TOM SWIFT LIVES!
TOM SWIFT AND HIS
This unauthorized tribute
Is based upon
the original TOM SWIFT JR. characters.
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
“THIS will be one of the greatest scientific adventures of the century! We’ll all be pulling for you!”
“Thanks, Dan,” responded the athletic looking young man standing next to him. “Just about everyone’s pulling for us—but we won’t know for a couple weeks yet whether all that pulling is enough to help us pull it off.”
Two youths, who looked young enough to still be in their teens, stood with an older man at the metal railing that bordered the deck of the mammoth research vessel Sea Charger, their three gazes trained seaward.
The older man, a rotund figure who clutched a ten-gallon cowboy hat against the wind, spoke with Texas confidence. “Now don’t you worry a whit, son. When Tom Swift and his folks take a notion t’do somethin’, they never give up till it’s spang on the plate!”
“He’s using a fish metaphor,” explained Bud Barclay with a broad grin.
“Oh, I get it,” nodded Dan Walde. “Like reeling in a fish for dinner.” The red-haired young man, in a sailor’s work garb, turned his back to the Baltic Sea and faced Chow Winkler, executive chef—and executive friend—to Tom Swift Enterprises. “But what I don’t quite get...” He shrugged. “I’m one of the junior trainees in the oceanography course, see. From Omaha? We really weren’t briefed all that extensively about this big operation out here.”
“They have oceanography in Omaha?” asked Bud slyly.
“Now buddy boy,” Chow intervened, “you oughta know they have ocean-oh-graphy all over th’ place. Even in Texas! Why I hear’d the whole blame middle o’ the U.S. useta be under water!”
“Thanks for the lesson, Professor Winkler,” retorted the black-haired youth. “Say, maybe you’d like to answer Dan’s questions, hmm?”
“Oh, I didn’t realize you were one of the scientists, sir,” said Walde, embarrassed. “You must know everything there is to know about all this.”
Chow reddened just a bit—and glared at Bud just a bit. “Wa-aal sure. I’m a perfesser o’ cuisinology, all right. And m’ friend Tom Swift—he’s the one who worked the whole thing out—he gave me a right complete explanation. So what’d you want to know?”
“First of all, why do they call it the SMB?”
“Er, well now, it’s a-cause ‘s’ and ‘m’ and ‘b’ are th’ initials o’ the words. That help?”
“Sure, but what are the words?”
“Why, ‘s,’ that there letter ‘s,’ means subm’rine. Like as, underwater.” The ex-chuck wagon cook was desperately searching his broad, if shallow, memory bank.
“What the professor means to say,” put in Bud, “is that ‘SMB’ stands for SubMoBahn.”
“Sure,” Chow confirmed hastily. “Bahn!—whatcha call a German freeway.”
“More like a German free-for-all,” chuckled Bud. “Anyway, it’s what the news guys call the project. What the Swedes call it, I can’t pronounce!”
Dan nodded and asked Chow if the Swedish government would own the SMB outright upon its completion. Having no idea, but with mouth already open, the cuisinologist essayed an answer. “Y’see now, we got ourselves a full-blooded Swede workin’ at Enterprises, a right smart feller name o’ Arv Hanson.”
“Oh really?” said the trainee in a puzzled voice.
It was Bud to the rescue again. “The Swedish government is paying for the tube-tunnel, along with Denmark and Germany,” he explained. “When it’s finished, I think the plan is for all three to own it together. That Swedish company that pushed the idea will actually operate it, though.”
“That’s right!” confirmed Chow forcefully.
When young Tom Swift had returned to Shopton, New York, after completing his astounding aerial highway in Africa, a tale told in Tom Swift and His Repelatron Skyway, the news of his accomplishment had preceded him, circling the globe at the speed of television and the internet. Awaiting him at Swift Enterprises were official representatives of three governments and an executive from a Swedish firm, Lor-Sofviio Teknos. Tom’s success in Ngombia had revived the moribund prospects of a somewhat similar effort at radical road-building—but this was to be a motorway spanning the hundred-mile stretch of the Baltic Sea separating Germany, at the Danish border, from the southmost tip of Sweden. The challenging project entailed construction of an automotive tunnel beneath the sea!
“I realize you use those Swift water-repelling machines to hold back the water, Mr. Winkler, but some of it’s still mighty hazy,” persisted Walde. “If it’s going to be a real highway, for cars, what about getting air to them down there? What about the tailpipe exhaust?”
“Yeah, and what about th’ fish?” demanded Chow, forgetting momentarily that he himself was the question-answerer.
“Mind if I try for an answer, guys?” asked a friendly voice. Tom Swift ambled into view around a corner, extending a hand to Dan Walde.
“Wow!” gulped the youthful trainee. “I’d hoped to meet you, Mr. Swift—Tom—but I figured you’d be squirreled away somewhere working on equations or something.”
“I manage to come up for air now and then,” Tom remarked with a grin. “In this case, just in time to hear your questions.”
“I’ll leave th’ answers to my young friend an’ ay-sociate,” declared Chow, smug and relieved. “Explainin’ makes fer good practice.”
As was his unconscious habit, the young inventor sketched in the air as he spoke. “I started off calling my invention the DOT—Deep Ocean Transitway. But nobody else calls it that. I’ve given up.”
“SMB sounds a little pizzazzier,” joked Bud.
“I’m sure you know the basics, Dan. The underwater construction workers and technicians, whom Enterprises trained and outfitted, are building a pair of tube-tunnels running side by side to handle the two directions of traffic, eight lanes in each. Set at intervals are special repelatrons, the same kind we developed for the skyway project, sweeping back and forth and tuned to repel the local mix of seawater.”
“I understand that much,” said Walde. “I know your machines have to be carefully calibrated for the precise elements and compounds they’ll be pushing against.”
Tom nodded. “When we set up the helium-extraction hydrodome in the Atlantic, which also uses a repelatron system, we had to set up sensitive sampling devices all over the area to keep the repelatron precisely tuned—even small variations in the mix of substances can weaken or cancel out the repulsion effect.”
“Which is part of what they’s settin’ up here,” added Chow, taking what he thought was only a small risk.
“Well—that’s what we first considered, true,” Tom noted quickly. “But I stumbled across a simpler, yet more precise, approach.”
Bud couldn’t help displaying the privileged insight his best friend always provided him. “That one’s called an aquatometer.”
“Uh-huh. A water-atom measurer, in other words,” confirmed Tom. When Dan asked what was different about it, Tom went on, “The aquatometer doesn’t take in water and analyze it, the way the earlier sampling devices did. Instead it sends out a sort of ‘feeler’ repulsion wave in all directions. It’s too imprecisely attuned to give anything more than an infinitesimal push, but computer enhancement can make something of the back-reaction nevertheless. As the aquatometer runs through the range of settings in a few seconds or so, we assess the different pushes and determine the proportions and general distribution of substances in the local water—many thousands of gallons of it in one sweep!”
“All by ree-mote control, y’might say,” Chow interjected proudly.
Walde indicated that he understood that part of the approach. “I was also wondering about― ”
“I overheard you,” Tom said. “You know all about that little gadget I invented for free divers called the hydrolung, which uses an electronic principle to extract molecules of breathable oxygen from water, directly.” In the transitway tubes, he continued, long flat strips of artificially engineered material ran unbroken from one end to the other, filling a longitudinal slot in the Tomasite plastic that constituted the tunnel walls. “The outward side of the strip is in contact with the ocean water, which it draws in and works its magic on. Oxygen, along with a nitrogen-helium mix, is then exuded from the inner surface into the tunnel. Another strip uses a similar principle to extract unbreathable exhaust—not just the automobile kind, but the human kind.”
“Now tell ’im about the fish,” urged Chow Winkler.
“That’s why we’ve given the tunnels walls of Tomasite plastic,” explained Tom in reply, “rather than just using the sort of nanofilament barrier we use for our hydrodomes. We’re in much more of a ‘fish zone’ in this project, and it’s important to keep marine life, which is mostly unaffected by the ’trons, from poking into the tunnel.”
“Especially during rush hour,” added Bud, a native Californian.
“No offense, Tom, but it still seems kind of dangerous, driving around under water,” observed Dan. “What if you had a seaquake? That’s something we study in my field. If the floor starts rippling, the SMB could just twist apart, couldn’t it?”
“We thought of that,” the youth replied. “As a matter of fact, the tunnels don’t sit right on the bottom, but are suspended at a height of about thirty feet. They’re held up, and also anchored in place, by lengths of transifoil, which can be made to curl or uncurl electronically in response to changing subsea currents or earth movements. Even with a full flow of traffic, the two SMB’s are fairly buoyant, by the way. It doesn’t take much to hold them up.”
“It’s—it’s fantastic!” gulped Walde, eyes wide.
“You’ll get used to it,” Bud assured him.
The four turned to the railing and the sea, and a thoughtful silence descended. “I called it a scientific adventure,” mused the trainee from Omaha. “But I guess it’s more of an engineering challenge, really. Does it also have any practical scientific value?”
“Scientists don’t always limit their research to practical matters.” Tom grinned. “However, this is also a test to prove how our diversuits and underwater construction methods can be used. Think of it as another step in blazing a trail for later field study of the undersea environment firsthand by oceanographers—like you, Dan—and marine biologists. And we hope it may open new possibilities in safe offshore mining and oil prospecting.”
“Some experts even claim man will have to seek new living space under the sea someday,” put in Bud. “Right, Tom?”
“Right. And we may not have a choice. But that day is a long way off, I hope,” added the young inventor with a chuckle.
“A person kin get a mite tired eatin’ nothin’ but fish,” Chow muttered thoughtfully.
Just then a crewman wearing a Tom Swift Enterprises jacket emerged from the escalator hatch nearby and beckoned to Tom. “I’ll leave you three to contemplate the future,” Tom said, excusing himself. “Looks like the present is calling.”
As Tom approached, the crewman said, “Tom, they want you down in Communications right away.”
“Message for me?”
“Somebody important, they said.”
In the communications room below deck, the chief officer greeted Tom and indicated a red light flashing rapidly on the control panel of the Swifts’ private satellite-linked TV network. Tom flicked on the videophone monitor. Blake, Enterprises’ Washington DC telecaster, appeared on the screen.
“Hi there,” grinned the young inventor. “We haven’t spoken for a while.”
But Blake did not return the greeting. “This may be important, Skipper,” the telecaster said in sober tones. “John Thurston has something to show you.”
Thurston, a calm-faced, balding official of the United States Central Intelligence Agency, stepped into view before the camera. “Hello, Tom. Everything proceeding smoothly on your underwater roadway?”
“You probably know that better than I do, sir.”
The CIA section chief smiled slightly. “Well, one mustn’t rely completely on intelligence work. At any rate, I’ve received something interesting by way of Bernt Ahlgren.”
Tom raised an eyebrow. Not long before Tom had worked with Ahlgren when a man-made threat from space had endangered the world. The agent worked with, but not for, the CIA, and had described himself as a communications expert. The simple mention of his name signaled danger! “What’s up?”
“Take a look at this.” Thurston held up a photographic print, and Blake switched to a closeup so that it filled the video screen. “By showing this to you, Tom, I’m trusting your solemn word that none of this matter—none!—will become public knowledge.” Tom gave his promise in response.
The print showed what appeared to be a stylized drawing of a figure wearing a Roman soldier’s helmet sinking head downward into water. Tom studied the image intently for a long moment. “What is it?” he asked.
“Ahlgren’s people picked it up yesterday from an untraceable satellite transmission on a channel we’ve been monitoring.”
“How was it transmitted? Video signal?”
“No—digitized in a ciphered format we’ve been able to break. This is the output; we’ve got the actual number-string under top security. We’re sure that channel is being utilized by some sort of espionage cell operating in Europe. We know essentially nothing about them, but our European colleagues have reason to suspect a terrorist action in the making.”
“Good gosh!” muttered Tom. “You don’t know who they are?”
“For convenience we’ve labeled them GOG-Image. ‘GOG’ has become a common classification term in the intelligence community—Group of Guys, believe it or not.”
“Have you doped out anything about what the image might signify?”
“I’m afraid not. We’ve been working all night to try to link the image, which may be some sort of insignia, to agent groups we’ve penetrated. We’ve come up dry, Tom. It may be a trigger message.”
With a slight hesitation, the youth made a suggestion. “How about Collections? Do they have a take on it?” This was the nickname of a highly secretive government agency dedicated to technological threats of the gravest kind. Tom had received information from the group on several occasions, marveling at their unaccountable ability to uncover secrets that their possessors wished desperately to remain covered.
Thurston responded quickly—and coolly. “Let’s keep our discussion focused, please. What we have here is an unknown threat, perhaps a command for immediate action, being passed along in electronic disguise.”
“And you think Enterprises might be able to help you figure out what it means?” The young inventor was troubled by the request. “Mr. Thurston, I don’t know if codebreaking is considered a science, but we sure don’t have a department for it at Enterprises.”
“Then you might give some thought to starting one,” Thurston stated bluntly. “Because if your Swift science can’t drag some information out of this little picture, hundreds of lives could be lost by the end of the week!”
TOM SWIFT was thunderstruck by Mr. Thurston’s words—and horrified at the thought of the responsibility being placed upon his shoulders! “Sir, I—I don’t know what to― ”
The section chief overrode him. “I’ll use three-channel fractionated encryption to transmit the complete string of digits—to your Shopton office, I presume. The string consists of eleven repetitions of the same identical sequence; the image, in other words. Reiteration of that kind is common as a way to get around the minor disruptions of natural interference—static.”
Tom had already commenced mulling over the problem. “Which implies that they needed to get the image across with absolute precision.”
“Correct. Ahlgren thinks something in the underlying formatting data must act as the cipher-key to the real message. But it may involve obscure mathematical transformation formulas that you might be familiar with in your scientific work. We’ll continue to work on it, naturally. But Bernt thinks it’s vital to pull you into the loop, and I agree!”
“Then I’ll do my best, Mr. Thurston. I’ll arrange to be back in Shopton by mid-afternoon, your time.” Somewhat uneasy, Tom considered whether he wanted to provide Thurston, and the CIA, with direct access to his research and invention files. Deciding, Tom asked that Blake switch over to an electronic data-ceiver that could record complex information in a matter of nanoseconds, to be relayed on to Shopton by the trusted, long time employee. “Blake, I’m sending you the access sequence that opens my secured server at the plant. Go ahead and send Blake the complete image data, Mr. Thurston, and I’ll begin work on it as soon as I get there.”
“We knew you would, Tom. I’ll send you everything we have. But I beg you—remember your promise of secrecy. Give out no more information than is absolutely essential. You never know what tiny scrap of data might put someone’s life at stake.”
Bud and Chow were amazed when Tom informed them that he would be flying home to Shopton within the hour, and their amazement turned to dismay when the youth proceeded to summarize—vaguely, with a view to keeping his word—the worrisome situation. “I’ll take the Sky Queen back,” Tom explained. “It’s due here soon from the Fearing training facility with the next squad of the Swedish company’s subsea workers. We’ll make Enterprises the return destination instead of Fearing Island.”
“You said ‘I.’ Seems to me that nice big Flying Lab has room for quite a few ‘we’s, pal,” objected Bud.
“Sorry, flyboy, but while I’m away I need you here on the Charger. The new diving crew is inexperienced. They may have questions you can answer easily. You’ve been dealing with the hydrolung diversuit since I invented it.”
As Bud nodded reluctant agreement, Chow piped up: “Wa-aal, brand my calamari, boss, you can’t say that about ole Chow—I can’t even fit inside them plastic shark suits. So I’m goin’ back with you—and don’t bother arguin’, son.” Tom didn’t.
Designed by Swift Enterprises for oceanic research of all kinds, the Sea Charger’s deck was as big as that of an aircraft carrier. It could easily accommodate the huge three-level Flying Lab as the wingless craft settled to a stop on its vertical-thrust jet lifters. Tom welcomed the dozen new workers, and within ten minutes the Sky Queen was again in supersonic flight.
The skyship was taking the great-circle route to North America, bringing it over the island nation of Iceland. As he stood musingly by the tall windows of the upper-deck lounge, he gazed down at the rugged terrain of sparkling white and half-hearted green. “You know, Diana,” he remarked to one of the crew, on break and reading a magazine, “Iceland is the one big stretch of land on Earth where the mantle layer, the layer below the crust, protrudes out into the open. This whole sub-Arctic region of the North Atlantic is folded and upthrust.”
“Mm-hmm,” was Diana Mulvey’s fascinated response. “Tom, could a person really make a bullet out of ice? You think?” She glanced up over the edge of her crime-fiction magazine to see Tom shrug. It seemed both minds were otherwise occupied.
Landing at Enterprises, Tom immediately went to his fully equipped personal laboratory, which adjoined the Flying Lab’s underground hangar. Thurston’s relayed transmission awaited him, and he worked on it for hours, calling in the plant’s resident expert in higher mathematics, Omicron Kupp, for whatever obscure help he could provide.
At last, brain-weary, he left for a late dinner at the Swift home with his family. Maybe it’ll recharge me, he thought, frustrated. He had made no progress.
Slender, attractive Anne Swift tried not to show alarm over her son’s story—ominous enough even when related in polite generalities. Tom, who knew how his mother worried over his usually hazardous scientific adventures, did his best to reassure her. Danger was nothing new to the Swift family, beginning with Tom’s same-named great-grandfather a century before.
After a delicious fried chicken dinner, Tom and his father spent some time discussing the Baltic Sea project and the “drowning Roman” image. All Tom’s life father and son had worked as a team, and Tom knew John Thurston wouldn’t expect him to withhold the details of the grave matter from the man who had taught and inspired him. “I sure wish I knew how to go forward, Dad,” Tom said. “This makes deciphering the Space Friends’ symbols seem easy.”
Damon Swift nodded, but chuckled with wry understanding. “Allow me to disagree, son. I suspect it will prove easier to crack a code created by our own species than something cooked up by extraterrestrials—whose thoughts are a cipher from the start!”
The two scientist-inventors batted around ideas for a time, but Tom finally trudged upstairs to his bedroom. Even then his churning mind would not allow him to sleep. He switched on his computer and accessed the data on his secured server at Enterprises.
He stared blankly at the image for a time. Then, abruptly, things became much less blank! “Good night!” he breathed excitedly. “All along I’ve been looking for a verbal message in the underlying code string. But what if the message isn’t words but another image?”
Instantly Tom began to follow the lead. He now sought clues to line-morphing commands hidden inside the number string—and found them! Running the new routine, he was rewarded by the sight of the Roman becoming weirdly distorted, as if inscribed on tortured rubber. Soon it was unrecognizable. “Topological transform matrices,” he muttered—cryptically.
Yet when the morphing hesitated, Tom could make nothing of the jumble of lines and curves that filled the monitor. The transmission static must’ve scrambled the data sequence beyond recovery, he told himself despairingly.
“Gosh, that’s it!” he almost shouted. “It’s the perfect disguise!” He and the others had been seeking systematic variations from segment to segment, the giveaway sign of a code being transmitted in serialized form. But the seemingly random static interference would be expected to vary over the eleven image repetitions. The bursts of apparent “interference” hadn’t been included in the code analysis!
Tom plunged into the problem with renewed energy and solved it in a few Swift minutes. A new image appeared on the screen—and this one made sense! “It’s a map!”
But a map of what? There were no words, no numbers, no lines of latitude or longitude, no compass indications. The simple diagram showed an irregular, somewhat circular feature that resembled a lake, with long, wandering lines of varying thickness spreading out from it in all directions. Could they represent rivers? Here and there were sets of thin-lined elliptical figures, many of them nested inside other larger ones. Elevation markings? Variations in climate or temperature?
Was it a map after all?
Tom’s bed suddenly looked very inviting. “Well,” he told himself, “at least now we have something!—I think.”
The next morning Tom remained home but contacted John Thurston with the news of his progress, using his ultra-secure Private Ear Radio. Thurston was delighted and grateful, but forcefully urged the young inventor to remain in Shopton to work on the problem, using all the available resources of Swift Enterprises even as Thurston’s own team plunged into work on the new angle. “I’d planned to, sir, for a few more days, at least,” he reassured the CIA leader. “But at some point I’ll either solve it or reach a stopping point, and Enterprises is contractually bound to provide technical supervision at the Baltic site. Lives will be at stake there, too—and that’s not just guesswork!”
“I understand, Tom. We can live with that.”
A full day at home of stretching, crunching, twisting, and rotating the maplike diagram brought forth no conclusion. It couldn’t be made to correspond to any geographical feature, anywhere. Tom had to consider that he might be on the wrong track. But all his instincts decreed otherwise.
That night brought some welcome relaxation as Bashalli Prandit joined the Swift family for supper, as she often did. Tom always looked forward to her breezy—and bracing—personality.
“How soon will this new northern ‘chunnel’ be connected up, Thomas?” asked Bashalli. “I assume I shall be invited to the ribbon tying ceremoney?”
“Ribbon cutting,” Tom corrected her with a warm smile. “And yes, of course you will. The whole family will.”
“You heard him say it, Sandra, my dear,” remarked the young Pakistani with a twinkle. “I have at last made the family.”
In the middle of lively conversation in the living room, the foyer telephone rang.
“For you, Tom—it’s Chow,” Sandy reported.
Tom was surprised. “He told me he was going to check out that new French restaurant tonight. Wonder what’s up.”
“No doubt he found a snail in his appetizer,” Bashalli suggested has Tom headed for the phone.
“Boss, you gotta come over here right away!” the Texan babbled excitedly, trying with minimal success to keep his gravelly tones even closer to the gravel. “Sumpin’s goin’ on, and I shor don’t mean any o’ them purty-fer-grass French snails!”
Tom was instantly alert. “Okay, pardner. But what is it? Where are you calling from?”
“Can’t explain now, but I’m at that classy French restaurant I toldja about, over here in the hoity-toity section—you know, Carlopa Heights. The Quel Fromage. But lissen, don’t go callin’ in th’ posse, cause it’ll make him bolt fer sure!”
“Make who bolt?”
“Cain’t talk now. Hustle here fast, boss, ’cause the varmint may leave soon!”
Tom heard the receiver click. He returned to the living room. “It seems Chow’s trapped a varmint in a French restaurant. Sorry, but I― ”
“—have to leave,” finished Sandy, sourly.
Bashalli had a wry suggestion. “Perhaps he should have it printed on cards.”
Meanwhile, Chow hurried back to his table, brushing his considerable broadside, for the fourth time, against the low-cut back of a widely seated woman. “Sorry there, ma’am,” he muttered, ignoring her glare. “Tables’re a mite close, ain’t they?”
Clumping down at his own elegantly appointed table, the ex-Texan sat fidgeting impatiently. His quarry—a wiry, muscular-looking man with a dangly mustache and tinted glasses—was seated some distance away with two companions. Chow craned for a better look, but his view was partly blocked. He could see the man only in profile.
“Brand my turkey giblets, they’ve finished that blame fancy dee-sert,” the Texan fretted. “I gotta get a squint at that hombre’s face! They’ll be gone afore Tom gets here!”
“Monsieur is enjoying his crepes suzette?”
“Huh?” Chow looked up with a start and saw a waiter hovering at his shoulder. “Oh—er—sure, sure! It’s a great suzette all right. Allus in th’ mood fer good flapjacks, even little bitty ones like these here.” Chow reached for more sauce to put over the sugar-powdered pancakes, but instead he absent-mindedly picked up the vinegar and proceeded to pour it on lavishly.
“Monsieur is most venturesome.” The waiter raised his eyebrows, shrugged expressively, and glided away.
The man in tinted glasses and his two companions were now dabbing their lips with napkins as if about to leave. In desperation, Chow got up and headed toward the suspect’s table, intending to walk boldly past for a close look—again a collision course with the seated woman, whose delicate-framed glasses suddenly dived soupward from her less than delicate nose. But as he approached, the man suddenly turned around to speak to someone at the table behind him. The Texan could see little more than the back of the man’s head.
Aaa ding dang! Shoulda stayed put, thought Chow. Coulda seen him perfect.
Fuming, he returned bumpingly to his own table, then saw that the suspect was now facing his dinner companions again.
“Make up your golsarn mind, buster!” Chow steamed.
Once more, Chow started toward his quarry’s table. The seated woman had now migrated to the opposite side of her table—which hélas turned out to be on Chow’s new route.
“Sir! Must you?”
“Wa-aal shor! You should allus say you’re sorry when you thwack someb’dy’s backside.” That gussied-up lady musta been born in a barn! he told himself.
Several other diners looked annoyed as the pudgy, bowlegged cowpoke maneuvered his bay window past their chairs for the umpteenth time, and the waiters looked on helplessly, with horrified fainting looming on the horizon. And again, as Chow approached, the mustached man turned around to resume chatting with the person behind him!
Chow’s face was now perspiring furiously. The man’s companions—one a woman, the other a burly, fat-faced fellow—stared up at him.
“Say there! You looking for someone, friend?” the burly man asked in a needling voice.
“Mebbe I am an’ mebbe I ain’t,” Chow snarled. He walked slowly past, peering back over his shoulder in hope that the mustached man would turn around again.
Kee-rash! A trayful of dishes and silver went flying in all directions as Chow collided with a waiter. Chow staggered back from the impact, tripped over a diner’s foot, and fell back flat onto the floor.
“Nom de nom!” the waiter wailed in genuine French terror as he gestured toward the prairie wild man on his floor.
Chow grasped the extended hand. “Nice t’ meet ya, Nomdy. Chow Winkler.” He quickly added: “Oh yeah—sorry. Can’t fergit that!”
“Haw, haw, haw!” The burly man roared with glee. “That’s what happens when you don’t watch where you’re going, fat boy!”
“Now jest a corn-shuckin’ minute, you smart French-fried so-an’-so!” Using the waiter’s hand to brace himself, which yanked the waiter into a near somersault, Chow struggled to his feet. Salad dressing, genuine Mode Francais du Poupon Megiariffe, wormed down his head and face. “If it’s trouble you’re lookin’ for― ”
The mustached man suddenly rose from his chair and exclaimed, “Shut up and wipe off your big barndoor face, you loudmouthed range bum!”
“Range bum!” Rumbling with full-throated rage, Chow mopped the salad dressing from his eyes and tried to focus on his enemy. “Yew hear what he said, lady? ― Naw, not you, ma’am, the fat one b’hind you.”
Finally finding his adversary somewhere on the other side of the dressing, he barked ominously:
“Take off them glasses, an I’ll show you who’s a range bum, mister!”
THE DROWNING ROMAN
AT THAT moment of drama—high noon at night!—Tom was tooling through downtown Shopton in his bronze sports car, powered by the silent electricity of a Swift solar battery. Arriving in the Carlopa Heights district, Tom’s dashboard guide-map directed him to the Quel Fromage restaurant, where he ignored the frowning valet and slid into a parking space on his own.
Inside, the restaurant was in an uproar. Most of the diners had left their tables and were crowded in a half-circle around the far end of the room. Tom noticed one woman in particular—wide, handsome, dignified, and somewhat elderly. She was half-crouching, money in her hand, as if rapidly laying bets on changing odds.
Loud grunts and exclamations could be heard. “That’s the stuff, baldy!” one of the onlookers called out. “You’ve got him now!”
“Good grief, what’s going on?” Tom gasped. Did he mean Chow?
The youth burrowed through the animated crowd, then stopped in amazement. Chow and a mustached man were seated at a table, sleeves rolled up and engaged in an arm wrestling contest! Both their faces were beaded with perspiration.
Suddenly Chow forced his opponent’s arm to the table and crowed in panting triumph, “Gotcha, Duke!”
“Okay, okay, cowboy—you win.”
Just then Chow caught sight of Tom. “Hi, buckaroo!” he bellowed. “Step up an’ meet Duke Tyler, former arm-rasslin’ champ o’ Brazos County, Texas!”
Grinning with disbelief, Tom shook hands with the mustached man.
“But—er—what about that fellow you wanted me to see, Chow?” Tom inquired.
Chow, meekly embarrassed, gave a sheepish chuckle. “Oh yeah, wa-aal, that. It was jest my ole range pal, Duke, from years back on th’ Horton spread. Only I didn’t reckernize him behind them cheaters—an’ also he’s growed a mustache since I seen him last. Got a little gut on ’im, too.”
“Still got m’ hair, though, Chow-boy.”
“That ya do, Duke.”
As the crowd returned to their tables, dazed waiters found Tom a chair and he sat down with Chow, Duke Tyler, and Duke’s two companions, one of whom, namely the woman, turned out to be Mrs. Tyler.
Tom’s expression told the big chef he needed to commence an explanation fast.
“It’s like this, Tom. I ’as here eatin’ this pitiful food when I catch this voice goin’ off across the restaurant, right loud. It was Duke, but I didden know it—said some stuff about ‘Tom Swift an’ his big funnel’ an’ how you was jest wet b’hind the ears an’ how he wanted t’go on over t’ Sweden an’ take you down a peg.”
“Had me a few drinks gullied down,” Duke muttered apologetically. “No offense. Big talk.”
“Born in Texas,” noted Mrs. Tyler.
Chow continued, “Some more o’ that big talk an’ I was allfired sure he was one o’ them enemies that always turn up whenever you got something goin’ on, boss. So― ”
The young inventor gave his friend a reassuring smile. “So you decided to play detective.”
“Uh-huh. Afore he had a chance t’ pull anything.”
A pretty girl in a pretty skimpy outfit, who had been walking around with a dainty camera, sidled up to the table and purred, “Monsieurs, if you’d care to remember this awfully exciting evening at Quel Fromage, here are some glossy photos of the big match that I took.” As Tom reached for them, she went on, “And they’re only $7.99 each. We can supply copies, incidentally.”
Tom jovially purchased the set and divvied them up, keeping one for himself to show to his family and Bud. As he slipped it into his pocket he said to Chow with a chuckle, “Thanks for looking after me. It was a great try, pard, and I sure appreciate it. But after this maybe you’d better leave the detecting to Harlan Ames.”
“That’s our plant police feller,” Chow explained to the others. “Knows his business.”
Tom briefly excused himself to call home, leaving Chow happily swapping reminiscences with his friend. An hour later they all bid one another goodnight.
As Tom and Chow headed for the door, the young inventor said softly, “I spoke to the owner when I made my call, Chow. I offered to pay for any damages—after all, you were acting as my personal representative, in a way!”
“Thanks much, son. But lookee, I prob’ly helped their word o’ mouth. Nothin’ s’good fer advertisin’ as a little excitement!”
“Well, that headwaiter looks like he’d like to brain you with a leg of lamb!” retorted Tom.
“Aw, no, that’s Mr. Nom. He looks that heartburn sorta way all the time. Adios, Nomdy!” Chow called across the crowded room. “Don’t let the bugs bite!”
Before retiring Tom made a PER call to Bud aboard the Sea Charger, on the side of the earth where it was late morning. He told Bud the story of Chow’s exploit, and could easily imagine his pal shaking with laughter. “Man oh man! Wish I’d been there to see it, genius boy!” Bud exclaimed.
“I’ll show you the photo. How’s the new work team?”
Bud answered, “They’re fine—Zim did a great job with ’em on Fearing.” Zimby Cox was a veteran sub pilot who had been assigned to head up the training program at the tiny islet that served as the Swift Enterprises base for spacecraft and submersibles. “I’ll be down in the tube with them tomorrow, though. That guy Alix Tuundvar—something like that—says his crew’s been having on-the-spot questions about how to maneuver the diversuits near the repelatrons.”
“Which you know all about. I know you’ll be a great help, chum.”
The next morning, as Tom and his father sat discussing the SubMoBahn project in their shared office, Harlan Ames came striding in from the Security office next door. A newspaper was folded under his arm. “Got something you two will want to look at.”
“Is that the Shopton Evening Bulletin?” asked Mr. Swift.
“No, this is a real newspaper—from that big town with the initials NYC.” Beckoning Tom over, Ames spread the front page on Damon Swift’s desk. Its screaming yet ever-dignified headline read:
STATUE SHIP SINKS OFF NORWEGIAN COAST;
The first paragraphs of the story described how the big vessel, an oil-freighting supertanker, had foundered in the Norwegian Sea off Alesund. The cause of the event was unknown as yet, though there were no signs of a collision with another vessel. “All hands were rescued, thank goodness,” murmured Tom’s father.
“I read about this just the other day,” declared Tom. “In addition to oil, they were carrying a large cargo of valuable statuary from the State Museum in Trondheim to Greece, from where they’d been ‘borrowed’ during the Greek civil war fifty years ago. One of the statues is pretty famous—the Delian Apollo.” The crewcut youth glanced up at Ames. “Bad news, but why did you want us to know about this?”
“They’ll probably ask Enterprises to assist with the salvage job as we’ve done before,” the security chief said. “But that’s not the main reason. Notice the name of the ship?”
Mr. Swift shrugged. “The Centurion.”
“Wait—I get it!” exclaimed Tom. “Harlan’s suggesting it could tie in with the ‘drowning Roman’ image!”
“Hmm.” Mr. Swift frowned thoughtfully. “A centurion was a Roman military officer in the days of empire—that fits, all right. Which implies that the group behind the transmission knew beforehand that the ship was doomed.”
“Sure, because they’d planted a bomb aboard!” Tom reasoned. “The drawing authenticated the transmission, like a ‘watermark,’ for the recipients—probably a diving crew waiting in the area—and the ciphered map must show precisely where she’d be sunk. They could be planning to retrieve the statues in order to finance...” At a warning look from his father, Tom finished with: “—some kind of criminal activity!”
“That’s my thinking as well,” stated Ames.
Tom frowned. “But... there’s a piece that doesn’t quite fit. In trying for a match I pulled up topographical info from all over the world. And that includes ocean-floor topography. I specifically remember that those waters were covered, yet the diagram contours didn’t correspond to anything in the area.”
“Nevertheless, fellows, I’m treating this as a lead.” Ames promised that he would speak to John Thurston immediately. “By the way—don’t strain your brains trying to keep the terrorist business secret from me. Thurston’s made me a part of the knowing circle, as of this morning.”
“Sorry, Harlan,” said Tom.
Tom made further studies of the transmission, trying vainly to interpret the maplike diagram. He stayed into the evening, Chow bringing him a light dinner and some disapproving looks. But at last Tom abandoned the effort and headed homeward. “I’ll give it tomorrow,” he told himself. “But then it’s back to the Sea Charger.” He hadn’t felt it necessary to inform the Swedish firm managing the SMB construction, Lor-Sofviio, of his brief absence. “But if they try to reach me and I’m not there, it’ll give me one more problem to juggle.”
Tom’s thoughts were scattered by the bleep of the car cellphone. He answered—but no one replied on the other end.
Yet there were sounds after all. Tom suddenly realized what he was hearing. Sobbing!
“Sandy? What’s― ”
“Ohhh—oh Tom. They called here, and I—I—The project—the sea tube—s-something terrible! And, and― ”
An instinct told Tom Swift exactly what his sister was about to say! “Bud! What’s happened to Bud?”
WHEN Bud Barclay had said tomorrow to Tom, he hadn’t mentioned that “tomorrow” on the Baltic Sea would start for him before dawn. The sky was still black with a touch of cream when the Charger’s sea elevator—a repelatron descent platform Tom had devised nicknamed a bubblevator—was swung out over the gray waters to lower the athletic youth to the fore-end of the growing SMB, now within twenty miles of its destination on the German coast.
“Glad I am to have experienced this already,” remarked one of Bud’s companions, Rutgar Spirss, as the frigid waters closed in around them. “But the first time, on your island, my eyes were ready to jump out of my head.”
“An elevator made out of a bubble,” murmured Alix Tuundvar, chief of the work crew. “I do assume, Bud, that we do not need to seal our diversuits to enter the tube-tunnel?”
Bud nodded. “Our own repelatron bubble will overlap the air space at the open end of the tube.”
“This, I already knew!” piped up Rutgar with a laugh. “I did my homework. The repelatron spaces merge together like water droplets, Alix. One merely walks across—dryly!”
The SubMoBahn was brightly lit, as far as the eye could see, by the diamond rays of a line of powerful Swift Searchlights. It was an awesome sight, yet also eerie, like some glowing sea-snake stretching on for miles in the violet-tinged black. Only one of the paired tubeways was near completion. Construction on the second one, to run alongside, had scarcely commenced at the distant Sweden terminus.
The bubblevator touched down and the three strode through the intangible, invisible membrane of nanofilaments that helped control the humidity of the airspace, so near to the ocean’s waters. This newest segment of the SMB was alive with human activity, which proceeded in shifts round the clock. Technicians and construction workers roiled back and forth across the eight-lane highway.
“But now I’m surprised!” exclaimed Rutgar. “They have already painted the lines on the pavement? One would think the pavement would come at the end of it all, after both tubes are completed. Hmm?”
It was Alix’s turn to look wise. “Now now, Spirss, it isn’t pavement, you know, but textured plastic, set down by that wheeled machine over there next to Biede.”
“It’s like a coarse fabric—Tomasite burlap,” explained Bud. “Car tires grip it better than asphalt. It even has some ‘give,’ to smooth the ride.”
“Hah!” snorted Rutgar. “Who needs tires!”
The other members of Alix Tuundvar’s crew soon joined them, all clad in their diversuits, their contoured full-face visors hanging open on their chests. As their suboceanic work was to be done some several miles north of current construction, they crowded into four of the midget electric vehicles manufactured by Enterprises’ Shopton affiliate, the Swift Construction Company. The group of nanocars hummed off up the SubMoBahn at high speed.
“Okay, guys, here we are,” signaled Bud presently. “Access hatch 79.” The little convoy braked to a halt and the men clustered around Tuundvar, awaiting his instructions.
“As you know,” he began, “we are to make adjustments to the cables of transifoil which hold us up above the bottom and anchor us there. They must bend and curl in a coordinated manner, adjusting to currents and any motion in the seafloor, may God forbid. Also, we must naturally keep the roadway perfectly level, eh? And so the calibration― ”
A sudden sharp motion by Bud caused the crew chief to break off in surprise. The young Californian said nothing, but the intent expression on his face flashed an obvious sign of alert. He was staring further up the brightly lit SMB tunnel, which ran to the horizon.
One of the men followed Bud’s gaze. “Up there—what is it?”
“What is what?” demanded Alix.
Rutgar squinted into the distance. “Far away in the tube. Look now, Tuundvar—see it? Something flimmerting? At the end?”
“The air...” murmured Bud. “Where’s this wind coming from, anyway?” Suddenly his face turned white as he answered his own question! “Jetz! Get back in the nanos and turn ’em around! Everyone! Peel out!”
Startled into action, the men rushed to comply—except their leader, who held back with a frown. “Kindly inform me― ”
Bud jumped forward and yanked the Swede toward his seat in the nanocar with tough muscles. “Get in here! Good grief, don’t you get it? The tube’s collapsing!”
It was a concept they could all grasp—instantly. Rubber squeeled on Tomasite as the nanos struggled to reverse direction, and they began streaking back toward the tube-end at frantic speed. They were pursued by surging, unrelenting danger from the further reaches of the SMB, a wall of high-pressure seawater. Still miles away, it was closing on them with every second, driving the air in the tube ahead of it.
“What—what shall happen?” choked Alix. “To ourselves, to the others? Can we outrun it?”
“I don’t think so,” grated Bud. “Although—if the air pressure builds up enough to― ” But then he remembered how much counter-pressure would be required to halt the advancing deluge in its tracks. And what such pressure would do to fragile humans! “No... the walls’ll pop like balloons! The trons are only tuned to water, not air.” The youth clicked on his radiocom and broadcast a shrill emergency tone. “This is Barclay! Evacuate the tube immediately! Anybody with a diversuit, seal up and jet as far away as you can. The rest of you― ” Did the suitless workers have any hope of survival? “Divide up among the bubblevators and make for the surface. The SMB is flooding and it’s headed your way! You’ve only got seconds!”
Bud glanced in the rearview mirror, dreading what he would see. Dread was rewarded: the driving, foaming water-wall was now only a few hundred yards behind them!
The tunnel was filled with a shrill roaring sound, high-pitched—fingernails raking a chalkboard. “You see, the tube is becoming a whistle,” muttered Rutgar through the communicator built into his sealed facemask.
“Can we do nothing?” Alix asked Bud. “If we go out into the sea, through a hatchway― ”
“Jetz, we can’t even slow down, much less stop!” barked Bud. “Everyone, make sure you’ve switched on your hydrolungs. Get ready to jump. When the water hits, don’t fight it, go with it. Kick free of the nanos and try to use your suit jets to guide you. Keep to the middle of the tube. If you—if you make it to the end, jet out into open water at top speed, right through the Inertite barrier. Remember, your suits are made to resist force and pressure, and they’ll cushion you, too.”
“Nice. Oh, but, you see...” A calm smile on his face, Rutgar twitched the tiniest of shrugs. “It is here.”
There was little reason to consider safe driving and the rules of the road. Bud twisted about and stared behind him. The water was so close on his tail that he could almost see his face staring back at him!
He had time to take the barest, briefest glance forward. The cars were nearing the end of the tube. Bud could see the abandoned machinery, and a few figures frantically elbowing onto the several bubblevators that serviced the site. Beyond that, the open end of the tube yawned wide, the worklights reflected from the glassy surface of water held back by repelatron force—which, by the design of the SMB, was only directed outwards!
Oddly enough, the column of hurtling water behind them never touched the nanos. The front of pressurized air, pile-driven before it, was finally strong enough to cannon vehicles and occupants into the open space of the tubeway, which was almost as high, along the middle, as it was wide. Bud kicked free of the tumbling nanocar, made a desperate effort to streamline his body like a diver—a horizontal one!—and slammed violently into the high blue-gray cliff that was, simply, the Baltic Sea.
It was at the top of the stratosphere, hurling itself eastward at multimach speed, that news of Bud Barclay’s fate reached Tom, hunched forward in the wide cockpit of the Sky Queen. “Tom, this is Captain Jacobs,” came the radio voice, crisply professional. “I wanted to be the one to tell you― ”
“Tell me!” Tom snapped.
“Barclay’s alive. He’s okay. A jetrocopter is bringing him back.”
“Th—thank― ” Then Tom fell silent. Jacobs was saying something about false reports, inital confusion, apology. It went unheard. For a moment Tom Swift could not speak. At the sound of blubbering behind him, Tom reached back and patted what lay within reach—a Texas beltline.
Jacobs continued, “Good thing this big ship has a big infirmary, Tom. It’s mighty full-up.”
“Any casualties, sir?”
“None. Injuries, though—bruises, hypothermia, a broken arm, two concussions. Plain old water packs quite a punch when you hit it the wrong way, hmm? A few near-drownings, obviously. Barclay was one of the unconscious ones; we tracked him from the chopper with instruments as he just jetted along underwater like a torpedo. Not a care in the world. But now he’s complaining, they tell me.”
The Flying Lab made it to the deck of the Sea Charger in record time, however slow that time felt to those passing through it. Tom’s reunion with his best friend below deck was emotional.
“Hey, Tom, let up!” Bud yiped. “Ouch! Every bone and joint in my body has something to say!”
“Buddy Boy, what th’ ding-danged flyin’ sea monkeys happened to you folks down there?” Chow Winkler demanded, wiping his bag-laden eyes. “They make it sound like the blame tunnel jest got squozed-up like a toothpaste tube!”
“I don’t exactly know what happened,” Bud said. “Just ‘water, water, everywhere’.”
“No one does,” declared Tom gravely. “Not yet. I’ve been getting updates from the ship ever since I left Shopton, but all we know right now is that SMB-A is ruined from one end to the other. We have hydrolung divers inspecting it section by section.”
One of the workers from Enterprises, a friend of Tom’s named Dick Hampton, stirred in his nearby hospital bed. “Tom, do you mean it’s flooded?”
“Not just flooded,” the young inventor corrected him; “but completely wrecked. As the water surged in at some point in the middle, the advancing pressure blew the sides out and basically peeled the thing like a banana! All that’s left are Tomasite shreds, empty-handed lengths of transifoil, and eight lanes of ‘wet conditions’!”
“Good night, Skipper, how could it happen?” fretted Bud. “You told me the repelatrons had all sorts of emergency backups, and each unit was independent of the rest in terms of power.”
“Right, pal, thanks to the neutronamos.” Tom explained that as successive sections of the tube walls failed, the repelatrons were knocked out of orientation, no longer squarely focused on the surrounding ocean. “Remember, these are not the all-directional models, like we use at Helium City and on the bubblevators. We had to use focused beam-type generators because we couldn’t risk the possibility that the field would affect water in the cars—or in people, for that matter.”
“Yeah—a safety feature!” The black-haired youth’s words were ironic and bitter.
“But now lissen boys, that ain’t the whole story,” Chow objected. “I mean t’ say, what started it? How’d the first o’ them ree-pellers get fouled up, hunh?”
“Great question, pardner,” replied Tom. “Offhand, I don’t see how any of them could have failed without deliberate interference.”
“And you don’t have to be a ‘genius boy’ to know who that means!” Bud snorted. “Those ‘drowning Roman’ guys must’ve got wind that Tom Swift was on their tail.”
But Tom shook his head thoughtfully, unconvinced. “It would be no surprise for the plotters to have found out they’d been busted. But I’ve pretty well finished my part in it, now. How does destroying the SMB project help them? Whatever brand of crazed fanatics they might be, would they risk the exposure of their whole operation for personal revenge? Unless...” He was rubbing his chin now. “Unless the SMB was the mystery target all along! —But then where does the Centurion come in?”
Tom’s comment gave raise to a pair of puzzled looks, which Chow gave a voice to. “Who’s comin’ in?”
“Haven’t had a chance to tell you or Bud,” responded Tom. “It’s a new wrinkle.”
“Uh-huh. Brand my space biscuits, I got a few new ones myself!”
Speaking in low tones, Tom gave an account of the foundering of the supertanker and Harlan Ames’s suspicions. When he had finished, Bud whistled softly. “We’ve fought shipwrecking pirates before.”
“That’s what they say about pirates an’ rustlers an’ the like,” Chow stated. “Beat ’em once, beat ’em twice, they don’t never give it up, no-how! Sumpin in the blood.”
Tom spent some time speaking with the other men and women in the infirmary, thanking them and giving such comfort and information as he could manage.
Presently an intercommed request called the young inventor to the ship’s communications center.
“This is Mr. Swift?” asked the accented voice on the radiocom speaker.
“Yes, this is Tom Swift, Mr. Sondriesson.” Tom had a gulp in his voice. The Chief Executive Officer of Lor-Sofviio Teknos, the Swedish firm in overall charge of the SMB project, had never been less than pleasant, but Tom didn’t relish having to give an account of the suboceanic catastrophe.
“It seems you have encountered a difficult situation beneath the sea.”
“How much have you been told, Mr. Sondriesson?”
“I wish you to proceed as if the answer to your question is, nothing. Do go ahead, won’t you?”
“I’m happy to, sir. I just want you to understand that we know very little at this point.”
Hegg Sondriesson responded a bit too quickly. “Yes, but what I already know is most interesting. Your transitway corridor has collapsed, has it not? And it seems this incident may very well constitute the end of the project. A total loss for Lor-Sofviio, for Sweden and Germany, for the investors of many countries. Is my account accurate thus far?”
“Yes sir. I’m afraid it is.”
“Then it seems we are on the same page. As it is said.” The man’s voice suddenly hardened. “And so, Tom, tell me why we should not hold you and Swift Enterprises responsible for the negligence that produced this disaster!”
CRYSTAL BALL QUEST
TOM SWIFT was stung by the CEO’s words. “Negligence! Mr. Sondriesson― ”
“My choice of words is hardly inappropriate, my young man, when we review the facts. Was Swift Enterprises not hired to provide scientific expertise, training, consultation? Were you yourself not obliged to provide direct oversight of the technical aspects of construction?”
“That’s absolutely true, sir,” conceded Tom. “Obviously, I can’t claim to have done a great job, given what happened.”
“Ah, ‘given what happened’—yes. And indeed, given that you were not even present to do your job! For I must tell you, Tom, we have been informed that you were away from your assigned post aboard your science ship. Do you deny that you have just now returned from Shopton?”
Tom hung his head, as if the man could see him. “No. I don’t deny it. But please believe me, I had to attend to something urgent. If you knew what it was― ”
“If I knew? I am waiting for you to tell me!” snapped Mr. Sondriesson.
The promise that Tom had given John Thurston—the vital need for complete secrecy at this point in the dangerous game—was a weight upon Tom’s tongue. “Sir, I—I can’t give you the information I owe you, not now. Please trust, just for a while, that my reasons are good ones. At any rate, what happened here wouldn’t have been prevented by my personal oversight. There’s no indication of any carelessness on the part of any of the workers. Including me!—sir.”
“That will surely become a matter for the legal profession to consider. As for now, of course, all operations are suspended. Have I more to say to you? I do not. Good day!” The unforgiving click of the radiocom suggested that Mr. Sondriesson’s closing pleasantry was less than deeply felt.
“Kind of a mess, huh, Tom?” said the radiocom operator sympathetically.
“Sure is.” Tom sighed. “At least nobody died.”
“Except maybe the SMB.”
The self-reparative powers of Swift and Barclay were legendary, and by evening Bud was up and around and no worse for wear.
He joined his pal for supper. “I don’t feel too bad,” Bud stated. “But I sure feel bad for the project, Tom.”
“It’s a great loss,” nodded Tom disconsolately. “Science could have learned a lot from an experiment like that—and in a way that’s what it was, flyboy, an experiment in applied engineering, aquatic style.”
“So I suppose we’ll be flying right back to Shopton?”
“Not right back,” the other replied. “Because there’s something I want to learn. Namely, the cause of the tube failure. It’ll have to be identified and dealt with if the SubMoBahn is ever to be revived.” And Tom couldn’t deny, inwardly, that he felt a great need to prove that Mr. Sondriesson’s assumptions about him were unjustified. They had struck his guilt nerve hard.
Bud took a thoughtful bite of Chow’s casserole. “Still thinking the ‘drowning Roman’ bunch had something to do with it? Because I sure do!”
Tom studied his fork for a moment. “Motive—opportunity—means. It’s the last one we may be able to uncover something about.”
“Some kind of sabotage. The usual deal.”
“And yet... Bud, to even start thinking about running traffic through a long underwater tube, we had to convince everyone, ourselves included, that it could be made safe. Every repelatron had a whole hardware-store’s worth of electronic backups built into it. It wasn’t like those old-style Christmas-tree light strings, where one burnt-out bulb blacked out the whole string. Every tiny part of every system was multiply redundant and independent, and the slightest deviation from top efficiency would have signaled itself to us instantly, long before the part went critical.”
“I see, Skipper,” said Bud. “Security Level: Awesome! And you told me that even if one tron were to fail, the others near it would be enough to keep things dry while it was being fixed. So several of the darn things must’ve gone bad in the same place, at the same time.”
“At the exact same moment!”
The young inventor stood and switched to pacing mode. Bud half-smiled as his eyes followed him around the executive dining room. Tom mused aloud: “So. Same moment. Component failure? Not possible. Power fluctuation? Never happened on one neutronamo, much less a bunch.”
Tom’s audience asked if something could have interfered with the spacewave fields that were the basis of the repulsion effect. “I mean, you’re always gonna get a little static.”
But Tom gave a negative shake of the head. “The linear fields generated by the repelatrons aren’t electromagnetic in nature. Static in the usual sense wouldn’t affect them at all.”
“Uh-huh. But the Black Cobra managed it,” Bud pointed out—with a knife.
On several occasions the youths had come up against a determined foe, a Chinese expatriot named Li Ching. He had taken to calling himself the Black Cobra, and his technological piracies and subversive attacks had constituted a serious international threat until his recent death. “You’re right,” conceded Tom. “And I haven’t forgotten the anti-energy crystals he came up with. But don’t you forget that we doped out how to protect the repelatrons from the blocking effect, when we studied the sample we captured.” He noted that all the SMB repelatrons had been made safe from the Cobra’s crystals.
“All right then, genius boy. So be a genius man and rise to the challenge! What else can foul up a repelatron?—pardon me as I eat while you think.”
“What else?― ” Tom was all frown for a second, but Bud could tell that behind it something was dawning. “I’m thinking of when we tested the bubblevator prototype that time...”
“Hey, that’s right! The airspace bubble started to collapse on us—just like the SMB airspace did.”
His chum nodded. “The seawater was infused with a foreign substance the repelatron couldn’t handle—the field beams couldn’t ‘see’ it, so to speak.”
“I know the trons have to be really fine-tuned, not just to elements and compounds, but even specific mixtures and proportions,” Bud prodded.
“And yet― ”
“And yet,” persisted Tom with a quick smile, “that’s the whole idea of the new aquatometer setup—to get detailed info on changing seawater composition well before it arrives, in order to compensate for the lag effect in readjusting the super-repelatrons.”
Bud asked, through a mouthful of Persian rice, if the aquatometers might have had some undetected flaw. “If it’s undetected, I wouldn’t know!” gibed Tom. “Still... you know, Bud, the microrepelatrons inside each aquatometer—which ‘feel out’ the surrounding water composition by back-reaction—are themselves constrained by the lag effect. We had to set up some fancy pre-programmed sequencing to permit us to run through the materials signatures, using multiple antennas. And now I can see how a very dilute, very exotic mix might not be detected.”
“Opening a window of opportunity wide enough for a few million gallons of seawater!”
The next day, as the Sea Charger made for the several ports on the Swedish coast where the bulk of the construction crew would be let off, Tom worked in the vessel’s laboratory section on various water samples taken from the vicinity of the SMB. He almost immediately made an intriguing discovery that moved him to call his father in Shopton.
“You say you can’t identify it, son?”
“The substances themselves aren’t unusual,” Tom replied into his PER unit. “But I’ve never run across anything like these relative concentrations and proportions. The science databases haven’t given me any leads so far.”
Mr. Swift offered a speculation. “Might it be artificial? Some sort of industrial byproduct?”
“Perhaps so, Dad. But in a funny way, the makeup seems too ordinary for that. There are no weird, complex chemical compounds in the water—it’s all done with regular seawater stuff, metallic salts, chromium, manganese, silicates, gold, iron—you get the idea. But to give one example, the density of chromium particulates is off the charts! Yet it’s not precipitating out in the textbook way. It’s as if it were being held in some sort of forced suspension.”
“Intriguing. Have you any notion as to the source?”
“Not so far,” replied the young inventor. “It only took a couple hours for the local currents to disperse the traces all over the place. But I’m at work on a little something, Dad, that could help.”
Characteristically, Tom switched his efforts to the little something immediately. By mid-afternoon his workbench was littered with technology, which Bud found him sifting through when he dropped by. The athletic Californian was joined by young Dan Walde, whom Bud had casually befriended.
Bud pointed at a small object on the bench. “Does the magic crystal ball hold the answer, Swami?” The object was a fist-sized globe, crystalline but pearl-white and opaque. Wire leads were bunched at its bottom.
“Is it a repelatron?” inquired Dan.
“No,” Tom said, “although some models of the trons do have spherical radiator antennas. I guess you could call it a sort of monitor screen.”
Bud laughed. “Good grief, you mean I was right? You really do look into it?”
“Yup. Here, watch.” Tom flipped a power switch and carefully adjusted a dial. The sphere became slightly luminous, and then, slowly, lost its whiteness and took on an appearance of crystalline transparency.
“Something inside it,” Dan noted. A shadowy triangular form, like a spear tip, had been revealed at the center of the “crystal ball.” As Tom continued to make adjustments, the triangle became sharply outlined.
“Okay, genius boy, there it is,” declared Bud. “So what is it?”
“It’s a directional indicator, like the needle on a compass,” Tom explained. “But unlike the needle on an ordinary compass, this version doesn’t exist! It’s an image generated by electronics.” He went on to describe how he had been working on a similar image system for some time, in hopes of devising a 3-D television. “The globe is filled with a matrix of tiny interlaced ‘flakes’ suspended in a transparent gel. Microwave interference patterns, produced inside the image space by nano-transmitters spaced over the inner surface of the globe, affect the grouping and orientation of the flakes. Then the 3-D image is created as a laser scanning beam sweeps across the matrix and bounces back to your eyes.”
Dan and Bud circled the workbench, keenly observing the floating indicator. The image changed with their changing perspectives, as a solid object would. “So someday I’ll be watching America’s Least Talented on something like this?” Bud asked skeptically.
Dan muttered, “That’s a good show!”
Tom laughed and said, “Actually, I finally abandoned this approach, at least for television-type viewing. I just thought I’d use it as a quick-and-dirty readout viewer in my new underwater tracker.”
Dan Walde’s face lit up. “Wow! A new Tom Swift invention?”
“Always!” snorted Bud. “And now the explanation. Sit down, Dan.”
“This one’s pretty simple, guys,” grinned Tom. “It’s just an adaptation of my aquatometer, which I’ve made more compact and lighter in weight.” He described how individual divers, in hydrolung suits, would carry the portable units with them. “I worked up some new approaches to the repela-scanning gimmick that make it much more sensitive and flexible.”
“So I take it you can use it to pick up that weird stuff you found in the seawater,” Bud remarked with a nod, which Tom repeated back in confirmation. “And you can use it to track the stuff back to where it came from?”
“Sure, like a hound dog on the scent. Remember, the aquatometer doesn’t just tell you what’s out there in the water, but where it is—a 3-D profile of its relative concentrations. The analysis computer will put it all together and control the spheroscreen accordingly, pointing the indicator toward the direction of highest overall densities. And that’s the most promising direction to search in.” When Dan asked how soon Tom would be putting together a team of divers and commencing the search, the answer was, “Right away! If the source of ‘water X’ is intermittent, we need to get on the trail before it’s totally scrambled. The ocean has already made it undetectable by normal means.”
Dan Walde nodded, but Tom and Bud could tell that he had more on his mind. “Mind if I make a little pitch to be one of your team members? I was trained on using the diversuits, you know—I guess some day we’ll all be—and it would be a big boost to my learning to use it for on-the-spot oceanography research.”
Tom was doubtful. “I don’t know, Dan. This is a serious situation. I’m not sure using the search for training purposes is such a good idea.”
“Keep at it, Dan,” Bud stage-whispered. “He’ll give in. Fifteen seconds tops.”
“Maybe I can add something to sweeten the deal,” said the college student with a somewhat shy smile—for he was actually talking to the great Tom Swift! “There’s a scientist in the Oceanography Department at the University who’s a friend of our family. We’ve known him for years. Really, he’s the one who sort’ve inspired me to go into the field.”
“The wet field,” Bud quipped.
“As a matter of fact, it’d make sense to have a professional oceanographer along with us,” noted Tom thoughtfully. “We’ll need a thorough understanding of the seafloor terrain and ocean currents. Is he someone I might have heard of, Dan?”
Now the student grinned broadly. “Yeah! Cause to tell the truth, Tom, he’s somebody you already know—really well!”
THE CONQUEROR WORM
TOM had no trouble guessing the truth. “Good night! You must mean Ham or George!”
Hamilton Teller and George Braun, whose names were always yoked together, were well-known oceanographers who had twice joined Swift expeditions to Aurum City, a site of ruins on the floor of the Atlantic thought to be connected to the ancient legend of lost Atlantis.
“Mr. Braun was born in Nebraska—Minden, as a matter of fact,” explained Dan. “He and my dad knew each other as kids and kept in touch. He was at my parents’ wedding.”
“Now that you mention it, I remember his mentioning that he was on sabbatical from a teaching position when he and Ham Teller joined us last time,” Tom said.
Bud snorted. “C’mon, don’t tell me George got Ham to leave Brooklyn and move to Omaha!”
Dan laughed. “Hey now! There are more jokes about Brooklyn than about Omaha!”
Tom was pleased with the notion. Within the hour he was speaking to Braun, easily winning his consent. “And I can speak for our Brooklyn Boy too,” he chuckled. “We’ve been splitting a room here in Oh! lately so we can continue to avoid real life by working on another one of our oddball mysteries. We could even combine your operation with our own—if you’d be willing to send your big ship a mere thousand miles up to the way North Atlantic.”
“You fellows may not even have to wait. The trail could lead us anywhere. Where exactly, George?”
“Neighborhood of Iceland.”
“Iceland!—we just flew over it the other day. But what’s the mystery in Iceland? Another sunken city?”
“Old hat. You seen one city o’ gold, you seen ’em all,” gibed the oceanographer. “No, Tom, this one’s much weirder. Think monster sea snakes!”
Tom laughed—in amazement. “Like a sea serpent?”
“Ah, but this one is real. Ham thinks so, and he just might be right. For a change.”
George Braun narrated the story with dramatic flair. A Canadian vessel engaged in surveying the ocean bottom with a high-resolution sonar imaging system had detected peculiar “tracks”—long, shallow grooves—running along mile after mile, finally becoming undetectable as the seafloor changed to a rockier composition. Later inspection by submarine had confirmed the findings, retrieving detailed photographs from the dark depths but no clue as to the cause.
Tom asked if the tracks were thought to have been left in primordial times by some extinct sea creature. He could almost feel his friend’s eyes twinkling at the far end of their radiocom link! “What a great theory, sport! Except for one thing. Over a few weeks, new tracks have appeared!”
“That does present a difficulty! So what are people thinking?”
“Oh, I’m sure you can predict it—the usual range of opinion—giant mutated atomic lobsters, a few flying saucers tossed into the mix! The ‘respectable’ theory is that it’s some kind of unclassified, but nonetheless boring, geophysical phenomenon.”
“But I know I can count on you two being anything but respectable,” Tom needled him.
“Now now. I’m entirely respectable, modest, conservative,” retorted the oceanographer. “But Ham Teller naturally has this lunatic theory about some kind of supersized aquatic snake, or eel, or even—ready, Tom?—worm!”
“Me? Anyway, Teller, with his usual puckish insouciance, insists on calling the thing The Conqueror Worm!—from a poem by old Edgar Allan Poe.”
“That makes sense, anyway,” the youth noted, grinning. “At any rate, worms or no—having you and Ham along will be a big help to me in running this search I’m putting together.” They made arrangements for Enterprises to pick up the pair of scientists in Omaha and fly them to the Sea Charger as soon as Tom had determined where the search was to start from—for the trail from the carcass of the SubMoBahn had grown cold.
After some thought Tom decided a team of six divers would be most efficient. Which means turning out six working, portable aquatometer trackers in just a few days, he thought wryly. He finally PER’ed Swift Enterprises and spoke to Arvid Hanson, a good friend and the plant’s chief maker of models and test prototypes.
“I’d be happy to join you on the Charger, boss,” he declared. “And I’ll be overjoyed if you’ll grant a special request.” Hanson explained that his elderly parents, who had been born in Sweden, had long wanted their son to pay a visit to the small town of their birth. “And since you’ll be right there—!”
“Request granted! But fly out as soon as you can, Arv, and bring all your super-tech tools.”
“Okay! See you in, oh—eight hours?”
As it ended up, the Sky Queen played ferry, returning to the U.S. and strato-jetting Braun, Teller, and Hanson to the mammoth research vessel, even as it proceeded with its port calls along the Swedish coast.
With Arv’s help the six tracker units, which resembled compact attaché cases, albeit with “crystal balls” as well as handles, were assembled and tested in a single day of strenuous work.
At a late, relaxing workout in the ship’s gym, Tom and Bud discussed the plan for the search. “You said a total of six divers, but I count five,” Bud pointed out between weight thrusts.
Tom nodded. “I haven’t picked the sixth. I had planned to ask Dick Hampton, but the doctor thinks it would be unwise so soon after the accident. Maybe one of the Swedish workers would be― ”
“Tom, you need seek no further!” piped up Alix Tuundvar from the flexmonster.
“Yes, very much so indeed. Maybe it will make me look better to my employers—for I fear my reputation with Lor-Sofviio Teknos is now darkened a bit.” He added quickly: “Not that I blame you, Tom, surely.”
Bud leaned close and whispered slyly, “And also maybe, if they decide on canning him, it’ll help him get a job at Enterprises!”
Another day, another night, and the team was trained, outfitted, and ready. Five of the divers—Bud, Dan Walde, George, Ham, and Alix—lolled near Sealock Two in their hydrolung suits.
“So where’s our crewcutted leader?” asked Ham Teller. “My morning eggs are settling. And that ocean out there won’t be gettin’ any wetter.”
“Some last-minute detail, probably,” Bud answered. But he was also feeling impatient.
At last Tom arrived, clad in diversuit and carrying aquatometer.
Bud studied his pal’s face. “Everything okay, Skipper?”
“Oh, sure,” was the reply. But his thoughtful voice bore a frown.
“Perhaps something we ought to know?” asked Alix. “Before it happens to us?”
Tom shrugged. “Nothing to do with the search—not this one, at least. But I was just speaking with John Thurston.” He gave a brief, and carefully worded, recap of the circumstances that had led to consultation between the CIA and Swift Enterprises. “As I say, there’s international concern that some secret organization might have targeted that ship that went down, the Centurion.”
“Has something new turned up?” George inquired.
“It’s more about something that didn’t turn up. The ship seems to have gone missing!”
“Missing? Bah! Norwegian waters, of all places to sink,” harrumphed Alix Tuundvar. “I am not surprised if it can’t be located, not if the Norwegians are looking for it.”
Bud held up a hand, cutting him off. Dan Walde said, “I don’t see how anybody could lose a supertanker!”
“Have you ever met a Norwegian?” challenged Alix.
“It has to do with that big storm that’s sprung up over the Norwegian Sea,” Tom continued, as he made a final check of his diversuit equipment. “It made for problems with the rescue when the Centurion first foundered, and it’s gotten much worse. It was too dangerous to send seacraft into the area to do a sonar scan from the surface. They finally went in with one of those drone mini-subs.”
Alix commented with pride, “My country is world’s-best in their manufacture.”
“Well, what the drone found was a lot of nothing. They studied the currents, looked for oil residue, extended the search area wider and wider― ”
“And still nothing,” Bud finished for him. “So Dan’s question stands. Just how do you lose a supertanker?”
Tom reply was grim-faced. “You don’t. Which is not to say you can’t steal one!”
TRACKERS OF THE DEEP
THERE was a moment of disbelieving silence. “That sounds more like something Ham would come up with,” joked George Braun. “Are you really thinking that some evil genius could make off with a waterlogged ship blocks long and as deep as a sports stadium?”
“The Omaha kid lacks imagination,” snorted Teller. “There must be a hundred ways to pull it off. Or at least one or two.”
The young inventor put a stop to the banter. “Let’s not deal with it right now, fellows. We’ve got to hit the water before time and tide erases our trail completely.”
The six hydronauts exited through the subsurface sealock into cold blue water. The Sea Charger had “let anchor”—the highest-tech anchor possible, Tom’s gravitex device—in Alands Bay north of Stockholm, Sweden, where the Baltic Sea joined hands with the Gulf of Bothnia. The Shoptonian had reasoned that “water X” could have been carried southward along the eastern coast and around the southern cape to the SMB.
The possibility faded instantly. “Not a trace on the aquatometers,” Tom reported, scanning transmitted readouts from all six units on his master output screen. “But let’s fan out and head north for a while.”
The hydronauts spread over the space of a mile or so, each aquatometer acting as a separate “sensor” for Tom’s unit—distant eyes. But after forty minutes, Tom called the others back in by sonophone.
“Nowhere fast, Skipper,” Bud commented.
“I know, pal,” replied the young inventor. “Rather than keep on northward, let’s jet south around the cape and head west. The current may have come from the other direction.”
“Someone’s getting hungry for results,” Ham Teller remarked Brooklynishly.
Retorted Alix Swedishly, “Who can blame?”
The ion-drive diverjets affixed to the backs of their suits allowed the team to zoom through the depths at torpedo speed, their depths maintained by electronic buoyancy-control units inside the stanchion that supported the jet.
“Slide-press the third circle from the end of your arm gauntlet,” Tom directed them. “We’ll let the localculators guide us.”
“The name rings a bell, Tom,” muttered Dan Walde. “But I’m not sure Mr. Cox—Zimby—really explained it.”
Bud uttered a sonophonic chuckle. “Genius boy likes to slip in new inventions on the sly. Gives him a chance to show off.”
“Never!” laughed Tom. “Dan, it’s a computerized guidance device that not only automatically steers you around obstructions, but gives a precise three-dimensional reading as to your location.”
“Inertial guidance?” asked George. “In other words, a gyroscope?”
“I really think Tom knows what ‘inertial guidance’ means, Brauny,” Teller reproved teasingly.
“Now stop fighting, boys, or back you go! But George is right, in a way. The ‘Lookor’ makes us of a property of subatomic particles called spin. It’s not the sort of mechanical spinning used in gyroscopes, but when virtual particles are exchanged in― ”
“Perhaps that is enough of an answer,” interrupted Alix. “But pardon me. There is some justice in the reputation we Swedes have for dourness and brusqueness.”
“And the heavy drinking?” Ham Teller challenged.
“A myth. Yet true.”
They passed over the sad remains of the dark, ruined SubMoBahn—passed over them in silence. Crossing the strait called Skagerrak that divided Swede from Dane, the hydronauts entered the North Sea. Once again the six fanned out wide. No longer able to see one another in the tranquil dimness, only their sonophone communicators testified to their continued existence.
“We’re sure making great time,” Bud remarked. “And I’m not even thirsty or tired.”
“Those ‘aquadapticum’ pills Doc Simpson came up with really do the trick,” Tom agreed. “He thinks divers could keep going for more than 24 hours underwater, given sufficient oxygen and a source of nutrition.”
“I didn’t think we’d be out so long on the first trek,” said Dan Walde doubtfully from somewhere far away.
“We won’t, Dan. A few more hours out, then back to the Charger.”
“Like I said—hungry,” noted Teller.
Gunning their jets, the armada of fish-men speared through the water at multi-fish velocity—Shark Five. Minutes and miles sped by. Tom watched raptly the greenish panorama of sea life all around him as his exterior sound monitor filled the dome of his facemask with crackling noise from the green-blue world. Now and then he pressed a spot on his sleeve-gauntlet and slid his fingers along, adjusting the buoyancy device and descending in a swoop. He swept the lower depths with a tiny, penetrating lamp attached to his left forearm, his aqualamp. Flashing across the electronic beam, coldwater fish swarmed through the jungles of seaweed and underwater vegetation. The bottom, glimpsed dimly below, was carpeted with sea anemones, urchins, finger sponges, and mollusks.
“Watch yourself, genius boy—everybody!” came Bud Barclay’s warning voice. “I just spotted a Portuguese man-of-war.”
“Those tentacles can sting a guy pretty bad,” Dan commented. To which Alix added:
“Very much, but I have survived it.”
As they cruised westward above the sloping shelf of the North Sea, Tom felt himself becoming increasingly discouraged and impatient. Good night, I thought we’d trip over at least a smidge of ‘water X’ by now, he thought. And even as the echo of the thought faded came George Braun’s voice:
“Got it, Tom! Pings on my detector!”
The young inventor checked the master readout with growing excitement. “At last! And there!—Alix’s aquatometer is starting to pick it up too!”
“So where too?” sonophoned Bud.
“George and Alix are both north of the rest of us,” Tom answered. “Let’s veer a little northward. I’ll send the heading to your Lookor’s.”
The aquatometer readings, now coming from all six trackers, revealed that the traces angled downward with the current that was carrying it from its unknown source. The hydronauts began a mass descent to a depth of 190 fathoms. When Ham Teller noted the depth, Alix added a verbal footnote. “You might wish to know, sea chums, that ‘fathom’ comes from an old Norse word, ‘fathm’r,’ the measure of the outstretched arm.”
This brought no comment from the others. But moments later Bud suddenly yelped out: “Jetz! Something’s down there—big!”
“Can you tell what it is?” Tom sonophoned.
“Looks like—a ship!”
Tom gulped. Could it be? By some bizarre coincidence had the sea searchers run across the lost supertanker, the Centurion?
“Everyone! Head toward Bud!”
THE sophisticated sonarscope system built into each diversuit allowed the five to converge rapidly on the sixth, Bud. “Get a load of that!” he exclaimed, circling slowly.
“I don’t see anything, pal,” Tom declared.
“Huh? Oh, right—I’m using the ‘for my eyes only’ lamp setting.” Bud altered the aqualamp’s frequency mix, so that its luminance wouldn’t be restricted to the view through the youth’s own treated mask-visor. “There!” All eyes followed the beam downward.
“Parakeets!” squawked Dan Walde.
“Yeah, that’s a ship. Sure is.” Ham Teller’s Brooklyn-tinged voice was blasé. An oblong bulge lay inert far below, showing a sweeping edge obviously fashioned by the hand of man, half buried in sand and silt.
It was obviously far too small to be the colossal Centurion. “A Viking ship, perhaps,” suggested Alix. “They plied these seas for centuries en route to Iceland, Greenland—even North America, before that ‘Columbus’ fellow.”
Taking the initiative, Tom jetted downward. He circled the hulk once, closely, then returned.
“Well?” demanded Bud. “What did you see?”
“There were inscriptions on the side.”
“What did they look like? Could you make them out?”
“Sure, flyboy—easily. They were in English. ‘Divers do it deeper’.”
Tom could imagine the expression on his friend’s face. “And so!—on we go.”
As they split up again, Alix Tuundvar sonophoned a question. “The boy—why did he say parakeets? Nothing looked to me like a bird, not a bit.”
“It’s an Omaha expression of amazement,” George Braun explained. “Like ‘jetz’. I’ve gotten used to it.”
“Guys, in Nebraska we try to keep it clean,” declared Dan Walde coolly. He elaborated by running over a list of words he would never say—in Nebraska.
The hydronauts proceeded in their quest. Sonophone conversation fell off. A distance off and feeling alone, Bud amused himself by watching the fish that glided, blinking and gaping, past the diamond beam of his lamp. One that made him gasp was an enormous oval sunfish over seven feet long. “Boy! Chow could feed a ship’s crew on that baby!” Bud said to himself.
Then suddenly the young Californian became tense as a tone erupted inside his mask, whose inner surface functioned as a stereo loud-speaker. He was being automatically alerted to something big and moving that the suit sonarscope had detected. “Tom—guys― ”
“I see it on my scope, Bud,” came Tom’s reply.
Added Alix, “Approaching from the rear. Shall we scatter?”
“No,” decided Tom. “There’s no sign of its being a threat.”
“And it may be interesting,” remarked Ham Teller.
“Perhaps this ‘Great Orme’ of yours?” Alix speculated.
“Maybe-might. And by the way, it’s Conqueror Worm, please.”
The hydronauts drew together protectively and proceeded with caution, alert for possible trouble, as the sonar shadow overtook them. Tom breathed a sigh of relief when he made out a blimp-shaped hull, diving planes, and slim, knifelike conning tower.
“Relax, everybody. It’s a U.S. Navy nuke,” Tom signaled.
“Wonder where she’s headed?” Bud replied.
Dan Walde asked, “Do you suppose they’ve spotted us yet?”
“Not by sonar they haven’t,” stated Tom confidently. “The Antitec-Tomasite coating on the diversuits prevents it. But still, we’re not invisible to sight. It might be best to hail them on standard sonarphone.”
“Permit me,” Bud volunteered.
Inside the American sub, the communications operator was monitoring the craft’s sensitive hull phones with a puzzled look. “Thought it was a school of porpoises at first, sir,” he reported to the skipper, “but that squeal I’m getting now sounds like a regular sonarphone carrier wave.”
“And nothing on the scope for miles around. Try the Gertrude,” the captain ordered.
The enlisted man switched on the underwater telephone as the captain issued commands to slow the ship for a more intense sonarscope search. Presently all hands stared in amazement, eyes popping, as a voice from outside came over the speaker:
“And now back to Talking Fishheads. Today’s panel of experts are debating the probing question, Should an octopus try to meet a squid in an oyster bar? You be the judge! Lines are open—first caller, please!”
Red-faced, the captain strode to the underwater telephone and barked into the mike, “Captain Frost speaking. Who’s out there? What’s going on?”
Tom could not help laughing as he visualized the amazed reaction inside the submarine to Bud’s joke. He waved his pal to silence, then replied, “Sorry, sir. I apologize for the nonsense. This is Tom Swift. That Merman Moderator you heard was my, er, research associate, Professor Barclay. We’re a group of divers on a scientific project.”
“Oceanographical,” added Ham Teller.
“Nonpolitical,” superadded Alix Tuundvar.
The response from the sub was a roar of good-natured mirth. “Well! Tom Swift and company, eh? Your merman really had us going for a while,” the skipper said. “I’m Captain Frost of the U.S.S. Disbursement, out of Norfolk, standard deep aquatic patrol operations, North Sea up. Keeping America safe.”
“Sorry to bother you, sir. We’d come aboard and visit, but we have to complete our mission before we turn back to our base. Incidentally,” continued the young inventor, “I don’t suppose you’ve run across any supertankers down here, have you?”
Frost laughed again. “Like the Centurion? We’ve been ordered to keep our eyes open. Nothing so far. Well anyway, Tom, you mermen out there—good sailing. That is, swimming.”
After an exchange of good wishes, the submarine proceeded on its way north toward the icecap.
“This is great,” said Dan Walde excitedly. “You never know who you’re going to meet underwater!”
By early afternoon they had passed the rise of the Shetland Islands and the Farroes and were speeding north of west through the Atlantic depths—which had become much deeper. Vegetation disappeared and the sea life seemed far less luxuriant, although the boys frequently sighted schools of fish.
“The Norwegian Basin,” announced Braun. “Right smack on the Arctic Circle. When we start seeing mountains ahead, that’s the Jan Meyen Ridge.”
“Then we’re not far from Iceland,” Dan Walde commented.
Following the trail of current that bore “water X,” the team paralleled the sea bottom downward. Even in the glow of the lamps, the water had darkened to a somber gray-green. All hints of sunlight had vanished utterly.
The aquatometer readings had been growing stronger for hours, but Tom knew the team might have to turn homeward before they had found their objective. They were nearing the necessary end of their outbound quest when Tom noticed a sonar reflection which painted almost the whole of his mask-screen with light, a shape that narrowed toward the top.
“What is it? Some sort of geological formation?” Bud queried.
“Must be,” Tom guessed, and George Braun added in the tones of an expert, and a teacher, “Probably an underwater volcano or a seamount. Tectonic plates are colliding all over the place here.”
Presently, through the greenish murk, a huge dim mass loomed ahead, apparently rearing upward from the ocean floor.
“Hey! Aren’t those lights on top?” Bud signaled.
“Sure looks that way.” Tom too could see tiny halos of yellow radiance, but they were too high up and at too great a distance for the hydronauts to make out the source. “Let’s investigate,” Tom added cautiously. “But don’t use the visible setting for your aqualamps just yet.” All along he had born in mind that “water X” had caused what might well have been an intentional catastrophe, the scheme of a terrorist group. If the mountainous form were its source, the lights could signify enemy action!
The six hydronauts glided forward. Gradually Tom became aware of a strange, tingling sensation. It grew stronger by the moment.
“Anyone else feel that?”
“What concerns me, Tom, is what I’m seeing,” replied Alix. Suddenly Tom realized that a myriad of coldwater fishes were swarming in the same direction as the divers!—rank upon rank gleaming in the aqualamp beams.
A sense of danger flashed through the young inventor’s mind as he suddenly felt giddy and disoriented. The tingling numbness fogged his brain.
A fearful hunch struck him! With a terrific effort Tom veered his course.
“All of you, stop!” he warned over his sonophone. “Turn aside! Don’t go any farther or you’ll be electrocuted!”
But not one undersea voice gave a sign of heeding Tom’s warning. He could see his comrades jetting ahead at top speed toward a strange, writhing shadow looming before them, not up from the sea floor below—but down from somewhere high above!
THE symbols marking the blips on Tom’s suit-sonar told him that Bud was leading the others by almost a quarter mile. “Bud!” Tom yelled again into his mask-dome receiver. No use—Bud obviously was too dazed from shock to respond. In seconds he might be beyond help!
Tom hesitated only for an instant. Then, heedless of his own danger, the young inventor speared forward in pursuit. Bud was far ahead by now—perhaps too far to reach in time. Tom gunned his own jet to the limit.
Again Tom felt the strange, tingling sensation, the sizzle in his nerves and muscles of a cascade of tiny shocks. His brain was reeling dizzily—all sense of time and place seemed to be slipping away.
“I mustn’t lose consciousness!” Tom told himself. “If I don’t keep control of my wits, we’re both goners!’’
Tom’s heart sank as he noted that his diverjet seemed suddenly to be sputtering and weakening. Would he have enough power to catch up to Bud? Then he realized with a start that he had overtaken his heedless quarry. He was close enough to reach out and grab Bud by the ankle of his sealed boot. The muscular copilot kicked and flailed his arms wildly. The resistance of the water gave a dreamy, slow-motion effect to the struggle.
“Bud—stop it—help me! Or it’ll kill me too!” This seemed to penetrate Bud’s frazzled consciousness. The athletic youth’s muscles went limp for a moment.
Tom’s ion hydrojet seemed to have conked out completely, but he managed to swing himself and Bud around so that they were aimed in a safe direction away from the danger zone. He clung doggedly to his chum as he forced his fingers to manipulate his suit controls. Now unable to jet away, he had seen one route to safety. There was a long gap between the bottom of the weird swirling mass that loomed ahead and above, and the dark seafloor far beneath them. By switching off his buoyancy unit and bringing his personal buoyancy to zero, he began to plunge downward away from the phenomenon. “Can you hear me, everyone?” he sonophoned. “Shut down your buoyancy controllers completely—head for the bottom as fast as you can.” He calculated that if other jets were also being affected, this would be the best way to quickly put some distance between the team and the thing.
It seemed that Bud had zeroed-out his buoyancy too, and the two friends plummeted together. Presently the tingling sensation in Tom’s brain faded. As he softly thudded down on the bottom, he was overjoyed to hear Bud mumble, “Uhh—what’s goin’ on? Hunh?”
Aching from the struggle, Tom was too dazed and drained to reply, but strong arms suddenly latched onto his own, and other arms took Bud. “Th-thanks Alix... Ham...” he managed to gasp.
“Come,” said Alix gently. “But we’ll have to walk, I’m afraid—real sea legs! All of our suit jets seem now to be on the proverbial fritz.” Tom noticed for the first time that Bud’s diverjet had also cut off.
Trudging with no lift and a feeling of dead heaviness, Tom, Bud, and the two rescuers caught up with Dan and George, who had retreated to a safe distance. “Great Scott, what is that thing?” gulped George. “Look at it!”
Tom swiveled his head and looked upwards. The huge object was conical, like a shadowy ice cream cone hanging upside down from above, its broad gaping mouth waggling back and forth.
Bud had recovered his voice. “Jetz! It’s a cyclone made out of fish!”
“Look at them all!—millions!” exclaimed Alix Tuundvar.
“But what’d it do to us? Was I having raptures of the deep or something?” Bud demanded woozily.
“You’d have been playing a harp in another minute or so,” Tom told him. “And we’d all have been right up there with you! You were heading straight into water with enough electrical current to knock a whale silly!”
The young inventor pointed toward the huge seafloor formation that the hydronauts had been approaching. It was now partly hidden from view by swarming fish of all sizes—mostly herring and cod, but also mackerel, tunny, salmon, even a few dolphins and sharks. All were swimming frantically in the same direction, moving gradually upward as if into a narrowing, invisible funnel.
“I d-don’t get it,” Bud stammered in confusion. “It’s some kinda flipped-over waterspout—an underwater waterspout!”
Dan Walde spoke up. “We studied it in school. There’s an electric deep-sea fishing rig suspended way up there in the water somewhere—it’s the only answer,” he said. “I don’t think that type of fishing is legal these days, but― ”
“But it’s hard to stop,” Teller stated.
George Braun completed the account. “The fish are drawn helplessly to the electrode by a process called electrotaxis. When they get close enough, they’re electrocuted—like bugs hitting one of those bug-burner lamps—and get sucked up through a pipe to the fishing vessel.”
“Do you mean to tell us we’d have gone up the spout with the fish?” asked Alix.
Tom shrugged. “Probably—I’m glad we didn’t find out. Our jets might have carried us within the pull of the intake suction.”
“S-s-sufferin’ seals!” Bud shuddered at the thought of their narrow escape. “I was dazed enough. If it hadn’t been for you, pal, I’ll bet that trawler would have landed its first California pilot fish by now!”
“What a fish story that would have made,” Tom remarked with a grin.
“Jetz! I’ll say.”
“And what of the ‘jetz,’ eh?” Alix pointed out grimly. “They don’t work, none of them.”
“Did the electricity short ’em out, Tom?” asked Dan.
The young inventor’s puzzled frown showed through his facemask. “Electricity in the water shouldn’t have affected us at all,” he replied; “not inside these sealed, insulated suits. But if they’re using a different kind of setup—maybe inducing electrotaxis by electromag-flux pulsations...” Suddenly his eyes sifted and he exclaimed, “Hey! Those lights on the seamount have vanished!”
“Well, I’ll be an oyster’s uncle!” said George. “We weren’t seeing things before, were we? Light can get bounced around in funny ways down here.”
“We saw lights and no mistake,” Tom retorted. “Let’s try for another look!”
“I’m already looking,” snorted Ham Teller. “But if you mean close-up reconnaisance, I’d say we have quite a walk ahead of us!”
Dan Walde’s eyes darted back and forth between the speakers. “Tom—I assume—you can fix the jets, right?”
Tom Swift shook his head, his facemask going along for the ride. “It wouldn’t be possible for me to open them up and get into the microcircuitry down here. It may be that the jets will start working again on their own as we put in some distance from the electrotaxis zone. Otherwise, though, we’ll just have to bob up to the surface and signal for a pick-up. We’d have to get into the open air—our suit radiocoms don’t work under water, and the sonophones don’t have more than a few miles range.”
“We shall have the verdict soon, I’d think,” commented Alix. “The electricity is being switched off.”
The fish, or what was left of the swarming shoal, were now dispersing as if the electric fishing rig had been turned off or withdrawn from the water. In order not to take any risks, Tom directed the others to walk some distance across the bottom before trying their diverjet units.
Disappointment was instant. “Nothing!” exclaimed George.
“Not exactly nothing. We’re getting a weak flow through the jets—thank goodness, because it’s needed for the hydrolung system,” Tom commented. “But unless we plan to become mer-pedestrians, I’m afraid we’ll have to buoy up topside and abandon the search for now. Switch your buoyancy units to high power.”
“Don’t bother,” said Bud quietly. “I’ve been trying my controls. You don’t see me ‘bobbing,’ weaving, or anything else.”
Tom confirmed it in a tense voice: “My unit’s dead too.”
They all were! “Parakeets!—what do we do now?” cried Dan fearfully.
“Enough with the ‘parakeets,’ already!” came the voice of Brooklyn.
“Calm down, Danny,” George commanded. “We’ll just need to jettison some of our equipment, that’s all. The aquatometers—sorry to say it, Tom. And of course we don’t need the jets anymore.”
The youthful sea explorer returned a slow headshake. “The aquatometers don’t weigh enough to make a difference. As for the diverjets, you can’t unhook them, not if you plan on breathing. The hydrolung apparatus is built into the stanchion brace for the jet.”
“Then we’ll do it by brute force!” Bud exclaimed impatiently, tossing aside his aquatometer. Before Tom could stop him, Bud sprang upward, his powerful arms thrashing him toward the distant surface. The team watched his ascent as it became wavery, slowed—and halted. The bead of light began to fall again.
“Can’t be done,” declared Bud sullenly as he touched down, panting. “It’s like hauling Santa’s bag of goodies.”
“You have the most muscle power, flyboy, but what we all have is way too much negative buoyancy—dead weight—in these fancy electric suits,” Tom pronounced. “That’s why we had to have the buoyancy units in the first place. Without those or the jets― ”
Dan Walde seemed to be verging on panic. “You mean—y-you mean we’re stuck down here on the bottom?”
“Do relax, young man,” reproved Alix. “The breathing apparatus has not been affected, and those nice Swift solar batteries will last years, I’m told.”
“Which is just about how long it’ll take if we have to leg it all the way to Iceland!” Ham Teller grumbled.
Alix shrugged slightly. “Admittedly, there is also the problem of food and water.”
“Aw, good grief, this is ridiculous!” Bud protested. “When we don’t show up, they’ll start a search in the seacopters and the jetmarines—the Sea Charger herself can submerge, in fact!”
“That’s right,” said George. “And don’t forget, that U.S. sub will report having seen us.”
They all looked at Tom. His long silence was ominous. “I believe in being hopeful,” he said slowly. “But we have to deal with the facts. It’ll be hours yet before we’re due back, and probably hours more before any kind of large-scale search can be organized. We’ve traveled hundreds of miles since we encountered the Disbursement, and we’ve changed course several times. You don’t need to be an oceanographer to know that the ocean’s a mighty big place. It could easily be days, even weeks, before we’re located.”
“What you’re saying then, Tom, is,” summarized Ham Teller, “that we’re sunk.”
“I wouldn’t put it that way,” Tom replied.
“I would,” declared Alix.
“You were right about Swedes and dourness, Tuundvar!” George Braun stated.
“This isn’t solving the problem, fellows,” reproved their leader sternly. “Let’s head for the seamount. Those lights we saw could indicate some kind of underwater operation, people who could help us.”
“If nothing else—climbing to the top puts us closer to the surface,” Bud added.
Although the “underwater waterspout” had disappeared, there was no guarantee that their safety was more than temporary. At Tom’s suggestion the mer-pedestrians circled widely and approached the undersea formation from a different direction. “Keep your eyes open, all of you,” Tom warned. “Let’s not get caught twice by the same trick!”
Bud shot his pal a puzzled look through his visor dome. “You said trick, Tom. Are you thinking that someone’s giving us the underwater hotfoot on purpose?” Then he added: “Not that I didn’t think the same thing right off.”
“Just a hunch, but I’d almost bet on it,” Tom said with quiet anger. “As I understand it, the usual maximum range of an electrotaxis operation is far less than what we encountered. The gear we’re up against must be tremendously more powerful and advanced. If there’s a trawler stationed up there to guard the seamount, that would explain it. Even if they didn’t know we were down here, they could be circling constantly on patrol—maybe a whole fleet of trawlers posing as ordinary commercial fishing operations.”
“But to what end?” asked George. “What’s the big deal with this guyot, anyway?”
Bud raised his eyebrows. “A ghee-oh? What’s that?”
“Perhaps more clean expressions from Nebraska,” wisecracked Alix.
Dan Walde laughed. “It’s a flat-topped, extinct underwater volcano. Oceanographers have spotted a number of them in both the Atlantic and the Pacific. They were named after a Princeton professor.”
“Yeah? So what gave ’em that Tom Swift style crewcut?” Bud persisted.
“They stood above sea level for centuries and were worn down by the surf.”
They trudged on across the seafloor silt and rock—on, and on. The guyot was bigger and more distant than they had first assumed, and their progress was irregular and torturous. Even the fact that their modest buoyancy made them lighter than they would have been on the surface worked against them, as any attempt to walk quickly caused them to break contact with the bottom and loose traction.
After some time, Dan brought up a clock readout on his mask-screen. “Para—er, golly!” he gulped in dismay. “It’s been almost two hours since we started walking!”
“In not too many more hours the Sea Charger will start getting nervous about us and raise an alarm,” Tom observed.
“Tell us flat out, Tom—how long can we stay down here without being, you know—dead?” demanded Teller.
The young inventor could not provide a definite answer. “The aquadapticum tablets vary somewhat in potency from person to person. But honestly, in another twenty hours or so we won’t be doing so well.”
At long last the aching, weary travelers stood at the base of the huge formation. After a rest period, they began to ascend. The eroded volcanic rock of the guyot offered many easy hand- and footholds, and this time their lightness helped more than hindered.
As they neared the summit, signs of human handiwork began to appear—discarded tools, rusted bits of machinery, lengths of metal cable, even an exhausted pair of scuba tanks.
Bud plucked a bulky, box-shaped object from the join of two upthrust rocks. “Look at this, Skipper,” he called out. “It has a big lens on the front.”
“A camera?” asked Alix.
“No,” answered the young inventor as he examined it. “It’s a portable underwater flashlamp—a worklight.” He slid the switch on the side, curiously, and a dim yellow beam shot forth.
Ham commented, “Batteries still work.”
“It hasn’t been down here very long,” said Tom. He gestured toward the spot next to the rock where Bud had found it. “It wasn’t buried in sand or silt—just sitting there.”
“Right where the workmen dropped in a few hours ago,” declared Bud. “You know—our happy troop of fish-shockers.”
Tom tossed the lamp away. “No sign of anyone now, though. The scopes haven’t detected anything moving bigger than a mackerel.” He chose not to voice the thought that came after: But they could have antidetection gear like we do!
When they gained the wide, flat summit of the guyot there were more evidences of a major suboceanic operation. Tom led them to a square concrete slab with large mooring rings at its corners. “They lowered some kind of heavy machinery onto this base, on a moored cable arrangement.” His theory was confirmed a moment later as they unzipped a big waterproofed sack made of plastic material that lay nearby. Inside was a spindle, thickly wound about with cord.
Tom held up the end of the cord, very narrow but with a braided apprearance. “Bet you ocean guys recognize this.”
“Sure,” said Dan. “It’s called isobraid. Neutral buoyancy foot for foot, but the plastic composite is ultra-tough.”
“And more importantly for the things they use it for underwater, these interwoven loops keep it from stretching or twisting,” Tom added.
Suddenly his thoughts were scattered by an exclamation from Ham Teller, who was standing some yards distant at the edge of the guyot’s tabletop. “I—I—I can’t believe it! There it is!”
Electrified, the hydronauts struggled and shuffled to Ham’s side as quickly as they could manage. It was George Braun who arrived first. Following Teller’s gaze downward, the oceanographer sonophoned a gasp.
“It’s real! The Conqueror Worm!”
AN AMAZING ASCENT
IN THE light of six aqualamp beams—reduced to a dim starlight by distance and murk—a gigantic, fantastic form could be seen scurrying across the ocean floor far below!
“That’s no worm!” pronounced Tom Swift, stunned at the eerie sight.
The bizarre creature was wide as a truck and long as a freight train, a sinuous line raising a cloud of silt and gouging a trail behind it. It seemed to have no distinct head, nor any legs, although hints of scuttling protuberences occasionally showed through between the separate segments of its body. What the hydronauts could make out was like a chain of pearlescent globules that flopped back and forth, jellylike.
“Good gosh, it’s like an underwater centipede!” breathed Bud. “Look how fast it’s moving!”
“Even if we can’t see any legs or claws, it must have ’em along its underbelly,” observed Ham. “It has to be using something to grip the floor and give itself traction. Kong Dubya sure ain’t swimming.”
Alix repeated “Kong Dubya” under his breath. “It’s a nickname,” explained Braun. “You know—‘Kong’ from Conqueror, ‘W’ from Worm.”
The creature was barreling along in an arc, evidently curving around the base of the guyot. In moments the last bit of its tail-end had disappeared.
“Did we really see it?” gulped Dan Walde as they turned away from the edge.
“I know I did,” stated Tom. “And now I have a great reason to get us topside. I’ve got to live long enough to study it!”
Resting upon the concrete slab, the six batted about ideas for hours. Eventually they slept a little, half at a time so watch would be kept.
When all were awake again at the same time, Tom noted that the search was almost certainly in full swing—somewhere. “We’re a good seven hours overdue,” he said.
“Let me be the first to say—I’m getting a tad hungry,” grumbled Bud. “Good night, fish all around us and not a line to catch them with.”
Alix gestured contemptuously toward the spool of isobraid. “A line we have, and plenty. What we don’t have is a way to cook and clean whatever we catch.”
“Or get it into our mouths,” added Bud.
Tom rose and bobbled over to the spool, again taking its free end and examining it curiously. “This style of line isn’t just for tying things up or cable use,” he sonophoned. “These colored bands at intervals― ”
“Yes,” George interrupted. “It has a conducting core, basically a thin, flexible wire running the whole length inside the insulating plastic. It won’t carry much voltage, but it’s used in certain kinds of lowgrade underwater electrical work, such as connecting to remote instruments.”
Bud stared at his pal, then ineffectually tried to slam his palms together. “Hey, wait! Tom, couldn’t wire like that be used as an antenna? With a super-long antenna, maybe we could signal somebody out there!”
“It could be adapted to use as a radio antenna,” Tom confirmed, “and we could attach it to the output jack of one of our suit radiocoms. But there’s a big problem. Even with a long antenna, radio waves just don’t get much distance deep under water like this. In fact, the surface up there acts as a reflector to radio waves, as it does with light.”
“Ye-aah,” groaned Dan. “The signals wouldn’t get anywhere.”
“Not from way down here,” continued the young scientist-inventor, excitement touching his voice. “But what if we hoist the end of it all the way up, so it pokes a ways into the air?”
“So how?” challenged Ham. “We can’t get ourselves up—and if we could, we wouldn’t need the antenna.”
“Tom’s got a big idea cooking,” stated Bud happily. “After all this time, I know the look! We’re talking about a guy who turned a crashed plane into a jet-propelled locomotive.”
“What I enjoyed,” Alix Tuundvar chuckled, “was the clever business of flying an igloo. It made for quite an episode in the fiction book. Did it really happen?”
“Oh, more or less,” Tom declared suavely.
“I don’t see any igloos down here,” sniffed George.
“I was thinking more in terms of balloon travel.”
Tom walked over to the discarded sack, wide as a sofa cushion, that had enclosed the spool of isobraid. “This material is a lightweight, somewhat stretchable plastic. It’s not just waterproof, but airproof—it should be able to contain pressurized gas without leaking.”
“I’m with you so far, I guess,” Dan Walde spoke up. “But where do you plan to get your lift gas? From those scuba tanks we found on the slope?”
“They were empty,” Tom replied. “And there’s no practical way to connect up to the oxygen produced by the hydrolungs. So how about using hydrogen?”
Bud interrupted. “I get the idea! You can use that whatchamacallit electrical process on the water to separate the hydrogen from oxygen!—er, right, genius boy?”
“Right! It’s called electrolysis. We can get plenty of juice from the suit batteries, and it’ll be nothing at all to set up an anode and cathode. I can see a way to collect the hydrogen bubbles in the bag. Then we’ll seal her up!”
“Ah, fantastic!” exclaimed Alix. “But why not simply use the balloon to lift ourselves to the surface? Or even just one of us?”
“The volume of the bag isn’t great enough to produce that much lift—even one person would be too much for it,” Tom explained. “But this isobraid has neutral buoyancy! It’ll weigh almost nothing as it unreels at this end and hangs down from the bag.”
“Well, I’ve heard of a lot of crazy things in my time,” laughed Ham Teller; “and I love ’em all!”
Each of the hydrolung diversuits had a compact kit of tools in its sealable pouch, including a sharp-edged wirecutter. Working methodicaly, Tom cut two short lengths of the isobraid, then extracted the solar battery from his unusable ion-drive unit and made crude connections to the battery’s positive and negative terminals, which were sealed from the surrounding water. Instantly a fizz of bubbles began to rise from the free ends of the two wires! “This one’s the cathode,” Tom said, pointing. “This is, the electrode with a net negative charge. This is the hydrogen stream; the bubbles from the anode are oxygen. Gotta keep ’em separated― ”
“Unless you plan to recreate the landing of the Hindenburg,” wisecracked Ham Teller, a comment which drew a puzzled glance from Alix Tuundvar.
“Looks more like rising cigarette smoke than a stream of bubbles,” observed Dan.
Tom nodded. “The pressure down here keeps the individual bubbles super-small.”
Even without the young inventor’s explanation, it was easy to tell which stream of bubbles was the hydrogen, rushing toward the surface in an upside-down cataract as if jet propelled. With Bud’s help Tom placed the open mouth of the sack over the stream and anchored it with isobraid cable. Hydrogen began to collect inside.
“How long before it fills up?” asked George Braun.
“Not long,” Tom replied. “—if you consider several hours ‘not long’.”
Bud groaned. “Hours? Good night!”
“Hydrogen’s extremely compressible, flyboy. It’s going to take a lot of it to shove out the water against the pressure at this depth.” He added that in his estimation the bag would have to be nearly full to lift its own weight. “But at least this buoyant isobraid won’t add to the overall weight.”
The inflation time was more than long enough for each hydronaut to develop a yawning gulf of hunger. Nothing was said, but Tom knew they were all becoming weaker.
Finally the bag tugged upwards against the isobraid line, which they had fastened to the bag’s carrying loop after running it through one of the metal rings on the slab. “The end of the wire doesn’t have to extend into the air,” Tom said. “Just as long as it’s more or less at the surface.”
“Let ’er rip!” said Bud. The six gave weak cheers as Tom released the hydro-balloon and it floated upward, quickly whisking out of sight in the dimness. All they could do was watch the isobraid pay out, yard after yard.
Tense minutes later the line ceased to move. “It must’ve broken the surface,” Tom declared. “Now let’s make a few calls!”
After anchoring the line firmly, he made a connection to his diversuit radiocom antenna output, doing what he could to boost the signal. When Alix asked if Tom would be able to receive incoming messages, the youth shook his head. “Outgoing only—and just beeps at that. I’ll be transmitting Morse code, ‘SOS,’ and ‘TSE’ for Tom Swift Enterprises.”
Dan murmured, “Let’s hope somebody’s up there listening.”
“I think we can count on that!”
Yet as one hour followed another, their hope began to leak away into the icy waters. “The power must not be enough to overcome the resistance over such a great length,” Tom said in discouragement. “Or there might be an internal break in the line.”
Bud snorted. The predicament had roused the young flier to anger! “Look, I was able to make it a little ways up just by swimming. If I went hand over hand on this cable― ”
Ham spoke before Tom could. “Take it from a scientist, Bud, it wouldn’t work. Your weight would just haul the bag back down again.”
“Yeah? It had a little extra buoyancy after countering its own weight. Otherwise it wouldn’t have risen at all. Isn’t that so, Tom?”
“You’re right,” Tom confirmed; “but so’s Ham. You might make a some progress upward, but you’d run into the sack end before you were even halfway.”
Dan Walde’s boyish face showed the fear that was mixed with discouragement. “A few more of those sacks and we could have made a bundle of balloons. That would have been enough to lift one of us.”
Alix pointed out calmly, “But we looked for more. I looked myself. Not a one.”
Suddenly Tom made a muffled sound. He picked up one of the aquatometers from the ground and held it in front of his visor, staring at it intently. Then he shifted his gaze to Bud.
The black-haired youth knew instantly what was running through the mind of his genius friend! “The aquatometer cases! Lightweight—and waterproof!”
“Of course!” George Braun exclaimed happily. “We pull the mechanism, fill the cases with gas― ”
“Instant balloons!” chortled Ham. “Six of them!”
Tom was calculating volumes and water displacement in his head. “Yes. I think the total will be enough to lift one person.”
“All we can do is try,” observed Alix. “For, you know, we are getting weak. I am speaking of our young comrade in particular.” He nodded toward Dan Walde.
“I—I guess I’m just a little spooked by all this,” the Nebraskan said.
Tom said sympathetically, “Not what you were expecting, was it.”
They labored for hours, but in due time the six cases had been filled with hydrogen and resealed. It was Bud who would make the ascent, arguing that his muscular strength and swim experience might prove critical in handling rough conditions at the surface.
Straining against their individual cables, the cases were tied to the young hydronaut one by one. Four cases seemed to reduce his weight almost to zero. After the remaining two, he was straining upward against the long line to the surface, which he was grasping with his diversuited fingers.
“Jetz, I look like one of those balloon vendors at a carnival!” he joked. “All ready for liftoff, Tom?”
“Ready!” was the answer. “Good luck, pal. Your suit radiocom won’t reach Sweden, but you should be able to contact seacraft—maybe Iceland.”
“I won’t give up until you’re all up there with me,” Bud said gravely. Then he loosened his grip slightly and bobbed upward out of sight, though the glowing bead of his lamp would allow them to track his progress.
“Ah, amazing!” muttered Alix. “Who could have dreamed such a story, hmm? My girlfriends will not believe it.”
“How many do you have?” asked Ham Teller.
“Not many. A handful.”
“I imagine they would be.”
Dan suddenly signaled, “Take a look at your scope, Tom!”
The young inventor glanced at his sonarscope mask image. A strange blip was projected on the curving screen.
“Too big for a sub, isn’t it?” George queried.
Tom agreed. “I’d say it’s definitely more than one object. Might be a school of fish.”
Alert but curious, the five divided their frazzled attentions between the readouts on their visor-screens and the dimming point of light high above. Soon they could make out a number of large dark creatures swimming straight toward them.
Tom’s eyes widened in fear. “Bud!” he sonophoned.
“What’s up—down—Skipper? I see the blips on― ”
“Killer whales!” Tom warned over his suit mike. “The most dangerous things we could meet underwater!”
To the herd of great sea beasts, Bud would be a tempting morsel dangling on a line!
TOM SWIFT’S DOUBLE
THERE appeared to be at least a dozen monsters in the pack. Dimly visible, the killers were black on top and whitish below—the colors slit by their wide, ferocious-looking mouths.
“Wh-what’s the drill, Tom?” Dan asked tensely.
“Cut the lamps—sonar pulse too,” Tom ordered, knowing his words would reach Bud as well. “And lie flat, guys.”
As he spoke, Tom plucked from the utility pouch that ran along his upper arm an object that looked like a metal arrow. He aimed the device toward the approaching killer whales and slightly ahead of them, and adjusted his suit controls. Instantly the undersea arrow shot off into the gray-green at high speed. At a coded sonar-signal, a stream of blue-black dye jetted from the front end and spread through the water in an inky cloud.
“What is it?” sonophoned Alix. “A repellant?”
“More like an attractant! I ‘dialed-in’ a chemical combo with a scent. The whales’ll think it’s something wounded, maybe bleeding, and follow after it.” Tom lay flat next to the others, but turned over on his back to see. “I think it’s working. They’re turning aside.”
“Thank goodness!” breathed Dan. “What was that thing you shot off, Tom?”
“Sort’ve a self-propelled torpedo, remote controlled. No warhead—but you see what it can do. I’d planned to test it when I had an opportunity.”
“No diver should be without one!” gulped Ham.
“Lying flat, we were probably safe,” Tom said, “but Bud wasn’t.”
The silhouettes had disappeared. Tom switched on his sonarscope again, and after studying his screen, signaled all clear.
“Those babies have sharp hearing,” he explained over the sonarphone. “They would have homed in on us easily if they’d detected any sound.”
“From the sonar blips they weren’t as big as most whales I’ve read about,” Bud sonophoned.
“Only thirty feet long,” Tom said dryly.
Added Braun, “But that ‘killer’ tag is no joke, Bud. They like to bite chunks out of the bigger whales, and they swallow seals whole.”
“Whew! Let’s be glad we’re not seals!”
“Don’t forget, our special sonar pulse makes us sound like porpoises—and they love those, too.” Tom grinned at the stunned grunt Bud transmitted. “In fact, they’re one of the largest beasts of prey, and I doubt if they’re very choosy about what kind of meat they go after.”
“They’re welcome to anything around,” Dan Walde responded, “as long as it isn’t us.”
Tom took the opportunity to reconfirm their position on his localculator, noting that the guyot was about 100 miles northeast of the extreme northern tip of Iceland. Then he used his sonarscope to locate Bud. “Almost there, flyboy!” he signaled.
“Can’t be soon enough for me,” Bud transmitted in answer. “I think I have a problem, pal.”
“I’m slowing down—quite a bit. The cases must be leaking a little.”
The five beneath waited with growing concern. If Bud couldn’t reach the surface, he would have to slip back down—and all hope would be lost!
“Made it!” Bud sonophoned, joyous and breathless. “Had to swim a couple vertical laps, though. Now I’ve got my arm latched onto the bag-balloon.”
He reported that the early morning weather topside was rough. “It’s tossing me around like a cork. Can’t see a thing, either. But I’ve got my breath back—I’ll start transmitting.”
In less than a minute Bud reported that he was in touch with a weather station in Iceland. “The guy didn’t speak English too well, but I gather there’s quite a search going on for the ‘lost Americans’.”
“Knowing Dad, Swift Enterprises is leading it!”
It was a British naval vessel, the H.M.S. Gemstone, that ultimately managed the deep-sea rescue. Tom and his companions were hoisted up and aboard via a jerry-rigged jacob’s ladder, lowered from a crane on long cable. The cruiser’s small crew cheered and applauded as the captain met the weary hydronauts, masks finally open. “There must be a hundred seacraft and aircraft searching the Atlantic for you boys—the whole bloody world’s got into it!” he reported as he shook hands with Tom. “Your Flying Lab is among them—we radioed them immediately, of course.”
“I’m anxious to speak to my family, Captain,” the young inventor replied. “Where are we headed?”
“The Gemstone is bound for Southampton. Our deck is hardly large enough to accomodate your giant jet, but perhaps― ”
Tom responded thoughtfully, “Sir, we all need some rest, and probably a little time in your infirmary. Rather than impose on you further, why not proceed with your schedule and take us to port? We can catch the Sky Queen at Heathrow in London.”
“And lissen, buddy, when you speak to the bleating media out there,” added Ham Teller, “be sure’n tell ’em it was Tom here who figured out how to make that call—and Bud Barclay over there who went up topside and made it!”
George Braun whispered to Bud, “For now, we’re not saying word one about Kong Dubya. Ham wants to think a little. And that’s something I’d like to see!” Already half asleep, Bud chuckled.
The following day the six arrived quietly, with the help of some dense fog, at Southampton, where limousines awaited to whisk them to central London.
If Southhampton had been kept sedate, London proved to be anything but. When the limos let the travelers off at a small plaza overlooking the Thames, they were greeted by a deafening chorus of tugboat whistles, ships’ sirens, and the excited yells of sailors and passengers lining the rails of vessels in the harbor, nearby streets, and windows of buildings—even roofs!
Tom and his friends were stunned by the reception. Shouts and waves from one of the piers, down a flight of steps from the limousine plaza, showed them where they were expected to go to officially meet and greet England. Led by Tom and Bud the six headed toward what was clearly a welcoming committee on the quayside, pushing past a whooping tangle of eager arms and hands.
“The City of London welcomes you to England after your magnificent achievement!” announced a dignified-looking official. “We had word from Mr. Swift that you would be arriving today.” His words were almost drowned by the cheers and exclamations of the throng. Some achievement—we got ourselves deep-sea stranded and didn’t drown! thought the young inventor wryly. But he smiled and nodded in acknowledgment, in the best interests of trans-Atlantic relations.
“Wow! Looks as though we’ve really made the big time!” Bud muttered to Tom.
“Do you guys ever get used to this stuff?” asked young Dan Walde nervously.
“It’s nothing so much,” commented Alix Tuundvar. “I will endure another one of these in Sweden.”
Shutters clicked frantically and TV cameras trained on the six disaster-heroes. Microphones were held up on booms, trapping them in a thicket of metal trees. As the brief ceremony was concluded, a barrage of questions was fired at them from every direction.
“How do you feel, boys?”
“What was your first reaction as you came up?”
“Did you all come through in good shape?”
“Which one of you is dead?”
“How about saying hello to the television audience?”
“Gentlemen, I represent Tridenteen Swim-wear—!”
Tom grinned helplessly. “Hi! Glad we made it. We’re all fine, but—well, frankly we had no idea we’d receive such an all-out welcome. Pardon me for not answering all your questions, but—you know, water in the ears.”
A loud outburst of cheers and laughs greeted his words, and the city dignitary said, “We British have always admired great feats of exploration and adventure, and we feel that your sub-Atlantic saga of survival—entirely alone down there, stuck, as one might put it, on the bottom—represents a milestone in man’s conquest of the ocean!”
Again the air rang with cheers.
It took nearly an hour for the hydronauts to escape from the welcoming crowd. “Parakeets!” grumbled Dan quietly. “This really undoes our rest aboard the cruiser! I’ll be glad to get back to the Charger and my training course.”
Tom was sympathetic. “At least you four heroes of sea-science get set free. Bud and I have agreed to stay here for another couple days and what they call the real ceremony.” Mr. Swift had arranged for Dan, George, Ham, and Alix to be flown to their various destinations aboard the jetrocopter Skeeter, which had come along with the Sky Queen in its aerial hangar-hold.
Then Tom and Bud were driven through streets decked with bunting to a hotel, where they were met by Arvid Hanson, Chow Winkler, and other members of the Flying Lab’s crew. “I jest knew you boys wouldn’t want t’ stay down there sleepin’ with th’ fishes!” blubbered Chow.
The hotel manager bustled up to the Shopton two and pumped their hands. “We’ve reserved a suite on our diplomats floor—all the latest in security, cameras, motion sensors, even uniformed guards at the elevators.” Tom noticed that the guards’ “uniform” featured gold braid and epaulets. Somewhere a movie usher is missing his work clothes, he thought with a smile.
The manager turned to Chow and the others. “Of course, we’d be most pleased if the others in your party were to choose us for their stay in London. You’ll find our rates for business stays entirely reasonable.”
“That’s okay,” frowned Chow. “We got our own hotel t’stay in. An’ ours kin fly!”
Bidding goodbye to the other Americans, the youths were finally permitted to drag themselves up to their suite and through the door. There they found that new tailor-made suits of clothing and other accessories had been provided by enthusiastic English merchants, full of genuine gratitude and perhaps a small degree of commercial motivation.
After a rest it was the dinner hour, during which the suits were to be given some use in the unblinking public eye. The boys tried them on. “Perfect fit, too!” Bud crowed as he inspected himself appreciatively in front of a mirror. “Yours too, Skipper.”
“Dad must have cabled our measurements,” Tom said, a bit embarrassed.
“More likely George Dilling,” Bud retorted. “I think this all falls under ‘publicity’ for good old Tom Swift Enterprises.”
Dinner was refreshingly quiet—as the elegant restaurant had been barred to everyone but its doting staff. Finishing, Tom parted a curtain and eyed the newsy crowd lolling about the restaurant’s entrance. “Good night! I’d love to take a leg-stretching walk, but― ”
“Please don’t trouble yourselves over that little detail, gentlemen,” winked the maitre d’. “It happens that our fine establishment possesses a very unprepossessing back door!”
Without the garland of media clinging to them like a noose, Tom was pleased to discover that they were little noticed as they strolled down a busy street among drifts of tourists and marching businesspeople. “Guess we look like typical teenagers!” noted Bud.
Tom snorted. “That’s what I’ve always thought, flyboy!”
A long, relaxed stroll brought them before a building in Marylebone Road which bore a sign: Madame Glynne’s of London.
“The wax museum!” Tom burst out laughing, pointing to a standing sign that said: If you wish to meet our heroic Tom Swift, he is waiting for you inside! “You mean I’m in there?”
“Why not, genius boy? You’re famous!” Bud said, clapping his chum on the back.
After being waved inside without tickets by the boggling attendant, they went into a dimly lit gallery lined with eerily lifelike figures. Among them were Winston Churchill, various British monarchs, Adolf Hitler, Charles Dickens, Admiral Nelson dying on the deck of his flagship, Marie Antoinette about to be guillotined, and a blood-chilling assortment of famous criminals.
“Hunh! Guess it’s not always a good thing to be famous!” Bud muttered.
Presently they stopped short before a waxen youth with a ragged crew cut, dressed in a space suit, and holding an astronaut’s helmet.
“Hey! It’s you, Tom!” Bud gasped in glee. “That’s the suit you wore on the moon!” Looking around, they saw that the entire section was devoted to Tom Swift’s many space ventures.
“Good grief!’’ Tom murmured. “What a weird feeling to meet yourself face to face! Photos are one thing, but in 3-D... I’ve got to get back to work on my TV idea.”
A little boy who was visiting the museum with his parents suddenly chortled out: “Mum, look! There’s the real Tom Swift! I saw him on the telly this morning!”
His mother stared. “Oh no, dear, not a bit. Just looks a tad like him, you know.”
But the boy trotted up close. With a chuckle Tom bent down to shake his hand and the wide-eyed boy scrutinized his face. “Hello, sir,” the boy said gravely. “Pleased to make your acquaintance.” The he turned away and shouted across to his mother, “You were right, mum. It’s not him—just some man.”
Soon the proud proprietor of the museum strode briskly over to greet them. “My dear Swift, it is indeed an honor to be visited by one of our most popular attractions!”
Shaking the man’s hand, Tom said: “Never thought I’d see myself done up in wax!”
“Well now, you know, it really isn’t wax, after all,” said the man confidentially. “Hasn’t been for thirty years—all polymer plastic thingum these days. We have plans to audioanimate you, make you smile and move your head and so forth.”
“Tom can already do all those things,” Bud noted blandly. “Even more.”
“Er, yes. Very good. But now, I wonder...” The proprietor, Mr. Smullius, lowered his voice. “Perhaps we might make an arrangement, Tom and—well, you two. You see, we pride ourselves on the liveliness and accuracy of our replicas. Alas, time and dirty air conditioning have had a go at you, Tom, and I perceive you’re starting to sag and yellow just a bit.”
Tom laughed. “Inventing’s hard work, sir.”
“Haw! Yes. Surely. What I’d propose is that you allow us to take castings of you—the two of you, in fact, as I recognize your companion here as the fellow you always see― ”
“I’m sure we’d be pleased to cooperate,” said Tom hastily with a glance at Bud. “If it won’t take long.”
“Mercy me, no—all mechanical, sort of a gentle press apparatus, as when your dentist takes a casting of your tooth. Face, head, upper bodies only. Shirts off, eh? That’s all. Fifteen precious minutes. And in reward,” Smullius continued, “perhaps you might like to take old Tom back to America with you. Your firm has a visitors center, does it not?”
“It does, and our public information officer has mentioned how he’d like to set up something like this.”
“Next to the blue-striped T-shirt display,” Bud commented mischievously.
They endured the pressings, and Mr. Smullius—who was rather waxen himself, Tom observed—promised to have the old figure shipped to Heathrow, to the Sky Queen, the following day.
Early next morning Tom and Bud, in backwards caps, contrived to slip away for an unobserved stroll through Hyde Park, then along Buckingham Palace.
They returned to the hotel, slipped out of the casual walkabout outfits that had served them as disguises, and showered. By the time the boys had changed, a helicopter had arrived at the hotel’s helipad to whisk them off for the second, even bigger reception, this time with the Mayor and the Prime Minister.
“Hmm. I don’t see any brass bands waiting,” Bud remarked as the helicopter touched down in an empty ruggers-field.
To the surprise of Tom and Bud, the trio of officials that came striding across the field to greet them were not the expected officials—and were extremely stern-faced.
“How do you do?” Tom said politely. “I take it you gentlemen are the—er—reception committee we’re supposed to meet?”
“All plans have been changed, I fear,” one of the men said with cool correctness. “The massive ceremonies have been held up while we investigate a reported fraud you two chaps are said to have perpetrated.”
“Fraud!” Bud exclaimed in angry astonishment. “Just what do you mean by that?”
“Mm, common dictionary word, don’t you think?” was the reply. “Of course I’m referring to your so-called feat of survival beneath the Atlantic Ocean.”
OUTSIDE THE BOX
FOR a moment, Tom and Bud were too thunderstruck at the official’s words to speak. Then Tom reddened angrily. Although he cared little about dignitaries, speeches, and welcoming ceremonies, the young inventor was concerned about the reputation of the family business, Swift Enterprises.
“I don’t know what you mean by ‘so-called feat’,” Tom gritted. “But if you’re implying that we― ” He paused the rush of words to calm himself. “Might I ask just who you gentlemen are?”
“Chief-Inspector Bycroft Raeburn, Scotland Yard. No doubt you’ve heard of us?” stated the man in charge, producing his credentials. “At any rate, I’m here at the personal request of the P.M. to ensure that there is no... embarrassing linkage between Her Majesty’s government and what may be― ”
One of the other officials spoke up nervously, “Perhaps we should discuss this matter in private—out of the public eye. I suggest we go inside.” He gestured at the large building that stood at the edge of the grounds, where more police officers stood waiting.
A comfortable office had been commandeered inside for the use of security personnal. Raeburn invited Tom and Bud to sit down.
“We regret that this interview should be necessary,” he said crisply but with a hint of apology, “but you two fellows have been accused of faking your underwater exploit. However, we’re eager to hear your side of the story.”
“We’ve heard no ‘story’ as yet,” Tom retorted. “Inspector, this sort of thing has happened to us before—false accusations meant to delay or embarrass us. Suppose you tell us who made this charge.”
Raeburn harrumphed and fingered his bristling, sandy mustache. “I’m afraid it’s rather against policy to reveal the names of informers,” he said. “One mustn’t discourage confidential information these days, wot? Briefly, Mr. Swift—you don’t mind my calling you ‘Mr. Swift,’ I should hope?—we’ve received a little whisper in the ear that while you were supposedly aboard your ship in the North Sea you were in fact present in the town of Shopton, U.S.A. The informer claims that you six later embarked in a Swift submarine from your pier in New York, and in that way were deposited on the floor of the Icelandic Sea just an hour or two before your so-called rescue—an operation which, one might suggest, cost Her Majesty’s Treasury a bit of money and our Royal Navy a bit of time.”
Tom and Bud looked at each other, both thinking the same thing. Tom’s promise to John Thurston to hold confidential the details of the European plot had certainly put them in an awkward position!
“Inspector, I don’t deny that I was in Shopton for a few days last week. I was asked to return to deal with an emergency, a confidential matter,” Tom began.
“And did you so inform your employers, the Swedish people?”
“Er... no, I didn’t. It was—there were reasons why― ”
“Wait!” Bud exploded. “You don’t need to go into any of that, Tom! Inspector, we ran into an American sub along the way, in the North Sea. Contact Captain Frost of the U.S.S. Disbursement!”
Tom grinned at his pal. “That’s right—he’ll confirm our story, Inspector.”
But Raeburn shook his head. “By a certain irony, we learned about this encounter earlier this very morning. In commencing our inquiries we were able to get in touch with Mr. Tuundvar, who made precisely the same suggestion—oddly enough. And so we did so. But alas, this Captain Frost denies that the encounter took place.”
“What!” Tom was appalled—and bewildered. “But—but even so, many people can confirm― ”
Raeburn shrugged. “Of course. Many people. But all of them are employees, colleagues, relatives, or personal friends. Interested parties, eh? What we would like to see, Mr. Swift, is relevant testimony from persons with no hound in the hunt. Surely you can sympathize with our desire not to be used. The British people take a dim view of fraudulent manipulations in the cause of publicity, even granting that your firm’s recent disappointments to the north have been rather harshly regarded in the press. Somewhat unfair.”
Tom and Bud glared at the man. The insulting implications of his words infuriated them.
Yet his eyes took on a twinkling light as he calmly puffed on his pipe. “But perhaps my description of our contact with this Captain Frost was a bit summary. He didn’t precisely deny that he saw you six. He replied only that he was unable to confirm the fact—or even the course and mission of his vessel. But if he were to gain permission, perhaps...
“What, still unhappy, lads? Very well, here’s something interesting to look at.”
At a nod the Chief-Inspector’s assistant handed him a large envelope, from which he withdrew a photo blow-up and handed it to Tom. As Bud looked on over his shoulder, the young inventory studied it with a sinking feeling. “Yes, sir. I don’t deny that that’s me in the picture.”
“Some sort of recreation event?”
“No, just a—an incident at a local restaurant, the Quel Fromage. There was a young lady walking around taking pictures; someone got ahold of this one, and― ”
“And thoughtfully passed it along to us,” said Raeburn mildly. “Do note this little man over here to the side holding a newspaper. My word!—it’s the estimable Shopton Evening Bulletin. Showing a headline from last week, a day Tom Swift was presumed to be ensconsed on his ship managing the construction of the chunnel.”
“I’ve already admitted that I returned to Shopton for a few days.”
“So you did. But the accompanying note—my word, I said it!—made further charges concerning your subsequent actions. And so the remaining question is precisely when you and your friends returned to your― ”
Raeburn was interrupted by the opening of the office door. “Excuse me, Chief-Inspector. A word, if I may?”
Raeburn left the office for two minutes, leaving Tom and Bud to seethe and whisper. When he returned his ruddy face was stiff with embarrassment. “I am informed, gentlemen, that we have indeed received word from a surprisingly high level of the American government that your account of your meeting with the U.S.S. Disbursement is confirmed. That—er——certainly disposes of any charges of fakery,” he mumbled. “Please accept our apologies for this frightful mistake. I offer this on behalf of Queen and country. Your NATO allies, you may recall.”
Sudden relief left the youths almost dizzy. Tom, however, was still concerned over the charge. “Captain Frost can’t confirm our whole trip,” he pointed out. “Unless we can validate all of it, some people may go on believing we faked the important part.”
“I think you needn’t worry, Tom,” stated the Chief-Inspector, suddenly looking friendly and rather vulnerable. “I may say, well—this charge and evidence was received in a somewhat roundabout manner, rather outside our customary channels. It strikes me that we were directed to take it seriously for what one might term...”
“Political reasons,” Tom concluded. “I understand.”
“And I thank you for it. Tell you what—I don’t happen to know the precise provenance of this photograph and the note that went with it. I shall make a few inquiries and let you know as much as I am permitted.”
“I’d appreciate it, sir,” Tom responded. “We’ve found it useful to know who our enemies are whenever we can.”
“And you’ve had your share, eh?”
“Anybody who wants our share is welcome to it!” Bud snorted.
An officer drove Tom and Bud back to the hotel and escorted them through a discreet side entrance. As they crossed the lobby, a nasally, Brit-twanged female voice cried out:
“Cor, it’s them! The bloomin’ inventor ’imself—and that handsome footballer bloke!”
They whirled, Tom slightly chagrined, Bud more than slightly pleased. Two attractive young girls stood a ways away, faces glowing with exaggerated excitement. One was as brilliantly blond as the other was raven-dark.
“Good grief!” choked Bud in amazement. “Sandy! Bashalli!”
Bashalli forced a mock-giggle like a star-struck schoolgirl. “Oh my, we’ve heard so-o-o much about you two heroes, we just had to meet you in person!”
The two were pretty as pictures in their summer suits. Sandy and Bash joined the boys in laughing, delighted at the surprise. “When did you two hit town?” Bud demanded.
“We flew in this morning,” Sandy explained.
“Well, well! Small world!” Tom said with a pleased grin.
Bashalli’s eyes twinkled. “One of those quaint British expressions?”
“This is great!” Bud exclaimed. “Now we can all take in London together!”
“For a day or so, anyhow,” Sandy added.
“A day or so?” Bud echoed in dismay. “That’s not even enough time to watch the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace!”
Bash raised a delicate eyebrow. “They must be rather slow guards.”
“This is just a stop on our way to Paris,” explained Sandy gleefully. “Daddy asked me to attend a little show about commuter aircraft, representing Swift Construction.” Sandra Swift had become an expert pilot, employed by the Swift Construction Company, Enterprises’ Shopton affiliate, as a demonstrator of the company’s signature Pigeon Special miniplane.
“Now Sandra, let us be entirely frank with these valiant mer-boys,” remonstrated Bashalli. “It was not so much that Mr. Swift asked her to attend. Rather, he asked her to stop ‘bugging him’ about the idea.”
“Anyway,” continued Sandy with a mock-glare, “I flew us here on one of the Cubjets. Tomorrow—on to Orly!”
Tom shook his head reprovingly. “Fine. Back home, you two are always finger-wagging about us being too busy for dates. And now, after we purposely arranged to get ourselves marooned at the bottom of the Atlantic so that we could sightsee together in London, now you’re going off and leaving us.”
Sandy chuckled and patted her brother’s hand soothingly. “Don’t take it too hard, Tomonomo. Bashi and I have both visited London before, but she’s never been to Paris.”
“We will permit you to accompany us around Paris if you wish—and if we happen to be free,” added the pretty native of Pakistan. “You can fly yourselves over in the Sky Queen whenever you can pull yourselves away from the admiring throngs.”
“Assuming Paris is still there by then,” giggled Sandy.
Tom winced, but laughed. “At least we can take you two out for dinner tonight. We do have a few new stories to regale you with.”
“Nice,” responded Bash. “I woke up today in the mood for a good regaling. But perhaps we can get started early?”
The girls, who were staying at the hotel, had planned an afternoon of shopping and sightseeing, with the boys tagging along as a command performance. Yielding laughingly, the two boys excused themselves to freshen up. In their hotel room Tom went into the bedroom and placed a hurried transatlantic call to Harlan Ames at Enterprises via a Private Ear Radio unit that had been brought over in the Sky Queen.
“Good show, chaps!” Ames quipped. “Of course we saw your arrival at London yesterday on the videophone, relayed over TV.”
“You missed half the fun,” Tom retorted wryly. He told of their morning interrogation by Scotland Yard.
Ames was indignant and promised to try to find out, through security authority and Interpol channels to Scotland Yard, the name of the tipster who had accused the boys of faking. “I’m sure this ties in with the Centurion business and the destruction of the SMB.”
“And maybe a little more,” murmured Tom cryptically, declining to elaborate.
Tom then spoke to his father and mother, as he had done several times since his rescue. “So I believe you’ve run into a couple unexpected fans over there,” prompted Mrs. Swift jokingly.
“You and Dad really know how to keep a secret,” Tom replied. “But it sure was a welcome one!”
The last PER call was one that Tom had been anticipating with mixed feelings. “Hello, Tom,” answered John Thurston, who had been provided one of the units.
“Hello, sir,” said the young inventor. “I wanted to report on a couple things—and also thank you for clearing us a couple hours ago.”
“With Scotland Yard. I assume it was your people who worked out the permissions that allowed Captain Frost to confirm our story.”
There was a brief silence on Thurston’s end. “We do what we can, Tom—when we can.”
“I appreciate that,” Tom stated; “and I also realize that you have to keep some things secret from us, even when it puts our lives at risk.”
“Our country makes demands on all of us now and then, Tom,” replied the CIA official evasively. “On me—and on you.”
Tom now spoke with intensity. “But realistically, sir, you have a pretty good idea from the start of what I’ll be able to figure out on my own. Evidently that sub, the Disbursement, wasn’t just on a routine patrol mission, given the high levels of clearance that were required to allow the Captain to verify running into us. I’m pretty sure they were down there searching for the Centurion! And as a matter of fact, it seems to me they were headed roughly in the direction of that guyot. Why were they searching there, hundreds of miles from where the ship went down?”
“Guyot? An undersea rock formation, isn’t it?”
“Mr. Thurston, keep whatever secrets you need to—but please don’t be coy with me! The equipment we found there, even the isobraid we used in saving ourselves, is of a special type that I recognized right off. It was manufactured a couple years back by a tech company in the U.S. under contract with the Defense Department. The workers we detected on the guyot― ”
“It’s called the Oberjuerge Seamount Formation.”
“It’s a government project!” Tom exploded. “Something to do with that ‘water X’ colloid that destroyed the submarine tunnel!”
“It’s not a government operation,” responded Thurston calmly. “It’s under NATO. The United States is only one partner in it. And it’s classified.”
“Good for it. Your protective measures—the electrotaxis trawlers—nearly killed us, and left us stranded. Were you folks planning to rescue us? Were we expendable—because we knew too much?”
“Don’t be ridiculous!” Thurston barked heatedly. “No one realized you were down there. Your suits are sonar-proof!—have you forgotten? Captain Frost reported his encounter with you, but we had no idea you’d end up blundering into― ” He paused. “At the guyot.”
“The CIA had no idea? What a relief!” said the Shoptonian dryly. “What was the Centurion really carrying? What is ‘water X’—a weapon?”
John Thurston evidently realized that he had already said too much. “Tom... we’re all glad you’re safe. I suggest you and your friends enjoy a pleasant European vacation. Signing off.”
The PER speaker clicked.
The youth was left simmering with anger and resentment. I’m going to uncover the truth whether they like it or not! he told himself. Whatever’s going on, whatever that stuff really is, it renders our hydro-repelatrons useless! All our undersea operations could become deathtraps!
Bud had remained discreetly in the living-room area of the suite, having heard his chum’s angry tone. When Tom rejoined him, Bud didn’t mention the call, but gestured toward the door. “Just got a delivery!”
“Good grief, what is it—a coffin?” The object was a man-sized crate!
Bud laughed. “Hey, let’s not get too imaginative, pal! The men who trucked it in said it was from Madame Glynne’s. I signed for it.”
Tom approached and examined the big box, made of hardened plastic and bound with metal bands. It proved to be securely locked. “I get it,” Tom declared. “It’s my double—the wax figure that got replaced in his old age.”
“They must’ve got the orders mixed up, delivering it here instead of to the airport.”
“Wish I could show it to Sandy and Bash, but it looks like they didn’t provide a key or combination-code. It’ll have to wait. I’ll arrange for a crew to pick it up and take it to the Queen.”
Bud went down to the lobby to meet up with Sandy and Bashalli, Tom explaining that he would be along presently after making a few further PER calls.
“Presently” became ten, then twenty minutes. After making the calls, Tom showered and changed. As he slipped on his wristwatch—an elaborate device that Bud had given him as a Christmas gift—he glanced at the time and winced. Reentering the living-room area, he stopped short in surprise. The lid of the wax figure’s “sarcophagus” yawned wide open on its hinges—and the crate was empty!
Bewildered, Tom approached the crate. A sound from behind him—the gentle creak of a closet door—made him turn about.
A man stood nearby, within arm’s reach. He wore what looked like an oxygen mask over his face, and he held a small, flexible tube in his hand. Raising his arm, he brought it close to the young inventor’s startled face.
“Hello,” said the man.
A puff of yellowish vapor whuffed out of the tube, stinging Tom’s face. He tottered backwards, knocking against the side of the delivery crate.
And then Tom Swift lost consciousness and consciousness lost Tom Swift!
THE CRYING WATCH
IT WAS past noon when Bud and the two girls decided they had had more than enough of seeing London through the revolving door of a posh hotel lobby. “If our young prodigy can’t make it downstairs in three more minutes, we’ll have to go back to our rooms and re-freshen up,” complained Bashalli.
Bud chuckled sympathetically. “Sorry, ladies. At least we got to see ’em lug that dummy crate out the door.” Some twenty minutes earlier they had watched two workmen maneuver the big box down a side hall and out the deliveries entrance.
“We would do better to date the mannequin,” sniffed the young Pakistani. “At least one would always know where he is.”
“Tom gets so wrapped up in things,” Sandy agreed. “Bud, would you― ”
“Okay, okay. Sounds like the Barclay wit is wearing thin on you two.” Bud grinned and glanced at his wristwatch, the twin to his pal’s. “I’ll go get genius boy. I’ll probably have to kidnap him to get him off that PER.”
Bud rode on up in the lift to his floor. As Bud opened the door of their room, he saw—absence! With the crate out of the living room, the carpet looked broad and bare. “Hey, pal, where’re you hiding?”
Bud checked the bedroom and the bath, returning puzzled to the living room. Their changes of clothes and other accountrements—provided by the hotel or brought over from the Sky Queen—lay untouched, and Tom’s PER sat on the dresser.
Bud glanced around the front room and called, “Okay, you comedian, I fell for your little joke! You can come out now and have your laugh!”
There was no answer. Bud hadn’t expected one.
Bud went to the closets and jerked open the doors. Empty. So was the elegant, tiled shower. Feeling more foolish than ever, Bud peered under the beds. Apparently Tom was nowhere in the suite.
He felt a pang of alarm. “What goes on here?” Bud muttered, telling himself: Tom’s not me—he wouldn’t carry a little prank this far! He called the desk. “Do you know if Mr. Swift went out? Did he call down a message for—er—Barclay and party?”
“I don’t recall seeing him leave. One moment, please.” The clerk checked the rack. “No, sir, his transponder-key wasn’t turned in, so I assume he is still in the hotel. In fact, I spoke to Mr. Swift just awhile ago when the van men arrived, the ones who came to take the large crate to the airport. Mr. Swift had called down earlier, telling me to expect them.”
“Yes, he told me he was going to arrange for the crate to be moved. I didn’t expect them to come so soon.” As he reflected on the clerk’s earlier words, Bud asked: “But you say you talked to Tom after the men arrived as well?”
“Oh yes, sir, just a short while ago. Is there a problem I might assist you with?”
“I—don’t know. When you spoke to him the second time—how did he sound?”
“Excuse me?” responded the politely patient clerk.
“Well, he’s—he’s been feeling a little ill. I thought he might’ve gone out― ”
“Oh, to a chemist’s? Perhaps so, Mr. Barclay.” The clerk paused. “Actually, if I may say... Mr. Swift did sound a bit different on the phone the second time—somewhat hoarse, I should say.”
Bud’s heart sank. Jetz! Ten to one that wasn’t Tom at all! “Look, Reginald― ”
“I need to be put in touch with a guy named Raeburn at Scotland Yard. He’s a Chief of Inspections or something. We’re talkin’ fast, Reg. Can you do that?”
“My dear sir, I do everything ‘fast’.”
“I’ll be down to talk with you.” After hanging up, Bud paced back and forth trying to decide what to do. What should he tell the girls? Should he contact the Sky Queen? Should he call Harlan Ames—or Tom’s father?
Bud’s thoughts were still whirling when he rejoined the girls in the lobby. He tried, and failed, to put matters in the least alarming light possible. “Bud, what could have happened to Tom?” Bash asked anxiously.
“No telling—he may just have gone out somewhere, I suppose. All of a sudden. Without telling us—or anybody. Leaving us waiting.”
Sandy was in no mood to be placated. “Oh, Bud, don’t even try. He’s been kidnapped! Obviously those men had him tied up in that big crate.”
Bud had to give a reluctant nod. “I sure hope not, but you and those mystery stories you like have been right before.”
Bashalli, pale with fright, put her arm around Sandy. “The police here are very efficient. Let’s not worry.”
Bud dialed the Flying Lab at the London Airport. “He hasn’t checked in here with us,” stated Arv Hanson. “Should we—no, I suppose we should all stay here on the plane in case he shows up. He could be on his way.”
“Yeah, that would be best. I’ll keep you updated. This may all be nothing.” Bud’s tone made very clear that he didn’t believe his own words. It seemed unlikely that the young inventor would have gone there so abruptly without notifying anyone.
After hanging up, Bud asked the desk clerk, “Were those men from a real trucking company?”
The clerk frowned. “We wouldn’t have allowed them through the door and past floor security if they hadn’t presented the proper credentials. Empire Van Company, Limited, the very company Mr. Swift told me to expect.”
Bud phoned the firm. A dispatcher confirmed that a truck had been sent to the hotel.
“I can call them by their cab cellphone, if you like, sir.”
“Do that, please,” Bud requested anxiously.
A few moments later the dispatcher reported back. “No response, sir, but I’ll keep trying. Rather unusual.”
Bud took down a description of the van and its license number. He ended the conversation just as Chief-Inspector Raeburn strode into the lobby trailed by a detective sergeant and two constables.
Nodding and puffing gravely, the inspector listened to Bud’s story as the girls stood by. Then he and his assistants questioned the hotel staff but learned nothing more except a vague description of the two van men—and it developed that the videocam recordings were also frustratingly vague. Bud asked if he and the girls could accompany the officers back to Scotland Yard.
“Certainly, sir,” Sergeant Vaughan replied as Raeburn nodded.
At the New Scotland Yard complex they were ushered into Raeburn’s office while the Chief Inspector received a report. “I’m afraid that the situation may be serious,” he told the Americans. “We’ve found the van. It was parked and abandoned.”
Sandy stifled a gasp of fear. “What about the two men—and the crate?” she asked tensely.
“The real van men were found inside, Miss Swift—bound and gagged. But no crate. I’m afraid the men who came to the hotel were impostors, as we’ve suspected. The real drivers say they were stopped by two men with guns just as they started to pull out onto the road from the firm’s parking garage.” He then related the rest of the story the policemen had taken down.
The two gunmen had made the employees lie down inside the van, covering them over with a canvas tarp. Then the van had been driven for some time, apparently stopping and parking at the hotel. “After a while they came back again and it sounded as if they loaded something into the van.”
“The crate with Tom inside!” Bud muttered.
“Where did they take it?” Bash asked.
Raeburn shrugged. “No way they could see, I fear. More driving, stopping, scuffing of feet, the squeak of a dolly. Some sounds that might indicate the docks on the Thames. Then the van was driven to where it was abandoned, Hampstead Heath. No doubt that name sounds very British to you three, wot?”
Bud and the girls were sick with worry after hearing the story.
“Tom must have been knocked out or drugged before he was put into the crate,” Sandy theorized, trying to hold back her tears. “The kidnappers may be planning to ship him out of the country! For ransom—if—if he’s even― ” Sandy choked back a sob. “Oh, if we only had some clues!”
“Don’t worry, miss.” Inspector Raeburn gave her a fatherly pat. “These days we have a great many people keeping an eye on our docks and airports, some in uniform, some not. And of course there are busy camera-eyes watching as well. It won’t be easy to smuggle your brother out of here, rest assured.”
Sandy snapped back, “I don’t intend to rest at all!”
The inspector began issuing orders. The telephone rang. One of Raeburn’s men answered.
“For you, Mr. Barclay.”
The caller was Arvid Hanson. He explained that after calling Tom’s hotel—“Chow’s getting a little nervous!”—he had been told to contact Bud at New Scotland Yard.
“Tom’s been taken, Arv.” Bud explained the situation hastily. “You and the crew stand by for now. We’ll keep you posted.”
“We’ll do that, Bud. Except for our excitable range cook. He left in a taxi just as soon as I told him where you three are.”
Bud grinned wanly. “It’ll feel good to have him here.” He hung up. Restless, fretting, he glanced at his wristwatch.
Sandy’s eyes took on a sudden gleam. “Bud! Wouldn’t Tom have had his wristwatch?” she asked.
Bud nodded. “Sure. He wears it all the time when he goes out. It’s engraved, you know.”
“Do you have an idea, Sandra?” asked Bashalli hopefully.
Sandy turned to Raeburn. “Inspector, Tom’s watch is just like this one here that Bud’s wearing. The other week, back home, I pressed the ‘find’ button on the base of the portable phone― ”
“Pardon me, Miss Swift,” interrupted Raeborn. “You say, the find button?”
“When you push the button, the handset beeps loudly, so you can find where you’ve left it.”
“Ah, do it all the time, I do,” declared Vaughn.
“But that time,” Sandy persisted, “the signal also set off something in Tom’s watch—just by accident, I guess. Crossed wires.”
Raeburn took a puff. “I fear I don’t quite follow.”
Bud spoke up. “Tom told me what happened. The watches have this little emergency-alarm deal built into them—you know, in case you’re being mugged and need to attract attention. There’s a little sound-chip inside. It’s like a voice yelling for help. If you don’t like the default setting, you can select whatever phrase you want.”
“Mmm. Yes. I see.”
“And so,” Sandy went on, “what if we transmitted that ‘find’ signal all over London? It would set off Tom’s watch alarm—and believe me, it’s loud! I’m sure someone would hear it!”
“But Sandra, perhaps you’ve overlooked something,” Bashalli objected gently. “Surely these thuggish men would not allow Tom to retain such a valuable item. They would steal it.”
“Ah now, but that’s the point indeed,” declared Raeburn briskly. “Very likely the man who stole the watch still has it on his person—in his pocket no doubt. Imagine he’s hiding it from his crony, eh? And so― ”
“Hey, I get it!” Bud exclaimed. “Find the kidnapper and you find the kid!”
After a moment’s thought, Raeburn began placing some urgent calls. Bud and the girls settled down tensely to await the outcome of Sandy’s plan—and soon were joined by a big fretful Texan in a ten-gallon hat.
Some time later in the afternoon Jake Swithins, foreman of the Noteworthy-Ventilation Thames Shipping warehouse on the docks of London Town, was dozing at his desk at the end of a hard shift. One of the warehouse crew shook him.
“Well, whot’s the matter?” Jake grunted.
“Can’t you y’ear it?”
“That rowby noise, Jake-o. Some little urch is crumpin’ ruddy off!”
The foreman listened. Above the dockside clamor seeping in from outside the warehouse he heard a shrill cry, repeated over and over.
“Adult assistance! Adult assistance!”
“Hmm.” Swithins sat up and considered the matter at some depth, from various angles. “Now that, mate—that’s a tyker. Take it as a fact. Some child calling out. And now, whot’s he saying, I arst you?”
“Wants a grownup.”
“Aye, just so, Bill. Mind you—an adult. By specification of his own self. Not ’is Mum. Not old Nanny. No, mate, he wants a grown-upper. I find that most striking.”
“Ahem.” Bill Frobisher appeared unconvinced. “Now. Y’say that word, Jake-o.”
“I do. The very word.”
“Bum-blammee, now do tell me, what precisely is s’ stroikin’ about it, wuh? That was yer word, wudden it?”
“It was. Fair n’ true. I am struck by the fact of which we speak, Bill.”
“Well now. Turning it all over-like in me head, mate, wuh stroiks me is thut yer word is sin-kwew-lardly ill chewsen. See?”
“My etchucated vocallary is heads over yours, blokeny-b’y. Did I, did I not, go to school? Did not me mum sarcrifeece for it? My words is right whea they should be, commer’t knowledge.” Jake took a moment to look superior, in a scholarly way, then proceeded. “But m’haps I shall clarify to your benefit my thinking on this matter. Eeven now we hear it—hape hape adult. Eeven now.”
“Roit, we do. Not Mum.”
“Not Mum. And so I say, why not? Is-t’-say, is this just a normal tantrum? As what’s done by eev’ry child? Callin’ mummy, daddy, nursee? No, deed n’ word, I say—No! I say, this is something very different!”
“May be s’m trouble.”
“So I would say, mate. Trouble of a most striking variety. That I say.”
“Then if I may speak me mind with frankness, I say—you, you personally, you are the bleetny f’rman here. I like t’ suggest you go interrogate it.”
“I do believe whetchoo mean t’ say, me boy, is investigate,” Swithins corrected him. “And now, as there is a bit of a tad t’ your point, I shall.”
The two determined, by precise triangulation, that the rhythmic outcry was coming from somewhere within their range of hearing.
Swithins narrowed it down further. “Not here whar we are. No. I should say over out there, s’place.” He and Frobisher were now speaking in tense whispers.
“Jake-o, dunnit sound a bit artisticious? The yellin’? Recorded-like?”
“A possibility well worth the thinking. Let us confirm our suspection by viewing the evidence.”
They worked their way through the dimness among the stacked goods and big crates. Swithins abruptly halted and drew his companion back. “There now, look there. That new bloke, wif the abnormal namenclature, wot?”
“Greek, wudden ’e?” whispered Bill. “Or Italian. No, Japanese. Funny name. Whut was it?”
“Ah!—Frenbo. Orbison Frenbo. Bet me life.”
“That’s wh’r it’s coming from, all right. Lookit ’im fiddlin’ around.”
The piercing sounds were issuing from Frenbo’s vicinity—no doubt from the small, shiny object in his hand that he was fumbling with with increasing desperation, eyes darting about.
“I know what that thing is,” opined Bill Frobisher. “My little ones want ’em. Bit-small tellyphones you carry around and stick in yer ear.”
Swithins threw him a disgusted look. “Mate, just how many eyes do you have in your head? Count ’em—I’ll wait. Now. Ditcha come up with two, m’haps? Then kindly use those two at the same time, eh! What he has is not a cellulite phone. It is most surely a wristwatch!”
“So t’is!—Jake-o, if he took it from a child, the poor urch may still be around here, someplace. Cor!—could be one of them adducements!”
“Then,” stated Jake Swithins, “let us take prompt action. Given these facts and likelihoods.”
They strode into the open and boldly approached Frenbo, who shrank back. “Whot’s wif all this racky, eh, Mr. Frenbo? Wotchoo got there?”
“Nuffin! New watch.”
“And might it be the current style to have a watch that shrieks out for help in the voice of a smidgen child?”
“You just mind yer own, Swith.”
Jake and Bill parted and stood on each side of the luckless Frenbo. Then they surged forward as one and grabbed him. Frenbo gulped, but put up little fight. “You let me go! I’ll have you both up fer assault on a fellow laborer!”
“What you’ll have,” replied Swithins contemptuously, “is a seat in Mr. Kranhold’s office, and a nicely locked door. And keep yer bleedin’ hands off th’ phone!—costs money.”
Minutes later, the phone rang in Inspector Raeburn’s office. He snatched it up and spoke with the caller in serious, guarded tones. Sandy, Bud, Bashalli, and Chow Winkler waited breathlessly for his report.
The Chief Inspector hung up. “Your plan worked, Miss Swift!” reported Raeburn very soberly.
“Oh, thank heavens!” Sandy almost burst into tears of relief.
“But—he is—alive?” asked Bash fearfully.
A MAN WITH AN IDEA
BASHALLI’S question hung in the air.
Chow snorted. “Aw, now, course he is! Tom Swift is always alive!” But he turned a big-eyed gaze toward Raeburn.
“Correct,” smiled the Chief Inspector. “He was found in the purloined crate in a Thames warehouse, unconscious—apparently drugged. An ambulance is on the way. I’ll have one of our drivers take you to the hospital. He’s regained consciousness. In a manner of speaking.”
Bud asked if the details of the attempted kidnapping were known. “Perhaps a few,” replied Raeburn. “The man with the watch—you might encourage your friend to reset the default, by the way—led my men to the crate, hidden among others. The workers looked up the orders and shipping instructions. The crate was to be sent to a Jean Forgeron in Calais, France, aboard a small freight vessel due to dock in the Pool of London this evening. Its contents were declared to be Oriental rugs, and the sender was, let me see, the Mustafa Carpet Company, London address. Yet such a firm is not listed in any directory.”
“Oh, one thing,” said Sergeant Vaughn as they made ready to leave for the hospital. “That watch device—my men are asking... how does one switch it off? Rather an annoyance.”
Bud reddened. “I—er—never learned how.”
Half an hour later, while the police took a woozy statement from Tom, the four were talking to a pleasant young doctor who had just finished examining the youth.
“He definitely was drugged,” the doctor told them, “but his respiration is normal, and he seems in good shape, so we’ll let him sleep it off. By tomorrow he should be right as rain.”
Inspector Raeburn spoke to the Shoptonians before he left. The inspector turned to Sandy. “Good thing you thought of that signal business, Miss Swift, and that we secured the cooperation of London’s cellphone relay-transmission system so quickly. The tower broadcasts were the thing, mm? The crate would have been loaded aboard ship this evening. By midnight she’d have been out of the Thames, bound for Calais.
“All’s well ends well. This fellow Frenbo—a Scotsman—thick file of criminality, always up for hire by whoever wants to use him. Naturally we’ll investigate and backtrack. And if you ever decide on a career as a policewoman, Miss Swift, I hope you’ll apply to Scotland Yard first.”
Sandy dimpled. “Thank you. I might do that.”
“Any clues to the real shipper?” Bud asked.
“Not yet. The name given was false.” The inspector shot Bud a shrewd glance. “Do you know of anyone with a grudge against Tom Swift?”
“Perhaps a few,” answered Bashalli sarcastically.
The four rushed to Tom’s bedside, and were delighted to find him sitting up and grinning, blue eyes clear.
“You got good color!” declared Chow. “An’ I know color!”
Tom laughed. “You sure do, pardner.”
“Tell us what happened, Tom,” Bud begged. Tom recounted how the man in the gas mask had knocked him out. “The doctor told me he used a chemical that people with certain medical conditions carry with them in a little squeeze bottle, like people with asthma do. It lowers blood pressure—and in concentrated form it lowered mine through the floor! After that, I really don’t know anything.”
“But it’s all obvious,” said Sandy. “The man hid in the crate, locking it in a way that only he could open, from inside. He probably drilled a few little holes in it—peepholes, and also to let in air.”
“I think you’re right, sis. He may have learned of the planned delivery from a museum employee,” Tom commented. “Whoever our enemies are, they probably were following us that day as we walked around.”
“In other words, he breaks in and subsitutes himself for the dummy, in the crate,” Sandy continued. “And someone fakes a call, changing the delivery to the hotel. Real employees deliver the box to your suite, knowing that you’ll call the same company to move it to the plane.”
“With phonies showing up—to take me on an unwanted trip to Calais!” The young inventor rubbed his chin. “They may have intended for me to suffocate along the way. Or it may have been a kidnapping for keep. In any event, the whole ploy was designed to get the gas guy into our suite past security—and to get my body out again.”
Bud asked if Tom would be able to recognize the “gas guy” if he were to pop up. “I don’t know, flyboy. His build was pretty ordinary, and the gas mask made a good disguise. His voice was muffled. All I noticed was that he was bald.”
“Not much use t’ that,” Chow declared, unconsciously touching his own hairless dome. “Lots o’ good folks are bald. And a few bad ones!”
The next morning, after a last grateful word with Chief-Inspector Raeburn, the mammoth Sky Queen lifted into the stratosphere and headed across the channel for Paris.
There were no misadventures during the first two days in the City of Lights. Everyone, including Chow, managed to relax, sightsee, and shop. Sandy’s appearance at the aircraft convention was over in a matter of hours. “I charmed them,” she reported.
“All those elderly men? All those engineers with their protected pockets?” teased Bashalli.
“I was referring to the handsome young pilots,” retorted Tom’s sister.
“They may be handsome,” Bud stated, “but I’m faster on the quip.”
Tom frequently called Shopton on the Private Ear Radio.
“Thurston doesn’t seem to have a clue,” declared Harlan Ames, “and I mean that literally. But I’ve been talking to Raeburn and some contacts in MI6.”
“Maybe. The second of the thugs-for-hire has been apprehended, in Dover. He won’t talk, but his movements have been traced. It seems just before the kidnap attempt he purchased airline tickets for a flight to Spain—on behalf of a certain Jean Forgeron!”
“Who probably is the mastermind of the kidnapping—the man in the gas mask,” Tom mused. “I know the name is just an alias—it’s French for John Smith. Well, the thug didn’t deliver the tickets, so I guess ‘Jean’ missed his flight.”
“That flight, anyway. I’m sure he got out of England as soon as the plan went south, though.”
“Now the question is—what’s in Spain?”
“I just may have an answer to that one as well,” the security chief replied. “Forgeron’s ultimate destination was the city of Huelva in the south of Spain. Within twenty miles of Huelva, on the coast, is a very tiny town called Los Mercados Quivires.”
Tom was puzzled. “So?”
“Tom, the Centurion was scheduled to dock at a pumping facility just offshore, on its way to Greece!”
“Good night!” The news suddenly seemed important indeed! “Then this all does tie in to the sinking of that ship. Harlan― ”
Ames interrupted wryly. “You don’t need to say it, Tom. You boys’ll be headed for Quivires by the time I click off this PER!”
Tom laughed, but he knew Ames’s prediction was only slightly exaggerated.
That evening he ate in the hotel restaurant with Bud while Sandy, Bashalli, and the travelers from the Sky Queen attended a theatrical performance near Monmartre.
“Isn’t it supposed to be the French who are excitable and the Brits who are reserved?” asked Bud humorously. “We were mobbed in London, but here nobody pays a bit of attention.”
“Except for that man over there,” Tom observed in low tones. He subtly indicated a man sitting alone at a table on the far side of the dining room, half hidden by a potted plant. “Every time I look up I’ve caught him looking back—then he looks away.”
“Maybe he recognizes us, Tom.”
“Maybe I recognize him,” retorted the blond-haired youth. “Something about him looks awfully familiar.”
Tom had scarcely made the comment when the man abruptly stood and crossed the room toward the boys’ table, smiling blandly. Tom and Bud tensed, but the man stuck out a hand in a friendly manner. “You’re Tom Swift, of course,” he said. “And you—Bud Barclay.”
The boys shook hands with the stranger. “You’ll pardon me for approaching you so abruptly like this,” he said. “My name is Tristan Carlow.” His accent branded him an American.
Tom nodded politely. “Nice to meet a fellow American. Do you live here in Paris? Or vacationing like us?”
“A business trip,” he said brusquely, evidently not wishing to elaborate. “I won’t interrupt your evening, but—I wonder if we might get together while you’re in Paris? At your convenience, of course.”
Tom was unsure how to respond. “Well... I’m traveling with my friends, of course. Did you have something particular in mind, sir?”
“Oh, a scientific matter. Something of benefit to both of us.”
“I don’t― ” The young inventor was hesitant, uneasy in the wake of the London kidnapping.
But Bud tossed hesitation aside with a flourish. “We’ll be happy to! How’s tomorrow morning?—late breakfast, right here.”
There was a trace of annoyance of the man’s face. It seemed he had not intended his invitation to extend as far as Bud Barclay. “That would be... I suppose that would be adequate. Yes.”
A time was agreed to, and with a curt nod the man left the restaurant.
When Tom turned to his pal with questions on his face, Bud was already holding something in his hand for Tom to look at—a photograph. “It’s been in my wallet since you gave it to me the other day.”
“The photo of Chow’s adventure at the Quel Fromage? Okay, but― ”
“Take a look it it, Skipper.” As Tom gazed at the photo, Bud pointed to one figure in the crowd. “Get a load of this little guy sitting here, watching.”
Tom gasped. “Tristan Carlow!” He now scutinized the image closely. “Bud—look at that newspaper folded up on his table. Good grief, he’s the guy in the photo that Raeburn showed us in London—the man with the newspaper that proved the date!” He looked up at his friend, deep-set eyes ablaze. “I’ll just bet Carlow was the snitch who sent Raeburn the incriminating photo and the note making the charges against me.”
Bud grinned back with mischievous excitement. “Bet you’re right! No wonder he looked familiar.”
Tom seethed with anger. So Tristan Carlow was the informer who had caused the rescued hydronauts such embarrassment! The young inventor repressed an impulse to race after Carlow and knock him down in the street. “Better wait and hear him out,” Tom decided.
“That’s what I thought, too. It might be worthwhile to learn what the jerk’s up to now.” Bud added with a certain fillip of vanity, “And of course I’ll be along if things get a little crazy.”
That night Tom told his friends of the planned meeting, tactfully ignoring their pleas that he not take the chance. “This may be my best chance to make some progress on this mystery,” he insisted. “Besides, what could he do out in the open like that?”
“Wa-aal, fer one thing,” Chow observed sagely, “he could shoot ya.”
When Tom and Bud came down the next morning at the appointed time, Carlow was already waiting for them, a briefcase resting on the table. He greeted them pleasantly. After they had ordered, he opened his briefcase and pulled out a sheaf of papers. “Now then, Tom, enough mystery. I am an electronics engineer and something of an inventor.”
“Quite a coincidence,” murmured Bud with a gleam of sarcasm.
“I’ve invented something you’ll find quite arresting, Tom,” Carlow persisted with a thin smile. “In essence, it’s an electronic camera capable of seeing down to the ocean floor from any height, eliminating glare and the obscuring effects of water. No doubt you recognize its value.”
“The concept is certainly intriguing,” Tom responded, politely and opaquely.
“Imagine it, an undersea television device capable of revealing objects at any depth,” Carlow resumed in a loud, confident voice. “You realize what this means?”
“I’m not sure I do,” Tom said, keeping his face a blank. “Suppose you tell me.”
“Why, the device will be invaluable in ship salvage work! With my invention, it will be possible to pinpoint any wreck in any ocean of the world!” Carlow’s pale, bulging eyes shone with excitement. “There’s not a sunken treasure anywhere on the sea floor that can stay hidden from my underwater camera!”
“And where do I come in?” Tom asked.
“Tom—Mr. Swift—I’m proposing that Swift Enterprises form a partnership with me to exploit this amazing device. I’ve been trying to arouse governmnent interest in Washington, but the fools are too blind to realize its full possibilities. You’re different—you have vision.”
“Now now, Mr. Carlow. If Tom has such vision, he wouldn’t need your camera to see all the way down,” Bud gibed.
Carlow glared but was momentarily silent, as if pausing to let his words sink in. Then he added impressively, “At a conservative estimate, our profits should run into the hundreds of millions!”
“I see.” Tom took out the photograph from the Quel Fromage and slapped it down on the tablecloth in front of Carlow’s eviscerated grapefruit. “Since you’re inviting Swift Enterprises into a partnership, maybe you can explain why you tried to ruin our reputation by accusing Bud and me and my associates of faking our sea account.”
Carlow’s face went sickly pale, then flamed as he examined the photograph.
Tom continued with controlled ferocity, “You don’t deny that you were the source of that ‘whisper in the ear’ to Scotland Yard, do you?”
“I—I realize wh-what you must think,” Carlow stammered. “But at the time I felt my actions were justified. You see, I was in Shopton and saw you in that restaurant—even as the very newspaper I was reading reported that you were on your ship in Scandinavia. Since there was no news that the sea-tunnel project had bcen canceled, I jumped to the conclusion that you were trying to deceive the public for some reason. When your disappearance and dramatic rescue was reported, I—I suppose I jumped to some unwarranted conclusions.”
“I returned to Shopton briefly on a private matter, then flew back to the Sea Charger when I was told of the SMB collapse,” grated Tom. “Not that I owe you an explanation.”
“Please, Tom. Now I realize I misjudged you. I should have admitted all this to you from the first. I do apologize.”
“Very well, Mr. Carlow. I accept your apology,” Tom said, but secretly he mistrusted the man. In his mind he was tallying up many reasons why.
“Wonderful! Then we can get down to business. Now if you’ll just look over these drawings― ” Carlow held out his sheaf of blueprints eagerly.
But Tom shook his head. “Sorry, I’m afraid we’re not interested. Swift Enterprises already has ample equipment for probing the ocean floor. And to avoid any risk of a patent infringement suit later, I’d prefer not to see your plans.”
“A patent infringement suit?” Carlow looked shocked. “But that’s unthinkable! I can trust you not to steal my idea!”
“Thanks, but I’m still not― ” Tom broke off. He seemed to be staring at Tristan Carlow’s face, intently. “Actually, though... perhaps I’m being hasty, sir. There may be some extra funds available right now. Just a second, let me work over a few figures.”
“Of course!” harrumphed Carlow.
Tom pulled out a pad and pen and wrote for a moment. Suddenly Bud felt a nudge against his foot, unseen. Looking at his chum, he noticed a flick of his friend’s eyes, directing Bud to glance at what Tom had written down.
ACT COOL BUT GET POLICE PRONTO. CARLOW IS THE MAN WHO GASSED ME IN LONDON!
BUD was slow to grasp the notion of “act cool.”
“Jetz, Tom! Are you sure― ” The young pilot gulped down his next words, finishing with: “—sure we told the girls not to wait for us upstairs? I’ll give them a call—excuse me. Right back.”
In Bud’s absence, Tom forestalled any conversation with Carlow, pretending that he needed to complete his calculations.
At last Bud returned and plopped down. “Got ’em,” he told his chum, backing it up with a tap of the foot, unseen.
Tom began to converse on the subject of deepwater salvage, avoiding mention of Carlow’s supposed invention and politely ignoring the man’s drawings and papers. As if sensing something, the Tristan Carlow seemed to be becoming nervous and suspicious. “All right, Tom, let’s get somewhere and not waste each other’s valuable time. What’s the bottom line? Are you interested or not?”
The young inventor shook his head. “Sorry, afraid not.”
Carlow got to his feet, trembling with anger as he stuffed his drawings back into his attache case. “So that’s your attitude!” he snarled. “I might have known the great Tom Swift was too fatheaded and egotistical to admit that anyone else might come up with a worthy invention!”
“Sit down, Mr. Carlow,” Tom said quietly.
“I’ve had enough.”
“I said sit down. Or do you plan outrunning two healthy guys half your age—one of whom has plenty of experience in football tackling?”
Carlow’s face contorted with rage. He clenched his fist as if he might punch one of the boys—but after noting Bud’s impressive build, the older man appeared to think better of such a move.
“You’ll regret treating me this way, Swift!” he rasped as he sank back down into his chair. “I’m warning you—you’ll regret it!”
“Whatever happened to This is an outrage!” gibed Bud.
“You’re going to sit there calmly, Carlow, and chat with us as Bud and I peck away at our breakfast,” Tom pronounced coldly. “And we’re going to see just how much trouble you’d like to save yourself, by telling the truth now. But first off, I’ll tell you a truth, sir. If you’re going to bother buying a hairpiece, spend some money on it. It didn’t take me long to realize that I was sitting across from the bald man who faced me in London—in a gas mask.”
“You’re insane,” grated the self-proclaimed inventor.
“Not a good start for our truth session,” needled Tom.
“I called the cops,” Bud stated. “They’re flanking the exits even as we speak. When we give the signal, talk time will be over.”
Carlow leaned back in his chair, calm but sullen. “Just out of curiosity, Swift, what is it you’d like to know?”
“Why did you try to kidnap me? Who are you working for? Or try this—what’s the real connection between the Centurion and Los Mercados Quivires, Spain?”
The man’s glare took on a gleam of white. Evidently he hadn’t realized how much Tom Swift already knew. “I have nothing to say on any of that, Swift. As you insist on knowing, I’ll admit I set up the business with Scotland Yard deliberately. I followed that fat cook of yours around Shopton, knowing you’d join him eventually in a public place. I saw an opportunity at the restaurant and asked the girl to take some pictures for me.”
“Why target me?”
“Professional envy—business rivalry—you figure it out. Maybe I’m crazy.”
“Maybe you are. You’d have to be, to think I’m buying what you’re selling,” stated the young inventor. “If you were following Chow in Shopton, that means you knew I was there, not on the ship as the media were reporting. Which means somebody—maybe a turncoat involved in the SMB project—slipped you the word. I suppose he passed along information about the tunnel repelatrons, too, so you and your organization could arrange to foul them. Where did you get the substance you used, the water colloid? Oberjuerge?”
The man looked startled at the word—and afraid. “I’m not saying any more. Call your men in if you want. I’m done.”
Standing, Bud waved the officers in, and they did their duty. Carlow and his briefcase were led away. As he watched, Bud said: “What was he after here, do you think?”
Tom shrugged. “What was he after in London? Or Shopton? I suppose he would have offered to take me somewhere to inspect his invention—and I’d be gone.”
The young inventor was now more determined than ever to travel to Spain to seek clues in Quivires. He told his father: “I need to get ahold of a much larger, more varied sample of this ‘water X’ if I’m to find ways to immunize the repelatrons against it.”
“And that’s a necessity,” Mr. Swift concurred. “We can’t risk the possibility that some enemy will use it to collapse Helium City, or the Atlantis hydrodome. If only the people on our own side—John Thurston’s group—would be more cooperative.”
“I’d thought of trying to go back to the guyot to collect a barrel-full, but it’s clear the whole place is heavily protected. I don’t care to run afoul of the electrotaxis system again. So—on to Spain.”
His father’s sigh PER’ed across an ocean. “You have to do it. Risk-taking runs in the family, Tom. Do you plan to fly down to Huelva in the Sky Queen?”
“No,” Tom answered. “I’ve gotten a lot of press attention lately. It’d be best if I could sort’ve come in ‘under the radar.’ I’ve been thinking about renting a car...”
“I wouldn’t advise that, son. Seems to me it would be too tempting a target for kidnappers.” Damon Swift thought for a moment. “I have a notion. Do you recall meeting Professor Legron three years ago, at the Princeton conference?”
“The physicist from the Sorbonne? Sure.”
“He and I are in regular contact, and it happens he is a sailing enthusiast—ocean sailing. He has a cabin sailboat, the Moiralene, docked at his summer home in Royan on the bay of the Gironde river. I’m quite sure he’d allow you and Bud to sail to this town in Spain you’re interested in.”
“What a great idea, Dad—perfect!” Tom exclaimed with enthusiasm.
Mr. Swift added: “But Tom—he may ask you to promise that you’ll return the boat in seaworthy shape. Not sunk by your enemies!”
“We’ll do our level best!”
Tom and Bud traveled south to Limoges by train, then westward to the seacoast by bus. By noon of the following day they were scudding along a glittering sea under the paper-white Biscay sun.
Trained and experienced sailboaters, the youths found the tasks easy, trading back and forth. Tom spent time in the sun frowing over his notebook, face in half-lumined shadow.
“Figuring it all out, Skipper?” Bud called over.
Tom looked up. “Solving this mystery may require a new invention or two.”
“Whoa!—no surprise there. What do you have in mind?”
Tom rose and joined Bud. “I’ve come to think that everything depends on finding that purloined supertanker. So I’m designing an underwater bloodhound to sniff her out and track her down.”
Tom responded with a grin. “Hope so! It’ll work on a principle similar to the aquatometers, but much more sensitive and sophisticated. I’ll mount it on a special submersible designed for that specific purpose. The whole setup will be called an aquatomic tracker.”
“About time you got around to building another sub,” Bud joked. “But just how will your new approach lead you to the sunken ship? We passed pretty near the place she went down on our ill-fated sea safari, and the aquatometers didn’t give us a clue.”
“I know,” his chum nodded, squinting at the scattery glare from the sea. “But there was a complicating circumstance—that big storm. It may have interfered with the usual subsea currents, scrambling and diluting any useful traces that we might have picked up. If I’m not just sea-dreaming, flyboy, the aquatomic tracker will be able to follow just about any trail underwater, however faint, even after a long time has passed.”
“You mean you’re serious about that underwater bloodhound stuff?” exclaimed the black-haired youth.
“Sure. I think it can be worked out.”
“Something that can actually sniff out an underwater trail?” Bud repeated with half-joking skepticism.
“Let’s say it would be able to detect such a trail. You see,” Tom explained, “the aquatometers work on the principle that practically any object which passes through water will leave faint chemical traces—a few scattered molecules—which will register on a highly sensitive detector. Nature already does it, you know. For instance, a salmon can smell and taste the silt of its home spawning grounds even after it’s been flushed along for many miles in streams and over waterfalls. That’s how it finds its way upriver to the stream where it hatched. I’ve read it can detect its home silt even in strengths of only one part silt to a million parts of ocean water!”
“Wow! That’s pretty keen sniffing,” Bud murmured with eyebrows up. “Though I can’t quite see us running around on the seafloor with a fish on a leash.”
“I’m sure I can make a salmon’s nose look pretty crude, pal. I’ll be glad to get back home to work it up—once we get done hunting up clues in Quivires.”
“Speaking of nosing around!”
Like the drifting sun, the conversation passed along to other topics, one after another. Tom admitted that he was completely puzzled by the motive behind the events that had happened since Mr. Thurston had first contacted him about the image of the drowning Roman. “If we’re dealing with some kind of terrorist cell, just what is their target? The guyot operation? Some kind of machinery the Centurion was carrying—maybe a weapon that makes use of the water colloid, somehow?”
“Maybe they just wanted that statue, Tom—the Delian Apollo. It’d sure buy a lot of those black trenchcoats.”
The scientist-inventor frowned. “Then why drag an entire supertanker across the seven seas? They could have lifted the statue right there! No, this is all big and complicated.”
Bud laughed. “Same ol’, same ol’! Don’t leave off the other items from your lift. There’s also the little episode of the smashed SubMoBahn. As well as our slithery friend the Conqueror Worm.”
“Right—Kong Dubya,” Tom nodded. “I should call Ham and George and see if they’ve made any progress. They’d planned to stay with Ham’s sister for a while, in Brooklyn.”
“I think the answers are a lot closer to Spain than Brooklyn—no offense to a nice borough!”
For all that lay ahead, the two-day cruise was a restful breather for Tom and Bud, and they were almost sorry when it ended at the pier of little Los Quivires Mercado, a sunbaked hamlet that looked as if it had seen little change since the days of Ferdinand and Isabella—if not Don Quixote. Nevertheless, the quaint bed-and-breakfast they spent the night in offered satellite TV, Wi-Fi, and complimentary internet hookup. “Fiber optical,” Tom observed.
As Bud got in some early snoring, Tom used the computer to learn about the town and its minute claim to wispy fame—the oil business. A great deal of money had been spent some thirty years previous to dredge out the sea bottom and build an offshore pumping platform capable of servicing oil-bearing supertankers. The government had funded construction of a petroleum refinery at the coast, to serve a large region. International crisis had led to the virtual abandonment of the enterprise in the late 1970’s. “But they say the refinery is still maintained as an adjunct operation,” Tom told himself, “and tankers still dock at the pumping platform.” Yet when Tom tried to discover public information on how often this took place, he found no data at all. It’s just a front, he thought.
But for what? “Answers tomorrow,” he murmured. “maybe!”
TOM AND BUD departed their bed-and-breakfast as the sun was arriving, whirling through the dawn-shadows on a pair of rented bikes. Tom’s Private Ear Radio unit, about the size and shape of an old-style walkie-talkie, was hooked to a beltloop and bounced against his leg as he pedaled.
“It’d be convenient if you could use the PER to call in the cops when we get captured,” Bud observed.
“Genius boy, at this point in the T&B saga it’s nothin’ like an ‘if’!”
Through his laughter Tom reminded his pal that the PER could only contact the particular units—wherever it might be on or off the earth—that bore the quantum-linked mate to its inserted cartridges. “I’m afraid the local polícia haven’t joined the quantum club just yet. All cries for help will have to be relayed through Shopton!—or John Thurston in D.C.”
“Too bad. Even the CIA can’t always pull off a rescue operation in milliseconds.”
They rode southwards along a seashore road, little more than a paved path, and encountered no traffic. Three miles from the town limits they stopped, gazing out to sea at a platform of girders and upthrust derricks. “There’s the pumping platform,” Tom told Bud. “The delivery conduits must run underwater.”
Bud scanned the shoreline in both directions. “So where do they come out?”
“They probably ran them underground.”
The youths parked their bicycles in a secluded spot and locked them, then turned their backs to the ocean and trekked inland. They could see the ugly hulk of the refinery a quarter-mile ahead.
Bud said, “Don’t forget my prediction. Whatever the place looks like from a distance, if it’s some kind of secret operation we don’t stand a chance of just walking on in to snoop around.”
“Very logical, pal,” nodded Tom. “And you’re probably right. But we may get lucky. Or at least we might be able to dope out something from the edge of the property.”
“Always the experimenter!”
A barbed-wire fence, the first of several, brought them to a halt. The facility was still more than a football-field distant. They began to walk the perimeter, but found no break in the fence. The several gates were securely locked, and formidable. “How do the workers get in?” Bud mused. “No code box, no intercom. Jetz, I don’t even see a keyhole!”
“I think this place is a great deal more high-tech than meets the eye,” Tom murmured.
“So do we try to go further?”
“I’ll bite, said the fish. How?”
“Like this.” Tom bent down and came up with a fist-sized shard of asphalt. He reared back—and hurled it as high and as far as he could in the direction of the refinery.
“I get it,” Bud nodded. “If we scare the building it’ll panic and bolt over the fence. Here, let me have some fun too.” The former high school football star did some hurling on his own, and Bud’s missiles won the distance. “Feels good, working the kinks out of my frustration. What exactly are we doing?”
Tom let fly with another rock. “Attracting attention. No—actually I’m guessing we’ve had somebody’s attention for quite a while, since we left the road. What we’re attracting is concern, by showing that we don’t plan to just walk― ”
“Put it down!” a voice barked.
The boys whirled—and found themselves face to face with a platoon of armed men! The uniforms the men wore were simple, almost casual, without insignia. Their handguns, however, had a sheen of sophistication. And one of those guns, the speaker’s, was levelly aimed at Tom Swift’s head. “What are you doing here?” the man demanded.
Tom shrugged. “Nothing much. You?”
“We’ll ask the questions!” Bud stated with surreal bravado.
The leader gave a signal, and four more guns were whipped into view. Bud’s bravado turned tentative, but Tom remained calm. “Excuse me,” he said, “while I use the phone.” Moving slowly so as not to alarm any triggers, the young inventor brought the PER up to his ear and pressed the actuator button. After a moment he noted that a small light had come on—contact. “Hi, Mr. Thurston. Rather than making us stand out here looking down gun barrels, how about inviting us in?”
“All right, Tom,” came the voice from the speaker. “I’ve signaled Corporal Staveman. You’ll be escorted in.”
As they were walked toward an entrance, elaborately concealed among the boulders outside the perimeter fence, Bud shot his friend a familiar look. Tom replied to it. “I’ve been half expecting this, ever since Harlan told me about the link between the Centurion and this refinery. It’s all part of Thurston’s CIA operation—or at least he’s running the security. Notice that these men, here on the Spanish coast, are speaking English.”
“Not just English,” Bud stated. “American!”
A long corridor led to a large room full of electronic consoles and video monitors, and a number of men and women in lab coats, quizzical expression on their faces.
There was also John Thurston, the CIA PER unit in his hand. And one other familiar face, offering Tom a familiar hand.
“Hi there, Tom,” said Bernt Ahlgren. “Not too surprised to run into you here in our rabbit-hole.”
“Unless you plan to throw us into a holding tank, Mr. Ahlgren, I hope you’ll be supplying a few answers.”
“A few,” replied the communications specialist—and U.S. government agent.
“We’re going to satisfy your curiosity as best we can, Tom,” said Mr. Thurston. “And not just because you’ve earned that right by making your way here.”
“It seems we need some blue-eyed scientific help,” said Ahlgren with a wink.
“Matter of life and death?”
“One of the two, at least.”
Thurston waved the boys into swivel chairs. “No need to waste time on pleasantries, or on explanations for things you’ve surely figured out already.”
“But I could have gone wrong at some point, Mr. Thurston,” responded Tom. “I’m only assuming that the target of the group you were monitoring, the ones who transmitted the image, was this place. Or something connected with it, like the tanker, or maybe the guyot.”
“Nothing that I told you was a lie,” declared Thurston. “I merely refrained from certain elaborations that I had sworn not to disclose.”
“You’re a pillar of ethics, Mr. Thurston,” said Bud sarcastically. “So what can you guys tell us now?”
“Barclay’s sure puttin’ us in our places, isn’t he, John?” Ahlgren gibed. “Ah, to be young—the world of simple choices and clear conscience.”
Thurston focused only on Tom. “The refinery here—I give it no other name—is too well protected to make a reasonable target for what we think is a rather small terrorist cell.”
“With an espionage sideline,” added Bernt Ahlgren.
Tom asked if the target was the supertanker, and Thurston gave a grim nod. “We knew it would be either the Centurion or the Oberjuerge seamount site. We didn’t know which. Obviously our security precautions were inadequate.”
“Just who is Tristan Carlow?” demanded Tom.
“A minor player, for all the trouble he caused you in London and Paris. He’s wanted by Interpol for securities fraud and various scams, under his birth name, Kyle Iomenzies. We were unable to snatch him up in London, but if he had lured you to his cronies in Paris, we― ”
Tom held up a hand to stop the account. “Guess I make good bait, don’t I?”
Bernt Ahlgren laughed. “The best! Oh—and you too, Bud.”
“Thanks a heap.”
“Are you saying Carlow was working separately from this group you’ve been trailing?” Tom asked Mr. Thurston.
“No,” the man replied; “although he arranged certain elements to his personal advantage—a side deal on ransom was part of the inducement package offered him by the spy cell’s leader.”
“We don’t know,” admitted the CIA man. “What we know is that they’re after Configuration Eighteen. What you call ‘water X’.”
“Then maybe you could tell me something about that,” Tom suggested coolly.
“Perhaps that would be best,” pronounced Thurston. He nodded at a gray-haired woman who had been standing nearby, who nodded in return.
“I’m Paula Jeans, Tom,” she said politely. “Let me show you our C-18 at work.” She led Tom and Bud to a table with a large beaker upon it. “Looks like ordinary seawater. Tastes like seawater, though I don’t recommend tasting it.”
“It’ll never replace Perrier,” commented Ahlgren. Noting the reproving glance from Thurston, he added: “Give me a break. I spent the night reading Barclay’s dossier.” Which brought a different variety of look from Bud.
“Now some magic,” stated Jeans. She heated a small metal bolt over a Bunsen burner until it began to glow red. Then, with a flourish, she held it over the beaker and released the heatproof clamp. The bolt splashed down into the fluid.
Instantly the beaker began to boil furiously from top to bottom! The boys ducked away as spumes of scalding water erupted from the top.
“Jetz!” Bud gasped. “That’s a mighty big reaction from somethin’ called water!”
“It’s boiling,” pronounced Tom softly, instantly fascinated.
“Not boiling,” corrected Paula Jeans with a smile. “It’s superboiling.”
A column of steam—an impenetrable mushroom cloud—was now rising above the beaker’s mouth and spreading across the ceiling. Forty seconds after the dropping of the bolt, the entire volume of water had completely boiled away! “About a quart, I think,” said John Thurston. “One quart of something like seawater, converted in less than a minute into a mass of something like steam.”
“Supersteam,” Jeans added. Bud repeated the word, his gray eyes wide.
“Then what Configuration Eighteen amounts to,” said Tom thoughtfully, “is a radically new form of water that gassifies—vaporizes—at a tremendous rate, even at ordinary sea-level air pressure.”
“Friend, you’re not ‘radical’ enough,” Bernt Ahlgren declared. “This isn’t my field, but I know what I’ve been told. C-18 is to heat conduction as superconducting wire is to electricity. Raise the temp at one point and the heat spreads all through the water like a spray of bullets.”
The young inventor began a puzzled objection. “But you’re only putting in a certain amount of heat energy. Even a red-hot metal bolt wouldn’t have enough― ”
“Have you considered, Tom, that water might have more than one natural boiling point?” asked Paula Jeans tartly. “Or to put it another way—that the true natural boiling point of water might be suppressed by the conditions under which we usually find it?”
Tom chuckled ruefully. “That’s quite a thought, Miss Jeans. Now you’ve got my brains boiling.”
“I cracked my block quite a ways back,” said Bud faintly. “So, okay now, let’s get real expository. Special water that boils at a look. What good is it?”
Thurston answered. “Tom thought C-18 might be involved in weaponry. In a sense, Tom, you were quite right. But the field is not military defense, but the ‘weaponry’ of economics and commerce. In essence, NATO is studying the development of a source of motive power to replace petroleum.”
“A source that America and America’s allies will control,” noted Ahlgren. “Not those others in this world who don’t much care for us and our heathen ways.”
“Steam power,” Tom stated. “The return of the steam engine.”
“Somehow I sorta get all that,” Bud put in dryly. “And I can put together the overall picture too. You guys are extracting this weirdo water from a natural source, in that guyot. The Centurion makes its delivery rounds, and on the way from Iceland to Norway the circle crosses the guyot, and you load the stuff into one of the big tanks. Eventually it gets pumped off here.”
“Unless somebody manages to sink the tanker and steal her load,” said his pal.
“Ya got it,” nodded Bernt Ahlgren. “See, they tell me C-18 has differing properties in differing mass-volumes. It isn’t enough to just study a small sample—you need to fill an olympic-size pool or two. Hence.”
Jeans continued, “Trace amounts have been created in lab situations, but the process is far too difficult and expensive to allow for any practical use. The few scientists who were studying the phenomenon were blown away when exploratory oil drilling on the Oberjuerge Seamounts Formation uncorked a geyser of the substance.”
“I guess I can understand why something like this would be top secret,” said Tom, “and why agents from countries with big investments in oil and petro-commerce might want to get involved.”
“And now, by stealing the Centurion, these agents have our super-water by the tankfull,” Thurston said forcefully. “They have no right to that stolen property, nor to the processing and refining system we’ve spent years developing here in this facility. We must recover the tanker before these agents can make use of what they’ve taken—or peddle it to someone else.”
“Is that what you want me to try to do?” asked Tom. “To use my methods to find the ship for you?”
Ahlgren shook his head. “Not just that, Tom. Something else comes first. We need you to locate our big haul of Configuration Eighteen—but after you track down the one person on Earth who can tell us what to do with it!”
SNAGGED FROM BENEATH
TOM regarded Bernt Ahlgren with a half smile on his young face—half smile and half anger. “Mr. Ahlgren, I think you’re asking quite a bit of a guy you were willing to throw overboard as bait.”
As Ahlgren grinned broadly in wry acknowledgment, John Thurston huffed: “I hope you’re not intimating that we would have left you to the mercies of Carlow and his men!”
“You don’t know what he was after,” Bud piped up angrily. “First the jerk tried to discredit Tom, then kidnap him. What next?”
“You know, Barclay, spies and crooks can have psychotic breakdowns as easily as any of us,” suavely noted Ahlgren. “Carlow—that is, Iomenzies—is a narcissistic psychopath. He seems to resent those who have made something of their lives, and I’d imagine he very much enjoyed being in a position to mess with Tom’s public reputation. As for the next steps, all his bosses really care about is keeping the noted young inventor off their tail. They figured we’d turn to you eventually, Tom.”
“Destroying the sea tunnel wasn’t exactly a casual drive-by!” snapped Tom hotly.
“Of course,” soothed Mr. Thurston. “But we’re sure that part of things was purely an accident. Whatever procedure scuttled the Centurion evidently ruptured one of the C-18 tanks.”
“Perhaps so,” Tom barely conceded. “And it just happened that unusual ocean currents carried the colloid-water to the SMB—a substance which just happened to be immune to the repelatrons.”
“Or did they just happen to drag the whole darn ship into position—and pop open a valve!” Bud Barclay contributed. “Nice way to get Tom Swift Enterprises out of the North Atlantic and back to Shopton!”
Tom laid a restraining hand on his chum’s muscular forearm. “Let’s hear the rest of it. What is this about locating someone?”
“He’s a Kranjovian scientist, little known in the West, but one of the few researchers who really knows what C-18 is and how it works,” explained Thurston. “Here—a recent news photo. His name is Petrov Vaxilis. Heard of him?”
“Not surprising when you’re dealing with Kranjovia,” Ahlgren remarked. “Supreme Dictator Friend-of-the-People Ulvo Maurig plays all his cards close to his chest. Professor Vaxilis is allowed a few special privileges, though, as a sort of national celebrity of great value to the regime. Liberality Maurig came to regret.”
Continued Thurston, “Vaxilis was allowed to retain a private yacht, a family possession passed down by his grandfather. He was permitted to do some sailing in the Baltic Sea—provided that his captain and crew were trained security agents, and that his wife and children were held in Serpentopol as, in effect, hostages.
“Some weeks ago, sailing back from a scientific conference in Lithuania, Vaxilis managed to acquire a weapon and force his keepers into a lifeboat. He set course westward—he’d decided to defect, whatever the cost to his loved ones. But the Kranjovian Navy hemmed him in.”
“I didn’t read about any of this,” Tom declared.
“It was in no nation’s interest to ramp up the situation,” responded Ahlgren. “By luck, Vaxilis’s yacht, the Naiad, had made it into coastal waters claimed by one of our NATO allies—the claim being under some dispute and a subject of polite negotiations. Some big threats were tossed back and forth between NATO and Kranjovia. Ultimately both sides agreed to back off and permit the Naiad to sail on, to Amsterdam.”
“But he never made it, huh?” concluded Bud. “What happened? Did Maurig torpedo the yacht?”
“We’re not... not quite sure how matters unfolded,” John Thurston said slowly, as if embarrassed. “Inclement weather interfered with some of our long-range monitoring. At a certain point in time, in the middle of an empty sea, the Naiad became—unlocatable.”
Tom gave a sharp nod. “In other words, it disappeared.”
“She went under,” said Ahlgren. “Our monitoring determined that, at least. You can see her shrinking under the waves on satallite radar imaging.”
“Okay, so she sank,” Bud muttered impatiently.
Thurston shook his head. “No. Not in any conventional use of that word. As in the case of the Centurion, the yacht disappeared below the surface much too rapidly for a case of hull-breach and sinking. It was out of sight within seconds!—as if something underneath had literally grabbed it and pulled it down!”
“And Professor Vaxilis with her,” mused Tom Swift. “Have you any reason to think he might have survived, Mr. Thurston?”
“Only the fact that he is surely much more valuable alive than dead. And also that, like the supertanker, no trace of the Naiad has been found.”
Tom was thinking deeply, head lowered, but risked a veiled glance at Bud. They knew their thoughts were running in parallel. The bizarre scenario suggested all too well the actions of some monstrous subsea predator—an unknown giant of the depths like the Conqueror Worm!
The young inventor decided to keep his thoughts to himself for the present. “What can I do to help you?” asked Tom quietly. “Our Enterprises submersibles could comb the area, and there are airborn detection instruments that we― ”
Ahlgren interrupted. “We’re beyond that point. We’ve already used your gravity-gradient sensor, and a passel of other gimmicks. We’ve been searching intensively above and below the surface. As have the Kranjovians, naturally. The problem is that there’s nothing within a hundred miles of the last sighting, and we don’t know where to look next.”
Bud smiled. “Somebody once told me that the ocean’s a pretty big place.”
Thurston looked at Tom soberly. “We know your sea-atom detectors led you to the guyot, Tom. Is there some way they could track the Naiad? Or the Centurion?”
“To be frank, gentlemen, I do have an invention in mind that might accomplish the goal,” Tom said. “It’s an aquatomic tracker that could follow underwater trails from one side of the ocean to the other if necessary.”
“Is it near completion?”
Tom made a disguised promise that he was certain he could keep. “After I return to Shopton it’ll be finished in a matter of days.”
“Then our prospects are much improved.”
“Reports of the death of hope,” stated Ahlgren, “have been greatly exaggerated.”
Before escorting the boys back to their bicycles and providing Tom with an elaborately encrypted data-disk of information about Configuration Eighteen and the Vaxilis disappearance, Paula Jeans took them into another room and showed them the experimental vehicle the NATO consortium was developing. It was a bulky, van-sized automobile. “The C-18 engine shows a great deal of promise.”
“I know there’re a lot of historical myths about the supposed ‘inadequacies’ of steam-driven cars,” remarked Tom. “The truth is, steam racing cars were exceeding 140 miles per hour back in their heyday—and they were no more unsafe than the gas engines of that era.”
“Yes. As you probably know, one of the greatest drawbacks to the use of steam engines for automotive purposes is the amount of time and energy it takes to fire-up the boiler and ‘build up a head of steam’. But with supersteam, the problem is essentially solved.”
Bud was frowning skeptically as he scrutinized the demonstration vehicle. “I understand why you’d want to replace petroleum. But whatever happened to electricity, ma’am? Tom’s great-grandad tooled around in an electric car, and nowadays Tom’s solar batteries― ”
Bernt Ahlgren chuckled, his look condescending. “I gather you haven’t had a great deal of experience with the scientific problem of momentum, Barclay—as applied to big projects with many hands and many governments involved. The Oberjuerge discovery was made around the time Tom here was born! Never let it be said that grand projects touched by the magic wand of competitive economics would ever be stifled by mere common sense.”
“That’s a little too cynical for my tastes, Mr. Ahlgren,” Tom declared.
“In any event, gentlemen, there are legitimate scientific and humanitarian reasons to locate Vaxilis and the Centurion,” concluded John Thurston.
Added Ahlgren: “Assuming either of them still exist.”
As they biked back to the town, Tom and Bud exchanged thoughts—and doubts. “I’m pretty sure we’re not being told the truth about Carlow,” Tom declared grimly.
“Why do you say that, Tom?”
“Because he was originally planning to fly here, to Quivires and the ‘refinery.’ Thurston and company may not realize we know that.”
Bud drew even with his pal. “I don’t get your point.”
“My point is that the espionage group would hardly be likely to try to break into a highly guarded facility like this one—the core of the whole project. Wouldn’t they be most likely to stay clear and pull off their subversion in places that are more vulnerable?”
“You know, you’re right. They’d pick off the outlying stuff in bits and pieces. They’d be idiots to risk everything by trying to work so close to the refinery. And they sure wouldn’t send in a crazy loose cannon like Carlow!”
Tom nodded. “They’d make sure he was kept distant and under control. So why the plane ticket?”
“What’s your theory, professor?”
“Don’t have one—so far. But I’ve gotten pretty good at telling when I’m being lied to, pal.”
In less than ten hours Tom and Bud and the others were back in Shopton, a supersonic trip by Sky Queen behind them. And it was only a matter of a few days before Tom was holding up Arvid Hanson’s model of the aquatomic tracker vehicle before Bud’s gray eyes. “Man, she’s a small one—even smaller than the jetmarines!”
Tom explained that the midget sub would only carry two passengers. “She can be transported in the Flying Lab’s hangar-hold, or the freight hold of one of the manta-class seacopters.”
“A real sub-compact!” Bud turned over the round-nosed, bulging form in his hands. It had a flat, oval shape, a broad view window wrapping about its prow. A long tapering vane, like a sting ray’s tail, extended aft. “She looks like a red tadpole! Hey, you oughta name her the― ”
“Er—I’m calling her the SnooperSub,” declared his friend hastily.
“Is she another of your fishy speed demons?”
The scientist-inventor shook his head. “Far from it. She’ll just creep along. Her usual cruising speed won’t be much faster than a rowboat’s!”
“Good night!” exclaimed Bud in wry skepticism. “You didn’t leave room for a motor?”
“She has to move in a slow, delicate way—no wake, no bow-shock, not even any excess heat or sound. Nothing to disrupt or distort the lay of the molecular traces in the local water.”
“So how does she move?”
“That long vane on the tail is basically a modified hydraulivane, the device we use on the jetmarines to reduce friction by easing the water aside.” Tom explained that in this case the vane would function in the reverse manner, forcing the flow of water inward upon itself. “As pressure builds up, the Snoop gets squeezed forward, so to speak.”
“Run silent, run creep.” Bud pointed to a flat, angled-off section beneath the nose. A cluster of wide-mouthed silvery tubes stretched forward from this slanted panel, arranged in an X-shaped array. “What are these for?”
“Those intake ducts, flyboy, are a big part of what makes the aquatomic tracker the more sophisticated big brother to the aquatometers. Here, pal—I’ll show you something.” He led his friend over to a long, trough-like tank that he had set up near the lab wall. As Bud watched expectantly, the young inventor pitched handfulls of a flaky powder into what appeared to be ordinary water. Each handfull had a different color-mix.
Bud leaned over the trough as the handfulls began to disperse. “Great colors, pal.”
“Notice how each handfull is clumped into an identifiable arrangement?” When Bud nodded, Tom continued: “Now what would happen to those delicate patterns if we sucked the water in the tank into an intake pipe?”
“They’d get scrunched up.”
“In other words, scrambled, distorted, and mixed together.”
“Like I said—scrunched.”
Tom pointed to a narrow opening, like a sluice-gate, that divided the tank into two separated sections. Standing at a makeshift control panel, he flipped a switch and carefully adjusted a set of glowing dials.
Immediately the colored clumps of materials began to move down the tank toward the opening, as if on an invisible conveyor belt. Bud raised his black eyebrows. “Hmm—neat! Each clump is scurrying along without breaking apart. Looks like you’ve got each one in an invisible box—a cube of ‘solid water.’ A magic spell, Harry P.?”
As the clumps neared the opening they smoothly fell in line, like cars on an onramp. Bud walked a ways toward the far end of the tank and watched them pass through the opening one by one, floating into the further section without any distortion of their splotchy patterns. “Okay, perfect. So how?”
Tom switched off his device. “By taking advantage of some of the ways water is special. It has unique properties, pal—super-powers! Because of its atomic arrangement, a water molecule developes an internal charge separation and forms electromagnetic poles that allow it to become polarized.”
“The molecules line up in ranks and files, right?”
“Yup. One of the properties of the molecule, the hydrogen bond, is what makes it clumpy and sort of ‘sticky,’ which is why surface tension evolves, like a skin on top of a body of water. But when you break the skin—by diving through it, let’s say—it closes itself up right away.”
Bud nodded wisely. “Got it all figured, genius boy. Your machine uses water’s electrical super-powers to hold sections of it together as you move ’em along.”
Tom grinned. “Exactly! The stasis-conveyor pumps in phased energy to create self-cohering supramolecular ‘cubes’ of water that can be maneuvered into the innards of the aquatomic analysis equipment without distortion. It’s like capturing a sample between two microscope slides—but in 3-D!”
“Which makes your tracker more sensitive?”
“Much more.” Tom explained that the aquatomic tracker system would use two distinct methods simultaneously. The repelascan feature of the aquatometer would detect the overall distribution of trace materials in the seawater surrounding the SnooperSub for a distance of several miles, allowing the computer to create a background-reading or “baseline” to be compared with the output of the second system. “The fine-tuning comes from what I just showed you. We take water samples through the separated tubes, maintaining the internal ordering of the molecules in each sample. The analysis sensors can then read the fine detail, and the main computer can put it all together.”
“Showing you where the underwater scent is coming from.”
“Like a trail of molecular bread-crumbs in the water, Hansel and Gretel style.”
“Then maybe you could name the sub― ”
“Pal,” Tom interrupted with smiling firmness, “she’s the SnooperSub. And by the way—we take her out for a spin tomorrow!”
GREAT PLACE FOR A
EVEN AS Tom was working out the bugs in his new invention, it was being constructed, piece by piece in Swift Enterprises’ main assembly building, nicknamed The Barn. As soon as each element of the aquatomic tracker was tested and deemed worthy, Art Wiltessa, the talented engineer who was the Swifts’ chief of assembly operations, commenced installing it into the compact SnooperSub.
By noon the following day Tom was able to contact John Thurston by PER to announce that the submersible had been loaded aboard the Sky Queen for freighting to the spot in the Baltic Sea where the Naiad had mysteriously vanished. “But Tom, am I to understand that you haven’t yet tested out your tracker in oceanic conditions?”
“True,” Tom confirmed. “But since we’re under the gun, sir, there was no reason not to test it in action. If modifications are needed, I should be able to make them on the spot using the equipment in the Flying Lab’s hangar compartment.” With a faint smile Tom signed off, clicking off the beginnings of a dignified sputter at the other end, in Spain.
Hours later, the Queen was hovering only yards above the frigid gray waters of the Baltic. The deck of the vehicular hangar was lowered on pistons, plunging beneath the waves. Inside the SnooperSub, Tom and Bud shared excited glances. The young inventor activated the craft’s propulsion system and adjusted the electronic buoyancy modulators. The tiny ship floated up from its cradle and edged gently into the gloom.
As they descended to the seafloor, Tom switched on the sub’s twin headlamps. “I think you just startled some fish!” Bud joked.
“They do look kind of wide-eyed!”
The SnooperSub made use of the same localculator instrumentation as the hydrolung suits, and it was quick work to cruise to the precise coordinates desired. “No sign of anything unusual,” Tom muttered, gazing out the viewport.
“Wait, Tom—veer off to starboard, will you?”
What Bud had made out was a wide, long section of the sandy bottom that appeared to have been subjected to a recent disturbance. “Scuff marks! Gouging!—Tom, it’s the tracks of Kong Dubya!” exclaimed the youth.
“I’m sure you’re right, flyboy,” was the reply. “Some of the markings resemble the photos I’ve seen.” The sub began to follow the trail westward, only to find that it petered out almost immediately. “The floor gets rockier here,” Tom observed. “So now let’s follow an invisible trail.”
The aquatomic tracker’s instrument panel lit up in front of the two pilots, displaying complex oscilloscope patterns and long lists of trace substances in the water ahead of them. “The intake conveyors are working perfectly,” proclaimed the young inventor happily. “No loss of coherence in the samples!”
“Have you got a scent?”
“Well—we’ve got a lot to choose from, anyway.”
Tom had been provided with extensive information about the Naiad—hull composition, paint specification, fuels, lubricants, even the chemicals used for waste treatment. “But still,” Bud pointed out, “a lot of that could tag just about any boat, don’t you think?”
“Maybe,” Tom responded. “But this particular boat leaves its chemical trail down deep, not near the surface.”
They found a likely molecular profile within minutes, and set off on the trail with enthusiasm. “I’m sure it’s the yacht,” Tom stated with determination, keen eyes focused on the crystal-ball spheroscreen. “And there’s a second set of readings, too.” He nodded toward the detailed readout monitor on the board.
“Yep—except it isn’t a worm, pal, or an eel or a fish.”
“Or a sea serpent?”
“The only ‘serpents’ we’re dealing with here are human ones! The readings show industrial materials and metals.”
“Shoulda known,” said Bud wryly. “Some kind of sub craft for real bottom-crawlers. Ham and George will be disappointed.”
Tom nodded distractedly, adding: “There’s another wrinkle, too. I’m getting strong readings for Configuration Eighteen.”
“Jetz! Do you think the gang has already perfected a supersteam engine?”
Frowning thoughtfully, the young inventor shook his head. “I don’t think so. I’m not picking up the signature for any sort of steam exhaust.” He suddenly turned to Bud. “Pal, I think the Conqueror Worm is a submarine tanker!”
Bud was startled at this new notion. “You mean it’s hauling around oil or something?”
“It’s hauling C-18!—or at least that’s one thing it’s been used for.” As the scenario unfolded in his imagination, Tom reported on it. “The Drowning Roman boys are doing the same thing the Centurion was doing, shipping tankfulls of ‘water X’ from the guyot—they must have made a side-tap to the source—to some facility where it’s being analyzed and studied.”
“Stealing it right under the noses of the NATO operation!”
“Right,” Tom agreed. “Those bulging pods we saw along its back must be storage tanks, flexible containers, maybe elastic like balloons, anchored down to the transport mechanism.” He noted that if the Worm were something manmade, it would explain another of the mysteries associated with it. “The people who made it must have installed anti-sonar technology, counting on the fact that it would be hard to detect anyway as it scurries along more or less flat to the bottom.”
“Then onward to the Worm’s—er, what do worms live in? A nest?”
Tom grinned. “In this case, an undersea garage!”
Though Tom’s description of its “rowboat” cruising speed had been a joking exaggeration, the slow pace of the Snooper took a toll on the patience of its young crew of two as they followed the trail hour after hour. “Good grief, we haven’t even reached the SMB site yet!” Bud grumbled.
“They probably towed the Naiad to their main base, wherever it is,” his comrade stated. “I’d guess one of the North Sea coasts. Maybe an island.”
“Maybe Iceland! We’ve got quite a swim ahead of us, Skipper.”
“Then let’s skip the swim and fly instead.” Tom slipped the quantum cartridge for the Sky Queen into his Private Ear unit and contacted Red Jones, who was piloting. “Come fish us out, Red. I’ll give you the Lookor coordinates.”
“You’re not giving up the search, are you, Boss?”
“Not on your life! But I’m going to make it a lot shorter.”
With the SnooperSub again aboard the Queen, Tom had Red set a course to the west, leapfrogging over the SubMoBahn site and the Scandinavian Penninsula. “It looks certain that all the pieces of the puzzle are connected,” Tom explained. “The theft of the Naiad, the sinking of the Centurion, the Oberjuerge guyot, and now the Conqueror Worm—all part of the same overall plot. So if I’m right, we can pick up the trail again at the place the tanker went down off Norway.”
Tom’s guess proved correct. Back below, the aquatomic tracker led the boys further westward. After a time Tom told Bud, “We’re now paralleling the route we followed before in the diversuits.”
“You’re sure it’s not just traces from the guyot?”
“It may well lead us to the guyot,” replied the young hydronaut; “but now I can detect what was too scrambled and faint for the aquatometers to handle—not just C-18, but the trail of Kong Dubya and the two ships.” That they were following a real track was confirmed by occasional sightings of the Worm’s scuff-marks on the bottom.
Bud asked his pal why the subocean abductors had bothered to drag the yacht such a great distance. “If all they wanted was to kill or capture that scientist, it seems to me they’d just scuttle her after dragging her under.”
Tom shrugged. “Hey, I’m just a tinkerer. I don’t have all the answers. It could be they thought Professor Vaxilis had research notes aboard the Naiad, or some sort of specialized analysis equipment. They may have been right.”
After several more aerial leaps it soon became apparent that the trail had forked. One branch, mostly indicated by Configuration Eighteen alone, angled off toward the guyot. The stronger and more complex line of traces was aimed like an arrow at the eastern coast of Iceland. “Want another lift, Tom?” inquired Red from high above and many miles away.
“No,” Tom PER’ed back. “In fact, veer off and make for the horizon. The Snoop is sonar-invisible, but the presence of the plane could tip off the enemy way in advance.”
“Wilco! I’m outta here.”
Within minutes the aquatomic tracker’s readouts reported a sudden increase in concentrations on all channels. Cutting the external lamps to remain undetectable, Tom consulted a map and told Bud: “Iceland ahead. It looks like we’re heading for a little bay—a mini-fjord backing up into a glacier. No major settlements for miles around.”
“Great place for a hideout,” Bud nodded. “Do you think they’d have brought the Centurion up to the surface?”
“No way, flyboy. But the bay shows as quite deep—room for a supertanker under the surface if you don’t mind a snug fit.”
The silhouette of the coastal rise was now painted across the sonarscope monitor. Adjusting the wide-range data input from the repelascan analyzer, Tom swerved the heading northward and paralleled the jagged coast two miles out. As a deep shadow crawled onto the screen, Tom slowed and checked the Lookor. “There it is—the mouth of the bay.”
“Pretty dark in there.”
Tom checked his instruments and chuckled.
“No wonder it’s dark—and no wonder the Drowning Roman group picked the bottom of the bay as a hideout. It’s frozen over!”
Now Bud noted, high above, glints of blue, white, and green. “Man, it’s like hiding under an iceberg!”
“Perfect protection from standard airborne detection instruments, including infrared scopers. And here—the map-notes say the bay is completely unnavigable ten months of the year. We’re within miles of the Arctic Circle.”
Frowning intently, Bud stared into the gloom ahead of them as they edged closer and the seafloor rose to meet them. “I’d sure like to know if the tanker’s up in there.”
“Can’t tell from the sonar readings,” Tom murmured. “Wish we had a resonance-locator or gravy-scope on board. Well, let’s sneak a peek with the aqualamps on external-invisible mode. With our Antitec coating they won’t know the Snoop is out here—it’s probably unlikely that they’d be set up to detect the lamp’s wave beam.”
The young inventor switched on the SnooperSub’s sunbright twin aqualamps. A huge form loomed out of the dimness ahead!
“It’s the Centurion!” Tom cried.
IN ICY HANDS
“THANK YOU aquatomic tracker!” Bud chortled. “Looks like she’s in one piece, don’t you think?”
Tom nodded, studying the colossus. The Centurion rested nose-down at an acute angle, her wide stern almost wedged against the ceiling of ice. He switched off the aqualamps again and darkness closed in with a clap of blackness. “No lights, no sign of divers.”
“It’s just a big storage tank, genius boy,” was Bud’s opinion. “They’ve probably hooked up a pipe someplace to pump the C-18 up to their lab whenever they need more of it. Hey—I wonder if that Apollo statue is still on board? Naw, probably not.”
“What now?” Tom asked himself. “Kong Dubya traces all around us. Bud, they could have the Worm floating someplace on the far side of the ship, out of sight.”
“Shall we cruise over and take a look?”
Tom shook his head. “We’ve seen how fast the thing can scurry along—and it has claws. Our sub doesn’t have the speed to escape if they catch sight of us.”
“Yeah. True.” The Californian’s handsome face brightened. “Okay, but we don’t have to turn tail. How ’bout if I do a little recon in one of the Fat Men?”
“But if they see you― ”
“Look, Tom, it makes sense,” Bud insisted. “Hang back a good ways for safety. If the Worm comes slithering after me, I can get away easily. Remember, the new suits can do a lot more than they used to.”
Tom had recently redesigned his egg-shaped Fat Man suits, deepwater one-person vehicles with mechanical limbs that were carried aboard many Swift Enterprises submersibles for emergency escape from the deep. The new suits had incorporated many of the features Tom had devised for his hydrolung diversuits—the air-supply mechanism, disguised sonar, and small, powerful hydrojets that used the ion-drive principle of the diverjets. The young inventor agreed, reluctantly, that the thick-shelled suits would provide Bud with considerable protection and maneuverability. “Loop around the ship once, just once, and stay in contact,” Tom directed his friend.
Grinning with excitement, Bud entered the SnooperSub’s cramped storage hold, which doubled as an airlock, and swung himself into one of the waiting Fat Men. Sealing the suit, he signalled Tom to open the airlock.
In seconds Tom saw the youth jet past the viewpane and lite on the bottom not far away. The young inventor laughed as Bud made fists at the end of his remotely controlled mechanical arms and swung them about. “Fighting an invisible octopus, pal? Or just flexing to show off?”
“Good workouts start with stretching exercises, aqua-prof!” laughed Bud in return. “These new movement-imitator control gloves are mighty fine. Okay—to work!”
Tom’s joking comments belied a sense of danger that he knew his chum shared in. The Centurion hung in watery space like a sunken skyscraper—or a gray ghost of the sea. We’re invisible to sonar, Tom thought gravely, but not to sight.
Bud jetted toward the ship, surveying the nearer side with the beams of his suit lamps. Then the Fat Man became a distant fleck, arcing around the hulk to its hidden side. “I don’t see any sign of damage or leakage,” he reported by sonophone. “Hey—there’s something that doesn’t come standard!”
“A great big box attached to the lower hull on the far side. Jetz, it’s as big as a schoolbus! What do you suppose...”
Tom’s eyes suddenly bulged wide as he grasped the significance of what Bud was seeing! “Bud!—it’s an airlock! The tanker itself is the hideout! Get back here!”
Bud did not reply!
Shoving past all thought of danger, Tom reached for the hydraulivane thrust controls—and yelped out as the SnooperSub jerked violently to one side. “Good night!” he choked, grabbing at the safety straps on his seat. Was it a seaquake?
Another shock came, twisting the deck and nearly hurling Tom against the viewpane! A loud rasping, clanking sound from the hull—and the hydronaut realized what he was up against. The Conqueror Worm had come up from behind! “It’s got hold of the sub!”
Kong Dubya, out of view, seemed intent on shaking the Snoop like a dog with a rat in its teeth. Whipped about violently, Tom was unable to reach the sonophone mike, and he watched helplessly as his point of contact with the surface world, the Private Ear unit, clattered away on the lurching deck. Got to reach it, he told himself desperately. Got to call for help—for Bud’s sake too! He unlatched his safety straps, and another shock sent him somersaulting forward against the control panel. He wilted to the deck, stunned.
His next clear thought was the sound of the SnooperSub’s topside hatch being forced open by machinery. Rough hands grabbed him, and blurry faces dragged him up and out into air and the dim bluish light of flickering fluorescent tubes.
As he was being patted down by silent men, Tom fought to clear his head and take stock of where he was. Everything seemed weirdly askew! Metal girders arched over his head at senseless angles, and black metal walls tilted in at him as if they were about to collapse. “Of—of course,” he muttered. “I’m inside the ship! And she’s nose-down.”
The open space he was in—possibly one of the big tanks—was half full of water. He could see a huge, sliding hatchway panel on one wall poking above the waterline. It was obviously a recent addition, disturbingly parallel to up-and-down as it really was, not the helpless slant of the grounded Centurion. He had been led onto an aluminum catwalk that stretched to the top of the bobbing Snoop from a roughly gouged opening in the nearest tank-wall. It seemed Tom’s sub and been shoved through the airlock’s outer hatchway by the Worm, and then pulled by cables through the inner hatch, into the compartment’s dock.
Tom noticed another small submarine, of conventional design, floating a distance away. And something else, too—Bud’s Fat Man suit, open and empty. His heart sank.
Three muscular, sun-weathered men stood about him, one holding a revolver. They wore simple, blue-gray work garments. “Do you—speak English?” Tom faltered weakly.
The men said nothing but responded by jerking their captive toward the doorway, into another bizarrely-angled compartment with a makeshift floor suspended in space.
“Hi, Skipper,” was Bud’s listless greeting. Tom saw the bruises that testified his pal hadn’t been an easy catch. As Tom was shoved nearer, Bud said: “It turns out Kong Dubya has babies. Some mini-monster came up out of nowhere and grabbed the Fat Man.”
Tom nodded. “I think I encountered the Worm itself—the big one.”
“Indeed you did,” came a thick voice from above—a useless door yawning open in what seemed to be the ceiling. A man stood looking down at them. He was a courtly looking man in a white suit, with graying dark hair, a look of intense, hawklike concentration on his fleshy face. He had a skinny goatee, a gray spike curving from his chin like a worm.
Professor Petrov Vaxilis!
“Your eyes tell me you recognize me, young sir,” he said haughtily. “Here we meet one another, under water, within water, and in a certain sense—our meeting is over water, eh?” He chuckled. “For it is water that draws us together.”
“Come on down and shake hands,” Bud snapped with threat in his voice. Vaxilis seemed more captor than captive!
Vaxilis turned his eyes to one of his men and nodded. Tom and Bud were stripped and given the operation’s drab work garments in place of their American clothing. “No weapons? No radios? It is as if you had no expectation of becoming prisoners. A pity, though,” he continued mockingly, “that neither of you chose to wear your wristwatches. I am told they are, as you say, quite something.”
“Professor Vaxilis,” said Tom in a raw voice, “my friend and I are here because we were trying to rescue you. Everyone—everyone who knows anything about it—assumes you were abducted, if not drowned.”
“Of course,” he nodded. “Yet as a scientist of vision, you surely know that what ‘everyone’ assumes is quite often wrong. This theatrical business of sinking my Naiad was planned with great attention to detail—and to the ever-watchful eyes of the West. I am to serve as an asset to dear Kranjovia as a phantom, out of sight, with the independence of privacy. It was my demand, and even Maurig realizes that brilliant science can not be extracted by torture.
“A nice scheme. I was quite safe and comfortable in my watertight chamber for the two days it took for Stangkreggi—the largest of my transport drones, named for a mythic creature—to tow me here beneath the sea.”
The boys did not respond, and Vaxilis called down orders to his men in what Tom presumed was his native language, Kranjov. The two were forced up a swaying rope ladder to a higher level, a hallway almost as steeply canted as a playground slide.
Vaxilis met them with a curt nod. “We were anticipating your arrival for perhaps an hour. Your dwarfish, sluggish vehicle is easy enough to see by telescopic video as it comes over our blue horizon. And my Stangkreggi was already hurrying back from his latest visit to the seamount. Easy enough.” After waiting politely for comments that never came, he said: “Now then, Tom Swift, it seems to me you might not have seen Stangkreggi as he came upon you, turned away as you were. I have sent him back to Oberjuerge, alas. But—as I know you like models; I have seen fotoghima, photographs, of your office—allow me to give you a treat. Do follow, please. And of course, bringing up the rear, my countrymen and employees Bordyi, the apelike man with the gun, and Theenar, bald Theenar.” As he turned to lead the parade, Vaxilis added, “He is very quick, Theenar. The slightest trace of disorderliness, Americans, will result in several inches of sharp steel between your ribs. Ouch!—one might say.”
The Kranjovian led them into another room with a suspended work-deck, a very large chamber outfitted as a laboratory of some kind. A number of men and women stood about in white coats, regarding the captives in silence. It somehow reminded Tom and Bud of the secret facility in Spain—but at a cockeyed slant.
The Professor plucked an object from a countertop and held it out for Tom to examine. Molded of plastic, it resembled nothing so much as a human spinal column, comprised of a great many small segments with flexible linkages. “Stangkreggi. My own design, perfect for undersea transport and certain kinds of construction. Let me see, now...” He directed Tom’s attention to sawtoothed disks, extending in pairs from the underside of each segment. “Scurriers, I call them. Wheels of a sort, but with the axle set in a vertical orientation. Do you see? Angle it, eh, and the part of the disk’s periphery furthest from the main body touches the surface below. They turn, biting into the seafloor, and it is a kind of walking, fast and continuous with ever so many little grasping feet.”
The young scientist-inventor was intrigued helplessly in spite of the circumstances. “I see. The scalloped edges act like anchors.”
“Thin prongs swing out to grip the bottom with great firmness.”
“Yeah,” grated Bud, “while you reach up and grab ships to pull under.”
Vaxilis smiled almost proudly. “Oh yes, just so. And here along the back, you see the flexible arms and claw-grippers. They are folded down, but can be swung up and extended to great lengths. You will be pleased to hear, young Tom, that Stangkreggi makes good use of a couple of your own creations. His lean inner musculature is based upon that of your giant robots. And within the big lobster-claws, an adaptation of your underwater vacuum-lifter device—for with all his wide reach, Stangkreggi can hardly be expected to embrace an entire supertanker.
“Yet with the strength of Vortoggnas, the Kranjovian Atlas, Stangkreggi had no hesitation in pulling this huge Centurion under the waves against its tremendous buoyancy. And then, the great haul across the bottom of the North Sea, to this nice place of refuge. Scarcely one day! Glad I was, when construction was completed and I was able to leave the Kranjovian listening station in Greenland, our much inferior hidden base. Down here I have all I need to study this wonder-water that is my specialty. Including, not to forget, a plentiful supply of the substance itself.”
Tom handed the model back to his captor. “Then I take it, Professor Vaxilis, that this is all a Kranjovian operation?”
“No, it is my operation! So many years, working for the fool Maurig, an unscientific idiot, earning my petty privileges. For what?—for this, to study what you call Configuration Eighteen.” Then he winked broadly. “And also, perhaps a few more privileges and rewards for my patriotic services. All in the deal. Let me show them to you.”
As they were herded toward another door, a voice called out from a dimlit corner of the laboratory: “Well, hiya, boys!”
Tom and Bud whirled, and Bud barked out in amazement, “Carlow!”
“Not in jail after all, this clever man,” commented Vaxilis in suave tones. “The Parisians could not hold him. Good it is, Tom, to have friends in a position to falsify or destroy evidence.”
“I don’t doubt it, Professor.”
Vaxilis unlocked a heavy door. The group entered into darkness, and the Kranjovian switched on the lights.
The chamber was crammed with art objects of every description! “I am a mignar, a fan, of certain of the classic styles of artistry. Paintings, lovely vases, jeweled chalices—and there!” Vaxilis gestured grandly. “Surely you know that one.”
“Surely I do,” replied Tom coolly. “The Delian Apollo.”
“So it really was being shipped on the Centurion,” Bud muttered. “It wasn’t just a hoax.”
“There are hoaxes aplenty, but that was not one of them. These objects are a form of payment provided by Maurig. His agents have methodically stolen them from the collectors who stole them originally. I would say, Tom, that they inspire some of my best work.”
“You’re a poor excuse for a real scientist, Vaxilis,” snapped the young inventor.
Petrov Vaxilis laughed—though his peculiar laugh was soundless. “No, Tom, I am a very good excuse for a scientist. It is as a person that I am a somewhat poor excuse. Yet I have made sacrifices, have I not? Sacrifices of things dear to me. My poor family—had our leader not carried out his usual policy of executing the loved ones of traitors, it might have seemed peculiar, hmm?”
“You’re as inhuman as those robot serpents of yours!” Tom spat out in disgust.
Professor Vaxilis stared at the blond youth with eyes like ice, unspeaking. Then he turned and led them out of the room, carefully locking the door behind them. He spoke quietly to the guards, then addressed Tom and Bud without looking at them. “You will be taken to a compartment and placed in irons, as they say aboard ships. You will be fed and watered until the Naval submarine arrives from Serpentopol.”
“We’re to be taken to Kranjovia?” demanded Tom.
“You are of some value if placed in meek service to the government. The outside world will believe that you and your craft were lost beneath the North Sea, under inexplicable circumstances. Incidentally,” added Vaxilis, “our sensing instruments make me quite confident that you are sending no locator signal, and that you did not transmit word of your discovery to others. And if I am wrong? Pray I am not, for those who attempt rescue will also disappear. I have more power than I have shown you.” He gestured sharply to his men, and finished by saying, “It is most unlikely, my boys, that we shall meet again.”
The two Shoptonians were herded down twisted corridors to a small compartment, where, as promised, they were placed in ankle chains. The men turned without a last look and locked the door behind them—a metal door with no hint of yield.
After a silence, Bud began to speak in low tones, grim and despondent. “When he said ‘you,’ he meant you, Tom. I won’t be taking that sub trip. They don’t have any use for me.”
Tom only said, “We’ve been in― ”
His friend interrupted. “Tom, we’re in leg irons in a locked room inside a sunken supertanker underneath a glacier in Iceland. Please don’t tell me we’ve been in worse situations!” Bud took a few breaths, then gave Tom a look of wry apology. “So what’s the plan?”
Before Tom could answer, the door rattled as the lock was undone.
Tom and Bud exchanged glances.
“I think, maybe, my trip starts now,” said Bud.
THE compartment door swung open briskly.
“Are executions part of your job description too, Carlow?” asked Bud bitterly.
Tristan Carlow was alone. He took a quick glance back into the corridor before closing the door softly and putting a finger to his lips. His voice was a near whisper. “I’m setting you loose. The hall and the dock chamber is unguarded at the moment. The airlock machinery will start automatically as you approach in your sub.”
Bud boggled. “We’re supposed to trust you?”
Tom held up a hand and said quietly. “He’s a double-agent, Bud. It was on my list of theories as to why he was headed to Spain.”
Carlow knelt, producing a formidable metal-cutter from beneath his loose shirt. “I don’t care if you believe me or not,” he said as he went to work on Tom’s chain. “Thurston’s team recruited me years ago. My background made me a credible candidate to get involved with the GOG-image group as it was gearing up. Vaxilis trusts me—as his outside man. He thinks I’m loyal to him personally, not Ulvo Maurig.” He looked up at Tom as the chain fell away. “Everything I did, Tom, was to enhance my credibility with Vaxilis. You wouldn’t have been harmed. Thurston and I had a plan to allow you to ‘accidentally’ escape in a way that wouldn’t make Vaxilis suspicious.”
Tom nodded—then nodded toward Bud. “He goes with me.”
As Carlow worked, Bud said suspiciously: “Wrecking the SMB was a pretty extreme way to build a rep, Carlow. Or are you gonna tell us you weren’t involved?”
“No one was involved,” was the muffled reply. “As Thurston told you, it was inadvertent, a ruptured tank. They very much didn’t want to get attention from Tom Swift. When Maurig found out he was infuriated—insane.”
“Insane, hmm. How could they tell?” snorted Bud.
Carlow pulled away Bud’s chain. “Follow me. They’re all on the main deck or in the mess hall.”
Tom asked, “What about you?”
“I’m hoping you’ll allow me to escape with you in your submarine.”
“Sounds like a great strategy,” frowned Bud, “getting alone with us out in the ocean—and pulling out a gun or one of what’s-his-name’s stillettos! Maybe we should strip-search him, Tom!”
“Whatever floats your boat, Barclay. Just follow and keep quiet.”
They made their way through a warren of metal tunnels, crossing suspended catwalks. A last portal led them back to where they had entered Vaxilis’s hidden land. The SnooperSub floated placidly before them, her topside hatch open wide. “I’ve examined the hatch,” stated Carlow. “Wrenching it open seems not to have breached the compression gasket, but look it over your― ”
Bud cried out a frantic warning—too late!
From beneath the waters of the huge tank a snakelike form reared up into the air and darted straight at Tom! The young inventor stumbled backwards, but the striking attacker—a tiny version of Vaxilis’s servomechanical sea-worm—had already begun to coil about him like a grotesque boa constrictor. Tom’s writhing struggles against its powerful inner motors were useless. “Bud—Carlow—the sub—get going!” he choked, face reddening.
But Bud Barclay had already dashed to his friend’s side, wrapping his fingers around the coiled links and straining mightily to free him.
“Useless efforts,” came the hollow tin voice of a loudspeaker. “Alerted by alarms, I have watched you on my monitor, transmitted by my drone’s camera eyes. My clever Tristan!—Amusing to learn that one’s suspicions are right. ”
“Let Tom go!” shouted Bud. “He’s no use to you dead!”
“But he’s no use to me at all,” retorted the speaker. “My plans have changed. This hour I have decided to accept a proposal to switch my loyalties to those who will be more appreciative than Ulvo Maurig. Surely more pleasant. What an untutored fool he is!—allowing me to convince him that advanced steam power had a future in our age. I shall pursue my researches, and my pastimes, in a more desirable venue.”
As the robotic constrictor tightened its hold, Tom’s eyes were bulging, his face turning violet. Then Bud’s eyes fell upon a possibility. “Keep trying!” he barked at Tristan Carlow.
Bud dashed to the wide-open Fat Man suit that still stood inertly a ways away. Dragging it close, he slipped his hand into the control gauntlet, hanging free within. In instant response one of the suit’s metal arms shot out toward Tom. The mechanized hand gripped the Worm at a segment junction, a weak spot, and twisted with the full force of its advanced robotic muscles.
The segments cracked apart, and the entire Worm fell dead away to the deck with a crash!
As Bud yanked Tom up onto the Snoop, Tom looked back. “Carlow! Come on!”
But gunshots had begun shouting from an opening above them. Carlow glanced upward, startled—and spun to the deck in a crimson spray. “G-go!” he croaked.
Inside the SnooperSub, hatch sealed, Tom woozily activated the hydraulivane thruster as the craft rang with bullet strikes. The youths knew they faced a greater danger—that Vaxilis would remotely disable the airlock mechanism, trapping them!
They bobbed near the panel. Nothing happened—and then it did! They surged forward into the airlock chamber. As the inner door closed again, the chamber began to flood.
Tense seconds later the outer hatch swung open. They were free!
Tom was panting but quickly recovering his strength and his wits. “It’ll take a while for them to come after us in their own submarine.”
“And Kong Dubya is away,” Bud nodded. “I’ll call up Red Jones. The Queen can pluck us out.” Recovering the PER, Bud did so, as Tom put slow miles between the Snoop and the dark, silent Centurion.
“Head for the surface, guys, and give me a minute,” replied Red. “No—half-minute!”
Tom had grim news as Bud clicked off. “We’re being pursued, flyboy. Blips coming on from the rear.”
“Small. Torpedos. Still a good distance, but it’s going to be a real nail-biter.”
They buoyed upward and emerged into wan sunshine, amid chunks of sea ice. “Thank goodness, there she is!” Bud gulped in relief as the Sky Queen’s shadow slid across them.
“He hasn’t dropped the deck,” Tom muttered in dismay. He grabbed the PER. “Red, lower the deck—we’ve got torpedos on our tail!”
“Roger! It’s coming!”
But even as a crack appeared on the wide, flat underside of the Flying Lab, foam shot up from the sea in a streak aimed at the Queen! “The lead one!” exclaimed Tom. “Way out in front just under the surface! Good gosh, the others are just seconds― ”
A silver-white shape burst from the waves fifty feet to portside, trailing steam and raw fire! It flashed by the Queen and exploded in thunder above her!
“Not torpedos,” gasped Tom Swift. “Airtorps!”
“Long range torpedos that can jump the surface and fly like missiles. They’re taking out the Sky Queen first—then us!” Tom grabbed the PER again. “Red—orders! Full forward and away—you’re being targeted by surface-to-airs!”
“Yikes! But what about you two?”
The skyship’s tailjets flared, even as a dozen airtorps bolted from the water. The boys watched breathlessly as a grim game was played out above, horizon to horizon. The Sky Queen was more maneuverable, but the airtorps were faster, overtaking the ship and locking on after her every escape. The boys knew that Red couldn’t break free for a straightaway course—it was only by wild veering that he kept the projectiles from catching up as they veered in pursuit.
“Jetz! Those things’ll run out of fuel—won’t they?”
“Eventually. Their flight motors may be air-breathers.” The period had barely passed his lips when Tom suddenly shouted into the PER:
“Red! Phase in the jet lifters and throttle down the forwards—slowly. You’ve got to get altitude! Make for the ionosphere!”
Red Jones didn’t bother responding. Tom and Bud saw gleams of fire—and the embattled skyship began to rise steeply with the airtorps still converging upon her. Up—up—and out of sight beyond the hazy clouds.
Bud stared up, face white. “Detonation! D-did they connect?”
Tom said nothing. They would know the verdict of fate in moments. If a burning hulk fell tumbling and sputtering through the clouds—
“This is Red! It’s over!”
Tom wiped his brow. “What happened?”
“They didn’t take too well to the air up here. Not made for low pressure, I guess. Started wobbling and went off like a string of firecrackers. Any more down there?”
Tom checked the scope. “Nothing for miles—so far.”
“Come get us, Jonesy!” Bud muttered.
Tom and Bud made their report to John Thurston from the Sky Queen as it winged toward Shopton. “We have NATO, American, and Icelandic forces converging on the bay right now,” stated Thurston. “Vaxilis isn’t going anywhere.”
“A shame about Tristan Carlow,” Tom said evenly, wondering how the CIA chief would respond.
“Yes. A shame. He was one of our most valuable assets. And I apologize to all of you for having had to mislead you. We felt it essential to conceal his identity as long as we could manage it—as long as GOG-image remained in operation. It’s a rough world out there, Tom.”
“I know that very well.”
“Of course. Oh, and here’s interesting news. We detected a Kranjovian Navy sub headed toward Iceland. Now they’ve turned tail. Wise decision, I’d say. And our satellites have reported an enormous explosion at Ulvo Maurig’s compound in Serpentopol.”
“Just a joke. Maurig has a reputation for reacting explosively to bad news. Humor.”
“I understand, sir.”
There was a further report two days later. “We circled the tanker and tried to wait ’em out,” Bernt Ahlgren told Tom, reaching the Swift residence by PER. “No lights, no sound, no signs of life. When we barged in we found out why. Kid, it was flooded out, top to bottom.”
Tom was shocked at the grim news. “To destroy evidence?”
“Oh no, the evidence was floating all over the place—along with some twenty bodies! Vaxilis, Carlow, everyone. They made no attempt to save themselves; it was obviously an accident of some kind. My boys think the hull must’ve been more weakened by its treatment than Vaxilis realized. But we recovered your Conqueror Worm, though—and the Delian Apollo.”
Tom thought these were slight prices to pay for the loss of twenty lives.
Swift Enterprises moved on to other matters, other inventions, an eerie exploit to be related in Tom Swift and His 3-D Telejector. Yet there was a bit more. The capper came weeks later, when Bud called Tom over to look at the newspaper in his hand—a tiny squib of an article in the “Weird World, Isn’t It?” column.
IN SUNNY SPAIN, THE TIME OF THE CHOO-CHOO MAY HAVE COME—AND GONE
“It’s from a little burg called Los Mercados Quivires,” declared Bud. “Ever hear of it?” He read aloud:
“Witnesses in a fishing boat reported that a large truck, in the vicinity of the refinery, turned into a pinwheel in a cloud of steam and wound up rolling in the surf. Embarassed refinery officials explained that a steam turbine of experimental design accidentally became active while being transported by truck to Huelva. No harm done, though. But we think they should stick to fighting bulls!”
Laughter in his gray eyes, Bud looked at Tom. The young inventor shrugged languidly.
“A few bugs to work out. Give them time. But—I wouldn’t sell the horses just yet, pal.”