone. They passed through the main gate and pulled up outside the plant’s infirmary.
Dr. Simpson, the young medic of Enterprises, eyed Tom with a look of comic dismay as the two boys entered his office. “Good grief, Skipper!” he said, seeing Tom’s visible scrapes and bruises. “You have a lab accident?”
Bud grinned. “Naw. Genius boy was just doing a somersault with his car. Kind of late in the day to start cutting up, wouldn’t you say, Doc?”
Doc Simpson laughed. “Sure is. Anyway, I’m the one who’s supposed to do the cutting up around here.” He reached for a medical kit.
“Well, don’t start on me.” Tom chuckled. “We don’t need exploratory surgery to tell me I’m just a little shaken up.”
The physician examined Tom carefully and treated a few slight cuts, but said that otherwise he found the patient uninjured. Nevertheless, he ordered Tom to rest for an hour or two on a cot in one of the treatment rooms.
“Listen, I can’t stay here,” Tom argued as he put on his T-shirt. “I have to find out what went wrong with that car.”
“It’ll wait,” Doc insisted, shepherding Tom into a treatment room. “In the meantime, you stretch out on this cot.”
“Relax,” Bud told his pal. “I’ll go see about your car.”
When Tom tried to object, Doc Simpson added persuasively, “We’re saving you for the last play of the fourth quarter, Tom Swift!”
“I’ll even leave you with something to chew over,” offered Bud. He told Tom about the fleeing figure he had seen briefly in the headlights of his car.
“I saw someone too,” responded the patient, “just before I lost control. In fact I saw a little more than you did, chum. It was a woman, carrying something in her hand.”
“Like a gun?”
“No, bigger and bulkier. It looked more like a camera—but I only got a glimpse. No way I could identify the woman.”
Tom lay down with a humorous grumble while Bud hurried off to the big garage-and-maintenance shop which housed Enterprises’ fleet of trucks and jeeps. Soon a wrecker was on its way with Al Roster, one of the mechanics working the night shift, at the wheel and Bud beside him.
When they arrived at the scene of the accident, Al said, “Wow! Tom was lucky!”
Tom’s car was hoisted out of the ditch with the tow crane. The mechanic checked the steering system but could find nothing wrong. Other than the broken windows the only apparent damages were some deep fender dents and a few body scratches.
“Sure the boss didn’t black out or something?” the mechanic asked.
“Get real, Al!” Bud said scornfully. “Even if Tom’s brain was only hitting on half the cylinders, it’d still rev faster than most do at full choke.”
Al shrugged. “I thank you, Bud, for explaining that to me in language I understand. Okay, we’ll take the car back to the shop and tear it down. But t’tell you the truth,” he went on, “I figure there couldn’t be anything out of kilter, the way Tom takes care of this baby.”
Bud scowled. “Yeah. Guess you’re right, Al. We’ve been following the wrong trail.”
Without explaining his last remark, Bud rode back to Enterprises, hurrying off to talk to Tom after thanking the mechanic. The two boys discussed the problem over trays of a late supper brought in by a nurse. Tom had already bathed and changed into a fresh blue-striped T-shirt from his office closet.
“You know, Bud, I’ve been thinking,” he mused. “Some kind of ray could have been used on my car—a ray which temporarily froze the steering linkages or something. We’ve dealt with beam-weapons before. And that would explain the thing the woman was carrying.”
“That’s the scientific part of the mystery, pal,” Bud declared warmly, “and that’s your specialty. You can go wild checking out the car—tomorrow!”
“I think we’d better tell Harlan,” Tom said grimly.
Tom chuckled at Bud’s stern expression. “Right, flyboy—tomorrow!”
The next morning the two met at the office of the security chief, Tom having ridden to work with his father. Ames became alarmed, in his stoic way, upon hearing the boys’ story. Picking up the telephone, Ames called Shopton police headquarters. Captain Rock, an old friend of the Swifts, promised to meet them immediately at the scene of the accident.
Shortly after Tom and his two companions arrived, a police car pulled up alongside. The officer listened to an account of what had happened, then turned to Bud.
“What did this figure you saw running away look like?”
“I caught only an eyeblink’s worth,” Bud said. “Just somebody slight and thin, dressed in rough clothes. She was sort of crouched over as she darted off into the brush. My impression is she’s dark-haired, a short hairdo.”
The sergeant who had accompanied Rock made a note of this. Then Harlan Ames asked, “Can either of you point out exactly where she went?”
Tom shook his head, but Bud answered, “I think so.” He led the way toward the spot where the stranger had disappeared into the woods. The trees grew close together near the road, then thinned into a marshy area of low ground. Suddenly Ames gave a cry of excitement and pointed to a series of footprints in the soft muck.
“That’s her trail, I’ll bet!” Bud exclaimed.
Captain Rock bent to examine them and frowned. “Pretty wide shoe prints for a woman,” he stated. “Then again, she might have worn hunter’s boots over her own dainty shoes.”
“Looks to me like we have more than one set of footprints,” Ames declared.
“I agree. Look at ’em!—as many as four people, seems to me.” The group followed the trail for a few minutes, but as the ground sloped upward and became more rocky, the prints disappeared.
Meanwhile, Tom had hung back as he pursued a theory of his own. He was hoping to find some scientific clues to the method used in disabling his car. A path of trampled underbrush showed the stranger’s movements before she had fled. “She waited here,” he muttered to himself. “But how could she have known to expect me in the first place?”
Tom followed the trail from the edge of the woods to a single huge oak tree standing close to the roadside. Good place to lie in wait, he thought—and then his eyes widened in excitement!
The others were returning, and Tom beckoned excitedly. “Come here and take a look at this.”
They examined what Tom had discovered—some odd, dark patches on the bark of the tree trunk. “What is it, Tom?” asked Bud. “Scorch marks?”
“It looks a lot like charring from heat,” the young inventor replied. “But something else can also cause that effect. Namely intense cold!”
The sergeant gulped and Captain Rock repeated the word skeptically. “Cold?”
“What’s your theory, Skipper?” Ames asked.
“It’s not exactly a theory yet,” responded Tom. “Let’s just call it Swift’s Conjecture.” He explained that some features of the markings were too sharply delimited for radiant heat effects. “And also, look at this.” He rubbed a finger along the wood at the surface of one of the patches. The wood seemed to disintegrate into a rain of white, ashy powder. “I can tell it isn’t ordinary wood ash, but something more like an instantaneous freeze-dry phenomenon. It may be our lady sniper used a kind of electromagnetic ray projector to ‘freeze’—literally!—some crucial part of the steering mechanism. These marks could be accidental cold-burns from the ray beam, if that’s what we should call it.”
Harlan Ames nodded. “Just about the right height.”
“But who was the dirty ratgirl?” Bud growled. “And why is she out to get you? Think it has something to do with the theft of your plans?”
Tom shrugged ruefully. “Wish I could tell you, chum. My crystal ball is a bit clouded.”
Both Rock and Harlan Ames promised to check out every possible lead. Tom, meanwhile, decided to put the whole matter from his mind and turn his thoughts to perfecting his matter translimator. “But that invention doesn’t really need much more basic work,” he told himself wryly as he rode back to the plant. “I’d better come up with something new to think about pretty quick—to keep the ol’ Swift brain on the level!”
At home that evening, the family supper was interrupted by the soft ring of the telephone. Mr. Swift, being closest, answered. Tom, Sandy, and Mrs. Swift saw a look of excitement flash over his face as he took the message.
“Thank you, Colonel. We’ll be there, of course,” Damon Swift said, just before hanging up.
“It must be something important,” commented Tom’s mother. “It’s not just anyone who knows our private number.”
“Long distance?” Tom asked.
“Yes, son, from Washington. Swifts one and all, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration has just invited Tom and myself to attend a meeting tomorrow morning to discuss a manned government space probe to Venus!”
“Venus? My goodness!” Sandy leapt to her feet.
Tom’s eyes lit up with thrilled interest as he and his father exchanged glances. Tom had wanted a new challenge—and here was one bigger than he had dreamed!
PILOT FOR VENUS
THE next day Tom ate a hurried breakfast, kissed his mother and Sandy goodbye, and drove to the plant with his father. Both shared a feeling of stifled excitement. If the Swifts were assigned the manned space flight to Venus, it would be the most daring venture they had ever undertaken!
“Of course, the trip itself won’t be a problem,” Tom remarked. “We’ve already traveled to the doorstep of Venus in the Challenger.” The Challenger was Tom’s huge repelatron-driven spaceship in which he had crossed interplanetary space to the vicinity of Earth’s cloud-shrouded neighbor, an adventure recounted in Tom Swift and His Space Solartron.
“The real challenge will arise if a landing is contemplated,” commented Mr. Swift.
“I’ll say! Heat, pressure, a sulphurous atmosphere—we’ll have to come up with an entirely new sort of lander craft, and exploration suits that’ll be more like deep-diver suits.”
As they drove through the private executive gate, Damon Swift said, “I wonder why Col. Jessup made a point of asking us to bring Bud along to the meeting?”
“Probably because he’s known as my copilot and overall crony in adventure,” speculated Tom. “Guess they’d prefer to brief us both at the same time.”
Bud met them on the Enterprises airfield, eager for the trip ahead. A small commuter jet, manufactured by Enterprises’ Shopton affiliate the Swift Construction Company, stood ready for takeoff on the runway.
Bud handled the controls. “Venus!” he whooped in excitement. “Man, this is going to be more fun than flying a monkey to the moon!—which we’ve already done, anyway.”
Within half an hour they were landing in Washington. A car awaited to take them to NASA headquarters near the national mall.
Dr. Lars Norstrom, a lean man with Viking-blond hair, greeted them warmly. “Good to see you again Damon, Tom. Thanks for coming on such short notice.” Dr. Norstrom, project coordinator of the national manned space flight program, was an old friend of the Swifts.
“We’re happy you called on us,” said Mr. Swift. “This is Bud Barclay.”
Dr. Norstrom beamed at the young flier as he shook his hand. “Of course. Delighted to meet you, Bud. We’re particularly eager to have you at this meeting.”
Bud and the Swifts were somewhat mystified at the man’s last remark but made no comment. Norstrom led them to a conference room. Another NASA official awaited them there, Col. Scott Jessup, the former NASA astronaut now in charge of astronaut training.
Two other men were present as well—John Clarke and Arnold Franklin, the president and the chief engineer of the Astro-Dynamics Corporation, well known from their televised testimony before various Congressional committees.
Clarke flashed a friendly smile—in fact, he and his companion were all smiles—as he and the guests from Shopton shook hands. “Always a pleasure to see America’s greatest space pioneers again.”
This is strange, Tom thought. Why are these guys here?
Using an electronic presentation screen, Norstrom outlined the details of the planned Venus flight. There would be no descent to the surface after all, but rather a lengthy and extensive study of the planet from a low orbit. “We have a distinguished team of scientists already selected. Of course we had to limit the roster to those who were physically able to endure the round trip—more than a year in space altogether.”
“More than a year?” repeated Mr. Swift in surprise. “Our spaceship already made the journey across in a matter of― ” He stopped as he and Tom were suddenly hit by an unexpected realization.
“You see, gentlemen,” continued Norstrom, “we’ll be using an Astrodyne-8 booster for the launch from Canaveral. We also like the space vehicle they’ve come up with.”
Tom was thunderstruck, however much he tried not to show it on his face. The Astrodyne was a huge rocket manufactured by Astro-Dynamics that had been used for some years to boost satellites into space. Though the rocket was well engineered and reliable, Tom considered it inferior in thrust and refinements to the Swifts’ rockets—and frankly outdated.
“I... I see. Then the contract’s already been awarded?” Mr. Swift asked.
Norstrom nodded. He appeared embarrassed. “Yes. Now I realize this comes as something of a surprise to you, Damon. For various reasons we think Astro-Dynamics is the way to go for this particular job.”
Now Col. Jessup spoke up. His tone was witheringly sarcastic. “That’s great diplomacy, Lars, but the Swifts deserve to know what’s really behind the decision. Boys, it’s politics, all politics. To put it bluntly, the Astrodyne is pretty nearly down for the count, but it just happens that the state in which it’s manufactured has quite a few electoral votes in play in the next national election. Also true of the state in which the manned craft, the Highroad, is being made.”
“In other words,” pronounced Tom impulsively, “NASA has to play ball with key congressmen if it wants to show up well in the next budget bill.”
“What a smart son you have, Damon,” snorted Col. Jessup.
“At any rate, the decision is made and final,” huffed John Clarke, no longer quite so friendly. “The contracts are signed.”
Arnold Franklin spoke, trying to make peace. “You’ll appreciate the Highroad when you get to know her. Very advanced. Nuclear powered, with a thrust system using a bank of mega-kick lasers to drive it along.”
Tom Swift was intrigued in spite of himself. “Lasers? I know it’s been on the drawing board for years—direct reaction thrust from high-energy photon emission― ”
“Perfected in secret as part of the SDI space weaponry program.”
“I’m sure Tom and I are duly impressed,” said Mr. Swift, “and I congratulate the two of you for your accomplishment. Now please tell us why we’re here.”
Dr. Norstrom nodded at Clarke. “Our problem now,” said Clarke, “is getting an experienced astronaut for mission pilot. Of course nowadays that means someone from Swift Enterprises. Tom here would be our first choice, but we know he’s too busy—always is. Therefore we’d like to borrow Bud Barclay.”
Bud drew in a long breath. He was completely flabbergasted by the offer! Tom, too, was left speechless.
Mr. Swift smiled and looked understandingly at the young flier. “Bud, it’s up to you.”
Tom quickly mastered his own disappointment and said gamely, “It’s a terrific challenge, pal! And it’s about time you had your chance to stand in the spotlight.”
Bud gulped uncomfortably. “I—I don’t know what to say. I’d like to think it over, sir.”
“Take as long as you need,” said Dr. Norstrom.
“Just as long as you say yes,” added Jessup sourly.
Mr. Swift glanced at his watch. “Suppose we three talk it over at lunch,” he suggested. “Bud has the final word, of course.”
The others were agreeable, and the meeting adjourned for a two-hour break. As they ate lunch at a hotel restaurant, Bud and the Swifts discussed the situation. “Frankly, I’d rather not take the job,” Bud bluntly declared. “I don’t want this. Sure, it’s exciting, but I consider myself a Swift man—first, last, and always.”
Tom grinned at him. It wasn’t easy to do. “Thanks, pal. I’m glad you feel that way, but you can’t let it stop you. You’ll still be a ‘Swift man’ no matter what, and this would be an honor—a chance for you to be called ‘Skipper’ on the greatest space flight so far.”
“Tom’s right,” added Mr. Swift. “You know how much we appreciate your loyalty, but an active space program is in our nation’s interest, and it mustn’t rest entirely on the shoulders of Swift Enterprises.”
“You’re the man of the hour, flyboy,” said Tom with a nudge.
Bud beamed excitedly. “Then—I think I’ll give my folks a call!” By the time lunch was over, he had agreed to accept Astro-Dynamics’ offer. His decision brought smiles and handshakes that afternoon at NASA headquarters.
“We picked you because you’re a space flight veteran, but you’ll still need a good deal of specialized training for this mission. We’ll expect you in Florida next Thursday, Bud,” Clarke told him, “to begin your test work and general indoctrination.”
Added Col. Jessup: “You can expect to sweat a lot, kid.”
“I’ve already started!”
Back aboard the jet, an uneasy, thoughtful quiet had replaced the momentary surge of enthusiasm. Tom took the controls. The others could see that he was still feeling the sting of Enterprises’ not having been given a chance to compete in the Venus project. After taking off, Tom swung in a large arc until he was ten miles up and a hundred miles from shore.
“I think I’ll wring this crate out a bit before we land,” he announced. “I’m feeling like a little exercise.”
Bud grinned. “I’m always up for that. Let ’er rip, sky-Skipper!” He knew this was Tom’s way of getting the Venus project out of his mind—as well as the prospect of spending many months without his close friend at his side.
“Aerobatics?” Mr. Swift inquired, as he and Bud pulled their safety belts tighter. “Take it easy though, son—your old man can only handle so many G’s!”
Looking grimly determined, Tom lowered the nose of the jet to gain speed. As he eased steadily back on the control stick, the horizon gradually dropped below the nose of the aircraft. Only blue sky could be seen as Tom passed over the top of a perfect loop. The occupants felt the acceleration G force mount steadily to almost three times their own weight.
Tom did a roll, first to the right, then to the left. “Corkscrew maneuver,” he remarked.
Diving for speed again, he pulled the stick back and to the right, causing the plane to roll in a vertical climb. “Not bad,” Bud said jokingly. “Not bad.”
Tom half-rolled the jetcraft upside down, arcing to pin the occupants in their seats as sea and sky exchanged places. But as he attempted to recover right-side-up, Tom’s face muscles tensed suddenly.
“What’s wrong?” Mr. Swift questioned.
“The control stick! I can’t move it!” The craft continued to zoom along upside down, in a great roller-coaster curve—that ended in the ocean!
WELCOME HOME, AND
TOM STRAINED to free the stick. It would not budge. “The boosters in the control system must be jammed!”
“How about the booster-release lever?” asked Bud tensely.
Tom reached for a lever to his left and pulled it hard. He tried to move the stick. “No good! The release doesn’t work, either!”
“The air speed is increasing,” Mr. Swift warned. The plane had entered a full-on inverted dive.
Tom continued to struggle with the control stick but had no success. He desperately worked a hand-operated hydraulic pump, but he could not regain pressure. “I’ll try the trim controls.”
He reached to his left where two dials were located. One of them read: aileron-trim control. He turned it slowly. The plane shuddered slightly, then started to respond.
“We’re rolling out!” Mr. Swift cried.
Tom continued to adjust the aileron-trim control. But as the jet began to shift out of its upside-down stance, the blue ocean drawing near as it tilted sideways over their heads, Bud suddenly gripped his friend’s forearm. “No—no more. Shift her back, about halfway. You’ve got to turn the arc into a full loop. Go, Tom!”
The young inventor understood instantly. Again the jet was inverted, but not completely. Tom played the trim controls against the slipstream, knowing that any moment they could stall out and begin to plunge beyond all hope of recovery.
The watery horizon seemed to lower in front of them as the forces drove the blood from their heads. For the slightest terrible instant they nosed straight down—down seemingly in front of them like a wall! Then the moment was past. The cockeyed loop was completed. They were topside-up once again.
“Yeah!” Bud cheered. But Tom cautioned him: “We’re not out of this yet!”
“Have you any control at all?” Mr. Swift asked his son.
“I have rudder control, but I still can’t directly raise or lower the nose. We can make Enterprises, but as for a landing—! I’m going to try to use the elevator-trim control to bring us in. It’ll be tricky, but it’s worth a try.”
“You can do it, pal,” said Bud quietly.
Tom skillfully adjusted the trim controls. He managed to turn the plane toward Shopton, then tuned the cockpit radio. “Swift Enterprises tower,” he called. “This is Tom Swift, SCC-R19. Mayday!”
The radio receiver crackled and a voice emerged from the speaker. “Swift tower. We copy, Tom! What’s the sitch?”
“Aileron and elevator controls inoperative. I’m one hundred fifty miles due east. Going to attempt a landing using trim controls!”
“Copy that.” There was a pause. “Tom Swift, you are cleared for an emergency landing on east-west runway 5. Winds northwest at one-six. We have you on radar lock. We’ll have a crash team standing by!”
Upstate New York fled beneath them, and presently Lake Carlopa appeared ahead. Tom maneuvered the aircraft east of Enterprises’ huge landing field. He then turned west in order to line up with the landing runway.
They could almost hear the sirens blaring.
“Swift tower, this is Tom on final approach!”
“You are cleared to land!”
Tom reduced power slightly for a descent. “We’ll have to come in faster than normal to keep the trim controls effective.” Tom adjusted the elevator-trim-control dial constantly as the plane eased downward and approached the landing end of the runway. He increased power momentarily, reduced it again, then turned the trim control to nearly full nose-up position. The plane responded slowly and flared out about fifteen feet above the runway.
“Hold on!” Tom ordered.
“We’re holding!” gulped Bud in a whisper.
A wing dipped. Tom adjusted the aileron-trim control. The plane gradually leveled out. Then the nose began to lower again. He turned the elevator-trim dial to full nose-up and increased power slightly. The jetcraft seemed to hang in the air for a split second, then dropped hard and fast onto the runway surface. The tires screeched! Tom cut power completely. The plane skittered along the tarmac at frightful speed.
“We’re almost out of runway!” Mr. Swift murmured.
Tom applied brakes harder and harder. Just short of the boundary, the craft finally stopped, bowed forward, and fell back.
Bud mopped his pale forehead, then pumped Tom’s hand in silent gratitude.
Mr. Swift patted his son quietly on the back. “Well done,” he said. “Masterful flying, Tom.”
“Tom—and Bud,” the youth retorted, thinking: Bud—soon to be off in space far far away.
The three climbed out and Tom immediately started tracing the cause of the trouble. As emergency vehicles roared up, Tom was pointing at the underhull of the fuselage. A dark oval discoloration stood out against the silver white.
“More of the cold-scorching?” Bud asked, crouching down next to Tom.
Tom nodded. “Worse, too. The beam affected the fuselage coating as it penetrated. And right here― ”
“I know,” said the youthful pilot. “Those smart-metal servoflexor rods of yours. I’ll bet we’ll find a pile of metal flakes when we open her up.”
Tom snorted. “Flyboy, we can open her up right now!” He poked a finger into the discolored patch—and the metal shattered like a thin piecrust.
“This couldn’t have happened more than seconds before the stick froze up,” declared Tom, as puzzled as he was angry. “That means they must have been in a boat down below, zapping us just as we banked over for that last loop. Some kind of speedboat, probably—they tailed us in parallel as best they could. They’d hardly have been able to keep pace, but the device must work over quite a distance, miles apparently, with a precise focused aim like a laser beam.”
Mr. Swift had broken away from directing the emergency crew long enough to overhear Tom’s remark. “But the question remains, what tipped them off to our trip?”
Tom shrugged. “For all we know they have operatives ready for action in every big city on the Atlantic coast!”
“Right—‘evil operators are standing by’!” Bud snorted.
That evening Sandy was thrilled when she learned that Bud was going on the Venus probe project. “This calls for a farewell celebration!” she decided implacably.
“Dear, if I might make a suggestion,” said Mrs. Swift, “why not combine your farewell party with the welcome home party for the Sterlings?”
Hank Sterling, Enterprises’ young chief engineer and a close friend of the Swifts and Bud Barclay, had just flown back to Shopton from a long vacation trip to South America with his wife and children. With their usual aplomb, Sandy and Bashalli had already taken charge of planning a celebratory gala at Range View Inn in the hills on the far side of Lake Carlopa. “Mother, what a wonderful idea!” Sandy bubbled. “Tomonomo, why don’t you come up with ideas like this?”
Tom grinned. “Sorry, San. Guess I’m just not the imaginative type.”
The event had been scheduled for the day before Bud was to report to Cape Canaveral. Range View Inn, isolated among the pines, catered to hikers and flying enthusiasts. The inn maintained its own small flying field on level ground nearby.
The appointed day arrived. Mr. and Mrs. Sterling, Tom’s parents, and the many other guests decided to take the drive up to enjoy the scenery. Bud Barclay’s parents, and his much-older sister and brother, had flown in from San Francisco and would be driving up by rented car.
Tom, Bud, Bashalli, and Sandy decided to fly. They whooshed off from the Enterprises airfield in a small jet-assisted helicopter called the Skeeter Two. In a handful of minutes the jetrocopter had crossed Lake Carlopa with Sandy, a trained and certified pilot, at the controls.
“Is it my imagination, Sandra, or are you taking us on a rather circuitous route?” inquired Bashalli. “Surely the point of air travel is to proceed along a straight line?”
Sandy answered, “This is what Big Brother asked me to do. For safety.”
“The ray-gunners seem to know right away where we’re going and what we’re doing,” Tom pointed out. “But unless they can read minds, they can’t anticipate a random flight path.”
Bud leaned forward. “Of course, they could go for the bottom line and just blow up the Inn.”
“Troublesome passengers will be ejected, Budworth,” sniffed Bash daintily. “We might have flown more stylishly in your Silent Streak atomicar, Thomas. But it is only built for two.”
“We’re planning a four-seat model.”
“Alas for intimacy.”
“And besides, Bashi, that big dome doesn’t give much privacy anyway, down on lovers lane,” teased Sandy.
“So true. Alas for romance as well.”
Tom chuckled. “I guess it looks like science and technology are going to cause the death of romance.”
“Believe me, Thomas,” said the pretty dark-haired Pakistani, “I have found that these days, romance can not even get started.”
The jetrocopter landed at the Inn, stately and quaint next to a small tumbling stream whose banks were strewn with wild flowers. “Parking lot’s packed. Never knew I was so popular,” Bud observed with a wink. “Well—I guess Hank has a few friends, too.”
Inside Bud was greeted with warm applause, as were Hank and Lauren Sterling. And soon the various relatives arrived, to handshakes, hugs, and kisses.
“Now tell me, Sandra,” said Bud’s mother with a mischievous smile, “Aren’t you just a little worried about Bud’s making a play for Venus?”
“Why should I be, Mrs. Barclay?” Sandy replied impishly. “With all that time on my hands I’ll find myself a new steady with a classic profile, like Mars.”
Bud pretended to be shocked. “What, suddenly I’m your steady? I thought we were just a couple of pals who danced together!”
“Don’t be too sure of him, sis,” Tom joked. “His heart belongs to a rocket ship.”
“Not the Astrodyne-8, or that flashlight-powered sky buggy they’ve planned for me,” Bud said disgustedly. “Lemme tell ya, folks, the Swifts’ Challenger can fly rings around both of ’em!”
Dinner was still an hour away, and the clock on the wall said: Mingle. Tom found himself talking to Hank Sterling about his recent adventures in Kabulistan with the triphibian atomicar.
“And now this freeze-ray stuff,” clucked Tom’s chief engineer sympathetically. “Skipper, you’re the one who needs a vacation!”
“Maybe so,” responded the young scientist-inventor. Then his voice took on a thoughtful, dreamy tone that all his friends knew very well. “But the usual drama has accomplished one thing, Hank—an idea for a new invention. If my approach pans out, it’ll protect us from having our communications tapped into by lady ray-gun wielders, or anyone else.”
Sterling whistled jokingly. “I can see you’re going to put me right back to work! So what is it, some kind of new signal-coder?”
Tom shook his head. “Nope. Try this on for size—a communications device that no one in the world can possibly listen in on—ever!”
HANK STERLING nodded, and his expression revealed that he was intrigued—and startled! “That’s quite a statement, Tom. Of course we’re always coming up with new methods to keep disreputable types from listening in on us. But for each step we take, they take another. And they have bigger feet!”
Tom joined his friend in laughter. “If you want a thumbnail explanation, Hank, here it is. I have a wild sort of idea to use the principle of quantum entanglement to link together a pair of communications devices in a way that, in a certain sense, annihilates the distance between them! In effect, it’ll be like speaking right into the other person’s ear—and I think you’ll agree that in a case like that, there’s just no room to insert any kind of bug or surveillance device.”
“Sounds good to me!” grinned the young engineer. “I’ve read a little about what they call ‘quantum cryptography’. But look, Tom, I’ve always understood that using the quantum principle for basic communications was just plain impossible. Someone give you permission to break the laws of physics?”
“Not break them. But just maybe there’s a way to outsmart them!”
Before Tom could elaborate, a big gravelly bellow filled the room with: “Food’s up an’ waitin’, folks! First course on the table!”
The bellower, Chow Winkler, master of the dinner, was an old and colorful friend of the Swifts. As executive chef, he was a fixture at Swift Enterprises. In his simple and straightforward way the former chuck wagon cook from Texas had saved the day—and the bacon—more than once while traveling with his beloved young “pardners” Tom and Bud.
The Swifts, Barclays, and Sterlings, joined by Bashalli Prandit and her brother and sister-in-law, sat at the head table of honor. There was a place there for Chow as well, but the excitable cook spent most of his time up on his pudgy bowlegs dealing with dinner, and keeping a wary eye on his assistant Boris. “Cain’t trust that fancy-pants Russian t’do things right proper,” he grumbled to Tom.
During the dinner Hank showed a video of the sights he and his family had seen, and Tom took the microphone to briefly describe Bud’s planned voyage and the scientific accomplishments it aimed at. When he mentioned the Highroad spacecraft and its builder, there was a low muttering throughout the room.
There was a break between the end of the main course and Chow’s elaborate dessert. Dancing filled the time. The younger crowd danced to a vibrant altMuze group Tom had brought in from the local high school. The older guests were more strongly motivated by a rock band, the antique sounds of a quarter century past.
“Listen to that noise!” Sandy murmured to Bashalli. “What is it with that generation?”
“All a matter of when one grows up, Sandra,” Bash commented. “But it is surely hard to take, having to watch all that jerking and wiggling by our elders—it seems to me rather indecent.”
Chow, standing nearby, overheard. “Wa-aal now, that there bangin’ and strummin’ ain’t so bad, and it sure gives your folks some exercize. But I sure couldn’t jump around like that.”
“What ever happened to the foxtrot?” asked Bud.
After dessert, applause for Chow and Boris, and more dancing, the four friends were about to leave when the Inn’s visitors concierge handed Tom a folded note with his name scribbled on the outside. He opened it and read:
Your helicopter will crash on return flight!
The warning note was unsigned. Without betraying his reaction, Tom folded the paper again, stuffed it into his pocket, and turned to Bud.
“Let’s go wash up, flyboy, before we start home. Excuse us, girls?”
“Yes,” Sandy answered. “We young ladies prefer associating with washed-up men.”
Bud had guessed instantly that something was up. In the washroom Tom took out the note and showed it to him. Bud’s face flamed with anger as he read the message. “Those jerkfaces!” he cried. “They must have hid somewhere in the woods watching the Inn and seen us come down on the field.”
Tom gave a grim nod. “I doubt they tried to defeat the alarm system and plant a bomb aboard. More than likely they’re in position to use the freeze-beam on the chopper as we take off.”
“The handheld one, you suppose?”
“Maybe. But they could have the long-range model, the one they used on the jet, positioned somewhere on higher ground.”
“Yeah, to zap us as we gain altitude. Skipper, I don’t know who sent this, but after what happened to your car I wouldn’t take a chance!”
Tom did not underrate the danger, but pointed out, “It doesn’t make any sense to plan on downing us—but warn us beforehand. This note may have been written by some crank and might have no connection with that road ambush or the attack on the jet.”
“Could be,” conceded Bud. “Tell you one thing, though. I’m looking forward to visiting Venus. But I’d really prefer doing it alive!”
The two scouted up Harlan Ames, who had attended the event with his daughter Dodie. “What does the event manager say? The fellow who brought you the note?”
“He said he found the note on the front counter by the entrance after he’d stepped away for a few minutes,” explained Tom. “As you see, it had my name on it. No one saw who put it there.”
“It could have been one of the employees of the Inn,” the security chief speculated, “possibly someone planted in the work staff to spy on you during the event. I’ll investigate, run fingerprints and so on. But meanwhile, boss, what do you plan to do? Hitch a ride back?”
Tom smiled with determination. “Why not try to draw them out? Don’t worry, Harlan. Bud and I have dreamed up one of our daring plans!”
Presently Tom and Bud strolled over to the Inn’s airfield with Mrs. and Mrs. Barclay and Bud’s sister and brother. Tom appeared—to any watcher—to be showing them the Skeeter, walking completely around it very slowly, trying to glance casually at the underside of the fuselage, as Bud hung back at the copilot’s hatch.
“Okay,” said Tom in tones that were just loud enough. “no burn marks. Hop in, flyboy.”
As the Barclay family backed away, Tom and Bud vaulted into their seats. It took all of three seconds to start the overhead blades whirling, a few more to catapult the Skeeter upward and forward with a quick burst of jet power. In a split instant they had hurtled across the airstrip and into the groove of the Inn’s access road, keeping low beneath the treetops as they paralleled the road from an altitude of a mere two yards.
“Looks like we’ve got it wired, genius boy!” exulted Bud. “They can’t see the chopper for the trees!”
“It was a risk,” Tom admitted, “but a calculated one. If they’d planned to use their big beamer—it would almost have to be fairly big, I’d think, to have hit our jet miles high—they’d position it on higher elevation a mile or two off. And at that angle the pines will block it until we get close to the lake.”
“Okay. But why couldn’t they just pick us off over the lake?”
“They could—but they didn’t when we flew over on the way. There could be some sort of clue in the fact that they haven’t used the long-range model in, or near, Shopton. Maybe the device produces some sort of signal burst as it discharges, something that bright boys like us could detect.”
“Maybe,” agreed Bud. “But there’s a good way for them to eliminate that problem—dump the bright boys in Lake Carlopa!”
After a brief but tense air-hop the Skeeter landed back at Enterprises without incident, and Tom called the cell number of Markham Wesberg, a plant employee. He had agreed to drive Sandy and Bashalli back to the Swift residence in his van, which the girls had entered in a concealed way. “Everybody safe at home,” he reported. “Wow, chief—thanks for making me a part of your adventure!”
Bud sat in Tom’s lab, regarding his chum with a grave expression as the young scientist-inventor clicked the telephone off “What have you gotten yourself tangled up in this time, Tom? Not that I’m worried that you won’t be able to handle it, but—you know.”
“I know,” said Tom, giving Bud’s shoulder a squeeze, thinking: But—you wish you were going to be here to see how I do it.
Bud spent the night at the Swifts’, rising at dawn to meet his chartered jet at the Shopton Airport. Though excited at the prospect ahead, the young pilot seemed subdued at parting from Tom and the familiar surroundings of Swift Enterprises. Tom, too, was keenly aware of a pang of sadness. After sharing so many adventures on their daring space voyages, he would not be with his pal on this new cruise into the unknown.
“Let me know what you find under that cloud cover up on Venus, rocket boy,” Tom said, trying to sound cheerful—and not choke up.
“Oh, I will. Telling the whole story’ll give me something to look forward to. And as a matter of fact― ” Bud’s face brightened. “By the time I’m done with training, I’ll bet you’ll have that new radio gizmo up and running! Give me one of the units and we can talk from one end of space to the other!”
“I promise, Bud. When you lift off, you’ll have one of my parallelophones in your space locker.”
Bud winced comically. “What-o-phone? Man, let’s just call it a Private Ear Radio, okay?”
“Okay.” The word hurt Tom as he said it.
Bud glanced at his wristwatch, a gift from his best pal. “Time to get goin’.” He paused at the door, then said quietly: “It won’t be half so much fun without you along, Skipper... genius boy.” Giving Tom a playful but half-hearted poke in the ribs, Bud strode off abruptly.
Deep in thought, Tom breakfasted quietly, then hopped into his car, newly repaired, and drove to his private laboratory at Enterprises. He was baffled and angry at the attempts to injure him. Who was behind the bizarre high-tech attacks? And why?
The Swifts and their revolutionary scientific inventions had often been targets for scheming criminals and subversive agents. Recently, with Bud at his side, Tom had fought for his life against deadly enemies while on a difficult engineering mission in the Middle East. In outer space and under the sea, and everyplace in between, the young scientist-inventor had faced heavy odds in his restless urge for new achievements. And the dangers were never to him alone.
Heaving a sigh, Tom gave up trying to solve the puzzle for the present and strode into his lab. “Too much to do to spend time worrying,” he muttered restlessly, settling down at his workbench in front of his design computer and circuitry emulator. “If we’re to have any rest from these guys, it may depend on getting the communicator done—the ‘Private Ear Radio’.”
Tom was hours deep in work when he was interrupted by a call from George Dilling, the plant’s chief of communications. “I just took a call from Congressman Van Arkyn, Tom.”
“Right, the head of the subcommittee that deals with Enterprises. What did he want?”
“He asks you to go down to the teleconference room—something big.” Dilling added: “Just you, no one else in the room. He made that very clear. He’ll link through from D.C. in about fifteen.”
Mystified, Tom hurried to the company’s advanced communications setup, which projected video images of the conferees as if they were all seated together around a table.
An image swam into focus in the darkness across from the young prodigy. “Hello, Tom,” said Van Arkyn, an avuncular type in his later 60’s.
Tom nodded politely. “Hello, Congressman.” He turned his gaze to the second figure in the circle of light, seated next to the congressman—and his eyebrows flew up in astonishment!
STEALTH AT LARGE
“ASA PIKE!” Tom exclaimed. “You’re the last person I expected to see!”
When Tom had been preparing for his first trip into space, an unknown enemy had endangered his plans. Following a lead, he and Bud had traveled to a coastal town where they recruited a local man, Asa Pike, to assist them. Yet later events suggested that Pike was much more than what he seemed, and in the end he had vanished without a trace—leaving a broad hint that he was an agent of a deep-cover U.S. security agency which called itself “Collections”.
The sun-craggy older man returned a smile. “What’s that, son? Asa Pike? Never heard of th’ feller. Friend o’ yours?”
Tom grinned. “He turned out to be a very good friend!”
“Well then, good f’ him.”
Tom used the signature phrase of the Collections group. “Are our tax dollars still at work?”
Pike’s eyes twinkled. “Always are, don’t ye think?”
“Let’s not worry about introductions,” stated Congressman Van Arkyn. “Something of grave import has come up, Tom, and this gentleman is in the best position to tell you about it.”
Tom nodded, waiting. “Say there, young man, I hear you’ve been havin’ a speck of trouble lately,” said the man Tom persisted in calling Asa Pike. “Problems with your car? Jet plane, too?”
“I’m not surprised that you folks know about it,” was Tom’s reply. “Can you tell me who’s behind it?”
“Who? Enemies, I’d say. A gang o’ scrowlywogs who have a nice business stealing blueprints and th’ like, and puttin’ them up t’auction, so t’ speak.”
“Such as my translimator plans?”
“Plucked ’em right out of your laser beam.”
“But how could they manage such a thing?” Tom demanded incredulously.
“Same way they been keepin’ an eye on you, Tom,” Pike replied. “And that happens t’be why we’re speakin’ here right now.”
“They stole a completed prototype from the Defense Department,” interjected Van Arkyn. “It’s something vital to national security, and at large in the world it’s extremely dangerous.”
“A weapon of some kind?” Tom asked, thinking of the ray device.
But Asa Pike should his head. “Nope, young feller. Not in the way you’re a-thinkin’. It’s a flying remote-control spy drone, t’ put it plain. They call it—your gov’mint likes nicknames too, y’know!—the Eyeballer.” He held up a piece of paper before the camera lens. “Here’s a rough sketch, fer you and anybody else who might be cuttin’ in on us.”
The object in the picture was shaped something like a starfish, with a disklike center. “This sketch shows it top view. Can’t show you the side, because they ain’t no side, Tom. It’s about as thin as a playin’ card! Stealth sort o’ thing, they call it. Hard to pick up on radar.”
“I understand,” Tom said. “Like the stealth bomber. How big is it?”
Pike grinned. “Oh, let’s see now. About this big, I’d say.” He held up a hand, fingers spread.
“Good grief!” gasped the young inventor. “The miniaturization must be― ”
“You can see why the Pentagon is most anxious to have it back in our possession,” declared the congressman. “The prototype itself, the plans and any copies of them, and the perpetrators.”
“Of course!” said Tom. “Who are the suspects?”
“Not so sure,” said Pike. “Not so sure as we’d care to tell you what we’re thinking, that is.”
“Are you saying this device has something to do with the attacks on me?”
“Purt sure on that one,” Asa Pike confirmed. “See now, one thing about the Eyeballer is how fast she moves—about Mach Four! Gets there from cruise speed in jest a handful of seconds. So one day, let’s say, they have it flying up over Swift Enterprises, watching who’s coming and going, eyeing—fer example—Tom Swift’s little bronze car as it goes a-toolin’ down the road. Mighty nice if you want t’ set up an ambush.
“Or mebbe you keep an eye on the communication antennas and that laser do-jiggy up on the roof, waitin’ to see when she fires up. Always have t’ send out a few test pulses before y’start in with the message, am I right? Which gives the Eyeballer plenty o’ time to zip on into line, catch the ray, then send it on agin almost b’fore you know it.”
“The perfect spy machine,” pronounced Tom. “They must have had it trail the jet the other day, all the way to Washington.”
“Say!—must have at that. So, they do what they can t’spy on where you go for your meeting, and then when you leave they fly it out underneath you and shoot that freezer thingy o’ theirs—stolen from th’ Germans, if you want t’know—right up your belly.”
“Then they don’t have a tight-focus long range model after all,” Tom muttered. “They just get up close with a miniature model, hand held or mounted on the Eyeballer. But why wouldn’t they have used the drone yesterday to attack the jetrocopter? The trees wouldn’t have blocked something like that.”
Pike winked conspiratorially. “Now that, son, is what I’d call a very good question. Almost makes ye wonder if somethin’ else was a-goin’ on with that note you got.”
“Do you know the answer?”
“Nope. Lots else, as you kin see. Not that’n, though.”
Van Arkyn said, “The Eyeballer is coated with that antidetection sheathing you Swifts came up with, and has holograph emulators—like little TV screens, they say—all over its surface, causing it to blend in with the background like a chameleon. We built it, but haven’t a clue as to how to detect it out in the field. We’re hoping you can solve it, Tom.”
Thinking of the size and importance of the challenge, Tom let out a deep breath. “I’ll try, but I’ll need to know more of the details—how it’s propelled, its power source, and so on.”
“When you return to your office, you’ll find that a special courier has deposited blueprints in your safe,” the congressman stated.
“Stand t’reason these gabbers have listened t’ everything we’ve jest said,” noted Pike calmly. “No matter—they’d be plain idjits not to guess from the get-go that we’d come to Tom Swift with this. Good chance they’ll pull the Eyeballer away from your factory now, fer safety. But I’m a-guessin’ that won’t stop ye, not likely. Hmm?”
“Good to see you again, Asa.”
The man grinned as Congressman Van Arkyn moved to switch off the teleconference camera. “Good t’see you again, boy. For th’ fust time, o’ course.”
Tom returned to his office and found the blueprints, unlabeled, in his code-locked safe. “Trent, did anyone enter the office in the last hour?”
“Not a one, Tom,” replied Munford Trent, the two Swifts’ secretary. “And I’ve been here all day.”
Tom chuckled to himself in near disbelief. Good night, those blueprints might have been in the safe for days! “I don’t know why we bother with an alarm system around here,” he muttered, hastily adding: “Don’t worry, Trent. You’re not at fault.”
To limber up his mind for the new problem, the young inventor decided to resume work on the old one—the Private Ear Radio.
Tom was soon covering sheet after sheet of paper with diagrams and lengthy computations. “Quantum-level signaling!” he said to himself. “Seems like Mother Nature doesn’t want us humans to figure out how to do it. But maybe she’ll reward me if I play it clever.”
Satisfied at last that he was on the right track, Tom plunged into the job of electronic construction, anxious to begin testing his new approach. A tangled assembly of nano-scaled microcomponents and wiring gradually took shape on his workbench. He switched on the crude device and began to note down the readings on several monitor instruments, making various changes to the power and output characteristics as he went along.
A bellowing foghorn voice suddenly shattered the young inventor’s concentration. “Tom! Great gravy, I know yuh’re in there!”
“Come on in, Chow. I unlocked the door.”
He looked up as a roly-poly figure came clomping into the laboratory with a clatter of high-heeled cowboy boots. As usual, Chow was sporting a gaudy shirt, with a ten-gallon hat perched atop his bald dome. Oddly, his leathery sun-bronzed face looked pale.
“What in thunderation’s goin’ on around here?” Chow gasped. “Flyin’ soup, talkin’ pots an’ pans—that I kin take, boss. But now I got fireworks poppin’ in my galley!”
With his mind still on his work, Tom stared at the quivering cowpoke. “Fireworks! Chow, what are you talking about?”
Chow grabbed him by the arm. “Boss, you git yer blame blue-stripe T-shirt on over t’ the galley and see for yourself!” the cook begged. “Brand my space spinach, it’s plumb spooky! Either the galley’s got itself a ghost, or that buddy o’ yours is playin’ some kind o’ joke on us all the way from Cape Car-neeval!”
Tom and Chow ran down the corridor to the private kitchen that adjoined the ex-Texan’s apartment. At the cook’s request, he had been installed near Tom’s main lab-workshop so he could “whomp up” special meals for his young boss whenever Tom was hard at work on a new invention—which often meant many an overlooked mealtime.
In the doorway of the kitchen the young inventor halted in amazement. Tiny explosions of hissing vapor were popping out across the whole length of the room, each one making a noisy report like a small firecracker! The ghostly stuff seemed to be materializing out of nowhere!
“Good night! You weren’t kidding, pardner!” Tom gasped. “Spectral fireworks!”
“SPECTER-AL? Like ghosts? You mean spooks is causin’ it?” Chow gulped, turning paler than ever. “Don’t b’lieve in ghosts, m’self. But I sure don’t like ’em!”
“Well, I don’t really mean that, exactly—but it certainly does look spooky.” Tom shook his head in total bafflement.
The “fireworks” were dancing not only in midair, but also along the top of the range, the cabinets, and tile wall surfaces. Tom noticed that the vapor explosions appeared to be spaced equal distances apart in long rows that curved across the room. As an explanation suddenly occurred to him, the young inventor burst into laughter.
“Brand my rocket docker! What’s so all-fired funny?” Chow demanded, suspicious that Tom might have been playing a joke on him after all.
“Relax, oldtimer,” Tom said. “I think I know what’s causing it. Just wait here a second.”
The chef looked none too comfortable at the prospect of being left alone with such ghostly goings-on going on. But he waited obediently with bulging eyes while Tom dashed back to his laboratory. When the young inventor returned a few moments later, the fireworks had vanished!
Chow looked relieved but mystified. “What in tarnation did you do, Tom?”
“Just switched off my dual spacewave oscillators. I was using them to see how the wave-chain affected the obverse-state matrix in my parallelophone.”
Chow gave his friend a sour frown. “Well now! That sure explains it, don’t it!”
With a laugh Tom explained that the spacewaves—oscillations in the fabric of spacetime that were the basis of his repelatron and several other inventions—were being generated at two separate sources. “The waves from either antenna aren’t tuned to affect us, but it seems that at such a low frequency intense focused heat is produced at the nodal points where the two chains cross, which I didn’t expect. This causes the water vapor in the air—and of course there’s quite a lot here in the kitchen—to turn to steam and pop-off like a firecracker.”
“That so?” Chow mopped his forehead with his huge red bandanna. “Jest plain ol’ steam, eh? Sure glad to hear it, son! But now, what was that other thing you said? Something about a telly-phone?”
“Bud calls it a Private Ear Radio,” responded Tom. “It uses quantum-entangled correlations to― ” He stopped himself. “Sorry Chow. Quantum stuff is hard for anyone to grasp. I guess my explanation wouldn’t be very interesting to you.” But then a new expression crossed Tom’s face. “Though actually... if you wouldn’t mind too much, pardner, I—I’d sort’ve like trying to spell it out to you.”
Chow suddenly understood. “Why sure, sure! You go right ahead, son. I’ll jest sit myself down on this stool.”
“Thanks. All right, then.” Tom drew his thoughts together. Hadn’t he been looking for new challenges? Explaining quantum physics to Chow Winkler would be his greatest challenge yet! “The quantum level of matter involves what matter does at its smallest scale, the scale of the subatomic particles that atoms are made of. At that level, ordinary rules that we take for granted, commonsense sorts of things, don’t always apply. Which really isn’t surprising. After all, the ordinary rules come from what we see around us, and― ”
“And ya cain’t see them atoms an’ suchlike.”
“Right. Now... you know how a coin has two sides, heads or tails.”
“Sure do. Seen a few of ’em.”
“And if you saw a penny lying on a table heads-up, you wouldn’t have to turn it over to tell what’s on the other side.”
Chow nodded thoughtfully. “N’body’s that stupid. If’n it’s heads on top, it’s gotta be tails on the bottom.”
“Yes. And that’s an example of how two things—a ‘head’ face and a ‘tail’ face—can be tangled up with one another, so to speak. Turn one face upwards, and the other one has to turn downwards.”
“Yup. Ya might call it two sides o’ the same coin.”
The young inventor smiled. “Well, there are things at the quantum level that act the same way. If a certain process emits two particles and sends them flying off in different directions, there might be only two possible states each one of them can be in—‘heads or tails’—and between the two there can only be one of each.”
Chow snapped a pair of pudgy fingers. “I get what yer drivin’ at. If you catch one of them particools and it’s one way, you know th’ other one has t’be the other way!”
“Pardner, that’s it exactly!” Tom congratulated him. “But now we get to the weird part—in fact they even call it quantum weirdness sometimes.”
“All ears, son. Cain’t be as weird as thet spooky steam.”
“Don’t be too sure! Because what many experiments have shown, over about a century, is that while the two particles are moving along their separate ways, each one exists in both states at the same time! They call it superposition, alternate possibilities coexisting. As if you had a coin that was both heads-and-tails on one side and both heads-and-tails on the other.”
“Coin like that wouldn’t be much use if’n ya flipped it to decide somethin’.”
“But actually it would work out after all, Chow. Because if you ‘flipped’ the ‘coin’ and looked at it—which in the case of the particles means interacting with them in some way that shows which of the two states one or the other particle is in—you’d always see either ‘heads’ or ‘tails’. Never both.”
The cook nodded. “So it’s like this, boss. It’s like a coin rollin’ on its edge. While it’s rollin’ along, it hasn’t made up its mind whether t’be up on one side or t’other. It’s both. But when you flick it over, then you get jest a head or jest a tail fer sure.”
“Okay, but the weirdest thing is this: when you interact with Particle A where you are, in a way that could tell you which one of the two states it’s in, Particle B takes on the other state instantly—even if it happens to be a billion miles away!”
“Now son,” said Chow with a look that was polite but slightly condescending, “what’s so blame strange about that?”
Tom was brought up short by Chow’s comment! “You don’t think it violates common sense for something happening here to cause a change in something instantly, no matter how far away it is? I mean—it could be in another galaxy!”
Chow gave his head a shake. “Wa-aal now, Tom, yew jest think on it. Ain’t you sayin’ these two little bits are jest two sides of the same thing, like the two sides of a coin? And one thing is one thing. If you push on a pencil, you don’t have t’wait a while afore the end of it starts in writin’. Does it right away, whole thing at once.”
“But—there are two distinct particles― ”
“Uh-huh, sure, jest like they’s two sides to a penny, diff’rent from each other. Son, the only thing special is that the two sides is put in diff’rent places out in space. Pee-culiar, sure enough, but that don’t make ’em really two things. Still jest two sides o’ one thing. Stands t’ reason thet if you make the one yer flippin’ with yer hand fall heads down, the other one’ll turn tails up at the same time. If that there’s been botherin’ you, Tom, ole Chow says to jest relax.”
Pleased but thoroughly amazed, Tom put a hand on his friend’s wide and sloping shoulder and gave it a squeeze of sheer admiration. “Charles Ollaho Winkler, you just resolved the major metaphysical debate of modern science!”
Chow shrugged. “Thet’s right nice, but it sure wudden much of a dee-bate. But now what’s all this got to do with a phone?”
“The rest of it’s the easy part,” replied the young inventor with a chuckle. “Basically, the device creates two sets of these paired counterpart particles, or ‘counterparticles’, holding each bunch of ‘halves’ suspended in separate cartridges—think of them as tanks, or particle-reservoirs. You then plug the cartridges into two communicator units. When you speak into one, the sound patterns of your voice are ‘translated’ into variations in a sort of scanning beam, which interacts with some of the particles in the cartridge in a way that causes them to collapse into one or the other of their possible states. And when that happens, the corresponding particles in the other cartridge instantly take on the same overall pattern, duplicating the shape of the original sound pattern.”
“Like a picture negative, hmm?”
“In a way. And then we read it off, and translate the patterns back into sound.” Tom added that each use of the Private Ear unit would render inert a portion of the available particles. “Each particle is ‘one use only’. But remember, they’re super-small, and the number of particles in a cartridge is enormous. It’ll last quite a while.”
“Wa-aal, sounds mighty nice t’ these old ears,” pronounced the westerner. “Now that wasn’t so hard, was it, Tom? I gotta get goin’ now. But I shor did like this here little conversation.”
As Chow left, Tom could only shake his head in wonderment. Well, he boggled inwardly, it was just a simplified analogy!
Tom worked steadily on his invention in the days that followed, thinking also of the problem of the stolen spy drone. And at the same time, in the back of his mind, he had already begun to toy with a further application of the basic quantum principle—a breakthrough even more revolutionary!
In his personal notebook he scribbled down three words—megascope space prober.
Late one afternoon, Tom was surprised and delighted when Bud dropped by the lab. “Got a couple days off,” he explained, “so I choppered over to Fearing Island and grabbed the next jet to Shopton.” Fearing was the tiny islet off the coast of Georgia where the Enterprises spaceport was based.
The young inventor gave his pal a warm bearhug. He sensed that Bud was feeling downcast, with something on his mind. But when Tom told the story of how Chow had somehow grasped quantum weirdness without batting an eye, Bud burst out laughing, his good humor restored for the moment.
As they chatted Tom proceeded to hook up a system of tubing from a helium cryostat to one of the two communicator units he was testing. “What’s that for?” Bud asked.
“The matrix ‘readers’ will be scanning such delicate pattern variations that they have to be bathed in liquid helium, to cut down the waste noise in the circuit almost to zero.”
“Like you did in your electronic retroscope,” the young flier remarked. “I suppose you can get all the helium you want from your hydrodome wells under the ocean.”
Tom nodded. “Benefits of ownership! And when I want to liquify it, I use the new translimator in a two-step process, allowing solid helium—which is like a metal—to absorb the heat energy from the room-temperature liquid I created in a separate chamber.”
“Jetz, solid helium!”
“Unfortunately, it’s only stable, for any length of time, inside the chamber.”
Bud’s expression suddenly darkened. “Yeah. I’m starting to think I may be that way too, genius boy—temporarily stable. And my chamber’s close to springing a leak!”
“Now that doesn’t sound so good, flyboy,” responded Tom with concern, pulling up a lab stool to sit down next to him. “What’s going on? A problem with the Venus project?”
“You might say that. Tom, I’m thinking of resigning as pilot!”
“RESIGNING?” Tom stared at Bud. “Are you serious?”
“Serious as I’ve ever been,” Bud declared as a slight smile flicked across his young face. “Which isn’t saying much, I guess.”
“But why?” Tom persisted. “You’ll be the pilot of the first expedition to really study another planet close up! Don’t you realize this is an honor?”
Bud’s answer was a stubborn shrug. He seemed to be groping for words to express whatever was troubling him.
“Bud, it’s not only an honor, it’s a government request,” Tom went on. “This isn’t just a private job you’re doing for Astro-Dynamics. It’s a project undertaken in our nation’s interest!”
“You don’t need to slather it on thick, chum. I know all that. I know about the ‘honor’.” Bud squirmed uncomfortably on his stool.
“Then what’s your problem?
“My so-called copilot, that’s what!” Bud blurted out in exasperation. “The guy’s an absolute pain!”
Tom shifted his own lanky frame, his forehead wrinkling thoughtfully. He knew Bud was no quitter. If trouble had developed between him and his copilot, it must be near the battling stage for Bud even to think of resigning.
“What’s this guy’s name?” Tom asked.
“Chester Holbrook—but you’re supposed to call him Chippy, if you can believe that. He was a Navy pilot.”
“Never heard of him.”
“I wish I hadn’t,” Bud retorted. “He’s young, but a real hard-nosed type. Worse than what’s-his-name who went with us on the earth blaster trip—Hal Voorhees.”
“Does he know his stuff?”
“Sure, he’s a good enough rookie rocketeer,” Bud admitted. “He’s done a lot of tuneup flights down at Canaveral. But what a pest to work with! He bugs me practically every hour, on the hour!”
Holbrook’s usual tactics, Bud said, were to criticize, subtly, his handling of the controls during checkout procedures or simulated flight routines. He was constantly offering suggestions which Bud felt were mainly intended to rattle him—perhaps to the point of his making some mistake which might disqualify him as pilot for the Venus flight, allowing Holbrook to replace him.
“Another stunt he likes to pull,” Bud went on, “is to throw a lot of needling questions at me whenever we have a skull session with Clarke or Franklin.”
“What sort of questions?” Tom asked.
Bud answered irritably, “Oh, about the photon drive units and stuff like that. He was familiar with the design of the Highroad right from the start, mainly because he has an uncle on the Board of Directors of Astro-Dynamics! Real coincidence, huh? So Chippy knows it backwards, whereas I’m still pulling all-nighters to catch up. His idea, of course, is to show me up and make me look silly in front of the big brass.”
Bud snarled as he went on, clenching his fist and confessing that he and Holbrook had almost come to blows the day before. “I—I think that incident had a little to do with Col. Jessup giving me this two-day vacation.”
Tom watched uneasily as his muscular friend stood up and began to pace back and forth. He had rarely seen easygoing Bud Barclay this upset. “What’s behind Holbrook’s attitude?” Tom finally asked.
“He’s jealous. What else?” Bud snapped. “He thinks we’re fighting over our places in the history books. But Tom, I couldn’t care less about that stuff! I just—I just don’t want to let you and Enterprises down by washing out.”
Tom got up to throw an arm around Bud’s broad shoulders. “Listen up, pal,” he said quietly, “I can see you’re up against a tough problem, all right. That’s the way human problems are. But it could get better with time. You can’t just chuck it all.”
Bud sighed unhappily. “I sure don’t want to, but I just don’t see any other way out.”
“Look at it this way,” Tom said. “Which one of you is better qualified to wrangle that space crate, with all those people’s lives depending on you? You or Chippy Holbrook?”
Bud looked embarrassed. “I’ve asked myself that question a hundred times. Holbrook’s a competent astronaut, but he’s never been outside Earth orbit. Besides, he strikes me as a bit high-strung, you know?”
“In other words—?” Tom’s eyebrows lifted quizzically.
“Okay Tom, I’ll say it. I honestly think I’m a better bet.”
“So do I!” Tom clapped his friend on the back. “Holbrook can’t help feeling a little natural competitiveness. But there may be something more, too. You’re the great Bud Barclay, space explorer, Tom Swift’s best friend! He may think you’re the one who’s getting the red carpet treatment at NASA.”
“Guess I never thought of it that way.” Bud’s grim expression slowly relaxed. “You’re right. I’m not gonna let that fresh kid shove aside a real space veteran!”
Suddenly both boys jumped back with startled shouts as a cloud of white steam burst from the top of one of the radio housings! A deadly chill seemed to sweep through the laboratory.
“G-good grief! What happened?” Bud gasped, his teeth chattering. Table tops, file cabinets, and laboratory equipment quickly became rimmed with frost. The two youths shivered violently as Tom rushed to shut off the flow of helium to the communicator unit.
“I just broke Newton’s law of gravity!” Tom said with awe.
“Please. Don’t joke a jokester.”
“It’s no joke; it’s a fact.” Tom explained that the filler neck connection in the base of the radio had fractured. The liquid helium had instantly crawled upward inside the radio housing in order to escape. “There’s a name for it. Liquid helium in a supercooled condition is what’s called a ‘superfluid’. It’s the only substance in the world that can drag itself upward all by itself!”
“Man, now I’ve heard everything,” Bud laughed. “Better watch it, Tom. You’ll be a marked man if this Newton guy finds out you broke his law!”
Bud had dinner at the plant, catching up on things with Chow and his many other friends. He finally left to join Sandy and Bashalli at The Glass Cat, the Shopton coffeehouse where the young Pakistani worked when not attending art school.
Next morning Chow appeared at Tom’s lab door, which the young inventor had absent-mindedly left ajar. Barely glancing up from his work, Tom said, “What’s up, Chow? Not time for lunch, is it?”
“At 9:30? Not likely! Naw, jest somethin’ they delivered—left it outside my galley by mistake.” The sun-leathered cook jerked a thumb toward the corridor. “Some kinda gas tank, I reckon. Got it right outside.”
“Oh, yes, I ordered some extra helium in case I want to use it,” said Tom, eyes fixed on a meter. “Bring it in, won’t you, pard?”
Chow hurried through the door, then returned wheeling an orange-banded tank on a hand truck.
“Where do you want ’er, boss?”
“Over there by the wall for now, thanks,” Tom murmured. “Better leave it on the truck so I can move it later.”
The Texan parked his heavy load but seemed reluctant to leave. He stood staring at the tank for a moment scratching his double chin, then cleared his throat loudly.
“Ahem! Brand my spectroscope,” he mused aloud, “that sure is a purty orange color—jest like my shirt.”
“Hm?” Tom glanced up. “Oh, you mean the orange color on the tank. That shows it contains helium. Different colors are used for different gases,” he added.
“Oh, so that’s what it’s fer, huh?” The grizzled westerner sounded faintly disappointed.
Tom looked at him, puzzled. Suddenly a great light dawned. “Hey! Where’d you get that great little number you’re wearing, cowpoke?” he exclaimed.
“Whatzat? You mean this li’l old thing?” Chow’s fondness for loud haberdashery, especially in shirts, was a standing joke around Enterprises. It was a whim that gave the cook endless pleasure. He boasted that he owned the choicest wardrobe of cowboy shirts east of the Pecos, and his closet contained a peacocklike assortment in every color of the rainbow—and a few colors the rainbow never knew about!
But the present number topped them all, Tom thought, almost wincing at the glare in the lab lamps. The shirt was not only a dazzling tangerine orange in color—it was trimmed in glittery sequins! “Kinda eye-catchin’ at that, doncha think?” Chow beamed. “I picked it up fer only a fraction of its value.”
“It was a steal, all right,” Tom agreed politely, thinking with an inward chuckle that Chow had been the victim at any price!
Catching something in his boss’s tone, the cook gave Tom a dark look. “I could get you one jest like it, boss, next time I go by the store,” Chow offered.
“Oh, well, don’t bother.” Tom added hastily: “I mean, I wouldn’t want to cut in on your—uniqueness, pardner.”
Chow smiled a bit sourly as he turned to leave. “Yoo-niqueness, huh. Now thet’s one I never woulda thought of.”
Tom had made some short range tests of his Private Ear Radio, with promising results. Now to try for distance, he thought. And then his thoughts added: And if it’s distance I’m after, why skimp on it?
After some planning, Tom rang up Hank Sterling in the engineering shop. “Hi, Hank. I’ve got a notion to put my quantum communicator to a real test.”
“What do you have in mind?”
“Well, how’d you feel about a little jaunt to the moon?”
Hank burst out laughing. “Little jaunt? Fine! When do we leave for Fearing?”
“There’s no need for that,” replied Tom. “I thought we’d take the Space Kite, now that it’s hangared here at Enterprises. Round trip to Luna—back in time for dinner!”
The Space Kite was a remarkable vehicle, a midget two-person spacecraft driven aloft by the steady wind of cosmic particles streaming through space from all directions—even up through the body of the earth itself.
Tom had the vehicle prepped and made ready, its oval cabin dome gleaming in the sunlight in front of the five-sided cosmic reactor that turned the cosmic particles into propulsive force. Tom and Hank sat side by side, and the young inventor adjusted the walls of the reactor cells to bring them into play. The Space Kite lifted off from the Enterprises airfield, gaining speed and altitude smoothly, if very slowly.
The sky around them darkened and became starry as they left the atmosphere behind and sped moonward through the void of space.
“If you’ll keep an eye on those readouts, Hank, I’ll make the first test,” Tom said presently. He lifted the Private Ear Radio—about the size and shape of an old-fashioned walkie-talkie—to his mouth. “Swift to Hanson! Can you hear me, Arv?”
A crystal-clear answer came back instantly. “Sure can, boss! ‘What hath God wrought!’,” the modelmaker quoted.
After checking various figures, Tom pronounced himself satisfied. “Talk to you in 173 minutes, Earthling,” Tom radioed.
“Roger! You and Sterling can spend the time on something useful—talk over that ‘window on the universe’ idea of yours!”
As Tom switched off the PER, Hank gave him a quizzical smile. “What’s the Big Swede talking about, Tom? A new project?”
“An idea for an invention,” replied Tom excitedly. “If you thought my quantum communicator pushed the physics envelope, wait’ll you hear about this! I’ve been assured that my inventions are violating Einstein’s Theory of Relativity!”
The youthful prodigy explained that he had suddenly been struck by the notion that some of the quantum techniques employed by the PER to convey sound could also be used to transmit lightwave information—visible images. “The megascope is kind of an electronic super-telescope, Hank. Instead of a lens, an invisible ‘cloud,’ or sensor-node, of quantum-entangled particles would be established far off in space, carried there by a microwave beam. As light passes through the node, it will ‘collapse’ the superposed states of the particles in a way that corresponds to its wavefront pattern. The pattern will be instantly replicated in the device on Earth, and a computer will use it to produce an image on a monitor screen.”
“Like putting a TV camera in space, anywhere you want it,” mused the engineer, eyes bright. “What a fantastic thought!”
The two were so absorbed in discussing the details of the megascope space prober that they lost track of time. They were startled when a beep announced that they were drawing near the midpoint of their journey. Tom adjusted the craft’s gravitex stabilizer and eased the reactor alignment lever forward to begin decelerating from the Space Kite’s constant 1-G acceleration.
Dead ahead, in the viewpane dome, the moon loomed larger and larger. Soon they could make out its craters and jagged peaks with startling clearness, the brilliant wash of unhindered sunlight starkly outlined in unyielding black shadow. About fifty miles short of a landing, Tom swiveled the gravity-concentrator and eased the Space Kite into a low orbit.
“Right on the button,” Hank said with a glance at his watch. “Boy, what a sweet flight!”
“I’m afraid it’s already becoming a routine commute,” Tom chuckled. At the appointed time, Tom activated the PER unit. To his thrilled delight, Arv again responded with no gap in time.
“This is great,” enthused Arv. “Normally there’d be a noticeable lag in responding at your distance—about two seconds total. But not now! Tom, it’s as if you were standing here in the lab next to me.”
Tom shot Sterling a happy glance. “Thanks, Arv. Now we’ll put the whole moon in between us and see what happens.”
As Tom clicked off, Hank chortled: “Take that, Einstein!”
The Space Kite began to round the moon. The crystalline blue earth seemed to descend toward the lunar horizon and finally dipped behind it.
Tom tried the PER. Again—perfection!
Hank Sterling whistled. “Hard to believe how your signal goes right through all that rock.”
“What signal?” grinned Tom. “As explained by noted philosopher Chow Winkler, there aren’t really two units but one—even with a couple hundred thousand miles and a great big rock between the speakers!”
Before Hank could comment he was startlingly interrupted as the PER set developed a shrill whistling noise. Wincing, Tom hastily adjusted the speaker controls, but the whistling seemed to be growing louder.
“A little static in your no-signal?” gibed Hank.
“It’s nothing to do with the quantum link,” declared Tom. “Some sort of induction must be affecting the sound-reproduction circuitry directly. I’ll have to switch off the speaker.”
“What could be causing it, Skipper? An enemy?”
“Or a heavenly body on the loose,” Tom stated grimly.
WOMEN WITH ISSUES!
HANK STERLING was startled by Tom’s cool remark! He wondered fleetingly if the young inventor had meant it as a joke. But Tom’s face was deadly serious. The eyes of the astronaut darted to the space radarscope on the instrument panel.
“Look at this” he murmured quietly.
A fine faint line of light seemed to be tracing itself on the screen. Was an object streaking toward them? A meteor? A missile perhaps? The radar scan gave a bright picture of the nearer heavens, but its scale was not designed for an accurate pickup of smaller phenomena at a great distance.
“Why is it so faint and fuzzed-out?” Hank wondered aloud.
The two could make out nothing unusual through the dome. But something seemed to be approaching them! The young inventor’s brain was frantically weighing the odds against them, two lone crewmen in a tiny ship. Should he race for earth? Or try circling for cover beyond the moon’s further rim?
But then the two cried out as a brilliant flash of silver-blue light flooded the cabin!
The flare was gone in an instant, but left Tom and Hank dazzled, momentarily unable to read the instruments. Were they under fire from a marauder in space?
Tom’s vision cleared, and he strained to study the radar monitor. “Whatever it was is gone,” he pronounced.
“Right! Mainly because it blew up!”
But Tom Swift shook his head. “There was an explosion all right. But I’m not so sure it was the object itself, whatever it was. Look at these readings.”
Hank gulped. “High-energy radiation—hot stuff! We’d be fried in here if it weren’t for the Inertite coating!”
“But the triangulation focus isn’t even close to the last position of the radar bogie,” Tom pointed out. “Yet there has to be a connection. If a spacecraft set off the blast remotely, it could have ducked behind the horizon while we were getting our eyes back.” After a moment, though, he reconsidered somewhat, admitting that what they had witnessed might have been some unknown natural phenomenon. “Hank, that radiation profile almost suggests a matter-antimatter collision—from two masses smaller than a pea! It’s not impossible.”
“Know what I say, Skipper?” Hank muttered wanly. “I say, Earth, here we come!”
As they orbited out from behind the moon, Tom reported the incident to Enterprises by means of the Space Kite’s conventional radiocom. There was no further danger during the three-hour return trip—nor any clue to the mystery in space.
Back safely in Shopton, the Private Ear Radio having proven its worth, Tom’s work continued apace. After refining the PER console and adding a message-alert beeper, Tom sent Bud one of the units as promised, and Bud used it to call back to tell his friend that the Astro-Dynamics officials had given him permission to take it with him on the mission.
“How’s your pal Chippy?” Tom asked.
“Obnoxious, and getting really good at it! But I’ve learned to ignore him. Let the Chippys fall where they may!”
Bud asked if Tom had made any progress in the matter of the Eyeballer drone or the freeze-ray ambushers. “Nope, flyboy,” was the rueful reply. “And I guess I’m afraid to admit to myself that I don’t have even a sliver of an idea as to how to proceed. I’m afraid Asa Pike’s confidence may have been misplaced.”
“Never! Hey, don’t tell me I need to give you a pep talk! Just wait, Tom—when you start playing around with your megascope, your Swiftonian brain’ll probably unleash a whole flood of new ideas.”
“I sure hope so.”
Thinking about Bud’s encouraging suggestion, Tom decided to concentrate on developing the basic components of the megascope into a testable form. “I’ll need to start out with a ‘quiet’ multiplier circuit. That’s for sure,” he told himself.
After two hours of benchwork, Chow having just brought a snack to fortify him, the young inventor wheeled the tank of helium Chow had delivered over to his workbench and began to draw off some of the gas into a smaller compression tank, which he would take to the lab room nearby where Arv Hanson had constructed a working model of the improved and redesigned translimator.
Suddenly there was a clatter of cowboy boots down the corridor, and Chow let out a bellowing cry: “Boss! Tom! Run for yer life!”
“What’s he up to now?” Tom muttered, striding up to the lab door and throwing it open just as the ex-Texan came running up.
Then Tom was catapulted into the corridor as a terrific explosion shook the laboratory!
The concussion from the blast bowled Tom and Chow over. The cook had given his boss a hard tug, and as Chow rocked backwards Tom sailed right over him as if jet propelled and banged his head against the opposite wall.
“Tom! Son, are you all right? Say somethin’!”
Chow’s voice seemed muffled, as if he were shouting through layers of cotton batting. Tom rolled over and shook his head, trying to clear his brain.
“That mean you’re not all right?” demanded Chow frantically.
“I’m—I—just let me catch my breath.” In a moment Tom struggled up, with Chow helping him. “How about you, pardner? The blast hit you too!”
“Naw, barely touched me. You were standin’ right spang in the way!”
Somewhere or other, alarms were shrieking. Through bleary eyes Tom saw Harlan Ames running up the hall, his normally controlled countenance white with anxiety.
“Thank heavens you’re all right, Skipper!” he panted. “And you, Chow?”
“Still with ya.”
Meanwhile, employees were rushing into the hall from both directions. The blast had evidently been heard all over the lab building—outside too, judging by the shouting seeping through the entrance door.
“Exactly what happened?” Tom asked. “Chow? Harlan?”
“I got an anonymous phone tip on my cell phone, just now,” Ames explained. “The caller—it was a woman—said someone had substituted hydrogen for helium in a tank delivered to you last Monday, set to detonate when the tank pressure dropped. I tried to reach you by phone and the plant intercom but got no answer, and I didn’t know where you were working. I hopped into a nanocar and blazed over to this end of the plant. I got ahold of Chow in his kitchen and asked if he knew where― ”
“An’ I told him I’d jest come from servin’ you a snack,” Chow babbled breathlessly, “so’s you’d have something in yer stomach afore you started playin’ with that gas I brung you t’other day. The man said t’stop you or you’d blame blow up! So I started in runnin’!”
Ames gave Chow a slightly chiding look. “Next time, Chow, take a deep breath. You took off without telling me which lab Tom was in! I could have called him.”
The westerner looked abashed, but Tom quickly said, “But if Chow hadn’t come running down the hall, I wouldn’t have gone to the door.”
Ames nodded, the tone in his young boss’s voice turning him half-apologetic. “Yes. That’s true. And now that I think of it, you probably would have been caught on the lab phone—with me.”
“And it was cause Tom came to the door that I didn’t go rushin’ right in! One more second and we’d have been a couple mighty dead ducks!”
“It was a miracle,” Tom agreed.
“Thank that anonymous phone tipster,” said Ames.
“I’ll be happy to if we ever find out who it was,” Tom said wryly. “It’s another strange turnabout, just like the warning note about the jetrocopter. Well, let’s survey the damage.”
As Tom and Ames made their way into the lab through the growing throng of employees, Chow stayed behind to calm the crowd. “It’s ohhh-kay, buckaroos,” the Texan drawled, like a cowhand soothing a herd of skittish steers.
Inside the lab Tom was heartsick as he beheld the destruction caused by the hydrogen blast. The whole shop was a shambles. Windows had been blown out, filing cases lay toppled on the floor, shelves and workbench were littered with electronic debris and broken glass.
“Good great grief!” Ames muttered.
For a moment the only sound was the dripping of liquids from the broken bottles of chemicals. Then Tom walked over to examine the remains of his megascope space prober equipment. The loosely-rigged test components looked as if they had been smashed to bits by a sledge hammer.
“It’s a tough break, boss,” Ames murmured.
“We’ve had tougher ones, Harlan, and they haven’t stopped us yet. Neither will this one.” Tom swallowed hard and summoned up a grin. “Actually, it’s not so bad at that. I hadn’t invested much time in these preliminary components. I can build new ones in hours,” he declared firmly. “It looks as though our unknown playmate has managed to slow me down just a bit. But I’ll tell you this. I’m going to get a working model of the megascope up and running in time to watch Bud’s blastoff to Venus!”
There were no clues as to the identity of the woman who had placed the warning call to Ames. But that evening a clue turned up unexpectedly at Tom’s home.
Sandy rushed into the living room waving a small piece of paper in her hand, the size and shape of a business card. “Tom, I found this stuck in one of my magazines, one that was just delivered this afternoon!”
Tom scanned the card and its brief handwritten message.
H2 for He.
Are you having fun yet, Tom?
We sure are!
Till next time.
Women With Issues
“Hydrogen for helium,” Tom muttered, deeply absorbed.
“But this sounds like a joke from a late-night comedy skit!” sniffed Sandy. “Or maybe a rock band—‘Women With Issues’! Sometimes I think this ‘political correctness’ stuff is going way too far.”
“It’s a threat, sis,” Tom said simply. “It has to be taken seriously, whatever these people want to call themselves.”
The card had already been handled and scraped about too much for usable fingerprints to be likely. But Tom held it up to the light, keenly scrutinizing it.
“Do you see something?” Sandy asked.
“Maybe so,” her brother murmured. He held up the card in front of her, turning it so it was at an angle to the lamplight to accentuate any shadows. “Doesn’t it look like there’s something on the back side, sort of scratched into it?”
“Oh Tomonomo, you’ve got to read more crime novels!” bubbled Sandy gleefully. “Or at least watch more television. This card was obviously lying loose on a writing surface under a piece of paper, and someone wrote on the paper with a hard-point pen. They pressed down hard enough to etch what they wrote into the card a little.”
“A wonderful deduction,” the young inventor stated dryly. “Can you make it out?”
Sandy stared at it. “I think I can copy it. Bring me a pencil and something to write on, brother dear.” She worked at it for several minutes, and an odd figure slowly took shape beneath her pencil.
Long before it was completed, the two Swifts had exchanged meaningful glances. The writing was a single inscription, a Chinese character modified to suggest a snake arched to strike.
It was a signature. And it was familiar to both of them, dreadfully so.
“He’s back,” Tom stated grimly. “Comrade-General Li Ching—the snakeman!”
TWISTS AND TURNS
“WE managed to pull some partial fingerprints,” said Phil Radnor, Harlan Ames’s stocky second in command. “Not enough to trace. But we can tell it’s a woman—two women. One is rather on the tall side.”
Radnor sat across from Tom at Tom’s desk in the Swifts’ shared office. Mr. Swift sat nearby.
“Easy to reconstruct what must have happened,” Tom remarked. “One woman wrote the warning, then handed it to the other to look at.”
“Probably,” agreed Radnor. “We did tease out another bit of info. Maybe it’ll be useful when we run the national databases. The one woman, Big Bertha, had some bad scarring on her fingers.”
“Acid burns?” inquired Mr. Swift.
Before Radnor could respond, inspiration struck. Tom exclaimed: “Freeze burns—frostbite!”
“That’s what it looks like. Looks like she got a little free with that gun she ambushed you with.”
“Maybe. We do know one thing,” the young inventor declared. “The freeze-beamer was used by the Eyeballer drone in attacking the jet. So this Women With Issues ‘girl group’ is tied directly to the theft of the drone.”
“And also to Li Ching, evidently,” added Damon Swift.
The Swifts had now encountered Comrade-General Li Ching, a turncoat from the army of China who had fled his country, several times under deadly circumstances. The man was a cunning and powerful enemy who seemed to specialize in technical and scientific theft, working through a vast international network of criminal accomplices.
“And Li has a spacecraft,” Tom mused, “the Fanshen.”
Mr. Swift instantly grasped the implication of his son’s words. “You’re suggesting he’s behind the space phenomenon you observed the other day.”
“It may have been a weapon, Dad. Perhaps it misfired when he tried it against us. And Li’s energy-canceling material could account for the space radar’s problem in getting a focus.”
“Then again, you may have barged in on a test series he was running, without his knowing you were there,” Radnor pointed out. “Remember, the Space Kite is also coated with Li’s anti-detection sheathing. You wouldn’t show up clearly on his radar.”
“No. Unless... unless he picked up our own outgoing radar pulses...” The young inventor spoke slowly and reflectively. His restless mind had delivered up an unexpected thought!
The security man excused himself, promising the Swifts that he and Ames would keep the Swifts closely apprised of developments. Radnor chuckled a bit ruefully as he left. “I wonder just how many times Harl and I have said that to you two!”
Tom looked at his father, something percolating in his mind. “Dad, there may be a way to ‘see’ and track the Eyeballer after all!”
“Whoever’s controlling it remotely is obviously doing so by some kind of signal, presumably a radio signal modulated in a way to make it virtually undetectable. The drone specs describe such a system, though Li Ching would surely have modified it to prevent our guys from regaining control.”
“All right, son. But in that case what can be done?”
Tom rapped his knuckles on his desktop. “Even if we can’t pick up the signal as a signal—that is, as something we can monitor and decipher—we can still pick it up as a raw flux of energy beaming down from the Fanshen, or from wherever the control post may be. See what I mean? From any significant distance, even a very focused beam would have spread widely, spilling over on all sides of our little drone. In effect, we could detect the drone’s energy shadow!”
“Absolutely!” cried Damon Swift with excitement. “And so: Tom Swift—to work!”
As was Tom’s custom, he kept his mind sharp by working on two projects at once, continuing to develop the megascope as he refined his “shadow-tracker” concept. Under the stimulus of necessity, progress on both seemed to come rapidly.
Two afternoons later Tom was just checking the final circuits of a megascope component when Bud Barclay walked into the laboratory with a big grin.
Tom started up in surprise. “Hi, you old rocket hotshot!” he exclaimed warmly. “I didn’t expect to see you again so soon!”
“They’re letting me play hooky while they check out the telemetry equipment,” Bud said. “Just half a day this time, but I thought I’d amaze and amuse you by turning up without warning again.” Looking away from his friend, Bud added softly that this would be his last opportunity to visit Shopton before the blast-off of the Astrodyne booster and the Highroad crew capsule.
He quickly changed the subject. “What gives with your space prober?”
“Hungry for a Tom Swiftian explanation? I’ve been mapping out how to get the exact range on whatever I’m looking at,” Tom reported.
“Okay, give me a fill-in,” Bud begged. As always, he was keen to follow the progress of his friend’s latest invention.
“It has to do with transporting the quantum-particle matrix from the megascope console to the sensor point in space.” Tom began to explain the wave-terminal technique he had developed, but Bud found the problem in wave mechanics hard to grasp from words alone. So Tom went to the presentation board on the lab wall and picked up an electronic stylus. “You know what microwaves look like, right?”
“I’ve never actually seen any. But I think they’re like water waves that fly.”
“Something like this.” Tom made a series of parallel marks on the board, one after the other in a row. “But what I’ve come up with are microwaves that propagate like this.” He drew a corkscrew shape. “In other words, waves that spiral along, as if on the surface of a tube with parallel sides. They don’t attenuate—that is, get weaker with distance—and they don’t fan out.”
Bud transmitted something on his own to his friend: a look that was humorously grave. “And you actually made this cosmic corkscrew work?”
The scientist-inventor nodded. “Yep, at least on a small scale across a lab table. The equations were incredibly complex, but I consulted one of the world’s experts on things-quantum, a professor at the University of Stockholm whom Dad has worked with. I also went to Dr. Kupp and― ”
“Dr. Kupp? He’s part of the explanation? Whoa, I think I’m due back in Florida!” Dr. Omicron Kupp was Enterprises’ resident expert in the fields of nuclear chemistry and applied mathematics. His style of speaking was detailed, precise, abstruse, and customarily indecipherable.
Tom broke out laughing. “You should have been there, Bud!—the language!”
“He got upset, did he?”
“He used words like displacement of simultaneity, light cones, timelike intervals, state-vector integration, zero-energy configuration space...”
“I’m sure a genius boy like Tom Swift could follow it!”
The blond youth shrugged. “I could make it out, but only somewhat. You know, chum, I’m not a theoretical physicist or an engineer like Hank Sterling. I’m not even a scientist, not really. Just like great-grandfather Tom, I’m a tinkerer. I sort of imagine how things might be put together to solve a problem—then I leave the theory, and most of the math, to guys like Omicron Kupp.”
“At least he helped you.”
“Yes. First, though, he told me quantum communication was impossible, utterly and absolutely impossible. And that was after I’d shown him the impossible in operation—the Private Ear Radio!”
“In other words, the old boy knew that it worked in practice, but wasn’t so sure it worked in theory!” The two friends shared a laugh at the expense of the remarkable Dr. Kupp. “Well, go on, Tom. So you found a way to make innocent microwaves twist themselves into a spiral.”
Tom continued, drawing a diagram. “The key was to use paired spectron-field beams to create ‘kinks’ in the spacewaves that the fields are made of. Electromagnetic waves—and that’s what microwaves are—travel through space in straight lines. But as you remember, the spectron spacewaves are― ”
“You called ’em space knots.”
“Right, ‘bends’ or ‘twists’ in space itself. Give space a curve and my conveyor belt of microwaves just follows along, just as waves along a river will follow the bend of the river to and fro.”
“You’ll have to get the beam to stop, though, if you want to set up a constant viewing point out in space,” Bud pointed out.
“I can do that by setting the linear fields at an angle, so they cross at precisely the place I want to establish the sensor-node—our ‘lens,’ so to speak. The spacewaves go flat at that point, and the entrained microwaves reflect into one another and self-cancel. The particle matrix is caught there at the center, which is stable.”
“Good for it. It’s all a little tough to follow, Tom. I feel like I’m already halfway to Venus—without my rocket!”
“I’ll ask Chow to explain it to you in simple language,” Tom teased. “Incidentally, I call the whole transmission system an ‘anti-inverse-square-wave generator’, since it counteracts the inverse-square rule of how waves spread out and weaken as they travel. So—go on, I can hardly wait for you to give it a nickname.”
Bud smiled blandly. “No, not this time. I’ll leave it alone. I like to watch you say it!” The young athlete blinked. “I get it, though—but boy, imagine on-the-spot television, anywhere in the universe!”
“Let’s not get too ambitious,” Tom cautioned with a grin. “But I’ll be expecting to see you wave at me through the porthole on the Highroad!”
Late that night, just before retiring to bed, Tom took a call from the editor of the Shopton Evening Bulletin, Dan Perkins. “Sorry to bother you so late, Tom. But I was putting our morning edition to bed and I wondered if you cared to give a juicy quote about that new high-tech communicator they’ve come up with in Sweden. Sounds right up the old Swift alley.”
“Sorry, Dan. I don’t know anything about it.”
“Oh really? Well then.” Perkins sounded characteristically smug. “You’ll find the story in Shopton’s own daily independent source of all the news that fits, the Bulletin. Here’s the release. ‘SoderMambreekt Technologies of Uppsala, Sweden, has arranged for its engineers to present to the world media a revolutionary new type of radio communicator. It utilizes an advanced approach, linking sender and receiver by a quantum-resolution principle that most theoreticians have long deemed impossible. With this method there is no gap in time during the transmission and no loss of signal energy, without regard to actual distance in space. “It is as if space itself has been eliminated,” stated Executive Officer Janss Mambreekt.’ And so on. Mighty neato-keen. Comment?”
“Not at this time,” said Tom brusquely. “Maybe tomorrow, Dan.”
As he hung up, his thoughts were angry, bitter—and alarmed. Whether or not the Eyeballer had been driven away from the vicinity of Enterprises, his enemies had once again struck a deep blow. This time they had stolen another secret Tom had been certain was securely protected. His Private Ear Radio!
CLOAK OF DARKNESS
“THIS is a bit of a sentimental moment for me, Tom,” mused Damon Swift, head tilted far back. “Our observatory here at the plant first held the immediate successor to your great-grandfather’s giant telescope, you know, built by his own hands. And this one, with its laser-interferometric refrangistor system—this was my own baby. We used it to take the measure of Little Luna, and with it I watched you race to the moon in the Challenger. Until now it was the most powerful ground-based optical telescope in the world!”
“It’ll have its own place of honor, on display next to its ancestors,” said Tom. “And someday I imagine Generation Four—my megascope—will have to make way for Generation Five. When it does, I plan to be standing right here watching—with you, Dad.”
Father and son stood watching as cranes lowered Mr. Swift’s optical telescope to the floor of the great, circular Enterprises observatory building preparatory to raising into position the huge transmitting antenna for Tom’s megascope space prober. The revolutionary Mighty Eye was near enough to completion that Tom could commence full-scale tests.
Still gazing up, Mr. Swift now spoke to Tom in a whisper. “I know you’re feeling more than one emotion right now. Tonight could be the night.”
The young inventor gave a brisk nod. “We’ve certainly tried hard enough to spread the word.”
After the discovery of the apparent theft of the Private Ear Radio specifications from Swift Enterprises, Tom had evolved a cunning plan to entrap the phantom, or at least to discover how he—or she—was working with the current master of the stolen Eyeballer.
As the PER units themselves were protected from minute inspection by various self-destruct components built into their delicate circuitry, it seemed most likely to all concerned that the thief had somehow momentarily acquired the datachip upon which Tom had inscribed the PER’s specifications and blueprints. The physical chip itself was still in Tom’s possession; therefore it seemed the intruder had defeated the security-safe’s DNA-coded lock mechanism and taken out the chip just long enough to copy it, then returning it. It remained an absolute mystery how such a thing could be done right under the nose of the plant’s security radar system, and despite a locking mechanism that only Tom Swift’s unique DNA pattern could deactivate.
Tom’s plan involved spreading hints through the Enterprises website journal and the Shopton Evening Bulletin that Tom was experimenting with a “long-range detection instrument” of radical design, a device capable of examining distant celestial bodies with unparalleled clarity. In the notices Tom had indicated that a preliminary test model was to be mounted that day in the observatory, and that he fully trusted Swift Enterprises’ “proven security monitoring system” to protect the blueprints and other materials he would be keeping at hand next to the new device. He took care to mention that the instrument used a “new technology first developed in connection with communications experiments”.
“Sounds a little obvious, I suppose,” Tom had noted. “But we have to make it irresistible, as well as an easy steal.”
The real security system would be Tom Swift himself, watching from a hidden vantage point high within the observatory’s dome.
Late that night there was no radar alert, no shouted challenge from patrolling guards. Yet shortly after midnight, a silent vibration in his shirt pocket told Tom that someone was rifling through the contents of the security file next to the base of the megascope’s antenna!
Using infrared goggles, he peered over the rail of his high eyrie. A small, thin figure, barely more than a silhouette, crouched stealthily next to the cabinet! Tom guessed that he was photographing the documents and probably using a portable device to copy the memory chip in the drawer.
After a few minutes the figure stood up as if about to make a run for it. That’s about enough! thought the young inventor as he tossed the goggles aside and pressed a remote-control switch near his hand. The voluminous chamber was flooded with bright light, shining into all corners and leaving no shadows.
The light left Tom Swift wide-eyed and dazzled with astonishment. In a split second the thief had vanished completely!
“Good grief!” gasped Tom helplessly. “What was I looking at? Some kind of projected image?”
Then he suddenly bolted to his feet! If it was bright light that somehow made the thief unable to be seen—!
Tom leapt to the edge of his platform to attain a view through the long open slot that curved up the face of the dome. Sure enough, in the deep semi-darkness of this corner of Enterprises, which was some distance from the brightly-lit airfield and laboratory buildings, Tom could make out a figure hunched close to the ground and sprinting along frantically. He seemed to have a definite destination in mind, probably the point at which he had breached the wall surrounding the plant. By the time Tom could signal security, or even reach the floor of the observatory, the thief might well have made his escape!
Yet Tom was well-prepared that night. He turned to a small object firmly bolted to a metal support strut, a mechanism sporting at its end a small parabolic dish antenna. Tom swiveled the device in its bracket and aimed the small but very powerful repelatron at the fleeing figure.
He thumbed the activator switch. The repelatron itself was soundless, but as it surged to life there came a sharp creak! as it was forcefully thrust backwards against its bracing strut. And the sound was echoed by a wild cry from the grounds below!
Tom ventured a brief glance, then clambered down the access ladder and out into the starlit night. Near the wall, a small dark shape, prone on the soft ground, was thrashing and struggling. The powerful repulsion force had pinned the erstwhile thief down flat.
Tom had to strain to see the vague figure, who seemed to blend into the dimness. It was easier to see the flattened grass than the thief himself! “You might as well stop wasting energy,” Tom called out as he approached. “My little repelatron always wins its fights. Not to add insult to, er, ongoing insult—but all you’d have had to do was wriggle out of your clothes. I tuned the ’tron to cotton fabric.”
Tom drew a small flashlight from his pocket and illuminated the thief, who had ceased to struggle yet still seemed strangely elusive to the eye. The youth played the beam across the man’s head. The first sight was such a shock that Tom almost dropped the light!
He was gazing at a man with two piercing, darting eyes—but no lower face!
“Wh-what in the― ” Then as Tom edged closer, his horror fell away. A mask! It seemed the mask was almost transparent in one section, allowing the intruder’s own eyes to peer through. But the rest of it, covering the entire face and head, was the color of flesh but unmarked by any facial features. At such close viewing range, the eye was able to catch the outlines of the figure despite the electronic “chameleon” effect.
Tom propped up the flash on the ground nearby, then took out one of his electric i-guns and warily held it trained on the thief. “Wouldn’t want to blow all your circuits!” warned Tom. After a moment’s study, he reached down and pulled off the weird mask.
The young inventor burst out laughing! “Well! Come back for a little night work on my crewcut? Nothing like professional pride!”
Tom explained the scenario to Harlan Ames later, after the thief had been led away by the Shopton police. “He’s been calling himself Tunbridge Jackson. I don’t know if it’s his real name, of course. Alvin Freud hired him a couple months back.”
“That’s your barber?”
“He prefers the term hair care professional and personal stylist,” grinned the young inventor. “As you know, I’ve been having Al come out to Enterprises whenever I manage to remember to get a haircut.”
“Doesn’t hurt to avoid a crowd when you can,” Ames noted approvingly.
“The last couple times Al sent his new assistant, who really seemed to know his stuff. But now I guess we know what he was doing with my hair—extracting DNA traces!”
“Which explains how he picked the lock mechanism. And of course,” Ames went on, “we know now that on his last visit he kept his antiradar amulet and substituted a dummy. So when he scaled the wall, the patrolscope didn’t pick up on it. Which leaves― ”
“Right, Harlan. Why was he so hard to see in the light?” Tom had a hint of admiration in his voice. “Fantastic technology, obviously adapted from the Eyeballer system.”
“That image-repeater shell he wore?”
Tom nodded. “His chameleon suit! Jackson wore it like a work garment over his street clothes. Even the mask had rows of the diode light-emitter elements embedded in it, creating a digital image that reproduces the immediate background. It isn’t quite science-fiction-style invisibility, but it’s close enough—or maybe I should say, too close for comfort.
“I could see him with the IR goggles, but evidently, when I switched on the lights, he blended so well into the background that my eye wasn’t drawn to him. Didn’t occur to me to try putting the goggles back on.”
“And so he slipped outside. Seems like the system would be even more effective in the darkness.”
“Oh, it would be. But alas!—the pixel elements have a slight glow to them that would stand out against a really dark background. So the system automatically ‘stops down’ in darkness, and goes to full power in bright light.” Tom added that it was only due to his elevated viewing angle that he had been able to see the thief in the first place. “Even stopped-down he was hard enough to make out at ground level—in fact, that’s exactly why the guards never saw him, not from a distance. But the high-tech tailors slipped up. They neglected to put diodes on the top of his head!”
This brought out a laugh from the security chief. “Guess everyone makes mistakes. Even Li Ching!—he’s clearly at the back of all this. So far, though, I haven’t been able to trace anything on our peripatetic hair stylist. And he’s not talking. Probably afraid, with good reason.”
“We don’t know just how he delivered the goods,” Tom noted, “or whether he went directly to Li or used the Women With Issues as some sort of go-between.”
“For now we’ll have to hope your energy-shadow device gives us our lead. But great work, boss!” Ames concluded heartily.
Some hours later as Tom sat in his office in the light of morning, Munford Trent entered with news of an unexpected visitor. “She was escorted in by Security to speak with Yuri over in the Billing Department, but she took off on her own—says she wants to see you.”
“If it’s a billing issue― ”
“She says it isn’t, Tom. Something about a personal invite to a demonstration—a radio being manufactured by some company in Sweden.”
Tom was elated! Somehow he was being invited—or perhaps lured—to a demonstration of the very device that had been pirated from Tom’s Private Ear set! Despite the obvious mystery and hint of personal danger, Tom could not help thinking, What a break!
Trent was frowning at his boss. “What shall I do with her, Tom?”
“Did she give her name?”
“Of course. I always ask their names, Tom. Julia Furster.”
The woman was shown in—young, pretty, and blond. And somewhat on the tall side. Her attire bespoke sleek professionalism.
As Tom greeted her and shook her hand, she said with a smile, “My, I gather some of your reputation must be exaggerated, Tom.”
“Excuse me, ma’am?”
She sat down. “The way you looked me up and down, I thought I was meeting the typical middle-aged businessman I see six days a week. Not America’s pure and upstanding boy-next-door inventor.”
Tom shrugged. “Er, sorry. Guess I made a bad first impression. But you know, ma’am― ”
“Yes, I know—no appointment. In fact, I’d say I rather crashed your office. But I think my motive will interest you.” She handed Tom a white business card which read:
SODER-MAMBREEKT TECHNOLOGIES OF
NEW YORK OFFICE
Tom stared at the card in his hand for a long moment. “Let me give you one of mine,” he said, taking a business card from within his desk drawer. She took it, and Tom winced. “Oh, good night! Those were just printed—the ink is smeary. Sorry.” He plucked it out of her hand and handed her a piece of paper. “You can daub with that while I get a tissue for you.”
“Never mind,” she said rather coolly. “I’ll use my handkerchief, from my purse.”
Finally, awkward preliminaries over for the moment, they began to talk.
“I take it you know of Soder-Mambreekt’s communications breakthrough.”
“I know what I read in the papers,” Tom replied. “I don’t recall anything appearing in the engineering or research journals, though.”
“Well, corporations have their secrets, don’t they?”
“Still,” she continued, “SMT’s Kontakt-Q Urfona, as we call it, will change the face of human communication forever!”
Tom nodded. “It’s a wonderful achievement.”
“The word you want to use, Tom, is revolutionary! Imagine its application in times of war, for example. SMT feels very sure that the armed forces—of many nations—and the aerospace industry will swamp us with orders when they find out what we’ve got. We’re not in full production yet, of course.”
Miss Furster paused and tossed a smile in Tom’s direction that looked sly, perhaps even mocking. “I—er—hear you’ve been working on a similar type of radio device. Grapevine gossip.”
“Enterprises is always working on new scientific developments,” Tom said noncommittally, though curious as to where this particular “grapevine” might have planted its roots.
“Oh my. Cautious type, are we?” The woman laughed rather too loudly. “But very understandable these days. In any event, Tom, SMT would feel privileged if we could demonstrate our unit to you at our lab and test center in New Jersey.”
Tom responded with a thoughtful, slightly quizzical nod. “I’d find that very interesting, ma’am. But if I might ask—why is your company especially interested in our opinion?”
“Oh, I see.” Miss Furster’s stare was barely polite. “You’d like a reason, a justification. There is such a thing as professional regard, isn’t there? Even these days? Yet it’s true—we’d like to create a certain relationship between SMT and Swift Enterprises. There may be some mutual advantage, in the long run.”
“I take it you’re suggesting some kind of cooperative venture. That’s really more my father’s end of things.”
“I see. Well then, why not bring him along? The two Swifts. How delightful.”
A meeting was set up for the day following, Tom and his father to be met at the Trenton airport by Miss Furster. “I’m looking forward to it,” Tom said as she left, with a Security escort.
As the elevator door shut, Tom hastened into Harlan Ames’s office, adjacent to the Swifts’.
“Got something interesting for you, Harlan,” Tom announced to the former Secret Service agent. “A business card just handed me by a rather tall woman, one of our Enterprises cards with a finger-smear in ink, and a piece of scratch paper with a few more fingerprints!”
“Boss, you never fail to amaze me! Rad and I will have some kind of report for you by the end of the day.”
But the results came in well before the end of the day, as Chow served a light lunch in the Swifts’ office. Phil Radnor reported to Tom and his father: “There are a number of Julia Fursters in the U.S., and quite a few match this woman in terms of likely age. No fingerprints recorded in the criminal justice system. Nothing from Interpol.”
“I contacted Asa Pike through Congressman Van Arkyn’s office,” Tom said. “He says the woman is almost certainly someone they tagged as working for Li Ching’s organization. But they’ve all become experts at covering their tracks, and Collections didn’t have a name on her.”
“Did he tell you to be careful?” asked Ames.
“We do have some further info,” Ames continued. “Her business-card fiber matches traces we found on the message card from Sandy’s magazine, and her prints match those of ‘Big Bertha’, including the scarring on her fingers.”
“And as we told you, Tom, Soder-Mambreekt clammed up right away, which could mean anything, I suppose—or nothing. They say they’re in the process of establishing an office in New York, no public phone number as of yet, no comment on a laboratory in New Jersey, and no intention of sending invites to you two Swifts!” said Radnor with a grin.
“It’s obviously some sort of hoax, and probably a trap for us,” stated Mr. Swift.
But Tom did not entirely agree with his father. “But it’s obvious we’d be suspicious of the setup and would check with SMT. They’d expect it. An outright trap or kidnapping would be foolish, don’t you think? We’d be prepared.”
“All true,” agreed Ames.
“My guess is, they don’t plan to tip their hand at all, not this time,” Tom went on. “They’ve taken a chance because they want to show us something, maybe something that will warn us away from them.”
“A sort of threat, but in subtle form,” murmured Tom’s father thoughtfully.
“Yes—something they can deny if we ‘call’ them on it. This ‘Julia’—if that’s even her name—may well be a real employee of SMT. For all we know, maybe all of the ‘Women With Issues’ are.”
“So why not just alert the cops?” asked Phil Radnor. “There’s plenty of cause to pull ’em all in for questioning.”
Tom responded, “If we have the State Police or the FBI go swooping down on this ‘lab’ of theirs, it would just ensure that we won’t learn anything significant. They’ve probably set it up in a way that looks entirely innocent and legitimate. Li Ching isn’t stupid.”
Harlan Ames gave out a humorous sigh. “Why do I have the sinking feeling you two are going to go charging right on into this, like two caffeinated bulls?”
“Now, now, Ames,” remonstrated Mr. Swift with a smile, “have you ever known a Swift to take chances?”
LAB IN THE WILDS
WHEN Tom and his father touched down in Trenton the next day in one of Enterprises’ Whirling Duck jetrocopters, the supposed Julia Furster was awaiting them next to a nondescript cream-colored sedan. She surprised them by taking out a small handheld electronic device and sweeping it over each of them in turn, up and down, front and back.
“I hope you’ll pardon me for this,” she stated. “We have our own security policies. And also, it’s just like being in a passenger plane. Electronic devices—even a teeny tiny cellphone—can affect the delicate calibrations of our instruments. That’s what the lab boys tell us, anyway. Oh, and those very handsome wristwatches—electronic?”
“Yes,” replied Damon Swift.
“Then I must ask you to hand them over, please. I’ll keep them nice and safe in a shielded container inside the car.”
Tom and his father exchanged the tiniest of glances. Good thing we anticipated our being searched, Tom thought. They had considered carrying locator devices or secreted voice transmitters, but had ultimately decided against it. Such aids might be discovered, and it was important to keep the game going to its conclusion.
They entered the car and meandered slowly through downtown Trenton, then onto the highway leading north along the Delaware River. “We had assumed your laboratory was in the Trenton vicinity,” commented Mr. Swift.
“Oh? I suppose it’s all a question of what you mean by vicinity,” replied Furster breezily. “We like privacy for our test work. Better radio reception, too.”
Tom couldn’t resist saying: “Radio reception? I understood that your devices were only designed to communicate with each other. Do they also pick up broadcasts?”
Miss Furster frowned. “They’ve been designed for multiple uses.”
Leaving the industrial and concentrated residential areas behind, they came to the open countryside, taking an offramp onto a series of roads that progressively became narrower and less well-paved. The terrain also turned wilder, with low wooded hills bordering the road, and few houses.
“Your installation seems to be in a rather out-of-the-way location,” remarked Mr. Swift. Miss Furster made no comment.
Presently she turned down a rutted dirt lane. After a few minutes of bumpy travel, she pulled up outside a startling structure that suddenly loomed up among the trees. It looked to the Swifts like a gigantic silver igloo!
“Here we are, boys,” Julia Furster said as she switched off the ignition and climbed from the car.
On closer examination the odd-shaped laboratory revealed that it was built of some shiny plastic-like fabric material stretched taut over a score of arching strut-ribs whose contours showed through. Tom sized it up instantly—a temporary structure erected on a fixed foundation, more tent than building, light in weight but probably tough-skinned and fairly rigid.
Tom glanced at Miss Furster, who seemed to be enjoying herself. “Quite a surprise to see such a place out here in the woods.”
She smirked. “You’ll find even more of a surprise when we go inside.” Her tone was openly mocking. “Shall we?”
They entered through a doorway that was almost like an airlock, a sealable flap set in a plastic frame. The Swifts’ eyes widened at the sight within—a full-scale laboratory and engineering workshop stocked full of advanced machinery and instruments. Furster came out with: “Well what do you know! As you can see, you two, this really is a lab. Like I said—surprise, surprise! Oh, and take a look at our work table to your left.”
Tom gasped. The table held a pair of Tom’s Private Ear Radios!
Tom and his father heard a snickering laugh at their backs and whirled to face their host. Julia Furster was holding a gun! And that fact was not a surprise.
“Do you suppose we can skip the comedy, now that I have you two genius boys covered?”
“What’s the meaning of this?” Mr. Swift asked icily. “What are we to do, put up our hands? You said you were bringing us here to show us your company’s new radio.”
“We’ll have it soon, I trust,” said “Big Bertha”. “That is, assuming your inventorly skills don’t come highly overrated, as so many things are these days. And please don’t pretend you came here in all innocence, boys. You decided to take a risk, as we knew you would. Why do you think I gave you my fingerprints?”
“And who is ‘we’?” demanded Tom.
As if in answer, the door flap was pulled open and three more women entered, flanking Julia Furster.
“I take it you’re the Women With Issues,” pronounced the young inventor dryly.
“You take it rightly,” said one of the women with a deadly smile. “And now, Tom Swift—to work!”
But Tom stood his ground and said, “We’re not going to do anything. You four may have ‘issues,’ but you’re not crazy. You can be sure Enterprises Security knows where we were headed today. We have fingerprints and a description. Kill the two Swifts and you won’t stand a chance against the worldwide outcry and manhunt!”
“Manhunt? I’ll overlook your sexist terminology,” declared Furster. “As for the rest, there’s killing, and then there’s killing. Guns can wound, painfully, and a few shattered bones here and there can make escape a discouraging proposition, even for a couple macho men like yourselves. So you’re going to be cooperative. And you know, it’s entirely possible—for the very reasons you say—that we’ll allow you to escape when the job is done. Naturally we’ll be long gone by then.”
Asked Mr. Swift scornfully, “Do you really think we’d have allowed ourselves to fall into your hands without making it possible for us to be tracked?”
“You haven’t been tracked,” the tall woman declared confidently. “It’s not just my handheld detector that made certain of that. This whole area has been under careful surveillance from—let’s say, from a great vantage point.”
Tom nodded. “In other words, from the stealth drone. Or do you mean Li Ching’s spacecraft?”
“Don’t mention that name!” said one of the women sharply.
“Yes. Mustn’t be disrespectful, Tom. The Comrade-General has been a sort of father to us,” Furster said. “You see, he—uh-uh, now! Let’s move back a couple steps, boys!—he’s taken care of us over the years, paid for our education, seen to our training, many things since the deaths of our real parents.”
Understanding, Tom looked from one to the other of the women. “You four are sisters.”
“Do we look that much alike? But yes. Mireva, Lana, Angela—and ‘Julia’ really is my name. We are the daughters of Dyal and Rhoda Pellasen.”
“Should I know that name?”
Mr. Swift broke in. “I know it. The Pellasens were radicals of some kind, militants who planted bombs in various labs involved in defense work. A number of workers were killed or maimed. They blew themselves up accidentally. This was about fifteen, twenty years ago.”
“We honor their memory,” said another of the sisters, Mireva. “It was Li Ching who sent them on that last mission. Their work was interrupted, but it lives on in us.”
“And what’s the point of it all?” Tom demanded in disgust.
“Perhaps it’s just as we wrote you, little Tom. Maybe we girls just want to have fun.” Julia motioned slightly with her gun. “Over by the table, please.”
“What do you want from us?” asked Mr. Swift quietly. “Ransom? To deliver us to Li?”
Miss Furster—Pellasen—shook her head. “Men. Are you calling me a liar? How dare you! I said we might let you go, didn’t I? The things we’ve put Tom through, with Mr. Li’s cryocast gun and so forth, have impressed him greatly. We’ve shown ourselves to be good and loyal daughters. Admittedly we fell short and Tom and his crewcut still live. All right then, fine. It may be better after all to present Li Ching with the gift of a working model of the communicator device. And then, by allowing you to escape, you remain active as inventors, and thus suppliers of additional valuable items for Mr. Li to acquire. It’s surely clear by now that his genius is more than equal to any security protections you—or the government—can come up with.”
“But why is Tom’s parallelophone so important to him?” asked Mr. Swift.
“Who knows, Damon? It’s new and valuable—and pretty! Mr. Li has his reasons. We four Women With Issues also have our reasons. It all comes out even in the end.”
Tom’s eyebrows raised. “Then... this supposed Swedish company—”
“Well, aren’t you inquisitive! It’s a front for... well, hey now, let’s call it Li Ching Enterprises!” Big Bertha laughed her shrill laugh, cold eyes not leaving her two captives. “So now, Tom, Damon, here’s the deal. It seems the plans and notes Mr. Li’s Shopton agent stole were incomplete—he was scared off by your guards while copying the disk, and the communicators put together by our technicians here in this lab look good but don’t work.”
“You thought you might be able to get the missing piece the other night, didn’t you—among the papers in the observatory?” declared Tom.
“We really thought you’d keep it all together in one place,” another of the sisters explained. “We know your telescope uses the same kind of― ”
“Shut up, Angela!” snapped Julia. “We’re not going to go into it with them.”
“Oh, I’m—I’m sorry, Jules.”
Julia Pellasen turned back to Tom and his father. “You’ll work here on your radio. We’ll give you three days—that is, three days of full use of your arms and legs without annoying distractions. Such as, for example, pain.
“But now listen to this: one thing we did know how to do was leave a vital component out of the units when we built them, something you can’t construct here with this equipment. So you can forget using the units to signal for help, but we know you’ll be able to complete the main circuitry, the quantum stuff, without it. And that’s what you’re going to do.”
The four sisters backed out and sealed the entrance flap behind them. Tom and Mr. Swift hastened to examine the flap, then the sides and floor of the igloo lab. “Ironic,” commented Tom. “Tomasite elasti-sheet, of all things, in the new Antitec formulation that blocks conventional radio signaling. Miracle products of Swift Enterprises!”
Mr. Swift sank down on one of the lab’s plastic chairs. “In other words, we can also forget about slicing through the walls. We don’t have the special equipment we’d need.”
“Could you tell how the sides are fastened to the floor, Dad?”
“I surely could. The floor is a big round slab of concrete with power feeds and so forth set into it. The wall sheets are fused onto a rigid aluminum ‘hoop’ that runs along the bottom all the way around, which is in turn attached to the slab by thick metal bolts.”
Tom nodded, eyes darting around the chamber. “The fabric doesn’t seem to be attached to the aluminum support struts, though. Just pulled tightly across them.”
“Quite a cell to keep us in. How long before we make our escape, son?”
“Oh... I imagine we’ll be home by dinner time. With luck.” Tom Swift was joking—but not entirely!
THE FLYING IGLOO
THE Women With Issues seemed to feel no need to keep close watch over their prisoners, ducking in less and less often as the day progressed. Tom and Mr. Swift soon had an impression that only one or two were present at the igloo site at any one time. Evidently the sisters had responsibilities elsewhere.
It was Angela Pellasen who brought them a late lunch, gun in hand. It was strictly drive-through dining, in a paper sack.
As she backed away toward the entrance, she paused suddenly, a strained and troubled expression on her face. “Tom—Mr. Swift—I—I just want to say that I’m sorry about all this. I didn’t think― ” She reddened. “Well, one thing led to another. What my sisters are doing, what they plan to do—it’s just not right.”
Tom spoke as gently as he could manage. “You’re the one who slipped us that note at the Inn, didn’t you? And you called with the tipoff to the tank substitution. Thank you, Angela.”
“I’m not like my sisters.”
“No, you’re not.”
“I never have been, but I’m the youngest and they—they bully me.”
“You can stand up for yourself now,” urged Mr. Swift. “Find a way to help us escape. Or at least contact the authorities. The law will go easy on you.”
But the young woman shook her head. “No, I can’t—I just can’t. How could I ever face them? And then...”
It was easy to grasp her meaning. “And then there’s Li Ching,” Tom stated grimly. “Your surrogate ‘Dad’ is a little unforgiving. And he has a very long memory.”
“I’ve said too much.” Angela hastened from the chamber.
The two Swifts returned to their secret task—using the machinery available to them to work out an escape. One idea after another—discussed in abbreviated whispers and scribbled notes—had fallen by the wayside.
“How much do you suppose this igloo weighs, Dad?” Tom asked abruptly. “Just the fabric shell, not the support ribbing.”
“Mm. You know our wonder plastic. It could hardly weigh much more than the two of us together. Under six hundred pounds I’d say.”
“Check. And to that we have to add the aluminum base hoop. Now look at the way it’s anchored,” Tom went on, pointing toward the base of the laboratory wall. “Just bolted down to the concrete floor slab.”
“But we’ve already found that we can’t loosen the bolts. And even if we could, we’re hardly strong enough to lift the base to squeeze out under it.”
Tom winked at his father and whispered, “Dad, who said anything about loosening or lifting?”
Mr. Swift listened with keen interest as Tom explained his plan. His face broke into a smile.
“Typically unbelievable—and typically terrific, son! Let’s get started!”
The two Swifts set to work like beavers. They continued on through the night and into the next day, breaking only for catnaps and the meals handed to them at gunpoint—no longer by Angela, they noticed.
The igloo lab contained a great panoply of machines and materials that Li Ching and his scientists evidently thought would be necessary in studying and perfecting the Private Ear Radios, and perhaps other pilfered inventions. Of vital interest were three things: a tank of helium, a compression gas liquifier, and the raw materials needed to create a plastic substance called duraflexon, a tough stuff which curled into different shapes upon exposure to electric current. “Once everything is set up and running, Dad, we can turn out a big batch of those vacuspheres you and I were experimenting with at Enterprises,” Tom had told his father. These spheres, about the size of golf balls, had a paper-thin shell that weighed very little, enclosing a vacuum which gave the spheres buoyancy like ultra-powerful balloons. “By filling the top of the dome with them, the buoyancy effect will be strong enough to counteract the igloo’s weight. After we detach the base from the concrete slab, we should be able to raise it up a ways by hand. And then, into the woods!”
“Well, Tom, seems to me you’re thinking too small,” Damon Swift retorted affectionately. “Here’s another idea!”
While Tom labored hour after hour to carry out the chemical process for producing duraflexon, Mr. Swift constructed an imposing-looking chassis, explaining to the sisters that it was required for certain delicate tests. Much of the time he kept the speaker volume of the two PER units tuned loud, purposely making the signal crackle with static. This not only covered other sounds and gave an impression of concerted activity, but made it extremely unpleasant for their captors to poke their noses into the dome. It was apparent that none of the Women With Issues had any real interest in the Swifts’ science or technology—only in being able to deliver a finished product to Li Ching.
As Julia Pellasen handed them their supper on the second day of captivity, she snapped, “When are you two geniuses going to be done with that blink-blank radio?” She winced as a speaker produced a blast of static.
“Won’t be too long now,” was Mr. Swift’s reply.
“By morning we’ll be all set,” Tom told her.
Mr. Swift and Tom ate hastily and returned to work. By the middle of the night, Tom activated the duraflexon producer, which fed the raw plastic into a simple fabricating device. Tom scooped piles of the small objects, which at that point resembled pea pods, from the receiving bin. Then Mr. Swift passed them one by one through a brush electrical contact. In the wink of an eye each pod popped into a spherical shape—with sheer nothingness inside!—and shot ceilingward. By the first light of dawn, the upper hollow of the igloo dome was crammed with vacuspheres straining for the sky.
“And now the final step,” Tom murmured. He took a long insulated hose, outfitted with a crude nozzle, and approached one of the metal anchoring bolts. He crouched and held the nozzle against the bolt. “Go ahead, Dad.”
Mr. Swift twisted a control knob, and liquid helium began to spray explosively from the nozzle, producing a cloud of white condensation.
A moment later Mr. Swift cut off the flow, and Tom poised a heavy wrench above the glistening frost-coated bolt. He struck it a sharp blow, and it shattered like glass!
It took about forty minutes to make a circuit of the perimeter. At last only two bolts remained! The Swifts could now see a crack of morning light under the aluminum coupling hoop.
“Get into place, Dad,” Tom whispered. “It’s time!”
The elder Swift nodded vigorously, a smile of tense excitement playing about his lips.
Dad’s actually enjoying this tight spot we’re in! Tom thought with admiration. What a Swift!
The young inventor sprayed the bolt next to him, then slid into one of the lightweight plastic chairs that they had carefully tied, by strong power cables, to the base hoop of the igloo using the empty holes left by the bolts. His father was already seated in the other chair on the opposite side of the room.
Tom kicked the bolt with the heel of his shoe. As it disintegrated, the entire dome suddenly wrenched upward on Tom’s side. The levered strength of the lift was sufficient to snap the remaining bolt, just as they had calculated.
What happened then was like something in a dream. The entire igloo went soaring aloft like a free balloon! The two Swifts rose with it, clinging to their chairs as they swayed violently back and forth.
“We’re off!” Tom yelled joyfully.
Below lay the concrete floor slab with its bare ribbing struts, and all the laboratory equipment. Two of their captors, Lana and Big Bertha, came trotting from the shed. They gaped up at them, open-mouthed in sheer disbelief.
“So long!” Tom shouted down at the two Women With Issues as their faces turned into pale dots. “Give our regards to your boss!”
“It’s magic!” Lana Pellasen cried, a look of terror on her face.
“Jules” was the first to collect her wits. “Knock it off!” she snarled. “Shoot em’ down!” They both whipped out automatics and poured a volley of shots skyward. But by this time the flying igloo and its two gleeful passengers were well out of gun range.
“I’ll bet we shocked ’em out of a year’s growth!” Tom called to his father. “Imagine Li Ching’s face when they tell him this story!”
Mr. Swift’s answering chuckle drifted back on the wind. “He won’t believe it!”
“I don’t even believe it, Dad!”
The laboratory site lay far below now, and the figures of the two guards had dwindled to mere specks. A stiff dawntime breeze was carrying the igloo toward a nearby range of hills.
“How are you holding up, son?” Mr. Swift called.
They were both clenching themselves tightly to the chairs as they swayed and bounced. “Muscles getting a bit stiff and strained, but I can hang on,” Tom replied. “How about you, Dad?”
“Perfectly okay. I suggest we hang on until we’re floating over this ridge we’re coming to, then drop off. It’ll give us less of a jolt—looks like we might scrape it.”
Tom gazed at the countryside below as a southeast wind bore them along through the dimness of early morning. There were no towns or crossroad villages in sight, and the nearest highway he could make out seemed to lie miles away.
They drifted closer to the ridge—and then the wind changed, carrying them northward.
“Nice up here,” Mr. Swift called across, “but I’m getting a bit tired of the scenery. Any thoughts, Tom?”
“Give me a minute.” Tom finally yelled out: “Dad, we’ve got to tip the dome and release some of the vacuspheres.”
“Son, I’d call that an accurate observation—not an idea. How do you propose our doing it?”
Over Damon Swifts protests, and with thudding heart, Tom edged his way out of his plastic chair, half-standing to grasp the dome’s base-hoop, which was fairly thick but fortunately was topped by a protruding flange. Tom was trim and strong, but he was no Bud Barclay. His hand and arm muscles were already worn and aching. Would they hold him?
“W-well,” he muttered to himself, “that’s one good way to shift the weight balance of the igloo—by falling off!”
Tom wrenched himself upward, for one dizzying moment hanging free in space. Then another agonizing pull and a sideways crunch-swing from the waist, and he was able to clomp one heel, then the other, onto the top ridge of the aluminum flange. He managed to pull himself up closer, then began to shinny along the metal beam, trembling with the strain. He slowly approached his father—whose heart wasn’t so much thudding as lodged somewhere in his throat!
As Tom wormed his way along, the igloo dome began to list over to one side. As the tilt became greater and greater, the mob of vacuspheres shifted, the leading edge of the cluster approaching the bottom of the curved wall, which now was nearly above them. Another tilt—and a flock of the spheres began to spill out, falling upwards into the sky!
A firm hand grasped Tom’s sleeve. “Steady, son. I’ve got you. Brace against my knee.” Grateful, the young inventor swung down with a groan.
The flying igloo began sinking gently toward a grassy hilltop as more and more of the tiny spheres escaped into the heavens. Within moments the remarkable fliers were nearing the ground.
“Jump!” Tom cried, and then took his own advice. Mr. Swift landed deftly with a gentle bump. Tom let his knees go soft and rolled as he hit, but was uninjured.
As to the igloo, it responded to the sudden loss of weight by righting itself and making for the sky again.
“Are you all right, Tom?” Mr. Swift asked as he hurried to join the younger inventor.
“Right as rain, Dad. And glad to be down.” The two scanned the local country from their slight elevation. The rise was entirely surrounded by thick woodlands. “Now the problem is to find our way out of these woods. If we can only reach a house or roadside service station, we can phone the local police to pick up our lively ladies before they run off.”
“I have no doubt they’ve already run off,” Mr. Swift commented. “And as for a roadside service station― ”
“I know, Dad. First we have to find a road!”
Damon Swift nodded, smiling. “I’m afraid we’re in for a long hike.”
They picked their way down the hillside and plunged into the tangled woodland underbrush.
“Let’s head away from our line of flight,” Tom urged. “If what Julia Pellasen said wasn’t just a bluff, Li Ching, or his employees, may be tracking the lab shell on radar from up above.”
Mr. Swift agreed, but added: “Even if they saw the dome take wing, I’m hoping they didn’t have a chance to bring in the Eyeballer to chase after it.”
“They must not have, or they’d have used the freeze-beam on us,” Tom pointed out. “There’s just one drone, and it’s probably several states distant right now.”
They began trudging in the direction of the climbing sun. The morning passed slowly as they pushed on through woods and brush. The sun was at noon height as Tom and his father finally sighted a farmhouse next to a narrow dirt road. An old battered pickup—a proverbial rustbucket—lay in front, as if in a coma.
Weary and disheveled, the Swifts tramped up to the back door and knocked several knocks. A grizzled man in shirt sleeves opened the door.
He looked the dirty, unshaven strangers up and down. “What d’ye want?” he demanded suspiciously.
“Mind if we use your phone?” asked Tom’s father.
“My phone? Why for? Who’d you plan on callin’?”
“Our—our business office.”
“What kind o’ business?”
“Nothin’ like that around t’here!” grumped the man. “Where is it?”
“Shopton, New York.”
“Oh now, swell and fine! I’m s’posed to let you two total strangers make a long distance call on my dime, that it? Tell me another!”
Mr. Swift felt his charm and patience ebbing away. “Now look... sir,” he said. “We’re lost. Would you be kind enough to help us?”
“Lost? Y’mean yer car broke down?”
“No, our igloo!” Tom snapped. “We had a brush with some criminals. They were holding us captive but we got away. We’ve been walking through these woods for hours.’’
The expression on the man’s face suggested to Tom that he might have been unwise to mention the igloo. He refrained from telling the whole story for fear the man would think they were escaped mental patients!
But to the Swifts’ surprise the man said, “Yeah, I saw that igloo thing floatin’ around in the sky with my own two eyes, one o’ which is still pretty good. Mebbe ye’re tellin’ the truth fer a fact. And mebbe y’ ain’t. But I ain’t takin’ no chances by lettin’ you inside. I came here to the country to avoid stress, and you two’re stressin’ me out! Got enough o’ that before I retired from my job.”
“Yes, sir, I understand.” Tom tried to be friendly. “What sort of job was it?”
“Restaurant reviewer, Channel 5 news. Nowadays I sell old books t’ collectors, mail order. And you know what? I’m still stressed!”
“Then would you at least call the State Police?” Mr. Swift pleaded.
“Yep. Reckon I can. Local call. Jest stay right there.”
The door slammed in their faces. Father and son looked at each other and nearly burst out laughing. They sat themselves down on the porch steps, weary.
Within twenty minutes a police car with two State troopers in it arrived at the farmhouse. They introduced themselves as Callan and Jensen. The latter recognized the Swifts as soon as Tom and his father identified themselves. “How on earth did you get into a fix like this?” he asked. “Half the State’s been trying to find you two!”
Mr. Swift gave a quick account of their capture and imprisonment at the laboratory. When Tom described the escape of the two scientists in the flying igloo, the troopers gave a whistle of surprise and looked at each other.
“So that’s what started all the excitement!” Callan exclaimed. “Our post has had a flock of calls from people who sighted some unidentified flying object up in the sky this morning!”
“We reported it to the Army,” Jensen said.
Tom asked, “What did the Army say?”
“To report it to the Air Force.”
“Were they skeptical?”
“Kid, you can’t imagine.”
Officer Jensen jotted down the information which Tom and his father provided about the location of the laboratory site. “Our dispatcher will contact the Feds and your people in New York,” he promised, “and we’ll rush a squad car out to that lab—or what’s left of it.”
He hurried off to make the call over his car radio. Meanwhile, the crusty old man and his less-crusty wife had been standing in the doorway, listening wide-eyed to the whole conversation. Both were redfaced as they realized they had almost turned away two famous inventors.
“Hope ye’ll excuse my poor manners,” the farmer said. “I was in TV, y’ know.”
After a few phone calls and a long and bumpy trip to the Trenton airport, Tom and his father were relieved to find themselves airborne again in the jetrocopter and headed north.
When they finally pulled up the driveway at home in Shopton, two teary-eyed figures awaited them. “Oh, Tom, Damon, I’m so glad you’re back safe again,” Mrs. Swift murmured. “Not that I was really worried, but still― ”
“I know,” Tom said affectionately, realizing the effort it cost his mother not to show her fears whenever her husband and son were exposed to danger. “It was pretty rough on you and Sandy. But Dad and I always manage to bounce out of a tight spot, somehow.”
Sandy sniffled. “Each time it happens I think how mean and sarcastic I am to you, Tom. And I want so much to have you back so I can keep doing it.”
“I know, sis.”
He told her briefly how they had been kidnapped by the Women With Issues and kept imprisoned at the igloo laboratory, his mother listening. But he made no mention of the threats against them. No sense their worrying over the past, Tom told himself. There’s always the future! He knew his father agreed.
To celebrate her husband and son’s safe return, Mrs. Swift had prepared some of their favorite dishes, including steak pie and a delicious chocolate cake. “What a terrific meal!” Tom smiled at his mother. “I’ll bet I ate too much to sleep tonight!”
Mr. Swift chuckled and laid down his napkin. “No danger, son, if you’re as tired as I am.”
Tom was. By nine-thirty that evening he was in bed, deep in slumber. By the next morning he was greatly refreshed.
He was in a determined mood when he joined the family at the breakfast table. “I’ve had enough of Li Ching and his employees!” he stated.
“As have we all,” declared Mr. Swift.
A fierce frown settled on Tom’s face. “And as soon as I get to Enterprises, I’m going to start doing something about it!”
PLOTTING AGAINST THE
AT SWIFT Enterprises, after the usual mutual briefing with Harlan Ames, Tom sat down with Arvid Hanson to discuss turning his drone-tracker concept into hard reality. “This is in your neck of the woods, Arv. I’m looking for a lot of miniaturization—and a fast turnout.”
“I’m your man, chief,” Arv stated. “Lay it on!”
“We’ll be tracking the ‘shadow’ of the control signal. What I have in my mind is not only a basic detector but a sort of edge-enhancer.”
“You want to isolate the amplitude gradients, in other words.”
“And the frequency distortions around the absorption point—the Eyeballer’s special receiving antenna.” Passing the expert model-maker a sheaf of ideas, drawings, and calculations, Tom explained that the Eyeballer would not only be very small and probably fairly distant in the sky, but would also be traveling across the detection “window” at supersonic speeds. “We’ll have a fraction of a second to pick up whatever info we can squeeze out of her.” The goal, Tom noted, was to plot the flight paths of the drone from several locations—as many as possible.
Arv nodded. “I see. You’ll be triangulating on a likely home base for the critter.”
“Yup. I know I’m making a pile of assumptions, any one of which could be wrong. Still, one way or another, we’re likely to learn something. More data is better than less.”
“It sure is, Tom.” Hanson promised to begin conferring with Hank Sterling and the rest of the main engineering team. “Look for a prototype by this time tomorrow.” The engineer rose and added: “Let’s hope that when the Feds get this data, they’ll have enough to take action.”
Tom nodded but looked away in silence. Arv Hanson paused at the door. What did the silence mean?
Suddenly he knew. “Tom, listen to me,” Arv said earnestly, sitting down again. “Think about your family, your employees here, your friends—think about Bud! Don’t take on the guy yourself. Leave the fight to the pros.”
“I’ve heard it all before, Arv,” Tom replied. “I’ve memorized it. Most of the time I’ve given in and followed it. Not this time.”
“Why? Not for the congressman, or Asa Pike. Not even for ‘world peace’ or big things like that. I have to go after the drone because I have a personal stake in it. I need to do it.”
“Do you mean—because of what happened in Paris?”
“Because of me, a man is dead,” declared the young inventor emotionally. “Even if I was a victim too, even if I couldn’t have prevented it, it’s a burden I’m going to have to live with. You talk about family, friends, employees. Don’t you think Galaspain had them too?”
“Revenge against Li Ching won’t― ”
“It’s not revenge!” Tom exclaimed sharply. “I’m not going in with a gun. I’m going to take out his plot, not his life.”
Arv’s smile was sad but resigned. “Okay. I’m with you, Tom. Now Bud—Bud may have a few thoughts to share on the matter.”
“Oh yes,” Tom said quietly.
As Hanson worked with the others on his “Shadower” tracking system, Tom plunged back to work on the final stage of the megascope space prober, eagerly and restlessly. He was still determined to have the invention fully operational in time to observe the liftoff of the Highroad mission.
The entire mechanism stood nearly complete in the observatory. Here the huge wirework antenna had already been swivel-mounted on a towering pedestal. Tom surveyed the antenna’s strange form with a critical eye. It consisted of a series of thick rings, resembling giant innertubes, stacked in cylindrical formation. Each ring was girdled by a gleaming white-gold band of Neo-Aurium metal, mined from the floor of the ocean. Each of the antenna rings was about five feet across, and the entire antenna assembly was forty feet long. This was the critical component that would propel the matrix of “counterparticles” across space at nearly the speed of light to establish the invisible “lens” for the megascope.
Close to the base of the pedestal was a neat console, ten feet wide, slightly curving, waist high. The front of it was studded with dials, control knobs, and the receiver viewing screen, a broad circular monitor.
Tom had already tested out the basic elements of the invention in his laboratory, but he had not yet deployed his quantum sensor-node at full scale. “So far, so good,” the inventor murmured after completing the hookup and running a final check on the liquid helium feed. “Let’s see how she works.”
He aimed the antenna and adjusted the controls for a view of the grounds below, setting the position of the sensor-node—which could be manipulated independently of the antenna to some extent—to a height of four thousand feet above Swift Enterprises. A remarkably clear picture of the experimental station appeared on the screen! Tom cheered under his breath.
Next, Tom scanned the highway outside the plant. Dropping the viewing point closer to the ground, he amused himself by gliding along over various cars traveling to and from Shopton. Who needs the Eyeballer? he chuckled. I’ve got the Mighty Eye!
The youth paused the quantum lens a quarter of a mile from the main gate, where a dirt horse-trail joined the road and ran along next to it. Two female equestrians were ambling along behind a third rider, and one of the females seemed to be bouncing about on her saddle. “Must be new at it,” Tom murmured. “She’s going to be mighty sore.”
Curious, he zoomed in closer by moving the sensor-node—and burst into laughter. Sandy and Bashalli!
Sandy was an expert rider, as was Tom. Bashalli Prandit was—something else. He recalled that she had mentioned several times wanting riding lessons, and now she was getting them. “From Chow Winkler, no less!” chortled Tom as he viewed the lead rider from head-level. The big cowpoke had a wry expression on his face that the shadow of his ten-galloner barely concealed. Clearly the lesson wasn’t going as smoothly as Chow had hoped.
Tom realized instantly that a surprise was afoot. No doubt the young Pakistani would suddenly appear out of nowhere to join Tom and his sister on their next ride. I won’t say anything, he thought. Don’t want to spoil it for them.
He continued watching with idle curiosity as the three clomped past the main gate and continued on, a direction that eventually would take them to the Swifts’ front porch. Then Tom frowned, and his frowned deepened into concern. A car, approaching on the road behind them, had suddenly accelerated. A cream-colored sedan!
“Good grief!” Tom exclaimed helplessly. “It could be the Women With Issues!”
For an instant Tom stared unbelievingly at the screen of the megascope as the speeding sedan swerved around the riders, passing dangerously close and causing the horses to rear back. It lunged onto the dirt path, blocking the three!
Desperately, Tom tried to think of a way to prevent what looked like another ambush—possibly a kidnap attempt! He dashed to the wall and pressed an alarm button while his eyes raked the observatory room. “They’re too far away for my repelatron trick. But I must do something—and fast!” Tom thought.
He glanced back at the monitor screen and realized that something was being done!
A female figure—Tom recognized her immediately as Big Bertha Pellasen—had slid from the sedan’s driver side. In her hand was a bulky camera-like object, evidently Li Ching’s freeze-gun. Before she could even raise and aim it, she fell back in fear as Chow charged her like a knight of the open range! Tom could almost hear the cowboy whooping as he made his steed dance about the car, coming threateningly close to Pellasen and rearing up like a rodeo performer.
The woman backed up against the fender, then abruptly broke off the confrontation by darting back into the sedan. As Chow rode off in triumph after Sandy and Bashalli, who had quickly turned back and were trotting toward the safety of the guard booth at the Enterprises gate, the sedan kicked up a swath of dirt and dust and roared off in the opposite direction.
She’ll pass the house! Tom suddenly realized. What if she—?
But no! Before his startled eyes, Tom saw the car suddenly begin to shimmy and swerve wildly. In a second it had left the road and plunged into the underbrush, sideswiping a tree and finally grinding into another.
The car door opened and Miss Pellasen, now very much a Woman With Issues, scurried into the wooded area. Tom tried to follow with the megascope beam, but found that the sap-rich trees and other obstructions were disrupting the microwave “conveyor belt,” preventing the sensor-node from stabilizing.
“All I can do now is alert the police. But gosh, what a break having Chow there to protect the girls!” Tom muttered. “And maybe we can dredge some information from that wrecked car.”
After making his calls, Tom took a ridewalk to the gate guard’s station, where the riders had hitched their steeds.
“I see more and more what you go through, you Swifts,” said Bash with a quaver.
“It was scary all right,” Sandy noted in a small voice. “Something like this happened before, Bashi, but I thought we’d be safe if we rode as a group.”
Tom clapped a hand on Chow’s back. “I’d say you were pretty safe, with our Texan along! That was some mighty fine horsin’, pardner!”
The westerner beamed. “Aw now, weren’t so much o’ nothin’. But say now― ” he suddenly added. “Tom Swift, how’d you know ’bout all this? We ’as off down the road and on the other side o’ that wall!”
“Big brothers have their ways,” said Sandy. “And I’m so glad this one keeps his eye on me!” She hugged him warmly, and so did Bashalli. Chow got the same treatment.
Julia Pellasen’s trail petered out, and there was no sign of her. “She must have contacted a confederate—another sister, I’d imagine—who picked her up on the fly,” stated Harlan Ames later in the day. “Captain Rock and Chief Slater agreed to allow the sedan to be towed into the plant after they completed their investigation. Shall we take a look at it, boss?”
The cream-colored sedan sat in the executive parking lot near the administration tower. It was a mass of dents and scrapes, with a crumpled nose. “Unfortunately, she must have taken the ray device with her,” Ames noted.
“She would have been foolish not to,” muttered Tom. “What I’m interested in right now is this: what made the car go haywire like it did?”
Ames smiled. “Of course, she might have just been so panicked by our avenging horseman that she lost control. But you don’t believe that, and neither do I.”
Tom was examining the hood, looking for something very specific. “Too much crumpling,” he said to himself. “So let’s look at the engine.”
The hood swung up with a creak. Tom scrutinized the engine with expert eyes, then stood up again, giving Harlan Ames a grim look. “As I thought.”
“Definitely. And it wasn’t just some accident caused by the unit Big Bertha was carrying. It’s easy to see that the engine was raked by a beam coming from above.”
Ames nodded. “And so, on top of these dents we have a new wrinkle. Someone, for some reason, is now using the Eyeballer to attack Li Ching’s employees. And that means the drone is back in operation here—in Shopton—at Enterprises!”
“I’D SAY this nice little contraption of yours is tickin’ like a watch, young fella,” said Asa Pike over the Private Ear Radio Tom had shipped to him. “That is t’say, both this box in my hand and that Shadower you folks knit up.”
Several days had passed since the incident with Julia Pellasen. Tom’s detector-tracker had been perfected, and several dozen of the compact units had been turned out. Carefully camouflaged, they were now hidden near various crucial defense-related facilities throughout the country.
“And say now, I hear tell you a’ready caught sight of our little darling,” noted Pike, not explaining just how he had “heard” this news.
“The Shadower at Swift Construction Company picked it up right away, circling slowly at 2200 feet,” Tom confirmed. “After a few hours, it took off toward Enterprises, where we picked it up again—but it just blipped over, turning south. The detector on the southern outskirts of town registered it continuing on the same course.”
“Mm-hmm. We thought she might pass over the Rynnauer Lab facility in Addison, but no—musta turned some. We’ll keep our eyes peeled, though—jest the fust day of the chase, after all.” Pike signed off, promising to stay in close touch with Tom and Harlan Ames. “I know you folks have a stake in this y’self,” he added.
That evening Bashalli was invited to join the Swifts at the dinner table in anticipation of a call from Bud over his Private Ear unit. The Venus launch now was mere days away.
At eight o’clock the PER unit beeped. “Hey there, Shoptonians!” Bud’s voice boomed from the speaker, crystal clear.
“So they actually allowed you a ten minute break from Space Academy?” teased Tom.
Bud chuckled. “Just a short breather before I go into solitary.” The jaunty comment fell off at the end, and Tom saw tears come into Sandy’s blue eyes.
“So the schedule is finalized, then?” asked Tom’s father.
“Yes, sir. Sure is, as long as the weather holds up. They want to take advantage of Venus coming into inferior conjunction with the earth.”
“Venus inferior?” Sandy giggled—weak and unconvincing though it was. “I thought she outrated all your other girl friends.”
“Except for a certain blonde,” Bud quipped. “And before genius boy pops out with an explanation, I only meant that Venus will soon pass between the earth and the sun. In other words, she’ll be at her closest point to earth and save us a few hundred thousand miles of space travel.”
Sandy winked at Bashalli. “Do you suppose Bud and Tom would ever travel that far to see us?”
“We’d probably have to bait the invitation with some of your mother’s marvelous cooking,” teased the Pakistani with a chiding look at Tom.
Her remark brought a chuckle from Mr. Swift. “You may have something there, Bashalli,” he said. “Anne Longstreet always did know the way to a man’s heart!’’
Mrs. Swift, whose maiden name was Longstreet, blushed prettily as she said, “Bud, I so wish you were here to join us at the table.”
“I—I do too, ma’am. Every twenty-four hours, at dinnertime there in Shopton, I’ll be thinking of you, all of you.”
Bud’s voice choked off, and there was the kind of silent moment they had all been hoping to avoid. Tom revived the tone with some effort, turning it to a lively exchange of banter among Tom, Bud, and the two girls. As the conversation drew to a close, Bud remarked: “In my opinion, Astro-Dynamics’ equipment is inferior to Enterprises’ all down the line. We’re talkin’ a flashback to pre-repelatron days. Might as well bring a buggy whip along!”
Bud told Tom he had made many good friends among the engineers and technicians on the Venus project. “In fact, they’re all regular guys,” Bud said. But a scowl was almost audible through the PER as he added, “Except Chippy Holbrook. No kidding—how I’m going to stand that guy all the way to Venus and back is beyond me!”
Tom tried to reassure his chum, and Bud’s good humor slowly returned. The youthful astronaut declared he was ready to “take on Chippy Holbrook.”
“Thanks for the bon voyage party,” Bud told his cross-continent listeners. “Even if I could only be there courtesy of quantum physics, it was swell.”
Sandy’s voice trembled a bit as she said, “Come back soon—and safely!” The sentiment was echoed softly by the others.
Tom said: “Keep in touch with me, Bud, as often as you can. Just check your watch and try either the Enterprises cartridge or the one for the house here.”
“And remember, flyboy—if you need any help, I’ll come a-runnin’!”
“Thanks, pal. And Tom? Don’t forget—after we make orbit, take your megascope and look through the porthole. I’ll be waving.”
Contact was broken, and everyone knew this would be the young flier’s last chance to speak to them until the flight was underway.
“I can’t help being worried about him,” said Tom’s mother. The girls readily agreed.
Bud’s conversation had left Tom strangely uneasy as well. All those months in space with a guy like Holbrook! he thought.
Somehow, he had the feeling that his best friend was headed for trouble on the flight to Venus.
Tom tried to shake the feeling the next morning as he continued to test the capabilities of his amazing space prober. He was eager to try out the megascope on some heavenly objects.
Switching on power to the equipment, Tom elevated the angle of the antenna, using positioning data from the computer to provide precise aim and distance. He was trying for a view of space outpost. The glittering sky wheel, stark white against the black of space, appeared on the screen in clearcut detail, bristling with its communications dishes, latticework telescope, and the reflecting mirrors used in solar battery production.
Like seeing it close up from one of our cargo rockets about to dock there, Tom thought.
He scanned some of the other manmade satellites hurtling through the sky on their ceaseless orbits. Then Tom turned his space prober to much further range. He swept across Nestria, Earth’s tiny second moon, and brought his eyes to within a few yards of the whirling atmosphere-making machine that kept the Earth colony alive. “Running fine!” he told himself.
Moving the sensor point again, Tom studied the details of the moon’s surface, slowly creeping along as if he were an astronaut trudging on foot across the desolate plains.
Next, he tried for a view of Venus. “Not that I’m likely to see much.” It took several minutes for the focused microwave beam to cross the void to Earth’s mysterious sister. Finally the viewpoint stabilized at a height of 100,000 miles above the planet’s incinerating surface. Tom tuned the video screen for sharper contrast.
He knew that the earth’s sister planet was covered by an opaque atmosphere which kept its surface completely hidden to casual space viewers with merely human eyes. Nevertheless, as Venus settled into focus on the screen, Tom could discern its bright patches and darker areas, and studied them with keen interest.
He zoomed closer and plunged into the sulphurous cloud bank. He halted the quantum lens slightly above ground level, manipulating it for a sideways view. The surface was fairly well illuminated despite the cloud cover, although Tom noted that static-charge phenomena in the atmosphere were causing some shifting distortions in the image. Rugged though it was, Venus looked earthlike in some ways—yet this was an environment hot enough to melt lead, with an atmospheric pressure as great as that on the bottom of the ocean!
“Wonder what kind of information Bud will bring back from his flight,” Tom mused listlessly. Whatever was learned from the highly sensitive instruments crammed into the Highroad, he reflected, was sure to increase man’s scientific knowledge of Venus a thousandfold.
This thought gave Tom a fresh pang of frustration. If only Swift Enterprises had been given the Venus probe assignment! Instead of Chippy Holbrook, he himself would be Bud’s fellow astronaut on the daring space voyage.
“No use moping about it,” Tom said to himself. “There’ll be other space shots—to Venus, Mars, and Jupiter, too! Maybe even a Venus landing one of these days, if we can figure out how to keep someone alive down there.” It occurred to him to wonder why he was talking to himself.
Tom switched off the megascope, then left the observatory and went to his private laboratory adjacent to Enterprises’ cavernous underground hangar. He stood gazing at a bare countertop. He muttered, “Okay, what do I work on next?” The young inventor felt a strong need to keep his mind occupied.
The phone bleeped—an in-house call. “This is Tom.”
“Ames here, Tom. That agent fellow Pike just contacted me on the PER.”
“Is there news?”
“Absolutely, boss. It’s what we’ve been waiting for.”
Tom gulped. “They’ve pinpointed the control base for the Eyeballer?”
“Looks like it,” confirmed the security chief; “although pinpointed is a little optimistic. Apparently there have been quite a number of ‘pings’ on the various Shadower units over the last several hours. It looks like the drone is coming and going from one area. They’ve plotted the lines, and they intersect at, or near, New Orleans!”
“Then that’s where we’ll start looking,” Tom declared excitedly. “And you know, it makes a kind of sense for Li Ching to set up a base in that area. There are still plenty of places where the hurricane left things in a chaotic state.”
“Right. Good place to hide,” agreed Ames. “And that makes it a great big headache, Tom. If the authorities go block to block, house to house, Li will get an early warning and clear out.”
Tom grinned at his end of the line. “I know. But we’re not going to use ‘the authorities’. We’re going to pin down the Comrade-General with science—namely my megascope!”
THE SHADOWED TOWER
TOM SWIFT and Harlan Ames stared tensely at the screen of the megascope as Tom deftly manipulated its ghostly vantage point. “We know he’s in there somewhere,” muttered the young inventor.
The triangulation data from the various Shadower units had pointed to a section of Orleans County on the outskirts of New Orleans, an area of light industry and manufacturing that had suffered extensive hurricane damage and flooding. A fleet of nondescript vehicles, each equipped with a detector, had converged on the area during the several hours previous in hopes of cutting down the 25-square-mile target to something manageable.
The scheme had worked almost immediately. “The Eyeballer’s been coming and going from this little section—about four square miles,” Tom noted to Ames.
“Warehouses and office buldings. Can’t they narrow it down further?”
“Not without prowling around in a grid pattern and alerting Li Ching. Remember, if he and his men clear out with the Eyeballer and control equipment― ”
“Right. Game over.” Ames studied the monitor view as it slowly rolled by, as if from the top of a low-flying helicopter. “What makes you think you’ll be able to locate the base yourself, Skipper?”
“Mostly instinct. But also—in a weird way, the Comrade-General and I think alike. I know the tech-specs of the drone, and it’s given me—wait a sec!” Tom swooped the quantum lens downward for a closer view and pointed excitedly at the screen. “There!”
Ames frowned. “That building?”
The screen showed a towering office building, narrow but very tall. As the megascope looked it over from top to bottom it became obvious that the building had been under construction even before nature’s assault. Many windows were just empty frames, and much of the upper reaches had yawning gaps in the walls, its skeleton of girders showing through.
Tom brought his Mighty Eye down to ground level and nosed about. “There’s an underground parking garage, probably mostly flooded. Li and his underlings could have connected to it from some nearby basement to come and go unseen.”
“They’d hardly need to occupy an entire building,” Harlan pointed out. “We’d have to go floor to floor. Or could your megascope—?”
Tom shook his head, eyes focused on the screen. “Nope. The structural metal, and solid stuff in general, scrambles the microwave tube too much and decoheres the particle field.”
“Then, what? They’re not likely to turn on any lights for us.”
Tom depressed a button to record precise positioning data from the megascope’s computer, then switched off the monitor. “We can’t just set up a Shadower vehicle near the building,” he said, thinking aloud. “At such proximity to the control transmitter, the ‘shadow’ angles sideways and doesn’t touch the ground. And a circling aircraft would give away the game.”
“The police or FBI—even the military—could storm the building from all sides. The Li group would be penned in.”
“That’s for the authorities to decide,” declared Tom; “which is exactly why I’m not going to alert them, not now. I’ve seen Li Ching from an arm’s-length away, Harlan. I’ve talked to him and looked in his eyes. He’s merciless and ready to fight like a tiger, even if his whole organization is wiped out in the end.”
“They call him the snakeman.”
“I don’t want more deaths hanging over me till my crewcut turns gray.” His next words were grave. “You know and I know what has to be done. It’s going to take one person, just one, moving through that building undetected.”
“Named Tom Swift.”
“Are you going to try to talk me out of it?”
“Your Dad and Bud couldn’t. I won’t even try.” The security chief gazed at his young boss with a complex expression on his lean face. “I don’t know what to say, Tom. To be frank, I thought seriously about making a few calls to alert the authorities before you could leave.”
“You won’t, Harlan.”
“No, I won’t. Young man, if a smart kid like you thinks this is the way to go... Well—you have been to the moon, after all.”
Tom chuckled, relieved and grateful. “To both of ’em! Your trust—everyone’s trust—it means everything, Harlan.”
The plan Tom worked out was shared only with those closest to him—and, hesitantly and reluctantly, with Asa Pike. Tom chose to take the resulting silence at the other end of the Private Ear Radio as Pike’s tacit concurrence.
Last of all, he tried to contact Bud. But there was no answer. He’s tied up with last-minute tasks, thought Tom.
Would Tom be able to keep his promise, to watch over the spacecraft on its journey?
Tom recorded a message to his best friend and left it in the security safe.
Late on a muggy Louisiana evening a motor home pulled up to an all-night diner three blocks from the unfinished, already-ruined Selland Building. “Thanks, Gary,” said Tom Swift to the driver. “Rest of the way on foot.”
“I don’t know just what you’re up to, Tom,” the man replied. “Probably wouldn’t understand it anyway.” He was an Enterprises employee stationed in New Orleans as part of the Swifts’ private television system, the videophone network. “You say it’s a test? My gosh, that’s quite a getup you’re wearing!”
The electronic “chameleon suit” worn by Tunbridge Jackson had been altered to fit the tall, lanky youth. With its image system switched off, a tense, determined young man in a bulky but flexible garment—which now included a light, close-fitting helmet with a narrow wrap-around view slit—stood before the technician. “It’s not hard to move around in, though,” Tom remarked, holding his helmet open. “No questions, Gary, on what you are to do?”
“Pretty easy. Nothing! No matter what happens.”
“Not until midmorning tomorrow. Then call my father at Swift Enterprises.”
“Sounds like this test is a little on the dangerous side.”
“Oh—maybe just a little.” Tom winked as he switched on the suit’s solar battery circuit. “You know that great big building out there? I’m going to climb it!”
In a moment the mobile home door swung open, then closed again. In the dim starlight a casual viewer, even at a moderate distance, would have made out nothing definite—perhaps only a slight, misty outline, a silhouette, walking briskly across the parking lot. A ghost. Or more likely, imagination and a slivered moon.
Tom could only hope and pray that he hadn’t already been observed. It was all but certain that Li Ching had put his scientist-mercenaries to the task of finding some method to remotely penetrate the stealth drone’s anti-detection system, which with the image-repeater setup was virtually invisible to all forms of energy—even light. Had they already succeeded? It’s funny, he wouldn’t even have to actually solve the problem, Tom thought ruefully as he walked along. If we don’t recover the stolen Eyeballer, the government won’t build any more for fear the technology’s been “busted.” And meanwhile the guy can palm off some kind of bogus detector to foreign powers and charge whatever he wants for it!
Such were the musings of the Semi-Invisible Man as he approached the shadowed tower.
Tom’s shadow-trackers had provided a clue as to where the drone’s base might be situated inside the structure. In all its final approach trajectories, it had descended to the same altitude, about 170 feet above ground level. The scientist-inventor guessed that Li’s control room, and probably a sort of office suite, was located around the fourteenth floor. “Fourteen floors of climbing, straight up,” Tom muttered. “Piece of cake!”
But it wasn’t.
The owners of the Selland Building had provided a chart of the tower’s layout, which Tom had studied until it was memorized. He knew the lower floors had too much damage to allow easy access to the higher levels. Climbing a sheer wall was the only route up.
He stood for a long moment at the bottom of the north wall, leaning back awkwardly to look upward. I could still call it off passed through his mind. But along with the thought came deft movements of Tom’s arms and hands as he activated the ingenious climbing mechanism he had devised.
Tom was wearing a boxlike backpack, its tight-gripping harness beneath the suit, its surface covered by the image units and antidetection sheathing. The yank of a concealed handle sent four rods, thin as pencils and painted a dull gray-brown, shooting out from the backpack toward the ground, a concrete walkway. Droplets of a gluey substance oozed from the tip of each rod, anchoring it to the concrete. As Tom manipulated hidden controls, the duraflexon rods began to extend rapidly, spun off reels inside the backpack. While wound on the reels the duraflexon was flat as tape, but as it shot through an electrical contact while being extruded, it bulged out into a tubular shape and became rigid—and very strong.
The extending struts lifted Tom like an elevator. Inside the chameleon suit, firmly attached to the harness, were small gravitex units. They required little power, but held Tom upright and balanced, keeping the entire lift-structure perfectly stable.
What would Bud say? “Just call me Jack, and keep the beanstalk growing, Skipper!”
The wall rushed by Tom’s eyes, floor upon floor. He counted them, and as the fourteenth floor neared he slowed, then stopped, the extrusion of the rods.
In front of him was a break in the wall with blackness behind it. With a gulp Tom extended his feet to rest on the bottom of the “sill” and gripped its sides with his hands. He then, in a single smooth movement, rocked forward into the gap while unclipping the backpack from his harness. It would remain there atop the rods until Tom returned. If!
He entered the room, waiting a moment for his eyes to become accustomed to the traces of wan starlight. He could see that the floor was littered with construction materials. And ahead of him was a doorway without a door.
The young inventor found himself in a hallway that encompassed the entire floor in four right-angle turns. When he had returned to his starting point he had found—nothing.
Where now? he wondered. Up or down?
He approached an emergency stairwell, flinching as the fire door made a creak.
There was light above him!
A miniature handheld device assured him that there were no alarm sensors in the stairwell area. He made his way up to the higher floor, treading softly, very conscious of the thud of his heart in his chest.
He made the landing. There was no fire door—the doorway to the hall gaped open. The light he had seen was reflected from a single dim bulb carelessly fastened to the wall near a door that was clearly new, and plated with metal. A small disk was set into the wall next to the door frame.
Tom examined the disk carefully. A thumbprint sensor, he concluded. Not a DNA-keyed scanner, thank goodness!
The young inventor had come prepared. He pulled open the front of the suit. From a pouch attached to his harness he removed a small oblong device from which a bulge protruded, the size and shape of a human fingertip. Asa Pike had provided Tom with a digitized “map” of Li Ching’s fingerprints, including both thumbs, and Tom had loaded the data into a 3-D surface emulator he had designed some time before. Now he pressed the curved, soft-flexing business end of the emulator, warmed to the temperature of human skin, against the thumbprint pad.
There was no response.
“Good grief! He must be left-handed,” Tom near-whispered. He altered the emulator’s output and tried again.
The left thumb was the key. The heavy door unlatched with a slight click. Slight—but would it cause any heads to turn inside what could well be Li’s control room?
With the edge of his hand Tom eased the door open slowly, gently, by the millimeter. He felt relief as the crack thus revealed showed only darkness—which turned to dismay as bright lights flashed on inside!
IN THE CANNON’S MOUTH
THE SHOCK caused Tom’s hand to lurch, flicking the door open further. The young inventor drew back—and stopped. No one was inside the room!
Automatic switch! he declared silently in relief. Very funny, Comrade-General!
The room was large, square, and crammed with electronic equipment and what looked to be, in Tom’s expert eyes, a sophisticated antenna setup. The far wall was covered by an upswinging panel. Tom was sure that the open sky lay beyond.
At the end of a slanting “runway,” in a cushioned cradle atop a pedestal, rested the young inventor’s quarry, a metal starfish named Eyeballer. From several steps away Tom played his scanner across the pedestal. Okay, then—an electric eye alarm, he thought. Pretty simple. Then again, it’s just an afterthought. Li doesn’t expect anyone unauthorized to make it this far. Maybe he’s the only one who ever enters.
The alarm was simple yet effective enough in making any attempt to seize the Eyeballer a risky, probably fatal, proposition. But Tom Swift had no intention of doing so. He turned his attention to the various consoles, scanning them with his device and making shrewd judgments as to their use.
This one’s the main control, he decided. Here’s the nerve center for the drone.
Tom took out another small device from his pouch and gazed at it silently for a moment. What irony!
The ingenious mechanism had been an unintended gift from Tom’s enemies. Some time before, while perfecting his space solartron, he had confronted a murderous foe who had acquired, from a foreign source, a device capable of remotely interfering with certain kinds of common computer-processing components. It even possessed the limited capacity to forcibly reprogram computer-run systems from a distance, with no need for a physical connection.
After acquiring the device, Tom and his engineers had spent time studying it and replicating it with some improvements. Now it would serve him well—he hoped!
The young inventor began a complicated and delicate process, entering new commands into the Eyeballer’s guidance system that he knew would be hard to detect and—like a super-virus endlessly copying itself—harder to delete. “Sorry, Li,” he murmured. “Next time you fly the thing, you’re in for a big disappointment.” Tom reflected that he wouldn’t want to be anywhere within the reach of the Comrade-General’s rage at that moment!
Completing his task, he turned to leave, and his eyes fell for the first time on two small objects glinting on a metal shelf. Could it be—? Yes!—his father’s wristwatch and his own, stolen by Julia Pellasen!
Tom hadn’t expected to see his watch again. He turned it over and read the inscription. “To Tom Swift, conqueror of air, water, fire, and earth! BNB” It had been a gift from Bud.
Then he stifled a gasp—voices and footfalls outside the door, which Tom had wedged open a crack. He thought with alarm: Good night, I can’t shut the door now, and I don’t know how to turn off the lights!
He shoved the watches into his suit pouch and looked frantically for a place to conceal himself. But the consoles butted up against the walls, leaving no hiding space. He finally decided to take up a position flat against the wall next to the door frame, where the opening door would conceal him for a moment at least.
Even as Tom pressed against the wall, slim fingers pushed through the crack of the door, swinging it forward a few inches.
“Mr. Li, sir? Are you in here?” Julia Pellasen’s voice!
Then the fingers withdrew. “Left the lights on. He must be upstairs in the office.” Tom recognized the voice as another of the Women With Issues, the sister named Lana.
“You said he’s expecting us, didn’t you, Jules?” asked a third Woman.
“You heard me say it, didn’t you? Use your head or get a better one, Mireva!—we couldn’t have got in unless he let us. Up the stairs.”
The footsteps withdrew.
There were a million good reasons for Tom to sneak back to his “elevator” and make a safe getaway. He ignored them all. Science and invention bred curiosity, and Tom Swift’s curiosity had taken him over.
Yet his mind worked furiously. Even if Tom risked surveillance from the hallway in front of the Comrade-General’s door, it was a sure thing that the visitors would have shut the door behind them—and no doubt the door was thick to provide the Great Man with protection. Tom would see and hear nothing from that vantage point.
Was there another way?
He cautiously reentered the hallway, pulling shut the control room door behind him, briefly wondering if the room lights had clicked off. He scouted out several of the nearer rooms, and quickly found one with an unfinished window gaping open. He stuck his head out into the night and looked up to the floor above. A tiny patch of room-light, invisible from ground level, fell upon a decorative ledge fifteen feet up and about twenty feet to his right.
He studied the source of the light as best he could. Looks like a gap between two temporary panels, he decided. I could stand there and listen—maybe even squeeze forward a ways without getting caught.
How to get there? He now looked downward and saw that his body-lift mechanism was one floor down and quite a ways to the left. The ledge above didn’t extend all the way across, and there was no time to descend to ground level and relocate the base of the system. He had to make his move now!
The young inventor looked up again, his forehead creased with fear and determination. Good night, maybe I should join a circus as a Human Fly! he thought.
Tom edged out the opening, simultaneously making precise adjustments to the gravitexes inside the suit. Angled toward the mass of Planet Earth near the distant horizon, the gravity concentrators pulled Tom against the building wall with such pressing force that he could scarcely breath. Yet it was necessary if he were to squirm his way upward using the rough texture of the building’s unfinished surface to push against.
The edges of his boot-soles had a good contact-grip, fortunately. He worked his way up the side of the Selland Building with a froglike crawl. There were a few momentary slips. But in a short time that felt like eternity, Tom was standing on the narrow ledge before the open slot.
Now he could see that the slot was the end of a side-twisted gap walled-in by plywood construction materials—little more than a very narrow crawlspace, unprotected. Evidently the Comrade-General had never entertained the possibility of an intruder from the heights outside! At the end was an irregular opening just a few inches square. But it’ll make a good peephole if I can manage to squeeze myself close to it! Tom told himself.
As he worked his way forward in desperate silence, he could already hear voices coming through his helmet eye-slot. “Of course we know how busy you must be right now, sir,” Julia Pellasen was saying.
“Do you? I rather doubt it,” came the chilling, accented voice Tom so well remembered—as if a snake could speak! “But I take it you have another of your gifts for me, personally delivered.”
Tom was able to peer through the hole. He looked into a large room, bare but for a broad ornate desk. Seated behind the desk, half draped in shadow, sat Comrade-General Li Ching, his strangely narrow, high-cheeked countenance unsmiling and formidable.
Three of the sisters stood at a respectful distance across the room. Tom saw that Julia held one of the Private Ear units in her hand. “We’ve brought you the Swift communicator, sir,” she said. “They were able to finish it before they—um― ”
“Before they took to the air in our little dome. Which ended up in Lake Huron, I’m told. But I see only one of the pair of units.”
“We left the other down in the car, so we can demonstrate it for you. We’ll drive a few miles, then call you.”
What were the Women With Issues up to? Tom wondered. He knew he and his father hadn’t fixed the PERs. Had some of Li’s technicians completed the job? But he’d already know it if they had, reasoned the young inventor, puzzled.
Li didn’t respond to Julia’s explanation. Instead he said: “Come no closer, please. I’m feeling shy tonight. And tell me, where is the fourth of my darling girls?”
“We—we left Angela behind,” stammered Lana Pellasen nervously.
“Oh? But why?”
Julia took a deep breath. “I’ll be very frank, sir. We love our sister, but Angie doesn’t seem to have the stomach for this kind of work. We’ve come to feel she isn’t very dependable.”
Li Ching gave a dispassionate nod. “The possibility of betrayal, perhaps?”
“We don’t like to admit it.”
“Of course not. One should show loyalty to one’s flesh and blood, hmm? But don’t infest yourselves with guilt, ladies—that is, you ‘Women With Issues’, as I’m told you’ve begun calling yourselves.”
Even in the dim light Tom could see the sisters turn white with dismay. “It’s just a little joke,” declared Julia.
“One you chose to share with Tom Swift, when you unwisely decided to taunt him with a note. Which, I might say, was only one of several recent instances in which you exceeded my instructions.” The snakeman shook his head thoughtfully. “I raised you—had you raised, at least. I saw to your education. I gave a purpose to your foolish lives, did I not? Ah me, the disappointments of offspring. ‘How sharper than a serpent’s tooth,’ they say. And am I not the serpent?”
“If we’ve done anything wrong― ” began Mireva in a panicked voice. But Julia cut her off with a sharp motion.
Li continued, “Wrong? Have you done anything right, I might ask. You were to administer certain thefts and certain deserved punishments for the boy. I did not instruct you to make an attempt on the Swift girl. Did you think to curry favor with such nonsense? Perhaps it never occurred to you that I would be watching with my flying eye, and a frigid ray to inflict a penalty for disobedience. Try as I might, my anger sometimes gets the better of me. Not my fault. And as for your own sister, my little Angela...” Li Ching paused, then looked down at something in front of him. “Well, let us be organized and not waste time, a most valuable commodity. I have made a little list—bullet points, they call it.
“First, then, is the fact that your undependable sister has already betrayed you. She contacted me hours ago and gave a very comprehensive account of your actions and intent.
“And thus—second—I know that this radio unit doesn’t work. Except, of course, to kill me when you activate the explosive device within it. From your car, while I hold it anxiously to my ear.
“Third, much as I applaud your ingenuity, I won’t tolerate your vengeful designs upon me. Ingratitude, ingratitude.”
“You had our parents killed!” snarled Julia. “Did you think we’d never figure it out?”
Li almost smiled. “It took you rather a long time. I presume these are your ‘issues,’ eh? Please understand, my dears, your parents were quite unstable mentally and getting worse with time, a weakness which I now perceive to run in the family. They had come to enjoy playing with explosives, a self-indulgent vice I cannot afford in my employees. And so—and so.
“Ah, but you’ve diverted me from my bullet points. My fourth point reflects my own self-indulgence, I suppose. But does not a trace of wit leaven the spirit? When you pulled the door shut behind you, a door fated never to be unlocked, you activated a timing mechanism. In a little while—oh my, I see it’s less than two minutes now—a precise signal of my own will actuate the explosive in your little box. No doubt it will render this desk of mine utterly unusable. But it won’t penetrate down to the floor below, I am assured.”
Lana began to shriek in terror. “Y-you mean—you’ll blow yourself up just, just to― ”
“Certainly not. I’m very valuable. I am the future, you know. You see—yet you don’t!—the person before you is not a person at all, but an image on a marvelous digital video system. I hate to have it ruined—I stole it from the Brazilians. No loss to them, really—television programming in Brazil is utterly pathetic. The yearning populace must get their bread and circuses in the form of disgustingly violent American programs relayed by the Swift space station.
“That was my fifth point, and my last. I have reached the end of the page, my darlings, as have you. This is the Fanshen, signing off.”
Tom heard these words, and the frenzied cries of the Women With Issues, as he struggled to work his way backwards to the outside. He knew he could do nothing to help the sisters. He wasn’t sure he could even help himself! When that bomb goes off, this little crawlspace will be like the mouth of a cannon! he gulped inwardly.
Tom could visualize, in fearsome detail, what would happen next. In mere seconds a powerful concussion would flash through the room—blasting him out into the air, to hurtle helplessly sixteen stories to the ground!
Tom Swift, Human Fly, was about to become Tom Swift, Human Cannonball!
BUD’S FRANTIC MESSAGE
TOM slipped through the wall opening, which seemed to have shrunk since he entered it, and switched on the gravitexes as he turned to face the wall. They took hold with a kick, pressing him forward, and he began to scramble down and sideways, frantically.
The blast came just as his head sank below the level of the ledge. It was a big one! A viper’s tongue of fire shot out through the opening some thirty feet into space. The wall shook violently—and for a nightmarish instant the young inventor lost contact with it and began to fall!
The gravitexes reasserted themselves, again slamming Tom forward. He had already slid down some distance toward the ground. He decided not to try to reach the lift device, but to continue scraping his way down the side of the building by his own unaided efforts, the thick chameleon suit protecting him from abrasion as he skidded earthward.
Tom didn’t stop when his feet touched the concrete walk, but continued limply until he was lying flat on his back and looking up the side of the Selland Building. A puff of whitish smoke was now the only sign of the explosion on Floor Sixteen.
“The Women With Issues didn’t complete their mission,” he whispered aloud. “But I sure did!”
At the motorhome Gary greeted the young inventor calmly. “So how’d it go? Didn’t take you very long.”
“Oh, it went fine,” Tom replied, beginning to peel the suit off; “all things considered.”
Jetting back to Shopton in a somber mood, Tom made his reports and received his adulations as modestly as possible. Then he slept deeply for the rest of the night—and the first half of daylight.
Another afternoon and night, and it was the morning of the launch of the Highroad from Cape Canaveral. The Swifts were gathered in the observatory next to the megascope screen, as were Bashalli Prandit and a number of Swift Enterprises employees.
“Say, lookee,” exclaimed Chow, pointing. “Ain’t that Kaye, yer TV feller?”
“That’s right,” Mr. Swift answered. “He’s there from the Key West station to broadcast the launch over our videophone network. The Barclays are watching at our San Francisco office.”
They watched Bud and the other members of the crew ascend the gantry and enter the Highroad, so clear and close they seemed to be walking along beside the astronauts. “As always, Budworth is confident and cocky,” Bash observed. “But that one there, standing next to him—that must be the obnoxious Chipper.”
Tom nodded, and Chow put in: “Don’t much like th’ looks o’ that one. Weasely kind.”
The hatch was sealed and the countdown commenced, relayed by a broadcast network’s audio feed. “Oh dear!” Sandy murmured. Her knuckles whitened as she gripped Bashi’s arm. “Tom, couldn’t we see Bud inside the capsule?”
“I’m afraid not, San. Too much metal in the area. It’ll be easier once they’re up in space, though,” he replied quietly.
The countdown ran to zero and white fire belched from the Astrodyne booster. The rocket rose on a flaming column, slowly at first, then suddenly faster.
Tom adjusted the megascope to follow the path of the craft, using positioning data Bud had provided. The Highroad streaked through clouds that fled by like bullets. Tom checked his watch. “It’s at max-Q now—maximum dynamic pressure. Looks good so far.”
As the near-space sky darkened around the vehicle, the Astrodyne, a single-stage booster, began to eject spent storage tanks to lighten its weight. Presently Mr. Swift said, “Well, there goes the Astrodyne. Good separation, wouldn’t you say, Hank?”
Hank Sterling nodded. “Very clean, and on time.”
“And now Bud’s in orbit,” Tom pronounced.
“He is not yet on his way to Venus?” asked Bashalli.
“No, Bash, not for a few days,” explained the scientist-inventor. “The laser drive provides continuous acceleration but not much power. They’ll spiral outward in larger and larger loops, finally making a close pass by the moon. The moon’s gravity will send them on their way to Venus.”
They were expecting a call from Bud on the PER. It came as the Highroad had orbited to the far side of the earth. “Went pretty well,” said the youth. “I’d almost forgotten what G-pressure is like.”
“And how’s that problem you mentioned?” Tom asked cautiously.
“Not critical at the moment, pal. I’m keeping chipper. You all zoomed-in with the megascope?”
“Yep—right now we’re floating within arm’s reach of porthole number five.”
“Okay, just a sec.”
Bud appeared behind the porthole. He gave the watchers a salute, and ended by giving his best friend the promised wave.
“Be good, flyboy,” said Tom.
“Oh, I will. Big Brother is watching—right?”
Bud clicked off, and Tom’s mother put a hand on his arm.
The young inventor kept tabs on the rising orbit of the Highroad as it mounted toward the moon hour by hour. He didn’t try to make further contact with Bud, knowing that a spaceship’s captain would be engrossed in any number of vital tasks.
That afternoon Tom was put in video communication with Congressman Van Arkyn. “Just got confirmation from Defense, Tom. We got ’er! The Eyeballer came swooping down on Wrightman AFB just as you programmed!”
“That’s fantastic news, sir,” Tom grinned. “All it took was for Li Ching to launch the drone for one more flight for my rogue programming to kick in!”
“Yes. He still has the cryo-gun, but we’re in touch with the Germans on how to neutralize it. Now our only big concern is the guidance and control design the man was able to steal from us.”
“I wouldn’t worry,” said Tom jauntily. “My virus pretty much made hash of the codeware, all the way down to the special operating system Defense came up with. Since the snakeman doesn’t know I got into his control base, I think he’ll assume there was some kind of cumulative flaw in the basic design. By the time his tech people work it all out, our own engineers will have come up with a new approach.”
“I suppose you’re right.”
“Any comment from Asa Pike? I don’t see him there with you.”
“The man you call Asa Pike has returned to—to where he came from. But it’s fair to say that he was most appreciative, Tom. I wish we could honor you in a public way for this, but—well, you know.”
“I do, sir.”
At long last came the day and the hour for the Highroad to make its lunar flyby and begin its months-long journey across the inner solar system.
As the time neared, Tom drove toward the observatory by nanocar, eager to watch the critical maneuver by megascope. He slowed as he caught sight of a familiar figure carrying a covered tray.
“Hi, Chow! Got a snack for me?”
“Sure do, boss!” Chow waved. “I ’as jest lookin’ fer you in that observer-terry, and now here you are!” As the cook passed a light snack to Tom, he added, “Say, you doin’ some cookin’ of your own in there?”
“Cooking? No, pardner—why?”
“Aw, nothin’. Y’jest got a beepin’ sound goin’ off, that’s all. Sounds jest like a’ oven timer.”
Tom was puzzled as he continued toward the observatory and pulled to a stop. A beeping sound? None of the megascope equipment had a timer...
But then a thought electrified him. The beep of the Private Ear Radio! “It must be from Bud! But he said he couldn’t contact us for several hours—!”
Every instinct told Tom Swift that his closest friend was in danger!
Tom ran inside and grabbed up the beeping PER unit. “Tom here!” he gasped breathlessly.
“Tom, something’s happened,” came Bud’s voice from space. “I’m afraid... Genius boy, it’s a rescue situation!”
“Bud, what’s going on?”
The young athlete’s voice was tense with worry—Tom could feel it. “It’s Holbrook. He’s had some kind of breakdown. A few hours ago, he started acting—strange. I told him to lie down on his bunk. Then just now he came charging into the control deck, babbling and waving his arms. I tried to put him down, but he managed to shove me into the crew compartment where the others were, and he slammed the compartment hatch shut on us. He’s done something from his side—we can’t force it open.”
Bud’s words turned Tom to ice. “Then—then he’s— ”
His pal’s next words were dead-grim. “Holbrook’s taken over the ship, Tom. And I don’t know what he plans to do with it!”
A DESPERATE MANEUVER
AFTER getting as many details as he could from Bud, Tom sprinted to his office and placed an emergency call to Col. Jessup, who was with Clarke and Franklin at Astro-Dynamics’ mission control facility.
“That explains what we’re hearing,” stated Jessup. “Wild stuff from Chippy Holbrook. Listen, I’ll play it back.”
The first message sounded reasonably calm. “This is Lieutenant Holbrook. Captain Barclay has become ill from food poisoning. I have taken temporary command of the ship. The mission will continue.”
But Holbrook seemed to deteriorate rapidly, minute by minute, message by message. “What do you mean, you want me to put Barclay on?—he’s too ill!” And then: “You’re all nuts! Why don’t you trust me? I can’t let them out—they’re all sick! They’ll infect me and we’ll have to scrub—we won’t make it to—” After several minutes, Holbrook’s hysterical voice came in over the radio again: “Do something! For heaven’s sake, do something! The ship’s completely out of control, I tell you! Don’t leave me stranded in—” The words ended in a gasp and confused sounds.
“That’s all,” declared Jessup. “No further contact.”
Tom clenched his fists. He felt a desperate need to take action, any kind of action, now that his chum was in possible danger! “Colonel, I’m going after them in the Challenger!” Tom blurted out suddenly.
Jessup did not reply, but handed the telephone to John Clarke. The voice of the president of Astro-Dynamics was hoarse and haggard with strain. “I take it you already know what’s happened, Tom?” he asked bluntly.
“I’ve been in contact with Bud, and the recordings told me the rest. I know they’re in high orbit and calling for assistance,” Tom replied. “What are the details?”
“We scarcely know ourselves,” Clarke admitted. “They’ve begun lunar flyby, and just now the ship is rounding the rim and going beyond instrumental monitoring. But we’ve definitely determined that the ship’s completely out of control. It won’t respond to telemetered guidance and Holbrook is obviously unable to maneuver the Highroad manually.”
“Any objection to my taking over the rescue operation?” Tom asked.
The man’s voice showed his relief clearly. “None at all, Tom,” the president said with an eager note of hope. “Franklin and I will be eternally grateful if you can get those men down safely.”
“I will. Stand by and we’ll keep you posted. We’ll commence preparations immediately,” Tom added.
After setting things in motion at a frantic pace, Tom raced back to the observatory with his father and Hank Sterling.
All eyes were glued to the megascope screen as Tom deftly “kinked” the spacewave funnel around the bulk of Luna, which the spiraling microwave beam could not penetrate. The spacecraft blinked into focus. Outwardly, the Highroad seemed perfectly shipshape and spaceworthy as it accelerated in a spreading curve around the moon. Then, gradually, as Tom noticed its flight attitude shifting on the screen, he realized it was veering off course.
“Dad! The ship’s stopped its probe!” Tom gasped in alarm. “It’s going into orbit!”
Mr. Swift laid a hand on his son’s forearm. “Steady, boy. We’ll have to be patient until we know more of what’s going on. We can use the positioning computer to determine the new parameters.”
The elder scientist’s reasonable tone helped somewhat to calm the young inventor. “You’re right, Dad,” he said, swallowing hard. “We—I—can’t do Bud and the rest any good if we start getting panicky. I’ll start downloading the data.”
“Leave Fearing to me, Tom,” offered Hank Sterling. “I’ll have Amos Quezada put together a small crew and ready the Challenger. We’ll be on our way in hours.”
As Mr. Swift helped Tom at the megascope console, Hank darted to the observatory wall phone and began issuing a stream of orders. First he contacted Quezada at the Enterprises space facility on Fearing Island off the Georgia coast, telling him to round up a space team and prepare the Challenger for immediate takeoff.
“Roger! She’ll be ready when you fellows get here!”
Remarkably soon it was time to leave for Fearing, an hour away by supersonic jet. As Tom hung up from a call to Bud’s parents, his father patted him on the shoulder. “Good luck, son. I’ll man the space prober and the radio here however long it takes, until you and the boys out there are back to Earth.”
“Thanks, Dad.” Tom tried to keep his voice steady as they shook hands, then hugged warmly. “I know I can depend on you to give us the coaching we’ll need to get back safely.’’
Tom grinned with a confidence he was far from feeling.
He leapt into a waiting nanocar with Hank and sped out onto the airfield. Chow Winkler was waiting next to the jet. “Brand my coyote cutlets, you ain’t takin’ off without your space cook, are you, boss?” the stout Texan panted anxiously.
“Not a chance, Chow! Climb aboard!”
Minutes later, Tom was streaking toward the rocket base like a silver thunderbolt. A truck roared out on the island’s airfield to meet them as the landing gear braked to a halt. The passengers piled in and sped to the launching area where the oddly shaped Challenger waited glistening in the Atlantic sunlight.
Tom briefed the crew of Fearing astronauts about the tense situation. Precious minutes went by, with Tom striving to control his impatience as the final flight preparations were made. Even Harlan Ames, usually the iciest-nerved man at Enterprises, seemed to be on edge with anxiety.
At last Tom was buckling himself into the pilot’s seat. He barely received clearance from Amos Quezada before he sent the Challenger zooming aloft. All could feel the G-force building up as he pressed the ship’s powerful repelatrons to full force. A steady stream of computer data from Astro-Dynamics’ tracking crew, again available as the ship reappeared from behind the moon, guided them toward the helpless probe craft.
“H-how’re they doin’ out there, boss?” asked Chow. “Buddy Boy okay?”
“He says he’s fine, pard,” was the reply. “As for the ship, she’s stuck in a very hightailed orbit around the earth and moon. Holbrook’s using the laser drive erratically, but we think she’ll peak at around 700,000 miles.”
“But... now... when y’ say peak—”
“Peak means peak, Chow. After that point the Highroad will swoop back toward the earth at a very steep angle. We don’t know what will happen in the end.”
Finally the bullet-shaped form of the stricken Highroad could be seen through the Challenger’s broad double viewpanes, its twin laser emitters gleaming through the blackness of the space void. The craft was dead ahead but somewhat above their own orbit altitude. Tom increased speed slightly to rise closer to its orbit.
“Going to grapple ’em?” a crew member asked Tom.
The pilot shook his head. “We couldn’t just haul them down through the atmosphere at the end of a chain. We’ll get up close, then Hank and I will spacewalk over and board her.”
But Tom knew boarding the Highroad would be anything but simple. The access airlock adjoined the control deck—where the berserk Chippy Holbrook awaited them!
As they drew near Tom switched on the Private Ear Radio and spoke into the mike. “We’re here, Bud. How goes it?”
“Not too good, Skipper,” Bud’s voice replied weakly. “Holbrook’s done something to the oxygen recirculators. I feel... as if... as if I may pass out.”
Tom glanced at Hank with a look of dismay. “Now listen, Captain Barclay, this is the boss speaking!” he barked. “I order you to stay conscious and strong! We may need some muscle to back us up.”
Bud could not joke in return. “I’ll try, Tom. That’s all I can do.”
“Yes, I know, pal. Don’t worry.”
There was no answer.
Whitefaced, Tom desperately tried to contact Holbrook, over and over. “Look, Lieutenant, I’m trying to save your neck. I’m not going to hurt you. If I can get inside I’m sure I’ll be able to restore control. I just need you to work the airlock.”
At last came one brief answer. Holbrook’s voice quivered on the verge of hysteria as he replied: “Are you crazy? If I open the airlock, space will get in! I’ll suffocate!” And that was all.
“Hey, what’s he doing?” exclaimed Hank moments later. “He’s shifting the long axis of the ship.”
Tom nodded. “He’s got gyro control, at least. But as to― ” He interrupted himself suddenly. “Hank, he’s turning the ship so the laser emitters point directly at us!”
“Ya mean—ya mean he’s gonna burn us up with them lasers?” gulped Chow. “Mebbe we’d better back away fer a spell!”
“We can’t,” muttered Tom as he studied the glowing control readouts. “Earth and Moon are in the wrong position for that kind of maneuvering. And it’ll take way too long for the repelatron beams to reach the sun or some other big repulsion target. Right now we’re just gliding along.”
The team flinched back, covering their eyes, as the laser radiance swept across the viewpanes, bringing not only blinding light but a flash of heat. Tom touched the controls to bring the Challenger’s own gyros into play, rotating the huge ship. “But the beams are still hitting us,” he grated. “Even with the Inertite coating, the hull can only take so much!”
Hank suggested using the ship’s repelatrons to push the Highroad to some far distance. Tom shook his head. “With their systems so fouled up we might just set her spinning and rip her apart! But—maybe there’s another approach.”
Turning the controls over to Hank, Tom stepped aside and slipped a different cartridge into his PER unit, one that would link him to his father in the observatory. Tom explained his idea, and Damon Swift responded with: “I think it will work, Tom!”
The young inventor returned to the controls and cautiously gyroed the ship around again, for a clear view.
“Wa-aal I’ll be!” exclaimed Chow. “What happened t’ them lights?” The laser flares had become noticeably dimmer and had taken on a rainbow swath of shifting colors.
“Dad’s set the megascope at its highest power and positioned the lens-field directly in front of the photon emitters,” Tom explained. “I realized that since the matrix interacts with photons, it could be used to diffuse and refract them. The effect is weak, but it’s enough to mess up the frequency coherence of the lasers.”
Hank whistled. “At least we’ve bought some time.”
“If I’m right, we may have bought more than that!” declared Tom. “Don’t we still have a few of those big reflectors on board, down in the hold?”
“From your Dad’s solar experiments? Sure, but—”
Tom gave further instructions, ending with, “Now I’m suiting up and heading outside.”
Tom left the Challenger, accelerating into space on his spacesuit micro-thrusters. Meanwhile Hank ejected two of the mirrorlike solar reflectors from the ship’s hold hatch, using their own propulsion units to guide them into position.
Approaching the dome atop the Highroad, Tom maneuvered one of the reflectors into position by hand. “Here we go!” he radioed. “Tell Dad to get the megascope lens out of the way.”
Tom could see Holbrook through the dome windows, rushing about wildly. Light from within the control compartment shone through the Highroad’s viewports. And Tom reasoned that if light could shine out, it could penetrate inward just as easily!
The first reflector was positioned near the tail of the Venus craft. As it moved directly into the line of the laser-drive beams, they were reflected to the second mirror next to Tom—and then into the control compartment like a whitehot javelin! It pierced through to the rear bulkhead and fell upon the immoveable hatch that imprisoned Bud and the rest of the crew. In moments the metal hatch had begun to glow with heat.
Tom had Hank patch him through to Bud via the PER. “Ready in there?”
“Getting mighty warm, pal, but—yeah.”
A few seconds more, and the weakened hatch suddenly burst inward. Through the viewports Tom could see the mission astronauts, led by Bud Barclay, surge into the cabin. Tom hastily shoved the reflector to a safe angle, cutting off the deadly beams.
“Holbrook’s collapsed,” reported Bud presently. “Looks like we’ve got at least partial control of the ship. But there’s been damage. I’m guessing Astro-Dynamics will want to scrub the Venus probe for now.”
“You’ve guessed right, chum!” Tom exclaimed happily. “Head back to Earth!”
The two spaceships gradually put about, each in its own way, and commenced the arc back to Earth, a journey of several days. But as the Highroad began to enter the atmosphere, there came alarming news from Bud. “Problems, Challenger! We’re getting a loss of aerodynamics on starboard—control damage we didn’t detect!”
Tom turned pale. If the Highroad were unable to reenter at the right flight angle, the craft would incinerate from friction! “Cut all flight externals, Highroad. Big Brother’s coming in with repelatrons!”
“Roger! All power off and standing by!”
“This is going to require some tricky, delicate navigating,” Tom said grimly to Hank Sterling. “The whole undertaking will be a desperate maneuver—but I don’t need to tell you that. If the Highroad breaks away from us from here on out, both ships are done for.”
“Aw now, jest git to it, Tom Swift!” ordered Chow. “We kin talk later!”
With the upper air roaring about them, Tom maneuvered the Challenger until the Highroad was just above him in almost a piggyback position. He did this by using one set of repelatrons to hold back the rocket ship and the other set to slow his own ship down by repelling the earth, slackening his speed to ease the descent to within relatively safe limits.
Continents and oceans became more clearly visible as the ships raced around the horizon. As Tom’s eyes flew over the banks of instruments he breathed a silent prayer for his friend and all whose lives were now in his hands. The slightest miscalculation now would be fatal.
“Holding steady, Highroad?” Tom radioed via the PER.
“Like a rock,” Bud called back.
Down they plunged like twin falling stars!
No one spoke as the tense moments ticked by. The calculations of surface temperature held up—never reaching a danger state. Mountains and rivers shot past below like a swiftly unfolding relief map. The coastline of Florida took shape ahead on the far horizon.
“Canaveral locked on,” came a radio voice from far away. “Landing is go.”
Then they were easing into the final descent onto the special pad Astro-Dynamics had constructed at Cape Canaveral for the return of the Venus probe. Tom was able to manipulate the repelatron beams to bring the Highroad close to the ground—and allow it to settle down gently on its own landing thrusters.
After checking with Bud and his cheering crew, Tom switched his PER over to the Enterprises unit. Mr. Swift’s voice shook with emotion. “I’ve just seen a miraculous rescue, son—over your own invention.”
Wild newsmen and TV cameras greeted Tom and his crew. “AD’s public relations officer will give you a rundown on what happened,” he said tersely. “Sorry, but right now we’re too concerned about members of the Highroad’s crew to say more.”
Bud and the others debarked shakily, still weak from oxygen deprivation. Then Holbrook was carried out by medical personnel, wild-eyed and strapped down securely. “We have a good idea what happened to him,” Bud commented after being greeted emotionally by Tom, Chow, and Hank. He continued: “It seems ol’ Chippy’s been roller-coastering on tranquilizers and performance-enhancing drugs for months, stuff the medics couldn’t detect. He got in touch with his inner drugstore, but fell apart under stress.”
Back in Shopton, it didn’t take long for the tender mercies of the Swift family to bring Bud back to his usual energetic self. “Okay, so I’m back. Got a new project coming up?” he asked Tom a few days later. “I’m feeling rusty. You know how much I like a challenge!”
Tom grinned. “You and me both! But if it’s a challenge you’re in the mood for, I have two of them all ready for you, flyboy. Here’s the first!”
Tom inserted a small disk into a player. “We received this in the mail yesterday,” he explained.
The voice from the speaker was all too familiar. “And now the world cheers another triumph by the great Tom Swift. Allow me to add a cheer of my own. I still do admire you in many ways, Tom. Indeed, I have considered asking you to become a part of my little family, you and your friends. There are now three openings. But no, of course not. You have your own peculiar notion of right and wrong, good and bad. And so, inevitably, we who seek the future must clash. Very sad, very sad.
“But perhaps I shall tell you one thing, my young man. Is your conscience troubled by what happened to poor Roland Galaspain? Then do realize your innocence. He had repaired the flaw in your machine before the demonstration. But he underestimated my own attitude toward those who take what I sell without proper compensation. He tried to cheat me. So I cheated him of life. Most fitting.
“No matter. We two live to play again, you and I. And as I say goodbye for the briefest moment, I leave you one last tantalizing comment: the snakeman has shed his skin!”
Bud was pale and shaken as Tom removed the disk. “What does he mean, genius boy?”
“Who knows?” The questions and the threat hung in the air. The near future held a strange, deadly sequel for Tom and Bud, a battle far from Earth with The Asteroid Pirates in which an unexpected Tom Swift invention would play a key role.
“What was that about a second challenge?” Bud asked Tom.
“Just this,” replied the young inventor with a broad smile. “Dad got the call this morning. Astro-Dynamics has cancelled their Venus probe project, and NASA wants Swift Enterprises to take it over!”
“You’re not kidding? Jetz!” Bud pounded his friend on the back and shouted excitedly, “Venus, here we come!”