TOM SWIFT LIVES!
TOM SWIFT AND HIS
This unauthorized tribute
Is based upon
the original TOM SWIFT JR. characters.
SCOTT DICKERSON, AUTHOR
As of this printing,
The New TOM SWIFT Jr. Adventures
is owned by
SIMON & SCHUSTER
This edition privately printed by
PRINTED IN THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
TOM SWIFT AND HIS
“I GOTTA tell ya, Tom Swift, ol’ buddy, you’ve come up with a lot of strange-looking flying machines, but this one—!” The speaker, Bud Barclay, spoke from knowledge and experience. He was not only an expert pilot, but best friend to Shopton’s fair-haired young inventor.
Tom laughed. “Uglier than the atomicar?”
“Hey, I like the atomicar. And this automatic skywriter of yours isn’t exactly ugly, just—peculiar.”
The two were seated side by side in Tom’s newest vehicular invention, a twin-blade helicraft of radical design. The craft sat ready for takeoff, blades a spinning blur, on a helipad at the great Swift invention factory, Swift Enterprises.
“It’s not just a fancy skywriter, flyboy,” Tom pointed out. “The Workchoppers will be able to do all manner of things. The line could be as popular as our Pigeon Specials when Swift Construction starts turning ’em out.”
“Assuming they come through the test flights with the usual flying colors,” Bud noted.
The dark-haired youth had joined his friend for the prototype Workchopper’s first venture beyond the confines of the four-mile-square grounds of Enterprises. The two sat in the cockpit dome that topped the craft’s odd, high-sided fuselage, the horizontal lift blades set at the top of narrow support columns that rose on either side of the pilots. In a way the chopper resembled a stubby metal fish poking through the middle of a huge, old-fashioned portable TV set.
Tom, a rangy youth with an untended blond crewcut, drew back the control lever in front of him. With barely a sound, just the faintest whisper of sliced air, the Workchopper took to the sky.
Bud looked impressed. “Mighty smooth.”
“That’s the idea, pal,” responded Tom. “The chopper isn’t just versatile but extremely agile, capable of very precise maneuvering—real thread-the-needle stuff. And because the blades are so short, they don’t extend beyond the ‘footprint’ of the fuselage. You could set her down in a small clearing—even in an alleyway between two buildings, practically.”
“Like your cycloplane.”
“True. But it’s designed for special tasks the cy-cloplane could never handle.”
Peaking at one thousand feet, Tom guided the craft out over nearby Lake Carlopa.
Bud asked how fast the Workchopper could travel. “Well, nothing like our jet-powered jobs,” Tom conceded. “About the speed of a conventional helicopter.” He added that forward motion was achieved by slightly tilting the vertical axis of the blades. “They can be tilted in any direction, which lets us make sharp turns at low speed, or rotate the fuselage by giving them opposite slants. We could even back up!”
“Wow! My convertible can’t even manage that!”
Passing over the middle of the gleaming crescent of lake, they mounted higher, settling in at one mile. Upstate New York, dotted with green hills and patches of woods, spread out before them.
“Guess you can’t escape pollution these days wherever you go,” commented Bud, gesturing toward a low brownish-gray haze in the distance.
Tom’s eyes narrowed. “Bud—I think I see flames on the ground.”
“Good grief, a forest fire!”
“Yes, and those woods curve all around Northshore Park, right up to the lake!”
Tom gunned the copter toward the woods. An updraft of heated air buffeted the ship as it neared the smoking area.
“This is going to be a real blaze!” Bud said.
“And no lookout station around here, either,” Tom muttered anxiously.
Tongues of orange flame could be seen through the smoke, leaping from tree to tree. Perennially short on water despite the lake, the region was especially dry at this time of year. The trees and underbrush would feed the flames like stacks of old newspapers.
The fire was spreading toward the main park road. “With those arching branches, the blaze could easily jump across the road!” Tom exclaimed. “Everybody in the park will be trapped!”
Tom’s copilot shuddered. “They don’t realize what’s happening yet—the breeze is keeping the smoke down low and the ridge is blocking their view. But it sure won’t block the fire! Think we could set this copter down on the road?”
“No point to that now.” Tom headed the ship in a wide, circling sweep over the woodland. At a number of spots the boys glimpsed people grouped around picnic tables. Tom said grimly, “You’re right—they haven’t the faintest notion yet that a fire has started! I’ll alert the police.” Tom used the cockpit cellphone to call his friend Captain Rock of the city police force.
“We’ve been alerted already,” the man replied brusquely, “and the fire crews are on the way. But—!”
“But they’ll have to drive the whole circuit around the end of the lake,” Tom declared. “We’ll have to warn the people ourselves. They’ll be relatively safe if they head toward the shore, but if they try to use the park access road they’ll be trapped.”
“Hold it, Tom,” Captain Rock warned. “Don’t go in low with that copter of yours—you’ll fan the flames and make things worse.”
“No, sir, it won’t be a problem. The Workchopper blades—I call them aeolivanes—use an electronic principle to create high-pressure air pockets underneath them as they rotate. It not only gives them super-strong lift, but there’s virtually no propwash at all.”
“Okay. You can tell me all about it—later!”
Tom clicked off his phone and Bud suggested: “Let’s go down as low as possible.”
Tom elevatored down to treetop level, and Bud opened the dome hatchway next to him and leaned out to bellow at one group of picnickers seated at a table. His voice was drowned out by the loud music they were playing. The people merely laughed and waved back—obviously unaware of their danger.
“Jetz! 1 can’t get through to them!” Bud exclaimed in despair. “Drop down, Tom, and I’ll do a Paul Revere act on foot!”
The young inventor shook his head. “Even if we both ran around shouting, we’d be trapped ourselves before half the people in the park got the word.”
“But we must do something!” Bud insisted.
“We’re going to,” Tom calmly replied. He took the Workchopper up to several hundred feet, where nearly all of the grassy park, which was divided by sections of woodland into several separated areas, was visible. Picking up a microphone from the board, the young inventor activated the craft’s external speakers.
“Attention, everybody! There’s a fire spreading through the woods! Don’t try going to your cars—you’ll be safe if you head toward the lake!”
He repeated the message several times. A few clumps of people seemed to understand and began hurrying toward the shoreline. But the youths were dismayed to see that most people seemed to be ignoring the message. “Maybe they can’t make out what you’re saying,” Bud declared worriedly. “Got another ‘something’ to try, Skipper?”
Tom nodded. “As I told you, the Workchopper is versatile and has a lot of special uses. You’ll see one right now!”
Heading the craft on a course high over Lake Carlopa, Tom began writing with an electronic stylus on a sensor panel in front of him.
FOREST FIRE! NO CAUSE FOR PANIC BUT ACCESS ROAD IS BLOCKED. HEAD FOR THE LAKE SHORE IMMEDIATELY. YOU WILL BE SAFE THERE. FIRE FIGHTERS ARE ON THE WAY.
As Tom wrote, enormous glowing letters began to appear in the sky in front of them, as if on a giant, floating movie screen. Bud noticed that his pal’s hasty scrawl had been automatically transformed into neat, clear lettering that stood out against a dulled background.
Next, Tom switched the skywriter’s color selector and added a sweeping green arrow, slanting down to point toward the lakefront.
“Man, this is the greatest thing since the invention of the fire engine!” Bud enthused. “That sky-sign can be seen for miles around!”
Pleased and relieved, Tom gave a nod. “And I selected an option that causes the image to be visible inland, but not in the reverse direction, from the lake. It’d be safer not to have a fleet of boaters trying to pull off a rescue and getting in the way.”
“Plan to spend a long time explaining to me how all this stuff works,” Bud said wryly. “How long will the writing keep its shape before the paint or gas—or whatever it is—scatters?”
“It won’t scatter at all, although the lines of writing may drift with the air currents.” Tom added that before the arrow was blown out of line, he himself would dissipate the image at the touch of a button. “One way or another, everyone in the park will have gotten the message in a minute or two.”
Tom’s skywritten warning had an immediate electrifying effect on the park patrons. They grabbed their footballs, doused their fires, and hurried toward the shore, where a crowd quickly assembled. The boys were pleased to see that there were no signs of panic.
Tom deleted his sign and guided the chopper across the fire. The two waited patiently in the air, watching the main highway on the far side of the burning woods. “Here come the fire fighters!” Bud exclaimed presently.
Several fire trucks could be seen speeding toward the turnoff to the park. One by one they halted and began to deploy their high powered hoses and special equipment.
By this time, as feared, the fire had become a hungry inferno, glowing like a furnace under the billowing clouds of black smoke. “Looks like they’re beating it back pretty well, though,” observed Bud.
“If this Workchopper were fully loaded, we’d be able to help them fight the fire directly. But I guess all we can do now is fly back to Enterprises. At least the people are safe.”
“And mighty grateful, I bet!”
They put about and angled off in the direction of the lake.
Suddenly Tom gasped. “Bud—!”
Below them, a crowded minibus had halted in the middle of the park’s unpaved access road, its passengers craning their necks out the side windows fearfully. The fire had leapt the road in front and behind them, and blazing tangles of branches had fallen across the way in big clumps. They were completely surrounded!
“Good night!” Bud whispered, mouth dry. “M-Maybe we can land next to the van and get the passengers on board!”
“All those passengers? They’d never fit!” Tom didn’t need to add that the crawling edge of the fire was closing in rapidly, a tightening noose. It seemed they would have less than a minute to mount a rescue.
Tom said no more. He steered the Workchopper to a point directly over the bus, then began to descend. Tiny cameras, mounted at various points on the fuselage, including its underside, showed in clear detail what lay beneath them.
The helicraft stopped smartly just a few feet above the roof of the minibus. Through external microphones, the two pilots could hear the frantic cries of those below—fear and panic, now tinged with hope as the shadow of the chopper fell across them.
As Tom worked the controls, his pal’s gray eyes grew big with wonder. The monitor showed that four metallic “arms” had telescoped down from the underhull of the Workchopper. At the end of each arm was a mechanism that evidently rotated various selected implements—hands for the arms—into position for use.
The young inventor had selected a thick, disk-shaped implement. He lowered the units to four corners of the base frame of the minibus and brought them into contact with it. Then he gunned the blades.
The Workchopper lurched into the air, the imperiled bus dangling beneath like a fish on a line!
The linked vehicles made a smooth, high arc over the borders of the park and the woods beyond. Tom set the bus down at the side of the highway, releasing it and retracting the gripper-arms. “Have a nice day!” he called through the loudspeaker, winking at Bud.
Out over Lake Carlopa, Bud found his voice. “Jetz! That was—I dunno what! Pal, I’d say your new chopper is a terrific success.” Bud grinned, settling himself back in the copilot’s seat. “Okay. Now that my eyes are starting to believe themselves, tell me more about it.”
“My main reason for inventing the skywriting gear,” Tom explained, “was because I felt it might be useful in time of disaster—situations in which the usual means of communication are knocked out.”
Bud nodded. “You sure proved that! But what is it anyway, some kind of projection? It’s sure not the usual smoke-trails they use in ordinary skywriting.”
“The chopper shoots out a fine spray of Inertite nanofilaments—the same sort of arrangement we use for the XAIP balloon-bag.”
Inertite, a phenomenal substance composed of “non-matter matter” with extraordinary properties, had first been discovered by Tom during his expedition to the caves of nuclear fire in Africa. He had subsequently found many uses for the anomalous quasi-substance, which could be fabricated in the form of stringy inter-linked particles smaller than the nucleus of an atom. Almost weightless and completely transparent in thin sheets, he had used a stable webbing of Inertite as the skin of the lift-bag of a high-altitude vehicle he had recently developed. “Do you get the idea, Bud? As I write or draw, a computer-controlled ‘scanning beam’ induces the electromagnetic resonance effect that causes the filaments to link up and mesh together, just as they do in the protective airdomes we make.”
When Bud nodded, Tom went on: “The effect modulates the microdensities in the floating ‘cloud’ in such a way that light is refracted away, creating a dulled background. At the same time, the particle-chains inside the outlines of the letters—or whatever shape we want to create—are configured to reflect selected light-frequencies.” He added that, unlike standard skywriting, the display could be made visible at night by using a searchlight beam with a diffusion lens.
“And I suppose you just switch off that resonance deal to disperse the cloud when you’re done with it,” Bud mused sagely. “An advertiser’s dream!”
“Exactly what George said.” George Dilling, chief of Enterprises’ publicity and “public interest” office, was always quick to point out the potential commercial application of Swift inventions.
“And those robot arms—like the ones on your giant robots?”
“Right, with all kinds of goodies at the end. I used miniature versions of Dad’s vacuum-lifter to grab the bus.” Tom added that the chopper itself was held in steady balance by a pair of his gravitex stabilizers, and that small repelatrons—amazing force-ray beamers tuned to specific combinations of elements—directly stabilized whatever was being hoisted.
Bud laughed. “You’re in good hands with Tom Swift!”
Tom called Captain Rock from midair and was relieved to learn that the forest fire—apparently ignited by a downed power line—was now under control. There had been no serious injuries.
They landed at Enterprises. After reporting to his father at home, who promised to pass along the story to George Dilling for the inevitable news consumption, Tom went to the big modernistic office he shared with his father, a virtual showroom of Swift family inventions displayed as detailed models. Its most recent addition, a needle-shaped spacecraft with an arrowhead-like device on its nose, illustrated a dangerous exploit from which Tom and Bud had just returned—their confrontation in space with the asteroid pirates.
As Bud sat himself down with a plop, Tom rounded his desk to his own chair—then jumped back with a yelp of surprise!
“What’s wrong?” Bud exclaimed.
“Wh-What’s wrong? Better you should ask—what is it?”
Bud jumped to his feet and ran to his friend’s side, following Tom’s gaze to the seat of the office chair next to his desk.
Sitting on the cushion, facing them impassively, was a small, eerie object—an object that stared back at the two with wide, fierce eyes!
THE FRIGHTFUL FACE
THE WEIRD object, about the size of an outstretched palm, resembled a human face, long and narrow with a sharp-pointed chin. Its huge eyes and down-twisted mouth proved, on closer inspection, to be holes carved in the wooden face. It was propped up against the back of the chair.
“Okay, genius boy, it was your question,” Bud stated. “So what is it?”
Tom approached it and scrutinized it carefully. “Some kind of mask, I guess, scaled down. It looks African. Munford Trent must have set it there.”
The declaration had half a giggle in it. Two pretty girls glided breezily into the office bearing big smiles.
“Hi, Bash! Hi, Sandy!” Tom exclaimed. Bud echoed his greeting as the boys turned to their visitors.
“We came to make sure you two fabulous flying heroes were all right,” teased Sandra Swift, Tom’s blond year-younger sister.
“We received a phone call from Father Swift at the coffeehouse—news on the fly, one might say,” explained raven-haired Bashalli Prandit, who had become a close friend of the Swift family and Bud. “Naturally we were compelled to seek, firsthand, your exciting elaboration of the forest fire rescue.”
“We saw your new copter on TV when you two were carrying that big van over the fire,” Sandy said more seriously. “It was really thrilling!”
“Plenty hot, too,” Bud replied with a wry chuckle. “But your modest blushing brother over there is the genius who deserves all the credit.”
Tom changed the subject by waving the two around the desk and pointing to the mask. “Don’t tell me you’ve been shopping again, sis,” he joked.
With a wink Bud put in: “Must be another of those ‘anonymous’ gifts from your almost-old-enough-to-shave admirer in town.”
Sandy’s blue eyes twinkled above a slightly embarrassed frown. “Not this time. It’s for you, Tom. Maybe you’re the one with the admirer!”
“We arrived a few minutes before you, and Mr. Trent showed it to us.” Bashalli’s reference was to the Swifts’ efficient secretary and receptionist. “We offered to bring it into the office. And then, typically, we hid around the corner.”
“And all you got for your trouble was a little yelp,” said Bud.
“Yes, Budworth. I think you two adventurers are finally beyond human excitement.”
Tom was smiling, but his tone reflected sober curiosity. At Swift Enterprises the unexpected often concealed danger. “Where did it come from? Did Trent say?”
“Oh yes,” Sandy answered. “Security delivered it to him this morning. And please don’t worry, Tomonomo. It’s been TeleTec’d and spectroscoped and everything else they could think of. Certified bug-free and bomb-free.”
“Yet still quite ugly,” pronounced Bash. “I would say it is a small souvenir version of an African tribal fertility mask, perhaps to be worn on a chain about the neck.”
Tom snorted. “Fertility? Somebody must think we’re growing crops here at Enterprises!”
Bashalli, Sandy, and Bud exchanged mock-startled glances at the young inventor’s words.
“Anyway,” Sandy said, “here’s what it was wrapped in. It came by special parcel delivery.”
Tom took the brown wrapping paper and noted the return address on the label. “Mm-hmm, from the Ngombian Embassy in Washington, D.C.,” he observed in surprise.
“Ngombia? There’s the Africa connection,” Bud noted with keen interest. “Even I’ve heard of it!”
“Yes,” Tom replied. “A country that overthrew its military dictator recently and gave itself a new name. As a matter of fact,” he added, “they’re sending an official here to Enterprises tomorrow to discuss some new project. Maybe this carving is some sort of traditional gift—the ‘god of good luck’.”
Bashalli gave a disapproving look. “Well, I would say it’s not good luck for the eyes. It may be stylish neckwear in Ngombia, but to me it looks like some kind of devil mask.”
Bud agreed. “It’d sure make a great Halloween present.”
Tom grinned but pointed out, “Actually, I think it’s supposed to be a desk ornament. Look down below the chin—it has a tiny body with wide feet to stand on and big hands to hold a pen instead of a spear.” He picked up a small object attached to the base, wrapped in tissue paper. “Here’s the pen that goes with it.”
“Charming,” Sandy pronounced sarcastically.
The four engaged in animated banter for a time, and Tom and Bud dramatically recounted the inside story of the air rescue.
When the girls left, Tom called Munford Trent into the office. He confirmed the girls’ report. “I don’t really have anything to add. If you don’t think it goes with your office decor... well, please don’t insist that I put it on my desk.”
As Bud laughed, Tom responded: “Don’t worry. But we’d better have it on display tomorrow when our guest arrives, or he’ll put some kind of voodoo curse on us!”
Tom and Bud stepped over to the nextdoor office to speak to Enterprises’ reliable head of security, Harlan Ames. Other than reiterating that the mask had been carefully examined after its delivery to Enterprises, he had no further information.
As Tom and Bud wheeled back around the corner to the Swifts’ office, they were startled as Trent appeared at the office door.
“H-Help me! I—I’m― ”
The secretary’s hands clawed at the door frame as he tried to support himself. Bluish veins bulged out in his face, and he was gasping for breath! “Good grief! Trent! What’s wrong?” cried Tom in amazement.
The man was unable to answer and seemed on the verge of collapse. As Bud lowered him into a chair, he whispered to Tom, “Look at his hand.” The skin of Trent’s left hand had taken on a livid purple hue, which seemed to be slowly spreading up his arm even as they watched.
Frantic, Tom called the plant medico, Doc Simpson. “I won’t waste time by running up there,” he declared calmly. “I’m sending a stretcher and emergency pack. They’ll get him stable if they can, then bring him over. I’ll ready the equipment.”
“Any idea what it might be?”
“Not yet. Poison, toxic gas—maybe he’s having a coronary!” Simpson gave Tom some further brisk instructions, then hung up.
In two minutes the emergency team had arrived; in three, they were gone with their charge, who had lost consciousness.
Bud followed Tom into the office. Both were shaken. “What could’ve happened, Tom?” asked the young pilot. “You were just joking about a voodoo curse—I mean... weren’t you?”
“Look at this!” Tom motioned Bud over and indicated a notepad on the desk. The mask-figure had been set next to it, and a pen, apparently carved from ivory, lay next to its discarded wrapping tissue on the top sheet of paper.
The paper bore writing in big letters. “The demon gods of Ngombia doom you to a terrible... ” A ragged line trailed off the paper from the end of the uncompleted message.
Bud was wide-eyed. “Good night! Somebody must have snuck in and― ”
“It’s Trent’s handwriting,” observed Tom. “He was probably just trying out the pen after he unwrapped it.”
“Maybe the pen has a chemical on it—or gives off some kind of gas!”
“If so, it’s odorless. But you know, the fire sensor on the ceiling also spectro-samples the air, continuously. It’s a safety feature we’ve put in all over the plant. Of course,” he went on, “there could be some kind of contact poison on the pen that doesn’t evaporate... ”
Keeping his hand well away from the pen, the young inventor carefully tore off the sheet of note paper and held it close to his eyes. “The word ‘doom’ is slightly smudged, but other than that I don’t see― ”
“Jetz! Drop it!”
Bud lunged forward to knock the sheet from Tom’s hand. But his startling cry had already done the job. The paper fluttered down to the carpet. “Flyboy! What’s going on?”
Bud clamped a hand on his pal’s arm and drew him several steps back. “It hit me—it’s not the pen, Tom, it’s the ink!”
The athletic youth nodded vigorously. “For once I got the idea before you did! The effect started on Trent’s left hand—and the guy’s left handed.”
“His writing hand!”
“Yeah! He must’ve smeared the ink accidentally with the edge of his hand, and it started to affect him before he could get more than a few more words down.”
“That must be it.” Tom’s words were grim, his face white from his narrow escape. “The Security inspection wouldn’t have included taking the pen apart to test a sample of the ink. But― ” The scientist-inventor’s mind was spinning furiously. “The ink probably contains a fast-acting nerve agent of some type that adheres to the surface of the skin. My gosh!—they’d formulate it so that it wouldn’t just wipe off or wash off. It may still be releasing the toxin into Trent’s bloodstream!”
Bud completed the thought. “And it’s killing him—even as we speak!”
Tom sprinted toward the office door, scooping up an object from a display shelf in a single smooth motion.
In minutes the two had flung open the door to the Enterprises Infirmary. Doc Simpson, bent over the prone Munford Trent, barely glanced up. The secretary’s mouth was covered by an oxygen mask and his outer clothing had been cut away. “I’ve called Shopton Memorial, but he’s sinking fast. Some kind of progressive muscle paralysis affecting his heart and lungs.”
“This may help!” Tom exclaimed.
The object in his hands was an intricate model of an invention called the spectromarine selector, or spectrosel. It was a working model, though crude and limited compared to the real device, which was as big as a military cannon.
“I know you used the spectrosel to clean off that skin fungus in the underwater city,” Doc said. “But this isn’t a fungus, Tom.”
“No, but I think there’s something on the skin, a nerve toxin, that can’t be removed by ordinary medical solvents. But the spectrosel should be able to ‘read’ it and whisk it off.”
Doc let out a sharp breath. “Try it.”
Tom moved the tubular mouth of the unit close to Trent’s left hand and arm. He aimed at the purple splotch and thumbed the control button.
“Looks like it’s working,” he murmured. The ugly, spreading rash had begun to lighten and retreat before their eyes.
As Tom continued, Doc rushed close and applied his stethoscope to Trent’s bare chest. “Heartbeat a little steadier already,” he pronounced. “Without more of the toxin flowing in through the skin, I think we can turn the corner.” He injected a heart stimulant.
The effect of Tom’s quick action soon became obvious. Trent’s color slowly returned to normal, and he no longer struggled for breath. His eyelids flickered. “Don’t try to talk,” Doc ordered gently. “You’re going to be all right, my friend.”
The crisis over, Tom and Bud left the infirmary, and the young inventor gave an account of the incident to an astounded Harlan Ames, who promised to contact the Ngombian Embassy.
That evening Tom called Doc Simpson from home. “Trent’s doing fine,” Tom reported to his parents and Sandy as he hung up the telephone.
“In a way you owe him your thanks, Tom,” said Damon Swift. “Under normal circumstances― ”
“I know, Dad. I would have been the one to use the pen.”
“And you wouldn’t have had Tom Swift to figure out what to do!”
“You know, they never just shoot a person,” Sandy declared thoughtfully. “You’d think they’d learn that ‘simple is best’.”
“Well, Dear, it’s just possible they don’t want to be caught,” suggested Tom’s mother Anne, her pretty eyes twinkling despite the gravity of the situation. “Hiring a hit man might get the job done, but those big lugs do tend to leave a trail of clues—on television, at least.”
Tom smiled, but said: “I think we have a few clues even without a careless hit man. The penholder ‘mask’ was picked up at the Ngombian Embassy in D.C. and delivered straightaway to Enterprises—‘now,’ as they say in their ads. That’s their story, anyhow.”
“All right. Then what do they say at the Embassy?” Sandy asked.
“That they’re horrified! According to Harlan they confirm that they sent us a gift of that description in honor of the meeting tomorrow, but they can’t imagine how the pen that went with it could have been gimmicked like that.”
“A gift in honor of the meeting. For good luck.” Mr. Swift stared down at the carpet for a silent moment, as if its patterns held the answer to the mystery. “Well, it’s safe to say that somebody somewhere wishes us anything but good fortune.”
Tom gave a grim nod. “The worst kind of fortune—death!”
A VISITOR VANISHES
THE NEXT morning, seated at his office desk and musing about the strange business of the mask-penholder, Tom received a call from George Dilling. “I just got word that your visitor from the Ngombian Embassy, Kwanu, has arrived at the public entrance.”
“Really? He didn’t ask to be picked up at the airport?”
“No—mentioned something about their customs, whatever. At any rate, I’ll go meet him in the Visitors Center and escort him to your office myself.”
“Thanks, George. Please don’t try to sell him one of the T-shirts!”
Dilling laughed. “What a rep I’ve got! Don’t worry, boss, I can be diplomatic when I try real hard.”
Some fifteen minutes later Tom rose and extended his hand as a tall, distinguished-looking African, in a colorful toga-like garment with long billowy sleeves, entered the office with Dilling at his side.
After shaking hands warmly with Tom, the man nodded at Dilling in a manner that suggested a polite but firm dismissal. As Dilling left he again turned toward his youthful host. “Tom Swift—young inventor! How pleasant to meet you with my own eyes.”
“Thank you, sir. Er—me too.” As the stranger sat down, Tom added tentatively: “You are perhaps Mr. Kwanu?”
“That is correct. Ah! I neglected to introduce myself.”
“Forgive me for keeping you waiting in the Visitors Center. We had assumed you would call us when your flight arrived, to permit us to drive you to Enterprises.”
“Not at all,” the African said politely. “Um, um, um! We choose to retain our customs and traditional ways, even in our new Ngombia.” He pronounced the name of his country nee-yom-byah. “One does not ask one’s host to play the role of a servant, you see. I rented a car and drove here myself—not so hard, if one has learnt to drive!” The man chuckled, and Tom smiled back.
“I know you were expecting my father to join this meeting, sir,” said Tom. “Unfortunately, he had to rush over to our affiliate in Shopton, the Swift Construction Company, at the last minute. It couldn’t wait. But I often represent him.”
The Ngombian official shrugged. “Then I shall reserve my apologies to him for another occasion. For I must ask his forgiveness for placing his son in danger by my little gift. In my culture, a gift is always given as a matter of respect. It must arrive prior to the first meeting, without disclosing the particular individual who has sent it. For we say, it is from all of us, all of Ngombia.”
“It’s a wonderful custom,” Tom responded. “Forgive me for asking, but—do you think someone from your country may have been behind the plot?”
Mr. Kwanu raised both hands as if holding an invisible beachball in front of his face. “Of course you are forgiven! Yes, it seems the only answer, what you say. You see, my boy-son, we have suffered much political turmoil since we gained our independence, and there are certain factions which would like to block Ngombia’s economic progress. They believe such boons will accrue only to the dominant tribe, the Ghidduas. Most of the government is Ghiddua; I myself am Ghiddua. But we Ghiddua are generous. We will share the wealth of the new Ngombia with all tribes.”
Tom nodded. “Swift Enterprises has worked with what they call ‘emerging nations’ before—Kabulistan, for example. That was an economic development project, and I understand you have something similar in mind.”
“Development? One may so call it. Without it, we are poor forever, I think. My friend,” Kwanu said, facing Tom with a smile, “you and your very famous family have the reputation of doing the impossible. We have, therefore, come to ask you to undertake an impossible task.”
Tom grinned back, slightly embarrassed. “Thank you. If Dad were here I think he’d tell you we can’t do the scientifically impossible, but we’re certainly interested in taking a few stabs at the improbable.”
“Um, um, um. And I see you have done me the honor of placing a topographic map of my part of Africa in view. If I may― ” Kwanu rose and stepped across to the big map which stood near Mr. Swift’s desk on tripod legs. “Now, I shall give you a lesson. I shall beat you bloody with a gourd!”
Kwanu giggled, in a dignified manner. “A witticism—a joke. We Ghiddua are known for our pleasant humorous banter. It is considered polite.” He turned to the map, gesturing with his hand. “My country, Ngombia, is divided into two provinces, inhabited by tribes that differ in customs.” Kwanu pointed out their locations. “West Ngombia, which is agricultural and settled, contains our capital, Huttangdala, called Princetown during the colonial period. East Ngombia, more primitive—they cannot help it; they are Ulsusu—is rich in minerals which are being mined by an international firm, Afro-Metals, Limited, by arrangement with our government. For of course the Ulsusu cannot manage to do it.”
“I’ve heard of Afro-Metals,” said Tom. “Dutch, aren’t they?”
“Yes. Our colonial stepfathers have come back to us with some humility. Now unfortunately,” Kwanu went on, “the two provinces are separated by a vast jungle with much swampland and many rivers. It is called The V’moda, a rift valley with mountains on either side. It extends from the northern border to the southern border, all the way, a sort of great gash, a knife-cut.”
“Yes, I see.”
“To weld our country together as one and develop it, a system of transportation must be built through The V’moda, most of which remains unexplored by the eyes of man. A modern highway, that is what we wish. This is an almost insurmountable task, according to skilled engineers.”
“Has a route ever been surveyed?” asked Tom, fascinated by the scope of the project.
“Yes, quite recently, by an American firm—the Burlow Engineering Company,” Kwanu replied. “My government had planned to give them a contract to build a highway. But they encountered a problem.”
“An unforeseen problem?”
“Indeed. For a problem foreseen is perhaps not a problem, eh? The jungle, treacherous enough in itself, is split almost in two by a strange swamp,” Kwanu explained. “The highway route must cross this swamp.”
Tom was struck by his visitor’s choice of words. “You called it a strange swamp, Mr. Kwanu. Why?”
“It is a dark place, full of evil. Over and over, a discouraging thing happens. Innocent people keep falling into its waters and are transformed into huge shambling monsters of vines, mud, and rotting leaves—a dreadful sight!” As Tom’s mouth gaped open, Kwanu added with teeth like pearls: “Another joke! No, it is simply a bad and smelly place. It must be crossed, my boy-son. But Burlow’s engineers are certain that the bog would not support a roadbed. As a result, their proposal called for a lengthy detour around the swamp and too-many years’ construction time for the highway—if it could be done at all.”
“And I’m sure the cost― ”
“Then Burlow Engineering is no longer being considered?” Tom asked.
Kwanu shrugged. “Surely not, no. I fear they were angry when we rejected their proposal, but we had no choice. We cannot afford their price, nor, frankly, can we wait years for our highway. To win the loyalty of the tribes—the Ulsusu, that is—and to make our country stable and prosperous, the two provinces must be linked quickly. We are hoping you can provide the solution.”
Tom smiled wryly. “It’s a large order, Mr. Kwanu. And Burlow is very well-respected. If they can’t make it happen― ”
Mr. Kwanu sat down again. “But they have not burrowed down to the center of the world for iron, nor have they been to the moon above. You, Tom Swift—you have done these things.”
“Guess I can’t argue with history, sir,” responded the young inventor. “We do have something that we’re developing― ”
“No doubt the very thing that I read about, which drew me to you at this time, a sort of trestle to span great chasms. I have been advised of it.”
“Yes. It’s called the repelaspan. As a matter of fact, we’re about to begin preliminary testing.”
“It is my thought,” said Kwanu, “that such a thing might be used to span the swamp. Perhaps indeed, the entirety of The V’moda!”
Tom grinned—yet couldn’t deny that the prospect intrigued him! “That’s pretty ambitious, sir. Before anything else, I need to look over the survey reports from Burlow.”
“I was well prepared for that hopeful eventuality,” Kwanu declared, evidently very pleased. He reached down to the leather briefcase sitting at his feet, and Tom heard him open the clasp.
He began to mutter, twisting in the chair and bending lower. Then he pulled the briefcase up onto his lap and began to rifle through it. “What is this, what is this?”
At an angle, his eyes met Tom’s. “This is wrong, all wrong! This is not my briefcase!”
Tom half-stood, startled and perplexed. “Did you bring the wrong― ”
“I am not wrong,” the man snapped irritably. “It is wrong. It! The briefcase I carried with me, the one I looked through in the car before leaving the airport—stolen!”
The young inventor rounded his desk and stood for a moment at the man’s elbow. What he was saying seemed senseless. “I don’t understand.”
“No? The stolen briefcase contained Burlow Engineering’s proposal, based on the survey for which we paid. It included complete details on the likeliest route, terrain, soil sampling, and other information,” Kwanu continued. “Yes!—the very report I was bringing here for your use, boy-son.” He closed the briefcase and seemed to calm himself. “However, the original report is in Huttangdala, and it will be only a matter of a day or two before we can have another copy sent to you, by electronics. Modern world, eh? Um, um, um. It would have been a great help to you in assessing the problem realistically if I could have presented the papers to you now. We had hoped for an immediate answer.”
“It would have helped,” Tom agreed. “We don’t want to give a false picture of what we might be able to do, Mr. Kwanu. This certainly sounds like an interesting and challenging job, but we’ll need time to think it over and prepare some sort of proposal. My father will he back this evening, sir. Could you stay in Shopton for a further discussion tomorrow?”
Kwanu shook his head distractedly. “I fear not. In view of the theft of the briefcase, I must return to Washington at once and make a full report to my government.”
“I understand. But if you’re saying your property was stolen after you arrived in Shopton― ”
“After I locked the door of my car and began to drive here!”
“—then we have to think it might have happened here on the grounds of Enterprises, somehow. If you could meet with Mr. Ames, our security people could begin― ”
Tom broke off as Mr. Kwanu jolted to his feet. “My apologies, but I must not delay. I am obliged to contact my country from my office at the Embassy, nowhere else. We have our own security concerns. I will leave now.”
Reaching for his desk telephone, Tom said, “I’ll call someone to escort you back to the main gate.”
“No, please,” frowned Kwanu. “It is only across the way. A crocodile could cross it like an antelope—as we would say. I will contact you within twenty-four hours. For now, goodbye!”
He turned and left, a human whirlwind. In a moment Tom heard the elevator door open and close.
Good night! he thought. What are we getting into?
Stepping next door, Tom spoke for a time to Harlan Ames, giving an account of what had happened. “Tom, you must admit this Kwanu’s story is quite a stretch to take in. He flies by commercial airline to Shopton with a valuable briefcase, rents a car, opens the briefcase inside the car and verifies that all’s well, then locks the door and drives here. Then—gone.”
Tom nodded. “I’m sure he would have mentioned it if it weren’t in his possession at all times.”
“So how’d the switch get made? If there was a switch!”
“That ‘if’ crossed my mind too, Harlan,” agreed Tom. “It’s more likely that he’s lying to us than that somebody teleported his briefcase away without his knowing it!”
“You know,” said Ames determinedly, “I can get pretty forceful when I need to. If Kwanu hasn’t driven off yet, I’m going to have Security politely drag him back here. We need a few answers before this goes any further.”
He contacted the security desk at the Visitors Center. “No? Oh really? You’re absolutely—yes, of course. Thanks a lot, Terry.” Ames looked thoughtful and troubled as he clicked off the telephone and turned back to Tom. “He hasn’t come back through the building yet. Terry says he can see Kwanu’s rental car still sitting in the lot.”
Brow creasing, Tom ran a hand through his crewcut. “It’s been more than long enough for someone—even a crocodile!—to walk from Admin to the Visitors Center.”
With increasing concern Harlan Ames alerted Security and initiated a search of the grounds. “Not a sign of him,” he finally reported to Tom. “Somehow or other the guy’s vanished! Now tell me, boss—how can that be?”
Tom’s response was a quiet mutter of bafflement. “How can it be? I can’t imagine. But it is!”
“WE understand the seriousness of this matter, Mr. Ambassador,” said Damon Swift.
“We have no doubt that you do,” responded the official. He was half-smiling in a polite way, but his tone bespoke diplomatic caution.
It was the morning after Mr. Kwanu’s strange disappearance. Tom and his father had arranged to speak to the Ngombian Ambassador directly, by means of Enterprises’ private television system, the videophone network. Joined by Harlan Ames the two Swifts sat in their office while the Ambassador, Dr. Onamma, spoke to them from the Washington videophone outlet.
Onamma continued. “Your FBI reports that they have no leads thus far. It is the same with your own security apparatus, is it not?”
“That’s right,” said Ames. “We instituted, and have now completed, a very thorough search of the plant grounds. No sign of Mr. Kwanu or that briefcase of his. Or anything else.”
“Might he not have been kidnapped and taken from the grounds over your perimeter fence?”
Tom shook his head and answered for Ames. “That’s unlikely, and would require some special electronic equipment for everyone involved, victim and kidnappers. We have a radar-type security system here at Enterprises, which we call the Patrolscope. Unless we program-in a specific ‘ignore’ command, anything with a size, shape, and movement suggesting a person sets off a plant-wide alarm.”
“But then your own workers― ”
“Our regular workforce, executive staff included, all carry special devices that tell the Patrolscope computer to not respond to the reflection-source wearing them,” Tom’s father explained. “Visitors are also provided with amulets as they enter at the main gate.”
“Yes, I see,” nodded the Ambassador thoughtfully. “Ah! Um, um, um! Surely that is why you cannot detect Kwanu—he is made unseeable by this amulet he was given.”
“Naturally, sir, that thought occured to us,” declared Ames with a trace of professional indignation. “We immediately transmitted a coded signal that deactivated his personal unit. Nothing came up on the scope.”
“If he had been attacked and rendered unconscious—they could have put him in a car, even the trunk, and driven him out.”
“We’ve had problems along that line,” admitted Tom. “We now use special equipment to scan all vehicles automatically as they pass through any of our gates. And the access roads and parking lots are all covered by videocams day and night.”
“Then the answer to all this is quite clear,” Onamma stated grimly. “Yes. Mr. Kwanu has been sucked by a mysterious unknown force into the fifth dimension! Ah—no, my friends—a witticism.”
“I understand you Ngombians are well known for your sense of humor,” noted Tom with a rather strained smile.
“Yes,” he confirmed. “That is, we Ghiddua are. Our poor little brothers the Ulsusu have no such capacity.” He smiled broadly. “Now then. I have been told to ask you if you might send to us, to our Embassy, copies of your security tapes. No doubt your automatic cameras were trained upon all critical areas at the time of the incident. Hmm?”
Ames gave a curt nod. “They show all Mr. Kwanu’s movements out in the open air, from his arrival to his return to the Visitors facility.”
“He returned? I was told― ”
“When we ran the tapes, we found that he had crossed the grounds back to the Visitors Center building, and we saw him enter it,” Tom said. “But he never made it to the front lobby. We’re sure he’s not anywhere in the building, either.”
“Quite a bafflement, then. Nevertheless, our own investigatory personnel must examine the relevant tapes. There may be certain clues you would not think to notice. For I must say, my friends, in all branches of our new government—even here in our Embassy—one finds... suspicions. Not all our countrymen are pleased with us, and the ousted regime has its friends. Poor little people, to be so afraid of what is new.”
The video confab ended with a promise that Enterprises would send copies of the digitally recorded camera output by way of the videophone system. In turn, Ambassador Onamma promised to acquire a copy of the Burlow report from the home office in Ngombia and provide it to the Swifts for their assessment.
Later in the long morning, the high sun saw Tom and Bud standing on a lawn between two multistory lab buildings next to the Enterprises airfield. They were both looking skyward.
“So that’s your ‘repelaspan’ gimmick, huh, genius boy?” commented Bud skeptically, shading his eyes with his hand.
“You sound a little querulous.”
“If that means what I think it does, I am. I see a bunch of equipment and antennas and bracing struts on the top of Design 2, and more of the same facing it on the top of Astronautics. In between, a two-hundred-foot stretch of blue-skied nothing!”
“Bothers you, hmm?”
“Makes me a tad curious. Where’s the bridge?”
Tom laughed. “I thought ‘repela’ would be all the clue you’d need, flyboy! My ‘flying bridge’ isn’t made of anything solid—it works by repelatron force.” He explained that computer controlled repelatron beams, tightly focused and sweeping back and forth across the gap, would create an invisible “bridge” of repulsion energies that would be powerful enough to lift and safely propel vehicles from one side to the other. “In other words, we transform ordinary cars into temporary flying machines.”
“Okay,” said the young Californian. “Still, I don’t really get how― ”
“Aw now, brand my bridgework,” came a gravelly voice behind them, “even I get how them repelly-trons kin do a job like that!”
Tom turned. “Hi, Chow! You must’ve used your Texas tracking skills to sneak up on us.”
“Naw, jest wearin’ my sneaky boots today. Got soft stuff on th’ bottom—Doc Simpson says it’ll keep my ole feet from painin’ me.”
Bud gave a humorous wince and said. “Speaking of pain― ”
“Don’t bother t’say it, Buddy Boy. I know all about this here bright-eye shirt o’ mine.” Chow Winkler had always had a weakness for gaudy western-style shirts. A close friend to both, utterly devoted to his young boss, the roly-poly older man was Enterprises’ designated chef for the plant’s top executives.
“So what do you think of ‘Tom Swift and His Invisible Flying Bridge’?” needled Bud. “Ready to saddle up and be the first across? It’s just a five story drop!”
Tom joined the affectionate joshing. “Don’t encourage him, pal. Chow’s had some trouble before with flying around on repelatron power.”
“Say, I remember that!”
The weathered cook reddened. “Wish you’d jest fergit about that time, you two. Nobody told me that flyin’ donkey machine of yours’d get so dang jittery. Speakin’ o’ which—I coulda sworn you said those repellers couldn’t be used so close to the ground, boss.”
The young inventor nodded. “They can’t be used to push against the ground at close range, not from anything moving, because they can’t adjust rapidly enough to the fine detail in the mixed element configurations. But the repelaspan system is aimed upward at the vehicles, not down. It doesn’t interact with the ground at all.”
Turning away from Chow and Bud, Tom now became immersed in the final preparation for this important test. Speaking on his cellphone, he had various plant employees roll several test vehicles into position near the repelaspan “onramps,” which hung out into space like mute tongues. The vehicles had been hoisted onto the rooftops earlier in the day by the Workchopper.
The youths failed to notice Chow leaving—or the thoughtful frown on his prairie-furrowed face. “Hmmph!” he grumbled to himself. “guess I shor did make a blame sight o’ myself that other time. Thought I ’as so golly-durn smart. Butcha know, Winkler― ” A thought struck him in bow-legged mid-stride. “Mebbe it ain’t too late t’hold up Texas honor!”
Presently the unmanned, motorless test vehicles had been rolled into position and the employees had left the roofs. They quickly joined Tom and Bud on the ground, curious to watch the outcome of the test.
Sirens on each of the mechanisms blared out once, twice. “System activated!” announced the young scientist-inventor. “Now the computer will tune-in on the first of the cars, and the beam setup will start to― ”
“Hey, look!” one of the men cried out, pointing. “Who’s that? What’s he doing up there?”
A figure had appeared against the bright sky, standing on one of the ramps, which were stubby but fairly broad.
“Good night!” Bud chortled in amused surprise. “Chow! Guess the old timer’s gonna be the first across after all!” He chuckled.
But Tom cut him off with a sharp glance. “Knock it off!—he’ll kill himself!”
VOODOO STEW AND
“KILL HIMSELF!” repeated one of the watchers in amazement.
Bud was shocked. “Huh? Whatta you mean?
“I mean the repelatrons are tuned to the metal in the car frames, not to human bodies!”
Bud Barclay understood instantly and turned white. “Oh man, he’ll fall right through!”
The crowd began to yell frantically and wave their arms. Looking downward, Chow gave a jaunty wave back at them and began a slow walk forward toward the end of the ramp.
“Chow, don’t!” Tom shouted at the top of his lungs. “Stop!” But all the overlapping voices of the crowd buried the warning in a cacophony of sound.
The heavyset cook reached the end of the ramp, gave a big gulp almost visible from five stories distant, and raised his foot. The watchers gasped and shrieked!—as a pair of strong arms clamped themselves to Chow’s wide beltline and yanked him backwards, forcefully pulling him off the ramp and onto the rooftop.
The crowd cheered, no one more wildly than Bud. Tom just rubbed the cold sweat off his brow with a trembling hand.
In moments Chow made a sheepish appearance at ground level, followed by Enterprises’ chief engineer, youthful Hank Sterling—Chow’s rescuer.
“S-sorry, boss. Guess I—kinda― ”
“Uh-huh.” Tom’s look was stern and nearly all frown.
“Good thing ol’ Hank here was lookin’ out the winder and sawr― ”
“I s’pose I mebbe oughta jest stay spang on the ground from now on.”
“Say now! Time t’start on lunch!” Chow beat a hasty retreat toward his kitchen.
Tom didn’t relent until his friend was out of sight. Then he shook Hank’s hand warmly. “No thanks necessary, boss,” stated Hank with a smile. “I mean, hey, I want lunch just as much as any man here!”
The repelaspan test resumed. One by one, the vehicles, all of different size and shape, floated through space from one building to another as Tom monitored a telemetry feed from the twin beam devices.
Finally he shut the system down. “Looks like it panned out fine!” Bud exclaimed, clapping his pal on the back.
Tom nodded in agreement, but his expression was thoughtful. “It works, all right, and in a disaster—a flood, an earthquake, maybe a fire in a highrise building—it could be a lifesaver, getting emergency vehicles or rescue equipment to where they’re needed when conventional aircraft would be too slow or cumbersome, or evacuating people in cars.”
“So my brain’s churning on the Ngombia project. The repelaspan isn’t the answer.”
“Why not, Tom?” challenged Hank. “I can envision a series of repelatron relay stations, passing cars along from one side of that jungle to the other.”
“The system is just too restrictive,” his young employer explained. “Too clunky, I guess you could say. Notice how slow those test cars were moving? It’s a limitation built into the technology itself, due to the constant, complex adjustments the computers have to make, and the inherent lag effect in the antenna-radiators. I don’t think a highway in the sky with a five-miles-per-hour speed limit would have much appeal to the Ngombians.”
“Well, you know—back in San Francisco, five MPH would be considered quite an achievement during rush hour,” Bud put in. The joke made Tom chuckle, but Bud knew the problem would eat away at his friend’s active scientific mind. Tom’s gonna do a lot of dreaming tonight, he thought wryly, whether he wants to or not!
The dreaming began early. Tom went to his design lab, and a pair of hours disappeared in the fog of concentration. He was interrupted by the clumping of cowboy boots in the corridor. Chow Winkler wheeled in a lunch tray on a cart. A big covered tureen was the centerpiece.
“Soup’s on, boss!” came his foghorn voice. It seemed to Tom that the foghorn was a bit higher in pitch than usual.
“I’m sure ready for it, pardner.” Looking up, Tom noticed that despite the “bright-eye” patterned shirt which Chow was sporting—it was a green day, apparently—the cook seemed anything but bright-eyed. “Anything wrong, old-timer?”
“Jest thinkin’ about them queer Africa goin’s on around here,” Chow confided. He didn’t quite meet his young boss’s gaze.
“Chow, if you’re worried I’m still upset about that stunt― ”
“Oh no, naw, all over’n done with. Er, ain’t it?—But brand my skillet, Tom, I am plumb worried about sumpin’! What’s behind all them devil-masks ’n people jest disappearin’ and whatnotcha-may-callit?”
“Wish I knew,” Tom said. “Whoever’s responsible, he’s bound to trip himself up sooner or later, and then the police or the FBI will take care of him.”
“Sure hope you’re right.” Chow looked relieved as he went on, “I know you’re blame busy thinkin’, boss, but I didn’t want you sendin’ out fer cold sandwiches. So I brought you over some real Texas-style mulligan stew fer some brain nourishment.” As he lifted the cover from the tureen and dipped in the ladle, he continued: “Jest wait’ll you― ”
Chow’s voice suddenly trailed off in an eerie screech.
“Chow! What’s wrong?” Tom asked, jumping up. A strange look seemed to be fighting to rise through the cook’s broad face.
“Th-there in the pot, boss!” Chow quavered. “T-t-take a look yourself!”
Tom peered into the stewpot and gasped. Resting in the cup of the metal ladle, in place of the expected steaming mulligan, lay a small figure! It was molded in the shape of a cowboy, with an enormous paunch and ten-gallon hat. The figure was stuck full of pins!
“B-b-brand my grubsack, it’s me!” Chow wailed as Tom pulled out the tiny voodoo doll. “I know about this! Them p-pins mean I’m marked fer d-d-death!” The roly-poly cook was trembling like an aspen in a high wind.
“Now, hold it, Chow!” Tom said calmly. “Don’t come all unglued. Maybe someone’s just playing a prank on you.”
“A prank?” said a third voice. Bud Barclay walked into the room wearing an innocent smile. “Hey, who would do such a thing to a fearless space-walking Texan like Chow?”
The cook stared at Bud, open-mouthed for a moment, then suddenly cried out in alarm and pain! “N-no! It’s all real! Look what them voodoo pins is doin’ to me!”
He suddenly pulled up his shirt sleeve, and Tom and Bud drew back in shock. A stream of bloody crimson was dribbling down his arm!
Bud was aghast. “It—how in the― ”
“We’ve got to get you to the infirmary!” urged Tom, grasping the cook’s arm. But then his expression changed. Eyes narrowed, he brought his red-stained fingertips to his nose and sniffed. “This isn’t blood.”
“Naw. Ketchup!” Chow leaned back and broke into a thunder of laughter. “Buddy boy! You’re the varmint what done it!” he howled. “Knowed you ’as up to somethin’ when you came sneakin’ round the galley jest now, afore I left! Figgered I’d improve the joke a smidge!”
The red was now on Bud’s face. He ducked back sheepishly, half expecting Chow to hurl a plate at him. But the cook quickly recovered his good humor as the boys collapsed with laughter. “From now on, don’t jest take fer granit that I won’t know when my leg’s bein’ pulled,” he said to Bud.
Bud took another step back and looked downward. “Say! You do have legs!”
“Now watch out. You ever hear o’ Fat Libby-ration?”
“You mean you’re planning to turn it loose?”
“Aaa!...Wa-aal, reckon we all got a right to laugh,” Chow conceded with a chuckle. “Who’d want to hoodoo a good ole honest trail cook anyhow? No evil eye fer me!”
“Not with that eagle eye of yours, pal,” winked Bud, patting his friend’s shoulder.
The two boys were just finishing their late lunch when Tom took a call from the attendant at the visitor reception desk. A visitor named Darcy Creel, describing himself as a “professional zoological journalist”, was asking to see Tom. “If he wants an interview on the African business, he should speak to George Dilling,” directed Tom.
“He says that’s not why he came, Mr. Swift,” was the response. “Says there’s a special matter he’d like to discuss with you in private.”
“All right. When you’ve security-scanned him, please have him escorted up to my office.”
Curious about the unexpected visitor, Tom and Bud left the lab building hastily, taking the moving ridewalk toward the tall administration building.
Suddenly a tone rang out shrilly from the tiny cellphone hooked to Tom’s belt—followed by a whoop of sirens from all directions.
“It’s the plant radar alarm!” Bud cried out. The boys’ eyes followed the pointing fingers of stare-struck workers and looked upward. The blue sky was dotted with tiny sparkling gleams, swirling and darting in all directions like drifting sparks!
“It’s flyin’ saucers!” one panicked employee yelped out. “We’re being invaded!”
Tom snatched up the telephone and called the security office.
“What’s happening, Harlan?” he inquired.
“We don’t know yet, Skipper,” Ames replied tensely. “We’ve got ‘snow’ all over the Patrolscope monitors. Some strange metal objects are fluttering down over the plant!”
“I see ’em.”
The objects had begun to reach the ground. Bud scooped one up and brought it to Tom. Tom examined it closely.
“What the dickens is it?” Bud asked, mystified.
“Seems to be made of stiffened aluminum foil. But don’t ask me what it’s supposed to be.” The foil had been cut and folded in a strange geometric design that looked oddly birdlike. “The technique looks like origami—you know, pal, the Japanese art of paper-folding. These ‘birds’ are like little paper airplanes.”
Bus responded with a skeptical look. “Right. What next, spitwads?”
By this time, other employees had come running across the grounds. They scattered to pick up the pieces of foil. Mystification had been replaced by chagrined laughter.
Ames joined the youths, bringing another batch of the queer foil shapes which had caught the bright sunlight as they floated down to the Enterprises airfield. “What do you make of them, Tom?”
“Beats me.” Tom studied the pieces with a frown. “It’s an old trick for confusing radar, of course, but what’s the purpose?”
“Were they dropped from a plane?” Bud put in.
“No, the control tower says none passed over the plant,” Ames replied.
“Must have been projected from outside the plant wall—maybe by someone in a car speeding along the highway,” Tom speculated.
“But how could thin foil like this stuff be spread so high in the air?” Bud objected.
“Easy,” Tom said. “Stack the stuff together under pressure in a tight, compact bundle with some kind of automatic release.” Tom’s eyes dropped to the palms of his hands. He added with sudden worry: “Maybe we ought to make sure this stuff really is aluminum foil!”
They had all touched the metallic foil—just as Munford Trent had touched the poisoned ink!
TRYING to hold down their growing alarm, the two boys hurried back to Tom’s private laboratory, Harlan Ames following. Here the young inventor examined several pieces of the foil under X-rays and with a Swift Spectroscope. When he finished, Tom looked at the others, much relieved but baffled.
“Just plain aluminum foil, that’s all.”
Bud gulped. “That’s a pretty good ‘all’, Tom!”
Ames, equally puzzled, finally left the laboratory. He promised to launch a thorough search for clues outside the plant wall.
Suddenly Bud snapped his fingers. “Hey, you forgot your visitor, Tom!” he exclaimed.
“Oh, good gosh! I’d better call upstairs and apologize. I just hope he hasn’t left.” Then Tom added a wry coda: “Sort of.”
He hadn’t. Darcy Creel turned out to be a blond man with a slender, wiry build, deeply tanned, casually dressed. Though he appeared to be in his forties, it seemed he favored a younger look. His loose-fitting shirt was almost as colorful as Chow Winkler’s—but as wrinkled as if he’d been sleeping in it.
After greetings and apologies were delivered, Creel said to Tom, “Thanks a lot for seeing me, guy. Ya got quite a security setup here. Mini police-state, hmm?”
Tom barely kept an indignant frown off his face. Bud’s was unsuppressed but unseen by the visitor.
“I told the guard—let’s face it, that’s what he is!—that I didn’t come about your African transportation project, but that’s not entirely true,” Creel continued without rue or apology.
Tom was instantly cautious. “Just what is your occupation, Mr. Creel?”
“I call it zoological journalism—maybe environmental investigative reporting would be a little clearer. Big corporations go charging here and there around the world, fouling up the biosphere, wrecking the environment, hiding behind the magic word ‘development’ in the cause of an even more magic word, ‘profit’.”
“Seems to me I’ve read something about that,” Tom put in dryly.
“And now Tom Swift Enterprises heads off to Ngombia to build a highway or an airport or something in the middle of an unspoiled jungle.”
Tom began to correct him. “It’s only a request that we’re considering― ”
“And besides which, guy,” came a dark-lidded voice from Bud’s direction, “that nice jungle is spoiled, by a lousy swamp running through it.”
Creel didn’t turn in his chair but kept his eyes on Tom. “Right. The human-centric point of view. You’ve got your vanishing species—endangered animals, plants― ”
Tom cut him off impatiently. “Why exactly are you here, Mr. Creel?”
“Bottom line? I want to go along with you.”
“As a reporter, to document your environmental—choices. Could be in your best interest, you know. Nice publicity for good old TSE, noted kid inventor keeping the world safe for neat consumer stuff like breathing, eating, and drinking.”
There was an edge to Tom’s quiet voice. “I’m not concerned about ‘nice publicity’. We always consider very carefully the long-term ramifications of our projects. If Enterprises chooses to go ahead, what we do will be valid in terms of human values as well as science.”
“Sure. As decided by you, out of the public eye.”
Bud started to rise from his chair. Tom waved him back down. “I think you’ve made your point, Mr. Creel. Or is this your idea of a warning? Do you and your associates plan some kind of disruption or protest if you don’t get your way?”
Creel smiled. “Just asking for a ride, Tom. I’m a poor freelancer. Saving the world doesn’t pay very well. It’s not like I could afford to launch a jungle expedition on my own. Let me tag along. I’ll do a little writing, keep an eye on the native flora and fauna—including the humans who might not be into falling under the plow of progress—that kind of thing.”
It was Tom who stood. “We don’t take passengers along on our project expeditions. Blame our insurance company if you like. Goodbye, Mr. Creel.”
Darcy Creel shrugged and rose to leave. “Class dismissed. But as far as warnings, Tom― ”
“I figured you’d have one.”
“Oh, it’s a friendly one. That jungle you’re going to is a pretty interesting place. I’ve heard rumors about huge animals of an unknown species existing in the Ngombian rain forest,” Creel said. “It’s never been properly explored—you might make an outstanding zoological find. But don’t think of your company safari as an afternoon’s pleasant amble through the palm trees. Your people could be in real danger. And not from crazed tree-huggers like me.”
“What sort of danger?” Tom demanded.
“Let’s just say there’s a monster in the woodpile.” With that Creel slunk out through the door.
“You know what’s amazing, genius boy?” grumbled Bud. “Guys like that actually have mothers!”
“It’s a real insult, someone thinking the Swift family would ever endanger― ”
Bud gave Tom’s arm a playful punch. “You don’t have to convince me of anything, Tom. Let’s move on to something important.”
Bud, who was scheduled for some face-time training in the Workchopper, headed off to the hangar. Tom remained in the office, puzzling over the aluminum “birds.”
He had noticed that they were cut in several different patterns. Did the shapes have any significance beyond crude aerodynamics? he wondered. Could they represent some kind of religious symbols or totems that might mean something to a native African?
“Seems pretty farfetched,” Tom concluded. But nevertheless, he thought it might be wise to show a selection of the objects to an expert in the field of African art and tradition.
But that would have to wait.
Feet up his desk, Tom was debating whether or not to call the Ngombian Embassy in Washington when the question was resolved for him. Trent’s temporary replacement announced an incoming call from Ambassador Onammi. “Young Mr. Swift, I must tell you—there have been some developments in this matter that have left us very unsettled.”
“Has something happened?”
“Something quite remarkable. The recorded camera data you transmitted to us― ”
“You received it, didn’t you, sir?” Tom asked.
“And a shock! The man who visited you in our name—he is not War’kno Kwanu!”
Tom was flabbergasted! “Good night! Because your embassy had told us to expect Mr. Kwanu, it never occurred to us to question his identity!” Tom asked if the man’s face was known to the Ngombian security authorities.
“Indeed so, I am sorry to tell you,” was Onammi’s reply. “The man is Ulsusu, a known agent of political subversives who work against the new government. His name is R’na Inbimah. He is an expert in technological spying and theft.”
“And what of the real Mr. Kwanu?”
“We do not know. There was a bit of confusion at the time of his departure from the airport here. He was somewhat delayed—it is no doubt significant that his driver has also disappeared—and the plane was held for him by our request. He was positively identified as the man who entered the plane at the terminal, the last to board. Yet—and how can one believe this?—he was not the man who exited that same plane in Shopton and who rented a car at your airport!”
“Absolutely,” the man insisted. “The terminal security video tapes in Washington clearly show Kwanu, short and fat, in a business suit. In the Shopton terminal, the video shows this Inbimah scoundrel, very different, in a tribal robe. A robe!—We do not encourage this sort of image, this backwards costumery. Somewhat embarrassing.”
The Ambassador fell silent, and Tom plunged into deep thought for several moments. “You say... Mr. Kwanu was late, perhaps by intention. So he had to hurry to board the plane, after all the other passengers had been seated... ”
“I don’t suppose you know anything about the boarding rampway at that terminal—the covered corridor they sometimes call a ‘jetway’?”
Dr. Onammi expressed surprise at the young inventor’s query. “When I was briefed by our investigative personnel, they provided a diagram of the terminal, which I glanced at. But what might you wish to know?”
“Do you recall if the corridor was forked at the end—shaped like a ‘y’? Many are, allowing planes to be parked on either side. When boarding to the right, for instance, the left-hand segment is closed off.”
“I understand. The answer is yes. This is indeed such a rampway. Boarding was to the left on this occasion. Might this be significant?”
“I’m just running over the possibilities in my mind, sir,” replied Tom. “I can imagine a scene like this. Mr. Kwanu is checked through, then hustles on up the jetway. Probably no one is watching from the terminal end, and if the plane is at a somewhat acute angle to the connecting segment, and the flight attendant is a couple steps back from the hatch as they usually are, the intersection of the little branched corridor and the main part might be out of view... ”
“Someone could have been hiding in the other, unused segment, the one branching off to the right.”
“Um, um, um!”
“So he lures, or forces, Mr. Kwanu off to the right, closes the partition, and takes his papers and briefcase. Then the other man, Inbimah, steps out and takes his place.”
“Remarkable!” Onammi exclaimed. “Yet it does make plausible the impossible, does it not? My word, my word! And so one must ask—where are these two men now?”
“That’s the question,” agreed Tom.
Tom expected the Ambassador to end the call, but the man raised another matter. “I promised you a copy of the Burlow file, from our office in the capital. But it seems there will be a delay.”
“I am informed we cannot—quite—find it. Rather humbling to admit. I’m afraid the new government, though we are well-educated and efficient Ghidduas, is not yet in an orderly state. Even as I speak, this report may be resting peaceably on a desk somewhere. We will surely have it soon in hand, but― ”
Tom grinned. “I understand, sir. We’ve been known to misplace things here at Enterprises.”
“Yet what a shame, to delay your ability to give answer to our proposal to you.”
“Maybe we can get around the problem. Couldn’t I contact Burlow directly? They must have copies of their findings.”
“Of course,” nodded Mr. Onammi. “Though I fear I cannot assist you. Burlow and Ngombia parted ways on a somewhat sour note, I should say. We cannot compel them to provide you with what is, in legal fact, their own property.”
“I understand,” said Tom. “All I can do is give it a try. Perhaps if I go to them in person they’ll be more inclined to cooperate.”
“As you say—all you can do.”
That settles it, Tom thought as he hung up. Giving life to his quick decision, he took a company jetrocopter and, without further delay, flew to Newark to interview Ben Burlow, president of Burlow Engineering Company, about the Ngombian highway survey.
The young inventor gave his name to a receptionist in the Company’s second-floor office lobby. She stared at him uncertainly. “Mm. Yes. Just a moment, please, Mr. Swift,” she said. She entered the office behind her, closing the door—despite which Tom could hear a muffled verbal explosion.
A moment later a rugged-looking, gray-haired man burst from the office, his face red with anger. “So you’re Tom Swift, eh!” he shouted in a growl. “Get out of here before I throw you out!”
TOM was startled by the man’s furious outburst, but said with forced calm, “If you’re Mr. Burlow, I’ve flown all the way from Shopton to see you. Please hear what I have to say.”
“I’m Burlow, all right!” the man stormed. “As for hearing you, I’d say you’ve talked too much!” He waved a newspaper in front of Tom’s face.
Tom took the paper and glanced at the article Burlow pointed out. The next moment Tom flushed with annoyance and embarrassment.
The story was headlined: TSE Wins “Impossible” Job in Africa Jungle. It stated that Tom Swift Enterprises had just announced that it was contracting with the Ngombian government to complete, in a matter of months, a jungle highway which other engineers claimed would take years to build. The story was full of boastful quotes, attributed to Tom and his father. A number of snide, slurring remarks, supposedly made by Tom, were included about the firm which had lost out on the project.
“So you think you can do a better job than the Burlow boys!” the company president raged. “You young whelp-snipper, you aren’t even― ”
“Look, Mr. Burlow,” Tom cut in coldly, “I know nothing about this story. Swift Enterprises has made no such announcement, and I’ve given out no interview. Those alleged remarks of mine are as much of a shock to me as they were to you. Being in this business as long as you have, you must know that we at Enterprises don’t talk about other companies that way.”
Burlow stared at the young inventor in disbelief, the red slowly subsiding. “In that case, where did the story come from?”
“I don’t know, but I intend to find out,” Tom replied. “We haven’t even agreed to take on the job.”
“Very well,” the company president said grudgingly. “Come with me.”
Tom followed him into Burlow’s private office, where he was gruffly waved into a chair. Burlow regarded Tom with a scowl of mistrust.
“All right,” he rumbled. “What’s on your mind?”
“So far, Swift Enterprises has merely been invited to take on the Ngombian highway project,” Tom began. “We haven’t even looked over the terrain yet. The job must involve terrific problems if a topflight, experienced firm such as yours would need years to handle it.”
Burlow looked somewhat mollified.
“Before going any further,” Tom went on, “we’d like to know what we’re up against. That’s why I came to see you.”
Tom refrained from intimating that he had an added reason for his visit. He was hoping to glean some hint of whether Burlow Engineering, no friend to Ngombia, might be connected with the sinister events of the past two days.
Burlow became somewhat paternal, if in a patronizing way. “You came to the right place, son,” he said with relish. “I like to do what I can for young men entering the arena. But in this case—well, if any outfit can lay that highway in less than three years, I’ll eat my hat! And it’s a hardhat!”
Tom shrugged. “You may be right. However, I would like to study the proposal you submitted to the Ngombian government.”
“Why should I let you see that?” Burlow snapped.
“The engineering details and specifications could save us a lot of time in sizing up the project.”
Burlow snorted. “Encouraging the young is one thing. If you think I’m about to help a competitor, you’re way too young for this business!”
“The Ngombian government paid for your survey,” Tom pointed out. “Surely they should be able to make use of the results.”
“Then ask them. They have copies.”
“They do,” Tom acknowledged, “but I’m hoping to avoid a delay in making a decision.” He mentioned the problem in the Ngombian government office.
Burlow stared in amazement, then burst into a loud bray of laughter. “Too bad, Swift. In that case, I guess you boys are just out of luck!”
Tom stifled the angry retort that rose to his lips. All that escaped was: “Our company doesn’t treat honest competitors as enemies, Mr. Burlow. Then I take it you won’t cooperate?”
“That’s right. If you great hey-we-went-to-the-moon geniuses at Swift Enterprises want to take on the job and show us up, go for it. Bid it out.” Burlow’s little eyes crinkled in a foxy smile as he added, “I’ll tell you one thing, though, boy—you have a real unpleasant surprise coming if you think you can lay a highway straight across that jungle swamp. It’s a busy place, you might say.” The man chuckled in a snide way. “You’ll soon find out why we jacked our price up so high!”
Tom realized that it would be useless to press Burlow further. He was more than happy to leave and fly home.
Arriving at Enterprises, a harried George Dilling reported that news services and “media people” had been phoning his office, asking for more details on the publicized Africa project. He had already issued a statement by Tom’s father denying the original story, but confirming that a development project was being “studied”.
Tom then he hurried to the security office to discuss the matter with Harlan Ames.
“I’ve just finished checking out that phony article,” Ames reported. “Its undisclosed source was one of those trashy ‘fearless investigator’ gossip sites on the internet, something called the Burge Blast. The teenage owner declined my gentle invitation to reveal where those quotes came from originally.”
“You can spread anything far and wide these days, Harlan.”
Next day found Tom in one of his personal labs, deep in thought over the mystery and the ominous warnings by Creel and Burlow. Giving up on the conundrum, Tom hopped into one of the plant’s midget electric nanocars and sped across the grounds to the observatory building, where he knew his father was working with Enterprises’ electronic video-telescope, the megascope space prober.
Father and son engaged in a lengthy and detailed conversation in the dimmed light of the observatory dome, the huge megascope antenna presiding. By the end of the sober conference the Swifts had decided to plunge ahead on the African project as quickly as possible. “I’ll call Ambassador Onammi and give our provisional acceptance,” declared Mr. Swift. “We can talk more about our strategy tonight at home. A good meal can do wonders for the imagination.”
Onammi was delighted. However, he reported with some embarrassment that the file on the Burlow survey had not yet been uncovered. “We are becoming concerned that Ulsusu sympathizers are working within our government, undetected,” he admitted.
For this reason, Tom decided that an on-the-spot survey of the jungle terrain would be needed before the project agreements could be finalized. By the end of the day he had made tentative plans and put together a small team to join him on the trip to Ngombia. “I’m still pretty dry of ideas on how to solve the transport problem,” Tom told Hank Sterling after inviting him along. “Maybe looking over the ‘enemy’—The V’moda—will suggest something.”
That evening the Swift family was joined at dinner by Jake Aturian, Mr. Swift’s longtime friend, who managed the Swift Construction Company on the other side of Shopton. After supper Tom and the two older men gathered in the den to discuss the possible Ngombia project.
“Well, Damon, from what you’ve told me, I’d say the project is worth looking into,” said Mr. Aturian. “We’d be helping a new democratic country in Africa, and a successful job over there would he a credit to America—if you two Swift thinkers can lick the engineering problems.”
Mr. Swift’s eyes lighted with enthusiasm. Trim and youthful looking with keen blue eyes and hair barely touched by gray, he closely resembled his taller, lankier son. “I agree, Jake. However, I’ll be tied up on our aerospace research project, the grant from NASA—which means that Tom here will have to take charge once again.”
Jake Aturian raised an eyebrow. “Sometimes one’s offspring can be pretty convenient to have around. After you’ve brought ’em up, of course.” Tom laughed.
“So how about it, son?” asked Damon Swift.
“I’d sure like to try. With the team backing me up on the engineering end, and Uncle Jake on costs, I think I’ll be able to handle it.”
“It’s bound to be easier to deal with than other big operations you’ve wrangled, Tom,” Uncle Jake noted reassuringly. “You did a fine job with the earth blaster operation in Antarctica, and the Little Luna expedition.”
“Thanks. But if I get knocked down, it’ll be the tech problems that do it—the invention side of things,” said Tom.
His father then asked if he had any ideas beyond the repelaspan system to knit together the divided nation.
“Not exactly, not yet. It seems the Ngombians have some kind of superhighway in mind. I’m not sure we ought to limit our thinking, though. An atomicar transport system might be one solution,” Tom mused. His listeners knew that this flying vehicle Tom had designed had been intended for mass production. “Since the flying cars can operate over any terrain, no regular highway would be needed. That way, we― ”
Tom’s words were cut short by a spurt of the alarm system, a sudden whine of warning! The startling alert was followed by a strange sharp sound, like something tough being ripped violently in two. An object, long and skinny, streaked across the line of vision of the three.
With a twang the bizarre missile buried its nose in the wall of the den!
“A spear!” Tom cried in disbelief.
Leaping from his chair, he dashed over to examine the still-quivering weapon. The two others, slower to put aside their surprise, took a moment to join him.
The spear was imposingly large. Attached to the back end of the shaft, fluttering limply, was a small strip of light-colored material bearing a crudely printed message in blood-red ink:
TOM SWIFT — YOU AND YOUR KIND HAVE NO BUSINESS IN AFRICA. STAY OUT OF NGOMBIA OR YOU AND YOUR FAMILY WILL SUFFER !
A JUNGLE MYSTERY
THE EXCITED shouts of the men had sent Sandy and her slender, pretty mother hurrying into the den. As Tom read the message aloud, not realizing they were standing in the doorway listening, their hands flew to their faces in alarm and dread.
“Oh!” Mrs. Swift gasped anxiously.
“Why didn’t the warning buzzer keep ringing?” Sandy asked, bewildered, as she put a reassuring hand on her mother’s arm. The Swift home was surrounded by an electromagnetic motion-sensor field that gave warning of any intruder.
“It was the spear that touched off the alarm,” Tom guessed. Crinkling some sheets of blank paper around his hands so as not to disturb any fingerprints, he yanked the fearsome object from the wall with a grunt of effort and held it upright next to him. “Whoever threw it must have stayed outside the range of the alarm.”
His sister couldn’t believe what Tom was saying! “But Tomonomo, look at that thing—it’s taller than you are! Are you saying somebody threw it—all the way from the road?”
“And even if were thrown, how did it manage to break through the window glass?” demanded Mrs. Swift. “Damon, I thought the new Tomaquartz panes― ”
“It didn’t break through the window pane,” murmured Tom’s father as he eyed the weapon, and then let his gaze backtrack along its half-glimpsed path. “It broke right through the wall!”
He pointed to a ragged, palm-sized gap in the front wall of the room, which faced the little road that crossed in front of the well-protected Swift property.
Jake Aturian joined his friend in examining the spear. “I’ve never seen anything quite like this,” he stated.
“Put that aside for now, Uncle Jake,” Tom exclaimed suddenly. “The spear thrower may still be outside on the roadway—maybe even inside the hedge if he’s wearing one of the field-neutralizer coils!”
Tom leaned the spear against the wall and dashed outside the house, Mr. Aturian following. Mr. Swift had already hurried to switch on the yard floodlights and in moments was unkenneling the Swifts’ two bloodhounds, Caesar and Brutus.
Tom let the dogs sniff the spear to get the scent. But after loping about the grounds and a ways along the little-used road, the hounds gave up in whimpering bafflement.
“The spear must have been hurled from a car that stopped and then drove along,” Tom decided, mounting the front steps. “The thrower could’ve stood up on the hood to get a view over the top of the hedge.”
Mr. Swift nodded. “I believe I recall hearing one approach just before the alarm sounded.”
“Whoever threw it must have been someone of giant strength,” said Uncle Jake in an awed voice as he eyed the distance from the street. “It penetrated one wall, and was buried inches deep in the next!”
“It might have been projected by a powerful, specially designed spear gun,” Tom conjectured. He continued the thought as they returned to the den and resumed scrutinizing the projectile. “And actually, it’s not all that tough to go through the wall—which is just the usual stucco and tar-paper setup. Much easier than through the Tomaquartz.” He again picked up the spear and held it close. “I don’t know what sort of wood the shaft is made of, but it’s extremely light in weight. And I can barely nick it with my thumbnail.”
“I’m especially interested in the spearhead,” stated Uncle Jake. “With all my metallurgical training, I don’t recognize that metal alloy. The point and edges are sharp as razor blades, even now, but feel how slick it is. As if coated in oil—but nothing is coming off on my fingers.”
Carrying the spear Tom led the way to his small lab-workshop between house and garage, where he examined the obsidian-black metal under a microscope. He then analyzed its molecular composition with a hand-held spectroscanner. “It’s uncoated machined metal, all right, but not a type I’m familiar with. Are you, Uncle Jake?”
But Tom’s father said, “I believe I know what it is. It’s an alloy—expensive and very difficult to produce—developed for use by hypersonic jetcraft and spacecraft to cope with air friction. As I recall, it tested out as impractical. But― ” Damon Swift added with a chuckle, “hardly what I would expect to find at the business end of an African tribal spear!”
“A rare synthetic alloy,” Tom mused. Why did the idea ring a bell with him? “Dad, do you recall who developed it?”
“Hmm. A European firm—Dutch, I think.”
“Might it have been Afro-Metals, Ltd.?”
“Why yes, that’s the one! How did you make the connection, Tom?”
Tom shrugged. “The whole thing’s connected to Ngombia somehow. Mr. Kwanu mentioned Afro-Metals as the firm working with the government—Dutch!”
After telephoning Harlan Ames and the police, Tom turned to his father. “Dad, you don’t think we should give up on this project, do you? If someone’s targeting the family― ”
“No,” said Mr. Swift. “We’ll decide about the project on its own merits, son. I’m opposed on principle to yielding to threats. Your mother has always felt the same way.”
“And Sandy!” called a voice from the next room.
Tom gave his father a warm handclasp. “I’ll make it unanimous!” he declared.
Next morning at Enterprises Tom checked with Harlan Ames, who reported that the spear and message had yielded no usable fingerprints. “That strip of cloth the message was written on, by the way, is real antelope hide. Within the last month it was still bobbing along on the poor antelope! The writing is interesting too: a kind of ink, a dye, containing real human blood.”
Tom gulped. “Gruesome! Somebody’s carrying traditional values a little too far.”
The next day, while Tom’s great Flying Lab skyship was being loaded and readied for the flight, he took a few hours to drive to nearby Grandyke University to ask an expert on traditional African cultures, Professor Kasten, to look over a few of the foil effigies.
“I see no special significance in their shapes or manner of construction,” he stated. “It’s true, of course, that certain birds, as well as animals, have a totemic importance to many of the traditional cultures. But not in that part of upper East Africa, and not among the Ulsusus or the Ghidduas.”
Tom nodded, and then tentatively advanced another question that had been on his mind. “I have the impression those two tribes don’t care very much for one another, despite all the talk of ‘brotherhood’.”
The academic gave an academic chuckle. “To put it mildly! There is a thousand years of enmity between them. Each regards the other as an ‘inferior race’, and so teaches their children. I have little hope for the longterm unity of this put-together nation of Ngombia.”
“Perhaps the transportation project will help.”
“Perhaps. Or it may simply make it easier for them to get to each other to fight. We’ll see, eh?” The professor paused thoughtfully. “By the way, there’s a mystery you might help to solve while you’re over there.”
Tom grinned. “We can always use another mystery or two.”
“This one involves a fellow scientist, someone I knew in school and kept in touch with over the years, intermittently,” Kasten explained. “A brilliant man and a talented researcher in several fields. Yet toward the end, he became increasingly obsessed with theories that many of his colleagues regarded as fantastic.”
“You said—toward the end?”
“Oh yes,” confirmed the professor. “You see, he went off to Ngombia—to the great jungle, to be precise—more than twenty years ago. He hasn’t been seen or heard from since!”
“THAT ‘missing scientist in the jungle’ scenario sounds like something from old-style adventure novels,” Tom commented with a smile.
Professor Kasten nodded with a smile of his own. “I suppose it does. In this case, though, it’s quite real. Welkin Eldreth was last seen in Princetown—they call it Huttangdala now—attempting to put together a Ghiddua team to travel into the jungle. Nothing since.”
“Did he travel to Ngombia alone?”
“As I recall he had two assistants, graduate students who had studied under him—true believers, I’d imagine.” Kasten went over to his bookshelf and pulled out a bound journal. “Take this with you, Tom, if you like. It talks about the case, and about Eldreth’s theories.”
The young inventor took the journal and thanked his host. “I’ll keep my eyes open,” Tom promised, “and see if I can pick up any clues.”
Tom had intended to read the article that evening at home, but a discussion with his father intervened, as well as a late telephone call. “Hi there, T-man!” came a familiar voice.
“Ted!” Tom exclaimed delightedly. “Don’t tell me you’re calling from Loonaui!” This Pacific island, half a world away, was the site of the special launch facility that served the Swift Enterprises outpost in space. Ted Spring, a brilliant astronautical engineer and longtime close friend of the Swift family, had been appointed chief of the operation.
“No, Tom, it’s vacation time for me,” explained the young African-American. “I’m here in Shopton, at home with my Mom and my little brother—who’s not all that little anymore.”
“When can we expect you over, Ted? You know how much we’d like to see you—Mom and Dad, and Bud― ”
“And Sandy.” Tom understood the reason for Ted’s awkward, hesitant question. It was quietly accepted that Ted had had romantic feelings toward Tom’s sister, feelings which Tom suspected Ted’s time on Loonaui had not extinguished.
Tom described his upcoming trip to Ngombia, departure scheduled for the next morning. “Actually, T-man, that’s something I wanted to bat around with you—a favor. I read about the Ngombia deal in the news, and figured you’d be heading there pretty soon. How’d you guys feel about taking me along?”
The youth chuckled. “Funny—someone else asked for the same favor the other day, and I turned him down. But you work for us, Ted; more importantly, you’re a trusted friend. Sure you can come!—start packing.”
“Great! Want to know my reason?”
“Well, it’s one of these family-history things. Mom says one branch of the family came from that part of Africa ‘back in the day’. I’ve always wanted to pay a visit, bring back some photos and souvenirs. I think it’d mean a lot to her.”
“You don’t need a reason, Ted,” Tom remarked warmly. “But among all possible unneeded reasons, that’s a good one!”
Before retiring for the night the young prodigy took a moment to speak with his sister. “San, I know you know all about Ted’s feelings for you... ”
“Obviously,” Sandy responded with a wry nod. “Secret-keeping is impossible with Bashalli around. Or me, of course.”
“Do you want me to speak to Ted? It might be unfair to encourage him—and sometimes even silence can be a sort of encouragement.”
The girl raised an eyebrow. “Are you presuming to know my mind, Tom? You—and that Bud guy you hang around with—ought to give a try at not taking things for granted.”
Tom conceded the point with a grin. “It’s between you and Ted. But I think there are a few people—even in Shopton—who might venture an opinion or two, whether we think it’s their business or not.”
“Should I care what other people think?” Sandy’s look was proud, if slightly condescending. “I’m a Swift!”
Tom did no reading that night. The journal wound up in Tom’s luggage aboard the mammoth three-decker Sky Queen as it rose into the stratosphere the following morning and turned its nose toward Africa. The solar-powered craft, given VTOL capabilities by the banks of jet-lifters in its underbelly, had been Tom’s first major invention. True to its name, the Flying Lab was outfitted with the latest research equipment from all fields of science.
The supersonic jaunt across the Atlantic took a few brief hours, followed by a sky trek across the great bulge of Africa on a heading slightly south of east. Tom spent an hour in the view-lounge, with its floor-to-ceiling windows, reading over the journal article about the missing Professor Eldreth.
He had just finished, and was musingly watching the high cloud deck slip by below, when Hank Sterling entered. “Looks like you’re deep in Swiftonian thought, boss.”
Tom shrugged. “Just turning the article over in my mind.”
“Interesting—but strange. It seems Eldreth was originally a highly-regarded cancer researcher. His studies led him into an investigation of the process of cell replication and how living organisms grow.”
“I can see the relevance,” Hank remarked as he settled down onto a contoured chair. “Cancerous tumors are runaway cell-splitting.”
“Yes. But along the way he began to pursue some radical ideas. He thought it might be possible to engineer mutated viroids—basically the controlling ‘software’ of virus particles, or virions—and insert them into active virions to alter their function.”
“To what end? Fighting cancer?”
“He seems to have abandoned that goal,” replied Tom. “He became interested in modifying the rate of cell division, to promote faster and more robust growth. Talked about better crop yields, bigger livestock—that sort of thing.”
“How about giant humans kicking over skyscrapers?—that sort of thing!”
“I’m afraid the article doesn’t address that particular question,” chuckled the youth.
“So where did Ngombia come in?” Hank asked.
“I can only tell you what he claimed, Hank. He said he had found, in plant and animal samples originating in the V’moda swamp, traces of a mildly radioactive compound that included the metallic element Niobium. It’s normally highly toxic—carcinogenic. But the Ngombian specimens showed no ill effects. Eldreth had some notion of using the Niobium compound, conveyed by bacteria, to engineer his growth-inducing viroids. Complicated, isn’t it?”
“Oh, no more so than magneto-hydro-dynamics, Skipper.”
“One thing that struck me about all this,” continued Tom, “is that we may have already stumbled across something related, here in Africa. Remember that man Mkeesa we dealt with in Borukundi?”
“I sure do—the fellow who was able to slough-off his exposure to radiation in Mount Goaba. Had something to do with herbs in his diet, didn’t it?”
“It appeared so. And here again we have the same factors—radioactivity, toxins, unusual substances in the body... ”
“And one thing more. Africa!”
Tom agreed silently, then said: “Something further to think about, too—and this is a weird coincidence, if it is just a coincidence. The journal article was written a few years ago by none other than Darcy Creel, the environmental journalist I told you about!”
“Holy simoleons! Maybe Eldreth is the real reason Creel was trying to wangle a ride with us!”
“I wonder,” said Tom.
It was early evening, local time, when the ship settled to the ground in Huttangdala at the edge of Ngombia’s sole large airport.
“We crossed a lot of green,” commented one of the crew, Bill Bennings, to Tom in the Flying Lab’s room-sized control compartment. “I suppose some of it was that big swamp.”
“Nope,” Tom corrected him. “That’s further to the east, cutting this half of the country, West Ngombia, off from East Ngombia. We’ll be seeing it tomorrow morning from way up high.”
“What’s next on the itinerary, Skipper?” asked Bud, who had been piloting the Queen. “African voodoo stew Chow Winkler style?” As usual, the colorful chef had been made a part of the expedition.
Tom glanced at his wristwatch. “Maybe for tomorrow’s breakfast. An associate of Dr. Onammi’s, from the Ministry of Patriotic Progress, as they call it, is to meet us in front of the terminal with a car—no doubt one he’s driving himself! His name is Jombilabu.” He turned to Ted Spring as he entered the control compartment from the lab section to the rear of it. “Ted, why don’t you join Bud and I? This meeting is mostly a formality. The government offices are just a few blocks away—we can stroll back, and you can get a taste of Ngombia.” Ted agreed.
Mr. Jombilabu was an elderly, jovial Ghiddua, bursting with the customary dubious humor of the culture. His driving skills were also questionable. Tom, Bud, and Ted were relieved when the crowded, colorful streets of the Ngombian capital disappeared on the far side of the protective wall enclosing the Ministry Building complex.
A tall, very skinny Ngombian awaited the visitors in Mr. Jombilabu’s well-appointed office. “Gentlemen, this is Dalo Kiuma, my chief of staff, formerly an explorer and professional safari guide. I have assigned him to assist you in your trip to The V’moda. He is a good Ghiddua, but is familiar with Ulsusu customs and language, things you will surely have to deal with.”
“I thought the Ulsusu and the Ghiddua spoke the same language,” Tom remarked.
“Not the same,” stated Kiuma bluntly. “They have their own inflections and idioms, and can be difficult to understand.” Suddenly he turned toward Ted Spring, staring at him in a challenging way. “But perhaps your Mr. Spring is himself of Ulsusu descent, is he not?”
“If I am,” replied Ted, “it was generations back. There’s no way to know.”
Kiuma smiled in a patronizing way. “Oh, there are ways, I assure you.”
Tom Swift’s facial expression expressed a great deal—to those who knew how to read it. Pointedly turning away from Mr. Kiuma, he said to Mr. Jombilabu: “Thank you for the assistance, sir. On this trip we’ll be doing our scouting from the air, for the most part. If it looks like we’ll be requiring the services of a translator or safari leader, we’ll certainly get in touch with your office.”
Kiuma started to say something—a protest or warning, Tom thought—but Mr. Jombilabu held up a hand. “As you wish. We have not yet—quite—found the Burlow file. I can at least provide a general map of the route we originally asked them to survey.” Tom thanked him.
The encounter with Mr. Kiuma made the Americans uncomfortable. After leaving the Ministry compound, Tom quietly apologized to Ted for having had to endure the man’s attitude. “Doesn’t matter,” Ted replied.
But to Tom Swift it did matter. He could already see that Darcy Creel was right. The Ngombia project would be far from a stroll in the palm trees!
THE THREE had been assured that the streets of the capital between the Ministry and the airport were well-patrolled and perfectly safe, day or night. Unworried, they strolled along at a relaxed pace, old colonial buildings and sleek new offices rising on every side. The twisting boulevard throbbed with color and excitement beneath the darkening African sky. Men, dark-skinned and stalwart, milled about in flowing, brilliantly patterned togas with one shoulder bare. The women were clad in sarong-like garments of printed calico, their heads swathed in gaudy kerchiefs. Some carried naked infants, slung papoose style, on their backs. Others balanced trays of food or merchandise atop their heads with uncanny ease.
“I guess those trays must be the Ngombian version of supermarket shopping carts,” Bud joked.
“Guess so,” said Tom. “Not much in the way of European-style business dress, except for the tourists.”
“Notice how the women always walk just in front of the men?” Ted pointed out. “I read that it’s an important custom among the Ghidduas.”
Bud snorted. “Yeah—they take the spear for their husbands! Somehow I can’t see Sandy or Bash doing it.”
Some merchants displayed their wares in wooden booths lining the street; others had their goods laid out on the pavement itself on raffia mats or banana leaves. Hunks of raw meat, kola nuts, rice, yams, corn, and a variety of fruits and vegetables were offered for the customers’ inspection. Constant bargaining went on in a bedlam of high-spirited chatter. The approach of the evening meal, by tradition held immediately at sundown, seemed to energize the shoppers and merchants.
Tom made a remark to Ted. When his friend didn’t respond, the young inventor glanced over to him curiously. Ted’s face bore a fixed, wary look. “Is something wrong, Ted?”
Ted shrugged. “As we’ve been walking along, all those ‘good Ghidduas’ we’ve passed have been staring—maybe glaring—my way.”
“I hadn’t noticed.”
“I’ve had a lifetime learning to notice, T-man. It’s not because I’m dressed differently. They don’t pay any special attention to you and Bud, not here in the tourist district. It’s me—because they think I look Ulsusu.”
Tom was dismayed. “Ted, I had no idea how this would play out.”
“I know,” his friend replied. “No point in my frettin’ over it.”
A squeal nearby drew their attention. An older European woman was chattering in a language that might have been Italian. In the throes of delight, she was pointing into one of the stalls that displayed various knick-knacks and souvenirs.
As she drifted away, Tom saw what had interested her. It interested him too. “Look at that carving!” he said to his companions.
“That one? Looks like ivory,” Bud muttered.
“It’s not what it’s made of that caught my eye. Look at the shape of it, guys.”
They moved closer and bent down to examine it. “What do you suppose it is? Some kind of tribal god?” speculated Ted. “Looks like an elephant standing up on his hind legs, with the head of a crocodile.”
“Yep,” Tom agreed. “But to my eyes it also looks like a crude version of something else—a dinosaur!”
Bud raised an eyebrow. “It does look a little like a T-rex at that, now that you mention it. The ivory whittler must be up on all the latest movies from America.”
“Maybe that’s it,” Tom commented back faintly—as if he doubted the pronouncement. He couldn’t help but remember the rumor of strange beasts roaming the local jungles.
“Let’s get going,” chuckled Bud Barclay wryly, “before the proprietor starts trying to convince us it comes from Atlantis or something!”
They soon reached the airport and the comforts of the Sky Queen, where Chow Winkler’s Africanized dinner awaited them—and it was delicious.
The last of the day dwindled away in bits and pieces and the skies shone with an ivory moon and a wash of stars. Bud, having born the brunt of the cross-world flight as pilot, was asleep in a bunk. Too excited to sleep, Tom sat in the lounge chatting with Hank Sterling about the engineering challenges of the Ngombia project.
“Maybe we should be thinking in terms of something like a high-speed bullet train with tracks suspended up above the swamp,” suggested the young, square-jawed chief engineer of Swift Enterprises.
“Now that there’s a thought, boys,” put in Chow, who had come forward from the galley to join them. “How ’bout one o’ them monny-rails, boss? I hear that’s purty much th’ modern thing—got one in Las Vegas!”
“It is a thought,” Tom agreed. “It’s just that the Ngombians seem to be thinking in terms of moving big volumes of― ”
All three stiffened in shock as a bloodcurdling screech suddenly resounded throughout deck three! “He—ee—elp!” cried a frantic voice. “Get this monster away from me!”
“It’s Bud!” Tom exclaimed, bolting up from his padded sofa.
Tom dashed aft through the carpeted passageway, with Hank behind him and Chow waddling excitedly at their heels. They had the same thought. If something had set off brave, athletic Bud Barclay, it was certain to be a menace and a half!
When they reached the crew’s bunkroom, the men stopped short in astonishment. Bud was flattened down in a wall bunk, staring up at one of the weirdest creatures the boys or Chow had ever seen!
The tiny beast was perched on the pillow at Bud’s head. It was leaning forward with its long bony fingers on Bud’s temples while it peered down hypnotically into the youth’s eyes.
“G-g-great hoppin’ horned toads!” Chow sputtered. “What kind o’ critter is that? This some kind o’ joke, buddy boy?”
“If—if it is—somebody else is pullin’ it!” gasped Bud. The little animal, small enough to nestle in a man’s hand, had brownish fur and a long tail. As Chow spoke, it looked up at the three newcomers.
“Good grief,” Tom muttered. “Head lamps for eyes!” Its huge orange eyes, with pinpoint pupils, seemed to take up most of the creature’s face. Large, batlike ears made it look even queerer.
“Hank—Tom—somebody!—get it off me!” Bud begged the watchers. “Don’t just stand there! Do something!” As if too afraid to shift his gaze, the youth continued to stare raptly into the face of his fantastic admirer.
Footsteps came hurrying down the passageway, and Bill Bennings poked his head into the bunkroom.
“Oh—oh! I was afraid of that!” he said apologetically. “Come here, Bushy, you little rascal!” The tiny creature leapt onto Bennings’s shoulder and disappeared inside his light Enterprises windbreaker.
“You mean that pop-eyed goon belongs to you?” Bud growled, sitting up and glaring at the crew member.
“Well—er—yes. Little pet I picked up in town when I went out earlier today. A real bargain. She has all her shots and papers, too. No problem bringing her back.”
“What is it?” Hank Sterling put in with a grin.
“A bush baby—or galago. She’s very friendly.”
“Friendly?” Bud swung his muscular legs down from the bunk, landing on the deck with a furious thump. “When I woke up and saw that spook staring at me upside down I almost did a jet takeoff!”
Chow howled with laughter.
“And just what’re you laughing at?” Bud demanded.
“A great big buckaroo like you scared out o’ his wits by that little critter!”
Bud snorted. “Seems to me I remember hearing a story about a big brave Texan and another little― ”
“Aw now, you kin just fergit about what happened in New Guinea!” Chow interrupted, fuming and indignant. “Brand my ghost-dance, yew cain’t do a blame thing without it follerin’ you around fer the rest of― ”
“I was afraid to move,” Bud muttered defensively. “It might have poked my eye out or bit my nose off.”
“I take it the thing won’t bite?” Tom asked Bill.
“No, of course not,” he said hastily. “The seller told me she was owned by a little old Kenya lady who brought her up from cub-hood. I—I guess should have asked permission to bring Bushy on board, but I didn’t think she’d bother anyone. She was curled up asleep in some of my gear. I didn’t think she’d go off exploring.”
“Uh-huh. She decided to explore me. Okay, okay. She is kinda cute I guess,” conceded Bud as the little creature timidly poked her ears and eyes out from Bill’s jacket. “But keep her away from me!—I’m all explored.”
As the group left Bud alone to resume his interrupted sleep, Tom whispered to Bill: “He’s melting already!”
The next morning, as the rest of the crew readied the Sky Queen for the next leg of her mission, Tom decided to return to the stall where the ivory idol had been displayed. Bud accompanied him.
The hour was early, but already the streets of the capital were thick with humanity. The youths found the little stall, already up and running, the owner working quietly and patiently as if he had never left, whittling a piece of wood.
“Something tells me half these tribal antiques are newer than last Tuesday,” Bud murmured with a smile.
Tom chuckled. When he glanced up, he noticed that the carver had stopped work and was watching them closely.
Indicating the small ivory statue, Tom asked, “How much?”
The man stared at the American impassively, then suddenly resumed his carving. When Tom repeated the question, the response was barely audible. “Nkò mo nto wi.”
“That’s putting it mildly,” gibed Bud. “Maybe he doesn’t speak English.”
“With all these tourists? I’ll bet he does—at least ‘how much?’!” Tom took out his wallet. “We want to buy it. Please name a price.”
“Kise tita!” The carver shook his head. He did not look up.
As Tom persisted, the craftsman grew excited. A crowd of locals began to gather, muttering ominously.
“Wrong way, sirs, wrong way.” The high-pitched voice came drifting in, on a thick accent, from nearby in the crowd. Looking back and forth, Tom couldn’t make out who had spoken at first. But presently another comment drew his eyes to a very short young African, no more than a child, who was looking on with a shrewd expression.
“What did you mean—wrong way?” Tom asked him. “I only want to buy one of the items he’s selling.”
The boy laughed. “Oh yes, sirs, so you do! You were here last-day. So was I, sirs, and I saw you looking.” He stepped closer to Tom as Bud watched suspiciously. “But no—um, um, um—you will not be able to buy it.”
“Yeah? How come? Isn’t it for sale?” demanded Bud.
“Not to you, sirs.”
“Why?” asked Tom.
“Because of your friend, the black man who was with you before,” the boy replied. “This man here, Old Bu’umo—he will not sell to those who make friends with an Ulsusu. If he did, all his own friends would go away.”
Tom was amazed! “But—but that’s—!” He forced himself to stop sputtering. “Our friend is American, like us. He’s not Ulsusu.”
This brought a shrill laugh from the boy. “Oh no? Um, um, um! Too bad. He looks like one.”
“Forget the thing. Let’s get out of here,” Bud urged. “The locals here are crazy!”
“Akomo can get it for you,” the lad piped up, dashing forward. A furious discussion ensued at high pitch. Finally the boy, Akomo, turned to the two Americans. “He will not sell to you, sirs, but he will sell it to me for a big price.”
“What size of big?” inquired Tom.
“In American money, four dollars and eleven cents. Originally eight thousand, before I bargained. But sirs, he has dealt with Nigerians, and will not accept checks or credit cards. Cash only, no returning.”
Tom couldn’t help grinning at the boy’s industriousness. The three-way transaction was accomplished, and in a minute Tom had the idol in his hand. “And here, Akomo—five dollars for helping us.”
“Five? All right, better than sick chickens.” The bill disappeared into a hidden pocket at lightning speed. “Now, sirs, I offer myself to you, for a guide and to translate. I am clever and a good speaker of all languages. And look!” He pulled up his long, caftan-like shirt. “American jeans!”
Unimpressed, Bud tugged on Tom’s elbow. “C’mon, Skipper.”
Tom held back. “Wait. Akomo—where do you live? Nearby? With your parents?”
The boy chortled with glee. “Parents? No parents! Akomo sleeps where he wants, eats what he wants. Some day—Cal Tech!”
Tom laughed. “Tell you what. My friends and I are about to leave on a flight across The V’moda, then on into East Ngombia. We may need to ask some questions of the people who live on that side. As you’re an expert in just about everything, Akomo― ”
“Hah ah!—you have heard of me already!” he shouted. “Yes, many yesses. Take me to your Sky Queen, Tom Swift!”
“How did you― ”
“Akomo knows all things.”
“Don’t tell me you really plan to trust this kid, Tom!” Bud protested in a whisper.
“Hey!” exclaimed the boy. “I am historically trustworthy and honest, a joy to be with, and a good friend to my friends.”
“What are you to your enemies?” Tom asked.
“I have none,” was the reply. “They are all dead!”
Bud groaned. “Trouble!”
Within the hour the mighty Sky Queen levitated on its lifters and began the flight across The V’moda—slow and low, deliberately. Huttangdala vanished below the horizon behind them, and soon its skirt of small villages gave way to mountains.
“We call them ‘the cradle’,” said Akomo, gazing through the lounge viewports as if jet flight were the oldest of old hats. “Two sides. And inside the cradle is The V’moda. Trees, trees everywhere. And then the savages!—all over the place.”
“Are these savages Ghiddua or Ulsusu?” Ted Spring asked dryly.
“Not either! Um, um, um. They are called Wangurus.”
Tom sat across from the conversation. “Do these Wangurus recognize the laws of the central government?” he inquired.
Akomo gave a yip of derision. “Wangurus don’t recognize anything, sir of sirs. Not at all never! If you go into The V’moda, you will be lucky to get out with your skull still inside your skin!”
THE FLYING LAB topped the mountains, and Tom and his crew got their first look at The V’moda. A carpet of every imaginable shade of green choked the broad valley all the way to the distant horizon, where the other side of “the cradle” could be made out, a dim silhouette in the steamy haze. “Lookit all them colors!” enthused Chow. “Reminds me—I don’t wear green near enough.”
“It’s strange,” murmured Ted Spring. “Exotic.”
“You do not recognize it?” asked Akomo.
“Ancestral memory!—I saw the words on television.”
The engineer and astronaut snorted. “My memories are mostly running around Shopton after a little tow-head named Tom Swift!”
While Bud guided the Sky Queen according to the map Mr. Jombilabu had given them, Tom headed down to a small compartment on the bottom deck, just in front of the hangar-hold. After intercomming Bud to inch along at minimum speed on the jet lifters, he began to scan the terrain below with a variety of special instruments. His penetradar probed the ground to a depth of twenty feet, while a more advanced device, called the LRGM, used gravitational variations to create a profile of the underlying rock strata. He also made use of a telespectrometer and a radiation sensor, the Damonscope. Television cameras craned their extensible necks from the underhull, creating a digital record of the visible lay of the land.
“Coming up on the swamp, Skipper,” Bud commed presently. Tom brought the video image up on a monitor screen and studied it intently. The great V’moda swamp looked like an oil-soaked rag of greenish-brown, dappled with deep shadows and criss-crossed by veins of water that flickered with sun-diamonds as the skyship passed over them. Crossing the center—the low point of the rift valley—Tom made out segments of a sluggish river gleaming here and there between the trees. “Good grief,” he muttered to himself, “no wonder Burlow’s men were discouraged. And this is what they thought would be the easiest route!”
The moving shadow of the Sky Queen sent flocks of colorful birds up into view. The young inventor made out what appeared to be crocodiles. Once he saw a hippo crash through the shallow water and into the underbrush. And once—
No, he thought. Just eyestrain.
There was no trace of man.
Hours later, after several back-and-forth traverses, Tom came up to the command compartment. “We’re done, flyboy,” he told Bud. “Take her on over the mountains to Imbolu.” The only real city in eastern Ngombia, Imbolu was the regional capital. The central government had arranged a place for the Queen to set down.
The city was very small and very old, lying at the end of a long pass through the mountains that gave The V’moda a tentative fingerhold in the eastern province.
They set down in a bare, rocky field that drifted down to the edge of a jungle river where there was a long, dilapidated pier with many small boats of shallow draft.
As the crew climbed down from the belly hatch, a police officer in a white uniform dashed across to greet Tom and his companions. Another man, a white man with thinning reddish hair wearing neatly-pressed trek linens, trotted along beside him. After saluting smartly, the officer offered his hand. “Welcome to East Ngombia, Tom Swift!” The uniformed man shook hands with the young inventor in African fashion, slapping palms together lightly. “I trust none of your men were kidnapped during your flight from Huttangdala?” he added with a chuckle.
Tom flushed. “No indeed, sir. I, er, guess you’ve been briefed on what happened to Mr. Kwanu in my country.”
He nodded. “I meant no offense. We are humorous speakers, you know, we Ghiddua. I am Chief-Lieutenant Ata Fokguomo, of the—well, it is called the Imbolu Peace and Loyalty Corps.”
“City police force,” said the other man. “Keep the Ulsusu away from bad influences, if you see, hmm?” He stuck out a hand. “Pieter Zerth, Mr. Swift. My friend Ata thought you might like to make the acquaintance of a fellow huanye here in town.”
“That word refers to European-Americans,” explained Fokguomo.
“Whites, in other words,” added Zerth blandly. “I’m Dutch, myself. Not so much accent left, eh? The east province is where I do my business.”
Tom ventured a guess. “Afro-Metals, Ltd.?”
Zerth laughed heartily. “Aha, reputation is everything! Yes indeed, we do much work for the new Ngombia, in these mountains and on the other side, in the jungle.”
After introducing his companions and chatting aimlessly a bit, Tom asked Fokguomo and Zerth if they would care to join them for supper aboard the Sky Queen. “Our chef here had mentioned that his recipe made too much for just our small crew.”
“Right,” Chow confirmed. “Don’t like leftovers. It ain’t per-fessional.”
At dinner, the Dutchman proved himself a persistent raconteur, a blunt-spoken one. Chief-Lieutenant Fokguomo told some stories of childhood in western Ngombia under the dictatorship, concluding with a few harrowing anecdotes of life in Imbolu. Tom had wondered if either man would mention the subversive R’na Inbimah, the man who had replaced Mr. Kwanu and then vanished. But it became apparent that the government had circulated a cover story about the incident without detail, and Tom decided it might be wisest not to go further—or to question Mr. Zerth about how an experimental Afro-Metals alloy had wound up on the tip of a deadly spear!
“Our friend Akomo here thinks we should be on the lookout for some characters called Wangurus,” remarked Ted Spring. His words were casual enough; but Tom noticed a penetrating expression on his face. He seemed to be studying the two guests, discreetly.
“The Wanguru—yes, a problem,” conceded Fokguomo. “Even worse than the Ulsusu when it comes to becoming modern and leaving the old ways behind.”
Zerth made a condescending noise. “Backwards folk, every one. Look at them crosseyed and they go for their spears. Won’t get with the program—won’t join the New Progressive Ngombia.” He spat out a couple of syllables in Dutch. “That’s what we call them—it means ‘the Reticents’.”
“Worse than that,” muttered Akomo.
Zerth reacted with sneering indignation. “I see the boy is picking up the modern attitude fast! The Wangurus are the same race as the Ulsusu, their country cousins left behind in the swamp. I’d advise all of you to dispense with your chic liberalisms, your American ‘political correctness’. Here in Ngombia it gets you nothing, nothing but a sneak attack in the night. And your nice white heads up on a pole!”
Chow’s gulp was almost loud enough to echo off the bulkheads. Tom’s eyes locked on Pieter Zerth’s. He held up a hand. “I’d describe it as pinkish-brown rather than white, Mr. Zerth. But thanks for the warning.”
And Ted added, “And me, I don’t even come close. Guess they’d just throw me back, huh?”
“Perhaps I should apologize for offending anyone’s enlightened all-men-are-brothers sensibilities,” grated the Dutchman. “I suppose I’ve rather lost touch with civilized custom, living here. So easy to degenerate into crudeness.” Looking down at his dinner plate, he resumed eating.
Bud broke the awkward silence. “Tom and I were told of monsters running around in the V’moda swamp.”
“Silliness,” snorted Fokguomo, “spread by enemies of the New Progressive Ngombia to frighten away development. There are those who will profit and gain power if the two provinces remain separated.”
Tom left the table for a moment, returning with the ivory figure he had purchased. “Either of you know what this is supposed to be? I think it’s newly carved.”
“That? Nothing—imagination,” pronounced the Chief-Lieutenant all too quickly.
“Oh now, come come, Ata!” Zerth remonstrated. “Boys, what you have represents N’ka-Dindo, the Son of the Father of Crocodiles.”
“Mighty fancy name,” Chow noted faintly, with no enthusiasm.
“Uoshu is the Father of Crocodiles,” piped Akomo excitedly, “yes yes indeed! This is his son!”
Fokguomo spoke more grudgingly. “Uoshu is the devil in the old tribal religions, like your ‘Satan’. He is the father of all evil beasts.”
“But that particular evil beast is the very worst,” continued Zerth. “Not a mere croc, but an offspring of the Father himself, rather a crown prince, hie? Bigger than a tree, ferocious like a lion, able to rear up like a snake—as you see.”
Bud spoke hopefully. “But... it’s just an old story.”
“I have seen him!” exclaimed Akomo.
Tom smiled. “Really? Where?”
“With my eyes!”
“You’re saying you actually saw this crocodile guy?” demanded Bill Bennings.
“Of course! I have seen everything.” Then Akomo noticed Tom’s reproving eyes, and made a slight amendment. “I mean, with my own eyes in here,” he said, pointing at his skull, “when the ones outside are closed.”
Tom asked about the missing scientist, Eldreth. Pieter Zerth was silent. Chief-Lieutenant Fokguomo responded, “Oh, yes, that old case. Never a clue anywhere. Perhaps the Wanguru know.”
“Consider it fortunate that you’ll be coming no closer to them than a thousand feet up,” Zerth said.
But then a new voice was heard, from the stairwell leading down to the middle deck. “If that’s your idea of fortunate, Mr. Zerth, I’m afraid our luck may be about to change.” Hank Sterling entered the compartment. He had excused himself from dinner in order to study the data from the overflight.
“What’s up, Hank?” asked Tom.
“I know!” cried little Akomo. “He looked at the video and saw giant monsters down below!”
Sterling responded soberly. “Not quite. But according to the instruments, there’s something going on in that swamp that we need to take a look at—something strange!”
“IF IT is something unusual, Mr. Sterling, perhaps it falls under my duties,” stated Chief-Lieutenant Fokguomo.
“Not in this case,” was Hank’s response. “I think Mr. Zerth might be interested, though. Has Tom told you about the Niobium compound?”
“Eldreth’s theory?” asked Zerth.
Suddenly suspicious, Tom thought: So, Mr. Zerth—you know about Eldreth after all!
“I had to do quite a bit of ‘data-mining’ of the digital recordings,” Hank said. “There are very weak, but definite, traces of anomalous radioactivity in the central swamp. The telespectrometer shows more than a thousand times as much Niobium as one would expect to find. I don’t know if it’s locked inside plant and animal tissue as Eldreth thought. But it’s sure there someplace or other.”
“So what about it, Mr. Zerth?” Ted Spring asked in a challenging tone.
“What about what?”
“Are you interested in Niobium?”
Abruptly Zerth stood up, smiling. “No, not inordinately. You say it’s in the swamp—my men do not go there. Too much danger, what with the... wildlife.”
“He means N’ka-Dindo,” muttered Akomo under his breath.
“No,” said Tom in a voice that was not hushed and barely polite, “I believe he means the Wangurus.”
“Do you now plan a trip into the interior of The V’moda to investigate these things?” inquired Chief-Lieutenant Fokguomo. “Whatever you may think of how it is said, the danger is real, Tom.”
The young inventor responded thoughtfully. “The main danger on my mind is danger to any work team we might send in—from radioactive toxins. We need to analyze samples from several places before making the final decision to accept the project contract.
“Very well. I understand,” nodded Fokguomo. “I will arrange for some experienced Ulsusu canoemen and guides. Tomorrow morning, then?” Tom agreed, and a time was set.
After the two visitors had left—Pieter Zerth with a smirk across his tanned face—Ted asked his younger friend if Tom planned for him to go along on the brief safari. “Do you want to?” asked Tom.
“Not especially. I’d rather stay here in Imbolu and go souvenir hunting with Bill.”
“And don’t worry—no more pets!” promised Bill Bennings sheepishly.
At sunrise, as the Americans climbed down from their plane, they were greeted by a tall native of the town. He wore tattered khaki shorts, a stained T-shirt, and a flower-printed pillbox cap.
“Name is Yuta,” he told Tom. “I am your guide. The boats are ready.”
“Good!” Tom slapped palms with the guide, and introduced himself and the others: Bud, Chow, Akomo, and Hank. “We’ll be ready to leave as soon as the boats are loaded.”
“Yes, good,” nodded the man. “Two long boats, nice big. Heavy load, eh-yo, no bad.” Bud stifled a gibe—Yuta was looking at Chow.
The party would paddle upriver into the jungle for some miles, then continue on foot where the river melded into shallow marshland. Tom’s crewmen removed the necessary supplies from the Flying Lab, as some local boys, wide-eyed before the mammoth Sky Queen, pitched in to help the oarsmen carry them to the riverbank and load them aboard two long pirogues. “Biggest dugout canoes I’ve ever seen,” Bud remarked.
Now and then Tom heard a phrase barked out among the Ulsusu, usually directed at some clumsiness on the part of the boys. He asked Akomo what it meant.
“Ei ghidd u wa k’qni? It is an insult, what an Ulsusu says to another Ulsusu when he acts poorly,” shrugged the boy. “It means, ‘oh, that is just so Ghiddua’. But they are fools, the Ulsusu.”
Soon the supplies and equipment were safely stowed aboard the pirogues. Tom exchanged final handshakes with Bennings and Ted Spring.
“Take care, T-man,” Ted warned.
“Right. You do the same,” Tom replied. “We should be back in a few days. Meantime, keep the PER tuned for the latest ‘Breaking News from The V’moda’.” The Private Ear Radio allowed communication between paired units across any distance, with no possibility of interference or eavesdropping.
A few minutes later they took their places in the long canoes—Tom and Bud in the lead boat with Akomo; Chow and Hank in the other. With shouted farewells, the excited young Imbolus helped the men shove off into midstream.
Paddles dipped and flashed as the pirogues shot forward through the muddy green water. Here at its eastern extreme, the river was more like a sinuous lake, barely in motion. After only a couple turns in the fjord-like river valley, Imbolu had disappeared as if it had never existed. Clumps of oil palms, mangroves, and bamboo fringed the banks. The oarsmen, muscles rippling in the hot sunshine, soon glistened with perspiration.
It took hours to clear the pass through the cradling mountains. But at last the river wound its way into the flat rift valley with its denser vegetation. Ahead loomed the Ngombian rain forest—green, somber, and mysterious. The V’moda!
“Makes you wonder what’s waiting for us in there,” Bud murmured. He couldn’t help thinking of Tom’s ivory statue.
Both boys started as an enormous crocodile scuttled into the water from a nearby sand bar.
“Whew! I didn’t even see him till he moved!” Bud gulped.
As the canoes penetrated into the forest, the trees became larger and taller, thrusting two hundred feet and more into the air. The arching canopy shrouded the jungle in greenish gloom.
Many of the trees were buttressed with roots spreading outward, high above the ground. Flowering lianas and vines hung in loops and festoons from the branches. Below was a dense tangle of head-high vegetation, much of it with leaves of reddish and purplish hues.
“Those plants never get direct sunshine,” Hank explained to Chow in the trailing canoe, “so the red-purple colors enable them to benefit from the sunlight that isn’t absorbed by the green leaves higher up.”
Chow grunted. “I may turn red-purple myself afore I get out o’ this here jungle steam bath!” he muttered, mopping his brow.
In the lead canoe Bud expressed a similar sentiment. “When’s a weather-making machine gonna fall out of that deep-set brow of yours, pal?”
Tom laughed. “Matter of fact, there is a little idea I’ve been working on back home. I’m afraid it won’t control the weather, but it’ll make conditions more pleasant. Think of it as a sort of personal heat-shield.”
“Man oh man, I could use it!”
Now and then the long hours were interrupted by rest periods, when Tom took some samples of water, mud, and plantlife. But as of yet the instruments revealed no sign of radioactivity or Niobium.
As they drew near to the central swamp, reeds and water-weed began to slow the strokes of the paddlers. At last the river made a sharp bend, becoming little more than a swampy marsh. “No more go in boats,” declared Yuta. “Now from here, we walk and carry for you.”
“Ulsusus do carrying very well,” pronounced Akomo. “It is their specialty, sir-sir.”
The canoes were anchored to long stakes and unloaded onto a mud-bar, temporarily dry. Tom noticed Akomo standing in silence, looking off into the haze of swamp. “The Wangurus are there, sir-sir,” he said to Tom. “I know they are watching. I am never wrong! Hear the birds?”
Tom shrugged. “No.”
“Exactly! Birds make no noise when Wangurus are watching.”
After a brief lunch the porters shouldered their loads. Leaving one armed man behind with the dugouts, the party struck south-westward into the forested swampland, cutting across toward a more open stretch of the central river a few miles distant. They had not only the crude sketch from the Burlow survey to guide them, but pictures taken during their overflight keyed to GPS icons.
Tom studied the terrain with growing respect. “Now we know what those guys were up against.”
“This? Sir-sir, this is not-nothing!” retorted Akomo. “Those men should have had me to guide them.”
A short distance later the trekkers found their way blocked by an oozing black column of driver ants swarming across the trail.
“Nothing turns them aside but fire,” Yuta explained to Tom. “Sometimes not even fire. It is better we wait, mister.”
Squatting, Chow removed his Stetson hat and fanned his dripping face. “Plumb disgustin’ I call it,” he snorted, “when a self-respectin’ cowhand has to wait fer a herd o’ trail-drivin’ ants!”
“How very true! Um, um, um!” Akomo put in. “Ever been stung by one?”
“If I ain’t, I reckon it’s the only critter what hasn’t sampled my hide. What’s it feel like?”
“Like a red-hot needle—it won’t come out, no-not,” replied the boy with enthusiasm. “You can yank off the body and head, go try, but the ant’s jaws stay locked on. The natives use them for stitching up wounds, time past.”
“Eea-yah, even elephants have fear, these ants,” Yuta added. “I have seen, stripping n’dakya, leopard, all to his bones down.”
Chow winced eloquently. “Wa-aal now, mebbe it won’t hurt to sit a spell, at that,” he said. “Er—a ways back.”
More than two hours were lost before the march resumed. At last the equatorial twilight closed in and Yuta called a halt. Soon the tents had been pitched and campfires were blazing as the jungle cries and twitterings gave way to the steady drone of crickets.
“Guess the real loudmouths have turned in,” Bud quipped. “These jungle vine-jumpers sure are sneaky. I haven’t got a good look at one yet, except for a few monkeys. And I only saw them because they were lookin’ at me!”
Just then something fell out of a tree and hit him on the head.
Tom pounced on the object. It looked like an oversized pine cone as he held it up to the firelight. “You spoke too soon, Bud,” he said.
“What in tarnation is that, boss?” Chow asked.
“A long-tailed pangolin—a real prize!”
The anteater was curled in a tight ball, with its head completely hidden under the tail. It was covered with horny, overlapping scales.
“There must be something about your head that attracts queer animals,” Tom teased his pal.
“Guess I’d better surf the Net for a new one!” Bud grinned.
“In shopping, I can find you much of a discount,” advised Akomo. “For anything. Put me on this Net—I will be wonderful.”
The evening meal had been eaten before the pangolin consented to uncurl itself. The little creature had a pointed snout, a long tail, and a scaleless white underbody. After some coaxing by Chow, it began to lap up a mixture of chopped meat and raw egg with its wormlike tongue that flicked in and out like a bolt of pink lightning.
Watching in amusement, Hank gloated: “Our first zoo specimen!”
Tom added, “Actually, I think we ought to try to bring the little guy back to Shopton. We may be able to learn something about the Niobium compound by studying him.”
“He’s all yours!” Bud grumbled. “And if you’re a she,” he said, addressing the pangolin, “don’t bother to tell me.”
That night Tom awoke with a start, his ears ringing with the memory of a fearsome noise. The stillness was shattered again by a series of terrifying howls and barks—ending in a shrill peal of insane laughter.
“Good night! Then I wasn’t just dreaming!”
Bud joined him as he pulled aside the insect netting and stepped out of their tent. Another peal of crazy laughter sent chills coursing down their spines.
“What in the world is it?” Bud murmured in awe. “You don’t suppose—it could be that missing professor—or maybe what’s left of him?”
HANK and Chow had joined the two youths, and Akomo appeared from nowhere rubbing his eyes. “You are afraid of that? Do not be afraid, sirs. Be like me. It is only the Son of the Father of Crocodiles.”
“Zat right?” Chow muttered faintly. “Wh-what’s he laughin’ at?”
“He is happy to see us. He is always hungry.”
“Nothing to fear—only hyenas,” Yuta said, sending a chastising frown Akomo’s way. He stirred the campfire. As it blazed up, the Americans saw two eyes glinting from the bush.
The eyes suddenly darted away into the darkness. Chow chuckled in relief. “Brand my nightshirt, jest a big bobcat, hunh. I thought it was Buddy Boy here pullin’ another joke!”
Late the next morning, as the party was trekking onward, one of the bearers drew his companions’ attention with an excited cry. The Americans looked just in time to see a turkeylike bird scuttle off among the underbrush. Its head, Tom had noticed, was crowned with a tuft of white feathers.
“A Congo peacock!” Tom exclaimed.
“Mbulu, it is called,” Yuta added. “That is what Wanguru call it, so-said.”
The young scientist-inventor whirled to face him. “The Wanguru know of it? Yuta—you’ve seen it before?”
The Ulsusu guide shrugged. “Three, four times maybe.”
“So what?” Bud asked Tom.
“Flyboy, that bird wasn’t even discovered till recently, and it’s never been recorded outside the Congo! If that exists here in the Ngombian jungle, think of the other finds that may be waiting for us!”
“I’m thinkin’!” Chow put in nervously.
Tom enthused, “I’ve got to try for some photos! The bearers can use a rest. Bud—Yuta—come on.” Turning to Hank and Chow, he added. “We won’t be gone long. Couple hours.”
As they disappeared into the underbrush, the rest of the party deposited their loads and prepared to wait.
Cameras at ready, Tom and Bud plunged anxiously into the bush. Yuta quickly took the lead. He moved quickly and confidently, as if sensing the path of the trotting mbulu. Now and then they caught a glimpse of the bird and heard his odd gobble.
Ten minutes after leaving the safari, Yuta suddenly stiffened like an animal at bay.
The guide’s reaction was noticed at once by Tom and Bud. As they followed his gaze, their scalps bristled. A group of dark-skinned men had suddenly emerged from among the trees—oversized spears poised menacingly at the three trackers!
Bud Barclay’s gray eyes bulged at sight of the spearmen. Tom could almost hear his own heart beating in the deathly stillness that followed.
The tribesmen were tall, most of their height coming from their very long legs. Clad only in woven loincloths, they carried crude iron swords in sheaths slung from their left shoulders. Arms and necks were looped with glass beads, and their faces were scarred with tribal tattoos. “Jetz!” Bud breathed. “Look at their arms!” The warriors’ arms, streaked with body-paint, bulged with long sinewy muscles that hinted at fearsome power.
Silently they began closing in. “Make no move!” Yuta whispered nervously.
“Who are they?” Tom asked.
“Wanguru tribesmen—they live in the forest, edge of swamp. I will try to speak to them. Most know Ulsusu, some also Dutch, English.”
By now the natives were almost within spear-thrust of Tom and his two companions.
“0 ku!” Yuta greeted them.
The Wangurus made no response, their faces grimly impassive. Tom noticed that most of them were staring at him. At last one of the tribesmen spoke—in a commanding voice: “Wa!”
“He say to come with them,” Yuta translated.
“Where?” Tom said. Should they cut and run, and try to elude the men and their spears?
Yuta repeated Tom’s question in the Ulsusu dialect. The Wanguru replied with curt dignity.
“They wish us to come to their village,” Yuta explained. “My own think, it would be best if we go.”
“Ohhh-kay! We’re in no position to argue,” Bud agreed. But his powerful fists were clenched for action!
The spearmen led the trio off through the underbrush. After a while they emerged onto a beaten trail. A few minutes later the Wanguru village came into view—a cluster of thatch-roofed huts in a clearing that extended off for some distance. From somewhere out of sight a wood tom-tom began to sound, growing louder as they approached.
“The drummer is spreading news of us through the forest,” Yuta whispered.
“Jungle telegraph,” Tom muttered to Bud.
Men, women, and children swarmed out to watch as they entered the village. Suddenly Bud nudged Tom and pointed to one of the huts.
A human skull was mounted over the doorway! Other huts displayed the same grisly trophies.
“For each family, the father’s father. To honor and remember in dreams,” Yuta explained calmly.
The procession halted in the center of the village. The spearman platoon stood at attention.
A man emerged from one of the huts. He was clad in a wrap-around garment of greasy calico, and his face was cold and forbidding. His chin bore a tuft of grayish whiskers, and a small leather pouch dangled at his neck. The spearmen drew aside as he walked toward their three captives.
“The chief, who is also the magic-doer among Wanguru,” stated Yuta. “The pouch contains his grigris—charms and spirit-callers.”
There was muted conversation between the chief and the men, which Yuta appeared to be following keenly. The chief stopped in front of Tom, his eyes glittering with menace. The young inventor returned his gaze. Realizing that the man was trying to unnerve him, Tom took the initiative.
“Please ask him why we were brought here, Yuta.”
The shaman, who evidently knew some English, broke in sneeringly, “Aiya! You juju man, eh?” he asked Tom.
“Juju man? What’s that?” Bud asked Yuta.
“Magic-doer. From what they talk, they think you come to build highway-road, like those others who came here before.”
Tom was startled. “How could he know that?”
“My think? Before you come, t’bo drums were telling the news—all across the jungle valley. How other white men wanted to carve the jungle for one of their big trails and could not. But now the 0ba—the great ruler in the west city—he sends for young white man who make strong juju.”
“Huanye boy!” spat out the Wanguru shaman-chief. “You! T’bo telling how you make great huanye machines to do like birds and fish, huanye juju to carve ground for your path.”
Tom grinned. “You can call it juju here, if you like. In America we call it science.”
The young inventor’s smile seemed to enrage the shaman. “Pfah science! White juju no good here Wanguru forest!” he ranted. “Uoshu and Sho-sho-go make jungle taboo!”
“We are friends to Uoshu,” declared Tom. “We’re here because he allows us to come here to his jungle.”
“Uoshu the chief of all bad! Has no friends!”
“He is a friend to those who honor his son.” The young inventor reached into his backpack and took out his ivory effigy, holding it up. “Look—the Son of the Father of Crocodiles!”
This seemed to rattle the assembled warriors. They looked at one another, and Tom heard a muttering: N’ka-Dindo!
Even the old chief seemed grudgingly impressed. “E’wa. Uoshu would have given you death by now for having this ok’na, this statue, if not so-agree him. May to be, then—you are in his favor, huanye boy.”
“I like to think so,” replied Tom. He wanted very badly to exhale.
The shaman-chief glanced from side to side at his minions. He appeared to be calculating, a canny grass-roots politician. Suddenly his whole expression changed. He lunged forward and embraced Tom. “I, Nkoru!” he exclaimed, pointing to himself.
“And I’m― ”
“Wa! Boy-son Tom Swift.”
Bud managed a low laugh. “Pal, Dilling really deserves a raise!”
Nkoru nodded gravely. “I once-when was small-boy, to learn your English in Imbolu. Teacher had book for us—Tom Swift Big Tunnel.”
“That was a story about my great-grandfather,” explained the young inventor with a smile. “Those things happened many years ago, Nkoru.”
“Wa, so-is. Paper yellow, all fall apart.”
Nkoru asked Tom and his companions to stay in the village, which was called Do Yimbi, and join the Wanguru for a sunset feast in their honor. Seeing Tom hesitate, Yuta answered Nkoru on Tom’s behalf, and the chief nodded. Yuta explained to Tom: “What I tell him, your others wait us, can not stay now.” Yuta grinned massively. “Rain check!”
The three made ready to leave, one of the warriors accompanying them as a guide. But as they skirted a lengthy cleared field at one side of the village, Bud drew his chum’s attention to what seemed to be a game or competition going on. A number of youthful Wangurus were clustered together, brandishing spears and talking excitedly—banter often interrupted by laughter and bouts of good-humored shoving. After a moment one of the youths stepped forward and raised his spear, looking intently toward the far-off end of the clearing.
“Stay and see,” urged Nkoru, who had approached silently behind them. “This, the m’dago—game for boy-sons, show who is best with spear. They fun, also learn better to do. So-see?”
“I understand,” Tom said.
“What’s he throwing at?” inquired Bud. “Is there a target, or is it just for distance?”
“Wa! Target already is distance.” The chief pointed. “You see-no?” Realizing at last that the man was indicating a scarred, scratched trunk that seemed nearly a half-block away, Bud was amazed!
“You mean these guys can throw those big spears that far?”
The first young warrior-in-training reared back like a supple tree in a hurricane, and his spear arm suddenly blurred with motion like a fan blade. A shadow flicked down the field and a loud thunk! announced that the spearpoint had found its way to the target. They could see the spear protruding from the trunk at a straight angle, as if deeply buried. “Good night!” Bud burbled disbelievingly. “A winner first time up!”
But the chief waggled a hand dismissively. “Winner not yet made. Others try.”
The game became ever more astonishing. Each successive participant not only hit the distant target—but sliced right into the tail of the spear ahead of it, lodging there firmly. The composite spear shaft was growing like a branch! Finally, contestant eight split the target shaft, and the pieces whirled aside.
“Winner,” announced the chief laconically.
“I don’t think anyone in our country could even come close to doing that,” Tom declared. “Your young men must make you very proud, Nkoru.”
He shrugged. “They are learning. More better when they get older.”
“How old are they?”
“Most twelve year. Some younger.”
Bud was reduced to a sputter.
Guided by the Wanguru, Tom, Bud, and Yuta returned to the village trail, then the jungle beyond. At last their guide pointed. “Toh!”
“He says, there it is,” translated Yuta. Through a gap in the trees they could make out tiny figures still quite a distance away —including the less-tiny figure of Chow.
“Please tell him thank-you, and that― ” Tom stopped in mid-sentence. The Wanguru had already disappeared, noiselessly.
They trekked forward toward the safari camp. Though the sun was still high in the sky, the thick leafy canopy made some swaths of ground almost as dark as a cave.
It was Bud, rushing ahead jauntily, who first saw the Thing. He froze in his tracks, unable to make a sound. Tom started to join his pal, then felt Yuta’s hand clamp down on his shoulder, pulling him back.
Some instinct warned the young inventor to remain dead silent. Electrified with sudden fear, he shifted his gaze sideways, to where Bud and Yuta were staring.
Deep in the black shadows was a blacker shadow, a rounded hump as big as a garage door—a moving, breathing thing with machete-teeth as big as Tom’s forearm!
TOM had reached a point well beyond fear. His mute thoughts instantly took on the form of scientific curiosity. Here was the mammoth original of which his ivory statue was the crude copy. The Son of the Father of Crocodiles!
The creature was half-imagination—it could barely be made out. A faint glimmer of teeth, a slivered gleam of what might have been a gargantuan eye, a silhouette of fleshy folds and wattles—that was all. That, and the impossibly deep whoosh of the breath of a giant!
Bud began to back up toward Tom. One glacial step—two—
The blackness moved! With a sound of shattering branches and ripping vines, the teeth and eyes angled away and swung about among the trees, which whipped wildly aside. The thick mat of vegetation, the muddy earth beneath, shuddered massively. Outlined in bits of sunlight, something like a titanic dump-truck of greenish black flesh struggled away between the trees, sending panicked birds into screeching flight.
In seconds it was gone.
As the three staggered toward the safari, Hank, Chow, and little Akomo came trotting up to meet them. “Wa-aal, boys, get any good pitchers o’ that turkey-bird?” asked Chow. “Got me thinkin’ about how t’ cook ’er up right― ”
“Tom!” gasped Hank, seeing his young boss’s expression. “What’s― ”
“I know what. He has seen the monster,” stated Akomo without hesitation.
Tom nodded. He and Bud sat with lowered heads for a minute before either could speak. Together they forced out a sketchy account. “It was huge, Hank!”
“Did it look like your statue?”
“We couldn’t see it whole,” Bud answered. “That’s how big it was.”
“The skin and teeth seemed reptilian,” continued Tom. “As to its shape... ask Yuta.” Yuta stared down at the youth impassively. “You’ve seen it before, haven’t you, Yuta?”
The Ulsusu nodded. “Many time.”
“Why didn’t you tell us?”
Yuta shrugged. “Was shape important? No one knows where they live. Just in the jungle near to swamp.”
“There are many, not all alike, some bigger, some smaller. Crocodile heads on bodies like—like ivory you have. Heads up in trees, all big like houses in Imbolu. Roar sometimes. Mostly hiss. One these, saw once him eating it-k’ra—elephant.”
Akomo bobbled his head vigorously. “All is true, sir-sir. N’ka-Dindo!”
“Tom, it’s like you said before,” Bud murmured. “It’s a dinosaur, a tyrannosaurus!”
Composure regained, Tom stood. “We don’t know just what it is, Bud, not yet.”
“Should we chase after it?” asked Hank.
Tom barely paused, though Chow’s white waiting face advertised the answer he preferred. “No,” decided the young inventor. “We’re just not equipped for it. We’ll come back to investigate. But now, let’s keep going.”
“We can reach the side of the swamp, last dry ground, in two, maybe three hours,” Yuta advised him. “But we should go, now.”
Collecting wits, courage, and equipment, the group trekked on as planned, Tom using the PER to report the fantastic experience to the Sky Queen. Bill Bennings promised to radio the account to Tom’s father in Shopton.
The last part of the journey was down a long narrow promontory of gravelly earth with dank mud on either side, choked with reed and tall-grass. Finally they stood on a slight rise overlooking the eerie marshland. In front of them it appeared to be several miles wide. To their right and left, it stretched all the way to the horizon.
“Holy moe! I wouldn’t be surprised at anything that came crawling up out of that glop!” declared Hank. The mud, black beneath a thin sheet of water, was constantly churning and bubbling. Streamers of slate-blue vapor rolled across the swamp.
“Say there, Tom,” muttered Chow. “You think that gassy stuff is okay t’ breathe?”
Tom nodded. “It’s pretty dilute. We’ve already analyzed the telespec readings from the overflight. Argon, sulfur compounds, hydrocarbons—smog!—with unusually high proportions of radon and radon flouride. Traces of Niobium, of course. Mostly steam, though. The infrared profile says that black mud is hot!”
“‘Swift Sulfur Springs’,” Bud mused. “Great for your health if you can stand the dinosaurs.”
“We can’t stand this close for very long,” cautioned Hank. “Radiation levels are tolerable, but a little worrisome.”
Akomo laughed derisively. “I am not worried, never never! Not way!”
Tom began to unpack some sampling equipment. “It makes sense that we’d find radon and radiation together—both are byproducts of atomic reactions. Hank, this may be another case of that deep-earth nuclear activity we detected in Antarctica.”
“Bet you’re right, Skipper. This whole swamp may be just filler for a crack that goes down—well, who knows how far!”
“Fer me, I don’t much need t’know!” pronounced Chow.
An ominous presence hung over the Shoptonians as they worked, a feeling of danger that compelled them to work all the faster. All the cries of birds were distant—the swamp was silent.
With the help of Bud and Yuta, Tom and Hank pulled out bunches of the reeds and other plantlife, skimmed off shards of floating moss, and captured mud and water. Thin slabs of the shoreline were carefully lifted and deposited in flats of wood reinforced with Tomasite. Tiny insects and fish were also extracted or trapped in containers.
At last, with a glance at the sun, Tom Swift called a halt. “We have what we came for,” he pronounced. “Let’s pitch camp for the night a little further from the swamp.”
“Tomorrow we are back at the boats,” said Yuta. “Next day, the big plane.”
“With not one person eaten,” Akomo added. “I myself am like a charm of good luck!”
No one was eaten during the trip back to Imbolu either. They arrived safely at the Sky Queen, stowed their valuable takings, and—after warmly thanking Yuta and his men—slept the sleep of the bedraggled.
Akomo had spent the night. The next morning he sought out Tom. “Sir of sirs, I have a plan that― ”
Tom knew precisely what the boy was about to ask. “Sorry, Ako. We can’t fly you back to America with us.”
“No what? Outrageous! I am not afraid and full of vital information, a natural resource!”
Tom grinned. “I believe you, pal. But it’s against the laws of both countries. Besides, what would your parents say?”
“Parents? What I said― ”
“I know what you said, Ako. And I also know what Chief-Lieutenant Fokguomo told me when we were making arrangements for the boats.”
“Um, um, um! Whatever it was, it was a lie!”
“You’re not a homeless street urchin, just a typical Huttangdala kid who likes to run free while school’s out,” stated the young inventor. “Mr. Fokguomo checked it out with the authorities in Huttangdala, including your school. They all know you mighty well.”
“Lie, lie, lie!” protested the boy desperately.
“Akomo... I spoke to your parents.”
The protest became a toothy grin. “That’s different. You are almost as clever as a Ghiddua, sir-sir. So now you know—Mom and Dad gave the big okay before I flew.”
Tom nodded. “That’s what they told me. But when did you have time to go home and ask them?”
He whooped. “Go home? Not no never!” He reached down inside his jeans pocket and pulled out a small, sleek object. “Cellphone! Necessity these days!” As Tom laughed, Akomo pocketed it again. “But no good here in the Ulsusu lands. Pfoo on them.”
The Flying Lab stopped in Huttangdala just long enough to send Akomo on his way, and to meet briefly with Mr. Jombilabu, as Mr. Kiuma glowered from a chair across the room. Jombilabu took Tom’s verbal report with skepticism. “Big reptiles in The V’moda, you say, Tom? Might it not be a hoax perpetrated by the Ulsusus and their foreign allies?”
“I saw them—well, one of them—with my own eyes, sir.”
“Hmm. Something to be thought about, yes indeed, boy-son,” he responded noncommittally. “So now, go back to New York, study these samples you have taken. I hope you will tell us soon whether you will take the project.” Tom promised to provide Ambassador Onammi with a definite answer in a matter of days.
“That is well, Tom. Let us hope our brave new Ngombia will last those days. And no,” he added, “that is not a joke.”
The Sky Queen left Ngombia behind, and Ngombia left Tom Swift in deep thought.
Even if it were possible to build a roadway or transport-track across the bubbling muck of the V’moda swamp, science raised an objection. Strange, interesting things are going on there, Tom thought, chemically, geologically, biologically—not to mention what it might mean to dinosaur hunters! “We can’t just charge in there and start tearing things up,” he muttered to himself.
Was he turning into Darcy Creel?
His thoughts were rudely scattered by a yelp over the intercom. “Hey up there—Tom—someone—help!”
Tom flipped the switch. “Bill? What is it?”
“Snakes—eels—don’t ask me, boss, but I’m cornered down in the hangar!” shouted Bennings.
Calling for Bud and Ted to join him, Tom clattered down the metal stairs linking the top-deck lounge to the bottom-deck hangar. Pausing at the access panel’s porthole, he gasped in amazed dismay—echoed a second later by his companions.
Weird snakelike creatures were slithering and darting across the broad hangar deck! They skirted the Queen’s auxiliary craft and slapped blindly against the load of ground-sample containers and the battened test equipment Tom had brought to Ngombia. The shiny, auburn-colored things were of different sizes, their tapering bodies divided into wriggling segments. Some were relatively small. But several were wrist-thick and at least six feet long.
“T-man! What th’ ho-hey are they?” demanded Ted.
Bud answered before Tom could. “Jetz! They’re worms!—great big monster worms!”
“Bill’s up on top of the cycloplane fuselage,” Tom said coolly. “He’s out of reach of the worms, but if he jumps down he’ll fall right in ’em.” The young inventor’s brain churned. Exposing the hangar deck to the outer air would admit freezing cold and drop its air pressure. It would kill the bizarre worm-o-saurs—but Bill Bennings as well! Fire, foam, acid, electricity, all endangered the victim of the rampage as much as the rampagers.
What could they do? And how much time did they have to do it?—before a bizarre situation became a dangerous one!
“LOOK,” said Ted Spring. “He’s already up on the cycloplane. If he could just get inside, he’d be protected. You could depressurize the hangar—whatever you want.”
“It won’t work,” muttered Bud. “The SwiftStorm’s cockpit is sealer-locked when it isn’t wide open. Bill can’t get in.”
“I thought you had a remote control.”
“We do,” Tom nodded, adding dryly, “It’s sitting in the locker next to the plane.”
Bud took another look through the porthole. “Well... after all, those guys are just worms. They may be Kong-sized, but they don’t really look all that dangerous.”
“Neither does a boa constrictor!” Tom ran a hand through his crewcut. “They may secrete some kind of toxin. We don’t know what they can do.”
“Hey now!” Ted exclaimed. “Why not do like you did when I was pinned down in the hangar that time? If you tilt the whole ship, the SwiftStorm will roll right up to the door here, and― ”
“No,” stated Bud. “The wheels are braked. She can’t move an inch.”
“I have an idea—maybe,” Tom said. He dashed up to the control compartment and began to work one of the secondary control panels, briefly and breathlessly explaining to Hank Sterling, in the pilot’s seat, the weird crisis and what he planned to do about it.
In moments Tom ran back down. Bud and Ted looked at their friend in half-amused wonder. “Okay, genius boy. What did you do? Whatever the heck it was—it worked!”
Not answering Bud, Tom looked through the hatch porthole. Though still twitching and quivering, the supersized worm-o-saurs had ceased their darting motions and were lying listlessly on the deck.
He pressed the intercom button, adjusting it to act as a public-address speaker. “Come on, Bill. You can slide down.” Tom slid the hatch door aside to allow the shaken crewman to put the hangar behind him.
“Oh boy,” breathed Bennings. “I was in the instrument bay when I heard sounds coming from the hangar—sort’ve a knocking, thudding noise. I was afraid Bushy, or your pangolin, might have got loose and started rooting around.
“The noises were coming from the big preservation container, the one that looks like a coffin... ”
“Where we put the soil-sample flats,” Tom noted.
“Yeah. I opened the lid, and... it was like one of those joke cans, where you open the lid and springy stuff comes shooting out!”
“I get the picture,” said the youthful explorer.
Ted snorted impatiently. “Well I sure don’t, T-man. Alla sudden the worms just went limp. How’d you manage it?”
“By using something built in to the Sky Queen called the audiogyrex system,” Tom explained. He turned to Bud. “You remember it, don’t you, pal?”
The black-haired pilot nodded. “Sure, now that you mention it. I’d forgotten all about it. There’re these little micro speakers all over the ship giving off a constant mix of sounds, frequencies you can’t hear.”
“The system affects the inner ear, taking the edge off the sensation of sudden changes in motion,” Tom continued. “What I did was alter the frequency mix in a way that I thought might have an effect on the worms’ skin, their outer shells, which are stretched like a tympanum and coated with oily secretions. It caused a sound resonance that made them feel, er, discouraged, you might say. Evidently they respond by going dormant.”
“Great,” muttered Bill. He was chagrined and red-faced. Tom realized he felt somewhat embarrassed—panicked and cornered by worms!
“It’s good this happened, Bill,” Tom said reassuringly. “Thanks for investigating those sounds. Who knows what would have happened if we’d discovered the things after we’d moved the container out into the open, in Shopton.”
“Well, I know one thing,” Bud remarked. “Those ground samples sure didn’t have giant worms in them when we dug ’em out.”
Tom agreed. “They must have been of normal size. Somehow, in the couple days since then, an unknown factor caused a tremendous acceleration in cell division and overall growth. I’m sure we’ll find that most of the edible material in our earth samples has been eaten up.”
As the four climbed up to the middle deck, minds consumed by mystery, Chow Winkler greeted them. “There ya are! Still time t’ eat afore we land, boys. Got somethin’ extra-special, too—noodles Romanoff!”
Bill Bennings gulped. “None for me, thanks.”
The young inventor, excited and intrigued, found he couldn’t wait until reaching Enterprises to talk the matter over with his father. “That’s the story, Dad,” he said into his PER unit as he sat in the view lounge. “What do you make of it all?”
The elder Swift was silent for a moment. “Clearly this has something to do with the unique conditions prevailing in that swamp. Presumably the anomalous growth was triggered by the Niobium compound you’ve detected. There may also be a suppressive agent in the water that suffuses the local soil. When you removed the worms from their customary environment, the ‘bio-Niobium’ began to take effect.”
“That sounds right. And Professor Kasten at Grandyke talked of Eldreth’s theories about a plant or mineral extract which could control the growth processes of living organisms. That’s why he went to that very region of Ngombia—The V’moda!”
“Then it seems the extract Eldreth was after is present in those soil samples.”
“Exactly, Dad—the bio-Niobium.” Tom’s eyes blazed with excited interest. He was sure his father’s, a thousand miles distant, were filled with the same light “Professor Eldreth disappeared into the jungle twenty years ago—but this backs up his theories!”
“It seems incredible—yet we have the evidence right there in the Flying Lab’s hangar-hold. Who knows what our Enterprises scientists might uncover when they study those worm-creatures!” After a pause, Damon Swift added, “And that giant saurian you saw in the jungle!—the phenomenon works on more complex organisms, too.”
“It’s a fantastic discovery in a whole slew of scientific fields,” agreed Tom. “It sure gives special scientific importance to the Ngombia project—and the details of just how we do it.”
When Tom clicked off the PER unit, he found that Ted was standing nearby, face pensive. “What’s up, Ted? Not more worms!”
Ted Spring didn’t smile, and Tom knew instantly that whatever was on the young astro-engineer’s mind was serious. “T-man... I don’t know if I have the right to ask this, and I don’t know if you’ll understand, but—I’d very much like to continue working on this Ngombia development project with you, if you’ll have me. All the way through to the end.”
Tom’s eyebrows raised. “Sure! You’d be a valuable addition. But what about― ”
“I want to take a leave of absence from Space Central, Tom. I feel my place is here right now.” He explained that when he had spent some time in Imbolu, he had made a point of getting to know some of the English-speaking Ngombians. “One woman, a schoolteacher, said something that stayed with me. When I described my job and mentioned that some of my ancestors might have come from Ngombia, her face turned sad. ‘We call those like you the turn-aways,’ she said, ‘the ones who live elsewhere for money or education or a better life. It has always happened. And so Ngombia gets stupider and poorer and helpless like a cub in the mud. And here comes the crocodile.’ That’s what she said.”
“I don’t know if these are really ‘my people’ or not. We’ve been Americans for gosh knows how long. But somehow... I guess it’d feel good to be able to give these folks something.”
The young expeditioner laid a hand on his older friend’s forearm. “Mr. Spring—get ready to give!”
After landing back at Enterprises Tom immediately telephoned Miss Remple, the company’s librarian. He asked her to gather all the scientific journals in which Professor Eldreth’s technical papers had appeared, as well as other journal articles relating to the overall subject, some going back many years. That evening Tom and his father perused them avidly.
Both the Swifts had a keen grasp of all branches of science, including biology. They knew about recent research experiments in the field of growth, such as polyploidy or chromosome multiplication, surgical interventions in the cell nucleus, growth hormones, and of course DNA, the giant molecule which controls cell development. Judging by his writings, Eldreth seemed to have foreseen much of this work.
What caught Tom’s eye, however, was an article about the breeding of “throwbacks”, or atavians—animals displaying atavism, having characteristics which resembled their ancestral kinds. Professor Eldreth was quoted as suggesting that extinct species of animals could be re-created by careful breeding of present-day animals to bring out the characteristics of the older beasts from which they were descended.
“Take a look at this, Dad.” Tom handed the article to his father.
Mr. Swift read it rapidly. “Very interesting. Eldreth was certainly ahead of his time.”
“He sure was! And I know of some examples of similar research. There was a fellow at the Munich Zoo in Germany who re-created the aurochs, or prehistoric European cattle, after the species died out hundreds of years ago. He picked out cattle which showed some of the same characteristics as the older type and kept breeding them together until he produced a whole herd that are exactly like the ancient aurochs. And he has done the same with the wild horse.”
Mr. Swift nodded. “Yes, I recall those experiments. The Irish wolfhound was brought back the same way. And a scientist at the University of Chicago once bred guinea pigs with so many toes that their feet resembled fins—just like their ancestors who lived in the seas ages ago.”
Tom sat bolt upright. “Dad, this sounds so crazy I’m almost afraid to say it, but― ”
“Go ahead, son.”
“Well, that dinosaur we saw—or whatever it was—do you suppose Professor Eldreth could have been experimenting along the lines we’ve been talking about and produced such a creature?”
Mr. Swift got up from his chair and strode about the room, looking deeply thoughtful. “A manmade dinosaur!” he murmured. Then he smiled. “Well—it works in the movies, you know. But in real life― ”
His son smiled back. “I think it was Jules Verne who said something like ‘What one man can imagine, another man can do’. That’s a saying we Swifts have proven over and over.”
Given their recent experience with the contemporary news media and its cyber-world mutations, the Swifts decided to keep the whole weird idea to themselves for the time being. But they hoped that Tom might uncover more evidence when he returned to Ngombia—for they had decided at last to accept the contract for the vast project. An amazing solution to the main problem had finally tumbled down from the brain of the young prodigy!
The next morning the idea got itself explained, as had so many other ideas, to Bud Barclay. Sauntering into Tom’s design lab, he asked his pal, “Got it wired yet, Tom? Maybe you could still make that ‘flying bridge’ gimmick of yours do the job. Man, just think of it—a highway in the sky. A real repelatron skyway!”
Tom laughed, heartily enough for Bud to stare at him in surprise. “What’d I say? That one wasn’t even supposed to be funny.”
“Sorry,” said Tom. “I just think it’s great how your brain seems to pick up signals from mine now and then. Yesterday I figured how to lick our whole problem. ‘Skyway’ is right! Instead of running a road through the jungle and the swamp, we’ll build an aerial highway above the treetop level!”
Bud’s brow was knotted as he eased down on a lab stool. “So you found a way to speed up that repelatron carrier-beam system?”
“No, it’s a completely different approach.” Tom went on enthusiastically, “By running an actual solid roadway above the trees, we can sidestep the mess of hacking a route through the jungle!”
“While keeping out of the way of any loose T-rexes, hmm? Great, but how do you intend to support this skyway deal? Put it up on dino-sized pylons, like an overpass?” When Tom shook his head, Bud responded with: “Fine. It certainly can’t float in the air!”
“That’s just exactly what it will do,” Tom explained. “The roadway will be made of strong but featherweight material, supported in mid-air by repelatron beams—invisible ‘pylons’ that we can make as long and high as we want! Instead of pushing directly on the moving vehicles, with all the difficulties that that entails, repulsion rays will be attuned to the general composition of the ground below, which is stable overall. Here, look.”
Grabbing pencil and paper, Tom pushed back the luncheon dishes and began sketching out his idea. The rays to hold up the highway would be generated by repelatron transmitters of special design, planted at widely spaced intervals and bolted down solidly to foundations sunk deep into the soft ground. Installing these would be a much cheaper and easier job than building a continuous highway through the jungle.
“And these funny-looking transmitters act just like the usual dish antennas, aimed up at the road material?” Bud asked.
“That was my first thought, flyboy, but it wouldn’t work.” Tom pointed out that if the transmitter towers had to support the weight of a lengthy span of highway material as well as the fairly large volume of traffic driving across it, the back-reaction would crush them. “And mounting individual repelatrons on the underside of the skyway means that they’d have to support the added weight of their own mechanisms, as well as their power-plants. And the trons would have to be big ones, like the ones we use for our undersea hydrodomes.”
“Which gulp energy from their own atomic reactors. So what’s the answer?”
Tom added some arrows to the sketch he’d made. “For the spectromarine selector, I worked out a way to make a repelatron-type spectronic beam bounce back from dense, solid matter. Now let’s say that we extend that principle to repelatrons directly. The beams from each transmitter will sweep back and forth along the stretch of road above it a thousand times a second, and the road material will cause those beams to be reflected back down, with considerable diffusion and a very precise change in the frequency profile.”
“Hey, I think I see!” Bud grinned. “The reflected beam is tuned to the ground, and the back-pressure comes back on the skyway material, not back to the transmitter.”
“You got it,” Tom congratulated him. “The downward component of the repulsion force will be so widely distributed over the local landscape that it’ll be more or less undetectable, but the component in the other direction will be concentrated on the road, pushing it up and keeping it suspended.”
“Genius boy, I’m dumbstruck with awe—as always!” Bud joked. “I suppose you’ll lay out each road segment on the ground, then lift it up into place.”
His friend shook his head. “I have a simpler method in mind.” He began to detail his approach as his chum listened, fascinated.
An hour later, conversation behind him and inspiration on pause for the moment, Tom went to the administration building to meet with Harlan Ames. “We’ve turned up exactly nothing about the vanishing Mr. Kwanu—or rather his phony substitute, R’na Inbimah,” Ames reported disgustedly. “He walks back to the Visitors Center, steps in, closes the door behind him, and—The End!”
“What was he trying to accomplish?” Tom mused. “To steal something? To spy on us?”
Ames’s eyes receded into a crease of deep concentration. “But there must be plenty of easier, more subtle ways to sneak onto the grounds. Sure, he was given one of the anti-patrolscope amulets—big deal! He was in view of the security cameras most of the time, and as soon as we started to wonder about him, we transmitted the amulet cancellation code. It would’ve been useless to him after that.”
“I know,” agreed Tom. “So the question is: why make a show of himself by meeting with me?”
“Yup—the question. We may not be seeing the whole picture, though. When I called the airport rental car company to ask why their car was still sitting here in the lot, they said he’d checked it out for eight days—they didn’t realize anything was amiss. Eight days... what more was he planning to do? Did something foul him up? Has he done it?” The former Secret Service agent shook his lean face in frustration. The he gave his young boss a slight, rueful smile. “I’m trying to follow that motto you like, Tom—‘the outcome is the reason’. But I don’t see any outcome at all.”
“Or any reason.”
The two fell silent, thinking intently.
Suddenly—at the same moment—their eyes met. With a shout, Tom and Ames leapt to their feet!
THE SKELETON BOMBER
TOM exclaimed, “Harlan, it’s― ”
“—the car!” Ames snapped in conclusion.
The security chief went into high gear, making a few quick calls, then leading Tom out to the ridewalk that led to the visitor parking lot. “So there’s your ‘outcome,’ Tom,” he declared in cool fury. “The whole charade was all about planting that car in the lot!”
“As usual, the ‘obvious’ wasn’t obvious,” replied the young inventor. “He replaces Kwanu, visits Enterprises openly, then disappears somehow in those few minutes before we killed his amulet. He never returns to his car and drives off. He even made sure the rental company wouldn’t go after it. Result—there’s a plausible reason for his car to sit there day after day.”
“Which means there’s some devilish something in the car, his followup to that ‘poison pen’ attack!”
“But that car’s been combed over for prints and evidence, hasn’t it, Harlan? By our guys as well as the Feds.”
Ames nodded as the two stepped off the ridewalk at the parking lot. “And it was also scanned as it drove through the gate. But that’s a pretty cursory procedure, Tom. And because it wasn’t his own car, just a local rental released to him at random twenty minutes before, no one thought it important to scrutinize the car itself—get under the hood, so to speak.”
At the car they met several security technicians Ames had contacted, who had brought along various sensor instruments, including Tom’s penetrating Eye-Spy camera and a submicroscopic imager called the leptoscope.
In fact, the quarry turned out to be “hidden in plain site.” “Good grief,” Tom muttered. “We all just assumed those tubular things were fancy flex-mounts for the front bumper.”
“Clamp-on launch tubes for solid-fuel mini-missiles!” pronounced Ames. “PlazPac ‘warheads’. And note how he parked.”
“I know. He was aiming right at the Admin building!”
The frightful mechanisms were expertly removed and dissected, and the report forwarded to Ames’s office within hours. “Those plastic explosives packed enough punch to do a huge amount of structural damage to the first floor, even if they didn’t happen to kill anyone outright,” Ames told Tom. “Remote-control activators.”
The young inventor pointed out that Inbimah had himself been subject to detector devices as he entered the Visitors Center. “No sign of any electronics on him, or in his briefcase.”
“Mm-hmm. So maybe that’s another reason why he planned to stay here on the grounds. He was going to actually put the signaller together here at Enterprises, which wouldn’t be that difficult for a savvy technician to do.”
“Good thing the guy’s research was a little sloppy,” said Tom. “He didn’t stop to think that a low-grade analog signal, which is about as much as he’d be able to manage, wouldn’t get much distance at ground level, not with all the electronic interference we generate here. But to stay hidden and defeat the patrolscope system, I think he’d need a confederate already working at Enterprises. Someone who’d know which of our buildings block out the radar scan. At any rate, he found that something had gone wrong with his plan. So he escaped the grounds without detonating the missiles.”
“What makes you... ” The security chief interrupted himself. “Oh—got it.”
“Those metal ‘birds’,” confirmed Tom. “He knew he wouldn’t be able to cross Enterprises out in the open without setting off the patrolscope alarm.”
“So he arranged for his pal to mess with the radar signal, giving him a ‘sneak window’.”
Another grim idea suddenly struck Tom. “Harlan, this Inbimah guy must’ve been behind the spear attack. He threw it himself!”
Ames looked skeptical. “With his own little muscles, hmm?”
“With his own big muscles! The Ambassador thought it odd that Inbimah chose to dress differently from Kwanu,” continued the young inventor. “Now I see the reason. That robe hid his unusual upper-body physique—the musculature of a trained Wanguru spear warrior!”
“Wanguru? I thought he was Ulsusu.”
“They might call him that because of his political sympathies. Or maybe they just don’t know.”
Ames grinned. “I’m afraid there are a lot of us who just don’t know, boss!”
In the days that followed, Swift Enterprises hummed with activity, its usual sound. Even as he labored over his repelatron skyway idea, Tom worked night and day organizing the supplies, schedules, technical personnel, and equipment for the project. At Swift Construction Company Jake Aturian took charge of recruiting teams of workers and technical personnel and putting together a small armada of freight-bearing jets to accompany the Sky Queen back to Ngombia.
The frazzling of Tom Swift led to teasing expressions of concern by others. A few evenings before the expedition was to take off, Sandy and Bash gave a bon voyage masquerade party at the Swifts’. Tom, in a gorilla suit, grinned when he spotted a green Martian.
“Your pointed head gave you away, Bud,” he joked.
“Listen, wise guy, that’s my built-in radio antenna,” Bud retorted. “In case I need to let Mars know I’ll be out late!”
Tom glanced around the room, chuckling at the costumes of the guests. “I’d hate to meet that on a dark night,” he remarked, pointing to a skeleton figure who had just arrived, luminous plastic rib-bones attached to his black garment. “Wonder how Chow will disguise his bay window!”
“He can always come as a circus fat lady,” Bud suggested. “Say, I’ll bet that walking palm tree over there is Darcy Creel crashing the party.”
“Could be! Maybe he’s hoping to get himself hugged.”
Later, with the party in full swing, Tom was called to the phone. Harlan Ames was calling.
Ames didn’t bother with Hello. “Are your guests all masked?”
“Masked and costumed both. Why?”
The security chief’s voice was tense with alarm. “Tom, I’ve just received an anonymous tip that one of your guests is an impostor. He may be a killer who aims to stop you from carrying out your African project!”
Tom stiffened at the news. “How did you get the tip, Harlan?” he asked softly, glancing about to make sure he would not be overheard.
“An unsigned note. I got home late and found it had been faxed to Dodie’s private number. No clues.”
“Okay, don’t do anything just yet,” Tom told him. “Let me try to handle this.”
After hanging up, Tom stood for a moment deep in thought. How could he check out the tip without alarming the guests? After all, it may not be genuine, he told himself.
He stripped off his costume to ready himself for action. A few seconds later Tom strode off in search of his sister. Sandy, dressed in a leopard costume, was just bringing up a new set of dance squibs on the music system.
“How many guests are here at the party, sis?”
Sandy giggled. “At least a houseful! Why? Not enough?”
“Just wondered. Did everyone show up?”
“Now that you mention it, I’m not sure. Mm—let me see. If you want to count Bud and Bashi, there should be twenty-four.” Her pert face took a sour turn. “Tom Swift, don’t you dare tell me you’re going to ruin our party with the usual nonsense!”
Tom smiled blandly. “Not me! Thanks.”
Tom went out on the patio and then came back inside, discreetly counting every guest in sight.
There were exactly twenty-four!
Tom frowned uneasily. Could Ames’s tip have been a hoax after all? Or had an impostor overpowered and taken the place of one of the real guests?
Unfortunately, the Swifts’ alarm system had been turned off for the evening, since some of the guests did not possess the special wristwatches with their neutralizer coils. Sandy and Bash had felt that with the grounds brightly illuminated, there would be no danger, especially since all the guests would be asked to show their embossed invitations at the door. But Tom realized that the impostor might have used his victim’s invitation, or created a counterfeit.
I’d better have everyone unmask—pronto! But then he hesitated. Even that would be risky, Tom reflected. What if the intruder was a killer, as Ames feared? The sudden threat of being detected might panic him into shooting, or into some other hasty action which would endanger the merrymakers.
Suddenly Tom remembered something. “That guest in the skeleton costume! I saw him earlier this evening, but not when I took the nose count! That would make twenty-five people in costume!”
To be sure he had made no mistake, Tom repeated his circuit of the patio and the first-floor rooms. Mr. Skeleton was nowhere in sight! With growing alarm, Tom slipped upstairs and glanced into room after room. Again he drew a blank.
There was only one place left to look—the basement. Not switching on the lights to avoid alerting the intruder, he darted down the steps, two at a time.
Eyes probing the big room, dimly lit by window-light, he gasped twice: once as he glimpsed the black-and-white skeleton figure hurling himself toward escape through one of the basement windows, a second time in horror as he made out a small plastic packet on the concrete floor, attached by wires to a tiny box the size of a pack of playing cards. A bomb!
Vague, panicky thoughts tumbled over one another. It could go off at a touch. This isn’t the movies. I have no idea which wire to cut. But he knows! He’d have to have given himself enough time to escape the blast—!
However brief that amount of time, it was all Tom had to catch the bomber and force him to prevent disaster!
BY THE time Tom reached the bottom of the stairs, the costumed man had already flung open the sash and was hoisting himself out.
The young inventor made a wild dash for the window, trying to grab the fugitive’s legs. But the man kicked backward viciously. His heel caught Tom a jarring blow under the chin!
Stunned, Tom reeled backward. By the time he recovered, Mr. Skeleton had wriggled safely out.
“Help! Stop him, someone!” Tom shouted.
His yells were drowned in the throb of music from the patio. Tom hesitated frantically, torn between two choices. Should he go after the fleeing figure without bothering to examine the bomb? But it might be set to explode any moment!
With a groan of effort and uncertainty, Tom followed the fugitive out the window. By now, his quarry was nowhere in sight. A short sprint across a lighted stretch of lawn had carried the “skeleton” safely off into the darkness. From the undisturbed dancing and smooth hum of conversation on the patio, it was evident that none of the guests had even noticed the intruder’s dash to escape.
How many minutes—or seconds!—did Tom have to find the fleeing intruder?
Pure instinct took over. He sprinted across the side lawn, then followed the tall border hedge around toward the front. “Probably has a car parked on the road,” he gasped to himself, as if he could force what he was doing to make sense.
Then he saw his quarry!
It seemed that Mr. Skeleton had forgotten that his “bones” had been given an eerie, deathly glow. Tom could see him scrambling along frog-style in the shadows of the cars parked along the curving driveway. Not wasting breath on a shout, Tom catapulted forward—but the intruder had seen him coming and was already up on his feet, cutting across the big curve in the driveway, heading in the direction of the gate.
A long shadow suddenly swung across pursuer and pursued. A bizarre, inhuman silhouette stood backlit in front of one of the lawn floodlights.
The shadow stood immobile in the path of Mr. Skeleton. Light glinted off metal in the figure’s hand—a barrel pointed directly at the costumed intruder! “Freeze, Earthling, or face the wrath of my death ray!”
“Bud! Stop him! Catch him!” cried Tom frantically.
Bud the Green Martian realized only then that this was no rough-and-tumble party game. With a grunt he tackled Mr. Skeleton and brought him down hard.
Panting, Tom ran up and yanked the struggling figure to his feet. “We’re going back in there, and you’re going to disarm that bomb!”
“No, no, we have to― ”
The man’s fearful protest earned him a violent shove from behind. “Hey—Mars to Earth!—get moving!” ordered Bud.
They trotted toward the basement window, the skeleton man a captive between them. Terror had sapped his strength to resist.
In the basement the man worked with hands that trembled fiercely. In seconds the detonator box had been safely disconnected from the packet of explosives. “It—it’s safe now!” he quavered.
“Not just yet,” stated Tom grimly. “You’re going to carry this packet to the edge of the property and set it down. Thinking about running? I’ll be walking behind you. Make me mad and I’ll staple that bomb to the seat of your pants!”
When the task was accomplished the boys marched Mr. Skeleton back into the house by way of the kitchen door and tied his hands and feet. Then at last they pulled off the skull-masked black cowl that covered his head. A slightly built man of middle age, with a thick chin, stood blinking in the light.
“Who are you?” demanded Bud.
The man didn’t answer, but Tom said, “I think I recognize him. Airfield maintenance.”
“You must’ve walked by me a hundred times, ‘boss’!” snarled the man. “You never asked me my name then.”
“You never tried to blow up my house ‘then’!” the young inventor snapped back. “And if we’re playing who’s-the-boss, where’s your boss?—Inbimah, the man you kept hidden at Enterprises!”
“Talk to my lawyer.”
Bud held up a muscular hand. Four fingers and a thumb curled into a fist. “Let me introduce you to my law firm!” But a look from his best friend cooled Bud down.
Still shaken and angry, Tom telephoned Ames and filled him in. “Please call whoever you think should take him into custody, Harlan,” Tom said. “It’s pretty clear he’s the guy on the inside who was helping Inbimah. He may know where Inbimah is now—and the real Mr. Kwanu.”
“Assuming the real Mr. Kwanu still exists. Did the guy arrive in a car?” Ames asked.
“I don’t know. He may be parked somewhere down the road, out of sight in the woods.”
“Okay, Tom—glad no one got hurt. And I’ll send someone around for that bomb assembly and the blast-pack.”
“Thanks, Harlan!” After hanging up, Tom rejoined the festivities. The party continued gaily with no one but Tom and Bud—and a skeleton in the closet—aware of their narrow escape.
Early next day Bud went to scout up Tom at his office. “He’s not here,” reported Munford Trent, recovered and back at his post. “Bashalli Prandit came by, and they went down to the lab next to the Sky Queen.”
“The underground one? Thanks.”
Bud strolled into the lab, stopped, and tried to stifle a laugh—the back half, at least. “Well, hey Tom! I take it you’ve decided to give up the invention bit and join a motorcycle gang.”
Looking somewhat embarrassed, the young inventor was decked out in what appeared to be a black leather motorcycle jacket. Bashalli had been eyeing him critically as Bud entered.
“Now Bud, knowing that you represent the general public in that you lack fashion sense—what do you think?” asked Bash.
The young pilot circled his friend as Tom reddened. “Hmm, I dunno. It’s a look that works—maybe. Might be a tad warm in the summer... ”
Tom chuckled. “Warm? Watch.”
He reached inside the jacket, as if into an inner pocket. In moments Bud gaped in disbelief as a faint coating of white began to form on the front of the garment. Frost!
“Man, I can feel it from here—like an open refrigerator!”
“D-demonstration over,” Tom proclaimed, shivering. He pulled off the jacket and said to Bud, “Remember that ‘personal heat-shield’ idea I mentioned, flyboy? Here it is.”
“It is called the thermodulator,” put in Bashalli with a certain tone of superiority; “and it is I who provided Thomas with the sketches for styling design. Otherwise it would have looked like some sort of armored spacesuit, no doubt.”
With a grin, Tom replied to the quizzical look on his friend’s face: “It uses the kind of flexible microcircuits we developed for the hydrolung diversuits, as well as a few concepts from the new repelatron transmitters. A mild, low-power repulsion field extends outward from the surface of the jacket a few inches into the surrounding air... ”
“I see. Making the wearer a human vacuum bottle. An instant asphyxiation jacket.”
“Oh hush!” remonstrated Bashalli, her dark eyes merry. “The explanation is most interesting. I have had it twice now.”
“To resume,” said Tom, “the idea isn’t to produce a vacuum, but to counteract molecular motion—which is what heat is, really.”
“It’s all Doppler Effect,” stated Bash. “Air molecules are bouncing around in all directions. The ones coming toward the jacket have their, er, wavelengths shortened. By Doppler. You see?”
“And those are the ones that feel the repulsion, during that segment of their random movements. It’s like slowing a swing by pushing against it until it stops.”
“Okay, I see,” Bud said, slightly chastened. “You slow ’em down, and they cool off.”
“That’s it, basically. The field conveys the heat energy into a sort of ‘energy sink’, and the air near the suit gets cool.” Tom added that he planned to try out the jacket in Ngombia. “If it works as expected, we’ll issue one to the entire work team.”
Bud laughed. “Don’t stop there!—put that guy-with-the-hat TSE logo on the back and sell ’em to the public!”
Tom laughed too. “It’s in the works. George Dilling thinks we should market it as the CoolJack!”
“Do be sure to put my own signature on the lapel,” sniffed Bashalli.
In part the Ngombia project had already commenced. Already the huge research ship Sea Charger was rounding the southern cape of Africa bearing tons of modular equipment for use in the construction of the repelatron transmitter towers, some of which would be turned out by factories in West Ngombia. Battened down on the craft’s broad flat deck, big as that of an aircraft carrier, was Tom’s Workchopper, which was to play a central role in the construction of the skyway. It turned out to be quicker and easier to transport the helicraft on the Sea Charger than to fly it halfway around the world to Ngombia.
Next morning the Swift and Sterling families, Ted Spring’s mother and little brother, and many friends of the team from Enterprises, drove to the Enterprises airfield to watch the expedition’s departure. After receiving the Sterlings’ good wishes, Tom got a quick kiss each from Sandy and Bashalli and embraced his mother. Then Damon Swift gripped his son’s hand warmly.
“It’s a big undertaking, son,” Mr. Swift murmured. “I’m confident you can handle it in a way that will bring credit to America.”
“I’ll try, Dad. Thanks—and so long!”
Minutes later, the Sky Queen zoomed aloft and seaward. Then three big cargo jets took off from the Swift Construction Company in her wake, bearing more workers and equipment.
As Tom streaked over the South Atlantic, a PER call came in from Harlan Ames. “We now know a great deal about our skeletal friend. It seems he was stealthily contacted months ago by the Ngombian subversive group that’s been working diligently to undermine the new Ghiddua government. They knew, somehow, that the government planned to continue the Burlow operation using Swift Enterprises—and that an enterprising employee by name of Willie Jarvel had been mouthing off in bars about some beef against TSE management. He was more than willing to help the group’s point man, R’na Inbimah.”
“Was he involved in putting together the kidnapping of the real Mr. Kwanu?”
“No—Inbimah has cronies in D.C., including the guy who was serving as Kwanu’s regular driver. Jarvel claims he has no idea where Kwanu is—nor Inbimah. But he cops to most of the Shopton stuff.”
“Like hiding Inbimah at the plant, and launching that packet of foil birds?”
Tom could “hear” Ames nod. “He also drove the car Inbimah stood on when he tossed that spear your way. Says his pal up and disappeared after providing good ol’ Willie with the time bomb and the party costume. Oh—Jarvel also made a point of hanging around the security-scan lab that morning when the package from the Ngombian Embassy arrived. Turns out he was the one who offered to drop it by your office. Didn’t mention that he planned to switch pens, though. Just being helpful, hmm?”
“A model employee,” gibed Tom sourly. “Did he give a specific reason for all this?”
“Not much of one. It’s all about wrecking the jungle operation. I gather the warnings and attacks were either supposed to take you out personally, or at least to drive home the point that your family was as much endangered as you yourself.”
“Blowing up the house would have made the point very well driven!” pronounced the young inventor.
Before local noon, after dropping Bud off at the coastal city where the Sea Charger was soon to dock, the air convoy landed in Ngombia. A car was waiting to whisk Tom to the Ministry of Patriotic Progress. Here, Mr. Jombilabu informed him that native work gangs had already been organized and were standing by at Imbolu and at Copperville, a western Ngombia industrial center where the repelatron transmitters were to be assembled.
“I have assigned Dalo Kiuma to assist you,” Jombilabu went on. “He will help you deal with those jungle tribesmen and will direct our armed officers, who will accompany your work crews to protect them from animal attack. Or― ” He laughed. “Dinosaur attack! Hah-heh.”
“Thanks. We can use him,” Tom said with a thin smile. Mr. Kiuma’s presence evoked no enthusiasm.
Returning to the airport, Tom found that Mr. Kiuma had unexpectedly taken onto himself some additional tasks. Members of the local and international press had gathered near the Sky Queen for a press conference, apparently announced to everyone but its subject, Tom Swift! Standing on a platform beside Kiuma, with several others providing translations from, and into, Dutch, French, and the Ngombian dialects, Tom uncomfortably fielded question after question.
“Do we understand that this flying road will be laid in the air, Mr. Swift?”
“That’s right,” Tom replied. “First, two big construction teams, headed by myself and my key engineer Mr. Sterling, will set up a series of modular repelatron towers, starting simultaneously from the opposite ends of the route and meeting in the middle. Then, starting off from Huttangdala, I will use my special helicopter, which I call the Workchopper, to generate the first half of the skyway in midair, supported by the repulsion beams. Then the other half, starting at Imbolu.”
“But surely one helicopter could not carry so much concrete,” a reporter objected.
Tom chuckled, albeit uncomfortably. “The skyway won’t be made of concrete, ma’am, but a synthetic material that’s extremely strong, rigid, and durable. I call it Durastress—though in this case I’m calling it ‘Durafoam’, as it will be suffused with air-filled cells.” Seeing confused expressions, Tom elaborated. “We’ve outfitted the Workchopper with equipment that allows the Durastress to be jet-sprayed into the air as a stream of very fine, buoyant droplets, where it can be guided and shaped by an electronic beam—the same method used in my skywriting setup. It takes only seconds for the extruded Durastress to solidify. In the process bubbles of air will become trapped inside the substance, producing the hardened foam.” He noted that because the spray fanned out broadly from the Workchopper, the resultant road would be much wider than the vehicle producing it.
Another question. “How long, sir, from start to completion?”
“I’d rather not guess. If all goes well, perhaps a matter of weeks.”
A Frenchman called out a lengthy question. “He asks about pollution from the cars,” summarized the translator, “smog in the jungle.”
“That’s an important issue,” Tom noted. “Basically, our transmitter towers will generate a mesh of nanofilaments, too small to interact with light but able to hold back gases and particulates. The barrier will be maneuvered to enclose the skyway like a tunnel from one end to the other. We use the same technology for our space airdomes. Oh, and we’ve also designed a system to supply plenty of air inside the barrier, scouring out accumulating pollutants and controlling temperature.”
The next accent was British. “And what if careless or suicidal automobilists drive over the edge, eh? Quite a drop.”
“The towers have special sensors and a computerized high-focus repelatron strong enough to shove wandering vehicles back onto the road—kind of a punch on the nose. It’ll be quite a jolt, but no worse than the emergency airbags that cars are equipped with. It’s an adaptation of the anticrash device used in my atomicar prototype. Now, are there any further― ”
“Do you plan hunting monsters in the swamp?”
Taken aback by the question, which set the crowd muttering, the young inventor’s eyes strained against the bright Africa sun, trying to see who had spoken up. “Excuse me? What do you― ”
“Simple question, Tom. There are rumors of great big reptiles in the V’moda swamp. To protect your operation, you could just zoom over their habitat and wipe ’em out with guns. Right? Hey, you could pick off a few of those troublesome ‘natives’ while you’re at it!”
Security guards, drawing guns, began to advance toward the speaker, whom Tom could finally make out by shading his eyes with his palm. Getting the guards’ attention, he waved them back.
“I guess if you managed to make it all the way here to Ngombia, you deserve to be heard,” Tom pronounced coolly. “So I’ll answer your question—Mr. Creel!”
THE challenging questioner was indeed Darcy Creel in all his slack-shirted, shaggy-headed glory, eyebrows up and sneer in place. “Go on, Tom. Tell the world how Swift Enterprises isn’t going to collaborate with the corrupt thugs running the new progressive Ngombia. Tell us how you’re not planning on ripping apart the jungle, the Wanguru, and a few thousand precarious species!”
Tom struggled to hold his temper in check. “You and I have been over these issues before, Mr. Creel. We’ve consulted with biologists, zoologists, and environmental specialists every step of the way. Swift Enterprises would never risk― ”
“But you employ Ulsusus!” shouted one man. “What do they know about these things?”
“Your own government has― ”
Another voice joined the growing verbal fray. “They say the Ministry knows all about these giant animals! The rumors are all over the city! Is there a coverup? Are you part of it?”
The crowd was becoming unruly. Suddenly the air was full of shouts, anger, and threat.
Tom looked at the hesitating security police, feeling helpless. Then he suddenly caught sight of a familiar, beaming face in—and somewhat below—the throng of reporters. “Akomo! Come up here with me!”
The crowd quieted when they saw that Tom Swift had been joined on the platform by a small boy. “This is my friend Akomo. Huttangdala is his home. He’s a good― ” Tom paused slightly. “—Ngombian. Take a look at him, everybody. This is what the future looks like. This is why we’re here.”
“That is all,” stated Mr. Kiuma firmly. “The conference is over. You will be escorted off the airfield, ladies and gentlemen.”
Tom noticed that Darcy Creel wasn’t waiting to be escorted. With a sarcastic salute, he swiveled and stalked off.
“Do you wish us to apprehend that agitator?” Kiuma asked Tom.
“No. His questions were reasonable—much as I didn’t like hearing them.”
Kiuma looked as though he didn’t agree, but said, “Very well, then.”
As Tom stepped away from the man and his crafty expression, Akomo tagged along. “Sir of sirs, now that I have protected you from mob action, you will want to repay me. For I, Akomo, have the face of the future!”
Tom grinned. “I think I can guess what you have in mind, Ako.”
“Please, please let me go along with you to see your skyway being made! I will be history! It is the long vacation now. Call my parents—they will agree!”
“Probably with enthusiasm,” Tom noted dryly. “But okay, pal. Just don’t get underfoot—and don’t wander away, either.”
“Um, um, um,” the boy cried happily. “As if I would ever do any such things!”
Within the hour the Sky Queen took to the air again, followed eastward by one of the cargo jets. Hank Sterling remained in Huttangdala to supervise the beginning of the transmitter emplacements from the west end of the line.
The Flying Lab set down in Imbolu just as Bud was landing in the Workchopper. “All smooth, Skipper,” reported the youthful pilot.
“Uh-huh,” Tom retorted. “Maybe for you!”
Soon Chief-Lieutenant Ata Fokguomo, accompanied by the annoying, ever-present Pieter Zerth, pulled up in a police car and greeted Tom. An animated discussion of initial construction activities commenced.
Bud and other members of the Queen’s crew stood on the opposite side of the great skyship, stretching and chatting, well aware that the time for stretching and chatting would soon be over for a span of hard weeks.
As always, Chow Winkler was part of the team. His idea of stretching was to get in a little fancy practice with his lariat. “Wanna see a few lassoo stunts, Buddy Boy?” he called out.
“Long as you keep that noose away from my neck, pardner.”
Meanwhile, the attention of the Americans was caught by a herd of lyre-horned Ankole cattle grazing on the grassy slope next to the landing field.
“Right smart-lookin’ beeves,” Chow commented, casting an expert Texas eye.
As Bud and his companions were admiring them, one of the bulls raised his head, glared at the strangers, and pawed the ground. Before the Americans realized their danger, the bull gave a sudden bellow and charged full tilt at the group!
With yelps of startled panic, Bud and the other watchers scattered as the maddened beast bore down on them. But Chow, falling back and gallumphing to the side, reacted in lightning cowboy style. His hand streaked down to the knot in his lariat. In a twinkling, he had made a widened loop and sent it snaking out over the charging bull’s head!
As the lasso dropped neatly over its target, Chow was already taking a couple of quick turns around the trunk of a nearby kola tree. The rope yanked taut, bringing the bull up short and throwing him heavily to the ground.
Snorting furiously, the animal began heaving himself upright again. But Chow dashed forward through the swirl of dust and grabbed his huge horns. Twisting the animal’s neck, he bulldogged him to the ground.
“Wo! Wo! Kai! Kai!”
Shouting and cheering, the native herdsmen came running down the slope to join Chow, panting and pale, and take charge of the subdued animal. In moments the roly-poly cook was the center of an admiring throng of villagers.
“Ako-mãlu jagunjagun nla!” they chanted.
“‘Great bull warrior’, they’re calling you,” Pieter Zerth translated with a snicker as he came running up with Tom and Chief-Lieutenant Fokguomo.
Tom and the others wrung Chow’s hand warmly. “Nice work, wrangler!” Tom told him.
“Shucks, it’s jest a knack,” Chow said modestly. “When you’ve branded as many bulls as I have, they’s nothin’ to it.”
One plump Ulsusu woman squeezed Chow’s arm. “Oni dya!” she murmured admiringly.
“She says you are a brave man,” put in Akomo. “Just like me!” Verging on gleeful laughter, he added, “She has no husband—see, no bracelets. I think she would like to marry you, sir cow.”
Chow blushed, then turned even paler than before. “Ye-ahh, thet’s a sure thing. They all do! Dag-bang-blame Texas charm.”
The Sky Queen had carried along, in its hangar-hold, a score of the repelatron transmitter towers, assembled and ready for planting. By the end of the first day, several had already been bolted down to foundations made of Durastress, compressed into “post-holes” dug by a small version of Tom’s earth blaster machine. Set at wide intervals, these repelatrons would support the gently sloping onramp that would connect the streets of Imbolu to the skyway at its 200-foot elevation.
“Great work for day one!” Tom told Fokguomo happily.
“Oh, indeed so,” remarked Pieter Zerth. “Day one is often encouraging, is it not? But one day soon enough, you will be in the jungle.”
That day was indeed soon enough. As the work team plunged on into the green depths of The V’moda, progress slowed, even though the towers were now to be erected at much greater distances from one another, intervals of one mile. A camp of portable Tomasite structures crept westward, day after day, protected by Mr. Kiuma’s guards and ringed by floodlights at night. Overhead, the Workchopper scouted out promising clearings amid the trees and brush where the eight-foot cylindrical units could be solidly emplaced. At the other end across The V’moda, Hank Sterling and Ted Spring used the cycloplane for similar purposes.
Two weeks trudged by with no interruption to the work. Real trouble only began as they neared the edge of the great central swamp. They began to find splintered trees, smashed underbrush, and what looked like huge footprints sunk deep into the soft, wet ground.
“Some of the Ulsusu workmen, the ones hired in Imbolu, are becoming resistant to orders,” Kiuma mentioned to Tom. “The team bosses tell me this. The men are superstitious, frightened of these things.”
One of the construction leaders standing nearby, all of whom were Ghiddua, muttered: “Ei uls’ u wa k’qni r’ey!”
“What did he say, Mr. Kiuma?” Tom asked.
“The Ghiddua man? Oh, just a common saying—‘So stupid, just like an Ulsusu!’ We all say it. No importance.”
The following day brought more than footprints and superstition. Guided by a frantic worker, Tom and Bud stood aghast next to one of the transmitters—or rather its remains. It had been smashed to junk over night!
“Jetz! Everything’s wrecked!” cried Bud angrily. “And look at the trees, Tom. It’s the dinosaurs!”
“We’ve haven’t seen any yet,” Tom reminded Bud. “But it sure looks that way. They can’t really crunch the Neo-Aurium chassis, but they can sure break off and scatter the antenna components.”
“What can we do, genius boy? Post guards?”
Tom snorted. “What exactly could guards do—against monster reptiles? I doubt even a bazooka could take down a rampaging Tyrannosaurus Rex on the first shot! Besides, it’d take half the population of Imbolu to stand watch over all the towers. But—maybe there’s a solution. Remember how we handled the worms?”
“Sure—with soundwaves from the audiogyrex.”
“Something like that might work with the big saurians, too.” Thinking aloud, the young inventor described a sort of “siren” that could be attached to each repelatron tower and linked to its internal power supply, Tom’s neutronamo generator. “I think I can gimmick it so that humans and normal-sized jungle animals won’t be aware of it at all, but it would produce an uncomfortable resonance in dino-sized giants. They’ll feel it getting worse as they approach the towers, and veer away. I hope!”
Flying back to the Sky Queen, Tom produced several of the relatively simple devices on the spot, sending the blueprints on to an industrial lab in Copperville for a production run. Meanwhile he installed the first several of the devices in the swamp transmitters.
To Tom’s relief, the solution seemed to work. There was no further tower wrecking, and the signs of the dinosaurs seemed to diminish.
In days Tom’s work team from Imbolu had met up with its counterpart, Hank Sterling’s West Ngombia crew, in the middle of the great swamp. “Incredible!” exulted Tom’s chief engineer. “Holy heck, we’ve got the whole run of towers in place! And I couldn’t have done it without my chief engineer,” he added, nodding in the direction of a grinning Ted Spring.
“Wa-aal now, you may’ve got yerself an engineer, Sterlin’,” put in Chow. “But dollars t’ doughnuts, bet our boys here had better food t’ eat!”
Tom acknowledged the accomplishment with quiet jubilance. “Maybe you should send a telegram to old man Burlow,” suggested Bud mischievously to his chum.
“Let’s postpone the crowing until we have the actual skyway in place, flyboy.”
It took a mere two days for the Workchopper to create the first half of the flying Durafoam road, the eastern section beginning at Imbolu. It rested calmly and serenely in the empty air on its repelatron cushion, with gravitex stabilizers, attached to the skyway’s underside at long intervals, preventing it from sliding sideways out of position.
The work crews had now merged into one camp, and that night it was a scene of celebration that lasted late into the starry, steamy night under the high ribbon of skyway. But finally the many weary workers and technicians went off to their tents.
Bud yawned mightily—and also wiped away a stream of perspiration. “Good night, somebody turn down the thermostat!” he complained to Tom. “If I plan to get any shut-eye in this heat, I’d better dress for it—in mosquito netting!”
Tom gave his pal a supercilious grin. “Heat? What heat? And I’m wearing a leather jacket!”
“Yeah, chum, you’re wearing your own personal thermostat!” grumped Bud humorously. “I’ll wrestle you for that darn CoolJack of yours.”
Sometime in the middle of the dark, Bud awakened. Looking to the side, he found that Tom was no longer in their shared tent—and he could hear excited voices that suddenly became shouts of fear!
What the heck’s goin’ on? he murmured mentally, trying to cast sleep aside and stagger to his feet. And what’s that noise? Thunder?
It sounded all too much like roaring!
Bud darted through the tent flap and froze. What he saw jolted him like an electric shock.
Monsters of nightmarish size were surging forward out of the darkness, plunging among the tents and scattering the groggy workers!
T-rexes on the rampage—destroying the camp!
THE MONSTER MAKER
“BUD! Run for it!” yelled Tom, sprinting by. Seeing that his pal was standing frozen to the spot, staring upward in disbelief, Tom ran back and grabbed Bud’s arm. “Get moving—they’re all over!”
There was no doubt of that! There were at least a half-dozen of the thick-legged, dagger-toothed reptilians tearing about the camp, hissing, roaring, stumbling over equipment, and sometimes bending low to grab the plastic tents in their ponderous jaws and shake them to shreds like a terrier with its prey. As the workers darted this way and that, the security men were unloading their rifles at the marauders—but to unnervingly little effect. The creatures seemed to merely shrug off the spray of bullets.
“Tom!” called out Ted Spring, “Hank and I’ll fetch the electric rifles!”
“Me too!” came another shrill voice—Akomo.
“I’ll try shooting at them from the― ” Tom began, glancing back toward Bud, then stopping. Bud had disappeared!
In fact the dark-haired youth was pounding across the camp as fast as his athletic muscles could drive him, clutching a powerful flashlamp that he had managed to scoop up. “Can’t let—those big lizards—bring us down—!” he panted desperately. He was running right into the thick of the stampede!
Bud darted between two of the saurians, hoping that they would choose not to butt heads in trying to snag the tiny thing scrambling between their clumsy feet. They roared in rage, whipping their colossal heads about and turning to pursue.
At the edge of the camp clearing, where thick jungle began, Bud paused and whirled about. He switched on the flashlamp and swept the beam back and forth across two pair of beady, gleaming eyes. Further enraged, the Rexes clomped forward and their prey plunged into the trees and shadows.
It was a nightmarish run through dark and darker-dark. The ground shook, and the thunder behind him swelled to many voices as the first two dinosaurs drew the others away from the camp—and toward Bud Barclay!
The trunk of a great palm suddenly whammed into the ground not ten feet away from the panting youth. Jumping frantically, whirling as he jumped, Bud saw a gargantuan face roaring downward through the treetops. He stumbled back from the blast of its wet, hot breath!
The T-rex rose into the sky like a hot-air balloon!
Bud gaped and boggled. “Wh-what in the—how― ” And then he saw several deep creases encircling the giant’s body, and the glint of metal ribbons. Heaving and struggling violently, the colossus was being dragged into the air by the Workchopper like a fish. Tom had snagged it with the helicraft’s extension arms!
Tom’s voice resounded from the Workchopper’s exterior speakers. “Bud, run off through the jungle to your right! When I come back over, flash your light my way!”
The young inventor’s plan was to use the captive saurian as bait to draw the others away from the camp and back into the deep jungle, hoping they would give up the assault and head for home—wherever that might be. Tom released the dinosaur, and quickly realized that his strategy was working. He could make out six enormous backs pushing though the trees toward a more remote part of the great swamp.
Tom didn’t track them, but turned sharply about. He picked up Bud from the small clearing where he had found refuge. “Bud!—that was stupid, reckless, and― ”
Gazing down through the curving cockpit dome, Bud exclaimed suddenly: “Hey, there’s something down there between the trees—a light!”
Tom saw it. “Flickering. But it looks too small to be a campfire... ” He pressed a button to record the position coordinates. “We’ll take a look at it first thing tomorrow. Right now I want to see to the camp and the workers.”
With the silencing of the thunder, the workers had begun to filter back to the camp. “Better than I might have thought,” muttered Mr. Kiuma. “They hardly act like― ”
“Listen to me, Mr. Kiuma,” Tom interrupted sharply. “I don’t care what you think. That’s your business. But I don’t want to hear one more word from you about the Ulsusus. If you can’t respect them as members of this project—get your things together and I’ll fly you back to Huttangdala!”
Kiuma glared at the American. Then, with a surly nod, he turned and stalked away.
The next morning Tom and his companions were examining what had been found in the jungle, suspended over a small, banked “hearth” that had burned itself out during the night.
“Jest what is it, boss? A fancy stewpot?” Chow asked.
Hank answered for Tom. “Yeah, but it’s a stew you wouldn’t want to eat! This canister contains some kind of chemical combo.”
“It reacts to heat,” continued Tom. “For most of the night it must have been giving off a stream of vapor.”
“Why?” Ted Spring mused. “Poison gas?”
The young inventor shook his head. “No, I think it’s a scent that the Rexes are drawn to. They get frantic for it, and follow the trace upwind—and our camp was right in the way!”
Chow nodded with understanding. “Shor enough—dinosaur catnip!”
“This just can’t go on, genius boy,” Bud grated with angry resolve. “The damage wasn’t too bad this time, but next time—! Tom, we’ve got to take the fight to the enemy.”
“Yes. I agree. It’s time.”
“I agree also!” declared Akomo excitedly. “I will lead the way!”
Tom smiled but his voice admitted no arguments. “No, Ako. You’re staying right here. Help Hank and Ted and Chow protect the camp. Okay?”
“Okay, sir-sir. I will do it brilliantly.”
After studying the chemistry of the canister, Tom laid out an idea that had come to him. “We’ll set the canister away from the camp, but in the general direction the saurians seemed to be headed. Then, when the wind’s right, we’ll apply heat to generate the scent-vapor.”
“Which’ll bring the Rexes running, hmm? But look,” Bud objected, “how’ll we be able to make out the trail they leave through that thick canopy of trees? Or do you plan backtracking on foot?”
“No—from the air, in the Workchopper. You see, as soon as we catch sight of one of them, I’ll switch off the canister heat by remote control. As the smell dissipates, I’m betting the dino will lose interest and turn back toward home. It shouldn’t be too difficult to follow him with the motion-sensing radar.”
By mid-afternoon the trap had been set, and—after a tense wait—sprung. “Here comes one of them!” Bud cried out, sitting next to Tom in the hovering copter. “I see his head between the treetops!”
“Okay. Switching off the canister.”
They waited as the breeze scattered the plume of vapor. The Tyrannosaur slowed, hesitated, and seemed to wander aimlessly for a time. Then, to the youths’ excited delight, he put about and began to lumber back toward the swamp!
The Workchopper followed, minute by minute. But suddenly there were no more glimpses, no moving splotch on the radar. The creature had vanished. “What’s going on?” breathed Bud.
“The dinosaur pen must be under a roof, or some kind of camouflage netting,” Tom speculated. “Like it or not, I think we’ll need to land and try to pick up the trail on foot after all.”
Bud gulped. “Long as you’re not planning on any hand-to-hand combat, Skipper!”
The trail was obvious at ground level. Among ripped branches there were gouges and huge footprints all about them, most full of water but still distinctive. Soon they made out a cage-like high wall of stripped tree trunks standing upright, camouflage draped overhead.
“A stockade,” whispered Tom. “Good night, the whole thing must be a block square!”
“Uh-huh—with plenty of head room.”
Awe defeated caution. Tom and Bud approached the wall. The trunks were set widely enough apart that they could step right through the gap. The shadows were deep, but the moist gloom was full of hissing and scuffling—and smell. The youths could make out huge dark shapes on the further side of the great pen-yard, dragging about stuporously.
Near them was a structure meant for human use, light in the windows. They could hear the faint whine of a generator. Concealing themselves as much as possible, they edged up to a window and looked in—right into the face of a man!
Except for an impatient frown, the elderly white-haired man barely reacted to the sight of the two intruders. “All right, all right, I see you,” he called out. “Come in. Door on your left. Not wise, standing out in the pen with the pets. Gets them stirred up and cranky.”
Disconcerted by what seemed a welcome rather than an armed repulse, Tom and Bud entered a big room full of paper-strewn desks, cages, water tanks, and a variety of scientific apparatus. Tom instantly recognized one piece of equipment as an electron microscope.
The man seemed unexpectedly amiable, if rather abrupt in manner. He offered a gnarled hand, and Tom shook it cautiously. “I’m Tom Swift from the U.S., and this is Bud Barclay. Are you Welkin Eldreth?”
The man nodded. “Yes, the monster maker himself. May I say, I admire your restraint.”
“You managed to refrain from saying the traditional ‘Dr. Eldreth, I presume?’.”
He led them to a pair of wooden chairs, but remained standing as he faced them. “So. You found me—that is, us. Tracked Gertrude back, did you? She has the wanderlust, I’m afraid. Haven’t quite bred it out of her.”
“Bred... ” repeated Tom. “Then it’s true.”
“Of course it’s true,” Eldreth stated. “I breed dinosaurs. You’ve seen them, haven’t you? Let us get these uninteresting questions out of the way.”
Bud cleared his throat. “Er—I have a question on another subject. What are you planning to do with us, Doctor?”
“Do? What do you think? I’m planning to make a breakfast of you two—for Gertrude!”
“I DON’T much like that answer,” breathed Bud Barclay with wide eyes.
Eldreth shrugged. “Well, young man, you did ask.”
“You can’t be serious!” exclaimed Tom.
“No, of course I’m not serious!” retorted the scientist scornfully. “I am a recluse and something of a fanatic, I suppose—not a madman.”
Tom asked, “Are we prisoners here?”
“Certainly not. Do you see a gun? I’m not about to bother with the care and feeding of prisoners whose only crime is a bit of trespassing. Stay if you care to, leave when you’ve grown tired of me and my lectures. Does that relieve your young minds?” Suddenly less cordial, the elderly man stopped short and regarded Tom with piercing eyes. “In any event it appears my secrecy has become futile. You had my name. You know me? You don’t make a habit of wandering about in the jungle peeping into windows?”
“I’ve heard of you!” Tom snapped. “And I’d like an explanation of why you caused our machinery to be wrecked and had ‘Gertrude’ and friends attack our camp!”
Tom’s words stung Eldreth. “Oh come now. You have brought disaster on yourself!” the professor ranted. “By ruining one of your precious antenna towers I warned you not to continue. But you paid no heed. For years I have pursued my experiments peacefully. Your absurd flying highway would have brought people to The V’moda and ruined my life work!”
“Having your big pets go stomping around our camp isn’t my idea of peaceful!” declared Bud hotly. “It’s just luck that people weren’t killed!”
Frowning, Eldreth took a few steps back. “I don’t know what you’re referring to, Mr. Barclay. There was only the one incident, which I have acknowledged. I was present and in control of things. The injury was to a few bits of metal. Was there—are you saying― ”
Seeing that the man was becoming agitated, Tom diverted the subject. “The highway will serve the people of Ngombia,” he stated in a soothing tone. “Besides, it runs above the jungle and wouldn’t interfere with your work.”
As Eldreth stared at the young inventor uncertainly, Tom added, “Incidentally, I’d like to hear about your experiments. My father and I have studied your technical papers. We’re interested in your theories about the breeding of throwbacks.”
Professor Eldreth’s angry expression relaxed as he realized that Tom was sincere. “I’ve often heard of you, Mr. Swift, even before the government announced the highway project,” he said. “I keep up with the world’s news. You are an outstanding scientist—yet so young; something of an anomalous phenomenon. Very well—perhaps you can appreciate what I’ve done.”
He led the boys into another room. Tom glanced at the array of scientific equipment. It was a fully equipped biological laboratory!
“Most scientists sneer at my work,” Eldreth confided. “I imagine you already know this. But here, working apart in this world of the primeval, I have proven my theories! I have succeeded in breeding throwbacks to the dinosaurs that lived many millions of years ago!”
“It’s amazing!” Tom said. “How did you do it?”
“The race of dinosaurs died out, as you know, leaving no direct descendants,” Eldreth replied in a cool, lecturing tone. “But the crocodilians evolved from the same stem. I therefore began my experiments with crocodiles taken from these jungle rivers.”
“You mean you turned ordinary crocodiles into those monsters out there?’’ Bud put in.
“In a way, yes; although I deplore your terminology. I took crocodile eggs and treated them with X-rays and chemicals to cause mutations, or chromosomal deviations. This produced freak animals—some with atavistic characteristics of earlier reptiles far back on the scale of evolution.”
Tom nodded. “Then you bred the atavians.”
“Eventually,” Professor Eldreth said. “Culling viable mutations capable of reproduction was a breakthrough in itself. But you see, I made a significant discovery, a unique compound in the swamp environment which I was able to isolate and further refine. To simplify a very complex matter, it is a catalyst for precision replication of living cells, inducing growth and development at a phenomenal rate. Generation upon generation, succeeding one another in a matter of months—but backwards, if you see. In this way, I was able to telescope the evolutionary process in a reverse direction. Finally I produced a creature much like the thecodonts—the ancestor of both crocodiles and dinosaurs.” He suddenly bobbed his head, looking at his watch. “But come!”
Eldreth led the boys outside and blew a whistle. Tom and Bud gaped as several creatures scampered in response. They were like large lizards, about the size of police dogs, but running erect on powerfully developed hind legs in the manner of an ostrich.
“Good grief!” Bud gasped. “How’d you like them as watchdogs, Tom?”
“No thanks,” Tom muttered.
A man, an African, now appeared from another door of Eldreth’s bungalow. Staring at Tom and Bud in questioning surprise, he was carrying some pieces of raw meat, which he threw to the thecodonts. They seized the food with their clawed forelegs and gobbled greedily.
Introductions were made. “This is Gregory Mbonga, my assistant. He was a graduate student of mine in America who believed in me and came with me to Ngombia.”
“Are you surprised that a black African played such a role in this research, Mr. Swift?” asked the man. “I was born in this country.”
Tom shifted his eyes to Professor Eldreth. “I understood that you came here with two assistants.”
The man nodded brusquely. “Indeed. But I was speaking of the graduate student who believed in me, if you will recall.”
Tom did not pursue the matter. “From these thecodonts you developed your dinosaurs?” he asked.
“Yes, yes. I concentrated on developing animals with a bone structure like the saurischians—the reptile-hipped dinosaurs.”
“And finally you turned out a Tyrannosaurus Rex,” Bud put in.
“There is no harm in calling them that, although, to be precise, it is a matter of rather gross resemblances, not chromosomal exactitude. These are all novel species, in a sense. Yet sufficiently reminiscent of earlier forms to be instructive.” Professor Eldreth took a lantern and said, “Come along. I’ll show you.”
He led the boys off through the compound, Mbonga following. Presently they came in view of a group of the huge dinosaurs, resting quietly among the trees. The beasts blinked in the light as Professor Eldreth raised the lantern proudly.
“There are the results of my years of work! The basic chromosomal alterations are engineered by bacteria-born retroviruses piercing the cytoplasm barrier, the ‘skin’ of the cell. Then, by injecting the Niobium formula into the egg embryo that results, one of these creatures can be raised to full size in two months!”
Tom gasped. The news of Professor Eldreth’s work would hit the scientific world like a bombshell—if he and Bud returned to tell the story. What was behind the preceding night’s raid? I’m sure I’ll learn more if I can gain his confidence, Tom thought.
As they stood watching, Tom remarked to Eldreth, “The theropod dinosaurs, like the tyrannosaurus, were supposed to be quite fierce. How have you managed to control them?”
“One mustn’t depend on the sensational assumptions of movies and science fiction,” Eldreth replied smugly. “Despite their teeth and offputting appearance, they have a streak of docility—and I have been able to breed for that trait. When raised by humans and treated kindly, they are easily managed. In fact, I have bred them to be responsive to an artificial chemical scent. They find it stimulating. Thus I can use it in training, to reward them for desired behaviors.”
Suddenly the old man stopped and glared at Tom. “That is another reason why your highway must never be built! What would happen to these dumb, helpless beasts if the jungle is opened to civilization and ignorant fools stream in to make sport of killing them?”
Tom replied earnestly, “A game preserve could be set aside for your animals. No hunters― ”
“Do you think I believe that?” Eldreth ranted, suddenly furious. “The Ngombian government has already sent hunters in here to pursue and destroy them! For years I was hounded and ridiculed. Only Mbonga helped me carry on my work. Tom Swift, no one is going to destroy the results of our efforts!”
The old man’s eyes glowed fanatically. Mbonga seemed to realize the professor was becoming irrational. “Welkin, perhaps this is enough talk for now. It isn’t good for― ”
Eldreth’s mood abruptly darkened. “Not good for whom, Mbonga? My loyal assistant. But how loyal are you after all? These gentlemen speak of an attack by the saurians. I engineered no such thing. But you—you also know how to direct the herd!”
“No! That’s― ” Mbonga’s words were cut short by a crack of sharp sound. Gunfire!
The bolt struck a tree nearby. As the dinosaurs lifted their heads in vague interest, another shot sent Mbonga spinning to the ground.
A figure stepped forward from the shadows. “There is another who learned your methods, Welkin. Haven’t forgotten me, have you?”
“And so you return, my unfaithful assistant!” muttered Eldreth contemptuously. “Returned to me with a gun.”
“I was his other grad student, Tom,” explained Creel calmly with a half-smile. “There was a little healthy dissension along the way. Y’know, the original purpose was to get a handle on cancer. I wrote it up for a scientific journal, naive idealist that I was back then. But hey, progress happens, huh. The Eldreth method of species creation—well, who needs it? Chromosome manipulation, accelerated breeding. Fatter cattle for the contented-cow consumer, and another step on the road to psycho-surgery and mind control! Is it worth the destruction of the environment, guys? Nature should rule, not Man. Let the Earth herself decide who shall live and who shall die. Humans can stay home and watch TV.”
Tom knelt down warily and sought Mbonga’s pulse. “This man is dying, Creel. It’s not Earth who made that decision.”
“He always hated Gregory,” said Eldreth quietly.
“Wouldn’t listen,” retorted the journalist. “Now he’ll have a good excuse!”
Tom stood. “You were right, Darcy. There was a monster in the woodpile after all.”
Creel grinned, gun at ready. “That’s way harsh, Tom. I didn’t do so much. Inspired the dinosaurs to attack—but after all, it’s you guys who’ve invaded their habitat. Don’t blame me for Inbimah and all that. He’s Wanguru, working with some good folks who don’t like the way the Ghiddua run things. It also helps that he knows a few insiders with motives of their own. I believe you’ve met Pieter Zerth? Get this: Afro-Metals isn’t too wild about your skyway bringing business competitors into central Ngombia. They’ve had it cushy for decades. Zerth is paid under the table to keep the old pot boiling and pass government info along to Inbimah from some source they’ve planted in Huttangdala.
“So compared to all that, I’m just a lazy tree-hugger. Ya think?”
“I won’t tell you what I think,” Tom grated.
“Ooh, hostility! Whatever. Welkin, sorry to break it to ya, but I’m pulling the grants, locking the doors, and shutting down the operation. Unlike the Ghiddua bully-boys at the Swift camp, I know where to aim to bring down a dinosaur—not to mention a few homo sapiens!” Then, catching movement, he shifted the end of the gun barrel toward Tom. “Nuh-uh, pal. If that hand comes out of your neat-o leather jacket with a gun in it—bango-reeno!”
“Just wanted to slip it off, Creel,” responded Tom. “The cooling system has run down.”
“Wow, a Tom Swift invention. Toss it here.” Creel winked. “Looks like it’ll fit me. No need to ruin the look with a hole or two.”
His eye on the gun, the young inventor gently tossed the jacket across the space separating the four from their leering adversary. Darcy Creel reached out for it with his free hand—and the jacket erupted with a blinding flash of light and flame!
Tom and the others fell back as a blast of heat swept over them. They could make out Creel, shrieking and staggering back into the underbrush.
“‘Heat sink’—right?” gasped Bud.
“Not any more.” Tom turned to Eldreth. “Bud and I will carry Mbonga to our helicopter, Professor. I exaggerated his condition, but he needs to get to a hospital.”
“Now’s our chance! Let’s go!” Bud tugged Tom’s arm and ran toward the stockade wall.
“No, Bud! Wait!” Tom called. “We can’t go and leave the poor fellow like this!”
Bud ran back. “You’re right.”
The youths hoisted Mbonga as Eldreth stood by dazed and silent. The wounded man gulped air and his eyes opened. He tried to struggle free of their grip. “No, Gregory!” Professor Eldreth said, and told of the rescue. The black man’s eyes opened wide in surprise.
“You—you are our friends. Th-thank you... ”
“I too, thank you,” Professor Eldreth said in a choked voice. “Gregory has been my faithful helper all along. Without him I’d be lost.”
“There’s no need to thank us,” Tom said. “But we’ve got to get going. I don’t know what happened to Creel, but he may come back any moment.”
“I deduce that the explosion you caused would have injured him—badly burned him, no doubt,” declared Eldreth, shaking his head. “Knowing Darcy, he will make his way back to whatever camp he is using as his base, to join whoever else has been collaborating with him. Or he may die in the jungle. Either way, he won’t soon be back. And besides... ” He gestured toward the pack of dinosaurs. “With all this, the natives are restless.”
Creel did not reappear. As gently as possible, making use of the extender arms, Mbonga was lifted into the cockpit of the Workchopper and flown to a modern emergency facility in Huttangdala. After surgery to remove the bullet, Tom and Bud were told that the man would recover fully.
“Man, Professor Eldreth—and Gertrude!—will be glad to hear that!” chuckled Bud.
Further good news came from the Ministry of Patriotic Progress two days later, as Tom commenced laying the Huttangdala half of the skyway. “One of our patrols captured them at the border,” reported Mr. Jombilabu. “Um, um, um, R’na Imbimah himself and some associates, including your American friend Mr. Creel, wrapped in bandages. In turn we were led to the genuine Mr. Kwanu, drugged and held captive for whatever future value he might have.”
“What about Pieter Zerth?” Tom inquired.
“He is gone, fled back to Holland, we think. Afro-Metals disavows all knowledge, but it doesn’t matter. We’ve sacked the whole lot.”
“There’s one more, though, the person in your office who stole and hid the original Burlow file and has been behind leaking rumors and information,” the young inventor pointed out. “If you want my opinion, sir, I think I know who it is.”
Jombilabu laughed gleefully. “Ah, so do we, for we have uncovered conclusive evidence at last. Dalo Kiuma! One cannot trust even one’s friends, it seems. He will be in custody within the hour, Tom.”
Sundown ended the day’s work in Huttangdala. The onramp and the first mile-long segment were in place.
Work was to resume at dawn, but the sun brought with it a new crisis. “Boss!” Chow exclaimed running up to Tom and Bud, “Sumpin’s goin’ on up there on the skyway! Ted’s tryin’ to handle it, but he’s a blame sight outnumbered!”
“Outnumbered!” Tom repeated blankly. “What do you mean?”
Bud cried out in alarm: “Jetz! Look!”
From their camp at ground level they could see a knot of people—dozens of them—trudging up the long rampway to the completed segment of skyway!
“Some sort of demonstration,” Tom murmured. “A protest.”
Chow’s eyes were wide. “An’ they look a mite riled!”
Ted Spring had seen the group assembling and had trotted after them up the onramp, hoping to forestall trouble. He caught up to them as they were a good ways onto the floating skyway segment, two hundred feet above the ground.
The throng was chanting loudly, in English, and waving signs. “Hey, stop! What’s going on?” Ted yelled. “You shouldn’t be up here!”
An elderly Ngombian, dressed in a toga, silenced the crowd with a wave of his hand and stepped toward Ted. “No? It is you Americans who do not belong here. This is our country! This is our way of life! You offend the spirits-who-watch, invading the jungle, stirring up Ooshu and his son!”
“The Son of the Father of Crocodiles is angry!” shrieked a woman. “They say he has been seen in the great swamp. He will come here to kill us—we Ghiddua will die for what you Ulsusu have done!”
“Me? But I’m not― ” Ted’s protest was unheard. The crowd had resumed yelling and chanting.
Then the frenzy increased! Pointing fingers led the young Shoptonian to look over his shoulder. Another angry crowd had mounted the rampway and was approaching behind him.
“Look!” came angry yells. “They come to join him—Ulsusus!”
But the second group, apparently Ulsusu workers living in Huttangdala, had already been stirred to a snarling rage by their leaders. “Out of our way, Ghiddua!” they shouted at Ted. “Your people insult us! We have a lesson for them!”
“I’m an American!”
“Then why do you protect them? Nothing can wipe away the sins of your ancestors—Ghiddua!”
The two sides closed in on Ted Spring like a vise. Yet he didn’t run. He stood his ground in the middle of the skyway, speaking briefly over the cellphone he had plucked from his pocket.
The front lines hesitated slightly, each side primed for something to trigger and all-out battle between them.
Then came yelps of terror. The hanging end of the segment of skyway had suddenly dipped toward the ground!
“Listen to me, listen!” Ted shouted at the top of his lungs. “You’re all putting too much weight on the road. The support force-beams are starting to give way!” There were screams, but a terrified chaos seemed about to take hold, Ted again gained both groups’ attention. “Don’t panic! We won’t fall if we all move back down the ramp—just start walking.”
“But they will not let us pass!” cried a Ghiddua. “The Ulsusus stand in our way!”
“Nobody wants to die,” declared Ted Spring. He turned toward the Ulsusus. “We all have to get down off the skyway—together, understand? You’ll have to back up, back to the beginning!”
“If we turn our backs, the Ghiddua will shoot us!” protested a young Ulsusu man.
Silence fell suddenly. “If there’s any shooting, I’ll be here in the middle. And whether I’m Ghiddua or Ulsusu or just a plain old American, that’s not much of a reward for trying to help you. Everybody, calm down and go!”
Ted’s calm words seemed to have weight of their own. One by one the Ulsusus turned and began to walk back, followed by Ted, followed, finally, by the Ghiddua.
As the crowds dispersed at the foot of the ramp, Tom and Bud trotted up to Ted, who stood watching breathlessly. “Guess it worked,” declared Tom. “Smart idea, Ted.”
“Well, T-man, I’ve been tangled up in wild crowds before,” his friend replied. “I figured if I had you turn down the repelatrons a little― ”
“The amount was just right, fortunately. Any more and there would have been real danger, not just a scare.”
“It was a scare to the good,” Bud Barclay put in. “Sometimes little stampedes can mean a lot!”
The last few days of the project were almost fun, as Tom skimmed along in the Workchopper—which had now acquired the name Dinosoarer—while Bud drove away the occasional nosy T-Rex with a hand-held, gunlike sound projector that functioned like the tower sirens. Sometimes the boys gave in to plaintive demands and allowed Akomo to enjoy playing harmless “hunter” of the biggest game of all. If Tom had any drifting thoughts about his next invention, which in time turned out to be his Aquatomic Tracker, he kept them stored at the back of his mind.
In less than a week, the fantastic repelatron skyway had been completed, beginning to end. Before the first of the cars were allowed onto the soaring ribbon, there was a “golden spike” ceremony at the midpoint where the two segments fused into one, high above Ngombia’s central swamp—soon to be home to something equally astonishing.
“The Eldreth Dinosaur Park probably will become Ngombia’s greatest tourist attraction,” Tom remarked to Professor Eldreth, who had been invited to the ceremony along with Mbonga and many other notables.
“I care nothing for the tourists,” Eldreth retorted. “Only the science—and protecting my reptilian offspring!”
The Wanguru shaman-chief had also been persuaded to show his manly courage by attending the elevated ceremony. “Wo! Idán aràbàrà! M’yuduma na k’yi Tom Swift!” he muttered.
Hearing his name, Tom asked little Akomo, standing next to him, what Nkoru had said. “Nothing much worth saying, sir-sir,” the boy replied. “He says ‘Tom Swift make very strong magic’ like an ignorant jungle person. That is just so Wanguru!”