TOM SWIFT LIVES!
TOM SWIFT AND
THE ASTEROID PIRATES
This unauthorized tribute
Is based upon
the original TOM SWIFT JR. characters.
SCOTT DICKERSON, AUTHOR
As of this printing,
The New TOM SWIFT Jr. Adventures
is owned by
SIMON & SCHUSTER
This edition privately printed by
PRINTED IN THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
TOM SWIFT AND
THE ASTEROID PIRATES
EXPLOSION IN SPACE
“OUTPOST to Sky Queen. Looks as if the storm on Venus is getting worse!”
The message came crackling through the predawn darkness to Tom Swift aboard his Flying Lab as it streaked through the upper stratosphere, winging south at Mach-plus speed.
“Can you make out any details through the electronic telescope?” Tom radioed back.
“Not too clearly, Skipper,” the radioman responded from the Swift Enterprises space station 22,300 miles distant. “According to the astronomy team, the planet’s cloud cover seems to be in a state of terrific upheaval.”
Bud Barclay, the Queen’s copilot and Tom’s closest friend, turned anxiously to the crewcut blond youth at the controls. “Tom, does this mean our Venus probe will be scrubbed?”
The two fliers, both veteran astronauts despite their scant years, had been looking forward eagerly to piloting the first interplanetary space mission, an orbital probe of Earth’s mysterious near-neighbor.
“Could be.” As he spoke, Tom’s blue eyes ranged over the bank of special recording instruments in the cabin of the giant research plane. “If Dad’s predictions are correct, the radiation may be too intense just now.”
“Come on, genius boy! That Inertite coating on the Challenger will stop anything!”
“That’s not the point,” was Tom’s reply. “We worked out a long itinerary of instrumental studies of the Venusian atmosphere. The atmospheric turbulence and static-charge effects would make them impossible.”
Bud understood and nodded, deeply disappointed. Months before he had participated in an earlier mission to Venus that had failed en route. The prospect of a new voyage on Tom’s huge Challenger spaceship, propelled across the space void by its bank of repelatron force-beams, had softened the blow. “Maybe I’m a jinx,” Bud muttered.
“Never mind! Let’s concentrate on our next trip—the one that starts in fifty minutes.”
Muscular, dark-haired Bud flashed a hopeful grin at his pal. “Right. And it’s in the right direction, too—straight up!”
Carrying a small group of atmospheric researchers aboard, the Sky Queen was headed for the Swift space-launch facility on tiny Fearing Island off the coast of Georgia. Here Tom and Bud would mount the skies aboard a special vehicle, Tom’s newest invention. Called the Extreme Altitude Instrumental Platform, the XAIP would bear them to the very edge of space, where Tom would test out its array of sensitive instruments. The purpose of the project, which had been developed by Grandyke University, was to make difficult, valuable observations of Earth’s upper atmosphere.
Presently Tom announced over the Flying Lab’s intercom that landing was imminent. “There’s the capsule,” Bud remarked, gazing down at the thumb-shaped islet through the Queen’s downsloping view window. “They’ve got it all lit up. But when do they bring out the big bag?”
Tom chuckled. “Hey, pal, I’m going to cut out my explanations to you if you’re not gonna pay attention! We generate the balloon-bag ourselves, from the capsule.”
“Oh yeah. Right.” Tom’s XAIP was a remarkable vehicle of radical design. There had been extreme-altitude manned research balloons before, but the XAIP was to be lifted by an enormous bag that could not be seen—and contained nothing!
The silver Sky Queen hovered above the island airfield for a moment on its bank of jet lifters, then descended like an elevator for a smooth landing. The skyship’s main hatchway was less than one hundred feet from the XAIP capsule, which was shaped like a broad, truncated cone resting upon its base. Its slanting sides bristled with antennas and detection instruments.
As the passengers emerged and made their way down the Flying Lab’s extensible ramp-way, one of the researchers, Dr. Williamton, turned to speak to Tom. “So that’s the XAIP! But I’m afraid I missed part of your briefing at the University, Tom. How does it work? That is—what lifts it up?”
The young inventor smiled. “It’s basically a kind of super-balloon. We have a mechanism that produces and extrudes a shell of filaments, each one smaller than the nucleus of an atom, made of a unique substance we discovered called Inertite.”
“Oh yes—from the African mountain.”
“That’s right, Mount Goaba. The filaments shape themselves into an ultrafine ‘webbing’ that doesn’t interact with light waves but blocks molecule-sized particles. The shell is very rigid, but weighs almost nothing.”
“And that’s your balloon bag,” said Williamton. “I suppose you fill it with helium?”
Tom shook his head. “We don’t fill it at all, Doctor. As the shell expands without admitting air, the inside remains a vacuum. To counteract the air pressure outside, we use several directional repelatrons tuned to the composition of the atmosphere. In other words, we push it back.”
“But look, Skipper,” interrupted Bud, who stood listening nearby at the foot of the rampway. “Why do you need that invisible bag at all? Couldn’t the repelatrons create a big vacuum-bubble by themselves?”
“Sure enough,” responded his friend. “But the resultant buoyancy, which involves a pressure differential pushing against a resistant surface, would only have the surface of the capsule to press against. Up in the thin upper atmosphere that’s not enough lift-force. The Inertite-filament shell vastly increases the surface area.”
“Well,” stated Bud, “it was a good question, anyway.”
“Sure was, flyboy!”
Tom and Bud accompanied the team of scientists to the nearby control blockhouse, then returned to the XAIP and climbed aboard. After a final check of the readouts, and having verified with the Fearing control tower that the local skies were clear, Tom pulled the lever actuating the device that spun out the Inertite filaments.
We’re getting lift,” he reported to Bud. “Weight dropping on the ground struts.”
There was no countdown. Within a minute, the XAIP took to the air, accelerating vertically as the balloon shell expanded.
The vault of starry sky was immobile around them. The only sign of motion was the Atlantic horizon as it slowly changed from straight line to curve. The XAIP capsule didn’t even rock, stabilized by an invention of Tom’s called the gravitex.
The youths knew that their ascent would take nearly an hour. They chatted and bantered, and Tom began to describe a project he had been planning. Bud threw a hopeful look at his friend. “A space cruise?”
“No—and yes,” Tom said. “I’m planning to set up a solar observatory on Nestria to try unraveling the mysteries of the sun’s radiation and its effects on other bodies in the solar system.”
The phantom satellite Nestria, sometimes called Little Luna, was Earth’s second moon, a small asteroid which had been moved into orbit around the earth at an altitude of about fifty thousand miles. Tom had led a space expedition to claim the asteroid for the United States, and the Swifts had established a permanent base there with personnel to staff it. At the invitation of the U.S., other nations had also joined the scientific colony.
Bud, excited over the new project, began peppering Tom with questions. But suddenly the copilot stiffened in his seat and pointed off to starboard!
“Jetz! What’s that over there? A rainbow at night?”
A weird, filmy band of red, yellow, and green light was sweeping across the jet-black sky.
Tom’s eyes, too, widened at the amazing spectacle. Then suddenly he chuckled! “Relax, pal. It’s a natural phenomenon called airglow, caused by the reactions of oxygen and sodium in the upper atmosphere. This is the first time we’ve had a grandstand seat to the show.”
“Whew!” Bud settled back in relief. “For a minute I thought I was going loopy from break-off!”
Though neither Tom nor Bud had ever succumbed to “break-off,” both boys knew about the giddy feeling of detachment from the earth sometimes experienced by jet pilots when flying at high altitudes. “Fat chance of that ever happening to an old space-hopper like you,” Tom reassured his friend.
“Boy, I hope not! But getting back to business,” Bud went on, “what’s causing all this fuss on Venus?”
“Same thing that caused that airglow—a flare-up on the sun,” Tom replied. “As you know, there’s a constant solar wind of charged particles blowing outward from the sun into interplanetary space.”
“Right. You used it in your solartron and the Space Kite. See, I do remember your lectures!”
Tom grinned. “Then you remember what happened when we were testing the Space Kite, the cosmic storm that fouled us up. Every so often the sun shoots out an especially hot gust of those particles—or plasma, as the stuff is called. Dad’s been making a spectroscopic study of Venus’s atmosphere. He figured that periodic conditions in the cloud cap were so unstable right now that the next gust of plasma might trigger a violent reaction.”
“And he called the shot just right, hmm? Tough luck for us.”
Tom nodded. “It’s beginning to look that way.” He fully shared his chum’s disappointment at the likely postponement of the scientific adventure.
Presently Tom announced that the ascent of the XAIP had reached its highest point in the uppermost reaches of the ionosphere. Bud watched as Tom pressed a master control button to start recording the instrument readings. The capsule’s equipment for the flight included a rubidium vapor magnetometer, radiation counters, stacks of nuclear emulsions, automatically operated cloud chambers, and various specialized sensor devices provided by the Grandyke University team.
“That solar tantrum must be having a real effect on the earth’s ionosphere,” Bud commented, scanning several of the instrument dials.
“Sure is,” Tom agreed. “That’s one of the things we’re studying. In fact, it throws the planetary magnetic field, which extends out further than the moon’s orbit, way out of kilter. Right now the earth is getting showered with all sorts of ― ”
The young inventor broke off abruptly, a startled expression on his face.
“What’s wrong?” Bud asked, alarmed. He knew it took a lot to startle his adventurous comrade!
“Up there at eleven o’clock!” Tom gasped, pointing out the domelike cabin window. “That burst of light!”
Bud’s jaw dropped open in astonishment as he twisted around to see the phenomenon to which Tom was referring. A small starburst in the darkness at first, strange in color, the patch of light was growing larger by the moment. It looked like it was slowly spreading out into a sizable glowing fireball.
“Good grief! What is it?” Bud murmured in awe. “A meteor?”
Tom shook his head. “If it were falling into the earth’s atmosphere, it would show up as a streak of light from this height.”
“Then what—a supernova?”
“Couldn’t be.” The young inventor hesitated. “You know, Bud, if it didn’t sound crazy, I’d say that’s a thermonuclear explosion out in space!”
“A nuclear explosion!” Bud stared at his friend. “You mean, like a hydrogen bomb?”
“I don’t know,” Tom said with a baffled look. “But notice how the patch of light is spreading. That’s exactly what would happen to an atomic fireball in a vacuum, where it wouldn’t be held in by the counterpressure of the air.”
Tom paused long enough to throw a glance at the bank of instruments, then gave a whistle.
“Man alive! We’re getting some kind of radiation already!” the young inventor cried. “Look at those counters! They’re going crazy! And so’s the magnetometer!”
“Maybe the explosion, or whatever it is, was touched off by the solar outburst,” Bud suggested tentatively. “Could those particles from the sun have triggered a reaction in a cloud of micrometeorites?”
“Maybe. I doubt it,” Tom replied. “But Bud, that’s not what worries me. Look!—you can still make it out through the light of the blast.”
“Hunh? Make what out?”
“Nestria! That space explosion took place right next to Little Luna!”
TOM and Bud exchanged fearful glances. If the burst of deadly energy had taken place too close to the scientific installation on Nestria, the entire base crew could have been affected—even wiped out!
Tom snatched up the microphone and radio-commed the wheel-shaped space outpost. Established in part for international television transmission, the space station was line-of-sight reachable from any location across half the earth.
“Sky Haven. This is Horton.”
“Glad I reached you, Ken. This is Tom. Are you watching that burst of light?”
The voice of Ken Horton, commander of the space outpost, reported: “We sure are, Tom! The observatory crew up here is in a tailspin trying to figure out this thing. Any idea what’s causing it?”
“I was hoping you fellows could tell me,” Tom replied. “And I’m very concerned about our guys on Nestria.”
“I’ve got Rockland on the other channel, Tom. No damage or injuries at Base Galileo—but their signal is blooey. We’re filtering and enhancing, but it’s pretty bad. Here, I’ll patch you through.”
After a click, Kent Rockland, director of the American research installation on the tiny moonlet, came on line. “We’re okay up here, Tom, thank goodness. But the space tracking station is telling me the blast occurred very close to the surface and the base. Lit up everything. It’s dimming out now, though.” His voice was eerily distorted by the processing required to filter out the static, and it faded in and out like a ghost. “I’m waiting for a report from Jatczak. Oh—Simpson and Chow are here with me.”
“Put them on, please.”
Doc Simpson was Swift Enterprises’ young medical officer as well as a researcher in his own right. He had recently been ferried to Nestria to assess the long-term effects of reduced gravity on the colony team. Chow Winkler, Enterprises’ executive chef and Tom and Bud’s close friend, had asked to accompany him to “to treat them folks up there to some decent victuals fer a change.”
“This is... so far no ... ”
The voice wavered in and out of audibility. “Doc, is that you? I can hardly make you out.”
“Yes, boss, it’s me. They say the radiation... the problem. I can barely... through all the static. But here ... ”
A different voice came on, but the words were a mishmash of indecipherable sounds.
“Repeat, Galileo. Chow, is that you?”
“Brand my hamhocks, son, I cain’t ... ”
“Yup, it’s Chow,” Bud confirmed, winking.
“How’s everybody doing up there, cowpoke?” asked Tom with an affectionate grin.
“They ’as all doin’ peachy-fine up till now! But that there ... ”
The voice faded out suddenly with a sound like a grating hinge, and did not return. After a moment Ken Horton came on again. “That’s all, Tom. We can’t squeeze any more out of the signal. We’ll keep at it.”
“Thanks, Ken. It’ll get easier as the radiation dissipates. Signing off now, but give Fearing or Enterprises a call the second you get any more data.”
Tom unbuckled his seat belt and stood up. “Take over, Bud,” he said thoughtfully. “Keep an eye on the test readouts. I’m going up to the astrodome for a better look.”
“Right, Skipper! I guess we’ve got the best seat in the house to watch the blast, except for the ― ” Bud broke off with a yelp of surprise. A queasy falling-elevator feeling swept over the youths, then subsided with a jolt. “What was that?”
“What does the control panel ― ” Tom’s response was interrupted as the same sensation surged through them, longer and more severe.
As it faded out again, Bud gibed nervously: “What is this, air travel by pogo stick? Something’s gone wrong with the balloon-bag!”
Tom’s deep-set blue eyes scanned the monitor dials. “No, the Inertite shell is stable. It’s the repelatrons. The radiation is affecting the telespectrometers—we can’t get a precise fix on the air composition. In other words ― ” The young inventor gulped as the XAIP took another unexpected plunge! He finished: “—we’re out of tune!”
“Good night! Will we lose lift completely?”
“No. In fact, conditions will improve pretty quickly,” Tom responded reassuringly. “As we reach the denser atmosphere, less of the interfering radiation will get through to us. I’ll start taking us down.”
“Seems to me we’re already on our way, Skipper!”
As Tom used the gravitexes to steer the descending XAIP, he kept the mysterious patch of light in view dead ahead in the sky. It still seemed to be expanding, but more slowly now. It’s brilliance had faded to a dull glow against the black of space.
What had caused the explosion, Tom wondered silently—if it had been an explosion? It was certainly no official American nuclear test in space, he reflected, or the Swifts, and scientists and governments around the globe, would have been given advance notice. An unannounced atom-blast in near space could set of a nuclear alert, even trigger a war!
And why had the event occurred so close to the base on Little Luna? The young prodigy racked his brain for an answer, but without success.
Using the gravitexes and the lift-bag, which was stable again, Tom guided the XAIP back to its pad at Fearing Island. Touching down at last, the two hastened to the blockhouse to make a brief report to the research team. As they came out again, the Atlantic sky was turning pale with sunrise. The blob of light from the explosion was no longer visible.
“Wonder if the outpost has anything new on it?” Bud murmured.
“Ken said he’d call, but let’s try him again.”
They made way quickly to the communications center in Fearing’s control tower. As they arrived, the operator on duty told Tom that he was to contact George Dilling at Swift Enterprises immediately. Dilling was in charge of the Enterprises office of information and was usually “in the loop” with respect to unusual events that might stir public inquiries.
“Good thing I came in early to work up a press release,” he told Tom in harried tones. “The nightshift guy in the space communications room told me a message came in about an hour ago through the magnifying antenna. It was the space friends, Tom!”
Tom’s eyebrows peaked in surprise. The space friends, mysterious other-planetary beings who had established radio contact with Tom, communicated with Earth by a visual code of mathematical symbols which were mot easily translated, even with the assistance of the computerized “space dictionary” Tom and his father had developed. “What was the message, George? Has it been translated?”
“Demassin’s come up with something by using the computer, but the space people had to send several different versions. He thinks the last one was simplified—even so, I’ll leave it to you to figure out what it means. Here, I’ll digi-fax it to you now.”
In moments Tom and Bud were gazing at the message in perplexity. Beneath the array of strange hieroglyphics was the tentatively translated text in English.
WE ARE FRIENDS. TRANSPORT CONTAINER FROM TOM SWIFT SINGULARITY EXPONENTIATION BY OPPOSED FORCE MATTER.
“Uh huh,” grumbled Bud. “These guys need a good ‘English as a second language’ course.”
Tom was frowning deeply. “I can’t make it out either, pal. Still, it’s just a rough approximation. Dad and I will study the symbols. Anyhow, let’s get Ken on the horn.”
Before he could signal the space station, a beep announced that the outpost was calling in. A tense, excited voice came over the speaker. “Sky Haven to Fearing! Do you read me?”
“We read you, Ken—Tom here. But your signal is fading in and out.”
“We don’t know what’s causing it, but... Bad news, Tom. That burst of light? Well, it must have been one of our unmanned cargo rockets ferrying the monthly supply packet to Nestria. Evidently it exploded!”
Tom and Bud were stunned! “Are you sure it was the rocket, Ken? I mean—the shuttle drones are just ordinary combustion-thrust rockets. There’s nothing aboard that could cause a nuclear explosion.”
“We’re positive, Skipper. We pulled up the tracking data. All of a sudden it disappeared at the same time and at same spot as that burst of radiation. It must have disintegrated.”
“But what caused the explosion?” Bud asked over the microphone. “Any clues?”
“Not so far, hombre. It’s a total mystery,” Horton replied.
Tom’s face was grim. “Okay. You know how serious this is, Ken. Stand by and keep us informed,” he directed. “I’m taking the Queen back to Enterprises.”
Tom immediately called his father in Shopton, awakening him. “Lord!—this could quickly become a crisis, son. I’m sure it’s occurred to you that we may be dealing with sabotage.”
“I know,” Tom stated. “And the deadliest kind—nuclear sabotage. The only explanation I can come up with is that someone planted some kind of thermonuclear device aboard the rocket!”
“What a horrible thought!”
Puzzled and worried, Tom guided the Flying Lab back north. Bud was at his side as always, his young face full of question. As Tom banked the huge jetcraft into a sweeping turn and began the steep descent into the ship’s underground hangar at the Swifts’ vast experimental station, he was no nearer the answer. Thank goodness there was no crew aboard the lost rocket, he thought.
Easing down past the massive ceiling doors of the hangar, the Sky Queen set down by means of its jet lifters and the boys and the XAIP scientists disembarked. As Tom and Bud hurried across the morning-lit Enterprises airfield on one of the ridewalk personnel conveyors, a messenger on a scooter came speeding out from the control tower to intercept them.
“We just had a flash from Fearing Island, Mr. Swift,” he told Tom. “They’re saying they’ve lost all contact with Nestria! The men on the base don’t respond to our calls!”
Tom turned white at the news. “Dad was right, Bud—it’s a crisis. And I’m afraid it’s turning deadly!”
THE CLOUD OF UNKNOWING
THE sudden news sent a chill of foreboding through Tom and Bud. Once again they had to consider a dreadful possibility. Had the rocket explosion destroyed the personnel on Nestria after all, by some delayed effect?
“This is awful, Tom!” Bud gulped. “Jetz, you don’t suppose—all those poor guys up on the base ― ”
“Don’t say it!” Tom shuddered. “It could be just more of the radio interference. Come on, let’s see what we can find out through the space prober!”
With a quick thanks to the messenger, Tom dashed off with Bud at his heels. The two boys hopped onto another ridewalk and sped across the grounds of Swift Enterprises in a different direction.
The experimental station was a high-walled, four-mile-square enclosure, crisscrossed with airstrips and dotted with sparkling modern research laboratories, test facilities, hangars, and workshops. Virtually a scientific city, it was here that young Tom and his equally eminent father Damon Swift developed their many inventions, continuing the family tradition begun by the first Tom Swift, Tom’s renowned great-grandfather.
In moments they stepped off before the astronomical observatory building in an isolated section of the plant grounds, topped by its great rounded dome. Tom and Bud hurried inside, finding Mr. Swift waiting next to the console of Tom’s “Mighty Eye,” his megascope space prober.
Mr. Swift looked up and nodded as the boys arrived. He was talking on a portable telephone. “No, sir. As yet we have no clue to the cause, but we’ll keep you informed. Dilling’s department will be handling the public statements... Right! Goodbye.”
“More trouble, Dad?” Tom queried.
“A bit. Just as we feared, the United States and Canada almost had a nuclear alert,” Mr. Swift said wryly. Spare and athletic, with graying hair, he looked a great deal like his son.
“A nuclear alert!” Bud gasped. “On account of our rocket exploding?”
Mr. Swift nodded. “That was the North American Air Defense Command calling. The blast momentarily disrupted its detection and tracking system—even the deep-space satellites. They’re calling it an electromagnetic pulse effect, of extraordinary magnitude.”
“Good night!” Tom exclaimed. “And Fearing has lost contact with the base on Nestria!”
Mr. Swift showed instant concern. “I was just told. I’ve had no chance to try your space prober,” he said.
Tom’s megascope space prober, a recent invention, was an amazing video telescope of nearly unlimited range. Rather than using magnifying lenses like an optical instrument, it employed a revolutionary quantum-link principle to establish a remote viewing point near its target. A close-up picture of the object being sighted was produced on a monitor screen in astounding detail.
Hands trembling with excitement and anxiety, Tom quickly fed the asteroid’s orbital data into the prober’s tracking computer, then tuned the range control. As the huge antenna shifted into position, the three waited anxiously for an image of Nestria to appear.
The viewing screen remained blank!
“What’s wrong?” Bud asked. Shrugging, Tom adjusted the megascope’s anti-inverse-square-wave generator without result. “C-could something have happened to the whole deal? To Little Luna?”
Tom’s forehead wrinkled thoughtfully. “Apparently the prober’s microwave beam isn’t getting through.”
“That may be a good sign,” Mr. Swift put in. “Perhaps the researchers on Nestria are alive and well, but simply can’t communicate with us.”
“But what’s blocking the signals now?” Bud inquired, puzzled. “The fallout from the explosion?”
“Possibly. Or it might just be one of those freakish blackouts due to solar activity.” Mr. Swift went on worriedly: “And yet—the megascope’s spacewave guide-tube would be unaffected by electromagnetic radiation. The microwave beam shouldn’t be disrupted.”
But Tom pointed out, “Dad, it could be the transparency of the guide-tube that’s causing the problem! The radiation could be directly interfering with the beam as it passes along the tube, scrambling its coherence parameters.”
“True. But in that case... Try moving the sensor-node away from Nestria.”
Tom gave a rueful smile. “I should have thought of that.” Tom used the trackball atop the console to shift the megascope’s viewpoint, pulling back toward the earth. He moved the beam-terminus slowly, mile by mile. At first there was no effect. Then, abruptly, a picture flashed into view on the screen.
“There she is!” cried Bud elatedly. “Man oh man, what a relief!”
The curving sweep of Little Luna’s rugged horizon filled most of the monitor screen. The asteroid’s dark, rocky terrain showed a haze of clouds here and there, floating close to the surface in the breathable atmosphere maintained by Tom’s two atmosphere making machines, one at each pole.
Tom pulled back further, showing the entire sphere of Nestria, then moved the sensor-node closer again on another side of the moonlet. Once again the screen went blank. “Whatever’s causing the effect completely surrounds Nestria,” Tom pronounced grimly after several more attempts. “It’s like a barrier of interference, about seventy miles out. Obviously, it’s gotten much worse since the explosion. It’s not dissipating as I had expected—whatever it is.”
“What about the explosion itself?” Bud demanded suspiciously. “That’s the biggest mystery of all!”
“You’re right, Bud!” said Tom. “And it’s not only affecting Nestria directly, but may also be targeting defense and communications systems around the world! The whole thing may be a plot, and there’s only one way to find the answer. I’m going to hop back over to Fearing and take off for Nestria in the Challenger!”
Bud nodded excitedly. But the elder scientist laid a hand on Tom’s arm. “Son, I know it’s hard to stand by at a moment like this. But you’re a scientist as well as an inventor. Now is the time to gather data.”
Bud looked exasperated. “But Mr. Swift, if some enemy is trying to screw up the whole world’s defenses― ”
Tom sighed. “No, flyboy. Dad’s right. The EMP effect was momentary. It’s over now. And it just occurred to me that the signal interference could just be an aftereffect of the rocket explosion. See ― ” Tom continued thoughtfully, “the artificial gravitational field around Nestria has a very sharp gradient. I can see how it might be possible for debris and fallout to ‘ride’ the gradient in all directions, creating a cloud of energized smog, so to speak.”
“Okay. If you say so.” But the black-haired young flyer didn’t look entirely convinced.
Mr. Swift said, “Actually, you two, I’ve already started the process of data-gathering. While you were flying back, I had Fearing send up the Challenger—not to Nestria yet, but into a high Earth orbit to make some longrange observations. After that, we’ll have a better idea as to the need for a landing.”
“That’s great, Dad,” nodded Tom.
Trusting matters to his son, Mr. Swift hurried off to a waiting jet, having scheduled one of his frequent trips to Washington DC. After Damon Swift had left the observatory, Bud turned to his friend with a slight frown. “You know, pal, your Dad’s a smart guy. But sometimes I wonder if you don’t—well ... ”
“Give in too easily?” The young inventor smiled. “Maybe. But only when he’s right.”
Following a hasty breakfast, the boys waited anxiously in the observatory, with Tom making periodic efforts to sight Nestria through the space prober or contact the base there. But the blackout continued. “Even the lasercom setup doesn’t get through to them,” grumbled Tom in frustration. “There must be some sort of haze that distorts the laser beam, at least above Base Galileo.”
Suddenly Bud’s face lit up and he snapped his fingers. “Good grief, I just thought of something. Why don’t you use the PER? You told me nothing can stop that!” Tom’s Private Ear Radio used a quantum-link principle to connect paired communications units in a manner that effectively annihilated the space between them. Bud knew that its basic technique was different from that of the megascope, and consequently would not be affected by the interference around the moonlet.
“That’s a great idea, Bud,” said Tom. “Just one problem.”
“The Nestria crew doesn’t have any PER units.”
“What! Not yet?”
Tom snorted ruefully. “Actually, a shipment was on the way. In the rocket that blew up!”
The boys resumed their vigil for news from Nestria—or at least a megascopic peek. Both Tom and Bud had many friends among the base team, giving a face to their anxiety. At last Tom could stand the suspense no longer. “Come on, Bud! Let’s grab a ridewalk back to the admin building. I want to talk to Nels Gachter about that message from the space friends.”
“Yeah. We’re not accomplishing much hangin’ loose here.”
As they approached the tall administration building on the conveyor-belt transport, Bud remarked restlessly: “Sandy said she’d give us a call this morning to set up our date for tomorrow night. Bash wasn’t sure if she could duck out from the Cat.” Sandy was Tom’s younger sister and Bud’s frequent date about town, as Bashalli Prandit was Tom’s. The pretty young Pakistani worked for her brother in Shopton at a trendy coffehouse called The Glass Cat.
“I’m afraid I’m not going to be in much of a mood ― ” Tom began. He broke off as his tiny cellphone chortled from its post on his belt-loop. Tom snatched it up and answered.
“Sandy?” Bud whispered hopefully to his pal.
Tom turned away from the unit and shook his head Bud’s way. “Main switchboard.” He resumed the conversation. “Oh? You’re sure of that? I see. Yes.” Turning to Bud again, he said: “Somebody’s coming to Enterprises to kill me.” Turning back to the receiver, he asked: “Does he have an appointment? Uh-huh. Well, thanks for letting me know. I’ll drop by and you can give me the details. Keep trying Security, won’t you?”
As Tom clicked off, Bud frowned at Tom suspiciously. “Some kind of joke, I take it.”
Tom shrugged. “We get crank calls, including death threats, almost every day. Security evaluates ’em, but it always turns out to be some guy in a house trailer with too much time on his hands. Jilly called me directly because she couldn’t reach Rad. Oh, did I tell you?—Harlan’s at the Citadel for two weeks.” Harlan Ames was chief of Enterprises internal security, Phil Radnor his assistant. Ames had traveled to the Swift nuclear facility in New Mexico, the Citadel, to assess its current security setup.
Bud and Tom were about to step off the ridewalk in front of the administration building when suddenly a loud crash resounded across the experimental station!—followed instantly by the wail of sirens and the shrilling of an alarm tone from Tom’s phone unit.
“Roarin’ rockets!” Bud blurted. “What’s going on?”
“IT’S A patrolscope alert!” Tom exclaimed. “Level one!”
Bud gulped at his friend’s pronouncement. He knew that the plant’s sophisticated internal radar system was designed to instantly detect intruders not cleared by wearing special anti-radar amulets. “That crash!—it sounded close, Tom.”
Dashing into the lobby of the admin building, Tom switched on an auxiliary monitor and keyed-in the main plant radarscope. A message flashed at the top of the screen: security alert, level one breach. He and Bud watched breathlessly as the sweeping scanner painted a blip of light near one edge of the screen. “Someone or something at the executive gate!” the young inventor exclaimed. This security gate, at the end of a private roadway, was only used by Tom, Mr. Swift, and a handful of key Enterprises executives. It was just outside the administration building, out of sight around a corner.
Bud dashed out through the door at Tom’s ominous words, his pal following as they trotted around to the far side of the building. “Looks like an accident!” Bud cried.
Tom joined Bud for a hasty look. A car had apparently plowed into the entrance gate at top speed. Employees were running to the scene from all directions.
The young scientist-inventor grasped Bud’s arm. “Come on! Let’s find out who it is!” Tom urged. As they dashed forward toward the wreck, a midget electric vehicle, called a nanocar, sped past them.
“There’s Radnor!” Bud exclaimed.
Braking next to the gate, the stocky security man leapt out. A second nanocar, bearing three uniformed security personnel, screeched to a halt next to him.
Radnor twisted his head, flashing a warning look at Tom. “Better stay back, Skipper!” he called. “This may be the killer! Jilly just told me about the threat.”
“I doubt if he’s in any shape to be dangerous now!” Tom replied coolly as he drew near.
Through the magtritanium bars of the gate they could see that the driver, visible through the shattered windshield of the car, lay slumped over the steering wheel. Blood streamed from a scalp wound.
“Let’s get this gate open!” ordered Radnor. “You—Flemmer—get the plant ambulance over here!”
“The gate’s buckled and the crash wrecked the opening mechanism, sir,” one of the men reported after a moment. “We’ll have to go out through the gatehouse at the employee gate.”
“Then do it!”
By the time Tom, Bud, and Radnor reached the car, a high-powered blue sedan, the ambulance team from the Enterprises staff infirmary had come roaring up by way of the private road. “We can’t wait,” said one of the medics, grimly motioning toward the black smoke wafting from the engine. “Go ahead, guys, lift him out, gently as possible. Try not to let him sag.”
As they extricated the driver from the wreckage, he was revealed to be a slightly built man of about thirty or thirty-five, apparently of Asian extraction.
Tom pointed to a sticker on the car’s rear bumper. “M.I.T.,” Tom muttered to Bud.
Meanwhile the crumpled gate had been forced open, allowing passage to Doc Simpson’s assistant, Ralene Bell. As she began to examine the unconscious victim, two carloads of state troopers, guided to Enterprises by Captain Rock of the Shopton Police Department, pulled up at the site.
“That’s our man, all right,” said Captain Rock to the troopers after a quick look. The man had been placed on a blanket on the ground next to the road. Rock asked Dr. Bell, “How badly is he hurt?”
“Pretty seriously, I’m afraid,” the doctor said. The medic pointed to a nasty-looking wound in the victim’s left side. “He stopped a bullet, and the windshield stopped him. On top of his wound, a broken collarbone, and blood loss, he may have a concussion.”
Captain Rock nodded briskly in Tom’s direction. “We were told he’s an escaped mental patient. The hospital guards who were chasing this fellow are armed and must have wounded him.”
“Yeah? Then where are they, Captain?” objected Bud, scanning the area.
Rock looked surprised. “Now that’s a good question! Of course, they may have taken a few shots at him during his escape. But ... ” Keeping a wary eye on the smoke, which was now diminishing, Rock approached the wrenched-open door of the car, Tom at his heels. When they returned, Tom told Bud quietly, “Just a few spatters of blood on the seat and the dashboard—but look at that wound. He couldn’t have been hit more than five seconds before he crashed.”
Bud nodded. “So. Like I said.”
“I’m having my guys search the roadside all the way up to the main road,” said Phil Radnor, adding in a wry whisper: “Before those troopers start clomping over all the evidence!”
A hasty check of the man’s pockets produced no identification except for a Massachusetts driver’s license. It had been issued only months before in the name of “John Tsu” at a Cambridge, Massachusetts address. The photo matched the face of the accident victim.
Staring at the license in Captain Rock’s hand, Tom frowned deeply. “Captain, there’s something wrong here.”
The officer nodded. “My friend, there’s quite a bit wrong here. It was a gas station jockey over in Thessaly who phoned in the first alarm,” Captain Rock reported. “I took the call and decided to check it out myself, since you’re something of a big wheel around these parts, Tom.”
“Thanks,” Tom said with a grin. “How did the guy know about the threat?”
“Everybody’s supposed to be on the alert these days, looking for suspicious behavior. The attendant said this Oriental fellow had stopped at his station to inquire the way to Swift Enterprises, and specifically whether Tom Swift was likely to be there at this time. And of course, who knows?—you could be on Mars. The attendant thought something was wrong because the guy’s manner seemed kind of wild and distraught. Then, a minute or so after he left, another car pulled in, with two men in it.”
“The guards?” asked Bud.
Captain Rock nodded. “They told the attendant they were pursuing a dangerous delusional psychotic who’d escaped from the locked facility where he’d been under confinement for three years. They described him and said he had some kind of crazy grudge against Tom Swift. Said they figured he was heading for Swift Enterprises to bump you off, Tom. The attendant told them the route the psycho had taken, and they took off at top speed. Then he thought it all over and called me, and I called the Staties.”
“Did the gas station guy describe the pursuers?”
“He did. Two more Asians. Bigtime accents for all of them.”
Bud gave a frowning glance at Tom and the captain. “Guards too? Isn’t that just a little odd? I mean—it’s not like they have special mental hospitals for people of Asian descent.”
“What institution did he break out of?” Tom asked.
“Don’t know yet. The caller says they didn’t mention it, and their car was unmarked. And strangely enough, although we have a homicidal psychopath who must have got loose at least several hours ago, surely, we’ve had no bulletin on the escape.”
Tom snorted derisively. “It’s one-hundred-percent phony! Tsu owns this car, based on the license info. How did the guy just happen to have his own car handy? It didn’t sit in a hospital parking garage for three years. How did he renew his license? And that M.I.T. sticker is for this year.”
“And then there’s the blood business,” Rock added. “Looks to me like the make-believe ‘guards’ raced on ahead, lay in wait just outside the wall, and winged old John pretty good!”
At that moment a screaming siren heralded the arrival of the ambulance Dr. Bell had called in from Shopton. “Shopton Memorial?” asked the driver.
Dr. Bell nodded, but Tom suddenly held up his hand. “No! There’s a private surgery clinic north on the highway outside the city limits. Know it?”
“I know it,” said the driver.
“Take him there, please. I’ll phone the medical chief—he’s a friend of the family.”
Rock chuckled in a gruff way. “Fast thinking, Tom—and you’re on the beam, all right. We may have scared off those guys, but they’ll probably check out the big hospital first thing. And they’re still armed! I’ll send one of these nice troopers along to keep watch over our Mr. Tsu.”
As the ambulance men began to apply an oxygen mask to Tsu, his eyes flickered open weakly and focused on the young inventor. They were wide, panicked, desperate. He choked out something beneath the mask.
Asking the ambulance attendants to stand back for a moment, Tom approached the collapsible stretcher and bent down. “We’re taking you to a safe hospital, Mr. Tsu,” he said gently. “Don’t be afraid. Did you want to tell me something?”
The man made a movement with his eyes, and Tom pulled back the oxygen mask a crack. As if summoning all his remaining strength, Tsu muttered something—then collapsed back, eyes closed.
“Let’s get going!” ordered the ambulance driver.
As the vehicle sped away, Bud asked: “What did he say?”
“Just a sec.” Tom made a note in the notebook he carried. “I’m writing down how it sounded. I think it was Chinese.”
Phil Radnor rejoined Tom and Bud, reporting that he hadn’t found any clues in the brush near the roadway. “Let’s go talk to Jilly,” Rad suggested.
In the plant switchboard room, Radnor asked Jilly for details of the warning call. “Oh, Mr. Radnor, I just don’t have much information. He didn’t identify himself. He just said to warn Tom Swift that someone was on his way ‘now’ to kill him.”
“Did you recognize the voice, Jilly?”
“No, not at all,” she replied. “And I have a good ear. I’m sure I’ve never heard it before.”
“What was the voice like?” Tom asked. “Did he have an accent?”
“Yes, a slight one. I couldn’t tell what kind, though. He spoke well—kind of cultured, a deep voice. An older man, I think.”
Bud said: “You must’ve got where the call was coming from, right?”
“No. It was ID-blocked.”
Thanking the switchboard operator, Radnor left to return to the security office. Tom motioned Bud away, toward a waiting nanocar. “Where’re we going?” Bud asked.
“Let’s go hunt up Felix Ming.”
“I get it. If the words Tsu said are Chinese, he’ll be able to translate.” Felix was a Chinese-American aircraft engineer at Enterprises who had previously assisted Tom in a similar situation.
Locating Felix in one of the construction hangars, Tom took out his notebook and attempted to repeat the sounds John Tsu had uttered.
“One more time, please,” Felix requested, frowning in concentration. At last he said: “Well—it’s pretty difficult, Tom. There are many distinct dialects of what we, in this country, call ‘Chinese’. To make things worse, it’s an inflected language. The up-and-down tones, giving it that ‘singsong’ quality, modify the meaning.”
“Then you don’t have anything?” Tom asked, disappointed.
“I may. It doesn’t make much sense. But it’s the only possibility that makes any sense at all.”
“I think the fellow may have said: Beware the Black Cobra!”
Tom and Bud exchanged startled glances. The looks expressed dismay at the sudden recognition of an alarming possibility! “Beware the Black Cobra,” Tom repeated. “Is that the whole thing?”
“Yes—but ... ” The young engineer hesitated as Tom and Bud waited impatiently. “The form is idiomatic. The ‘beware’ isn’t just your garden-variety ‘be careful’. It’s more urgent, like a warning shout. Like what you’d yell out at someone if you saw that a cobra was about to strike!”
AS TOM turned to leave after thanking Felix for his translation, ominous but vital, Bud held back for a moment. He felt a need to break the grim mood. “Say there, Felix, how’s the ol’ romantic life going?” he asked jokingly, referring to a subject of recurrent concern to the Chinese-American.
“Alas, it is in the hands of my honorable ancestors.”
“Got a date lined up yet?”
“Are you asking me out?”
As Tom drove the nanocar across the grounds, Bud observed: “Bet you and I are thinking the same thing, Tom.”
“He did say he was shedding his skin.”
It was while developing his spectromarine selector that Tom had first been told of Comrade-General Li Ching, a traitor to his native China who had fled into hiding with a treasure trove of military and technical secrets. Nicknamed “the snakeman,” he had made himself the imperious head of an international syndicate of scientific thieves and murderous agents from many countries. It was during Tom’s deadly struggle with the man in the course of his recent exploit with his megascope space prober that he had been sent the cryptic message that this new development seemed to explain. Tom continued: “It hangs together pretty well, don’t you think? Evidently our recovering the stolen stealth drone inspired him to adopt new methods.”
“Or at least a new monicker,” Bud noted wryly. “And hey!—remember that energy burst you and Hank Sterling detected out in space? When you were trying out the Private Ear gizmo in the Space Kite?”
“I know what you’re getting at, flyboy. Li could have been testing some sort of energy weapon, which he’s now used against the Nestria delivery rocket!”
“Right, from his ship, the Fanshen. Sounds like he’s our enemy,” agreed Bud. “Tsu may have been a turncoat, and the Chinese guys chasing him must be Li’s cronies.”
Tom nodded thoughtfully as he braked in front of the Administration Building. “Bet you’re right, pal. But what about that warning phone call we received? We need more answers, and I think I know how to get them.”
Up in the spacious office he shared with his father, Tom activated his computer and accessed his personal journal. The journal was stored on a protected server; yet protected or not, he knew that an ultra-secret U.S. government agency, which Tom had come to call Collections, somehow monitored the connection. One of its agents, “the Taxman,” had frequently responded to his inquiries.
After establishing his identity and signaling his desire to contact the agency, he typed: “A man has been shot by unknown pursuers while trying to warn me of someone called ‘the Black Cobra’.”
The reply appeared on the monitor almost immediately.
“Is he behind the problem with Nestria?”
To Tom’s surprise, there was no immediate answer. “Maybe he doesn’t know, for a change.” Bud murmured over his pal’s shoulder. “Er, if you heard that, Mr. Taxman, no offense intended!”
At last a message appeared.
NEW YORK CHINATOWN
86 CHATHAM SQUARE
TRANS-PACIFIC IMPORT COMPANY
FRIDAY 2 PM
“What about my question?” Tom typed. “Does Li Ching have designs on Nestria?”
CANT DO ALL YOUR WORK FOR YOU
NOT PAID ENOUGH
DOING OUR PART TO KEEP TAXES LOW
The young inventor was annoyed by the response. “This is no time to play games!”
DEPENDS ON THE GAME
Tom flicked off the unit with a sharp movement. “I’m not willing to wait any longer, Bud. Cobra or no, I’m taking the Challenger up to Little Luna to see what’s going on!”
Bud cheered. “I’m with ya, Skipper!”
Tom made a call to Fearing Island and spoke to Amos Quezada, chief ground controller of space missions. “What’s the latest from space? Any luck yet contacting Nestria?”
“None. The blackout’s as solid as ever.”
“Nothing new from Horton at the outpost?”
“Well, tell him to keep trying. I’m taking off for the asteroid as soon as I can get to Fearing.”
“I can save you some time,” Quezada offered. “Hannah Morgensteiff is up in orbit in the Challenger right now—your Dad’s survey flight. I could have her dip down above Shopton, and you could have one of your choppers drop you off.”
“That’s a great idea. Let’s put it together.”
Little more than an hour later, Enterprises pilot Slim Davis soared into the afternoon sky in the SwiftStorm, Tom’s wingless ultrasonic cycloplane. His passengers were Tom, Bud, and Enterprises’ chief engineer Hank Sterling, all of them suited-up for space flight.
As the craft’s furiously whirling lift-cylinders carried them vertically into the upper stratosphere, Tom explained his plans to his comrades. “According to Hannah’s radio report, the Challenger crew didn’t detect anything dangerous around Nestria. Just the spherical interference zone.”
“No orbiting radioactive byproducts from the explosion?” inquired Hank.
“None detectible, thank goodness.”
Bud was skeptical. “Fine. But then just what is that ‘spherical interference zone’, anyway? Maybe it’s like a tripwire, guys! We cross it and Blackie shoots a missile at us.”
Tom smiled half-heartedly. “Can’t rule it out, I guess. But unlike the drone rocket, we have a whole bunch of neat gadgets called repelatrons. Anything nosing too close’ll get tossed back into space.”
“Well, we had repelatrons in the XAIP, too,” Bud persisted. “That explosion fouled them up, remember?”
“We’ve readjusted the telespectrometers to protect them from the EMP effect, now that we understand what happened,” explained Hank. “And if you’re worried about that anti-energy powder, the crystal stuff Li shot at us from his ship that time we were headed for the outpost—”
“—which, by the way, knocked out the repelatrons! —” Bud interjected sarcastically.
“—don’t worry. Great minds have figured out how to get around the refraction effect,” concluded Sterling. Bud snorted.
It was Slim Davis who spoke next. “Got the Chal up above on radar, boys. I’ll let the cybertron set us down on the landing deck.”
The SwiftStorm’s robot brain brought the craft even with the flat vehicular deck that extended like a porch from the front of the huge, multistory spaceship. The cycloplane gently touched the deck and a conveyor-belt system drew it forward into the open portal of the Challenger’s hangar-hold, which was then pressurized.
“Best luck, guys,” Slim called out as his three passengers disembarked. “Here’s hoping you don’t need it.”
“Seems like we always need it,” said Tom with grim irony.
In minutes the gyroscope-shaped spacecraft was zooming up to the edge of the atmosphere—and on into space, its bank of powerful repulsion-ray generators pointing earthward.
“It won’t be long at constant 1-G,” Hannah Morgensteiff, at the control board, said to Tom.
In response the young space pioneer nodded tensely. “I’m going to feel every minute, believe me.” He picked up a microphone and intercommed Hank Sterling in the main communications compartment. “Got anything for me, Hank?”
“Not so far, Skipper,” was the reply. “But as you say, we just might start to pick up a signal from close range. I’m calling—and keepin’ my ears wide open.”
“I know you are. Thanks.”
Still tens of thousands of miles remote in space, Nestria was already visible through the Challenger’s big rectangular viewports, a blob of light against the blackness showing the hint of a disk. It swelled by the minute, soon disclosing its dark, mottled surface and craggy horizon, barely softened by the cloak of atmosphere that clung very close to the ground.
“How far?” Bud asked presently. “It’s been a while since we reversed thrust.” It now seemed that the asteroid was beneath them, the ship descending toward it.
Tom checked the monitor dials. “Coming up on the 500 mile mark. We’ll make a polar flyby before we try ― ”
His last words were lost behind a fierce alert tone from the intercom. “Incoming transmission, Tom!” reported Hank excitedly.
Bud whooped. “Man alive! Ask ’em how they’re doing up there—I mean, down there!”
Hearing the comment, Hank had a quashing response. “No, it’s not the asteroid. It’s on the frequency used by the space friends!”
“Good night!” muttered Tom. “Maybe they’ve found a way to elaborate on that message they sent.”
“Not exactly the best timing,” harrumphed Bud.
“I’ll send what I’m getting up to your monitor, guys, by way of the translating computer,” Hank offered. After directing Hannah to continue the flight as planned, Tom turned his attention to the imaging-oscilloscope screen.
WE ARE FRIENDS. PROCEED
After a moment, Tom intercommed Hank impatiently, “Where’s the rest of it?”
“There is no ‘rest of it,’ Skipper,” was the engineer’s answer. “Like Chow says, That’s all she wrote!”
Bud shrugged. “Thanks a heap, space buddies! Well, at least they’re encouraging us.”
When Tom did not comment, Bud cast a curious glance his way. To his surprise, the young inventor was frowning—and pale!
“Look at this,” Tom said in a raspy voice, pointing at a corner of the screen.
Again Bud shrugged. “Yeah, one of the space symbols.”
“Without a translation under it. And that’s because it’s not complete.”
“Guess they were called away from the phone.” Bud looked again at his pal’s expression. “But this isn’t a joke, is it.”
“The space symbols modify one another, clustering together in groups that show the relation of concepts,” Tom reminded him. “The symbol for ‘proceed’ made it through, but this one was cut off—we got just the bare bones. Bud, I’m sure it would have been the symbol for negation!”
“Huh? Negation?” Then the young pilot’s eyes grew wide with alarm. “Jetz! They’re saying don’t proceed!”
“Otherwise known as Stop!” Tom rushed to Hannah’s side and directed her to bring the ship to a full stop as rapidly as possible, station-keeping high above Little Luna. The Challenger began a sudden deceleration, pressing her crew downward against the deck as if they’d been turned to lead.
“Full stop and hover mode,” Hannah reported. “Altitude 481.4 miles, extended radial from Nestria surface.”
“What do you think’s going on, boss?” asked another member of the crew, Bob Jeffers, a veteran of Swift Enterprises space flight.
Tom paused before answering. “What do I think? I think something—maybe someone—interrupted the space transmission at a crucial point. I think our space friends are trying to warn us of a danger to the ship if we continue on course.”
“Danger? Danger of what?”
No longer whitefaced, Tom looked Jeffers in the eye.
“Of total destruction!”
THE OTHERS on the Challenger’s control deck stared at Tom in shock. “Do you mean—they’re going to start shooting at us?” Bud demanded. “Or set off a bomb in space?”
“He means someone’s planted a bomb on board—like they did on the supply rocket,” murmured Hannah in fear.
Tom shook his head, gazing downward through the Tomaquartz viewpane at the ball that was Nestria. “It may be something much more deadly. Let’s hope I’m wrong.” He flicked on the intercom. “Join us, Hank. Got a project for you.”
When Hank emerged from the inter-deck ladder shaft, Tom explained: “I think there’s something in front of us, something we can’t see or detect with our instruments, that could destroy the whole ship if we blunder right into it!”
Hank whistled. “The same thing that blew up the supply capsule?”
“Then what’s your idea, Skipper?”
“To do like lost hunters do when they don’t want to step into a bear trap.” Tom adjusted the deck computer to bring up a current ship manifest. “We have four of the Donkeys down in the hangar-hold. Good.”
“Er—just what do hunters do?” Hannah whispered to Bud. “To avoid bear traps?”
“They poke ahead in the underbrush with a branch,” was Bud’s answer. “I see what Tom’s got in mind.”
The Repelatron Donkeys were small flying platforms, elevated and propelled by single repelatrons, that Tom had used for survey work on the moon. Now Tom asked Hank to join him below in the vehicular hold, to assist him in making some quick, jerry-rigged modifications to the Donkeys’ control circuitry. When they returned to the command compartment, Hank reported: “Not much to it. Now we can control ’em remotely from the main board.”
Tom rolled-up the hangar’s protective doors and the conveyors pulled the four transports out onto the exterior deck. At a signal they rose gently, then curved downward toward Little Luna, splaying out in different directions.
“So you think they’ll blow up?” Jeffers asked Tom.
The crew waited tensely, minute after minute.
The lengthy vigil was finally broken by an announcement from Tom. “Crossing the hundred-mile altitude mark,” he stated. “I have Donkey number four a few dozen miles in the lead, roughly in the direction of Base Galileo—not too close, though.”
“But it’s getting close to where the megascope beam started failing,” Bud explained to the others.
Eyes on the telemetry readouts, Tom initiated a countdown. “Eighty-eight miles... eighty-one... seventy-six ... ”
Blinding light suddenly flooded the command deck!
The crew staggered back, shielding their eyes. Tom adjusted the variable transparency settings for the viewpanes, blocking out more of the glare.
“Man, I think we just got some data!” Bud gulped. “You Dad’ll be pleased!”
“Hard radiation, very high intensity,” reported Hank Sterling. He looked up at Tom. “It’s what we saw in the Space Kite. Same overall profile.”
Tom gave a grim nod. “Then that settles it. This is the same phenomenon. And I’m sure it’s something artificial, a weapon of some kind.”
They continued to study the radiation intently. But suddenly the crew gave a start as a strange thrumming sound filled the deck! “It’s coming from outside, through the hull!” declared Hannah in amazement. “But what could possibly—?”
“Ionized particulates, spreading out from the blast in concentric waves,” Hank stated. “From Earth it must look like a fireball against black space, just like the shuttle explosion.”
“And the instruments recorded an EMP effect,” added Tom. “We’re lucky our Tomasite-Inertite coating protects us.” He noted that the blast, impressive as it was from the viewpoint of the Challenger, was much smaller than the prior one. “It shouldn’t have caused the same big effect on communications and defense systems.”
“Well, lemme tell ya, it was more than big enough for me!” Bob Jeffers commented.
One by one the remaining Donkeys met their doom with blazing brilliance. “It’s clear that what we have here is a spherical barrier enclosing Nestria like a bubble,” pronounced Tom Swift. “Anything that comes into contact with the barrier disintegrates completely—converts to energy. Evidently the barrier wasn’t wholly stabilized when the supply rocket hit it, but as it reached its fullest extent it began to fuzz-out radio transmissions, including the microwaves my space prober uses.”
“Then you think the barrier may be some sort of electromagnetic field, Tom?” Sterling inquired, puzzled.
But the young scientist-inventor wagged his head. “No, Hank, although I’d guess such a field may be keeping it in place.”
“Huh?” Bud was aghast at the thought. “Like the matter-eating gas from the taboo mountain?”
Tom’s exploration of Mount Goaba in Africa, by means of his terrasphere vehicle, had revealed an astounding phenomenon taking place in the caves of nuclear fire far beneath the surface. By means of some complex, inexplicable atomic reaction, a mineral-like substance was releasing a gas, termed Exploron, that in turn emitted antiprotons. These subatomic particles, bearing electrical charges opposite those of the nuclei of ordinary matter, caused such matter to disintegrate in a violent flare of radiation. Bud knew that reversed-charge substances, which had previously only appeared in minute quantities in experimental settings, were called antimatter by physicists.
But Bud’s comment was not quite on the mark. “No, pal,” Tom corrected his friend. “What we’re dealing with here is a whole lot worse than Exploron.”
Hank nodded slowly. “You mean—true antimatter.”
“That’s what I think. Look,” he continued, “the phenomenon isn’t fully understood yet, but the researchers at the Goaba installation think they’ve cracked the basic sequence of reactions. Exploron gas emits antiprotons, but it isn’t true antimatter. It’s one of the two main byproducts of the reaction of an anomalous substance, which they’ve named Diracinium, with certain catalysts.”
Bud observed, “Catalysts like saltwater. You’re talking about that mineral deposit at the bottom of the cavern.”
“That’s it. Catalysis induces a sort of ‘nuclear combustion’—the nuclear fire—with its own ‘smoke,’ namely vaporous Exploron and granules of Inertite. But there’s one more thing that happens. The surface of the Diracinium, the part directly exposed to the catalyst, converts to a molecule-thick coating of Diracinium in antimatter form—actual antimatter molecules. It’s only the interspersed presence of Inertite particles in the film that damps-down the reaction. Otherwise a big chunk of Africa would be history!”
“If particles of anti-Diracinium could be dispersed in space around Little Luna,” noted Hank, “the cloud might be too dilute to be detectible, but more than dense enough to destroy ― ”
“Anything!” concluded Tom Swift. “The space friends are trying to warn us—twice now. The reference in that first message to ‘opposed force matter’ was their attempt to convey the idea of antimatter. Whoever caused the barrier,” he went on, “may have figured I’d take off for Nestria to investigate the base’s silence, and that my ship would meet the same fate as the cargo rocket.”
Bob Jeffers shuddered. “What a devilish scheme! Which happens to be Li Ching’s stock in trade.”
“But wait a second,” Bud suddenly objected. “Like you just said, Tom—Inertite blocks off the reaction. Wouldn’t the Challenger’s coating protect us?”
It was Hank who answered Bud. “The cargo rocket was also coated, Bud. Inertite is effective against most radiation, and protects against the sort of fine spray of antiprotons produced by Exploron. But in the case of something like this barrier, you’re dealing with massive grains of the anti-stuff. Evidently a little works its way through—and when you’re dealing with antimatter, little things mean a lot!”
Bud nodded, grasping the dreadful situation the Nestria team was in—totally cut-off from their world! He said to Tom: “Whee-oh, genius boy, your brain’s got quite a lump to chew over this time!”
Tom didn’t answer, but Bud could see that the young inventor’s brain had already taken up the task.
Soon the control readouts announced that the ship’s repelatrons were again humming with power. Tom had directed Hannah Morgensteiff to reorient the dish-shaped radiator antennas to brake the ship and send it on its long, wheeling descent back to Earth. “We’ll land at Fearing,” Tom stated. “I want to test something using the big space communications gear.”
“What’s your idea?” inquired Hank.
“It’s is only a theory,” Tom said. “Let me hash it over a little, Engineer Sterling.”
The young inventor radioed a full report to Fearing Island, but the rest of the trip was spent mostly in grim silence. Two hours later the Challenger was biting into the earth’s atmosphere, then dropping smoothly like a clump of feathers to set down finally at the rocket base.
The astronaut team ate dinner in the island mess hall. Afterward, as Tom and Bud walked back to Tom’s private laboratory on the island, Bud remarked, “I can tell plenty is going on in that high-powered head of yours, pal. Feel like talking about it yet?”
“Our first job is to find out the exact nature of the disintegration barrier,” Tom said thoughtfully. “So far we’re only guessing that antimatter is what’s causing the trouble. Since the barrier seems to be scrambling and nullifying our long-range instruments—even the spectroscopic scanners—we’ll have to take a sample to study in the lab.”
“And how do we do that?” Bud asked in challenging tones. “How do you get a tankful of something that turns anything it touches into the Fourth of July?”
Tom grinned at his chum. “Hey, we had the same problem at Mount Goaba, remember?”
“Which you solved with Inertite. But in this case ― ”
“I know. Inertite isn’t enough. But it just may be that we can bring a sample down to Earth without touching it at all!” As Bud started a skeptical, if fascinated, objection, Tom held up his hand. “That’s for tomorrow, flyboy. Right now I have something else in mind.”
“Well, there’s plenty of room for it up there in that head of yours! What?”
“After I run some numbers on my lab computer, I’m heading over to Communications. If my theory is right, we’ll soon be back in touch with Little Luna!”
Bud lifted his eyebrows, creasing his forehead with worry. “Let’s hope there’s someone up there to answer!”
AN ADDRESS IN CHINATOWN
IN THE space communications room inside the Fearing control tower, Tom explained his idea to Amos Quezada and the chief communications engineer, Harry Lengle. “The numbers look good,” he declared. “So my idea is plausible, at least.”
“Which is?” challenged Quezada.
“My guess is that during the shadow-traverse every three and three-quarters days, when Nestria orbits through Earth’s shadow, the unusual mineralogy of the asteroid will be affected by the temperature drop—remember, the higher elevations stick up beyond the atmospheric envelope which insulates the lower parts. About eighty percent of Nestria is airless.”
“Granted. Okay, chief, so you have a quick change in surface temperature. But what good does it do?”
“My calculations show that it makes Little Luna as a whole less permeable to magnetic forces,” Tom continued excitedly. “Something is holding that barrier in place, and it may well be electromagnetic in nature. If I’m right, when the average surface temp drops, the field’s lines of force will be pushed away from the surface further out into space.”
“I understand Tom’s idea,” Harry spoke up. “That would tend to make the barrier thinner and less opaque—like a stretched balloon—so it’s easier for radio waves to penetrate.”
“All right then.” Quezada checked his wristwatch. “We’re lucky—she’ll be starting the traverse in about six hours. We can give it a try.”
“I’ll be grabbing some shuteye in the cottage,” Tom said wearily. “I have to—but call me immediately if you get through.”
Tom met up with Bud, who had been chatting with one of his friends among the staff, and the two headed across the facility grounds toward the executive quarters. As he walked along, the youthful pilot gave a mighty yawn—which turned into a laugh. “Good grief, I just realized something. It’s only been twenty-four hours since we went up in the XAIP!”
Tom echoed the yawn. “Quite a day!”
Tom slept helplessly for hours. It was daylight when he awoke. A quick check with the communications center was disappointing—the moonlet had entered Earth’s shadow, but there was still no radio response. But that’s not too surprising, Tom thought hopefully. It may take awhile for the anti-magnetic effect to build up.
Some time later, having a late breakfast with Bud, he was interrupted by a buzz on his cellphone-intercom. “We’ve just made contact with Nestria, Skipper!” Harry Lengle reported excitedly. “Come on down!”
Tom and Bud were thrilled by the news. They sped across the island by jeep and dashed into the communications office.
“Still getting through?” Tom cried.
Lengle nodded. His expression was pensive. “Their signal’s pretty weak, but we’ve enhanced it enough to make out the audio.” He added into the microphone in his hand, “Galileo, here’s Tom now.”
Tom seized the mike. “Do you read me? What cooks up there?” he asked eagerly.
A blur of voices could be made out through the earphones. One voice was especially prominent. “He said cook. He’s askin’ fer me!” The young inventor was smiling broadly as Chow came on the line. “This here’s ole Chow, boss! Brand my ― ”
But Tom had already begun speaking, the signal delay overlapping their voices. “Are you fellows all right?”
“Sure thing, son, ever’body’s right fine! Wa-aal—considerin’.”
“It’s great to hear you, pardner, but maybe I should talk to Kent. The communications window may not last very long.”
“Okay. Here he is.”
Rockland’s voice came on. “Looks like you had the same idea as Professor Jatczak, Tom. We’ve been trying from our end for an hour now. We know there’s some sort of screen or cloud-barrier around Nestria that blows things to kingdom come—we’ve sent up a few test missiles.”
“Have any of the scientists determined the nature of the barrier?” asked Tom.
“No, we can’t get a fix on anything. One of the Brungarians thinks it might be some kind of antimatter deal.”
“I have the same theory,” Tom stated. “What sort of condition is the base in?”
When Rockland’s response came through after the delay, Tom noted that it had become more distorted and was noticeably weaker. “We’re getting water from our atmosphere-making machine, but we could use some food. We’ve got quite a few mouths up here right now.” The mineralogist explained that the explosion of the supply rocket had sent out a shower of radioactive fallout which had contaminated nearly all of Base Galileo’s experimental vegetable gardens. The colonists, given a few minutes’ warning by the base’s radiation sensors, had retreated to protective shelters but had had no time to shield the crops. “We’ve started de-radding the area, but Doc Simpson says the edibles are unsafe. And we don’t keep a big reserve of the packaged stuff.”
“Roger. Your signal’s starting to go now. But tell everyone we’re working the problem. Keep your chins up, all of you,” he added. “I’ll try to get a ship there with provisions as fast as possible—and bring you fellows safely back to earth.”
Beneath the rising waves of static Tom could hear a faint chorus of cheers and exclamations of relief from voices in the background. Evidently the entire crew of the base had gathered around the radio. “This is Fearing, signing off.”
Tom and Bud jetted back to Shopton and Swift Enterprises. Landing, the young inventor headed for his office, remarking to Bud: “I’ve got to let my ideas cook a little—upstairs. Which is fine, because tomorrow ― ”
“Is Friday!” concluded Bud with an excited grin. “Which means we’re due in Chinatown for some Chinese-puzzle solving!”
Early the following afternoon the youths took off for New York in a Swift Enterprises jetrocopter. Marketed by Enterprises’ manufacturing subsidiary in Shopton, the Swift Construction Company, this was the name given to a versatile combination helicopter-jetcraft which Tom had invented.
After landing at the Hudson River heliport, Tom and Bud took a taxi to downtown Manhattan. From time to time Tom glanced at the driver’s rearview mirror.
As they neared the Chinatown commercial center at Chatham Square, he murmured to Bud, “Don’t look now, flyboy, but a car’s been on our tail all the way from the heliport. That’s a lot of streets and a lot of turns.”
Ignoring his pal’s admonition, Bud twisted his head and watched. “Yeah, four cars back and holding steady. I don’t like this, Tom,” he said uneasily. “Let’s not take any chances.”
Tom nodded. As their taxi braked at the next stop light, he hastily handed the driver a bill and said to Bud, “Okay, let’s go!”
The boys leapt out, slammed the door, and darted off into the crowd of pedestrians, mostly from Chinatown. Bud flung a quick glance over his shoulder.
“You were right, Tom!” he muttered. “The guy in the passenger seat is hopping out too!”
Tom turned long enough to glimpse a short but square-built figure in a tan suit, an Asian, striding after them, briskly keeping pace as he tried to stay out of view behind the knots of pedestrians. The two from Shopton stepped up their own pace. They wove through the stream of pedestrians for a few blocks, past colorful shop windows filled with Chinese merchandise.
“We’re blocked by the crowd for a sec, but he’s still on our tail!” Bud reported.
“Turn at this corner!” Tom said. A moment later he pulled Bud into a darkened doorway.
They watched the sidewalk at the corner and waited. To their surprise, the follower did not appear. Finally Bud heaved a sigh of relief. “We shook him! He must’ve given up when we ducked out of sight.”
“Let’s not stick around!” Tom advised.
The boys were now within walking distance of their destination and soon reached the address the Collections contact had provided, a tall modern office building. Pausing inside next to the elevators, they read over the directory of tenants posted on the wall.
“Let’s see—third floor,” Tom murmured. “Wu Nang Toys. Pleasant Golden Soup. Hing-Tse Family Association. Universal Exports, Ltd.. Okay—Trans-Pacific Import Company, suite 313. Up we go!”
The door of the third-floor suite brandished a shiny, new-looking brass sign with the name of the company engraved in solemn, dignified letters. “No hint of what they ‘import’,” Bud remarked. “Maybe nothing!”
“I’d be surprised if it’s anything more than a front,” Tom agreed.
“I sure hope we’re not walking into something!”
“Oh, I’m pretty sure it’s something.”
The door was locked. It didn’t even rattle as Tom gave a rap. Almost instantly the door was opened by a young, pretty Asian woman wearing a high-waisted, long-skirted cheong-sam of jade-green silk. Tom was struck by the fact that she showed no surprise at her visitors.
“Good day, sirs. Do please come in.”
“I’m Tom Swift,” said the young inventor. “I was asked to come here. This is my associate, Bud Barclay.”
“Of course. Please be seated.” She closed the door as they entered, and the latch caught with a decisive click.
The room was scantily furnished with only a desk and a few chairs, which were well-padded with dark leather and comfortable-looking—but looked as if no human backside had ever sat down in them. As the boys sat down, the young woman disappeared through another door. A moment later she emerged and held the door open.
“Please go in.” A polite smile showed briefly on her calm, delicate face.
Tom and Bud entered the adjoining room and the door closed behind them. They found themselves in a room lighted only by a single, rose-shaded lamp. It cast a dim glow over a small bronze statue of Buddha on a desk.
An elderly Asian with a thin, drooping white mustache, clad in an expensive business suit that appeared to be seeing its first day of use, stood up and bowed to Tom. “Very pleased to receive your visit, my dear Mr. Swift. I am honored.”
Tom introduced Bud, then said, “I’m eager to learn why you sent for me, Mr.—?”
“But I did not send for you.”
“True. But you were expecting us, obviously.”
“An important distinction, is it not? Indeed, perhaps your visit was anticipated, Mr. Swift. I must say, you most skillfully gave our man the slip. His mission was only to guard you, to ensure a pleasant and safe arrival.” The man’s smile was polite yet slightly mocking.
Tom felt a slight nudge from Bud, and he followed his chum’s gaze to a narrow decor table of dark lacquered wood pressed against the wall to their right. A small crystalline cube sat upon it. Embedded inside was a tiny carven black cobra, coiled to strike!
BRACELET WITH A SECRET
TOM’S pulse quickened as he and Bud exchanged glances. What was the meaning of the cobra image? Had the two walked straight into the enemy’s clutches?
The boys’ faces must have shown their suspicions. Their host said calmly, “The name ‘Black Cobra’ is not unknown to you, I see.”
He waited as if he expected an answer. Tom Swift didn’t give one.
“I don’t mean to be rude, sir, but I think we’ve had enough of this particular ‘game’,” Tom declared hotly. “You’ve obviously established some sort of phony get-up here, staged for our benefit. A real festival of ‘inscrutable oriental’ cliches!”
“Ah, but at least there is no incense.” Perfectly serene, the man nodded in acknowledgment. He continued, “The quaint talisman you see was obtained at great risk, by certain ones who are willing to lose their lives to honor others who have already lost theirs. Take it, won’t you? It bears a sort of encryption, and it is our hope that it may serve to assist you, should you ever fall into the power of our mutual adversary.”
Tom picked up the cube and slipped it into his pocket. “Our hope?” Tom repeated the words questioningly. “Does this mean that you belong to the same... group... that told us to come here?”
Their host pretended not to have heard. He went on smoothly, “You asked my name. I am Mr. Fun. And to answer the stifled laughter I see upon your face, Mr. Barclay, the name ‘Fun’ is common in my native land. I am, in fact, Sheong-Lo Fun. You are wondering, perhaps, why it was necessary to come here. Why could the cube not have delivered to you in a, one might say, less theatrical manner?”
“Now that you mention it, why?” Bud asked.
The Oriental smiled. “There is an old proverb ― ”
Tom interrupted with: “Please.”
“But this is a good one, Mr. Swift, very apt. Only Buddha knows if the arrow shall reach its mark. It was most important that this tiny, rare, infinitely valuable object reach the hands of Tom Swift with safe certainty. Even personal messengers may be followed and dispatched violently, unexpectedly—the way of the cobra, is it not?”
Frowning, the young inventor drew a deep breath and nodded. “I see. And evidently you intend to tell us no more than you choose to. Do you and your people realize how many lives are at stake here? Can’t you at least tell me what you know about the whereabouts of Li Ching?”
“I have given you my answer. It lies within your pocket,” he said. “Yet you are my guest, and I must see to your satisfaction. So I shall tell you this. In trusting and protecting John Tsu, you have made a regrettable error. He is the servant of the man whom you seek, and is, by compulsion, loyal to him—even unto death.”
“You mean his warning was bogus? To send us off the rails?” demanded Bud.
“He only managed to utter the first few words of what he was to say. The remainder would have, indeed, given you, in a most convincing way, false information, a false lead that would have put you and your associates in the hands of your adversary.”
“Was shooting him part of his being ‘convincing’?” Tom asked skeptically.
“Those who pursue him are members of the military of the People’s Republic of China,” replied Mr. Fun. “As you know, certain secrets were taken by one of their own.”
“Comrade-General Li Ching.”
“There are those in China who yearn desperately for the return of those secrets, unexposed to the light of day. They have found a means of, shall we say, negotiating. But the opposite party now makes unrealistic demands, arrogant demands that no government can accept. And so they do what they can to interfere with his plans, to demonstrate that they are not to be trifled with.”
Tom inquired bluntly, “Is it permitted to ask your own interest in this? Just who you are?”
“Your humble friend and servant.” The man bowed, then straightened and pressed a wall button.
The young woman in jade reappeared so promptly that Tom suspected she had been standing on the other side of the door. Mr. Fun then turned back to the boys.
“How valuable it is to have an efficient secretary.” Again he bowed. “Most pleasurable to have met you both. Miss Tung will show you out. Good day to you.”
Moments later, the two were back in the hallway. As the door shut behind them, Bud gestured with his thumb. The door was blank. The identifying plaque had been removed. “I’d say Miss Tung is mighty ‘efficient’,” commented the young Californian. “Maybe they need the plate for this evening’s hoax.”
In the lobby, Tom pointed at the wall directory. The listing for Trans-Pacific Import Company was gone, replaced by: Vacant, now available for lease.
Bud gaped. “Good night! This whole thing was phony from start to finish!”
“Maybe phony isn’t quite the word, Bud.” Tom’s face took on a wry grin. “Let’s say it was arranged for our benefit.”
“Benefit? We should be so lucky!” Bud retorted, and hailed a taxi for their trip back to the heliport.
As Bud piloted the jetrocopter toward Shopton, Tom’s brow wrinkled as he closely examined the crystal cobra cube. “Personally, Bud,” he said, “I think someone’s gone to an awful lot of trouble to help us. Maybe a little too much trouble. The import company was a blind for our rendezvous—and now that our unknown friends have handed over this cube, they’re making sure no clues are left behind.”
“If you say so, genius boy. As for me—my theory is, we got roped into being unpaid actors in somebody’s low-budget spy movie—what they call a pirate shoot!”
Tom devoted the weekend to intense work on the problem of designing a means to safely take a sample of the destructive space barrier. The shadow-traverse effect had proven to Tom that the dispersed particles were stabilized by some form of enveloping electromagnetic field that cloaked the moonlet on all sides. And if magnetism holds it in place, he reasoned, I can use magnetism to scoop out a piece of it!
Bud wisely left Tom to his work most of the weekend, but paid a visit to the lab late Sunday afternoon. “How’s the brainwork?”
“Chugging along,” was the reply. “I may have something to show for it soon.”
“Great, genius boy,” said Bud. He added in a somber voice: “And what would be really great would be a Swift gimmick to punch a big hole in that space cloud—I’ll settle for blowin’ it away from the base, into outer space.”
“I know, Bud. If only there were some way to get through to them!” Tom muttered.
Suddenly a girl’s voice asked, “Tom couldn’t possibly be referring to us, could he?”
Tom and Bud whirled in surprise as two girls breezed through the open lab door. The one who had spoken was pretty, blond Sandra Swift, Tom’s sister.
Sandy’s companion, Bashalli Prandit, offered a bland smile and eyes that twinkled. “Since when did Tom and Bud ever worry about contacting a couple of mere girl friends?—that is to say, friends who happen to be mere girls.”
“Hey! Look who’s here!” Bud exclaimed. “It’s almost as if some conniver set it up to surprise you—er, us!” Tom chuckled. In creative conniving, Bud Barclay was usually suspect number one.
“And look what arrived in the mail this morning!” Sandy said proudly.
She held out her right wrist, displaying a silver link bracelet, decorated with a single, large sky-blue turquoise.
“You’re getting extravagant, sis.” Tom pretended to object. “When did you order that?”
“Order it? Hmmph!” Sandy tilted an eye-brow. “I’ll have you know this was a gift from an admirer!” Reaching into her bag, she plucked out a card. The sender had printed on it, by flowery hand, a message:
TO A BLUE-EYED LOVELY FROM HER GREATEST ADMIRER, THIS BLUE TURQUOISE BRACELET. WEAR IT ALWAYS FOR GOOD LUCK!
“Now I wonder who that could be?” said Bashalli.
“Of course I’m only guessing,” Sandy teased, “but anyhow ― ” She took a quick step toward Bud and pertly kissed him on the cheek. “Thank you, Bud! It’s perfectly lovely!”
“B-b-but wait a second!” Bud stammered in confusion. He gulped and reddened. “Well— er—Sandy— you see— I didn’t send you that bracelet!”
“You didn’t?” Sandy stared at him in surprise. Then a mischievous gleam came into her eyes. “Hmm. In that case, let me see... those charming boys from Thessaly― ”
“Are still in jail,” Bashalli noted unhelpfully, earning a frown.
“Bill? Doug? Chad? ... ”
“No,” corrected Bash. “Chad is mine.”
Sandy pretended to count on her fingers. “You really can’t expect us girls to sit around waiting for you two spacemen to find time to take us out.”
Tom winced. “Come on. We apologized for having to cancel out the other day.”
“Oh, did you? I must not have been paying attention.” Sandy began to hum a popular song while holding the bracelet up to the light to admire the color of the large turquoise. Bud was speechless with embarrassment. Tom couldn’t help grinning at Bud’s plight.
“If you’re done with the torture bit,” Tom said, “do you have any idea who really might have sent it, San?”
She shrugged. “No. Though that checker at the supermarket, Dwayne, does seem to pay me a lot of attention.”
“With the braces? The fifteen year old kid?”
As Sandy frowned again, Bashalli remarked with a sigh, “We can slip nothing past the eyes of the observant scientist.”
But suddenly the eyes of the observant scientist narrowed as a thought struck him. He glanced at the card again, then asked Sandy, “Mind if I take a closer look at that bracelet?”
“Why? Don’t you think it’s real?” she said indignantly.
“Very much so. I’d just like to see how it’s put together.”
Wary, Sandy unfastened the clasp and handed the bracelet to her brother. Tom took it to a workbench near the wall and began prying at the setting.
“Oh, Tom, please don’t ruin it!” Sandy begged.
“Should you need to ruin something, there is always my purse,” suggested Bashalli.
“Relax, sis,” Tom told Sandy. “If I can’t put this thing together again, I’ll buy you a better one.”
“I’ll buy it,” Bud put in, “and send it to you anonymously!”
Presently the stone came out of its setting. Inside, to the utter surprise of Sandy, Bud, and Bash, was a tiny but compact assembly of electronic micro-units.
“Jetz!” Bud exclaimed. “It was bugged!”
“Bugged.” Sandy echoed the word with unhappy resignation. “It had a radio inside. Naturally.”
Tom pulled out a powerful magnifying glass and examined the circuitry. “No. No transmitter. It’s a very advanced digital recording device. This little sliver here is the chip that captures the data, and the whole surface of the gem acts as a resonating microphone. Your bracelet was designed to pick up conversations.”
“So much for secret admirers,” Sandy moaned. Then she asked a bit breathlessly: “But why? If it was just a trick, what are they after?”
Tom gave his sister a reassuring smile. “It’s probably some competitor of Enterprises who thought he might learn valuable secrets by tuning in your conversations with Bud and me, or Dad.”
“We do talk about a lot over dinner, I—I guess.”
Sandy looked crestfallen, but Bud tactfully added, “What a low-down trick! How do you think they planned to retrieve that recording chip, Tom?”
“What an easy question,” responded Bashalli. “Are we not confronted, stalked, and threatened with kidnapping on a regular basis?”
Though the Pakistani’s tone was joking, Sandy turned pale. “But—but they won’t know you found them out, Tom. They’ll still try to take the bracelet from me!”
“No they won’t,” declared her brother firmly. “They know you won’t always be wearing it— after all, it doesn’t match every outfit! —and they wouldn’t make an attempt unless they see it on you. Just wear it home when you leave here. I’ll sneak it back tomorrow and let the security guys look it over.”
The girls left hastily, Sandy’s repaired bracelet back on her wrist. Bud turned to his friend and said: “Okay, Skipper, so much for keeping the civilians calm. You don’t really think this is about a business rival, I hope.”
“Of course not. But Sandy’s always been pretty scared of Li Ching, especially so after what happened last time. She and Bashalli know about the Nestria situation, but Dad and I agreed to... to postpone bringing up the Comrade-General around her.”
Tom phoned a full report of the episode to Phil Radnor, who had come in to work in his office. “More of Li’s high tech,” he noted. “At least we know that cube the guy gave you isn’t bugged.” The cobra talisman had been thoroughly scanned by a number of sophisticated detection instruments.
Radnor finished by promising to send a full report to Harlan Ames in New Mexico. “Incidentally,” he concluded, “I have a few pieces of news concerning Mr. John Tsu. According to M.I.T. he’s a grad student in advanced engineering theory, part of a special exchange program with Hong Kong. Also, I called that clinic this morning. The doctor says Tsu’s in and out of consciousness and unable to speak. But he’s well guarded—now to keep him in place as well as to protect him.”
“Good. But you know my suspicions, Rad. Despite what Mr. Fun said, I’m not so sure Tsu’s warning was just the interrupted start of a lie. I looked in his eyes—he was mighty scared, but trying as hard as he could to speak to me. I don’t think it was just an act.”
The morning following—a cloudy Monday in upstate New York—Tom demonstrated his new inventive approach to Bud and Enterprises’ talented modelmaker, Arvid Hanson. They had gathered around a shallow, flat tank covered by a plate of Tomaquartz. “I know you use this for magneto-dynamic experiments, boss,” said Arv. “I take it you’re planning to capture some of that antimatter in a magnetic bottle.”
As Tom nodded, Bud said: “Okay, guys, what’s that—a bottle of fridge magnets?”
“They’ve used it for years in fusion-power experimentation,” explained Tom. “The standard fusion process requires the creation of a minute pocket of hydrogen gas at extreme pressure and density. The gas in this state, plasma, is as hot as the sun, and because it has a net electric charge, an electromagnetic flux can be used to force it away from the sides of the container. Otherwise the container would vaporize instantly.”
“Like lassoing it in magnetic lines of force. But as I understand it,” Arv objected, “even the strongest fields have only been able to hold the plasma for less than a second.”
“And besides, our instruments don’t indicate that the barrier particles are charged in the first place.”
“Fine. Spill it, sci-guy,” Hanson remonstrated jokingly as Bud nodded.
“Wa-aal, buckaroos, as Chow would say,” began the young inventor while he made adjustments to the controls of the test device, “remember how we ― ”
Before he could finish the thought, he and his listeners swiveled about in surprise as a weird humming sound, unlike anything they had ever heard, filled the laboratory—and the lab door suddenly burst open with a bang!
TOM AND BUD tensed to rush at the intruder, then stopped themselves. “Boris!” exclaimed Tom. “What’s wrong?”
In the absence of Chow Winkler, his second-in-command was in control of the executive kitchen. But Boris Yakunetsky was no Chow Winkler. The Russian emigre was finicky, persnickety, excitable, and on occasion somewhat full of himself. Now his expression was fierce.
“Wrong? Wrong? Pfah! Where are they?”
“Misplace your midmorning snacks?” asked Bud with wry innocence.
The cook reared up with a glare of indignation. “Snacks? Nutsense! You think I am the Winkler, to make tidbits of mongeese?”
“Mongeese?” Arv repeated.
“Of course mongeese! There are two of them. I should say mongooses?”
Tom suddenly understood—although it was, admittedly, a peculiar thing to understand! “You mean there’s a mongoose running around in here, Boris?—that is, two of ’em?”
The ex-Russian glared at his employer. “Isn’t it not what I say? There are two mongeese! Can you not hear them?”
“Right,” said Tom. “That sound.”
“It is they. They wish to mate, it strikes me.”
“I get it,” Bud said. “A male and a female.”
“One might hope so!”
Arv Hanson was looking about into the corners of the lab room, which was large and square —and crowded with lab tables and equipment. “I can sure hear them. But where are they?”
Boris scowled. “Hmmph, you Swedes. Should I know that, would I be asking you?”
There was a pause in the sound—and then it suddenly redoubled! The four whirled to see what was causing it, and Bud exclaimed in astonishment.
A small, grayish-brown weasel-like animal was peering with glittering eyes from between the legs of a chair. Its back was humped like a spitting cat’s and its fur was bristling angrily. As the creature stood glaring, a second mongoose, the mate-in-waiting, poked its head out from behind a test stand nearby. “Good night!” gulped Tom. “What in the wide world are they doing here?”
“I do believe you can see what they are doing with your own blue eyes,” sniffed Boris. “They are being pests, wild varmints, and mocking us with annoying noises.”
Tom was patient, and becoming amused. “Yes. But why are they here?”
The emigre chef did not answer for a moment, and began to look somewhat abashed. “It was my own experiment, sir, perhaps to assist you. Winkler does such things, and he— he is given many privileges.”
“What sort of experiment was it?” Hanson asked.
Boris smiled boldly. “Ah, my marvelous idea! The scuttling-butt of the grapevine speaks of a snake that is loose, a cobra. Very dangerous, hmm? So I buy from fellow Russian, a sea trader, two mongeese. They are to breed, many babies, all to be trained as watching dogs.”
Tom stifled a laugh. “Watchdogs!”
“Illych says they are easily trained, and very intelligent. And do not many facilities like this Enterprises have such protectors?”
“Well, Boris, it was a good idea,” said Tom, not wishing to disparage the man’s good intentions. “It’s sure true that a mongoose would make a perfect protector against a snake. Over in India they’re champ cobra-killers. But ... ”
“You are giving me a but?”
“But the Enterprises grapevine was passing along bad data. There’s no snake loose here. It’s just a kind of nickname, for a person.”
“A bad person? Might you not wish to have him bitten?”
Arv chuckled. “They may be smart, but my guess is they’d bite a hundred good guys before hitting on a bad one.”
“Besides, Bor, they’re illegal,” Bud remarked. “Can’t bring ’em into this country— if they get loose they start killing poultry and small game.”
“I see.” Boris reddened in anger. “I shall speak of this to Illych! I have long suspected he is not true Russian, but Ukrainian.” The cook explained that both creatures had escaped their cage in his kitchen while he was trying to feed them.
“Tell you what, I’ll have some people from Life Sciences come over to, er, apprehend them,” Tom promised. “We’ll keep ’em in the zoology cages aboard the Sky Queen, and arrange to find them safe haven—in another country.”
“Where they will not be illegal aliens,” sniffed Boris with a look of disdain. “Very well.”
After the lab was cleared of mongeese, and of Russian chefs, Tom returned to his long-interrupted explanation. “All matter—all atoms—responds to magnetism to some degree. Matter with diamagnetic properties is ‘squeezed’ by magnetic forces and moves away from the center of the field, a form of repulsion.”
“And I just happen to know that paramagnetic matter does the opposite,” Bud interjected proudly.
Arv Hanson raised his eyebrows. “The boy’s been reading!”
Grinning, Tom went on. “Those basic effects are much weaker than ferromagnetism, the strong reactions we’re used to with substances like iron and commercial magnets. What I’m at work on, which I call a magnetic deflector, concentrates, modulates, and ‘contours’ a field in a way that amplifies the weaker forms of reaction.”
“Made it work yet?” Bud asked.
“Watch.” As Tom carefully adjusted the dials of the magneto-dynamic test device, a transparent filmy surface layer, floating on a fluid like a skin of oil, became luminous beneath the protective plate. “The glow is produced by microlasers in the sides of the tray, refracting upwards as they sweep back and forth through the top layer. Now let’s switch on the magnetic deflector apparatus, which is underneath the test stand.”
There was a click. Instantly a pattern of neatly curving lines, a spiral, spread across the luminous surface. Like a tour guide, Tom commented: “That’s a perfect logarithmic spiral, by the way.” There was a small dark area in the very center, and as the three watched it smoothly expanded out until the spiral was only visible at the edges of the fluid pan.
“What is it you have floating on the suspension liquid, Skipper?” Arv inquired. “Iron filings?”
Tom shook his head. “Nope. It’s been dusted with tiny droplets of Tomasite doped with manganese flouride, which is magnetically unresponsive.”
“But it responds anyway,” Bud declared.
“That’s the whole point,” his friend noted.
Arv scratched his forehead, jostling his lazily-combed blond hair. “I’m guessing the Meissner Effect.” Which elicited the Barclay Effect—a blank, slightly pained, look.
“I took a different direction, Arv,” Tom corrected the modelmaker. “Remember how we used linear spacewave fields to guide the megascope’s microwave beams through space? Well, my brain-light flicked on and it struck me that microwave interference patterns crawling along a surface like that act like ‘virtual’ electric currents.”
Responding to Bud’s expression, Hanson said: “Hey, let me take a crack at the explanation bit. Budworth, you like surfing and hit the beach when there’s one available, right?”
“Then maybe you’ve noticed how, when regularly spaced ocean waves come in and hit against a straight barrier—a seawall—at an angle, you can see a chain of wave crests moving sideways against the barrier.” When Bud nodded, the engineer continued: “Well, if I’m grasping what our blond prodigy is saying, he’s using an effect like that to produce what amounts to a chain of moving electric charges on the surface of the spectronic field. And that’s what an electric current is—moving charges. Which, incidentally, generate magnetic force.”
“Hmm.” Bud winked at Tom. “Not bad. The guy’s got a future.”
Tom laughed. “Anyway, by projecting the forces out into the space ahead of the deflector, it creates highly localized currents that grab ahold of ― ”
The exclamation was Bud’s, but Hanson echoed it. “Something’s rummaging around in my pants pocket!” gulped Arv, startled.
Tom stared at his companions with blank puzzlement. Then his hands darted downward toward his own pockets. The same thing was happening to him!
The next instant the entire contents of all their pockets—coins, keys, bits of paper, even globs of lint—were streaming out into the air at high speed, turning the pockets inside-out.
“Good grief, it’s happening all over the lab!” cried Tom.
Throughout the laboratory, small objects were streaking back and forth through the air, colliding with one another, shattering into fragments—and changing by the second into a hail of deadly bullets!
A MEETING IN THE
“GET DOWN!” Tom ordered as he sank to his haunches. “Make for the hallway and shut the door!” The young inventor gave Bud a look that stifled the young Californian’s instinctive protest. He and Hanson complied, protecting their heads with their arms.
Tom had realized immediately that his new invention was the behind the chaos. Unexpectedly, with no warning, the powerful magnetic forces were grappling all smaller, lighter objects in the vicinity and propelling them through the air in what Tom now observed to be wild back-and-forth loops, always returning to the same position—then darting away again!
The phenomenon had become a whirling cloud of shrapnel. Tom wormed his way across the tiled floor to the test stand and tried to reach up to the control board—then drew his hand back down with a cry of pain. Flying fragments of shattered test tubes had raked across the top of his hand, drawing blood!
Okay! he told himself, his muscles knotting as he steeled them for the pain to come. I’ll have to cut the power over at—
And then, abruptly, came a ragged crash all across the room. In unison the streaking shards had dropped limply to the floor! The banging roar was replaced by dead silence.
After a moment a white face beneath a floppy lock of black hair poked through the doorway. “Uh —T-Tom? Are you ... ”
“I’m fine,” Tom called out, rising to his feet. “Just a scrape on my hand.”
“Was it the magnetic deflector?” ask Arv as he and Bud cautiously reentered the lab.
Tom nodded wryly and said, “And I didn’t even get a chance to play hero by disabling it.”
Bud looked surprised. “Yeah? So what did stop it?”
“I guess you could say it stopped itself,” was Tom’s reply. “Look at that gouge-mark on the control panel. One of the fragments rammed the off button!”
Arv’s nod came with a wry snort. “Another day, another lab trashed. I take it this wasn’t part of your demonstration?”
Tom chuckled. “Well, it demonstrated something to me, at least. The thing works—but it goes critical at the slightest fluctuation in power input.”
“Shouldn’t be hard to fix,” commented the modelmaker. Tom agreed.
“That’s great. But... er, Tom,” began Bud. “There is one more thing ... ”
“What’s that, flyboy?”
“Buried somewhere in this big mess is—my car keys!”
Finally retreating to his design workshop, Tom spent the waning hours of the day working up the layout of the drone rocket which he hoped would crash through the disintegration barrier and return a sample to Earth. The rocket was to be shielded with a heavy coating of Tomasite and Inertite laminated with asbestalon, a heat-insulating material which Tom had devised for his atomic earth blaster. But none of this matters at all unless the antimatter granules can be pushed aside by the magnetic deflector, Tom reminded himself. As a further difficulty, the protective field would have to have a weak spot, an opening through which the sample would be funneled into its special container within the rocket fuselage.
After a call home and a late supper, Tom bunked down in the room adjoining his workshop and fell asleep instantly. When Bud came to rouse him, Tom blinked at the clock in disbelief. It was 11:30 in the morning!
“Good night!” gulped Tom.
“You mean good morning, pal!” replied Bud with a grin. “But anyway, I’m afraid you’re gonna have to gulp down your brunch on the run.”
“Huh? How come?”
“I came looking you up because Phil Radnor asked me to. He told me he just took a call on the security office’s PER unit from a guy named John Thurston at the CIA!”
Tom swung upright, senses engaged. “Thurston at the CIA? We’ve worked with him before —you’ve met him, Bud. In fact, he was one of the people Dad talked to in connection with that EMP pulse that disrupted defense communications.”
“Well, I’m supposed to trot you out onto runway three as soon as I can toss you out of that cot,” Bud stated firmly. “A jet’s going to fly you to an emergency confab, right away.”
“Really? When’s the jet due?”
“Due? She’s already here, pal—and waiting!” As Tom stood up, straightening his sleep-rumpled clothing, Bud’s expression darkened. “But look, pal. Are we really sure Thurston is Thurston, and the jet’s not carting you off to the Black Cobra?”
Tom stretched. “If the call came in on the CIA cartridge of the Private Ear Radio, I’d say we can be about ninety-nine percent confident. Even if Li managed to replicate the PER circuitry, don’t forget that the cartridge matrixes of the communicating units are ‘mated,’ one for one, in a way that can’t be faked.”
Some minutes later a wet-faced, slightly less disheveled Tom Swift boarded the sleek, unmarked jetcraft awaiting him. Inside the hatchway a hand was offered him. “I’m your pilot, Mr. Swift—Tom,” said the uniformed woman. “Lt. Dorrie Bemis, USAF, special tactical. They’re all waiting for you back in the flight lounge. Oh, and... well ... ” The Air Force lieutenant appeared somewhat embarrassed.
“Was there something else?” Tom asked with a polite smile.
“I just wanted to say—I enjoy those books so much! You know, the novelizations? I just read the one about the giant wrestler, where you’re in Yucatan. Say, did all that really happen?”
It was Tom’s turn for some mild embarrassment. “Well actually... I haven’t gotten around to reading Retroscope just yet. You see, we don’t preapprove those books. I’m afraid some of the details are sort’ve hyped-up to make a good story. But it’s true, there was a big wrestler, and we did go to Yucatan.” The woman smiled, and there was an awkward moment. “If you’d like, ma’am, I’d be happy to sign one of your books,” he offered.
“Oh, no, no, I had the graphology section do an autograph for me, and a very nice note in your own handwriting. But thank you.” She added: “We’ll be leaving in three minutes.”
“You’re cleared for takeoff?”
“Tom, we’re always cleared for takeoff!”
In the jet’s lounge, three men awaited their young guest. “Morning, Tom,” said John Thurston. The CIA section chief nodded toward the tall, slender man standing to his left. The young inventor thought he resembled a stalk of corn in shirt and tie. “Tom Swift, Dr. Leo Palfrey, National Research Council.”
As he shook Tom’s hand, Palfrey smiled thinly and said, “Incidentally, I bring greetings from our friend at ONDAR, Admiral Krevitt.” Krevitt, of the Office of Naval Defense Advanced Research, had worked with Swift Enterprises when submarine pirates had menaced the continental sea lanes. “He plays a great game of pinochle, Tom. We should get together some time.”
“Sure,” replied the scientist-inventor politely. He turned curiously toward the third man, a solidly built youngish man in a gray suit.
“Bernt Ahlgren, Tom. I’m afraid I can’t tell you exactly who signs my paycheck, but we’re the good guys. As for me personally,” he added, “I’m an expert in the field of advanced communications.”
“Intercepting them?” Tom asked dryly.
“Perish the thought!”
As Tom sat down, the jet fired up and began to taxi along the runway. He turned to Thurston, about to ask their intended destination, but the man stopped him with a finger wag. In a moment, mouthed the CIA man.
The jet lifted and climbed. To Tom’s surprise they didn’t level off, but continued a long ascent into the darkening sky.
“Now we can talk,” Thurston announced presently. “Bernt gave us a brief lecture on how conversations in a parked plane make him feel a tad insecure.”
“I love the stratosphere,” stated Ahlgren. “The upper stratosphere.”
Tom frowned. Another game! “You’ve all made your point about security. Now tell me where this plane is heading—please.”
“Our destination is Shopton, New York,” answered Thurston with a wink. “Swift Enterprises, to be specific. You see, we plan to make a great big lazy circle over the Great Lakes, then head back.”
Tom nodded. Evidently the secret conference was to take place entirely in midair!
It was Ahlgren who seemed to be in charge of the agenda. “Tom, you’re being brought into this because it appears to be connected to what’s happening up in space, the Nestria problem.”
“You’re referring to the Black Cobra? Li Ching?”
“For some time now we’ve known, thanks to the work of our... our special experts... that the Comrade-General is somehow involved in all this. He has his own spacecraft, of course—one which we can barely see, let alone track on radar. As you know, our boys haven’t quite solved the secret of his antidetection technology.”
“Which is not to say that your own ‘Antitec’ material isn’t far superior,” hastily interjected John Thurston, as if it were important to keep Tom’s ego well-stroked.
Tom said, “You’ve obviously read the reports my father and I have been sending to Washington. We assume the Cobra has produced some sort of finely dispersed cloud of antimatter particles in the space around Little Luna. I expect to be able to retrieve a sample in a matter of days.”
“That’s good news,” muttered Dr. Palfrey. “Do you have hope of reaching the surface of the asteroid before conditions at the base become critical?”
“Hope? Yes.” Tom frowned. He sensed that a good deal was being left unsaid. “No offense intended, gentlemen, but how about explaining to me how all this is a matter for the CIA and gosh-knows what else you represent.”
An exchange of glances ended at Bernt Ahlgren. “The EMP event the other day has quite a few folks—and not just in this country —mighty worried. If this international marauder can create phenomena of this nature on demand, he can basically pick the highest bidder—and auction off the rest of the world.”
“Bernt is speaking metaphorically, of course,” said Thurston. “But then also, we must consider Li’s evident access to antimatter, the ultimate ‘controlled substance’. The implications for ― ”
“I think we should tell him!” interrupted Dr. Palfrey suddenly.
“Yes,” stated Tom Swift. “I think you should!”
“Very well, then.” Ahlgren leaned forward. “From behind the shield of a protective barrier of the sort he has created, the Cobra could wield a weapon even more formidable than antimatter. Antimatter is fantastically destructive—but that is also its weakness. Great for blackmail, theoretically. But bombard a country from outer space, and what you get are tens of thousands of square miles of radioactive embers, useless and uninhabitable for Lord knows how long. Nor can the rest of the planet be protected from windborne fallout. As a practical matter, Tom, this sort of ‘doomsday weapon’ is valueless.”
“Antimatter warfare is not healthy for children and other living things,” said Palfrey in what Tom finally concluded was an attempt at wit.
“It would only be launched by some sort of revenge-minded psychotic, as a sick final gesture,” Tom agreed. “Li Ching is egotistical and grandiose, but mainly ― ”
“The word you want is controlling,” John Thurston said. “And a man like that needs to have something left to control.”
Dr. Palfrey’s voice was dry, almost ghostly. “Our people have concluded that the weapon he is seeking, the weapon he may now have, is one that destroys selectively, without general devastation. Do you understand, Tom?”
“I do, sir.” The young inventor had long since felt the blood draining from his face as he caught on. The prospect suddenly confronting him was a terrible one. “You’re talking about Lunite deatomization.”
It was Tom Swift who had led the expedition to Little Luna that claimed the phantom satellite for his country, and Tom Swift who had handled the two rock fragments of metallic crystal that he had subsequently named Lunite. Acting under some unknown external influence, the rocks had twice flared into action as if by their own accord, projecting a force that seemed to dissolve solid matter directly into the void without producing such secondary effects as radiation or incinerative temperatures.
“Imagine such a weapon!” exclaimed Thurston. Then he added, “But you don’t need to use your imagination, Tom. You and your people have studied Lunite.”
Tom nodded thoughtfully. “It’s used in the field-generating antennas for my repelatrons. But I’ve never made any real headway understanding the deatomization effect we encountered. There’s a theory—well, my theory—that the fragments somehow channeled and focused energies accumulated in the body of the asteroid itself. If so, the reaction might not work at all away from Nestria.”
“And now the Cobra has control of Nestria!” Ahlgren declared.
“Still—it’s a complete mystery how to activate and control Lunite for that purpose,” objected Tom. “We presume it was the space friends themselves who took control of the fragments before, just as they were able to move Nestria into Earth orbit.”
Dr. Palfrey stared at Tom for a long, uncomfortable moment. “Perhaps it has escaped your mind that Li has hinted at having made his own extraterrestrial contacts. Those now advising him may not be ‘space friends’ at all, but enemies of mankind maneuvering to dominate the human race!”
Tom was shocked into silence.
“Look this over,” said Thurston abruptly, handing Tom a file folder on which someone had scrawled in pen: asteroid pirates opp. As Tom glanced up with a question writ on his face, Ahlgren chuckled.
“That’s our nickname for this project—just for casual conversation, of course. As you may recall, by international treaty America’s claim to our little wandering moon is conditioned upon its being classified as a derelict ship, not a celestial body. And in turn we consider its capture an act of piracy. Hence ― ”
“Yes, I get it,” snapped Tom. He opened the folder. Inside were a number of single printed sheets, a photograph attached to each one.
John Thurston explained. “These men are all missing—at present, unofficially.”
Tom Swift frowned. “Okay. So just who are these ‘unofficially’ missing men?”
Thurston glanced at Bernt Ahlgren, who nodded as if giving Thurston permission to proceed. “Dr. Palfrey and I have collected all the information available on the individuals in question,” he explained. “I suggest you look over the data and give us your comments.”
Tom began leafing through the volume with frowning interest. “Well, I know this one,” Tom said, pointing to one of the photos. “Isn’t that the fellow who kicked up such a row at the International Magneto-Hydrodynamics Seminar in Baltimore?”
Palfrey nodded. “I presumed you’d recall the incident. Fernand Zerbski. Carried a big chip on his shoulder, hmm? Accused those two atomic physicists from Los Alamos of cribbing his work for their research paper. A most unfortunate attitude for a scientist! Very sad, very sad.”
Moments later, Tom turned to a photograph of a thin-faced, swarthy man with a high, bulging forehead. “This is Achmet Rahj!” he murmured. “The nuke equipment scandal.”
“Correct,” Thurston pronounced. “Selling prohibited technology that could be used in refining fissile materials. The affair brought down the government of one of our key allies in the Far East. And next, under your thumb, is Dr. Neng Hoon.”
“I’ve heard the name. He was mixed up in some stock swindle with a Middle East oil company, wasn’t he?” Tom asked the CIA man.
“Yes. The press called the scheme Grabscam. A brilliant rocket-fuel chemist, but rather a warped character, I’m afraid. Evidently he was more interested in money than science.”
Many of the others also were known to the young inventor by name or reputation. Both Tom and his father had met several of them at scientific gatherings, which Tom had begun to attend at an early age as part of his scientific education. Some, like Achmet Rahj, had become involved in scandal which had cut short their professional careers.
“Quite an interesting assortment of scientific brains, eh?” Ahlgren commented when the youth had finished looking through the file. “As you’ve noticed, a good many of them are temperamental and eccentric types, misfits.”
“With a definite anti-American, anti-Western bias—at least in several cases,” Tom added.
“That’s absolutely true,” Dr. Palfrey agreed thoughtfully. “One can see how most of them were either totalitarian-minded to begin with, or might have acquired a grudge against this country and our modern free society. A matter of fundamental psychological dynamics—we’ve profiled them all, of course.”
Tom handed back the folder, then spoke up quietly. “What strikes me about these men is that they’re just the sort who might have been called together for a space project.”
“Mmm. A space project?” Thurston shot a sharp glance at the young inventor. “How so, Tom?” Somehow the question suggested that Tom was being asked to confirm a theory the men already held.
“Look at the fields they specialize in—plasma physics, nuclear power, communications and telemetry, structural engineering, astrophysics.” Tom ticked them off on his fingers. “With a group like that on the job, someone could really shoot for the stars.”
“Well now. What kind of a space project? Any idea?” Ahlgren asked. “A moon shot, maybe?” His tone was slightly facetious.
Tom shook his head. “No. I’m sure we’re all thinking the same thing.” The young inventor paused worriedly. “Li would’ve had to have put together a team of experts to design and build his spacecraft. That’s certain. But gentlemen, manipulating antimatter and using it to create the barrier around Nestria is a whole other order of futuristic technology. And as it happens I know of another engineer, engaged in advanced training at M.I.T., who just may have been entangled in the project.”
Tom reminded them about John Tsu and his strange warning, which seemed to tie in with the Black Cobra and the deadly invisible barrier surrounding Nestria.
Thurston was soberly alarmed. “We haven’t neglected that part of your reports. Reluctant though we all were to accept it, it certainly adds up.”
“You haven’t yet told me about how it is that the scientists are missing,” Tom pointed out. “What were the circumstances?”
Bernt Ahlgren responded. “We, and our like-minded colleagues in many countries, keep tabs on men like these. Last year, within the span of about a week, every one of them gave us the slip and dropped out of sight completely. We have to assume they’re alive—but where? Doing what?”
“We have been monitoring our telecommunications resources with great attention,” declared Dr. Palfrey. “I am part of that effort. There has been no result to date—but now this ‘asteroid pirates’ business has popped up.”
“Tom, we wanted your confidential assessment of the capabilities of these men, without prompting,” Thurston explained. “As well as your thoughts on how to proceed—how to penetrate the space barrier and apprehend the Black Cobra and his technology.”
The group plunged into an earnest discussion of ways to cope with the challenge. The government officials were heartened when Tom explained the new invention on which he was working. They urged him to make every effort to break through the lethal “iron curtain” around the satellite.
“This is vital for national security, and I’m confident you can count on government financial support,” Thurston promised the young inventor. “Both NASA and the Defense Department can provide funds that are already allocated for missile work.”
“We might even tap a few of our off-budget special funds,” said Bernt Ahlgren with a conspiratorial raise of eyebrow.
“Thanks,” Tom replied. “But believe me, Dad and I are not worried about expenses right now. Getting the Nestria colonists home safely is our number one concern. I hope you all understand that.”
The aerial meeting finally wound down as the pilot intercommed that they were ten minutes from landing back at Enterprises.
Tom settled back in a comfortable seat sipping watery orange juice. In minutes he saw the blue curve of Lake Carlopa rising ahead. He could tell that the jet had begun its final descent to the Swift Enterprises airfield.
But suddenly the hairs of intuition bristled at the back of his neck! That’s strange... he thought. He turned in his seat toward John Thurston. “Mr. Thurston, the plane seems to be coming in at a funny angle. We should’ve made our conning level by now—it’s almost always done out over the middle of the lake.”
“Oh? You think there’s a problem?”
“Not necessarily. But we may have to loop back for a second landing pass.” Tom stood. “I’m a pilot, sir. I’m going forward to check on Lt. Bemis.”
He hastily made his way up the aisle to the control compartment. When he threw open the door, he gasped in disbelief!
The flight compartment was empty. The pilot had vanished!—and the jet was angling toward the ground, completely uncontrolled!
FRANTIC, Tom lunged forward to grab the stick, keen eyes surveying the board meters. He saw immediately, confirmed by his stomach, that pulling up safely in the seconds remaining would be difficult. As he began to level the jet, he flipped on the intercom. “Everyone strap in. There’s a—a situation up here. We may be landing pretty rough.”
The board showed the guide-beacons at the airfield. The jet was far too near—and very much too low! The plane was a thousand feet lower than Tom had realized!
“Swift Approach Control. This is Flight Niner-Four,” Tom barked into the microphone. “Approximately three miles north minor east. Estimate Enterprises at two-two. Over.”
The base tower responded, “Roger. We copy. You’re running way low, Niner-Four. I have— Holy heck! Get your nose up for a second pass!”
“No can do, Glen. No time to cut down our speed. I’m attempting a setdown, emergency drill.”
“Copy. Would you like a radar steer?”
The shore of Lake Carlopa flashed by, frighteningly close, as Tom prepared to land, extending the wheels. Though he had raised the nose slightly and flap-braked, the clock was against him. The unforgiving Enterprises airfield was now only seconds away!
“Turn to heading of zero-four-zero,” the tower called.
Tom complied, turning in for final approach.
Suddenly the tower operator’s voice broke in: “Check your ILS indications! Our scope shows you to be below glide path and localizer-left!”
The young inventor scanned his instrument landing system indicator and the altimeter. Good gosh, I didn’t lat-compensate enough! he exclaimed inwardly.
“Tower, I’m ― ” The words died in his throat as a rounded mass of gleaming metal loomed into view portside, like an upraised palm demanding that he Halt!
“Pull up, Tom!” cried the controller.
Tom barely had time to react. The next instant the jet rocked from a stunning impact as its right landing gear clipped the big dish antenna. Shouts of alarm erupted from the passenger cabin behind.
Belly landing! Tom thought, trying to force himself to remain cool. Tail down, drag maneuver.
The rear landing wheels touched the runway. The jet bounded twice, then held. Tom had already slammed down the throttle to cut power. But the jolt of the collision with the antenna had swung the nose of the plane sharply to port, dropping the right wing. Tom fought to correct this as he eased back on the control wheel, applying the left aileron at the same time.
The right wingtip scraped and rebounded. Just as Tom had hoped, the rebound forced the remaining forward wheel, the left one, down to the tarmac. The youthful pilot held his breath, and for one moment things looked hopeful. Then the jet began to shudder violently!
“Left leg can’t take it!” Tom said aloud. “We’re losing it!” He knew that with the forward gear completely gone and the back gear extended, the resultant nose-down could easily flip the jet!
He didn’t have time to try to retract the rear wheels. Instead he slammed on the throttle, and the craft leapt forward with a roar. Up, up, up! he thought desperately. The end of the runway was rushing up on him.
For a terrifying moment Tom thought the jet was determined to ram the security fence beyond the runway. But then he relaxed as he felt the plane climbing out with a surge of power. The top of the fence whisked by below.
“Son, that was superb flying!” The voice was at his ear right behind him.
“You’d be safer back with the others, Mr. Ahlgren,” Tom said brusquely.
But the agent seemed to be in a talkative mood. “Planning a water crash? Nice big lake. Plenty of fuel.”
Tom flicked his head at the lights on the instrument panel. “The landing gear mechanism is tweaked, front and rear. Without retracting she’ll tumble uncontrollably whatever she comes down on.”
“My assessment, too. I see that trainer of yours—what was his name? Benson?—did quite a job. Taught you all the tricks, hmm?” Ahlgren leaned close. “All right then. No water landing. You’re the idea guy on board, Tom. Any ideas?”
Tom’s brow knitted. “I always have ideas.”
“Then it’s time for ― ”
The youth interrupted. “Mr. Ahlgren, do me a favor. Leave my cockpit!”
“I’m afraid it’s not your cockpit, son.”
“It is now!”
“What happened, Niner-Four? Are you having difficulty?” the tower radioed. “Tom, we can guide you through the second pass.”
Gaining altitude, Tom replied coolly, “Swift tower, executing a missed approach. Will proceed to alternate airport.”
“Copy that. What airport?”
Instead of answering the question, Tom said, “Glen, what’s the status of the Sky Queen?”
“In her hole nice and snug.”
“Good. Please patch me through to Slim Davis.”
Eighteen minutes later, over the Atlantic, the jet’s radar announced a massive object miles ahead and high above. “We’re locked on you too, Skipper,” Slim radioed from the Queen’s command deck. “The crew’s finished clearing the hangar-hold. Everything’s battened-down.”
“Good going,” Tom radioed back. “Extend the deck on my signal. We want to get up close, but not so close as to get sheared in the slipstream when you lower it. I’ll keep our head down until the last moment.”
Tom climbed. Presently he could see the bright flares of the Flying Lab’s four tail jets burning against the deep blue sky. He approached cautiously, knowing that the backwash from the hurtling sky giant could be deadly.
Finally Tom’s jet was station-keeping one hundred yards aft of the Sky Queen’s tail, at a level slightly lower than her flat underhull. “All right, Slim,” the young pilot commed. “We’re positioned. Lower away.”
Immediately a big section of the Queen’s bottom began to descend like an elevator platform. It stopped. Tom edged upward a bit more, until the straightaway view forward showed the sky ahead of the Flying Lab through the forward side of the wall-less deck section, the upper air roaring through the broad opening between the extender struts. Tom knew that this was an abnormal, and possibly destabilizing, configuration for the Queen. Under normal circumstances the extensible hangar deck was lowered while the ship was hovering, stopped, on her banks of jet lifters.
Tom gently upthrottled, and the jet crept forward, a game of inches. As it neared the deck it began to shudder, and Tom tensely played the controls to keep the craft as steady as possible. He was attempting a landing while jetting along full speed ahead!
Tom could feel his stomach muscles tightening. He crossed over the trailing edge of the deck. Easing forward he saw the motion-arresters and setdown bumpers swing into ready position, ahead and to the side.
And then, a slight bump—and it was over.
“Welcome to the Sky Queen, gentlemen,” he intercommed his passengers. His voice was faint.
In the resealed hold of the huge three-decker craft, John Thurston pumped Tom’s hand. “Fantastic save, Tom! Fantastic! A midair landing—without slowing down! Magnificent idea.”
“It was really the only alternative, sir,” Tom responded with a modest, somewhat shaken smile. “With the landing gear fouled, the only way to maintain control all the way through was to come to rest without cutting our airspeed.”
His other passengers were doubtless grateful, but decidedly less effusive than Mr. Thurston. Dr. Palfrey only stared at Tom with bulging eyes. Bernt Ahlgren gave a slight, smiling nod as if to say, Not bad, kid.
From the control compartment Tom called ahead to Phil Radnor. “We’ve got the story, Tom, more or less. Shopton’s been flooded with reports of something separating from a low-flying jet over Lake Carlopa—a paraglider, evidently. This ‘Lt. Bemis’ was able to steer over to the far shore woods and drop out of sight. Probably had a crony waiting.”
“The jet has a resealable cockpit ejection system—that’s how she was able to ‘step out’ when we slowed over the lake,” Tom explained. “The government guys are stunned that they had ― ”
“A snake in their midst,” Radnor finished wryly.
When the Flying Lab finally made its landing at Enterprises, Tom saw his father waiting for him on the airfield. Then the airfield was invaded by a running throng of Enterprises employees—grapevine alert! Cheers went up as they saw Tom emerge from the skyship. Rushing to greet his father, the two exchanged pale grins from a distance, then a fervent handclasp and embrace. Both son and father were limp and shaken.
Tom accepted the crowd’s acclaim with a quiet smile. But as soon as possible he broke away and hurried off with his father to their office in the main building.
As they settled into comfortable chairs, Damon Swift said to his son, “Incredible to think that the Black Cobra has been able to place an operative at the highest levels of our government’s security apparatus.”
“We don’t quite know that, Dad—that it’s the Cobra, I mean,” Tom pointed out. “There are other players in the game—the team from the Chinese military, as well as whatever group Mr. Fun is associated with.”
“You’re holding on to that notion that Mr. Fun might not be on our side, working with Collections?”
Tom shrugged in frustration. “I don’t know. It’s true that our ‘Taxman’ contact directed me and Bud to Mr. Fun’s phantom office. But who knows whether they’re part of the same group—or just using each other for their own ends? We’ve found, more than once, that even our own ‘good guy’ agencies are willing to maneuver civilians like us into doing what they think needs doing without bothering to give us the big picture.”
“Yes, Tom—manipulation. Even if the ultimate cause is a good one, it deprives us of our right to decide for ourselves.” The elder Swift was quiet for a while, musing. “I have to trust John Thurston, but for all we know this Bernt Ahlgren and Dr. Palfrey may be manipulating him.”
“And trying to get me to do their bidding, without so much as a please!” pronounced Tom grimly. “Maybe I’m being a little too paranoid. But Dad, I have the strong feeling the flying conference wasn’t so much designed to solicit my comments—as to get me to take independent action once again, the kind of thing they can deny involvement in if things go wrong.”
“I’m very sorry to say—you could well be right, son.” Now it was Damon Swift’s turn to shrug.
“And I’m very sorry to say that once again, their gimmick will probably work!”
Tom decided to clear his mind of his frenzied experience by focusing on his particle-catcher device. As he exited the doors of the administration building to head for his lab, he almost collided with Bud, dressed in workout togs that exhibited his muscular physique. “Oh, hi! Back already? I spent some time over at the gym in town. Whew!—big lunch. So—anything interesting come up in the meeting?”
The young inventor grinned. “Oh, maybe a little... I suppose.”
Tom’s chief of engineering, Hank Sterling, joined the young inventor in his underground lab adjoining the Sky Queen’s cavernous hangar. After performing some delicate tests on the magnetic deflector’s “funnel” mechanism, he and Tom spent the waning hours of the exhausting day supervising the preparation of a midget cargo rocket which Tom hoped would be able to crash through the formidable wall around Nestria, delivering a small bundle of supplies for the base. “The shoot will also serve as a test of the magnetic deflector system,” he explained to Sterling. The rocket was to be shielded with a heavy coating of Inertite-glazed Tomasite, laminated with asbestalon, molded around a hull of strong, lightweight Neo-Aurium metal.
“Gallopin’ gamma rays, chief, you’re really throwing into the stewpot everything Enterprises has got!” Hank observed with a laugh.
“Sure am,” nodded Tom. “I have no idea whether the magnetic deflector will work well enough to protect the capsule in the denser parts of the barrier. Still, we’ll get basic info to guide the final development of the sampler probe—and with any luck we’ll be able to get at least a smidgen of food and supplies down to the surface.”
Hank looked over the plans for the test missile, which assembly chief Art Wiltessa was already engaged in constructing. “Nice miniaturization you and Arv worked out,” he commented admiringly. “Man, the whole thing sure is tiny! When do you plan to ship it off to Fearing for launch?”
“No time, Hank. I want to take advantage of the shadow-traverse, when the barrier is at its weakest, and the next one is late tonight!” The scientist-inventor explained that he would be launching from Swift Enterprises directly, using a multistage rocket as compact as the delivery capsule itself.
“I tell ya—the things we can do these days!” Sterling boggled.
After a late supper, Tom bunked down in his laboratory and fell asleep instantly. Bud came to rouse him at 11:15 P.M. and the boys jeeped across the network of runways to the launching area under a gauzy sky almost devoid of stars.
“Tom, do you think there’s much chance of the supply rocket getting through?” Bud asked.
The young inventor could tell that his chum was deeply concerned about the asteroid colonists. “A good chance, I hope,” Tom replied. “It depends partly on whether the barrier matter becomes any more intense beyond the point reached by the Repelatron Donkeys. Even if the ground reaction has thinned the barrier overall, we just don’t know the contours of the effect.”
The sleek booster rocket stood poised on its pad in a glare of floodlights. Its two stages stood only some twenty feet high, the cargo capsule on top adding another eight feet. Tom pointed out a triangular arrowhead-shape mounted on the prow of the capsule. “That’s the flux-projector antenna for the magnetic deflector—basic model.”
Both youths shivered in the chill night breeze blowing off Lake Carlopa as they headed for the control blockhouse.
George Dilling greeted them with the news that radio contact had again been made with the base on Nestria, by means of the plant’s powerful magnifying antenna. “So far it’s pretty sketchy, but you can make out a word now and then.” He added with a chuckle: “Even a few choice Winkler-isms! But it’s getting stronger and clearer by the minute.”
Tom was heartened by Dilling’s report. “And they’ve barely crossed the margin of the shadow. By the time the test missile gets there, about two-hundred minutes from now, Little Luna should be right in the thick of it!”
Minutes later the cargo rocket blasted off, its hyper-powerful solid fuel thrusting it ever faster through the atmosphere heedless of friction. Then came a tense period of waiting while it streaked through space toward the asteroid. As the space outpost monitored its path, Tom and Bud repaired to the observatory to keep close watch by means of the megascope.
“Any time now,” Tom pronounced quietly. “We’re getting good telemetry, not only from the rocket and the outpost, but even from Base Galileo. The antimatter cloud has really thinned out over the last couple hours.”
Tom programmed the megascope antenna to maintain the sensor viewpoint close to the capsule, following it along. Presently Bud pointed out a flashing, flickering effect surrounding the hull like a halo and extending well forward.
“That’s the mag deflector’s field interacting with the outer edges of the barrier,” explained Tom. “We’re right on the button, so far.”
Suddenly the two observed the brilliant flash as the rocket pierced the denser part of the disintegration barrier.
“Looks like a hotter explosion than I was figuring on,” Bud commented.
Tom nodded worriedly. “The rocket must have hit an area of denser material. It probably coheres in long streamers, like clingy cobwebs. Let’s hope the extra shielding can take the radiation.”
“But at least it broke through,” the black-haired copilot pointed out.
The megascope output abruptly faded away, and the screen went blank. “Far as our own signals can go,” declared Tom. “Let’s head over to communications and find out what’s coming in through the big antenna.” The boys drove to the communications center to await word of the results from the base crew on Nestria. When they arrived, the news was bad.
“We’ve lost all radio contact, Mr. Swift,” Lee Jarrild, the communications expert on duty, reported. “Telemetry too. Everything just dropped out when the rocket hit the barrier.”
Bud gulped. “Then—then maybe it didn’t get all the way through.”
“No concession speeches just yet, flyboy!” Tom pronounced. He strode over to a console and plucked a small device from its cradle.
“Hey, a Private Ear Radio!” cheered Bud Barclay. “You mean you ― ”
“Part of our precious cargo. Let’s give ’em a chance to open up the rocket. It’ll probably need some serious anti-rad decontamination, too.”
The minutes fled, becoming an hour as Tom and Bud waited tensely for some word from the Nestria colonists. Had Tom’s invention opened a path for the test rocket? Had the capsule’s shielding proved adequate?
If not, the main hope of rescue would be dashed—and Nestria’s inhabitants would remain in captivity 50,000 miles from the earth, in straits that would soon become desperate!
THE SHRILL beep of the PER came so abruptly, after such a long and dismal wait, that Tom and Bud almost fell from their chairs! “Th-this is Tom Swift!” gasped the young inventor into the unit’s inbuilt microphone as Bud leaned close to listen.
“It’s Kent Rockland, Tom.” The base leader’s voice was harried and husky, but came through clear as a bell!
“Thank goodness! So the test missile must’ve made it all the way to the surface.”
“Yes. She came down nice and slow. But... ” His voice, coming sharply over the speaker, sounded somber. “The rocket landed—or what was left of it—but it was burnt to a frazzle.”
As Bud mouthed Oh no!, Tom asked: “Supplies too, I suppose?”
“The edibles were all destroyed. Doc Simpson says the radiation was just too intense, even with all that shielding.”
Tom bit his lip. “Kent, this is a tough break, but tell your gang not to give up. At least we know now that my magnetic deflector is strong enough to allow us to take a sample of the barrier material for study. We’ll lick this problem yet.”
“We know you will, Skipper. All of us.” Rockland added with a wry chuckle, “But make it soon, please. We’re on short rations, but our stomachs are wrapped around our backbones.”
Bud commandeered the unit. “Where Chow’s concerned that must be quite a sight to see!”
“Chow’s right here, Buddy Boy!” came a faint foghorn bellow in the background. “I’m gonna have some words fer you when I get back!”
“Chow, I—I’m looking forward to it,” Bud replied seriously.
When the call was ended, both youths felt despondent. “I had really hoped that the magnetic deflector would be enough to get at least a small cargo capsule through to the base,” Tom murmured. “Safely through. Now... ” Seeing the look on his friend’s face, the young scientist-inventor straightened. “Now we send up our sample-scooper!”
Bud thumped him on the back. “You’ll lick it, genius boy.”
Tom went home for a few hours sleep, rising early to do some work on his computer. At the breakfast table he reported to his family: “I’m sure I’ve got the field-contouring worked out for the sampler rocket.”
“Do you have to wait for the next time they pass through the shadow?” his mother asked.
“Not in this case, Mom,” Tom replied. “We’re not trying to penetrate the barrier, just to skirt around its outer edges. Art Wiltessa expects to have the payload section finished by noon,” he went on. “It’s too big and heavy to launch from Enterprises, so Bud’s going to jet it down to Fearing. It’ll be launched on one of our Workhorse booster rockets.”
Sandy put in: “Dad says you’ll be having your Super Scooper land in the ocean.”
“Right, sis. Our samples will be microscopic, but if even one grain of antimatter gets loose from the internal containment field it’ll cause a huge explosion.”
“We can’t risk a ground landing,” said Mr. Swift. “Once we verify by telemetry that everything is intact, one of the seacopters will pick it up. Then Bud will fly it back to Enterprises.”
“We’ll have it in hand tomorrow morning,” Tom concluded with a show of confidence.
The young inventor’s confidence proved well founded. The probe mission came off without a hitch, and at nine the following morning a bulky many-sided container was delivered to Swift Enterprises Analysis Lab Four, where two excited young men awaited it.
Tom rolled the container into a test chamber and used a repelatron to produce a perfect vacuum inside. Then robotic arms connected several sensors and analysis devices to ports on the side of the container.
“This is fantastic!” Tom muttered in awe, his eyes pressed to a binocular-like viewer.
“Is it what you expected?” asked Bud.
“It’s definitely Diracinium—or rather, anti-Diracinium. But the atoms have been molded into some kind of molecular construct that I’ve never seen before. And according to the spectronalyzer... Wait, I’ll pump the data into the computer and bring up a simulation.”
In a moment they were gazing at a weird multicolored shape on the computer monitor. “Good grief, they’ve twisted it into a pretzel!” exclaimed Bud.
“It’s a molecular chain inter-looped like a knot,” his friend said. “And it’s continuous—see where the ends connect up?”
“I gather it’s too small to see, hmm?”
“Yep, about a tenth the size of a salt crystal. But what’s unbelievable is what it’s doing!”
“It’s doing something?”
Tom grinned. “Something normally seen in biology—in nerve cells. The linked molecules are producing what are called action potentials at their points of contact, which end up separating negative and positive ions. When the potentials become too strong, the reservoirs discharge into one another and the process begins again. And then—look.”
The young inventor touched several controls to bring up a new simulation, one which showed several dozen of the twisted molecules. “Hey!” said Bud. “What’s making ’em spin around like that?” Each of the molecular chains was now rotating like a top, with a start-and-stop motion.
“It’s a reciprocating electromagnetic effect,” explained Tom. “Each buildup-discharge cycle produces a pulse which yanks the nearby chains into a half-circle rotation. But don’t get the wrong idea, flyboy. I had the simulation run slow. In realtime the chains are spinning more than a billion times a second!”
Bud Barclay discharged a deep breath. “So—do we know how to get through the barrier?”
For some time Tom was silent, the shifting glow of the screen playing across his pensive face. When he finally spoke his voice was low. “We know how the barrier is kept stable. The pulsed magnetic interactions hold the particles at a set distance from one another, and their individual hyper-rotations turns them into little gyrostabilizers. But flyboy ... ”
Tom suddenly switched off the monitor, and Bud was alarmed to see his hopeless, dejected expression. “Bad?” Bud asked.
“Bad,” Tom confirmed dully. “Now I see why the magnetic deflector wasn’t able to hold back enough particles to keep the test missile from getting fried by radiation. Good idea. Not good enough. The general approach just won’t work on stuff like this. What I’m—what I’m saying, Bud― ” He looked sadly into his friend’s gray eyes. “—is that my invention’s a flop. I’ve failed.”
Bud’s muscles knotted with fierce emotion. “You’re crazy! You can’t fail!—not with all those men and women trapped up there.” His voice softened. “Okay, look. Maybe your magnetic deflector can’t do the job. But you know a lot more than you did an hour ago, right?”
Tom smiled wanly. “Right.”
“So you just have to wait for another idea to tumble down out of that attic of yours. The one under your crewcut!”
The crewcut nodded. “Point made. And as a matter of fact, there is something else we can do. It could solve the whole problem without another brilliant Tom Swift invention!”
“Now you’re talking!” exclaimed Bud.
“Don’t cheer yet. What I mean is, we could handle the space crisis here on Earth. All we have to do is go after the Black Cobra!”
Bud grinned. “That’s all, huh.”
“It’s enough!” laughed Tom. “But obviously Li Ching has some way to disperse the antimatter cloud, or at least create a safe passage for his ship. Otherwise he’d be unable to make use of the asteroid for whatever plan he has in mind—such as doping out the Lunite deatomization effect.”
“Sure! If we can find the guy, we could steal his technology for a change, just like he steals ours.”
“Which may be exactly what was behind Mr. Fun’s gift to us—the cobra cube,” pointed out Tom. “The big idea wasn’t to penetrate the Nestria barrier, but to penetrate Li’s organization.”
Bud flopped down on a lab stool. “First we have to figure out where it is.”
“It’s where those missing scientists are.” Then Tom brightened and snapped his fingers. “In fact, I just realized that we have a lead!”
“Africa!” The youth began to pace the lab excitedly. “Diracinium, and its antimatter twin, have only been found in one place on Earth—the big cave gallery under Mount Goaba in Borukundi! For the B.C. to have gathered enough to make the disintegration cloud, he would have to have set up some sort of extraction operation right there, under the noses of the international research facility.”
“Then Africa it is!” cheered Bud. “So what do we do, pal? Fly over in the Sky Queen and drop a secret agent on the mountain?”
Tom threw his best friend a sly, even mischievous, look.
“Not a secret agent,” pronounced Tom Swift. “One if by land—two if by sea!”
THE ANTIMATTER MINE
TWELVE MILES off the coast of the nation of Cameroon, continent of Africa, the Swift Enterprises seacopter Sea Hound hovered above the ocean floor in deep water. A hatchway opened and two dark-clad figures jetted into the water like human torpedoes.
“See you soon, Skipper!” sonophoned crewman Zimby Cox. “And please make it real soon!”
“I’ll sure try, Zim,” replied Tom through his diversuit communicator. “Hang tight. It may take a couple days.”
“I’ll be listening for your signal.”
“Got the cave opening ahead, Tom,” commed Bud as he aqua-soared alongside his chum. “The sonarscope’s painting a nice glowing blotch on my helmet screen.”
“I see it too.” Tom touched his sleeve control, increasing the force of the ion-drive diverjet on his back. Anxious, impatient, he sped toward his target. In minutes it became visible to the eye—a black gash in the side of the subocean floor as it began its rise to meet the shoreline.
The previous day Tom and Bud had scouted a circular pattern in the sky, centered on Mount Goaba. As the young inventor guided the cycloplane back and forth, one of his inventions, a sensor device nicknamed the gravy-scope, scanned the earth below for the slight gravitational anomalies that could indicate deep cave systems linking to the caves of nuclear fire beneath the mountain. The boys knew that many such caves existed, and the presence of a flow of seawater at the bottom of the well-like main cavern, rising and falling with the tides, proved that some part of the network of caves eventually linked to the distant Atlantic.
But which cave? Where? Numerous possibilities made a hopeful appearance on the scope, only to peter out as the SwiftStorm pursued them westward. But at last they found what they sought, a series of deep natural tunnels that ran with water. They followed the trail across Cameroon and finally to the sea, piercing the floor a few miles beyond a little-inhabited part of the coast.
“There’s every likelihood they’re mining the Diracinium close to where the cave runs into the big cavern,” Tom had told Bud. “It would have several advantages—including the fact that the underground tidal river gives them an undetectable route for coming and going.”
“And a great route for a couple divers to sneak up on them!” Bud had agreed with enthusiasm.
Now the hazardous underwater invasion of the Cobra’s domain commenced. With Tom’s electronic hydrolungs supplying the youths with air for however long they might need it, they jetted through the opening and into a long passage that twisted and turned abruptly, but always returned to its eastward heading.
Now and then they paused and broke the surface, using their special suit-lamps to pierce the unending darkness of the cave. Once Bud pulled open his facemask—then pressed it shut again with a cough. “Good night, that cave air’ll kill you faster than the Black Cobra! It’s full of moisture and smells like a fish factory.”
“If they barge the Diracinium along the river, they probably wear oxygen masks,” Tom remarked. “And look downriver.” Tom pointed. There were clear signs that the tunnel had been widened by human effort—and recently.
“Hypothesis confirmed,” commented Bud. “We’re on the right track, genius boy.”
Hours passed beneath the water. Occasionally they surfaced to rest, keeping their masks shut and their forms well hidden behind rocks. Sometimes they nibbled nourishment from their sealed suit pouches. Once they slept, a brief night.
There were many forks and junctions. They had a crude map that the gravy-scope had created, which was projected in glowing lines upon the insides of their masks. But in some places the map lacked detail. Twice they made a wrong turn and had to double back in frustration.
“Getting close,” Tom promised.
“We must be,” carped his pal. “You’ve said it about twenty times.”
An hours-long silence was broken suddenly by the appearance of a faint luminance that was not their own. A light was approaching them from some distance to the rear!
In a minute they could hear the throb of a motor. “Heading toward Goaba,” declared Tom. “Maybe an empty barge coming to pick up cargo.”
“Or—a passenger boat full of missing scientists!” added Bud. “Bet they have sonar on constant scan to watch for rocks. Thank goodness these suits can’t be detected.”
“The Antitec sheathing should do the trick,” Tom agreed. Yet his mind added: Assuming, of course, that Li hasn’t figured out a way to overcome it yet!
They waited tensely on the bottom. The vessel drew near and passed over their heads. It was longish and narrow, partially supported by pontoons running along its sides, lashed by cables to the hull.
“Feeling lazy, flyboy?” asked Tom. “Wouldn’t be hard to catch a ride the rest of the way.”
“All for it, Skipper!” was the reply.
They hooked themselves to the pontoon cables and were dragged along. Ironically, the move lengthened the duration of the journey—they could move much faster in the jet-thrust diversuits.
Two hours later the outboard motor slowed, and the boys could see light shining down ahead of them. A bump, and they stopped. Wooden pilings, new looking, rose next to them.
Turning on their hydrophones they could hear, through the hull and the water, the shuffle of footsteps—many feet. “Passengers it is,” said Tom. “Ready, pal?”
“Ready, waiting, and gulping air,” Bud sonophoned back.
Using their suit sonar they found a small cove a few hundred feet further along, dark and apparently secluded. Rising into the dank air they clambered up on the rocks and pulled off the diversuits and carefully stashed them away, retaining small flashlamps. “So how do I look?” asked Bud.
“Passable.” Beneath the diversuits the two wore simple, lightweight work garments. They also wore disguises—makeup, thick glasses for Bud, a realistic mustache and darkened hair for Tom.
“You know,” Bud commented, “if I ever I get to be twenty years older, I really hope I look a lot better than this.”
Tom chuckled quietly. “Looking older is the whole point—older, and like stereotyped lab slaves.”
They examined the little cove, and Bud pointed to a faint splash of light on the far wall. “We connect to the main tunnel, at least. Any sign of a dry path?—or do we pull our boots back on and wade over?”
“I think we can just work our way over those rocks. Come on.”
Atop the rocks they had a long view of the underground channel. The boat floated at a small aluminum pier, clearly intended for human traffic only, illuminated with floodlights. Beyond was a big hollow, like the front of an open arcade, cut into the rock wall. No one was visible, but they could hear the sputter of many voices echoing from rock.
They inched closer, trying to keep to the shadows. Pressed against the rock that framed the arched opening, Tom used a tiny periscope to peer around the corner. “Doorway, guard, line of people,” he whispered. “The guard’s not looking up, and the people mostly block his view. Walk naturally.”
“I always walk naturally!”
They stepped into the light and strode forward with as much casual calm as they could fake. Some eight men stood in line, filing past the uniformed guard and through a broad portal with a frame of metal. Tom was relieved to see that no one was looking back toward the pier, and that the boys’ garments would not be out of place.
Tom and Bud quietly joined the rear of the line. Arriving at the guard station, Tom did as those in front of him had done. He withdrew the cobra cube from his pants pocket and handed it to the seated guard, who barely looked up.
The guard clicked the cube into an open port on his monitor panel. “Hmm. Welcome to you, Dr. Darwin Christopher. Australia, is it?”
Now he knew! Tom did his best to assume an ozzie twang. “Ay, roit m’friend. Adelaide.”
“Fresh out o’ jail, mate.”
The guard chuckled pleasantly. “Is no one of us perfect. Not me, for sure.” His accent sounded Eastern European, Tom decided.
The guard handed back the cube and said to Tom, “Please to keep on your person at all times.” He turned to Bud and held out his hand.
Bud shrugged. “Moosht valoofa,” he said.
“He is my assistant, Rooba Nurbat,” Tom explained. “Speaks no English.”
The guard said something in another language.
“Not that either,” added the young inventor quickly.
“Where is his identity cube?” challenged the guard. “He must have one.”
Tom feigned impatience. “Wot is this? We were told very explicitly that Nurbat was to be admitted on my say-so. Got to ’ave ’im wif me, mate.”
The guard frowned. “Oh? Who gave this permission?”
Who? The young inventor’s brain worked furiously. “It was ... ”
“Achmet Rahj! You’ve heard of him, I would hope!”
The man looked down at a small screen, apparently browsing through a list. “Oh, I see it here. Rahj. Yes, a Righthand! But he is not here.”
“He was to meet us!” snorted “Dr. Christopher” in annoyance. “Are you saying I’ve wasted my valuable time?”
“Oh, no no,” exclaimed the guard hastily. “But the Helmsman has ordered all Righthands to West Station as of yesterday, last minute! You were not informed?”
“No. But we were one day delayed, you know.” Tom mumbled something incomprehensible to his companion, who frowned fiercely and mumbled back. “And what now, hmm? Will this incompetence prevent our inspecting the mining operation as planned? Sholly you know that there must be no delay—time, you know! Time!”
“Time!—of course.” Making a gesture, the guard again took Tom’s cube and slid it into his apparatus. “There now, you see? I have added your man to the code. Now two of you on one.”
“Roit then,” nodded Tom, hoping he sounded more convincing to the guard than he did to himself. “Where shall I begin?”
“As you are both new, it is the rule that you must have the orientation. Perhaps you can translate for your assistant, I think. Go on through, please, and follow the arrows.”
“Thanks,” said Tom. “I’ll put in a good word, m’friend.”
Through the door lay a spacious carpeted hallway like that of a fine hotel, brightly lit and bustling with foot traffic, minions of the Black Cobra who paid no attention to the new arrivals. Arrows labeled orientation in English led the two to a small theater, where they sat before a screen with a handful of others. Tom recognized a few of them from the line at the entrance.
As Tom and Bud sat themselves, a white-haired man leaned over and said, “Hello there—Breeman Halspeth, data science and counterfeiting. Didn’t notice you two on the boat.”
Tom offered his hand. “We were brought here separately from the rest of you.”
The young inventor nodded, adding: “They call us Righthands.” Why not? he thought.
“Always have to have their silly titles, I suppose. And now they insist that we watch a film. Foolishness, eh?”
The lights dimmed. To the clang of a gong and a tinny fanfare, the image of the Helmsman himself appeared on the screen—thin, pale, snakelike, imperious. A single-knotted ponytail fell to the side from the crown of his shaven head. He wore a crisp-cut military uniform, black in color with gold trim, a uniform from the dying days of Imperial China more than a century previous.
“Welcome,” he said in his cultured, accented voice. His face was cold, expressionless. “And I say, not ‘good day’ to you, but great day. The Great Day is coming, and we shall own that day together, you and I.
“They are pleased to call me The Helmsman. For certain reasons, obvious to those of you who have studied the folklore of China, I choose to call myself the Black Cobra. Who am I? I am a man of the future—yet at the same time, of the past.”
The image of Li Ching was replaced by an old sepia photograph, a young Chinese man in impressive robes. “The boy-emperor Tong Zhi. Given great power he cast it aside indifferently, dying of his dissipations before the age of twenty. It was said that his son and heir died soon after with the mother to be, the Empress. But that is a lie. The son was born alive, living his life in secret exile, the true heir to the Dragon Throne.
“I am his direct descendant. And thus I claim by right the ancient throne and the title of veneration, Son of Heaven, supreme ruler of the Celestial Kingdom. And as the scion of the Manchu Dynasty, I further claim descent from Temujin, Genghis Khan, whose heirs once exacted tribute from half the population of the earth.
“In me, the Dragon Throne lives. In my blood, the Great Khan lives. If I have sought wealth, it is in service to power. If I have sought power, it is in service to virtue and the honor of my ancestors. I am the agent of restoration. By the restoration of the Khanate, the world itself shall be restored.”
Bud groaned softly next to Tom. It was not a groan of awe, but of unimpressed derision.
“Now then,” said the man on the screen, “let me make one thing perfectly clear. Some say, to put it crudely, that I wish to rule the world. Another lie! What, I ask, can one do with a world? The Khanate of the Black Cobra is of limited extent, as was the dominion of my ancestors. I ask only the return to me of what was taken from them—China, Korea, Japan, South Asia, and certain parts of Central Asia.”
“Doesn’t want California,” Bud muttered.
Now the scene changed. A brick wall filled the screen. Said the voice of Li Ching, “Here you see the Wall of Contemplation. Upon each brick is a name, the name of one dead. These men and women—there are many—sought to betray the future. Members of my family, your new family, they were disobedient. But the future, like the tides, cannot be held back. For their cowardice and lack of vision, they paid the one penalty that can never be revoked. It is as certain as Destiny.”
The Black Cobra now reappeared, a faint and unnerving smile touching his perpetually pursed lips. “But let us contemplate happier things. You have chosen to join with me in this magnificent enterprise. Do not fail me, and you will see the future unfold.
“Thank you. And in the name of the Dragon Throne and the Celestial Khanate, have a Great Day.”
The lights came up to a smattering of dutiful, and somewhat nonplused, applause—audible eye-rolling. Bud whistled in mock enthusiasm. Tom nudged him. “Sorry,” whispered Bud. “It was inspiring. Doncha think, mate?”
At the theater door they were stopped by a tiny woman in a white lab coat. “Dr. Christopher?—and you must be Mr. Nurbat.”
“Absolutely correct,” said Tom, offering his hand politely.
“I am Dr. Chemin de Fer,” she said with a slight smile. “Our gate security enforcer, Kerim, informed me of your arrival, and sent me the photographs taken of your faces as you stood in line. My word, we were expecting you weeks ago, Doctor.”
“I was delayed in Australia. I informed the leadership, but― ”
“There are inefficiencies in any large organization. Makes you wonder about the future of the Khanate.” She began to lead Tom and Bud along the hallway. “In fact, it seems I have been misinformed as to the purpose of your visit. Do I understand that you wish to inspect the mining operation? I was not aware of your expertise in this novel field of antimatter geology.”
“The Helmsman wanted it that way,” Tom replied calmly. “Right hand, left hand—you know. Security.”
“Of course.” She gave Tom a challenging narrow-eyed look. They began to converse on obscure technical subjects involving the structure and properties of Diracinium. Tom had anticipated being tested in this manner to give proof of his identity.
The discussion made Bud glad he didn’t speak English.
Dr. Chemin de Fer seemed satisfied. She waved them into an elevator, then down a cross-hall. They halted at a small window-slot on the wall, covered by a protective panel which she slid aside. “We are about two-thousand feet from the reaction pit under Mount Goaba. Take your first look at our antimatter mine, Dr. Christopher.”
Tom pressed close to the thick pane of the view slot, Bud crowding next to him. The view was eerie, yet fascinating. They were overlooking, from a fair height, a long gallery, a cave fashioned by raw nature and enlarged by man. In a harsh bluish light they could see the underground river. Its banks were eaten away by digging, and lightning-like threads of fire danced upon the surrounding rocks.
Thick single rails arced across and along the river, and strange dangling machinery slid along them, bristling with robotic digging equipment.
Bud gasped next to Tom, barely stopping himself from exclaiming in the unknown English language. Tom followed his chum’s eyes to a hulking figure standing immobile at the far end of the gallery.
“Mm, I say!—that’s one of the Swift giant robots, isn’t it?” inquired Tom of Dr. Chemin de Fer.
“Why yes, yes it is,” she answered. “One of our front companies purchased it. Designed for work in high-radiation environments.”
Tom nodded. “So I’ve heard. Everything automated in the dig, I trust? No humans?”
The woman smiled faintly. “Not as a rule. Even before the extraction of the antimatter molecules, the raw Diracinium ore is violently reactive—antiproton-emitting vapor, you know. Now and then humans do find themselves, very briefly, in the Hole. Namely those who have displeased the Helmsman.”
“Very efficient!” gulped the disguised youth.
“Indeed so. Oh—here you are!” Chemin de Fer had turned to look behind the two youths. Turning away from the view window, they found that two stonefaced men were standing close behind them, holstered automatics at their waists.
“Your security escorts, gentlemen. They are not permitted to shake hands—forgive them.” She addressed the silent men. “Elvan, Uraddo, please allow me to introduce your two charges, our guests and would-be invaders. This one, on your right, is Mr. Bud Barclay. And the other one is the celebrated inventor and explorer, Mr. Tom Swift!”
FORTRESS OF THE
THE VULNERABLE parts of their disguises were roughly ripped and wiped away, without gentleness, and Tom and Bud were herded at gunpoint into a narrow man-dug tunnel where a cramped monorail car awaited them. They sat facing the two guards and two guns, Dr. Chemin de Fer taking a second car behind them. Tom said nothing. Bud said a few things, loudly, but finally wound down into sullen silence.
The ten-minute ride at high speed ended at an elaborately camouflaged hanger somewhere in the dense jungle of Borukundi. Soon they were in the well-appointed passenger cabin of a small jet, evidently a supersonic one, winging westward over the continent, then the ocean. They were left unbound and fairly comfortable. The two guards sat across from the boys, staring at them, hands poised to leap to their guns.
After a time Dr. Chemin de Fer came back to join them. “This airline offers excellent inflight meals,” she said as she seated herself. “And there is no charge. Hungry?” Tom shook his head. Bud didn’t, but was ignored.
“I assume you’re taking us to the ‘West Station’,” Tom said at last. “Where is it?”
“Argentina,” was the reply. “A centuries-old Spanish fortress overlooking an isolated river valley in the hinterlands. The whole valley is privately owned. I hear, though, that the legal owner met with some sort of accident, not yet reported. The Helmsman has taken his place as lord of the manor.”
“He wants to see us?”
“Oh, very much. He’s been looking forward to it for some time.”
Tom dug the cobra cube out of his pocket and looked at it. “A fake?”
“Why yes! We’ve all been wondering which installation the nonexistent ‘Dr. Christopher’ would show up at. But at least you got to see the movie.”
Tom smiled thinly. “I prefer the book.”
“If your ‘Great Khan’ plans to hold us hostage, it won’t get him anything but an armed search party in his backyard,” grated Bud.
“Oh please!” Dr. Chemin de Fer laughed. “You don’t really think he plans to hold you, do you?”
After some hours the ocean gave way to the Argentinian coastline. They flew across what Tom recognized as the northern pampas and on into the forested interior, a ribbon of water glinting now and then in the fading light of day. Soon foothills, then a razorback of mountains, appeared ahead. “The Sierras de Cordóba,” commented Chemin de Fer. “Our cozy valley sits right at the northeastern edge, where the forest runs up into the stairstep hills. Some nice waterfalls.”
They were slowing for descent. In minutes the jet proved to be an amphibian, taxiing upriver into a channel, and bumping to a halt at a covered pier. As they were escorted off, Tom and Bud looked upward at the ancient weathered-stone fortress that brooded over the river valley.
Bud gave a low whistle. “Some layout!”
The stone building, highwalled and battle-mented, stood perched in a cleft among the crags. From its main gate a road twisted downward along a series of ledges, ending in front of them at the pier.
No sign of life was evident. What caught Tom’s eye immediately were two dish-shaped antennas, visible in the corner turrets. The smaller of them, slowly revolving, was obviously a radar scanner. The other, Tom felt sure, was used for communication. Long range communication—across space! he thought.
Bud spoke up. “So where do you park the spaceship, the Fanshen?”
There was no answer from the suddenly grim Dr. Chemin de Fer. The five jet passengers boarded a waiting van and were driven up the road and into a walled courtyard. To the youths’ surprise, the two guards did not accompany them to the door. “They have other duties,” explained Chemin de Fer. “From here on, boys, your every step will be watched by camera. One move, and twenty marksmen come running. And believe me, they truly couldn’t care less if you should choose to make me your hostage. We’re all quite expendable.”
They were marched down a series of long hallways with walls unrepaired for centuries, the lights and roving cameras a sharp reminder of the twenty-first century.
Bud nudged Tom with his elbow and nodded toward a glass-fronted cabinet. Its shelves were crowded with rank upon row of the crystal cubes, the tiny cobras rearing to pounce. “Ingenious devices, aren’t they?” remarked their captor. “The nanocoding imprinted on the outer surface is undetectable by even such advanced instruments as your Swift Enterprises has available. It acts as a sort of printed circuit, a passive transponder producing a signal under pulsed microwaves.”
Tom had again lapsed into silence.
They entered a cavernous high-vaulted, stone-flagged hall as big and broad as a ballroom. One wall, an outer wall of the fortress, was lined with a row of gauze-curtained windows that reached from floor to ceiling. Through the gauze the Shoptonians could make out the distant mountaintops, dappled with the orange light of sundown.
And some distance away, in the middle of the floor, stood the familiar figure of the Helmsman, scion of the Great Khan, emperor of the Dragon Throne. Lithe as a jungle cat, the top of his shaved head rose above the knot of men surrounding him.
An animated discussion was in progress. Glancing up, Li Ching nodded in the direction of the boys and mouthed Hello in a strangely avuncular way, as if his prisoners were expected guests.
Finally dismissing the others, and brusquely gesturing Dr. Chemin de Fer to join them, he strode confidently up to Tom and Bud, eyes glittering. “What does one say in such an awkward situation? ‘Welcome to the lair of the Black Cobra?’ The cliches of books and melodrama.”
He stood unnervingly close to Tom, staring intensely into the young inventor’s eyes. “So perhaps I shall do something unexpected. Perhaps I shall slap you twice across the face, Tom—one slap for cheating me of the stealth drone, as I have finally deduced, and another for your intervention in Kabulistan, your outwitting of my poor fool of a servant Gursk. Ah!—but that is a surprise to you, is it?”
“Not really, Comrade-General,” replied Tom evenly.
The man winked. “Nothing surprises you, does it, Tom.” He turned slightly. “Bud, please unbunch those admirable young muscles of yours. I wouldn’t commit the faux pas of striking the great Tom Swift, and I urge you not to commit the greater faux pas of getting yourself suddenly killed. You’ll be dead soon enough.”
“You’re known for your efficiency,” stated Tom quietly. “You never waste a move. What does killing us get you? What does seizing Nestria get you?”
The Black Cobra backed away, pretending to muse. “A marvelous question indeed. What does it get me? What will be the result? You’ve seen my modest little film, I take it. My ultimate purpose is to reestablish the ancient Khanate. I shall honor my ancestors by inaugurating a reign of peace, virtue, and overaching order over this sad and disorderly world of ours. A fine purpose, don’t you think?”
“Yeah, if you’re a psycho!” Bud spat out.
“Perhaps you have a point, Bud,” the man replied coolly. “As to the specifics, Tom, my immediate goal should be familiar to you—curiosity, experimentation, the search for knowledge. By creating my Great Wall around the asteroid, I have already proven the feasibility of using the matter-antimatter reaction to disrupt the world’s defense capabilities. And as a further benefit—there’s my efficiency for you!—I am able to utilize the isolated scientists, so familiar with Nestria and its wonders, to seek out and understand... certain unique things of interest. No doubt you grasp my allusion.”
Tom nodded slightly.
“Now as to your other question,” continued Li Ching, “killing you—your friend is just gravy—remains a matter of practical necessity. You eluded your death once, aboard your vessel the Sea Charger. Really now, I can’t have it happen again. You have made yourself an irritating obstacle, you and your implacable impudence. Those who choose not to respect me—well, you know, blah blah.”
He stepped away and made an imperious gesture toward a man who stood at the far end of the room. The man approached—and kept coming! He was revealed to be huge, at least seven feet tall, very thickly built. His Asiatic features disclosed no trace of feeling or interest.
“This is Bao,” the Helmsman stated. “If that name means nothing to you two, it shows how little you Americans pay attention to the remoter parts of our Earth. Bao is a celebrity in Manchuria, a champion in a native variety of the martial arts, sadly unknown elsewhere, called Ni-Jao. Played to its ultimate conclusion, the idea is to flip your opponent into a somersault so as to break his neck as he comes down. It is considered falling short if you merely break the spine. You lose points.”
Tom stepped forward, touching Bud’s forearm gently to restrain him. “Sir, this won’t accomplish what― ”
The Black Cobra interrupted sharply. “Now now, Tom, no last-minute pleading and wheedling. I dislike crybabies. Show your manly virtues, Tom, and I promise to send a very nice letter to your family. I may even make you Top Brick on my Wall of Contemplation.”
He nodded toward Bao, and the martial artist backed into the middle of the floor. “You first, Bud,” Li ordered. “As Tom loves the pursuit of knowledge, I want him to objectively observe what he is soon to experience.”
Bud gave Tom a long look, gray eyes locked upon blue, then walked to the center of the room with unhesitating stride.
The Cobra called out: “Please resist, won’t you? Give your special friend something to— briefly— remember.”
Bud’s muttered response was barely audible. “I’ll do my best.”
Bao came near, arms relaxed at his side. Suddenly the arms darted out like snakes and Bud was spun to the floor. Tom gasped.
But the black-haired Californian was only slightly bruised. He scrambled to his feet and charged, attacking with his fists. In an instant he was on the floor again. This time he rose unsteadily, with crimson on his face.
The two circled one another. Slightly bent over, Bao drew closer, then closer still. Bud attempted a head-butt. The attempt was futile, even laughable: Bao shrugged him off without a trace of effort.
There was more dancing, more brutal throws, more thuds against the floorstones—and more blood. Tom wanted to look away, but did not. It seemed he owed his best friend his full attention. They would share these moments as they had shared the others.
In their circling the two opponents had edged closer to the row of windows. It was hard to see Bud Barclay’s final charge—Bao’s wide back blocked the view.
But the outcome was clear to sight. In a smooth motion, an arc, the man swung Bud up off his feet and hurled him like a javelin through the window!
DESPERATION ON NESTRIA
TOM SWIFT was horrorstruck and sickened, but had little time to feel. Bud’s trajectory had burst open the twinned window panels but had not shattered the glass; the filmy curtains blew inward in the breeze of the high mountain pass. Whenever they parted Tom had a glimpse of the violet sky, a few stars, and the distant floor of the valley. He knew that this side of the fortress overhung the steep, jagged mountainside. There would have been nothing beyond the window to break Bud’s fall—nothing for hundreds of feet. And then, rocks.
“I’m waiting,” said Li Ching.
Tom walked slowly to the center of the room, where Bao awaited him, massively. They began to circle. Tom had no plan, no fire, little will to resist. Get it over with! was his only thought.
As Bao leaned close, a thick but quiet voice emerged from nowhere. “Just listen to me!”
Tom was dumbstruck! Who was speaking?
“Do as I say. Keep circling. Follow my lead.”
Eyes focused on the Asian’s face, Tom saw a slight quiver on the man’s lips. Ventriloquism!
His back to the watching Black Cobra, Tom whispered, “What’s going on? What do you want me to do?”
They half circled. “Toward the window, the same one. I will start to reach for you. Charge me at top speed. I will be in control. Keep your hands ahead of you.”
Another half circle, bringing them closer to the window and its cold breeze. “I understand.”
“When you pass through the curtain, reach out forward. You will touch something soft and smooth. Try to grasp it with your arms as you slide down, to slow yourself. When you hit bottom, run a ways. Then wait.”
It all happened with unbelievable quickness. Tom cannonballed through the air. He brushed the curtains aside. One ankle slammed painfully against a pane-frame. His outstretched palms encountered something thin and yielding, like plastic sheeting. Even as he managed to embrace it, he was sliding downward, the fitted stones of the fortress wall flashing past him.
He passed the foundation and a bit of mountain—then hit ground, hard. Disoriented, he staggered up on his legs, and then began to run down a rocky slope, darting around tree trunks and crashing through underbrush.
“Skipper! Here!” Bud was a dark silhouette in the remnants of sunset.
Tom scrambled close—and a huge heavy something thudded down almost in his path! Bao had used the draped length of plastic like a rope, swinging as far away from the mountainside as he could manage.
He landed in a crouch. As he stood and the plastic shank fell back, Tom’s scientific brain made itself a note. It’s that same light-distorting plastic sheathing Li’s used before! he thought. You’d hardly be able to see it from a distance!
“Follow close,” Bao commanded. “We must reach better cover before they start shooting from the window. It will take them a moment—they are startled, eh?”
They reached denser trees just as gunfire began popping from high up behind them. It stopped in a moment.
A chainlink fence, ten feet high and rimmed with barbed wire, loomed up. “Stay back!” ordered Bao. They followed him along the fence for twenty long and frantic steps to a spot where a cord, ending in a loop, had been affixed to the fence. Bao pulled on the cord and a flap of cut fence opened wide. He pushed the loop down onto an angled stake in the ground. “Right through the middle, boys. The fence is electrified. For God’s sake don’t stumble!”
They made it through, alive.
The next hour was a wordless ordeal, a downward run amongst moon-shadows toward the river. As they approached its banks they again heard ragged gunfire and the grumble of an outboard motor. A gust of night wind carried a confused, raucous babble of voice to the boys’ ears. Gunshots rang out, ricocheting from scattered points. “They’re shooting at shadows!” Bud muttered.
“Don’t talk!” hissed Bao.
Soon a searchlight beam stabbed through the darkness as the sounds came closer. A motorboat appeared on the river, moving slowly along, playing its light from side to side as a half-dozen men brandished their rifles.
A tree bough splintered two feet above Bud’s head. “Let’s keep moving!” he gasped.
For long hours they zig-zagged their way along, mostly in sight of the little river. They left the valley and made their way through the hills, downward. At last, panting and aching, Tom and Bud halted in the shadow of a boulder. “Rest now,” Bao said.
They flopped down gratefully.
It was Bao himself who broke the silence some minutes later. “I’ll try to explain what has happened. I had to injure Bud, to make the ruse convincing.”
“You just banged me up a little,” Bud declared. “Meanwhile, Tom, he was telling me what to do.”
“As I did with Tom,” continued the man. “I prepared everything in advance, anchoring the plastic to the eaves above the window just minutes before Li came in with the others, the ones he calls his Righthands. I knew it would be all but impossible to see from below.”
Tom said, “You knew we had been captured and were on our way, obviously.”
Bao nodded. “We have infiltrated the Black Cobra’s ‘Khanate,’ as he calls it, and can get messages back and forth, at least sometimes.”
“I take it you work for some sort of organized group,” pronounced Tom.
“You were to meet one member of our group, the man known as Sheong-Lo Fun. The identity cube he was to give you would not have betrayed you.”
Bud snorted. “Sounds like it was Mr. Fun who got betrayed.”
“Yes. His efficient secretary Miss Tung proved a bit more efficient, and a good deal less loyal, than he expected. He was dispatched while you were on the way to the building—that was the reason they put such an obvious tail on you, to divert and slow you a bit, in case the job in the office ran long.”
Tom grasped the outlines of the plot. “Then you, like the late Mr. Fun, the real one, are working with Collections against the Cobra.”
“Not precisely. Let us say that our respective governments have certain common interests, and have chosen to work cooperatively in this matter. Fun’s replacement had to appear to be carrying out the plan our organizations devised, lest when you checked back with your ‘Taxman’ contact the deception would be revealed.” Bao continued that John Tsu had been one of his fellow infiltrators. He had inadvertently aroused suspicion, and when he had fled to deliver his message to Tom, the Cobra’s men had followed him.
“What was his message?” asked Tom.
“He had learned certain technical details concerning Li’s ‘Great Wall’ in space, details he’d had no opportunity to share with the rest of us without exposing himself.”
Tom stood restlessly and leaned against the boulder. “And the government men I met with on the jet know nothing of all this?”
Bao gave a slight smile. “They know some of it, more than they chose to tell you—especially Bernt Ahlgren. But by design, for the ultimate in secret-keeping, Collections is permitted a sort of independent existence. It is the same with my own associates.”
“I see.” Tom ventured a guess. “The People’s Republic of China?”
The man shrugged. “I am your humble friend and servant.”
“Okay, keep your secrets,” grumbled Bud wryly. “But tell me this. They gave Tom the giveaway cube, then tried to kill him by crashing the government jet. What kind of sense does that make?”
“Tom was what one might call a target of opportunity. The planned action was originally directed against the three government men. The Lieutenant decided to—what is it you say?—strike while the iron is hot.”
“You and your people have saved our necks, and taken great risks to do it,” Tom declared, sober and grim. “Obviously we’re very grateful. But now what, Mr. Bao? The pirates still have Little Luna, and the science colonists are running low on food. I wanted to pry out some sort of info on the barrier-control mechanism. I failed.” His mind added: Again!
The man joined Tom in standing. “I am not able to solve all your problems, Tom. All I can do is guide you to a boat on the river, then to an automobile awaiting us, then finally to the city of Cordóba, where you will find air transport back to America. Then—then be lucky.”
It was the next twilight when the three finally pulled up to the perimeter of Cordóba’s airport. “Go through that gate. It has been left unlocked for you,” directed Mr. Bao as the youths got out of the car.
“You’re not coming with us?” asked Tom.
“No.” He added, “Your flight has been arranged. Through the gate, angle left. You will see a jet bearing a decal of your flag.”
“Thanks, Mr. Bao,” said Bud earnestly. The giant of a man did not reply, but gunned the engine and sped away.
Tom and Bud did as instructed. Their eyes went wide as they saw the craft intended for them. “Good gosh!” exclaimed Tom.
It was the Sky Queen.
Aboard, awaiting them, were two relieved and overjoyed men, Slim Davis and Tom’s father. “Believe me, son,” said Mr. Swift as Slim jet-lifted the Flying Lab toward the stratosphere, “when Zimby Cox reported that you two hadn’t signaled him, we were ready to invade Equatorial Africa all by ourselves!”
“I can imagine,” Tom laughed, settling back in the sofa in the top-deck view lounge. “Who told you guys where to pick us up?”
“The call came from John Thurston’s office,” was the response. “He could only say that a reliable source had informed him that you two had escaped from Li Ching and were on your way to the Cordóba airport. I assume Collections was the source.”
“Or the China group they’re working with,” said Tom. “So what happened in Africa?”
“The Borukundi government, amply supported by any number of nations, stormed the underground installation around Noon today. Turns out it’s located within two thousand feet of the Goaba cavern.”
Tom smiled. “We know.”
“Bet the beacons made it pretty easy to find,” remarked Bud.
“They surely did,” confirmed Damon Swift. “Those rocks where you left your hydrolung suits were perfect for the transmitter-spikes.”
“We weren’t too sure, Dad. We rammed the spikes as deeply as possible into the cracks in the rock, but the contact wasn’t as good as it might have been.” Even deep underground, Tom and Bud had not been entirely isolated from the outside world. The young inventor and his companion had brought along two transmitters, subsonic wave generators whose output, conveyed by the rocky crust, was monitored by instruments at the Goaba research facility. Triangulation, matched to the mapping data assembled from the cycloplane overfly, had led the heavily armed troops, in motored rafts, directly to the mining outpost without the false turns Tom and Bud had endured.
Bud asked, “What did they find at the complex?”
“About two hundred disgruntled employees, some interesting films, and a good deal of ingenious mining equipment. And one Tom Swift Enterprises giant robot!”
Tom inquired about the anti-Diracinium. Mr. Swift replied, “They were keeping what they had in isostasis tanks. It wasn’t much—a few ounces. It seems most of the ‘anti’ material they wrung out of the Diracinium is now floating around Nestria in Li’s Great Wall.”
“It doesn’t take much antimatter to build a wall like that,” remarked Tom grimly. “The entire cloud mass probably doesn’t weigh more than a few pounds.”
“More than enough to destroy unwanted visitors,” his father commented.
“How about the valley fortress?” asked Bud excitedly. “That’s the big deal! We can take the Cobra and his spaceship just like the rest!”
But later, as the Sky Queen pierced the night high above Mexico, Slim Davis reported disappointing news. “Just got off the radiocom to D.C., Skipper. The Argentines say the whole place was abandoned, everything inside smashed or torched. No sign of a landing field able to accommodate a spacecraft, by the way.”
“The Cobra and the rest must’ve got away by boat and amphi jet—probably choppers as well,” Tom said to Bud and his father. “He must have another base for the Fanshen.”
“Somewhere near the equator, I would guess,” observed Damon Swift. “He’d want to get the extra boost from the planet’s rotation.”
For Tom Swift the last dregs of the night were spent in Shopton, at Enterprises. By first light, the weary young inventor contacted Kent Rockland over the PER unit.
“I’m afraid we’re not doing so well up here, Tom,” he said listlessly. “The colonists are getting pretty weak from lack of food. And now Doc Simpson is worried about another problem.”
“Illness. At first it just seemed like the common cold—you know, ‘something going around.’ Started among the Brungarians. No one even thought of a quarantine. Now it’s spread.”
“But if it’s just a cold― ” Tom began.
“No, we were wrong. Skipper, within the last two hours eight people have collapsed, and it looks like the weaker ones are headed into a coma!”
“Simpson thinks it may be a common virus that has become more potent under low-gravity conditions. And our undernourished, debilitated state is making it worse. We just don’t know what’s going to happen to us.” Tom could hear the despair in the man’s voice.
“Kent, listen to me, and tell the others. We haven’t run out of options—and I’m going to try another right now!” Across thousands of miles of space, Tom Swift’s determination rang out!
THE BLACK SPACESHIP
TOM immediately called his father, who had slept the rest of the short night at home. “What do you have in mind, son?” Mr. Swift asked. He too was stricken by the increasingly desperate plight of the Nestria crew but strove to remain calm.
“I’m going to call our space friends and ask for help.” The young inventor was speaking from the Enterprises space communications center.
Tom’s idea brought a surge of hope to his listener. Yet Mr. Swift expressed a word of caution. “We’ve been trying ever since you received their warning in the Challenger, and they haven’t responded.”
“But now there’s a new factor, the contagion among the colonists. It’s something that might move them—after all, they were the ones who asked for our help when they had their own disease crisis.”
While preparing his epic journey to the moon, the space beings had contacted Earth to request help in curing a strange contagion spreading among the lifeforms on their world, which the Swifts had termed Planet X. Tom and his colleagues had solved the problem, and the extraterrestrials had expressed, in their own manner, a sense of gratitude.
“You’re right!” Over the line Tom could hear his father rap his fist against the breakfast table. “And they’ve certainly come through in other tight spots!”
Though Damon Swift couldn’t see it, his son nodded vigorously. “If they hadn’t stopped the Challenger in time, we’d have plowed right into the disintegration barrier! And don’t forget,” Tom added as he switched on the decoding computer with its Space Dictionary file, “they were the ones who moved Nestria into earth orbit and gave it an artificial gravity. They may have an angle on this we’d never think of!—if they choose to intervene, that is.”
“Yes,” replied Mr. Swift. “And where the X-ians and their strange ways of thinking are concerned, there is always an ‘if’!”
Ending the call, Tom began composing a message to the mysterious beings. He roughed out the basic content, revised it, then finally used the Space Dictionary to access what Earth knew of the space friends’ visual language to approximate its meaning. As always, the final message was encoded in the stark hieroglyphs that symbolized logical and mathematical concepts.
Tom beamed out the message over the plant’s magnifying antenna, and had it repeat in an endless loop.
TOM SWIFT TO SPACE FRIENDS. OUR SCIENTISTS ON EARTH SATELLITE NESTRIA ARE STARVING DUE TO OUR INABILITY TO SEND FOOD SUPPLIES THROUGH THE BARRIER OF OPPOSED FORCE MATTER. A DISEASE IS NOW SPREADING AMONG THEM. REQUEST YOUR HELP IN REMOVING THE BARRIER OR PROVIDING SAFE PASSAGE FOR OUR TRANSPORT VESSELS.
The speed with which the space friends responded to messages varied greatly in an unpredictable manner. Sometimes hours or even days would pass. Yet there had been occasions on which the answer had come almost instantaneously.
His heart pounding, Tom settled back in his chair to begin what might prove a lengthy wait and a trial to his patience. And just as he did so, the alarm bell rang—incoming signals from space!
TO TOM SWIFT. WE ARE FRIENDS. WE ARE NOT ABLE TO COMPLY WITH YOUR REQUEST FOR INTERVENTION.
Just as he had feared! The youth groaned in frustration. But there was more to the signal from space.
TELL SATELLITE INHABITANTS TO SEARCH BASE OF CLIFF BELOW ENERGIZER CHAMBER. THERE THEY WILL FIND OPENING TO MATERIAL SOURCE TO SUSTAIN LIFE.
What in the world—? Well, it’s something, Tom thought. He phoned his father with the news. Just as he had finished, Bud Barclay rushed in. “I heard you’d gone over here. Got something from the space people?” Tom showed his pal the message. “Opening to material source?” Bud stared at the monitor in perplexity. “What does that mean?”
Tom had already begun making notes, studying the symbols even as he conversed. “Okay, flyboy. Let’s take it bit by bit. They’re talking about an opening at the base of a cliff. It must be something underground—could be a natural cave... but you know, these clustered symbols suggest something artificial, made deliberately.”
“Like a tunnel? Or a mine?”
“I think so! So the ‘opening’ means the entrance-way. But as to this ‘material source to sustain life’ bit, I have no idea.”
Bud rubbed his chin. “Could be they have a kind of store room, don’t you think? Maybe they’ve got big freezers full of food!”
Tom smiled at his friend. “I doubt humans could eat whatever it is the X-ians use for food. But there’s something down there. We’ll just have to wait and see what the colonists turn up.”
“No mystery about what that ‘energizer chamber’ is, at least,” declared Bud. “It has to be that cave where we found the gravity cube.” The flier was referring to a mysterious, immoveable object left on the asteroid by the Space Friends. Though it had not revealed its inner workings, it seemed clear that it served to concentrate the gravitational force around Nestria, giving the tiny moonlet an environment more accommodating to its visitors from Earth.
Acting in haste, Tom contacted Rockland over the PER. “We’ll check it out immediately,” he replied. “And Tom, Bud, there’s something I think you’d both want to know. Three more of us have collapsed from hunger and the contagion—and one of them is Chow!”
Bud turned white. For all their mutual joshing, Chow and Bud were the closest of friends, and Tom was equally fond of the devoted old range cook who had accompanied the youths on so many of their daring journeys.
“Thanks for telling us,” said Tom dully.
“I’ll have whoever’s still able to make the trip head out to the—wait a sec ... ” Kent broke off, and Tom and Bud could hear confused sounds and excited voices in the background.
“Rockland! Rockland! Come in!” demanded Tom worriedly. “What’s happening up there?”
After a tense minute the voice of the base commander resumed. “Enterprises—Tom! We’re under attack! A big ship just made a low pass and strafed us!”
The news electrified Tom, Bud, and other listeners who had gathered in the communications room. They clustered around their young boss in anxious silence, straining to hear the word from space.
“Kent!—what can you tell me?” demanded Tom.
“I wasn’t out there. A couple of the Egyptians came running in, and it took a while—oh!” Again a break. Then: “I can see it now, through the window. It’s a spaceship—a black spaceship! Just hanging there a few hundred feet overhead, on lift-thrusters, looks like. Skipper, it’s strange, hard to see, like a sort of shadow.”
“It’s the light-distortion sheathing,” Tom pronounced.
“Now I’ve got ’em swinging the beam from the big searchlight—there!”
“Pinned them in it. For just a second I could make out an insignia on the fuselage, a kind of symbol.”
Tom knew exactly what Rockland was referring to. “Chinese writing. It’s the Fanshen!”
“Starting to move― ” Abruptly Kent cried out in alarm. “Explosions! They’re bombing Base Galileo!”
The listeners could clearly make out the reverberations of huge, thunderous blasts over the PER speaker. “What are they using? Missiles?”
“Negative, Enterprises. Never seen anything like it—thin glowing beams stretching down from the spaceship like metal rods, with tiny objects on the tips. But the rods don’t seem solid. I can see through them. When the tips contact the ground, big blast!”
“Go on high-rad alert,” ordered Tom. “The objects that make contact must contain granules of antimatter—antimatter bombs!”
“Okay... now the spaceship is accelerating away, turning nose-up and straight-lining off into space. I’m looking at their tailjets,” reported Rockland breathlessly. In a moment he added: “Out of sight now.”
“What about the damage? Injuries?”
“No, no reports of injuries. Huge smoking craters, though—man, it looks like the ground turned molten on all sides! The blasts knocked down a few of the storage modules and equipment sheds.”
“I’d say they’re trying to terrorize you,” stated Tom.
“I’d say they’re succeeding!”
Tom drew a hand across his wet, pale forehead. “Look—change of orders. Forget sending scouts to the cliff. Evacuate the whole base! You know the location of the energizer chamber, Kent. Take refuge there. Use the smaller transport vehicles for those who can’t walk, but stick to the shadows and deep canyons. The spaceship is sure to be back, and they’ll be tracking you. In fact, that may be their strategy—to get you running, and then follow you to the Space Friends’ excavation. But the Lunite veins in the rocks will de-focus Li’s radar sweeps and blur out― ”
The young scientist-inventor suddenly jumped back with a wince as the PER speaker emitted a deafening screech—followed by dead silence.
“What’s goin’ on?” asked Bud fearfully. “Can’t be interference or jamming—not the PER.”
Tom didn’t answer immediately, trying several times to reestablish contact. But nothing came back from Little Luna. There was no longer a connection between the Private Ear Radio and its distant counterpart. “It’s not a problem with the quantum link,” he stated quietly, setting down the unit.
It was one of the communications staff who spoke. “Mr. Swift, do you mean ... ”
“He means something’s happened to the mechanism itself, up there,” grated Bud. “To the unit on Nestria—or the operator!”
STORM THE GREAT WALL!
TOM AND BUD knew well that the Black Cobra’s sudden departure from the area of the base was only strategic and temporary. They realized that bombing could resume at any time. Yet even though a further attack had been feared, the blow had come so suddenly that Tom and his companions were stunned. By the evidence of the silent communicator, one conclusion leapt out at them that had to be squarely faced.
It had happened. Apparently Nestria had fallen to the enemy!
“Those sneaking rats!” Bud exploded.
“Why couldn’t the base have been armed?” raged one of the listeners. “A few missiles and those nice Swift electric weapons could have blasted that ship into space dust.” The man turned accusingly toward Tom. “But no! You peace-loving scientists can’t be bothered with ― ”
He stooped as Bud stepped forward with doubled fists and a fierce glare. “That’s all, Graddford! Tom and his Dad have their reasons!”
Tom gave a quiet response to the man. “Jeff, turning Little Luna into an armed camp was out of the question. When we first claimed the asteroid, our government pledged that it would be used as a peaceful scientific base for the benefit of all mankind.” Then he sighed deeply. “And also—it’s not our way. That’s true.”
“I’d say the scientific peace treaty has been broken,” muttered Jeff Graddford.
“Which makes this sneak blitz all the dirtier. Come on, Bud.” The young inventor motioned for his friend to follow after him. In the elevator, Tom said: “Don’t hold Graddford’s reaction against him. His wife is up there.”
Bud nodded. “What can we do, Tom? Let’s face it—if the Cobra bombed the main building, Rockland and most of the leadership could be dead. The pirates win.”
“We don’t know what happened up there, Bud,” Tom pointed out as the elevator halted. “It could be something as simple as a component failure in Kent’s PER. And even if there was another attack, there could be survivors.”
Wordless, they caught one of the ridewalks. After a moment, Bud asked Tom their destination. “Hank Sterling’s shop,” he replied. “I want to meet with him, and with Arv and Art Wiltessa.”
“An idea. Believe it or not, flyboy, during those hours while we were being flown to Argentina, this brain of mine was toying with an invention.”
Bud smiled. “Yep, that’s Tom Swift!”
The young space explorer met with Hank, Arv, and Art. Diagrams and formulas flowed from his pen and screen-stylus. Bud could understand little of what was said—but he did understand the nods. When the others left, hasty and determined, he gave his friend a look of polite inquiry.
“We can’t wait any longer,” Tom declared. “If there’s even a slim chance of rescuing our men and women, we have a duty to act now!”
“Lead on, Tom,” said Bud. “Maybe we can even find some way to stall-out the Cobra’s takeover. So what gets us through the barrier?”
“An invention,” Tom explained. “Not a new one—an improvement on the magnetic deflector. I’m calling it a magnetaser.”
“Got it. Some kind of magnetic laser, right?”
Tom nodded, eyes looking off into the mental distance. “Something you can aim and focus like a laser. The basic principle is completely different, though. Ever hear of monopoles?”
“Sure, genius boy. I used to play it all the time as a kid.”
Tom paused, blank—then broke into a laugh. “I’m talking about magnetic monopoles, pal! The basic equations of electromagnetism allow for the possibility that there could be distinct, localized ‘magnetic charges’ just like electrical charges. Think of them as ‘north’ or ‘south’ poles existing separately on their own, rather than paired up at opposite ends of a magnet.”
“Okay. I’m thinking.”
“Monopoles don’t seem to exist in nature,” Tom went on. “At least they’ve never been detected—one theory says they sort’ve short themselves out almost instantly, like a shoe knot when you pull one of the laces. But I think I’ve hit on a way to generate ‘virtual’ monopoles artificially, using the magnetic deflector’s projected flux-field.”
“Well,” said Bud, “with all those complicated scientific words, it sure ought to work!”
“If I’m right, the magnetaser will push the anti-Diracinium particles aside completely. We’ll have a safe gap to go through.”
Bud grinned. “Just like the hole we went through in that electrified fence!”
“That’s the idea, flyboy,” Tom grinned back.
It was a fantastically difficult challenge for Tom Swift Enterprises, achieved in a fantastically brief time frame in the life-or-death desperation of the moment. With every passing hour weighing heavily, Tom and his engineering team designed and tested the vital invention, even as Art Wiltessa strove to construct the special carrier vehicle Tom had envisioned. This small, two-pilot craft would have the magnetaser output antenna mounted on its nose like a bizarre hood ornament, yet would be kept extremely narrow to more adroitly pierce the Great Wall. Tom named the vehicle Unstoppable—hoping the optimism in the name would prove well founded.
The spacecraft and the magnetaser were constructed in modular sections, each one ferried by jet to Fearing Island for assembly immediately upon its completion. The last such flight was undertaken by Tom and Bud aboard the Sky Queen.
“We can’t launch from Enterprises,” Tom had explained to his father. “The repelatrons aboard the Unstoppable are too small and weak for a ground takeoff. The Challenger will carry us up into orbit, and then we’ll make for Nestria under our own power.”
“A fine approach, son,” Mr. Swift had agreed. “I’ll inform NASA and John Thurston of your plans.”
“Thanks, Dad. Er—after we get back to Earth, of course.”
Landing on Fearing, Tom and Bud were met on the airfield by Amos Quezada. “The Challenger’s ready for immediate takeoff,” he reported. “Your pilot confirms that the Unstoppable is battened down in the vehicular hangar.” Tom gave a brisk nod.
There was a moment of taut silence. Quezada knew Tom was weighing the terrible risks he and Bud would be facing together.
“The asteroid pirates have to be stopped,” Tom said huskily. “It’s the only choice.”
Tom and Bud sped to the launch area, where the spaceship had a dedicated pad coated with a specially formulated material to which its repelatrons had been precisely attuned. The Challenger, oddly shaped but always imposing, loomed in the glare of floodlights like an enormous gyroscope. Bob Jeffers and several other crewmen, all volunteers, were aboard and waiting.
Before proceeding, Tom mustered his crew on the command deck. “I guess you all realize we’re taking off on a dangerous mission,” he told them. “If my magnetaser doesn’t work, you know what will happen when we hit the antimatter barrier around Nestria. Small as it is, the total conversion of the Unstoppable’s mass to energy would be felt everywhere from here to the moon. Even on the far side of the earth, the Challenger could be affected by the energy wave.”
“We’re not going to go running off toward Mars, Tom,” declared Bob. “Danger or not, the Challenger’s going to stay close enough to come running if you need us after you lower the barrier.”
Tom’s young face showed his gratitude. “If we get through safely, there’s still the Black Cobra and his spaceship to contend with. You may be part of a mop-up operation. Would anyone like to back out?”
The crew stood facing him calmly. None spoke or stepped forward.
“Quit wasting our time, Skipper,” Bud wisecracked. “Let’s get this crate in the air!”
Tom grinned. “Okay. Man your stations.”
Minutes later, the Challenger was soaring aloft into the night sky. The earth dwindled rapidly under the surging thrust of the repelatrons. Soon the astronauts were entering the fringes of space. The blue-black darkness deepened, rendering even more brilliant the myriad stars dotting the deadly void, a void in which mankind now had begun to spread its vices and rivalries.
Tom and his companions said little. Each was taken up with his own thoughts as the ship raced outward. Its home planet was now a huge globe with a tapestry of oceans and continents dimly illuminated by moonglow—from two moons.
The ship raced onward toward a high parking orbit on the side of the earth away from the asteroid, crossing into sunlight. “Orbit locked,” Jeffers reported. “Go do it, guys!”
Wearing full space gear and helmets for extra protection against radiation, Tom and Bud elevatored down to the ship-wide vehicular hangar, which was halfway filled with the Unstoppable. They slowed their pace for a moment, looking at the craft. She was needle-shaped and wingless, the bulge of the pilot cabin at the extreme aft. Tom’s magnetaser, by contrast, was mounted at the tip of the Unstoppable’s nose. The arrowlike form of the magnetic deflector, with its triangular head, now pierced an interlinked pair of tubular loops set at right angles to one another.
“Looks like a mighty powerful good luck charm,” Bud stated.
They boarded and sealed the hatch. The big hangar door in front of them rolled upward. Tom activated the Unstoppable’s bank of small repelatrons, which were concealed within her hull, and the craft darted forward across the landing deck and on into space.
Rounding the bright horizon, they turned nose in the direction of the small blob of light that was distant Nestria.
The rugged moonlet took on its spherical form as they approached, wreathed in a thready haze of air and dotted with clouds drifting between the bare mountaintops. Tom checked the range dial constantly as they neared the danger zone. Presently Bud saw him switch on the magnetaser system as he cut all forward drive. “We’ll coast through unpowered,” murmured Tom.
A faint high-pitched hum, conducted through the metal skeleton of the Unstoppable, could be heard in the cabin above the regular sound of its air recirculators. The intense forces emanating from the magnetaser could not be seen by human eyes, but the youths saw the outline of the field, like a teardrop with a flaring tail, on a special monitor.
“All nominal,” reported Tom. “Power steady.”
Bud threw a strained glance at the young inventor. “Are we hitting the antimatter barrier?”
Tom shook his head. “Not yet. About another minute and a half.”
But in less than that time there was a change. Sparks and lightning-like flares of white-violet light began to sparkle around the magnetaser’s arrowhead. “Loose atoms at the margins filtering through,” Tom explained. “Even the magnetaser can’t ward off absolutely everything. Our Inertite will protect us against energies at that level.”
“Oh, I wasn’t worried, pal,” said Bud, making no attempt to sound convincing.
In a moment the monitor dials began to waver. Tom looked up at his chum. “This is it. We’re entering the thick of the barrier. Now it’s all up to fate and the magnetaser.”
Would it enable them to pierce the barrier safely?
Tom Swift’s invention had a startling, dramatic effect on the Great Wall as they plunged into it. A weird, luminous miasma coalesced in front of their prow, brilliantly glowing in neon colors and spreading miles off into space in all directions. Immediately in front of them, like the center of a cyclone, a dark hole had opened up. Centered in the gap was the expanding globe of their destination.
The tension became almost unbearable as the seconds ticked by and the space cloud crackled, visually, with energy. At last Bud heard Tom give a slow sigh of relief.
“Okay—at ease, spaceman,” he told his copilot. “We seem to be getting through in one piece!” As Tom spoke the storm of light suddenly faded away. They were through!
Bud Barclay let out a joyful whoop. The barrier breakthrough had filled him with fresh spirit. “So much for the Great Wall!” he cheered.
Tom was not in any mood for cheering. “So much for the easy part,” he noted soberly.
THE COBRA’S WAKE
“NO MATTER what happens now, Skipper, the Cobra can’t hold Nestria,” Bud pointed out. “If the Unstoppable can get through with your magnetic gizmo, so could a flock of missiles. He’s wide open to a missile counterpunch!”
Tom nodded. “When he realizes that fact, he may be willing to negotiate.” Tom knew that nevertheless, before such a counterattack could be launched, the fate of the base personnel would have to be ascertained. Tom wondered grimly if any were still alive. For that matter, would he and his loyal comrade ever return safely to their homes and families?
Clenching his teeth, the young inventor forced himself to concentrate on the immediate dangers of landing. Nestria was looming ahead now, growing larger by the moment through the pilot’s viewdome.
They were approaching the night side of the tiny asteroid, but its crags and craters were thinly visible by earthshine. A tiny spot of light near the equator marked the American base.
Tom now activated the repelatrons and swiveled them to brake the ship’s speed by pushing against the mass of Little Luna. Then he switched off all lights. Instantly the cabin was illuminated only by the ghostly glow from the instrument panels and the faint starlight.
“Depending on how sharp a lookout they’re keeping, from the Fanshen or the surface, I think we have a fair chance to land unnoticed,” Tom declared softly. “With our Antitec sheathing we won’t show up on radar, and they don’t expect anyone to get past the barrier.”
The scientist-inventor did not finish the thought—unless their detection instruments had alerted them to the brief disruption of the Great Wall as the ship passed through!
They came in very low to the ground, so low that they passed between spires of rock and the walls of desolate canyons, working their way toward Base Galileo. Anxious minutes dragged by as they watched for any sign of detection or attack. None came. At last the Unstoppable landed gently in a barren secluded valley, an arroyo that had never known water, at a safe distance from the base.
“So far, so good,” Bud murmured. “What now, Tom? Continue with the plan?”
“Yup. The only way to find out the situation is to scout the base up close,” Tom replied. He winked at his friend. “Want to tag along?”
“You won’t get away without me, pal—plan or no plan!”
For ease of movement in Nestria’s breathable air and slight gravity, they left their spacesuits and helmets behind, stripping down to comfortable work garments. After crisply reporting their success, via the craft’s PER unit, to the jubilant team aboard the Challenger, the two emerged through the airlock and headed off into the stark landscape.
A dozen minutes of rugged trekking brought them in sight of the base. Its barracks and workshops were ringed with floodlights—but half the support poles were twisted, their lamps shattered and dark. In the light of the remaining lamps, Tom and Bud could see a scene of terrible ruin. There were deep, cup-shaped craters everywhere, some still smoking amid ground halos of soot and cooling lava. Many of the habitat structures had collapsed from a violent impact, and the great canopy of the covered Brungarian facility, known as Astra Volkon, sagged to the ground. The main building, where Kent Rockland would have been while speaking to Tom, was a chaos of tortured metal supports and shreds of half-melted plastic.
There were moving silhouettes. After checking for residual radiation, the two reconnoiterers dropped down and wormed up as close as they dared to the ragged circle of light. “Jetz!—rat-bellied space rustlers!” Bud hissed under his breath.
The Black Cobra’s pirate force had taken over the base completely. Tough-looking sentries in the uniform of the Cobra’s elite guard were posted at intervals, armed with high-tech guns. Tom noted that a construction crew was already at work on missile and gun emplacements. From the launch and landing area on the far side of the base, the enemy spaceship protruded into view above the wreckage. The boys could see that utility cranes were unloading bulky equipment from the brooding Fanshen.
Tom gave a sudden, stifled exclamation. “That man by the spaceship—I’m sure it’s Achmet Rahj!”
“I can top that, Skipper—I see our old pal ‘Mr. Fun’ over by the Astra Volkon dome!”
“But no sign of Li Ching,” Tom whispered. “Whether that’s a good or bad thing I’m not sure.”
Responded Bud, “I’ll tell you one good thing. I don’t see any sign of bodies in the wreckage, or anyplace else.”
“Then they weren’t injured and might have escaped before the ship landed—that’s what I have to believe, Bud,” said the stricken young inventor.
“They’ll be waiting for us at the cave,” urged his friend. “All of them—Chow too!”
“That’s where we’re headed. Even with our impulse guns, there’s no way the two of us could take this whole bunch,” Tom murmured. “Good gosh, even if we remove the space barrier, how can the Challenger crew possibly cope with such a force? The Cobra’s army could be spread out all across Nestria!”
“Listen!” Bud whispered suddenly. “What about that idea of knocking out the atmosphere machines?” There was one at each pole of the asteroid to provide Nestria with a breathable atmosphere. If Tom and his companions engineered their destruction, the nets of nanotubules maintaining atmospheric pressure would dissolve away. The Cobra’s men would be deprived of air and have to withdraw!
It was a tempting idea, but Tom shook his head reluctantly. “Too inhuman, Bud. We can’t do such a thing unless our backs are really to the wall! And besides, our own colonists might die, unless the Cobra already has them captive aboard his ship or in pressurized cells somewhere.”
The two had been whispering. Yet, in the cold air of night on Little Luna, the sound must have carried across the stretch of open ground toward the base.
Suddenly Tom realized the nearest sentry was peering in their direction! An instant later the man gave a shout of alarm and raised his gun!
Tom had kept his i-gun fingertip ready, and he whipped it into position at the first hint of danger. He triggered it before the sentry could fire. Just as the man started forward, the silent blast of the electric pulse jolted him like a blow from an unseen fist. He reeled backward, lost his balance, and crashed heavily to the ground, the gun flying from his hand.
“He walked right into that one!” Bud chuckled gleefully. “It’ll hold him for a few minutes.” Then he added: “Say, maybe I should give him another jolt myself—one for the road!”
“Let’s get going!” Tom urged. “The only thing that matters now is finding our guys!” In a moment the two youths had scrambled to their feet and were running for their lives toward the Unstoppable.
They took to the air again, keeping low. The cave of the gravity cube was miles distant, but the flight took only minutes. Detecting a shadow-cloaked ridge near the cliffside entrance to the cave, Tom set down the Unstoppable and the boys emerged into the night.
As they approached the cave entrance, marked by a space symbol inscribed in the rock, Tom could not help feeling heartsick. There was no sign of life.
“But you told Rockland about the other tunnel before he was cut off,” Bud reminded him. “They would have gone there, wouldn’t they?”
“Yes—right. Let’s head down toward the base of the cliff.”
They were perched on a cliff ledge in a range of miniature Alpine crags and mountains. They now began a steep descent, made easier by Nestria’s weak gravitational pull. As they approached a rock stairstep near the base of the blocky mountain, Tom pointed to the slope rising sharply on their right.
“There’s the trail that leads up to the energizer chamber. From here on, we just follow the foot of this cliff. It may be a long walk.”
Bud exclaimed in relief as they finally sighted an arched opening in the cliff face. “Must be the tunnel. Thank goodness! A place to rest!” He added hopefully: “Maybe some ‘material substance to sustain life,’ too, if the space people aren’t just yanking our Earthling chains!”
“No space symbols. But this sure looks artificial.” Tom shone his flashlight into the cavernous recess and they entered cautiously, knowing that they had no guarantee that the wily Black Cobra and his troops hadn’t already seized the extraterrestrials’ secret.
The corridor narrowed and curved. The next moment Tom and Bud stiffened in alarm as a voice barked out of the darkness:
“Get your hands up and don’t move!”
TO SUSTAIN LIFE
TOM fought down a wave of despair as he raised his hands. Had they eluded the Cobra only to walk straight into a trap?
A glare of light was beamed at the prisoners so their captor could scrutinize them. “Holy—! It’s the Skipper!”
Joyful voices filled the tunnel. Tom dropped his hands as figures crowded out of the gloom.
The Galileo colonists!
Bud gave out a happy chortle. “Chow! Waistline and all!”
“B-b-brand my star stew!” Chow gabbled as Bud rushed up to give him a mighty hug.
Relieved and jubilant, Tom was shaking a dozen hands at once. “Ilgan! Violet! Dr. Jatczak! To think of finding you and the gang here and in one piece!”
“We knew you’d get to Nestria sooner or later, Tom!” exclaimed Doc Simpson, emerging from the darkness.
“It was just a matter of time,” Kent Rockland stated happily. “No big deal. Of course, some of the Ukrainians were getting nervous ... ”
“Not even!” came a voice with an accent. “And now we’re safe!”
But Tom Swift corrected him soberly. “The truth is, the enemy’s in complete control of the asteroid.”
Rockland nodded. “We’ve been assuming as much.” He related that it had been a fresh volley of the antimatter microcharges that had interrupted Kent’s PER call to Tom. “The attack came in waves, and we all had time to head for the hills. We saw the main structures getting the works just as we ducked out of sight.”
“I imagine he scattered you and let you escape so he could follow you to the gravity cube chamber,” Tom noted.
“If so, we outwitted him. The several national teams regrouped and we all made our way across Little Luna on foot. We kept to the shadows and overhangs, the cracks and the deeper craters.”
“Carried me on a jim-dang stretcher!” Chow interjected. “Don’t much envy ’em, even if I don’t weigh much more than a coyote up here.”
“We were able to take care of all the invalids with the help of Dr. Simpson and Dr. Wohl,” said Kent. “Didn’t lose a one. And we found the mine entrance without any difficulty.”
Bud asked if the Cobra or his troops had been seen in the area. It was Dr. Jatczak, the elderly astronomer, who answered. “No, my friend, not a trace of him or that spaceship of his. But surely he would choose to concentrate his invasion force in the beginning. Our moon here, minute though it may be, is nonetheless too big to be easily searched.”
Kent Rockland went on, “Maybe they were too busy setting things up to chase us far. Guess they figured we’d either starve or give up in the long run.”
“Good thing we kept the exact location of the energizer chamber a secret,” mused Tom. “But Kent—did you say mine?”
Quiet chuckles rippled through the crowd. “And wait until you sample the ore!” one of the Brungarians called out. “You will be impressed—even you, Tom Swift!”
With a wink Chow motioned for Tom and Bud to follow him deeper into the tunnel.
“Gotta say, pardner, you sure don’t look like a bunch of starvin’ critters!” Bud remarked, mystified. “And what about that infection?”
Doc Simpson grinned. “Let’s just say this installation is a threat to two professions—mine and Chow’s!”
Walking along with great vigor, Chow and the others led the newcomers deeper into what was, it seemed, a mine excavated by the space friends. As light was beamed on the walls, Tom noticed they were streaked with a reddish-orange deposit.
“There she is, boss,” Chow said. “You can scoop it out easily.”
“But why? What the heck is it?” demanded Bud.
“Material substance to sustain life!” Tom pronounced with conviction. Borrowing a scalpel offered by Doc Simpson Tom pried out a handful of the “ore.” It was of firm consistency, but not hard, and could be broken into smaller pieces. “Almost feels like a hunk of dry cheese,” murmured the young inventor. Then, to Bud’s surprise, Tom thrust the piece into his mouth and chewed! “Not bad, flyboy—though I don’t think Chow’s armadillo stew has any reason to feel threatened.” The strange food softened when chewed and communicated a weird flavor to human tastebuds, albeit somewhat resembling beefsteak.
“Brand my barby-cue, that tastes like prime Texas steer!” Chow burst out. “Doncha think? O’ course I jest may be givin’ it a break, since it fixed me right up when I ’as sick.”
“Whatever this mineral food is, it acts as a powerful stimulant to the body’s self-repair mechanisms and immune system,” noted Violet Wohl, a physician, as Doc nodded in confirmation. “Every sign of the contagion vanished within minutes of eating even a small amount.”
Bud now gave a tentative nibble. “Wow!” he exclaimed in abrupt surprise. “Kind of a rush!—and it feels like ... ” He pulled off one of his suit gloves and touched the side of his face.
“Your bruises—from your fight with Bao—they’re fading away!” Tom boggled.
“Good night, maybe it’ll teach me how to play the piano!”
“The mineral stuff saved our lives,” declared Kent. “One square meal and we were back on top of the world! And Tom, this mine’s loaded with it!” The base commander pointed further along. Passageways branching outward from the central tunnel had been excavated to follow the major veins of the deposit.
“Eat hearty, boys!” urged Dr. Jatczak. “Even without the accompaniment of a good wine—though what color goes with rock I cannot fathom—it’s quite marvelous in its effect. Violet tells me my heart condition is already much improved.”
The many stresses and tensions of their mission to Nestria had left Tom and Bud starved. Grabbing some delicate mineralogist’s trowels they ate with gusto. Amazingly, the food seemed to satisfy their thirst, too.
“What a meal!” Tom said, after finishing a final morsel. “I feel like a million!”
Bud chuckled in agreement. “After a feast like that, I’m ready for anything!”
“Same way we felt,” Chow said.
“It must be extremely nourishing,” Tom mused, “and produce a psychochemical effect as well.” He turned to Kent. “You’re our resident mineralogist. What’s your take on this?”
The blond, husky scientist scraped out another piece of the red-orange ore and handed it to Tom. “Take a look with that pocket magnifier the suits carry.”
Tom examined the sample. It had definite traces of a cellular structure. “Must be organic!” he announced excitedly.
“Meaning what?” Bud asked.
“It was formed from living matter, just like coal or petroleum! Don’t you realize what this means!” Tom said excitedly. “This bears out the theory that Nestria is a remnant of some much larger body, maybe even an exploded planet, which sustained a living biosphere!”
“How come?” Bud asked with a puzzled look.
“Ah, because Nestria by itself could never have developed an appreciable atmosphere and supported life,” answered Dr. Jatczak.
“One thing I’ve been wondering is—who worked this mine in the first place?” Simpson asked. “The space scientists?”
Tom shrugged. “I assume so. But then again—maybe they found the workings in this condition when they first landed!”
“Er—say there, folks,” Chow interrupted. “That fancy talk is all well ’n good, but shouldn’t we be out there stompin’ that cobra varmint?”
“You’re right,” Tom said, suddenly grim. “Miracle rock or no, you scientists can’t stay holed up underground. We’ve got to overcome Li and his troops somehow, and disperse the barrier if possible.” Tom asked Rockland if he had brought his PER unit along with him.
“Yes, I thought our electronics people could do something with it. But no go, so far. It just plain stopped working.”
“Let me look at it,” Tom said.
Using tools from his suit, the young inventor carefully scrutinized the complex circuitry of the Private Ear radio. “I’ve found the problem,” he pronounced at last. “Some of the key components are frazzled internally. Apparently the antimatter bombs, small as they were, produced localized EMP effects that fried the innards of the PER by induction. I think I can get around the problem by rerouting some of the circuits.”
“What are you planning?” asked Doc. “To call Earth?”
“We can call Earth anytime—there’s a working PER on the Unstoppable,” Tom explained. “What I want to be able to do is to keep in touch with you guys. I brought the Nestria quantum cartridge along with me in the ship.”
Returning to his spacecraft with Bud, Tom reported to the Challenger and to his father back in Shopton, then lifted off, a strategy in mind.
They made a high arc over Nestria in the direction of the base. Tom was no longer concerned about being seen. “They’ll be seeing us pretty clearly in about a minute anyway,” remarked Bud.
As he swooped down over the asteroid, Tom noted that more work had been done on the missile fortifications near the Fanshen. Gimballed launch tracks had been set up on all sides. “I’m sure that sentinel has given the alert, and the Cobra is ready to defend his outpost.”
“But he doesn’t know that Tom Swift has a few counterweapons up his blue-striped sleeve!” chortled Bud. “But what if he uses those antimatter bombs against us, like he did when he attacked Base Galileo?”
“I’m sure that’s exactly what he’s using as warheads on his mini-missiles,” was the tense reply. “But as for the system he used before—from the description, I think it’s an approach that uses focused laser beams to push the explosive capsules down toward the ground faster than the low gravity here could pull them. It may be rigged to allow a more precise degree of guidance. But the point is, I’m betting the ejection ports and beamers are only on the underside of the Fanshen.”
“Sure—which explains the need for the missiles,” commented Bud.
The radiocom suddenly bleeped. At a click, a familiar voice, oily and imperious, barked from the speaker. “Tom Swift!—it is you, isn’t it, Tom? Of course it is. Who else has the skill and youthful foolhardiness to penetrate my fortifications? For all your attempts at concealment, our instruments spy the wake of your vehicle as it cleaves the air you have given this tiny world.”
Tom lifted the microphone with a resigned glance at Bud. “I don’t suppose it’s worth the time to ask you to surrender, Comrade-General.”
“What nonsense. Yet I am willing to embarrass both of us to ask it of you, Tom. Surrender. I will grant your faithful friend, undoubtedly at your side, his life—the others as well. The gates of my Great Wall will be opened. I will allow your big spaceship to land and take them all back to Earth, everyone but the very valuable Tom Swift.”
“Or you’ll close the gate after the Challenger landed. Isn’t there usually a second part to the offer? The threat?”
“As a matter of fact, there is. Cooperate, or I will adjust the radius of the destructive sphere of protection, bringing it down to the surface.”
Tom whitened in fear. There was enough antimatter in the entirety of the barrier cloud to obliterate Nestria completely, in an explosion like a supernova!
“He’s ready to bring down the house,” Tom whispered to Bud, “ready to destroy everything to uphold his pride and power!”
“Now Tom, this should really be what you Americans call a no-brainer,” chided the Black Cobra in a suave manner. “Surely I have reason to expect the courtesy of a prompt answer?”
“Sir, my answer is that you’ve made the same mistake you’ve made over and over—you’ve underestimated me!”
FIRE IN SPACE
TOM cut the radiocom. “Skipper, the missile launch tracks are moving!” Bud sang out.
“So am I.” Tom’s hands jumped across the control panel.
“Firing!” Bud yelped.
A volley of missiles leapt spaceward toward the hovering Unstoppable. They rose like a rank of deadly metal teeth—and scattered in all directions, as if violently swept aside by an invisible hand!
In moments the distant hills on all sides erupted with geysers of blue-white light. “Getting EMP waves from the energy blasts,” Tom reported. “Our Inertite-Tomasite coating should handle it, though.”
“Looks like Swift genius is handling everything!”
Tom grinned. “We may not have enough repelatron power to handle a whole covey of missiles at once—but we sure make up for it in magnetaser power!”
Far below the uniformed men were racing toward the Fanshen in a panic. A followup missile volley was dispatched with ease, and Tom used the repelatrons for one task they were more than adequate to accomplish. Almost as one, every man below smashed down flat to the ground!
“Imagine it’s a little discouraging,” Bud remarked.
Having put at least a temporary crimp in the Cobra’s plans, Tom and Bud now circled Nestria in the direction of its axis. The Unstoppable flew first to Nestria’s north pole, then its south pole, to check on the atmosphere machines. No enemy men could be seen guarding either one. Tom doubted that the Cobra forces had any idea how the atmos-makers worked, and in any event their leader might not have wished to divide his forces at such an early stage of his pirate conquest.
They looped back toward Base Galileo. “Now to make a few threats of our own,” Tom said happily. “If the Cobra doesn’t want to crawl on his belly back to Earth, he’ll turn over control of the barrier to― ”
Bud’s yelped warning cut Tom off. Something hazy and oblong, dark against the stars, was jetting up from the horizon. “He’s escaping!”
“Bud—if he gets far enough away in space, he’ll have no reason not to constrict the barrier and blow up the asteroid!”
“How long do you think we― ”
“Not long! Maybe a half-hour, forty minutes tops—he probably plans to ride it out on the far side of the moon. But below on Earth, the burst of radiation will be fatal. Half the world could die!”
Thinking feverishly, Tom had Bud contact the base colonists. “Is there—is there any hope?” asked Kent Rockland.
“There always is!” declared Bud.
Tom had evolved a desperate plan in the pressure of the moment. As he guided the spacecraft up into the sky, he explained to Bud: “The magnetaser isn’t nearly strong enough to blow apart the barrier. But based on what we learned of the material, it might be possible to sort of peel away big pieces of it and force them out into space. By my calculations, disrupting even a fairly small proportion of the barrier will cause it to destabilize at some point. The particles will start to repel one another and the Great Wall will evaporate away into space.”
Bud put a gentle hand on his pal’s shoulder. “And we’ll be inside the barrier, peelin’ away, when it destabilizes, won’t we. We’ll be sprayed with antimatter like paint spray on a car.”
Tom looked at him, not answering in words.
“Oh well.” Bud’s conclusion ended the discussion. He knew there was nothing else to be done.
Whirling about Little Luna in a forced-arc orbit, the magnetaser ripped away long curved streamers of glowing matter and hurled them away into space. The action was constant, minute upon minute.
“Getting there, chum?” Bud asked.
“Getting there, chum.”
Abruptly Tom gasped as he read one of the sensor dials. “It’s starting!”
“The barrier’s falling apart?”
“It’s constricting! Li Ching is lowering it!”
They could do nothing but continue their task at top speed.
Four minutes later Tom gripped Bud’s arm and spoke quietly. “It’s happening. We did it, Bud. The barrier is destabilizing. You can watch the profile on this monitor.” The antimatter cloud was rearing upward like a boiling pot!
Tom PER-ed the colonists. “You’re safe now. The barrier is disintegrating.”
“But Tom—can’t you outrun the thing?” choked Rockland.
“The reaction is accelerating, Kent. We’ll try.”
The Unstoppable streaked outward from Nestria on a radial course, trying desperately to outrace the expanding rush of particles. “The wave front is closing the gap,” reported Bud dully.
Tom turned to him. His eyes were brilliant with excitement! “Bud—let’s turn the ship around!”
“We’ll aim the magnetaser at the wave as it overtakes us—maybe we can make a big enough hole for it to pass by us on all sides!”
Tom reoriented the Unstoppable and threw power into the magnetaser. “It may not be enough, flyboy. The particles may leak through.”
“I know, Tom. And then― ”
“And then,” said Tom Swift, “and then it’s like Mr. Bao said.”
Bud nodded. “I remember. ‘Just be lucky!’”
Chow Winkler stood at the entrance to the mine, gazing at the starry sky that poked through the slight haze of Little Luna’s artificial atmosphere.
“Nice night,” said a voice behind him.
“Figgered you’d come up here, Doc,” said Chow. “Even though you’re the one who told us t’ stay burrowed up inside the mountain.”
“Doctors don’t always take their own advice,” Simpson answered. “This is where I want to be right now.”
“Me too,” said another voice quietly. Violet Wohl made it a threesome.
“When I joined up with Enterprises I had no idea of the wonders Tom and his Dad—and Bud—would show me,” murmured Doc presently. “Or the adventure they’d lead me into.”
Dr. Wohl nodded. “I found my life here, with Kent and Henrick Jatczak and the others.”
“As fer me, guess I’d jest be out on the ol’ prairie with the cactoozies, gettin’ older an’ fatter and a mite bald.” The gravel of Chow’s voice was soft for once.
They stood watching the sky.
A spot of light, like a distant flashbulb, winked high above the horizon—and grew. The three flinched back as a brilliant white disk turned the sky to fire!
They stumbled backwards into the shadows of the mine tunnel. Suddenly a chorus of shouts erupted behind them.
“It’s Tom! He says they’re all right!”
“It is? He does? Th-they are?” sniffled Chow.
“Run!” commanded Doc. “Away from the opening—the rads will kill us!”
As Simpson brought out his medical instruments, Kent Rockland was speaking to Tom over the PER. “Say again, Unstoppable! The cheering’s a little loud.”
“I’m saying the explosion must have been the Fanshen,” Tom reported. “Constricting the barrier must have been a bluff, and they were standing-to in space. The dispersion wave hit them square in the nose!”
“Penalty for being the bad guys,” noted Kent wryly. “And for not having a Tom Swift magnetaser to protect them.”
Forty-eight hours later, in Shopton, Tom told his father and Phil Radnor—now joined by Harlan Ames—the final details of the defeat of the asteroid pirates. “There was nothing left of the black spaceship, of course—a little radioactive vapor, which we used the telespectrometers to analyze.”
“The Earth is fantastically lucky that the explosion happed on the far side of Nestria,” smiled Mr. Swift. “John Thurston says the EMP from the blast was almost totally blocked by the body of the asteroid.”
“Can you be sure some of Li Ching’s men aren’t in hiding?” Ames asked.
Phil Radnor retorted, “Oh, I think we can be sure there’s a slew of them still at large somewhere on seven continents—not to mention the oceans!”
Tom laughed. “But if you mean up on Nestria, Harlan, we’ve got armed teams searching the area. Nothing so far. It looks to me like the Cobra and the whole invasion force were in the Fanshen, waiting to see how the plan worked out.”
“Not favorably, I’d say,” noted Tom’s father dryly. “By the way, son,” he added, “you’ll be glad to learn that John Tsu is recovering.”
Ames commented, “Thurston and his ‘friends’ have now checked him out pretty thoroughly. They won’t tell us much—and I gather they weren’t told everything—but apparently Tsu is as your Mr. Bao said, part of a foreign group cooperating with the U.S. to bring down the Cobra. Now, I guess they can all go home.”
Phil Radnor asked about the radiation exposure Doc Simpson had been concerned about. “No signs of any problem,” the young inventor answered. “Doc thinks that ‘mineral food’ is the reason. He’s studying its medicinal properties pretty seriously.”
“Incidentally, where’s Bud?” inquired Mr. Swift.
Tom winked. “He told me planned to take a relaxing vacation. Inside the antimatter volcano!”
“Well,” chuckled Damon Swift, “he’d better not stay away too long. It’s no feat of prediction to say that you’ll be in the middle of something in no time flat!” It was Tom’s Repelatron Skyway that would make Mr. Swift’s prediction entirely correct—and very soon.
The next morning Sandy asked if, amid all the revelations, Tom had discovered anything about her anonymous admirer’s eavesdropping bracelet. “Was the Cobra behind it?”
“According to Phil Radnor—no.”
Sandy looked surprised. “Really? You don’t mean it was some rival company after all?”
Tom looked uncomfortable. “No, sis, not that either. They investigated, and ... ”
“It turns out the person behind it was, er... a fifteen-year-old supermarket employee, a budding techno-geek—someday he’ll be working at Enterprises!—with a major crush, who thought he could plot to win you by learning all the intimate details of your home life.”
“I see.” She gave him a smile, wry and sour. “Tomonomo, sometimes there really is such a thing as knowing too much!”