TOM SWIFT LIVES!
TOM SWIFT AND HIS
This unauthorized tribute
Is based upon
the original TOM SWIFT JR. characters.
SCOTT DICKERSON, AUTHOR
As of this printing,
The New TOM SWIFT Jr. Adventures
is owned by
SIMON & SCHUSTER
This edition privately printed by
PRINTED IN THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
TOM SWIFT AND HIS
THE PEG-LEGGED GHOST
“HOW would you girls like to visit a haunted house?” asked Tom Swift as Bud Barclay’s red convertible sped through the late evening darkness. Leaning forward from the back seat, his blue eyes sparkled with excitement.
Tom’s sister Sandra, a pretty blond girl, turned slightly to glance back suspiciously at her famous brother. “Are you kidding?”
“No. You’ve heard me speak of Dr. Grimsey?”
“That new scientist you mentioned, the one you and Daddy just hired at Enterprises?”
Tom nodded. “The house he rented came complete with a housemate from the Great Beyond! I’d like to drop in.”
The dark-haired girl in the back seat next to Tom spoke up. “Grimsey—already, a creepish name. What is his field, Thomas? Exorcism?” asked Bashalli Prandit dryly.
“Parapsychology,” Tom said in reply. “The scientific study of ESP and other ‘paranormal’ phenomena. Including ghosts and hauntings!”
Bud Barclay chuckled. “You should hear the stories he tells about that place! One night he beard boots clumping outside his room. He jumped out of bed and glimpsed the figure of a dead sea captain who used to own the house. Then it disappeared right before his eyes!”
“Oo-ooo!” Bash shivered—a mocking shiver. “Where is this sanctuary for spooks?”
“It’s the old Gullbracken House, up on the ridge overlooking Lake Carlopa,” Tom said.
Sandy was unconvinced, but gave a tentative nod. “I know, that big gloomy old house you can see from Rickman Dunes. Remember, Bashi?” Bashalli nodded.
“Another night,” Bud went on, “Dr. Grimsey was awakened by clammy fingers touching his face. There was Pegleg the Ghost bending over him! And it wasn’t fingers, it was seaweed hanging down from his head!”
“Oh, stop it!” commanded Sandy. “You’ll scare Bashalli.”
“What nonsense,” retorted the Pakistani. “I am very comfortable with ‘ghosts,’ for I know they do not exist. All such things, just hoaxes and rumors, or tricks of the eye.”
Tom shrugged. “Then I take it you wouldn’t be interested.”
“I did not say that,” she replied defensively.
“You’re giving us goose bumps!” Sandy declared with a frown of only half-disbelief. “But let’s go see the place, anyhow. Shouldn’t we call first, though?”
“The guy’s not home,” Bud said, slowing to turn the car around away from Shopton, where they had wiled the evening that had now turned to starry, moonless night. “He’s been out of town for a few days—gave me the house keys and asked me to feed his birds. When he told me the story, he said he wouldn’t mind if I spent the night there to see for myself.”
Bashalli asked, “And just what is the story? Who is this sailor-man supposed to be?”
“No one really knows,” answered Tom soberly. “Dr. Grimsey did a little research, though, at the library. Supposedly he was an old sea captain, back in the early 19th century when Shopton was just a little crossroads village—a suspected slaver and latter-day pirate. Seems he kept people chained up in the attic, and killed anyone who threatened to talk. Then one day...” The youth paused. “One day he just disappeared. Never seen again.”
“Except for one thing,” added Bud. “On his bed was a black char-mark, the size and shape of a man!”
Tense silence followed, dark as the night but starless and moonless. Bash eyed Tom suspiciously, but kept her thoughts close.
Paralleling the lakeshore, the convertible presently turned off onto a dirt road which wound upward onto the low ridge that framed the lake road on the inland side. Soon a house loomed ahead against the night sky. It was an old frame building, two stories, with a high gabled roof. Slats of light shone through the shuttered windows of the ground floor, but the second story was only a silhouette, slightly paled by the reflection from Lake Carlopa. Bud parked and the four young people got out.
Unlocking the heavy wooden door, Bud led his friends into the parlor, switching on some additional lamps. Yet even in bright light the room seemed strange and half-hidden—to the girls at least, though Bud maintained his usual joking commentary. “Come on,” urged the youthful San Franciscan, “I’ll show you the big aviary on the back porch.”
Bashalli’s eyes narrowed. She glanced toward Sandy and said, “No doubt these bright boys have set up their spook show back there to thrill and chill us.”
“We’ll wait here,” pronounced Sandy smugly, giving Tom and Bud a dismissive wave.
“Okay, San. But...” The young inventor’s voice trailed off into a slight frown. “Stay here in the parlor. It might not be safe, wandering around in the dark.”
“We shall be quite fine,” Bashalli declared, “even deprived of our brave protectors.”
Left alone, the girls made a closer inspection of the room. The walls were covered with dark-patterned paper, and red-plush drapes hung at the windows. The lamps and fixtures were modern, but most of the furniture was massive and old fashioned.
“What a dreary place!” Sandy murmured. “It smells musty in here, doesn’t it? Like it’s all been closed up for a hundred years.”
“Part of the effects. Please do not say the scent reminds you of seaweed.”
“Imagine being alone here on one of those ‘dark and stormy’ nights!”
Bashalli sniffed haughtily. “But Americans enjoy being frightened. Your movies are all about fear and danger.”
“Uh-huh. And what are Pakistan movies about?”
“We watch American movies.”
They could hear Tom and Bud talking at the back side of the house, and the occasional twitter of a bird.
Suddenly Bash looked up, toward the high ceiling. “What was—?”
“What?” Sandy gulped.
“A sound up above.”
“Above in the—in the attic?”
“‘Above’ is where attics usually are, Sandra. —there!”
Sandy had heard it too. A scraping sound and the creak of a single footfall. And then one more sound. Thunk! Like a wooden peg-leg against a floor!
“T-Tom? Bud?” Sandy called out with false calm. “Are—er—you all right?”
“Sure, just feeding the birds,” came a pair of voices from the porch—definitely not the attic.
A grandfather clock ticked loudly in the silence; but the silence seemed to be becoming louder than the sound. Suddenly Bashalli gave a stifled gasp and pointed with a quivering hand.
The yawning mouth of the old fireplace, dark and empty a moment before, had taken on a faint, wavering phosphorescence. In a moment it had coalesced into the form of flames licking at the edges of the darkness—silent flames without a crackle and without heat.
“Obviously—just a gas log—don’t you think?” murmured Bash in the faintest of voices. “Surely on a timer.”
Wide-eyed, Sandy could not answer. And then her eyes grew wider.
A weird shape, like a twist of smoke, had materialized in front of the fireplace! Expanding and growing more solid, it coalesced into the figure of a peg-legged man in a brass-buttoned coat with a sea captain’s hat pulled low over his eyes. He was drenched and dripping, and seaweed clung to his clothes! As he stepped forward, he stretched out a clawlike hand in the direction of the girls. His head seemed to become luminous, as if from an inner flame, revealing his skull as a black shadow around two glowing eyes!
The girls watched, frozen with terror.
“H-h-he’s dripping wet,” Bash whispered, “but he’s not leaving any tracks on the carpet!”
Sandy summoned courage from somewhere. “He just can’t be a ghost!” she insisted. “This is just something Tom and Bud have rigged up.” Yet even as she spoke she was well aware that she could still hear the boys talking and moving about half a house away.
Gathering all her nerve, Sandy got up and approached the specter, circling warily.
“Sandra, no!” protested Bashalli.
Sandy reached out to touch the otherworldly intruder—but her hand went through his body!
Reduced to quaint stereotypes the girls screamed and flew into each other’s arms. They were clinging in panic as Tom and Bud came rushing into the parlor.
“What’s wrong?” Tom inquired. “What happened?”
“W-w-we just saw the ghost!” Bash quavered. “Sandy tried to touch—it!”
Bud stared at them, then looked around. “Stop joking—there’s no one here but us.”
The apparitions, ghostly fire and ghostly sailor, had vanished!
Sandy was about to speak when she saw smiles twitching at the boys’ lips. As her expression changed Tom and Bud burst into laughter.
“Of all the mean tricks!” Sandy exclaimed in disgust. “They’ve been playing a joke on us, Bashi!”
“But—but how? I know we saw it!” Bewildered, the pretty Pakistani turned to Tom Swift, eyes flashing. “I must say, for someone dead he was most lifelike. One of your silly robots, Thomas?”
The young scientist-inventor reddened. “Didn’t mean to scare you two all that much, Bash.”
“It was pretty much my idea,” Bud confessed.
Seeing the sheepish expressions on the boys’ faces, Sandy conceded a smile, good-naturedly. “Okay, whatever. Brother dear, you’ve had your fun. Now explain.”
The young inventor was still chuckling. “What you’ve just seen,” he announced, “is a demonstration of the new invention I’m working on—a three-dimensional television system.”
“We might have known, Sandra,” pronounced Bashalli. “Television is as good a source of anxiety as movies.”
“Television?” Sandy wrinkled her forehead. “But the spook we saw wasn’t on a screen—it was walking right through the room!”
“Exactly, because my system doesn’t need a screen.” Tom walked over and pulled aside some draperies. Concealed behind them was a boxlike device about four feet high, studded with tuning knobs and dials. A short latticework antenna on an adjustable base was mounted on the top of the chassis. “This telejector, as I call it, projects 3-D images right into the room. You were actually watching a digital video recording which I switched on by remote control from Dr. Grimsey’s porch.” He added that he had similarly switched on a sound player set up in the room overhead to provide an eerie atmosphere.
“Then the ‘ghost’ we saw was really just—well, just light?” Bashalli asked in amazement.
“Not quite, although I hope to achieve that later,” Tom said. “The images were formed from a chemical mist which Bud sprayed into the air earlier tonight, before he swung by to pick us up. The tiny globules are slightly buoyant and much too small and diffuse to be seen in dim light like this.”
“An electronic field gimmick keeps them in place in the air,” Bud noted. “Same sort of deal Tom uses on his skywriting machine.”
Bash nodded. “Ah! That very atmospheric musty smell.”
Tom continued, “When the phase-tuned microwave beams from the telejector strike the mist particles, it makes them glow at the point in the air where the energy load exceeds the absorption threshold of the particles.”
Sandy nodded. “But it wasn’t like a TV image,” she objected. “It was in 3-D—I walked partly around it.”
“That’s the main idea,” Tom replied. “The output beam paints a sort of glowing 3-D ‘shell’ in midair while dimming-down the background.” He added that the phony “sea captain” was actually an Enterprises employee, Sam Barker, in a rented costume.
“We recorded him this morning, using another part of my new system.”
“He’ll be glad to hear he has a future in acting,” Bud gibed.
“I suppose this was a historic moment in science, even if Sandy was almost scared out of her lovely blond hair,” Bashalli commented. “Will your new 3-D system be used for home television, Tom?”
The young inventor smiled modestly. “It will eventually, I hope, but it’s not perfected yet. This version can handle individual objects that appear fairly close to the viewer, but not scenery, or images of varying distance. It’s hard to deal with parallax and perspective, you know.”
“Isn’t it though.”
Bud produced refreshments from the kitchen. The four sat on the sofas and chatted for a time. Then Sandy glanced across the room.
“Oh, good—I was going to ask you to show us the ghost again.”
The hazy, glowing image stood indistinctly in a dark corner of the room, arms extended toward them.
Tom stood. “But—I switched off the machine.” He turned toward Bud. “Flyboy, is this another one of your pranks? Like you did that time with the robot?”
Bud shook his head vigorously. “Don’t know anything about it. Maybe you accidentally bumped the remote.”
“No,” Tom stated, puzzled. “It’s still in the other room.”
“Well, you surely don’t expect us to be scared twice, do you?” asked Bashalli smugly. “One must not repeat a trick too soon.”
The image was the phantom sea captain as before, seaweed and all. Yet there was something different in the quality of light. The parts of the image seemed to waver, as if it were about to fall to pieces. It seemed somehow unreal.
The eyes fixed on Tom. The figure extended a hand, and they could all make out its lips moving amid a pleading expression.
Then, suddenly, it dissolved into air.
The four exchanged glances, reactions mixed.
“Well,” said Bash, “I will admit it is all very impressive. But you forgot to switch on the sound.”
“The telejector prototype isn’t set up for sound,” muttered Tom, still staring. “I read his lips, though.”
“Hunh? What did he say?” Bud demanded.
“He said, ‘Tom Swift, Tom Swift—the time is near!’”
“THE time is near,” repeated Bashalli. “Now I know we are dealing with television, the land of abundant cliches!”
Puzzled and frowning, Tom strode over to the telejector and crouched down to examine it. “The power’s off, just as it should be.” He depressed a button and a small DVD-type disk popped out into his hand. “And this is definitely the recording disk we made—I wrote a label on the top by hand, myself.”
Sandy asked if a further video track could have been added to the disk. “No,” the young inventor replied. “This is an experimental disk specifically designed for the telejector system. Nothing can be added after the original imprint.”
“And let’s not forget that the machine was switched off,” Bud noted.
“Then what was it, Thomas, the real ghost of Old Pegleg?” demanded Bashalli. “Perhaps we should check the attic for skeletons!”
“This house doesn’t have an attic! We just made up the story,” Tom retorted. “Dr. Grimsey is a communications technology engineer—nothing to do with ghosts.”
“Well,” said Bashalli, “I want nothing to do with them either. Let’s go.”
They loaded the equipment into the trunk of the convertible and left the old house, mystified and just a bit spooked.
Minutes later, passing Swift Enterprises on the way to the Swift home, Tom asked Bud to drive in through the executive gate and let him off. “Dad’s working late in the observatory. I said I’d join him. We’ll drive home in his car.”
“Looking over the Green Orb with your space prober, Tomonomo?” Sandy guessed.
“Right. We finished refurbishing the liquid helium feed this afternoon. Now we can try the megascope on her.”
A strange heavenly body had been sighted only days before by astronomers in the Enterprises outpost in space, orbiting the planet at a distance of 22,300 miles. Still unseen by Earth-based instruments, the station’s powerful electronic telescope had detected the extremely faint, greenish object, which the scientific press had instantly named the Green Orb. It was apparently moving in an elongated, sharply canted orbit about the sun. Tom and his father hoped to scrutinize the space phantom with Tom’s revolutionary video-telescope.
Bash glanced up at the night sky from the open convertible. “Can we see it from here?”
“Not with the naked eye,” Tom said. “But if it were visible, it might be quite an exotic sight. Its greenish color isn’t like anything else in the sky.”
Let off in the walled, four-mile-square experimental station outside the town, Tom took a ridewalk ground-conveyor past the broad airfield to the high dome of the observatory.
The interior was dominated by the latticework antenna of the space prober, which utilized an electronic quantum-link principle to establish an invisible “camera eye” in space. Beneath the huge, slanting column of metal rings was the monitor and control console, where Damon Swift was intently at work. “Just finished powering up the system and checking her out,” he greeted his son. “No sign of that leak in the helium gasket.”
“I knew we could count on Hank,” Tom nodded. Hank Sterling, a good friend, was the Swifts’ talented chief engineer.
Tom pressed a button to open the dome, then tuned the electronic circuitry and shifted the looming antenna into position, using the parameters sent down from the space outpost. A flashing light confirmed that the megascope’s tightly focused beam was on its way to the vicinity of the Orb.
“It’ll take about fourteen seconds at light-speed for the beam terminus to get there,” Tom remarked. “The Orb’s some two and a half million miles away. Let’s look over the data and photos Professor Goldstone transmitted.”
“It’s all pretty puzzling, son.”
“Hey, wait’ll I tell you how my joke on the girls worked out. Now that’s a puzzle!”
Presently a beep alerted the two that the imaging point had been established in deep space. Before switching on the viewscreen, the scientist-inventors studied the high-definition photographs from the outpost. Even at maximum enhancement and magnification, the space station’s telescope showed nothing but a dim, hazy disk floating among the stars, slightly yellow-green in hue. It was utterly featureless. “They can’t get a better image?” asked Tom.
“There’s no more light to collect,” Mr. Swift replied. “Even the Hubble Telescope shows only the same blur—no surface features at all.” He added: “If it even has a surface.”
“But they’ve calculated the Orb’s size, at least.”
“About ninety miles in diameter. Bigger than Nestria.” Mr. Swift referred to Earth’s second moon, which Tom had explored in the name of his country. “A fairly healthy-sized asteroid, son—and yet it has many peculiar characteristics. An atmosphere, apparently.”
“Assuming that’s the cause of that hazy halo.” Tom nodded thoughtfully. “Speaking of Nestria... You know, Dad, it’s possible the Space Friends are behind this. They certainly have the ability to manipulate celestial bodies.”
For a considerable period of time Earth had been in cryptic contact with extraterrestrials, radio contact by way of Swift Enterprises. The unseen beings, who communicated with humanity by means of a concept-language of mathematical symbols, had moved the moonlet Nestria into Earth orbit for reasons never adequately clarified. Though trusting Tom and his associates, these friends, who appeared to have established a scientific station in orbit about Mars, preferred to remain secretive and enigmatic.
“The thought occurred to me as well,” Mr. Swift responded. “Tomorrow let’s begin composing a message to send them.”
Tom turned his attention to a set of long-range spectrographs, and his surprise increased. “Good night! This doesn’t look like a spectral profile at all!”
Mr. Swift nodded, grinning at the beckoning scientific mystery. “Just a blur without a trace of data. And as you’ll see, radar probes get only a weak, diffuse bounceback at the threshold of detectability. Clearly the intruder isn’t a solid object at all. It must be a cloud of gases and ice particles—but unlike a comet, it has no core.”
“A cosmic dust bunny,” Tom joked. “It sure doesn’t reflect much light from the sun.”
“Goldstone doesn’t think it’s reflecting any light from outside sources,” was the response. “He thinks what we see must be some sort of natural luminance, perhaps from a radioactive process. Yet there’s no sign of radiation, or even heat. If the Orb is reflecting external ambient light, it’s a mystery how it’s managing to do it.”
“We know one thing, though,” said Tom thoughtfully. “It’s not part of our solar system. It’s coming in practically at right angles to the plane of the ecliptic.”
“Yes, from interstellar space, I would suppose. Quite a long-range traveler.”
Tom activated the monitor. After he had tuned several dials, a picture came onto the prober’s circular screen.
There was no trace of the target. “Just stars,” Mr. Swift muttered in baffled surprise.
“I’ll check the settings.”
But in a moment Tom reported that the imaging point was precisely where it had been sent. He rubbed his chin. “Could the figures from the outpost be off?”
“Rotate the view angle,” suggested Mr. Swift. “Let’s look around.”
Almost immediately the screen showed a small blob of greenish light against the black of space. “Well, there’s the Orb,” Tom declared. “But if the parameters weren’t plain wrong, it has an irregular orbit. It’s a good hundred thousand miles from where it ought to be.”
“But perhaps that’s to be expected with an object of such low mass,” the elder scientist mused. “It’s further away from the sun than we are, but getting closer by the hour. Even something as slight as the pressure of sunlight, or the solar magnetosphere, might deflect its course.”
“And yet it doesn’t dissipate. Looks like a puff of smoke,” Tom remarked, a tiny bell of memory in his brain trying to remind him of—something. He manipulated the controls to bring the viewpoint close to the space body. But as the disk swelled on the monitor, he suddenly halted the approach. “Look at that, Dad.”
The mysterious object had begun to shine with a weird green aura, vividly reproduced on the megascope viewscreen. Second by second the glow became more and more intense and brilliant—alarmingly so!
Damon Swift gasped softly. “What could be happening, Tom?’’
“I don’t know. I can’t even guess—but the Green Orb sure isn’t a dim bulb anymore!” Alight with a fiery halo, the disk, still small and distant, showed hints of a writhing turbulence!
Suddenly the picture wavered and rolled across the screen. Tom reached out to adjust the monitor. As he did so, he and his father jumped back in surprise as a streamer of sparks wisped down in front of their faces, from above them.
Tom glanced upward—and cried out in alarm. An entire section of the antenna was enveloped in steam and smoke, and sparking violently!
As the pair began to back away, a cluster of metal rings broke loose and arced down directly on top of them!
“DAD!” Tom snatched at the older man’s arm and yanked him back full force as the antenna section, still connected to its support struts, smashed down on the megascope control chassis. The next instant, the broad circular viewscreen exploded with a lurid electrical discharge and a spray of shattering glass! Father and son staggered backward, clutching their faces.
The observatory quieted. Scratched and cut by the hurtling glass, the hands of both were flecked with blood as they dropped them from their faces.
“Whew!” Damon Swift looked at his fingers. “Think we’ll need major surgery, Tom?”
The youth smiled ruefully. “No, but I guess we could use some first aid.”
Taking the electric nanocar Mr. Swift had parked next to the observatory, the two scientist-inventors whisked across the experimental station to the plant’s infirmary. Here they found Doc Simpson, Enterprises’ young medic, on late-evening duty. With a few wry and apt comments about the durability of Tom and his father, he cleaned their cuts and applied antiseptic.
When they returned to the observatory, Tom unscrewed the back panel of the prober console to examine the circuitry. Many of the electronic parts were still hot, and some of the fused insulation and resistors were smoking faintly.
“What the devil happened, Tom?” asked Damon Swift.
“Something must have been knocked out in the power stages, causing an extra big surge. All the liquid helium gaskets cracked, and the overheated, charged-up ring section came down, with its power cables still attached. And goodbye monitor!” The young inventor sighed. “A chance in a million.”
“The new helium feed setup must have failed—an undetected flaw.”
Tom stood up in disgust and added, “Well, it’s a cinch we can’t fix all that tonight. So much for our lookover of the Green Orb.”
Before leaving, Tom contacted the space outpost on his quantum-link parallelophone, nicknamed the Private Ear Radio, or PER. Dr. Goldstone reported that the mysterious sky object still glowed with a weird brilliance in the electronic telescope. “Seems to be calming down, though,” the astronomer remarked. “Yet it’s strange—we’ve detected no radiation or unusual electromagnetic activity.”
“The little orb that isn’t there,” Tom murmured.
Next morning, the young inventor and his father were down early for breakfast, eager to bear the latest news reports about the strange heavenly body. As they tuned the big wall-mounted television to a science channel, Mrs. Swift, a dainty, pretty woman, joined them, then Sandy.
The newscaster was saying, “As an update on an ongoing story, that strange object in the sky is still baffling astronomers. At first it was thought to be a new asteroid because of its orbital path around the sun. But last night the space voyager briefly took on a mysterious green glow that has thrown observers into an uproar. Where the Green Orb came from is now a bigger question than ever, and the world scientific community has yet to determine just what it is—but whatever the answer, on the human scale it’s far from Earth, and will be getting farther as it crosses the plane of the solar system and begins its return to deep space. Perhaps we should be grateful!”
“You had a front row seat at the big sky show last night, Dear,” Mrs. Swift remarked to Tom.
Tom grinned wryly. “Ringside seat is more like it.”
“All that and a waterlogged ghost,” Sandy observed. “Just another quiet evening in Shopton.”
Tom spent much of the following day working to repair the megascope with the assistance of Hank Sterling. They were joined by Enterprises’ new hire, Dr. Edmund Grimsey, a somewhat exotic figure with his full bushy beard and shock of iron-gray hair.
“Good to be here, Tom—learning by doing, so to speak,” he said to his young employer. “Swift Enterprises gives its people rather more freedom to learn and explore than was typical at my last position.”
Tom grinned at the older man. “We’re glad to have you with us, sir.”
“Mmm. Rather difficult yesterday, back in Thessaly to collect my remaining files at the old office.”
“My farewell to your counterpart was rather—less than warm.”
Upon the death of its founder, Wickliffe Laboratories of Thessaly had passed into the hands of a brilliant scientist-technician with a national reputation. Peter Langley was a few spare years older than Tom Swift, but the media liked to call him “America’s other young inventor,” and had encouraged what some thought was a spirit of rivalry between the two. Tom was well aware that Langley had been displeased by the loss of a key employee to nearby Shopton.
Hank Sterling broke into the conversation. “Looks like we’re doing well on the reconstruction of the Mighty Eye, Tom,” he called down from the antenna work platform up above. “We could be up and running by tomorrow.”
“I imagine the Green Orb will still be out there,” Tom laughed. “But as for me, I think I’ll break for lunch and check things out over in the office. I should think about getting back to work on the telejector.”
In the office in the administration building he shared with his father, Tom sorted through the various messages handed him by Trent, their secretary. One name caught his eye immediately. Well, whattaya know! he thought. We were just talking about you, Pete!
Tom called the number on the note, which he recognized as Pete Langley’s private line. The CEO-scientist himself answered the buzz.
“Hi, Pete. This is Tom Swift returning your call.”
“Tom.” There was a moment of cool hesitation—a chill in the air—and then a silence that felt oddly prolonged. “Got a busy afternoon going?”
“Too busy to drop by a competitor?”
Tom decided business diplomacy was the better part of valor. “I can break away. Do I get a clue as to what’s up?”
Again, silence. Langley ignored the question. “Would three o’clock work? My office?”
Tom puzzled over the matter in the air, flying to Thessaly in one of Enterprises’ Pigeon Special mini-planes. But puzzlement came to nothing by the time Tom found himself setting down on the Wickliffe Labs airfield.
In the management office building Tom approached Langley’s receptionist. “Would you tell him I’m here, Sue?”
“Oh, I didn’t realize― ”
“Pete’s expecting me.”
The young woman disappeared into the office behind her, returning in a moment to wave Tom in.
Pete Langley, thinly handsome and dark-haired, stood next to his desk with hand extended. “Hi, Swiftola.”
They shook hands and sat down facing one another. There was a moment of silence—and then a few more.
“Pete, is something wrong?” asked the blond young inventor.
“That’s what I was about to ask you,” replied the black-haired young inventor.
Langley shrugged. “You dropped by unannounced. Some problem?”
“I—I don’t get it,” Tom responded in surprise. “When you called me to come over― ”
“I called you? Come on, guy.”
It became evident that the call Tom’s office had received had not originated with Pete Langley! “Don’t know the first thing about it. And you say you called back—and spoke to me? Weird city. I’ve been here all day. No incoming on my private number. Sure you punched the keys right?”
Tom pulled the crumpled note from his pocket and read the number off. Langley snorted. “There’s the prob, bob. I don’t use that number anymore. Wick still owns it, but it doesn’t link to anything right now.”
Tom could see that his counterpart, who also had deep-set blue eyes, was as baffled as he was. “This is embarrassing, Pete,” said Tom. “But I can’t understand how it could have happened. It was this number I called, and I recognized your voice.”
“Yeah, well, voice-mimicry technology is cutting-edge these days. No news to you—you folks have your televoc system. Which we plan to make obsolete as soon as we can.” Langley laughed, and Tom joined in pleasantly. “Let’s back-burner it, Swiftorini.”
“I’m just sorry to interrupt your day. I’m sure you’re as busy as I am.”
“Busier. But as a matter of fact, I was thinking about giving you a call. We need to do a little out-hashing, Tom.”
“To clear the air. About you-know-himsey.”
Tom got the idea. “Dr. Grimsey.”
“Shoot me, but I don’t like the idea of you and your Dad raiding our staff.”
The youth reddened. “Is that really what you think, Pete? Enterprises doesn’t use unethical methods, any more than you do. The man approached us out of the blue. It was completely unexpected.”
“No inducements, hmm. No playing up the usual damages that these scientific egos like to collect? ‘Oh, those mean guys at Wickliffe!’ The guy’s a prima donna, Tomsky-omsky.”
Tom stood abruptly. “I’d rather not discuss our employees behind their backs, Pete.”
Langley also rose to his feet. “Oooh, don’t go away mad, budnik. I’d like you to say-hey to one of our own new hires.”
The executive stepped out of the office for a minute as Tom waited, fuming. Whatever was going on at Wickliffe Labs—he didn’t like it!
The door swung open. Peter Langley entered with a smirk on his face. The smirk was followed by an attractive young woman in shark-sharp business attire.
She threw Tom a bland, somehow challenging smile. “Hello, Tom. Long time. Well, maybe not so long. Surprised to see me?”
Tom’s youthful face bore a frown of steel.
AN UNEXPECTED BACKLASH
IT WAS obvious that Pete Langley was enjoying greatly his supposed rival’s discomfiture. “Amelia’s one of the nation’s top attorneys in high-tech matters,” he remarked. “Commercial patents—you know. Given our expansion goals here at Wickie, she’s a perfect fit.”
“Call me a nice piece,” added the woman in question, “of the puzzle.”
Amelia Foger, Esq., had briefly worked in the Swift Enterprises legal office. She had resigned in anger, certain that the Swifts were prejudiced against her because of her great-uncle Andy Foger, who had made himself a persistent problem for the first Tom Swift, Tom’s great-grandfather.
“I didn’t realize you were working for Pete, Amy,” Tom said.
“As shown by your red, white, and blue face, Tom.”
“Say now, don’t take it personal, kiddoo,” smarmed Langley. “I mean—she approached us.”
“I won’t interrupt your confab, boys,” Amelia said. “But Tom, Pete wanted me to mention one little thing to an old friend. I won’t call it advice. I don’t give free advice. Unprofessional.
“Our mutual friend Dr. Grimsey worked here for quite a few years on some—well, let’s call them projects of significance. Computer-like he may be, but we can’t quite delete his memory. I know you’ll bear in mind the need to tread carefully in dealing with possible proprietary information of value to this company. We’re obligated to protect our interests.”
“If you or Pete have any such concerns, Amy,” Tom snapped, “I’m sure you still have Willis Rodellin’s number in our legal department.”
“Hmm. I might. Somewhere.”
Langley accompanied his counterpart’s eloquent stalk out to the airfield and the Pigeon Special. “I love these little miniplanes your Construction affiliate cranks out,” he remarked. He added: “But you know, I was thinking... I have a little free advice for you, even if Amy doesn’t.”
Tom looked at him levelly. “What?”
“Check out the plane carefully before you take off. See, look at it this way—you got an elaborately staged bogus call that brought you here to Wickliffe in a plane. So why? I have this slogan: the consequence is the cause. Maybe the call was to get you here in order to plant a bomb or something in your plane. Happens to people like us—right? Think of that?”
“What do you think of my slogan?”
“As of now, nothing.”
After a thorough look-over, Tom flew the plane back to Enterprises, fuming. He talked to himself—and was glad there were only a few clouds to catch his words.
Narrating the story to his father, he concluded with, “So Amy Foger is involved in all this!”
Damon Swift nodded, a certain kind of faint smile on his face. “Yes, ‘involved’ may be the word exactly. She and Pete may be seeing one another on a personal basis. Pete Langley is unmarried, and Amelia wouldn’t care anyway, I’d wager. Miss Foger strikes me as rather ambitious.”
Tom plunked himself down behind his desk. “I’m mainly interested in the business of the fake call. Dad, whoever I reached has obviously set up some gimmick to intercept and divert calls—either at our end or at Pete’s end.”
“Yet it may not be the work of an enemy, son. Pete Langley is a driven young man with big responsibilities and the same sort of big, powerful imagination as yours. In situations like that, minds like that can develop—problems.”
“You think he’s having a breakdown of some kind?”
“Nothing that dramatic, necessarily. But it’s clear you’ve been on his mind. He was thinking of calling you over, wasn’t he? Perhaps he did place, and answer, those calls himself, using the dead line.”
“And blocked out the memory of doing so.” Tom shrugged. “Maybe. Sometimes when I get into some problem, I guess I do lose touch with things around me. So I’m told.”
His father chuckled affectionately. “We’re all blessed with a wonderful auxiliary mechanism in our skulls called our brain. It’s more than willing to take things over when necessary, when the mind decides to step out for a while.”
Tom discussed the matter with Harlan Ames in the plant security office next door, then called Willis Rodellin to keep him on top of things. Finally, restless, he drove over to the observatory to see what progress had been made by Hank and Dr. Grimsey in repairing the megascope.
Hank was all smiles. “Boss, Edmund here is a Godsend! Believe it or not, we’re ready for some serious testing.”
Delighted, Tom exclaimed, “Great! Dr. Grimsey, I can’t thank you enough.”
“Oh pshaw!” the older man grinned. “Let’s take a look around the solar system, shall we?”
They actuated the Mighty Eye and made the antenna’s aiming motors hum. In moments they were looking down on Fearing Island, the Enterprises space-launch facility off the coast of Georgia, with Tom’s huge repelatron-powered spaceship Challenger looming like a fantastic gyroscope over its launch pad. Next came a view of the glittering, elegantly rotating space outpost; and then, kinking and curving the invisible microwave helix-tube that upheld the viewpoint terminus, the three took a look at the far side of the moon.
“Electrifying!” murmured Grimsey. “This, Tom boy, is what one might call a scientific miracle—a mondo major turn-on!” The man was that old.
“No reason not to make up for lost time,” Tom said. He adjusted the megascope system to send the imaging point toward the Green Orb, which was now considerably closer to the Earth, although still above the plane of the ecliptic.
As the beam readjusted at light-speed, Tom asked his companions if they had determined what had caused the space prober’s disastrous burnout. “If you mean the ultimate, original cause, Skipper, we haven’t doped that out. Best guess is that the circuit supercooling system failed at some unidentified weak spot.”
“But we’ve checked that element quite thoroughly now,” Dr. Grimsey assured Tom. “Thank goodness your translimator machine provides a ready source of liquid helium.” This invention of Tom’s made modifications in the molecular state constants of gases and liquids, easily converting gaseous helium to its supercold liquid form.
The megascope console signaled that the beam terminus had established a position near the Green Orb. “Of course, near in this case means a distance of a few thousand miles. Let’s get a good look, then swoop in.” Tom worked the dials of the console as the greenish disk appeared in the center of the screen.
Again it struck Tom how eerie and half-real the Green Orb seemed to the eye. Its pale green hue was again extraordinarily faint and gloomy, its curving edges strangely elusive.
“No sign of that turbulence effect you mentioned,” Hank remarked.
“Let’s see if we can get inside the ‘green curtain’,” Tom said with excited determination. He caused the viewpoint to move forward quickly, and the disk swelled up with a jump to fill the screen.
Suddenly, instantly, the image wavered and sparkled. “Good night, I guess you spoke too soon, Hank,” Tom groaned. The Orb was again lighting up before their eyes! From this closer point of view, it was clear that whatever the body of the Orb was made of, it was in a state of agitation.
They watched in bemused silence for several minutes, not advancing the imaging point any further. “I’m no astronomer,” noted Grimsey, squinting at the screen, “but I’ve surely never run across a planetary sight like that. The gaseous envelope seems to be granular, composed of little clouds or motes.” The small, glowing elements seemed to be swirling about wildly.
Tom nodded at the monitor screen. “The effect must be magneto-hydro-dynamic in nature—clumps of cold plasma, which can form itself into twisted strands.” He indicated a bank of waggling meters on the control panel. “The megascope is fighting to hold off decoherence in the quantum matrix at the beam terminal. And yet,” he went on in a mystified tone, “the space station reported no emissions in any part of the spectrum, nothing that could cause decoherence.”
Suddenly the high-definition viewscreen flared a brilliant neon-green—and went black.
“Oh no,” Tom moaned. “It’s happened again—complete system failure!”
Hank and Dr. Grimsey keenly scrutinized the meter readouts. “The limiters and contra-surgers contained it this time,” Hank reported, “but it’s the same thing as before. Some kind of powerful energy pulse flooding through the transmitter rings and shorting out the anti-inverse-square-wave generator.”
“A mind-blower of a name!” Grimsey commented. “The megascope is completely knocked dead, I’m afraid. Shall we commence repair?”
Tom shook his head. “Don’t worry about it now. We need to get at the source. I’m sure we’re all thinking the same thing as to the cause of this.”
“Pretty obvious,” declared Hank Sterling. “It’s the Orb!”
“My former employer has some little saying about causes and consequences,” mused Dr. Grimsey. “Judging by the consequence, I would say the asteroid, or cloud—whatever it is—has issues with being probed.”
“I’ll say!” Tom agreed. “The megascope conveys its image data instantaneously once the terminus is established, so we saw the glow effect and the turbulence in real time. Then some seconds later the ‘recoil’ pulse wrecked the scope.”
Sterling nodded. “Which implies it came back to Earth from space along the microwave tube.”
“A reaction set off by the presence of the beam terminal—the mere presence.” The young inventor’s blue eyes glinted at the trace of a scientific mystery. “As we all know, the megascope conveyor beam stops at the terminus. It gets cut off by fractal phase inversion and never touches the object under observation.”
“And so one must ask, how could this celestial body react to something that has no contact with it in the first place?” wondered Grimsey. “As if, somehow, it is reacting to our purpose, not the actuality.”
“No point speculating, fellows,” Tom replied. “Let’s set aside these Earth-based instrumental studies and pay a visit to the Orb!”
Hank responded excitedly, “In the Challenger?”
“What else?” Tom laughed. “Starting with you and I, we can put together a crew in no time. Bud’s due back from his delivery flight in a couple hours, and Chow’s always rarin’ to go.” The youth explained to Dr. Grimsey that Chow Winkler, a crusty, colorful former chuck wagon cook, was a welcome member of most Swift expeditions. “He’s our executive chef, but he’s had plenty of space-flight experience. Which—er—reminds me, Dr. Grimsey...”
The man smiled through his bush of beard. “Oh yes, I know. I’m not quite ‘space worthy’ as of yet. But I’m content to keep my feet on the ground.”
Bud and Chow were thrilled to hear of the new expedition. “Brand my comet belt!” whooped the rotund westerner. “Fer all the blame trouble we get into out there, it’s all sure a sight t’ see! Don’t mind losin’ some o’ my personal gravity, neither,” he added, with a thump somewhere near his deeply buried waistline.
“What exactly do you plan to do, genius boy?” inquired Bud. “Will we be landing on the Orb?”
“It doesn’t look like there’s anything to land on,” replied Tom. “It’s just some kind of thin, nebulous mass without a solid surface—it may even be hard to see when we’re up close, like a mist.” The youthful astronaut explained that the Challenger would fly past the object at a distance of a few hundred miles, staying clear of its hazy perimeter and making observations at long range. “I’m going to install some sampling devices and test instruments on a couple of the Donkeys and send them out from the ship’s vehicular hangar. They’ll pass right through the body of the Orb, taking readings along the way, and then they’ll rendezvous with the ship further along.” The Repelatron Donkeys were small mobile platforms designed for personnel transport outside the spaceship. Tom had recently constructed a set of new ones with enhanced remote control features.
Enterprises’ three-decker Flying Lab, the famous Sky Queen, roared southward toward Fearing Island at dawn the next morning. Her yawning passengers included Hank Sterling and another veteran of space travel, Bill Bennings. “So it’s just the five of us, then?” asked Bill.
Tom responded, “One more. Dad suggested I take along Aciema Musa, who’s part of the visiting astrophysics team doing a research study at Fearing right now. I met her the other week.”
“Aster-physics, huh?” Chow looked dubious. “Guess that sounds like sumpin’ to do with space, anyhow.”
Hank laughed. “Cowpoke, those folks study all kinds of wild and woolly phenomena, from neutron stars to cosmology—the creation of the universe!”
“She’s an expert on magneto-hydrody-namics,” Tom added. “She’s studied Alfven wave propagation in interstellar plasmas. It might have a lot to do with the Green Orb.”
“Take yer word on thet one,” declared Chow. “But son, I’ll tell ya one thing. From what you said, that there Orb doesn’t care to give away her secrets—and she jest might fight like a dang wildcat to keep ’em! I hope we’re all up to it.”
“So do I, pardner,” said Tom quietly. He wondered:
And what happens if we aren’t?
PHANTOMS IN FLIGHT
ON THE invisible stilts of its repulsion-force thrust system, the great spacecraft rode its encircling rail-rings through a pastel sky at 6:11 AM.
“Shall I call you Captain Swift, Tom?” asked Aciema Musa.
Tom looked up from the element-scanning readouts on the main panel. “Maybe—if we sell the TV series,” he laughed. “But till then, I’m just Tom.”
“How long before we arrive at the Orb?”
“At our constant 1-G acceleration—we won’t start decelerating until we’ve completed the flyby—it’ll be an eight hour jump, approximately.”
“What! Eight hours in space? How’ll we pass the time?” Bud gibed from the copilot’s seat.
“Never thought about that,” muttered Chow, standing behind them, gazing out at the brilliant stars through the control deck’s pair of rectangular picture-window viewports. “Eight hours. Time fer two snacks and a gosh-honest lunch!”
As the cook clomped off to take the interdeck elevator to his galley, Tom told Bud and Aciema: “Actually, Hank and I have a great way to wile away the time—composing a message to transmit to the Space Friends. Maybe we can get some answers from the scientists even before we try probing through that green glow.”
“Early word sounds like a great idea,” Bud agreed with nervous enthusiasm. Tom knew his best friend was recalling a recent incident, in which a warning from the extraterrestrials had prevented the Challenger’s destruction by an undetectable threat.
“I also have some work to do,” said Aciema. “I’m interested in determining in advance what sort of readings we might expect if the object really does turn out to be a plasma phenomenon. It’ll help us in sorting through the readings.”
“Then good luck to both of us!”
Tom joined Hank Sterling in the communications compartment down below and set to work on the difficult problem of formulating a clear message in the mathematical symbols of the space beings. “Even with a copy of your Space Dictionary in the computer, it’s never less than a big challenge,” Hank declared.
“Sure is,” Tom nodded. “For all the times we’ve done this, there’s always a new wrinkle. Any misunderstandings can really throw off the message and make the answer useless.”
“If they answer—which they don’t always.”
Hours fled as they labored, with Tom occasionally checking with Bud in the control cabin above them. Finally Tom said: “We might as well go with this version.”
He had written a translation of the outgoing message below the cluster of weird symbols and hieroglyphs.
TOM SWIFT TO SPACE FRIENDS. WE ARE TRAVELING IN OUR VEHICLE TO OBJECT THAT HAS ENTERED THE SOLAR SYSTEM.
Here Tom inserted various parameters indicating the orbit of the Green Orb, its size, and the hue of its emitted light in terms of frequency.
DO YOU HAVE INFORMATION REGARDING THE NATURE OF THIS OBJECT THAT WOULD ASSIST OUR OBSERVATIONS?
“Oughta work, Skipper,” Hank stated.
Tom transmitted the code string through the imaging oscilloscope and out into the void over the Challenger’s powerful deep-space antenna. A lengthy wait followed. “We may not get an answer until we’ve already passed the Orb,” Tom grumbled. “Maybe not until we get back home.”
Yet a few minutes later an answer arrived from space—an answer that answered nothing.
TO TOM SWIFT. WE ARE FRIENDS. WE HAVE NO DATA ON THE PHENOMENON SPECIFIED.
“Hmph! Some help they are!” complained Hank.
“‘No data’,” Tom repeated musingly. “I wonder...” He had the receiving system print out the original, untranslated symbols transmitted by the alien beings and pored over them intently.
Hank asked, “Looking for something, Tom?”
“Not exactly.” The young inventor looked up at the engineer. “I just wondered to what extent the Dictionary was translating an especially ambiguous symbol-set. Maybe it’s me, but the way the translation puts it almost suggests they have no knowledge at all of the Green Orb.”
“You mean nada? They might not even know it exists?” Hank snorted. “Those guys are on top of just about everything going on in space.”
“True. But the Orb is a very strange sort of object. Dad and I think the Space Friends conceptualize the physical world in a very different way from humans—and their modes of sense perception seem entirely different as well.”
“Well—you’re right,” conceded the square-jawed engineer. “They understand light in terms of geometrical relationships and electromagnetic frequencies. But they don’t seem to grasp what a picture is.”
“Images are basic to us, to our sort of brains, but a different species may not― ”
Suddenly Tom and Hank were startled from their chairs by a shrill cry from the corridor.
“Yeeeoww! Help! Fire!”
Bolting into the corridor they found Chow in a state of quivering panic. “Terrible! Oh my prairie stars! The whole blame galley’s goin’ up!”
Tom grabbed his older friend’s thick arm, trying to calm him. “Chow!—your galley? But― ” Tom had noticed immediately that there was no hint of smoke in the air, nor had the automatic alarms gone off.
Chow shook off Tom’s hand roughly. “I’m tellin’ you, it’s all burnin’ like a torch! Th’ micro oven, th’ induction stovetop, the ceiling up above—fire ever’place y’ look!”
Hank had taken a few steps down the passage, which brought him in sight of the open galley door and the compartment beyond. He paused, then glanced back with a puzzled expression. “What fire, Chow? I don’t see anything.”
“Have you gone gosht-durn blind?” The ex-Texan stomped past Hank, waving an arm. Then his barreling bulk slowed to a stop.
“See, cowpoke? Everything’s fine,” said Hank in a soothing tone. “Something scare you?”
Chow was bewildered. “I—b-but I― ”
“Tell us what you saw,” urged Tom gently.
“Wh-what I saw?” Chow rubbed a hand across his bulging eyes. “I guess—I guess I saw somethin’ that wasn’t rightly there, that’s what! I ’as mixin’ up lunch on the counter, and when I turned back toward the oven, there was fire everywhere, all over the place. Figgered I ’as gonna get burnt up like a marshmeller on a stick!”
Tom asked if Chow had felt any heat, or smelled any smoke. “Wa-aal—now that you mention it, son—no. Guess not. But it shor did look lively enough.”
“I’ll bet it did,” Tom nodded. “In space our senses can play tricks on us.”
But Chow looked scornful. “I wudden in space, I ’as in my galley. Think whatcher want. If it wasn’t fire, it shor was a reezernable fact-simulee!”
As the bulky man clomped away, Tom and Hank exchanged shrugging glances.
Hank returned to the communications room. Tom remained in the corridor and used the ship intercom to connect to Bill Bennings, who was busy in the vehicular hangar making final preparations for the launch of the Repelatron Donkey probes. “It’s going fine down here, Tom,” he reported. “The things’ll run like watches, if... if I haven’t made any mistakes.”
There was something in Bill’s tone that prompted the young inventor to ask if he’d run into any problems. “No, no. I was just a little distracted. Queasy stomach. Came on all of a sudden.”
“We have meds in the infirmary if you need any.”
“Sure, I know. But it’s just a little irritating. I drove out to Lakewillow a couple nights back and had some Hungarian food—guess it didn’t set too well.”
A half-idea seemed to be tugging the sleeve of Tom Swift’s agile mind. But—what? “Bill, if you don’t mind telling me... Did you see something down there? Or thought you did?”
The silence seemed too long. “Sometimes I pay for my adventurous eating. I guess everything connects up in the body. Doesn’t it? You feel something, you see something...”
“What did you see?”
“It was nothing, Tom. I’ll be okay.”
Tom walked toward the elevator, his steps dragging. Whatever Bennings had glimpsed was far from nothing. Tom could tell that it had startled him—even frightened him. And in the end Bill had decided, as Chow had, that it hadn’t been real. Chow... Bill... How come I can’t think of whatever it is I’m thinking about? he wondered.
In the Challenger’s small crew lounge the Shoptonian found Aciema Musa standing at a viewport, staring out moodily at the stars. Seeing Tom, she nodded and said quietly, “You do a lot of mathematical calculation in the course of your inventing work, don’t you?”
Tom smiled. “I let other people—and our computers—handle the math whenever I can get away with it. I guess I’m more an ‘idea man,’ if you see what I mean.”
“Oh, of course,” she nodded. “Concepts and intuition. You think in pictures, not numbers.”
“Why do you ask? Did you run into a problem?”
“Not a problem. Not precisely.”
“Tell me, won’t you?”
She turned at looked at him for a moment, her expression thoughtful. “All right. If you want.
“Tom, some kinds of complex problems are handled like what they call double-entry bookkeeping. You might have two or more distinct series of partial solutions running, and you don’t know until quite a ways down the road whether you’ve taken a wrong turn somewhere. Pardon the poetry.”
“I see what you mean.”
“I was doing that sort of complex figuring—MHD is like that. Whenever I start I have a kind of dread in my stomach that I’ll struggle all the way to the end just to discover I made a mistake near the beginning. Sometimes you can worry so much about the possibility of error that your distraction causes the very thing you were worried about.”
“I know. Is that what happened?”
Brow creased, Aciema looked away. “I reached the end, and my ‘accounts’ didn’t ‘balance.’ There it was on the monitor, the unwanted number, blinking at me. I’ve just spent the last half-hour trying like the dickens to find the false step. I just plain couldn’t see any mistake, anywhere.”
“Sometimes that’s the way a problem is,” Tom said ruefully. “You just can’t see it—not while you’re fretting over it, anyway. I think problems must evolve chameleon powers for survival!”
“No, you don’t understand,” the astrophysicist bluntly pronounced. “The problem is, there was no problem!”
The youth stared. “You’re right. I don’t understand.”
“I must’ve looked at the set of resultants a hundred times while backtracking. There’s no doubt in my mind, none, that my final figures didn’t correlate. But when I checked the last time, they did!”
“Okay, but maybe one of the things you tried in recalculating― ”
“I didn’t recalculate,” she said quietly. “I was only trying to find where I’d gone wrong. Once that happens, reworking the figures is trivial. I made no changes. But the final numbers suddenly weren’t the numbers I’d been seeing all along. It was driving me nuts. All that time, I felt like I just wanted to zoom back home and crawl into bed.” She turned back to the viewport. “And that’s what’s on my mind, Tom.”
He joined her at the viewport, silent. Numbers that weren’t there, Tom said in his mind. A fire that wasn’t there. A fleck of dull green was visible in the far distance. And—the little orb that isn’t there.
Suddenly worried, Tom called up to Bud. “Everything okay up there, flyboy?”
“Would you do an eyeball check on the air sensors and the circulators?”
Bud reported in a moment that all seemed normal. “Something going on?”
“Yes,” Tom replied. “What, I don’t know. But at least it’s not some problem with the air.”
The young space pilot elevatored to the control deck and stood beside his friend. Bud glanced up at him curiously. “All the times you tell me about your inventions—and now you’re clamming up on me.”
Tom laughed. “Let me com Hank first. Maybe we’ll have even more to talk about.”
The young inventor asked Hank if he had had any unusual experiences since they had parted.
“Unusual, Skipper? Like what happened to Chow?”
“Anything that struck you as a bit off.”
“I suppose what happened a few minutes ago counts as ‘off,’ even if it didn’t amount to anything. I was working at the translation computer. I guess my attention wandered a little—all those darn words and numbers can make a guy feel drowsy.”
“Did you nod off?”
“I didn’t think so. Maybe I did, for just a second. I thought I saw...” Tom waited. “It was as if I’d glimpsed something out of the corner of my eye.”
“Something that bothered you.” It was not a question.
“Yes. It did. It was the face of my son. It couldn’t have lasted more than a tick, but that’s how I remember it.”
“Did it—he—say anything?”
“No. But something about the expression was... sad. More than that, actually. It’s hard to talk about it, but it seemed as if he were reacting to something awful that had happened.”
Tom ventured a guess, gently. “Such as the loss of his father?”
“That’s how it struck me. All I could think of, for a moment, was how badly I needed to be back there to comfort him. But it’s no big deal, really. All in a split second, like something you barely glimpse that memory reconstructs. When I looked hard, there was nothing there.” Hank hesitated. “Which, of course, is just like it was with Chow’s galley fire.”
Tom switched off the intercom, sucking in and letting out tense breath. “That’s everyone, except you and me, Bud. We’re seeing things—not just random things, but things with personal meaning. It’s as if― ”
Looking over, he broke off the thought. Bud was sitting in his contoured chair, rigid and white-faced. The black-haired youth was staring hard, not at his friend, but forward, out the huge, broad viewpane.
He spoke in a rasp. “T-Tom...”
Tom followed Bud’s gaze. His throat went dry. “I see it.”
She was a little girl, perhaps eight, perhaps nine. Very petite. Her long hair was a dullish blond. She wore a blousy top over faded jeans. She was looking at Tom.
From the other side of the Tomaquartz pane.
“Sh-she doesn’t have a spacesuit,” Bud whispered. “She’s just floating out there.”
“No,” murmured Tom, his heart thudding. “Not floating—standing! Standing on empty space.”
The little girl was gazing intently, desperately, into Tom’s eyes. Her expression was pleading. Her lips were moving.
And she was gone.
SPHERE OF INFLUENCE
THE BOYS’ fearful gazes met only blackness and stars—and a spark of green.
Bud could barely squeeze the words out. “We couldn’t have― ”
“We did!” Tom brusquely declared. “We both saw her. I read her lips, Bud, just as I did before.”
“With the ghost. So― ”
“She was repeating it over and over. ‘Tom, don’t be scared. Don’t go away. Hurry.’ “
“Right,” said Bud, abruptly sarcastic. “Because the time is near. Jetz! Why can’t they manage to come right out and say what’s on their minds?”
“They?” Tom dropped down into the chair next to Bud. “They who?”
Bud snorted, casting a look that went with it. “Uh-huh. ‘They who?’ Isn’t it obvious what’s going on? There are people on the Green Orb—and they’re messin’ with our minds!”
Without much conviction, Tom shook his head. “Nothing’s obvious, flyboy. There’s nothing there for people to be ‘on.’ The Orb isn’t a solid body. It’s barely anything at all—mostly light, as far as we can tell.”
“Fine. Then what’s happening to us?—by sheer coincidence as we get nearer that big glowing nothing out there!”
“I don’t know what’s happening to us. But I’m sure it started before this, back home.”
“You mean the pirate ghost?”
“More than that. I told you about my phantom phone call. We’re not just seeing things.”
Bud’s fortitude made a comeback. “And we’re not turning tail.”
“Absolutely not.” Tom added with a grim chuckle: “I’d sooner let my crewcut grow out than give up now!”
Another hour passed. There were no further weird incidents.
The small crew gathered on the control deck. A feeling of tension gripped everyone when the Green Orb finally came into view as a something, not just a vague spot of light. And yet there was no great difference. Its diffuse, yellowish-green halo gave it the look of a soft ball of cotton batting, dim and hard to see even against the velvet black of space. Minute by minute, the mysterious object loomed larger.
“Time to launch the Donkeys, if we’re sticking to the plan. Are we, Skipper?” Hank asked.
Tom nodded his head. “No change.”
He conned the flight dials and swiveled the central cabin-cube of the Challenger on its upper and lower pivots, squarely facing their target. Then he took control of the two Repelatron Donkeys and opened the wide hatchway of the vehicular hangar. In seconds the small, disk-shaped platforms darted past the viewport and on into space, becoming silhouettes against the glow of the Orb, then vanishing specks.
A minute passed. Another.
“Are we close enough for any readings?” asked Aciema Musa.
“We should be,” Tom stated. “But we’re not getting anything more than before. Even the LRGM—the gravity-variance mapper—is drawing a blank.”
“Say now,” Chow burst out suddenly. “There’s sure somethin’ going on out there.”
It was the same violent disturbance as before. Though the visible disk was still too small with distance to show any agitation, the Orb had lit up with an intense glow. As it increased, the compartment shone with its greenish brilliance!
“Wh-what in tarnation’s goin’ on?” Chow gulped.
Aciema asked Tom: “Could it be an effect of our repelatron beams?”
“The trons aren’t aimed at the Orb—we can’t get a telespectrometer reading to calibrate them. I’ve been using other bodies for thrust and steering.”
Bud looked nervous as the light painted a greenish pallor over his face. “Then what’s making it light up?”
“I think it’s reacting to the Repelatron Donkeys.”
“But you just said― ”
“Not to the repelatrons on the Donkeys, Bud. The Orb is reacting to their presence. The same sort of thing happened when we sent the megascope terminal close to it. But the Challenger is well insulated against any sort of energy discharge it might toss our way,” Tom added reassuringly.
Throughout the flight Tom had kept contact with his father in Shopton by means of the Private Ear Radio. Now he began to PER back a report of the flyby maneuver and the launch of the two instrument probes. “And you say the instruments are still failing to detect anything?” asked Mr. Swift.
“Just the glow, Dad. At least we’ll be able to profile the luminance figures as they increase.”
“Perhaps you’ll be able to get something more when the probes pass through the corona into the body of the Orb. Such as it is.”
“Hope so. Penetration in four minutes.”
Tom broke contact, turning his keen eyes toward the board readouts. Absorbed, Tom failed to notice his crewmates’ silence.
Suddenly movement caught Tom’s eye. Bud slumped forward against the instrument panel, inert. The copilot was unconscious—dead to the world!
“Bud!—Help him, Hank!” Tom looked around frantically and gasped in dismay. Chow had sunk to the floor, where Aciema Musa lay already. Hank and Bill Bennings were leaning against the bulkhead, eyes closed, on the verge of collapse—and even as Tom watched, they slid down to the deck.
Tom switched the quantum cartridge of the PER to connect to mission control on Fearing Island. “Tom to base! Something’s happening to the crew!” he radioed desperately. “D-don’t know what’s wrong... They... they’ve passed out!... And I...”
Tom’s eyes felt heavy, leaden. An overpowering drowsiness enveloped him. He fought to stay awake, then suddenly sagged in the pilot’s seat!
Silent and helpless, the Challenger hurtled toward the Green Orb!
At the tracking center on Fearing Island, flight chief Amos Quezada and his crew waited tensely. “Base to Tom! Come in, please! Fearing calling Challenger! Can you read us?” Again and again Quezada spoke into his headset mike.
The tracking technicians sat at their monitoring consoles in anxious suspense. “Tom must have blacked out, too!” an aide murmured to Quezada.
“He must have. Switch the PER cartridge, Leo. I need to bring Damon Swift into this.”
Tom’s father received the word from Fearing Island with perplexed dread. “How is this possible, Amos? Do you still have the ship on deep tracking?”
“We sure do,” was the response. “Of course we can’t make anything of that Orb momma on radar. But going by the last figures from the outpost’s telescopes, they should be making their flyby right now.”
“What’s the separation?”
“About three hundred miles at the near point.”
Mr. Swift turned to the broad-shouldered young man sitting across from him in the Swifts’ office. Arvid Hanson was Enterprises’ ingenious maker of design models and prototypes. The talented engineer and technician had often joined Tom’s expeditions. “Arv, this is a very serious situation.”
“They’ve blacked out, but it seems the ship is still all right.”
“That’s not the issue,” declared the elder scientist. “They were maintaining constant 1-G acceleration since leaving Earth orbit. Tom didn’t plan on turnover until further along, after passing the Orb. The Challenger’s guidance computer would continue with the instructions in place, automatically reorienting the repelatron radiators to continue the specified acceleration.”
“Then she’ll― ”
Damon Swift’s expression was dark with fear. “She’ll keep piling on velocity. The spaceship will exit the solar system before we have a chance to get up there for a rescue!”
Hanson nodded sharply. “A rescue with what? We don’t have any craft that could catch her now—not to mention later!”
Mr. Swift rubbed his eyes. “We can’t give up. They may regain consciousness. But if not—!” An idea struck, suddenly. “Hanson, do you know of any way we could establish some sort of long-range control of the ship? Override the board?”
“No way I know. Man, we can’t even see what’s happening until the megascope is up and running again. And yet...”
“There’s another possibility!”
Meanwhile, a deathlike silence reigned in the Challenger’s flight compartment. The near pass behind it, the ship retreated soundlessly from the Green Orb with no living hand at the controls.
Minutes later, Tom stirred in his pilot’s seat. He felt as if a whining dentist’s drill were at work in his brain, piercing through thick layers of fog. The drill changed to a buzz saw, then to a wildly shrieking banshee as fire trucks raced toward him, sirens wide open. Wh-what kind of fire is that? he wondered. It’s green! A giant alarm clock exploded and kept on shrilling insanely.
Tom jolted awake with a painful effort. “Those crazy noises!” he mumbled weakly. Then he realized the sounds were coming over the Private Ear Radio—high-pitched squeals, buzzing, and raucous beeps!
Struggling upright, Tom grabbed the mike. “Challenger to base!” he exclaimed hoarsely. “Can you read me?”
Amos Quezada’s relieved voice had cheering in the background. “Challenger, we read you—loud and clear! Are you all right, Skipper? Status nom?”
“I—I guess so... My head’s cottony. But what was that racket on the PER? Someone jamming our frequency?—no, that’s impossible.”
Tom could hear Quezada chuckle. “I’ll take creds for this one. We were just trying to shake you awake with sound, every wild mix the techs could come up with. So—you blacked out? What about the others aboard—are they okay, too?”
Tom glanced around. His five crewmates were moving groggily. They seemed to be fighting to regain consciousness as if they, too, had been roused by the piercing radio noises. But their heavy-lidded eyes looked ready to close again.
Tom shook himself as he felt the same drowsiness as before dulling his brain. “Over for now, Fearing,” he mumbled into the microphone. “Some k-kind of influence is coming from the Orb. We’d b-better clear out of here p-p-pronto!”
Lead-fingered, Tom fumbled at the controls, desperate to set a course back to base. But his eyes widened in disbelief as they focused on the locator-calculator, the Spacelane Brain. “What in the cosmos—! We’re already starting to loop back!”
Another bizarre mystery! Had the Orb somehow grabbed hold of the ship? Or had Tom made the changes himself—and forgotten, just as Pete Langley had blanked out his telephone call?
Brain still fogged, the young space captain reversed repelatron thrust and adjusted course. Then he sagged against his seat belt as the Challenger veered from its trajectory, now slowing with a 1-G deceleration. The Orb had again become a distant speck, but it would be hours before the Challenger’s arc began to point them Earthward.
Unknowing, Tom fell back into a semiconscious state. Twenty minutes later the astronaut team began to fully revive—Tom and Bud first, then Hank Sterling, Bennings, Aciema, and finally Chow.
“What did—what did it do to us?” Bud wanted to know.
“Something made us pass out,” Tom replied. “We were in a state of induced sleep.”
Still heaped on the deck, Chow Winkler gazed up at Aciema Musa, who was nursing a bruise on her arm. “Sorry, ma’am. Didn’t know where I ’as fallin’ to. Does it hurt?”
“No,” she replied. “Then again, the feeling hasn’t started coming back.”
Tom checked the rest of the crew. All were now fully revived, and injuries from their unexpected collapses seemed minor. “We’re heading back to base,” Tom reported to Fearing. “There was an unexplained deviation from trajectory, but I have the ship under control now.”
“Not unexplained to me, Challenger,” came Quezada’s rejoinder. “Call it human muscle power at work!”
“But Amos—how in the world did you get her to start course reversal?”
“Well now, Tom, I’d suggest to take a closer look at your board—and send that question Arv Hanson’s way!”
Over the PER link Arv reported with a laugh, “Oh, I was a clever little engineer. We needed to try slowing you before you went zooming off toward Andromeda, but we couldn’t change the settings on the big repelatrons. And suddenly I remembered the Donkeys.”
“The two I launched?” asked Tom—who suddenly remembered that he needed to rendezvous with them to recover whatever samples they had taken from the Orb.
“No, Skipper, the four remaining ones locked in their cradles in the vehicular hangar.” Hanson reminded Tom that the new Donkeys had been designed for remote-control operation as needed. “We used the magnifying antenna here at Enterprises to send them a sequence of instructions—basically to swivel their radiators every which way until each one locked onto Venus. I had transmitted the spectronic frequency data; all they needed was to detect a push back.”
“And you used that to slow and steer the ship?”
“The position of Venus was approximately right. Four mini-repelatrons against all those big ones, still firin’ away—kind of an unequal tug-of-war.”
“A tug-of-war in reverse! But it was enough to make a difference.”
Mr. Swift cut in. “Ultimately, we could have forced you into a circle. But it would have taken days.”
“It was a great plan,” Tom said. “Now I’ll retrieve the two probes—see you tomorrow, back home.”
There were further surprises in store. “We can’t find the probes,” Hank reported. “I’ve been scanning the general area their programmed trajectories should have taken them to. But there’s nothing there.”
“What about the signals from the instruments?”
“Dead silent, Tom.”
“Could they have crashed into the Orb?” Bud speculated. “Maybe it’s not as empty inside that glow as you thought!”
Tom didn’t answer his friend, but turned to the control board and made some adjustments. After a moment he said: “We are getting some signal. But it’s pulsating rapidly.”
“What do you mean?” asked Hank.
“Look at the oscilloscope. A fraction of a second of signal—then a much longer interruption. Aciema, could some sort of MHD effect cause periodic blanking like that?”
“If so, I’m not familiar with it. Still, an electromagnetic interaction could explain why the Donkeys are so far off course.”
But the answer was less dramatic—yet strange. “Good night!” gaped Bud as he stared into the depths through the viewport. “Look at ’em go!”
“Spinnin’ like blame space lariats,” was Chow’s description.
“Tumbling head over heels,” Tom said. “Which is why we couldn’t get a steady signal from them.”
Mused Aciema, “I know of nothing that could cause a phenomenon like this, Tom. And you say they’re almost at right angles to their planned trajectories?”
“It’s like they bounced off some kind of force field, don’t you think?” Bud speculated.
Tom grinned at the notion. “You mean something along the lines of, ‘Raise the shields—enemy Donkeys approaching’ ?” The young inventor waggled his head. “At the speed they were moving, hitting some kind of barrier wouldn’t have bounced them, it would have smashed them to transistors. It looks to me like they were deflected by a powerful, concentrated force—almost refracted, like light through a prism.”
“If the force was unequally distributed, it would cause torque,” observed Hank. “Rotation or tumbling, in other words.”
Careful pushes from the Challenger’s repelatrons slowed the tumble of the probes and allowed Tom to regain remote control of their propulsion units. He was finally able to maneuver them into their cradles in the hangar-hold.
The great ship had many hours of outward travel yet ahead as it decelerated, and then the inbound leg of the journey, on which they stayed well away from the Green Orb. There were no further strange incidents, and at last Tom was back in Shopton, in bed. He fell asleep quickly, and his sleep was deep. In the morning he was certain he had dreamed—yet could remember nothing of them.
“Have you any idea what caused you to black out, Tom?” inquired his mother at breakfast.
“Just a guess, Mom, but I’d say there’s something about the Orb’s electromagnetic emanations when it gets ‘agitated’ that induces unconsciousness,” Tom said.
“Uh-huh—a self-defense instinct at work!” was Sandy’s quick opinion. “I’ll bet the Jolly Green Orb is a big green space brain!”
“Maybe, sweetheart,” said Mr. Swift with a smile. “But there’s no need to take a flying leap toward a science-fiction scenario. A more reasonable hypothesis is that this is a purely natural reaction to the near-approach of energy sources, such as the megascope beams or the slight secondary resonance produced by the linear fields of the repelatrons.”
“And there’s nothing mysterious about electromagnetic brain stimulation, Sandy,” Tom elaborated. “Brain researchers have found it’s possible to put people to sleep by electrically stimulating the basal forebrain—and doctors have used electrical anesthesia, too.”
“Exactly,” said Damon Swift. “We ourselves have dealt with it, you know—the pulsator weapon that we confronted when you were developing your jetmarine, son. The protective device you invented then might also protect you from this effect.”
“I’m anxious to look over the recordings from the Donkeys,” Tom stated, “and whatever their samplers captured. That’ll answer a lot of questions. And then maybe I can get back to work!”
Sandy looked at her older brother in surprise. “Poking around in this Orb thing isn’t work?”
“I believe he means his current invention,” smiled Damon Swift. “The 3-D telejector.”
“And,” Tom said abruptly, “it may turn out that the telejector project will be important to the other one—to making scientific sense of the Green Orb!”
“I’M AFRAID I don’t understand, Dear,” responded Mrs. Swift. “How could they be connected?”
“It just sort’ve came to me, Mom, all of a sudden,” Tom said thoughtfully. “Maybe I’m off base, but...
“We’ve been treating the Orb as a normal solid object—like an asteroid or a gas cloud. Yet after the flyby it looks less like that than ever. I’m wondering if it might be some kind of light phenomenon!”
“Some kind of projection?” asked Mr. Swift, puzzled.
“No, not exactly. It still may not be anything deliberate, involving someone’s technology—it could be something purely natural that the universe turns out now and then. But it could have the properties of an image, not an ordinary physical object. If that’s true, the only way to gain detailed data about it might be to use a camera system to capture a full 3-D range of wavefront information—and reproduce it for study in the same form.”
“But Tomonomo,” Sandy objected, “can you get close enough to take 3-D pictures like that without getting knocked out?”
“I won’t have to, if my idea pans out,” was the cryptic reply. Inquiry fell silent. The Swift family respected Tom’s usual wish to let his inner intuitions cook before pouring out their product.
At Enterprises Tom spent time studying the data captured by the Repelatron Donkeys during their interrupted probe—time wasted, as it developed. “Good night,” he groaned in Hank Sterling’s direction. “All that effort for nothing!”
Hank gave a rueful nod. “Nothing in the sampling reservoirs but a nice vacuum.”
“And no recorded readings from the instruments. Whatever affected our consciousness, it wasn’t an electromagnetic pulsation effect after all.”
“Well, I guess we do know one thing, Tom,” the engineer pointed out. “It’s easy to tell exactly when the Donkeys started tumbling, and where they were.”
“True. It happened just at the outer fringes of the halo—the part we can detect optically, at any rate. And that’s something.”
Unable to proceed further with the mystery, Tom turned to another. In his electronics lab, he resumed his postponed work with his 3-D telejector. Arvid Hanson’s assistant Linda Ming assisted him. “So Arv’s taking a sick day? Doesn’t happen too often.”
“Oh, you know these Swedes,” she replied. “Hardy stock. He woke up with a head cold, he said.” She took a curious look at the electronics equipment on Tom’s workbench. “But this is the sorta thing that would perk him up, I’ll bet.”
Since before the fateful night at the Gullbracken House that seemed to have begun the recent series of peculiar events, the young inventor had been trying to solve some difficult problems with his telejector by exploring a new approach. The experimental version, crudely assembled, took the form of three parallel columns of metal rings, the array mounted as a unit over a swivel-base. “These look like micro-mini versions of your megascope antenna,” Linda remarked.
“The new telejector uses some of the principles of the megascope, but in reverse,” confirmed the blond-haired youth. “In the megascope, the distant beam terminal registers the light waves passing through it and reproduces the wavefronts at the other end, here on Earth, for viewing on the screen. The notion behind this improved telejector is to create a remote emission-point that generates light, replicating the wavefront forms—called Fourier patterns—as a hologram does. As the point sweeps back and forth a thousand times a second, the luminous patterns are ‘painted’ in space, and the eye interprets the output as a three-dimensional image.”
“And there’s your 3-D TV program,” she nodded. “A floating invisible hologram!”
“By eliminating the need for a cloud of absorptive droplets to act as my screen, the system becomes a great deal more practical for standard use,” Tom went on as he labored over a circuit. “But theory is one thing, Linda—practice is another. I need your help on some of the miniaturization angles.”
“That’s what I’m paid for, chief.” As she assisted him, she asked some further questions. “One thing you haven’t mentioned. Won’t you need some sort of special TV camera to pick up the lightwave information in the first place? The Fourier stuff?”
“Sure will—and it’s already testing out fine. Look.”
Tom pointed. For the first time Linda noticed a small box mounted on the lab wall. Attached to the front of the chassis was a vertical cylinder covered like a gemstone with regular facets set at various angles. “I’ve mounted a half-dozen of my holoceivers at different places on the walls. You need inputs from several directions for the system to work.”
“Makes sense. They don’t look much like TV cameras.”
“They work on a different principle,” he explained. “Like the megascope, they use a vector-resolving quantum matrix to ‘read’ the wavefronts. But I don’t extend it out into space. The holoceivers work with the photons that enter the isolator prism—the cylindrical lens, if you want to think of it that way.”
Tom and Linda worked for hours to make the new system produce a bright enough output to be visible in normal light. Repeated tests showed exciting progress, realistic 3-D images seeming to float in midair in front of the triple antennas.
Amidst their concerted work, Chow and his lunch cart had been sent away twice. But the third attempt by Tom and Linda was sternly rebuffed. “Not another word!” he huffed. “It’s more’n halfway t’ dinner, an’ you two kin take time fer a simple sandwich an’ some fixins.”
Tom smiled and wiped his brow. “Guess you’re right, pardner.” He gave Linda Ming a sly nod, and she also smiled. Chow’s visit had been anticipated—and prepared for.
Chow handed off the sandwiches and ladeled out some rich potato salad as well. As he turned and began to clomp off, Linda suddenly called out:
“Whoa now, Texan! Is that another ghost?”
Chow whirled with big eyes. “Hunh? Where?”
Linda and Tom were pointing upward—above the cook’s head! He rolled back his shoulders and looked up. With a fearful gulp he staggered backwards and nearly stumbled over his Texas boots.
A ghostlike figure was suspended a few feet above Chow!
It took a moment for Chow’s prairie eyes to make sense of what he was seeing. “B-b-brand my ec-ec-ecter-plazzum! The blame thing’s upside down—walkin’ on th’ ceilin’!”
The eerie figure was big and round and semi-transparent. Though its feet were out of view, it did seem to be walking, without a sound. “It—it don’t have a head!” whispered Chow.
“No—it doesn’t have hair,” Tom corrected him. “You’re seeing the top of his head.”
The figure stretched out an arm. In his hand was a phantom sandwich!
“Now wait a blame second!” Chow snapped. “I never heard o’ food havin’ ghosts!” He lowered his gaze to Tom and Linda. His eyes were full of suspicion. “Yep, another one o’ them tricks. That there’s me, iddnit!”
His watchers had dissolved into laughter. “In the flesh—er, kind of,” chortled Tom. “We recorded you with my 3-D camera system when you came in, and that’s the playback.”
“How do you like seeing the top of your head in 3-D?” asked Linda joshingly. “I think it’s very manly, cowboy.”
“Ya do?—aaah, more jokin’!” But he laughed too.
The phone bleeped with an internal call.
“Hi Doc,” Tom said into the receiver.
“Tom, I thought I should let you know of something,” said Doc Simpson, a strain in his voice. “Maybe it’s nothing, but—it has to do with Arv Hanson.”
Linda Ming looked over in surprise as Tom repeated the name.
“He called me about an hour ago from home—told me he was running a high fever. I’ve called him twice in the last few minutes. He doesn’t answer!”
TOM was instantly concerned—Doc Simpson was not the type to panic. But with a glance at Linda Ming, he responded calmly. “Couldn’t he have just stepped out?—maybe to the drugstore?”
“I called his drugstore just now, Tom. The druggist is a friend of mine. He knows Hanson very well, but says he hasn’t been by today. Look,” Doc went on, “I don’t mean to alarm you. When Arv first told me his symptoms this morning, it sounded rather more severe than a headcold, but I didn’t think too much of it—he’s a healthy guy. But now― ”
“Okay,” Tom said. “No harm in checking it out. Keep calling him, won’t you? Bud’s in Shopton this afternoon—I’ll ask him to drop by.”
“That’d be wise, I think.”
Bud promised to stop by Hanson’s small lakeside home. After a tense wait, Tom’s cellphone beeped.
“He didn’t answer the front door, but his car was in the driveway, so I went around back,” Bud reported.
“The back door was unlocked?”
“It is now. Pal, he was lying on his sofa, too weak to speak—he could barely move! Drenched in sweat!”
Tom gasped in quiet dismay. “He should go to an emergency room, Bud!”
“I’ve already called an ambulance. I think I hear the siren now.” Bud assured Tom that he would follow Arv to the local hospital, Shopton Memorial, and call back when he had an update.
“Call Doc,” Tom urged. “He may want to speak to the attending physician.”
Too concerned to resume work, Tom headed for his office in the administration building, promising to call Linda and Chow as soon as he received word on Arv’s condition.
Word arrived in half a long hour. “He seems to be doing fine now,” Doc reported. “They tell me the fever is under control, heart and pulse rate strong. He’s pretty weak, but I talked to him for a minute.”
“Do you know what he came down with?”
“I’m afraid not. You know, people develop these mysterious fever spikes every now and then, and by the time we medics get into it there isn’t much left to see. We call it things like ‘24 hour flu’. Translation: who knows? There are all sorts of viruses drifting around our crowded world, Skipper. Most are harmless, fortunately, but the body still has to deal with them.”
Tom was relieved, but asked: “Do you think he’s contagious?”
“Like I said—who knows? But as a doctor I can’t justify any isolation measures at this point. Bed rest, obviously, until he’s back to his robust Swedish self. I’ll take a look at his lab results and bloodwork.”
Tom spoke to his father, who was passing through on the way to a meeting, then tried to collect his thoughts. “I guess writing up the telejector test data will clear my mind,” he muttered to himself.
His accessed his personal scientific journal on his personal computer. As always, he did so with a slight twinge of anticipation. And sometimes, as on this occasion, the twinge was rewarded.
YOU GUESSED IT
ITS GOOD OLD ME
CHECK YOUR HOME VOICEMAIL
FOR AN IMPORTANT LETTER
Tom didn’t bother puzzling over the non sequitur. The cryptic comments had a familiar tone. On several occasions Tom had communicated in this way with a severely secret agency of the U.S. government which he had come to refer to as Collections. On matters of world affairs and espionage activity—no longer the sole province of governments—they seemed to know a great deal that few had a right or reason to know. And that included how to cut in on Tom’s protected and encrypted computer system.
“Back from vacation?” Tom typed, hoping his sarcasm came through clearly. “We could have used your help in dealing with the sunken tanker.”
SEEMS YOU DID OKAY ON YOUR OWN
STILL BREATHING I TRUST
I HAVE INFO FOR YOU
“About the Green Orb?”
WE DONT DO ORBS
THIS IS ABOUT THAT TANKER
Tom was intrigued but wary. The recent foundering of a supertanker, the Centurion, had prompted Tom to use his aquatomic tracker to seek its subocean location. It developed that the ship had been converted to a hidden underwater base run by a European scientist named Vaxilis who was attempting to extract a valuable substance from the sea bottom. Captured, Tom and Bud had managed to escape the base. Later Tom had been informed by the CIA that the ship had been flooded, drowning Vaxilis and his followers to the last man.
That had seemed the final word. Could there be more? “Is Vaxilis alive?” he typed.
AH BUT WAIT!
WASNT THERE SOMETHING ABOUT
HIS MAKING A LAST MINUTE SWITCH
TO A NEW PATRON?
“I reported to John Thurston what he said. Vaxilis thought he’d found a better deal than Kranjovia was offering.”
BETRAY A FINE DICTATORSHIP
WHAT A JERK
“How about telling me what you have?”
THE NEW IMPROVED PATRON
Tom felt a choking sensation as he typed, fingers trembling. The snakeman! “Li Ching is dead!”
YOU FORGOT THE QUESTION MARK
IS NOT STILL DEAD
Comrade-General Li Ching, an expatriot Chinese national, had become known to the world intelligence community as the Black Cobra. A chillingly conscience-free master strategist who traded in technological secrets, he had pursued Tom murderously, and had nearly exterminated the scientific community on tiny Nestria. “How could he have escaped the disintegration of his spacecraft?”
THE BIG BLOWUP WAS FAKED
NICE SPECIAL EFFECTS
THURSTONS MEN FOUND EVIDENCE
IN THE TANKER THAT VAXILIS
WAS UPGRADING VILLAINS
WHICH IS WHY
A KRANJOVIAN PATRIOT ABOARD
SCUTTLED THE WHOLE THING
“Thurston didn’t tell us.”
GETTING HELP FROM A KID
LOOKS BAD AT BUDGET TIME
“Why are you telling me this now?”
IS THAT A CUE?
The young inventor knew what would come next—the catchphrase that had given Collections, and Tom’s contact the Taxman—their colorful monikers.
YOUR TAX DOLLARS AT WORK
There would be nothing more from the Taxman. Not that day.
Apparently Tom was to check his home voicemail for an important letter. “Makes no sense,” he told himself; “which fits in well with everything else!”
Only a few trusted individuals had been given the youth’s residential number. It rarely held any unexpected news. But this time—it did. “Hi, Tom—recognize my voice? This is Eldrich Oldmother, still using the name, yep. Look, I picked up a little something over my higher-plane mental radio. I think you’ll be interested, my friend. Seven tonight, that burger joint on the lake’s recreation pier. Should be safe enough for a quick meet. In’n out, eh?”
Tom clicked off his handset. It’s a wonder I ever have time to do any inventing, he thought wryly. I’ll have to ask Pete Langley how he handles it.
At 7:10 the young inventor was sitting at a woodless table, sharing french fries with a gray-haired man who had once been well known as a prophet. “Man, am I ever glad we folded the church,” declared Oldmother. “The old head’s a lot clearer without that Informatics stuff.”
“Clear enough to pick up one of your psychic messages, I take it.”
“Naturally. Once you’re up on the higher plane, you’re attuned to the universe for life. Habit forming. Nowadays, though,” he went on soberly, “it’s not such a good thing, being known as a psychic. That’s one of our subjects here, friend.”
Tom’s eyebrows arrowed up. “What do you mean?”
“You don’t read Mind-Body-Spirit Times? Big article last week.”
“My subscription’s lapsed.”
“Bad timing. This could have to do with both of us, Tom—if what I found on my bedside notepad this morning is the warning I think it is.”
“A warning?” Tom regarded the man skeptically. Though Oldmother had proven himself a source of accurate information during Tom’s exploit with the visitor from Planet X, Tom had never been entirely sure how to regard the ex-prophet’s claims of psychic powers.
Oldmother leaned forward over the table. “It’s a warning to me, and to you as well—I sense it. It consisted of a single letter. Q!”
A PHANTOM AND A PHONY
TOM found himself smiling into the gravely serious face of Eldrich Oldmother. “I guess that explains a mysterious message I received this afternoon from my own unearthly contact—about a ‘letter’ waiting for me. So what’s ‘Q’ supposed to signify?”
Oldmother shrugged eloquently and took a moment to examine a fry. “Crinkle cut, Tom. A metaphor for life.
“You remember how it works, don’t you? I don’t read minds or foresee the future. It’s a kind of subliminal clairvoyance, bubbling up out of my subconscious depths in symbolic form. I wrote it on the pad in my sleep. That’s why I have that notebook next to the bed at all times. I don’t know what would happen if my pen went dry.”
“I’d suggest getting a roller-ball marker,” commented the young inventor dryly. “So is ‘Q’ the first letter of a word? What starts with Q? Quantum? Quark? Quip?”
“You’d take this more seriously if you knew what’s been happening,” Oldmother retorted brusquely. “A lot of people with The Gift think that green weenie up in the sky is a sign from high beings.”
“End times, maybe?”
“Scoff scoff. Now try this on: for months now, well known psychic types the world over have gone missing!”
Now Tom was more serious. “Are you saying they’ve been kidnapped, sir?”
“I’m telling you, no one knows where they are. No ransom demands, so signs of violent abduction. Not even a UFO sighting. But it’s happened in France, England, Romania, Russia, Thailand—and four known adepts have disappeared here in the U.S.!”
“The police― ”
The man looked contemptuous. “Right. The police. ‘I’d like to report a missing mindreader, officer.’ They’d tell me to consult a Ouija board.
“Like I said, there are no signs of a crime. Far as I know, spouses and friends haven’t raised much fuss yet. Most of these people are loner types. They meditate, go off in the woods—vision-quest stuff. But you can see why I’m a little nervous, Tom. I’m a biggie.”
“That’s true, Mr. Oldmother,” Tom agreed. “But what does this have to do with me—and ‘Q’? It’s a symbol used in electronics and pressure dynamics, but I don’t see any connection to either of us.”
The older man rubbed hand over fist. “I can’t explain how these brain-signals of mine work. But as I looked at that letter on the paper, it was as if I half-remembered something. Whatever it stands for, it’s about something that has power. I was being warned to watch my backside, and I had the impression you were also a target in some way.”
“I’ve run up against some other odd incidents lately,” admitted Tom thoughtfully. “Some of them happened in space, near the Green Orb—which is a pretty eerie object in itself. But other things have happened here on Earth.” He smiled slightly. “Even a sort of ghost.”
“Don’t expect me to tie it all together. I’m just the telephone, you know, not the answer machine. But after I drive off tonight I plan to spend a few months way out of sight. Until this thing stops.” He added bluntly: “Maybe you should do the same, Tom.”
As Tom drove home, he thought: maybe I should. Knowing all along that he wouldn’t.
Late the following morning the Swifts’ receptionist and secretary, Munford Trent, flustered his way into the office a few steps behind an unexpected visitor who evidently cared little about being expected. “Morning, Swiftosphere,” said Peter Langley with tight-faced courtesy.
“Tom, he just― ”
“It’s all right, Trent,” said the young inventor, rising from his office chair. “Pete’s always welcome here at Enterprises.”
“Very flattering,” pronounced the Other Young Inventor as he dropped into a chair. “Back atcha. But don’t wear out the invite. Come see me in person.”
Tom nodded, puzzled. “Er—sure.”
“And if you have jokes to play, make ’em funny, not irritating. Best to keep ’em light on the jerk factor. Agreed?”
“Absolutely. Now tell me what we’re talking about, Pete.”
The young man leaned back, frowning. “I’m just saying direct to your 50’s-retro crewcut, don’t rub in the 3-D TV thing. You’re ahead of me—fine, acknowledged. Over and out. Remind me too much and I might get the impression you’re distracting me deliberato. To keep me from catching up? Consequence, cause. Easy bacon.”
Tom kept his gaze level. His voice became cool. “I’ve pretty much had it with having to guess what people are talking about. Tell me what’s on your mind, or go play somewhere else.”
Langley nodded. “Clarity. That’s a good thing. Okay. My subject of reference: your 3-D stunt at Wicko around, oh, two hours back.”
“I don’t know anything about it.”
“No?” The inventor stared at his younger counterpart, then shrugged. “Eyeballs say: maybe you don’t. Hard to believe, though. Everybody in the industry knows you’re near to coming up with a free-floating hologram projector. And as you know, so’m I. What should I think when I see a demonstration in my office?”
Tom began to grasp the situation. “You saw a projected image?”
“A very striking image—you!”
How much should Tom tell his visitor? “Pete, over the last week, I’ve seen things like that too. I don’t know what’s causing them or what’s behind them. If you don’t mind telling me—what exactly did you see?”
Langley seemed to accept what Tom was saying. He now spoke less confrontively, more thoughtfully. “I looked up from my notes and saw Tom Swift standing on the other side of the office in all his blue-striped glory. You were staring a hole in my forehead. Then you raised an arm and pointed up at the ceiling. And then, hey, he’s gone!”
“No. Funny expression on your face.”
The image of the apparition outside the Challenger’s viewport rose in Tom’s mind’s eye. “A pleading expression?”
“You could call it that. Pleading and pointing. Opera soaperama. Amy—uh, Miz Foger—thinks we should look at it as something... what’s that word? Actionable. Because it might suggest Edmund Grimsey’s been passing along a few techno secrets lifted from his work on my holophotowave TV system.
“But if you say you had nothing to do with it...” He stood up with a shrug. “Glad we had time to chat. One young inventor to another.”
As Langley turned to leave, Tom’s words followed him out: “Best regards to Miss Foger.”
After reflecting for a time, Tom stepped next door into Harlan Ames’s office. The security chief listened intently as Tom described this latest infestation of phantoms. “Couldn’t it be someone in Langley’s own work force playing a prank? With his own gizmo, maybe?”
“If so, some employee has made progress Pete himself doesn’t know about. And listen to this, Harlan.” He recounted his fast-food conclave with Eldrich Oldmother.
“I see,” nodded the former Secret Service man. “More of that ESP stuff—or maybe Oldmother and Langley share the same mental disorder.”
“But as you know, I’ve seen these things too,” Tom pointed out. “And what about the disappearance of all those psychics? Have you run across any reports of that?”
Ames gave one of his rare chuckles. “Yes indeed—in a little squib on the Interpol website under the heading, Humor in The News! But I’ll see what I can dig out for you, boss.”
“Thanks. You know... there’s a name that ought to get a mention at this point.”
“The abruptly undead Li Ching.” He gave Tom a sober look. “Have you considered that your ‘Taxman’ contact might be fabricating the story? We both know these supersecret types have multiple agendas going on at the same time. They’re not above misleading us deliberately.”
The suggestion was disturbing, but Tom could not disregard it. Was he being used? For what?
Tom worked through the afternoon in his lab, trying to improve the new telejector with the help of Dr. Grimsey and Hank Sterling. He decided not to mention to Grimsey the innuendos against him by Langley and Amelia Foger.
Ignoring the clock, Tom worked on after his assistants had left him alone. It was almost six o’clock when Bud Barclay came bursting into the laboratory, wearing a white shirt, sport coat, and slacks. “Hey, genius boy! Don’t tell me you forgot our double date?”
Tom looked at Bud blankly, then gave him a sheepish grin. “Well, now that you mention it...”
Bud shot his chum a humorously stern look. “I understand. I mean it has been half a day since I called you about it. Oh well,” he went on, “at least it’s the late show.”
The young inventor washed and changed clothes in the one-room apartment adjoining his main lab, which Tom had learned to keep well-stocked with “emergency garb” of all kinds.
The boys picked up Sandy and Bashalli and drove to the Colonial Inn Dinner Theatre for dinner. The girls and Bud blithely refused to tell Tom precisely what form the evening’s entertainment would take.
“Perhaps not as creepy as that phony ghost you inflicted upon us the other night,” declared Bash. “Yet there is a common theme.”
“But as I said before,” Sandy added with a giggle, “Tom should find it very appropriate, with that oversized Swift brain of his.”
They entered through an unmarked rear entrance. After an over-lengthy encounter with the customary microscopic dinner, printed programs were distributed to the tables. They proclaimed gaudily:
Enter the mystic world of
“A mind reader!” Tom chuckled as he turned the pages. “I can’t get away from all this ‘psychic phenomena’.”
Bud winked. “Listen, if the Great Lunario expects to read Tom Swift’s mind, he’d better know calculus and computer language!”
“He’s good!” Sandy insisted. “He’s been on TV!”
“Real TV?” asked Tom.
“Cable TV,” Bashalli responded. “Local. But that doesn’t mean he isn’t good.”
Soon after the disappearance of the rolling salad bar, the houselights dimmed, the live house orchestra started to play, and the curtains parted in a puff of backlit fog.
To tinkling Oriental music, the Amazing Lunario came on stage. He wore elegant evening clothes and a silk turban studded with a large emerald. “A turban! My! I feel as though I were transported home to Pakistan,” remarked Bash dryly. To Tom the green-glowing gem had other associations.
An attractive young woman in a long, gold-sequined gown accompanied Lunario, assisting as he performed several feats of stage magic. Then he invited two persons from the audience to blindfold him. A black felt pad was laid over his eyes and tightly bound in place with a scarf.
“My assistant will now pass out cards on which to write any question you wish to ask me,” Lunario announced. “Please raise your hand and she will give you a card and an envelope. Place the card inside and seal it, and Myzeella will collect them in a wicker basket. You will kindly note that at no time will she open the envelopes or even touch them. We don’t want to confuse the etheric vibrations.”
The filled basket was brought forward. As his assistant held the basket high, well above his eye level, Lunario fumblingly plucked out an envelope and tore it open. Withdrawing the card but not lowering it, he pressed it against his forehead and held it there for a moment. “No clear image. The first few are like that, friends. I have to get warmed up a bit.” He tossed the first card, and the next two, on to the top of the small bare table that had been set in front of the blindfolded performer.
He plucked out another. “Now we’ll get some results,” Sandy whispered cryptically.
Lunario held the next card. “Something—yes, something! A question from... is it Olive? No—Olivia! Please stand, won’t you?”
A woman stood. “I recognize her,” said Bashalli. “A real person. Always a sweet roll with her latte, at the coffeehouse.”
“Your question involves... a trip! A vacation? Yes!—to Fort Lauderdale. It will all work out, Olivia. Your sister-in-law has forgiven you.”
The woman squealed. “He’s right! It’s all true—that was my question!”
From that point forward, every card taken up yielded a relevant answer, confirmed by the audience members who had written the cards. “Okay, how’s he doing it?” muttered Bud. “I know some of those people too. They’re not working with him to trick us.”
Tom shrugged, eyes twinkling. “Well, maybe he really is psychic. I should talk to him about the things that have been happening lately.” Or warn him! his mind insisted on adding.
“Don’t tell me you brainy boys haven’t figured out the gimmick!” jibed Sandy in a smug whisper.
“And you have?” asked Bud skeptically.
“All you have to do is open your eyes and see, Buddo,” she replied. “I had it worked out from the moment he set up that little table.” Speaking softly Sandy called Bud’s attention to the fact that the first unproductive cards had been tossed down onto the tabletop. “We’re supposed to think he’s ‘psyching’ the card he’s holding up. But he isn’t! He’s looking down his nose at the previous card, which is face up on the table.”
Bud gave her a puzzled look. “Oh? So how can he see it at all through all that stuff covering his face?”
“You can almost always wrinkle up your cheek muscles enough to open up a gap at the bottom of the blindfold to peek through. If you tie it tight, it’s even easier to work it around.”
“Sandra, you are most clever!” said Bashalli. “You’ve spoiled my enjoyment of the magic act, but still I commend you.”
Bud grumbled, “It’s those mystery stories she reads.”
The four had been speaking in polite whispers, but their table was near the stage. Finishing the act and removing his blindfold, the turbaned performer turned their way. “Ah! I believe our famous young inventor, Tom Swift, is in our audience!” Lunario exclaimed.
There was a burst of applause and Tom had to take a reluctant bow. Then Lunario offered to read his mind, having had his assistant blindfold him again. Tom good-naturedly wrote a question and enclosed in an envelope as instructed.
Whatever trick Lunario might have had in mind was never performed. He stood silently, unmoving, with Tom’s card held up in his hand. As the moments passed, the waiting audience began to mutter.
“What’s he waiting for?” Bud whispered.
Tom half-rose from his chair, concerned. “Something’s wrong.”
Suddenly the mind reader took a small step forward, then another. The card fluttered down from his limp fingers. “What—what is it?” He tore the blindfold off and stared out blankly over the audience. Blankly—but Tom could see confusion and fear in the man’s eyes!
He took another step forward. His face contorted in a spasm of terror as he croaked, “No! Oh, no! Tom, Tom Swift, you are our hope! Don’t let them stop you, or all will end!”
Lunario stepped off into space and fell from the stage!
THE audience gasped as Lunario thudded limply to the floor. In a moment the theater was in an uproar. Tom hesitated for an instant, then dashed down the aisle to the stage, with Bud following.
“Joe! Oh my!” choked Myzeella. She looked up and called out: “Is there a—I’m not kidding!—doctor in the house?”
A man stood up from his table and waved an arm. “Are you a doctor, mister?” the woman called.
“Yes, ma’am. I’m an orthodontist.”
Myzeella frowned. “You can just sit yourself down again!”
As Tom and Bud knelt by Lunario, who appeared stunned, the lights were lowered and a spotlight swept across the stage. The theater manager, white-faced and anxious, came hurrying from the wings.
“P-p-please be calm, ladies and gentlemen!” he exclaimed. “Lunario’s fine, just a little exhausted tonight. We’ll let him take a nap in his room. If you’ll all remain seated, we’ll go on with the next act!”
The boys heard the voice of Bashalli Prandit. “After this, there’s a next act?”
“An orthodontist!” muttered Myzeella from the stage. “What kinda stupid burg is this?”
The orchestra began playing as Tom and Bud helped carry Lunario to his dressing room, guided by the manager. The performer seemed to be recovering his strength and senses and was able to walk unaided through the door.
“Nothing serious, apparently,” the manager said, hoping it was true.
As Lunario lay down on a cot, Tom grasped his wrist. “He seems to have undergone a nervous shock, but his pulse is returning to normal,” reported the young inventor.
Bud asked, “How’re his teeth?”
A few moments later, Lunario was sitting up when a knock was heard at the door. Outside stood Sandy and Bashalli, who had come backstage to join the boys.
“Is he all right?” Sandy asked anxiously, glancing at the figure on the cot.
“I think so,” Tom murmured. “But he hasn’t said anything.”
Lunario motioned for some water from the cooler by the wall. After sipping a bit of it, he stared at Tom. “I still can’t understand it,” the performer muttered.
“You mean, what happened on stage?” Tom asked.
Lunario nodded and frowned. “You—you’re Swift, aren’t you? I’m feeling a little― ”
“I’m Tom Swift, sir.” The scientist-inventor introduced his friends, the said gently: “I don’t want to pressure you, Mr.― ”
“My name’s Joe Mulver.”
“What you said out there was directed at me personally, Mr. Mulver, and I have the feeling it wasn’t part of your act.”
The man nodded. “I’m going to tell you the truth,” he said. “I’m sure you realize I’m not any kind of psychic. I’m an entertainer. My mind-reading act is a stunt. All for fun. I’ve been on television, you know.”
“Local cable television,” Bashalli noted.
“Yeah, well... As a matter of fact, I’ve taken ESP tests—that is, tests for extrasensory perception—at a university parapsychology lab and I’ve scored unusually high. So perhaps I am somewhat psychic. However, my mind reading depends on the usual trickery.”
“I understand,” Tom said. “Please go on. What happened to you may be more important than you realize.”
Lunario frowned again and rubbed his forehead. “The strange thing is, when I started to answer your question out there, I—all I can say is, I suddenly began to receive some kind of message. I had a terribly strong, overwhelming impression of an outside force threatening you—that’s what frightened me. Believe me, I think your life is really in danger!”
“I see.” Tom stared at Lunario thoughtfully. “You said something a little more specific, though. Do you remember?”
The man seemed to search through a jumbled memory. “I remember looking out at the audience, and they—they weren’t there. I was surround by a sort of light or glow. It was all I could see.”
Tom thought he could guess more than Lunario could say. “A greenish glow?”
“Why—yes. Green. But swirling around me, surging violently like water in a rapids. And I heard a sound, too.”
“What did it sound like, Mr. Lunario?” Sandy asked breathlessly. “Was it a voice?”
“Oh, no, not a voice,” he replied. “Just a sort of high, buzzing tone. It reminded me of the sound you hear coming from those big electric transformers. But as to why I said what I said, I’m afraid I don’t know. It barely felt like it was me saying it!”
Tom nodded. “We’ll let you rest now. But thanks.”
“Great show!” Bud said.
Sandy and Bash both looked worried as they left the dinner theater with the boys. “Gullyjeep! I don’t like this!” Sandy murmured. “You don’t suppose his warning could be true?”
“Fat chance,” Bud scoffed. “I’ll bet the whole thing was a publicity gag. Ten to one there’ll be a write-up in the Bulletin tomorrow and a big interview with Lunario!”
Bashalli asked quietly, “What do you think, Tom?”
The young inventor shrugged. “I can’t help feeling Lunario was on the level. But that’s just a hunch. We know he’s a phony as a psychic mind reader. Maybe he’s just a guy orbiting toward a breakdown. Still...”
“Still,” said Bashalli, “we all saw Captain Pegleg.”
“Plus a little space girl,” Bud conceded.
He and Tom exchanged meaningful glances. They hadn’t yet mentioned what Tom had been told by the Taxman—that the deadly snakeman, Li Ching, might still be at large. But how could the Black Cobra produce such bizarre effects?
And Lunario had said—green.
Bud drove Tom and the girls home, dropping Bashalli off on the way. At the Swift residence, as Sandy headed for the front door, the black-haired Californian laid a hand on his pal’s arm. “Tom, I can’t guess how the Cobra might be tied in with the Orb and what happened in space. But don’t you think what Eldrich Oldmother told you might be the big answer?”
“You mean what he wrote down—Q?”
Bud shook his head. “No, that’s in the ‘can’t guess’ file too. I’m thinking about the bit where all those mental wonders are disappearing.”
“That struck me, too,” Tom responded. “It wasn’t so long ago that Li Ching was involved in the similar disappearance of some world scientists and engineers.”
“And they turned up on the Nestria operation—his asteroid pirates!”
Bud’s voice became lower with intensity. “So listen—what if those kidnapped psychics are trying to send us messages? Lunario’s not the only one to hint that you’re being begged to do something before it’s too late. ‘The end is near!’ sure sounds to me like the BC is threatening some lives!”
The young inventor agreed that Bud’s theory made good sense. “And yet other things don’t fit the theory very well. What about the tie-in with the Orb?”
“Well... okay... maybe it works like radar. They’re bouncing their thought-waves off the Orb and back to you!”
Tom grinned affectionately but persisted with his skepticism. “Some of those images the Challenger crew experienced are more about scaring people away than urging them forward; or at least producing a discouraging or disturbing frame of mind. And what’s with all the weirdness connected to Pete Langley?”
“Genius boy, it’s hard enough for me to come up with any theory,” snorted Bud wryly. “If they have to be air-tight, I’m outta here!”
With daylight Tom resumed his work on his 3-D telejector, assisted by Hank and Dr. Grimsey.
A test showed promise, but also brought up Tom’s customary inventorly impatience. “Well, it’s visible. It’s three-dimensional. It moves.” He eyed the floating scene—an aircraft taxiing for a takeoff—with a critical frown. “But when we shift it over in front of the lighted wall― ”
“Too transparent,” Hank nodded. “It never really occurred to me that a big part of our ability to see something on a TV screen is that the set itself is blocking the light coming your way from behind it.”
Dr. Grimsey held up a small component that he had just removed from a well-padded, well-sealed plastic container. “But Tom’s already suggested a solution. Shall we introduce the triamplicon into the phase refractor?”
“It may make the difference,” Tom said.
In minutes Tom switched on the telejector once more. The moving scene leapt to light, definitely stronger and more vivid. Yet there was a new difficulty. “Good gosh, we’ve gained at one end and lost at the other!” Hank groaned. The projected image had lost detail and much of its 3-D quality.
“Interference fringes.” Tom gazed at the image through his own veil of discouragement. “I was counting on the triamplicon approach to resolve the problem. If that doesn’t work, we may have to go back all the way to― ”
A single shout from Hank—“Tom!”—announced the sharp slap-bang of an explosion and a burst of light. The three were knocked back painfully. The telejector’s base console had blown apart!
“Hank! Edmund! Are you alright?” gasped Tom.
Grimsey’s lean hand was pale as ivory as he rubbed his eyes. “That—that wasn’t supposed to happen!”
“Yeah, I’ll say it wasn’t,” grated Sterling. “I’m okay, Tom.”
Tom fanned away the smudge of smoke hanging about the telejector, wincing at the pungent smell. “Look where the dial-cover blew off,” he pointed. “Right over where we inserted the triamplicon.”
“But it’s just a set of microinscribed circuit chips, boss,” Hank objected. “It doesn’t have any sort of mechanical function, no moving parts. What could possibly cause it to explode?”
“It may have retained chemical traces from its manufacturing process. The high-energy environment at that point in the machine may have set off a reaction,” suggested Dr. Grimsey listlessly. “Brings a person down, though, doesn’t it?”
Tom was already using insulated grippers to remove the component. “Melted like wax!” he pronounced, holding it up for the others to see. “I’ll analyze it with the Swift Spectroscope—the rest of the on-hand stock of components, too.”
Hank Sterling caught something in his young boss’s voice. “Thinking it might not be an accident?”
“That’s something we’ve learned never to rule out,” replied Tom grimly. “The container was airtight, but it’s possible someone made a substitution at the front end.”
“At least we’re uninjured,” Grimsey said.
Tom and Hank were not easily consoled. “Now we have to spend time rebuilding the telejector prototype,” Hank noted, “which was full of so much cobbled-together stuff it’ll be a lot harder than fixing the megascope.”
“And of course,” Tom added ruefully, “for all that, the megascope still can’t do the job.” He sighed, thinking. “Well, Arv Hanson’s back at work today. He and Linda Ming can certainly work separately on some of the modular sections.”
“How’s he feeling?” Hank asked.
“Completely recovered. Good news there, anyway.”
Tom walked over to Arv’s “shop” and discussed the new assignments. Heading back to the electronics lab on the ridewalk, he took a call from Security.
“Can you come to my office first?” Harlan Ames asked tensely.
“A security problem?”
“More a medical problem, Tom,” he replied; “but one with serious security implications. Eight of our spaceflight workers on Fearing have come down with that same strange fever Arv had!”
“DR. CARMAN at Fearing called Simpson about it, and Doc called me,” explained Ames as Tom sat listening tensely in the security office. “Arv’s illness was brief and evidently had no lasting effects, but― ”
“But why is it happening?” finished Tom. “And why these particular people at the Fearing base—plus Arv Hanson?” He looked again at the list of scrawled names Harlan Ames had handed him. “I know nearly all of these names. They’re mostly astronauts from the Enterprises spaceflight team.”
“Why them. That’s the big question. You don’t suppose it could be something brought back from space?”
“An extraterrestrial bug of some kind? That’s pretty inventive, Harlan.”
The lean chief of security half-chuckled. “I don’t mean that, exactly. But remember what happened on Nestria a while back. Doc thinks some sort of common, harmless germ—maybe the common cold—mutated under the unusual conditions and caused the debilitating illness Chow and the others came down with. And Fearing receives incoming flights from Little Luna and the space outpost.”
“Maybe.” Tom considered the matter. “And we may be dealing with a lengthy incubation period, and varying degrees of natural immunity.
“But still, I know that several of these people arrived at the island—in planes, not spacecraft!—within the last two days. They all went symptomatic at the same time. Even if they were unusually susceptible...”
“Right,” nodded Ames. “If they were all exposed to something, it was on Fearing, and within the last 48 hours—less, actually—but there have been no incoming flights from the outpost or Little Luna for more than a week. My first-off-the-cuff analysis doesn’t make for a comfortable fit. And that, boss, is why I did some fast talking to Amos Quezada before calling you over.”
“Let’s just say there’s a time coincidence. Mid-day yesterday, there was an incident at one of the test blockhouses. One of the rocket engines—I think Quezada said an H-91, if that means something to you—developed a problem and had to be shut down. No real damage; but Tom, every one of those eight workers was present in the hangar. At that time they were all the closest people to the engine, the whole bunch of them!”
“That seems significant, all right! Do you know anything about the engine problem?” The young inventor half-expected Ames to refer to an explosion—like the mysterious explosion of the telejector console only minutes before.
But Ames had a different account. “Quezada refers to it as a fuel-choke. Some rumbling, some smoke, not much more than that. There was never any danger.”
“Yes... it can happen at the switchover from the lower to higher-velocity cycle in the engine. Fairly common.”
“Which leaves us with the question.”
Question—another word beginning with Q! “The fever pretty much knocks you for a loop,” Tom said, “but all in all, I gather it’s harmless.”
“Seems to be. If this is your pal the Cobra pulling some kind of stunt, it’s falling pretty flat, I’d say.”
Tom nodded, but added, “True—so far. But it may not be over, Harlan.”
“If there’s anything to it in the first place.”
A close analysis of the melted triamplicon was inconclusive, but Tom’s investigation of the stored stock of parts that might be used in the telejector’s development drew a clear negative. “We can go ahead, I guess,” Tom informed his team. “What happened may have been a fluke. But,” he added wryly, “be prepared to duck!”
Later in the day, when Tom’s presence was unnecessary in the lab, he was able to arrange a meeting that required a quick flight to East Haven, Connecticut. He invited Bud to join him and pilot the Pigeon Special that would carry them. “So now, what does this professor do, exactly?” inquired Bud. “Something that could give us a lead on those missing brainiacs?”
“Dr. Rogo is a well-known neurophysiologist who has an interest in the question of whether people who report ‘psychic’ experiences have something distinctive about their brains,” explained his chum.
“You just shocked me, genius boy. I didn’t know there was such a thing as a ‘well-known neurophysiologist’!”
The Swift commercial aircraft were known for their ability to land safely in small spaces, and Tom had received permission to make use of a vacant parking lot adjacent to his destination, East Haven College of Medicine and Neurology. Dr. Stanton Rogo, a man not yet thirty, met the boys in the large lab room adjoining his office. “Great to meet you,” he said with a warm smile as he shook hands with Tom. “And don’t worry. I won’t let it get around that a hard-headed scientist has a secret interest in matters paranormal.”
Tom laughed. “I’m more a soft-headed tinkerer than a hard-headed scientist! As for ESP and psychic phenomena—I’ve seen too many strange things to be anything less than curious.”
Bud asked Rogo if he had heard anything about the rash of disappearances. “Yes, though I hadn’t given it much thought until Tom mentioned it over the phone,” he replied. “Two of the persons thought to be missing were tested here at my lab over the last few years.”
“By any chance, have you also tested a man named Joe Mulver?” Tom asked.
Rogo looked surprised. “Don’t tell me Mulver’s missing too! I did test him here, as a matter of fact.”
Tom described the incident with Mulver—The Great Lunario. “He mentioned having been tested for ESP.”
“My tests here are more extensive than that,” declared Dr. Rogo, gesturing at his panoply of equipment. “I’m not a professional parapsychologist. My main interest is the fact—the alleged and yet-unproven fact—that certain sorts of people are prone to have personal experiences that seem to them ‘mystical’ or psychic. Some see spirits of the dead, some see UFO’s or report being abducted by alien visitors, some have what they regard as flashes of foresight or precognition.”
“Sounds like they might be watching a little too much TV,” Bud remarked.
Bud regretted his comment as Rogo frowned at him. “I’m used to having my work here dismissed. Yet the possibility of finding some physical factor in the cortex leading to all this is too important to dismiss.”
“Er—just mouthing off, doctor,” Bud said hastily. “Have you found anything?”
“Some hints in the EEG charts and the stereoptical-tachystiscope studies.”
“I’m not familiar with that term, sir,” said Tom. “Medical investigations are pretty remote from what I do.”
Rogo nodded. “Think of it as taking a detailed MRI of the functioning brain at intervals—a few seconds apart, say. A physical change, perhaps related to an ESP event, might have occurred; but the neural structures are far too complex and detailed for the human eye to note such a minute variation.
“But now imagine presenting both snapshots to the eye in rapid succession, carefully aligned by computer.”
“Oh, I see,” Tom responded. “Even a tiny change would call attention to itself in the visual field.”
“It jumps out at you. And in that way I’ve identified some physical changes that might correlate with the subjective reports.”
Bud spoke up. “If I’m not too much in the doghouse for being a jerk—do you ever test people to see if there might actually be something to their mind reading and so on? Is there a way to tell who’s really psychic?”
“I should probably give the standard answer: that science in general hasn’t confirmed that such powers have any existence beyond misinterpretations, coincidences, and test artifacts,” replied Dr. Rogo with a smile. “But between us—I have seen some performances by my subjects that are hard to account for. In fact...”
The researcher strode over to a counter and picked up a small device resembling a CD headset. “This is a transponder array for an expensive instrument called a DEM-CS.”
Tom knew of it. “A Directed Electro-Magnetic Cortical Stimulator. Bud, it uses focused electromagnetic pulses, from multiple directions, to selectively stimulate very small regions of brain cells. Surgeons have known for decades that inducing weak currents in key parts of the brain can cause some pretty impressive effects—overwhelming emotion, hallucinations, even something like ‘memory playback’ that’s as vivid as the original experience.”
“A neurosurgeon, Penfield, discovered the phenomenon in the 1940’s,” Rogo added. “When I’ve tested some promising individuals using the system they’ve reported strange-feeling, mystical states. There seems to be a significant improvement on standard tests for ESP during such episodes.”
“But is it as good as holding hands at a seance?” Bud wisecracked, wishing too late that he had thought twice before cracking.
Tom and Dr. Rogo spoke for some time about his studies and his many subjects, and Tom was allowed to review some of Rogo’s files. “Mulver showed signs of a capacity, and the other two who have gone missing were quite phenomenal.”
“It’s a correlation, maybe a clue,” Tom mused. “But I take it you have no thought as to what might have happened to the missing two, or who might be after them for some reason?”
As Tom and Bud prepared to leave, the young inventor found his eyes dwelling upon the DEM-CS machine. “Sir... I don’t suppose...”
Stanton Rogo chuckled. “Everyone wants to try the machine on for size! Think you might have a psychic gift?”
Bud answered for his pal. “Tom Swift has intuition like fish have fins! That’s kinda psychic, isn’t it, in a way?”
“All right, then. It’s quite harmless, completely noninvasive.”
Sitting in a padded chair with a headrest, Tom waited as Rogo put the transponder headset in place and directed Tom’s eyes to a video screen in front of him. “Try to concentrate on watching the shifting light patterns. I’ll be monitoring some of your basic physiological outputs as we zoom-in on whatever ESP cells you might have under that crewcut of yours. Relax.”
The test commenced. Rogo slowly adjusted the dials on the device. “Getting some reaction now,” he muttered presently. “You can close your eyes.”
Bud was watching Tom’s face worriedly. “Tom, do you see anything?”
“I... maybe... but I can’t tell if it’s seeing or hearing or just—thinking.”
“All normal,” stated Rogo. “The brain’s perceptual modes don’t always match up with the standard five senses. Say whatever you like, Tom. Don’t worry about making sense.”
Tom licked his dry lips. “Funny feeling. I’m so high above everything it’s all small, far away. Shapes... many people talking, but what are they saying? Over there... a metal dinner plate on its rim... the ocean... somebody said ‘the second edge’... Ow! Cutting into my wrists!... What did you say?...” Tom paused as if listening intently. “December?... aaah!”
The last was a startling yelp! “Tom! Are you all― ”
Dr. Rogo spoke over Bud. “It’s all right. Don’t shake your head, Tom. Lay back. Can you specify what you’re experiencing?”
Tom seemed to have great difficulty answering. “You all seem far away. Is that the sun? It’s huge, in the middle of... a green sunset!... swirling, boiling. What are those things? Someone is talking to me, but I can’t make out the words. I... I don’t... take me out!”
The scientist clicked off his machine and pulled the headset off his subject. “Your reactions are typical. Hard to remember after it’s over, isn’t it? Short-term memory doesn’t capture it very well, as in dreams.”
Tom leaned forward and rubbed his eyes. Then, seeing the expression on Bud’s face, he gave his friend’s arm a squeeze. “I’m okay. Heart’s thudding.”
“What was it like?” Bud asked.
“I don’t know how to put it into words, flyboy. Half the time it didn’t seem to be me who was experiencing it—and don’t ask me what that means!”
Dr. Rogo muttered, “Displacement of ego. What we like to call ‘myself’ is really a big collection of interactive ‘selves’ working cooperatively, it seems. This process provides a truer point of view.”
Tom raised a rueful eyebrow. “So am I psychic, Dr. Rogo?”
“All I can tell you is, your pattern of physiological reactions was similar to those I’ve seen in subjects who did well on the ESP tests. Come back any time you have a few weeks free, and we’ll go into it!”
As the boys walked back to the Pigeon Special, Tom seemed weighed down with thoughts that he couldn’t share, and Bud refrained from probing. But as they neared the plane, Tom said suddenly, “Do we know somebody named Jennifer December?”
“Well, I don’t,” Bud shrugged.
“That name—strange name, isn’t it?—is sort’ve stuck in my mind.”
“You must have heard it during the test.”
“Yes, I think so.”
“Doesn’t mean anything to you, hmm?”
Tom shook his head slowly—and doubtfully. “I can’t say what the name means or who it is. But it’s like something you know that’s on the tip of your tongue.”
Bud grinned. “Stuff like that bugs me. I’ll try to dig it out for an hour—then when I let it go, out she pops!”
Tom took the pilot’s seat. They were high up and bound for Shopton in minutes. Bud knew his friend was struggling with something. He couldn’t let go!
Finally the young inventor picked up the thread. “I think I have an appointment with her, Bud.”
“With the mysterious Jennifer?”
“If I don’t keep it, something terrible will happen. Jennifer December...” Tom half-turned in his seat. “And I know who she is now. She’s the little girl we saw in space—on the way to the Green Orb!”
SKULKING BY NIGHT
IF TOM expected Bud to be surprised, it was Tom who received the surprise. “I guessed it,” the gray-eyed youth said mildly. “Don’t know why, exactly.”
“At some point,” Tom reflected, “I felt like I was on—inside—the Orb. I was looking out through the green stuff at the sun. But the sun was swollen and somehow... distorted. It filled the whole sky; yet it didn’t hurt to look straight at it.”
“Were you afraid, pal?”
“I felt overpowering, intense emotions. Fear? I—I don’t know. As if there were two emotions at the same time, one awful and one...” Tom glanced aside toward Bud. “Joyful!”
Bud looked ruefully perplexed. “Maybe the answer’s to find this Jennifer kid. Or is she just another pink elephant, like what the others saw in space?”
Back at Swift Enterprises, the young inventor worked for a time on the telejector repair job. But the name Jennifer December continued to bob about in his mind, and at one point it nudged a hunch into view.
“Tom!” said the surprised voice at the other end of the phone. “Leave something behind?”
“No, Dr. Rogo. Sorry to interrupt you twice in one day.”
“It’s no problem at all. What can I do for you?”
Briefly and undramatically—to the extent that such was even possible—Tom summarized his recent visionary episodes. “It just occurred to me. These incidents have some kind of psychic connection to one another, it seems, and—it’ll sound more psychotic than psychic, but have you ever had a little girl as one of your test subjects?”
The short silence in response was amazed! “Might you be referring to Jennifer December?”
“Good gosh, then you do know of her!”
“Yes, I surely do. I tested her last summer, along with some other residents of Bylands Residence School. It’s a private orphanage up in northern Maine. The staff physician, Lorna Darvey, is an old friend.”
“Would you mind describing the girl, sir?”
“Very petite. Basically dark features, but her hair was blond as I recall. She was seven years old at that time.”
Tom nodded to himself. The description matched! “Did she do well in the tests?”
“Unusually well,” Rogo answered. “The only reason I don’t call her one of my ‘superstars’ is that she couldn’t stay long enough to complete the test protocol. But where on Earth did you run across her name?”
“It came to me, somehow, during your DEM-CS procedure.”
“And her appearance too, evidently.”
“Let’s just say I connected her name to an image in one of the vision-episodes. I’m sure it’s the girl you just described!”
Bemused and intrigued, Dr. Rogo provided Tom with the telephone number of the orphanage. When the youth clicked off after expressing his gratitude, he felt at last that he had made some progress!
Early next morning the telephone rang in Bud Barclay’s Shopton apartment. “Hey, genius boy! What’s up?”
“How’d you like to go with me down to Fearing this morning, pal?”
“Checking up on that mini-epidemic?”
Tom explained that Harlan Ames had directed his assistant, Phil Radnor, to fly down to look into the matter. “Harlan thinks it could have security implications, and there are some angles I’d like to probe myself, so I offered to fly Rad down in the cycloplane.”
“Well sure, Tom,” responded Bud excitedly. “Er—no breakfast? The SwiftStorm doesn’t have a galley like the Sky Queen, y’know.”
“Come on! We’ll reach the Fearing mess hall long before your stomach starts eating muscle.”
“Guess you’re right.”
“Just come right on out to the airfield when you get to Enterprises.”
“I have to drive?” Bud chuckled. “What’s the world coming to? You couldn’t just stop here for me in the cyclo?”
“And have your neighbors flood the Shopton PD with flying saucer reports?”
“They are a little excitable,” conceded Tom’s chum.
In less than an hour Tom’s ultrasonic cycloplane was streaking southward toward the coast of Georgia, outracing sound as it balanced on its whirling lift-cylinders. “So this Jennifer kid is a real person, eh?” remarked Phil Radnor. “And you think she’s trying to get in touch with you? Mentally, yet?”
In the pilot’s seat, but with the craft’s cybertron brain controlling the flight, Tom replied. “That’s the impression I get—whether it’s coming from her directly, or from someone else concerning her.”
“I getcha, Tom,” said Bud. “That image in space might have been symbolic, not the little lady’s genuine astral body or whatever they call it.”
“All these images may just be byproducts of some force that reaches directly into our unconscious minds,” Tom elaborated thoughtfully. “Someone’s trying to get across a concept, a kind of living idea, which is so charged with emotion that it erupts out into the open, so to speak. But human sensitivity is mostly in the area of the visual sense, and so our brains’ basement gives these ‘signals’ the form of visible images—dresses them up, you could say.”
“But several of you have seen the same thing,” Radnor objected. “In my book, that means it’s real, not some kind of mental hallucination.”
Tom smiled. “Good point, Rad. But I don’t mean they’re hallucinations—not exactly. Think of it as an artificial reality, a temporary construction that can only last for a few seconds. If one person is a better ‘receiver’ than the others around, he could act as a kind of repeating relay, causing others to see what he’s seeing.”
“Wellllp,” joked Bud, “if it reached through my thick skull, it’s mighty powerful stuff! But it’s sure no surprise that what Tom tunes in on would get passed along to me—or other simpatico types like Sandy and Bashalli.”
After a supersonic jaunt the SwiftStorm landed, smoothly and vertically, on the Fearing Island airfield. The three breakfasted with Amos Quezada, Dr. Carman, and the head of island security, Mace Vendiablo.
“The eight victims have followed the same course as Arvid Hanson,” reported Dr. Carman. “They’re all completely recovered, with no lasting effects as far as I can tell.”
“And no one else here has contracted it?” asked Tom.
“Not so far,” the medic replied. “The whole situation is most peculiar, gentlemen. It’s not overly unexpected that we haven’t identified the specific infectious agent for such short-lived cases. But I’m struck by the fact that Simpson and I have been unable to find reports of this condition anywhere else. The CDC knows nothing about it; neither do the many parallel agencies overseas.”
“Speaking of peculiarities,” interjected Phil Radnor, “my instincts are tweaked by the fact that all eight of these good folks happened to be standing near a rocket engine during a live test procedure. Were any of them actually participating in the test?”
“They would have no reason to be,” Tom said.
“They’re not engineering specialists or technicians. They’re astronauts, mostly—rocket jockeys, like we used to say,” noted Quezada.
Tom picked up on a word. “You said, mostly?”
Mace Vendiablo answered. “Boss, I started pulling the info together right on the spot. Seven of the victims are space vets. The other is a member of the visiting research project that Aciema Musa is working on—a junior physicist named Herb Nelson. If you’re thinking he was behind the engine problem, don’t forget that he was a victim too.”
Bud spoke between crunches of granola. “Seems to me nobody’s said yet why they were all there.”
Amos Quezada gave a shrug. “That big barn of ours isn’t used for hazardous testing. As Tom knows, these are just routine procedures we do on a regular schedule to detect wear-and-tear problems before they get serious. I may have given you the impression that the engine was fired-up and blazing, but actually it didn’t even have fuel in it, just a dummy fluid that paints a nice picture on our detectors. It’s not unusual for employees on break to wander in out of the sun to watch.”
“Interesting,” declared Radnor with a note of skepticism. “And is it usual for these looky-loos to be hanging out nearer to the engine than the guys actually running the test?”
“Look, Radnor, I hope you’re not implying that I haven’t been doing my job!” Vendiablo bristled. “I asked all the questions. Those guys happened to be standing there posing for a joke photo, that’s all.”
Tom looked down at the table, but everyone could hear a sharp tone in his voice. “By any chance, was it this man Nelson who suggested taking the photo?”
The Fearing staffers exchanged glances. “By any chance—yes. He held the camera, in fact,” said Vendiablo. He added hotly: “So what’s your point? The man’s had a background check. The Feds require it. You know that.”
Sensing a retort on the way, Tom responded before Radnor could. “We’re not implying anything, Mace. There may be nothing at all behind all this.”
Bud snorted. “Right. That’d be a first!”
With a fixed smile on his face, Phil Radnor half-rose. “I think Mace and I will spend the rest of this sunny morning doing some digging.”
As they left the mess hall Bud asked Tom what he planned to do next. “I think I’ll visit some of the guys who came down with our mystery ailment—and that includes Herb Nelson.”
The two walked out into the balmy morning air and began to cross the airfield, itself crossed by the long shadows of waiting rockets. Before they had taken ten steps, a voice called out to them. “Excuse me—Mr. Swift?”
Tom and Bud turned. A young base employee was approaching them. “Um—sorry to bother you like this, but I thought I recognized you,” he said to Tom, hesitantly.
The young inventor stuck out his hand. “Tom Swift!”
“My name’s Neil Forman,” said the man as he shook hands. “I—well, they said you were visiting because of what happened—how those guys all got sick after the accident during the engine test. And I― ”
The two from Shopton exchanged glances. Tom asked, “Do you know something about that, Neil?”
The worker glanced about furtively, as if afraid to be seen—or heard. “I suppose I should have told Mr. Vendiablo about it.”
“Why didn’t you?”
“They say he can be a little... testy. I like my job here, Mr. Swift. I don’t want to risk it by having one of the big shots get on my case for spreading rumors or something. But they say you’re a pretty nice guy.”
“That rumor happens to be true,” Bud declared firmly. “And he really loves putting puzzle pieces together. So spit ’er on out, pal!”
Forman nodded. “I usually work the night shift, and I take a break around one AM. I go outside and smoke. Guess I’m not proud of not bein’ able to quit, ’cause I kind of stick to the shadows.
“Starting a couple weeks back or so, I started noticing a guy walking from the living quarters along the edge of the airfield, next to the wooded area. I figured he was just some other late worker out for a stroll. But he did it every night, same time, same thing. I never saw him coming back, either.”
“Where did he go, exactly?” inquired Tom.
“He always left the field at the same point and headed off between the trees. I assumed there was a path there.”
Forman pointed, and Bud muttered: “Then he was heading toward the shore, looks like.”
“Yeah, he was. You see, I—er― ”
Tom smiled. “Followed him?”
“I was curious.”
“Go on, Neil.”
“One night I took my break closer to where he walked, but kept myself out of sight. When he walked past I waited a few moments, then started following behind, in the shadow of the trees. You can hear the ocean just about anywhere on Fearing, so I figured he wouldn’t hear me tailin’ him.
“So he turns off onto this little footpath. Just dirt, you know? But it goes zigzag, and I lost sight of him quickly.
“The path comes out right near the water, big rocks all over the place. I look around—so where is he? Now I was majorly curious. I spent a while skulking around, thinking I’d see him. Man, I just had to know what he was up to!”
“I know the feeling,” remarked the young inventor dryly, with a wink at Bud.
“All of a sudden I hear splashing. I look out toward the ocean and there’s this black thing sort’ve bobbing around out there. I made out pretty quick that it was the head and shoulders of a guy in one of those frogman suits! He ducked down under the water—and that’s the last I saw of him.”
“A frogman,” Bud repeated. “Jetz, he could’ve been sneaking back and forth between the island and a boat—maybe even the mainland!”
Tom’s response was skeptical. “We’re pretty well guarded here on Fearing. You’ve got the radar mini-drones circling overhead at all times, and an automatic-alarm sonarscope system keeping watch for underwater intruders.”
“I don’t know about the sonar stuff,” the worker replied. “But as far as the patrolscope radar, employees all have those anti-alarm amulets, like the three of us are wearing.”
“True. Are you absolutely sure the man you saw walking was an employee?”
“Oh yeah, absolutely.” Forman cleared his throat. “And I know his name, too. Herb Nelson!”
THE FRIGHTENED FROGMAN
THE CONFIRMATION of Nelson’s involvement—in something!—was disturbing. “Good night, the whole project group could be some sort of cover operation,” Tom murmured.
“I can’t believe Aciema Musa is in on it,” Bud objected. “Neil, are you pretty sure the frogman was the same as the guy you followed?”
Forman shrugged. “No—that’s why I held back saying anything. I never did see the swimmer come back out of the water. I had to get back to my shift. But I’ll tell you this, Nelson still goes out for his little stroll every night.”
Tom rubbed his chin for a moment, taking it all in and holding back a sigh of bemused frustration. “It may sound a little lame to say, We shouldn’t be hasty—but we shouldn’t be. Innuendos hurt people. We’re not going to start off making any accusations against Nelson or Aciema, or anyone. It’s all conjecture. But you did us a good turn by telling us your story, Neil. It’s all very—interesting.”
“I know it’s more than that, Mr. Swift,” said the worker. “Whoever that frogman was, he was breakin’ every security rule in the book!”
“You’re right,” Tom replied. “And now we have to catch him at it.”
After midnight, the moon slivered and still low, a black shape stood among the rocks on the Fearing Island shore, shedding his outer clothes and concealing them carefully. He pulled on his frogman togs and scuba gear and slipped under the easy surf.
In the waters, a half-mile distant, another dark shape hovered like a lurking predator. “Still nothing on the scope,” muttered Tom Swift.
“As expected,” Bud observed. “Even our porpoise-squeak sonar can’t pick him up.”
Tom nodded. “Which means he’s using sophisticated antidetection gear—the same kind we’ve run into before. But it won’t defeat the tracker.”
The youths were submerged in a compact sea vehicle of Tom’s invention, called the SnooperSub. The name was apt: the sub was equipped with a remarkable snooping system, Tom’s aquatomic tracker, which would allow the young inventor to follow the trail of distinctive molecular traces left in the water by any object passing through it. Touching the controls, Tom said quietly, “Let’s close in a little. The currents are running a little slow today—we’ll have to hunt down the ones with the atoms.”
The Snoop’s silent propulsion setup inched them forward, yard by yard, in the presumed direction of the surreptitious diver. Picking up no traces, Tom accelerated. “There! Got something.”
“What kind of something, Skipper?”
“Metals, plastic, synth-rubber—some oils from human skin. Nelson must be the nervous type. He was sweating when he pulled on his suit.”
“Yeah,” snorted Bud. “I don’t blame him.”
The craft followed the undersea trail, its sun-bright searchlight visible through the viewport, but invisible outside. Presently Tom said, “The traces are getting stronger. We’re getting closer, and I think he’s swimming more slowly, too.”
“Must be near to wherever he’s heading.”
Five minutes later Bud hissed, “Tom, there he is!”
A diver, legs thrashing, was crossing the aqualamp beam!
“Unless his tech is a lot higher than ours, he won’t know we’re here,” Tom pronounced.
“Now we follow like cautious sea hounds, flyboy.”
The frogman continued for another few minutes, then arced downward toward the seafloor. He crouched low, and suddenly a square shape rose into view—the lid of a container. “Looks like we found the treasure!” Bud exclaimed. “Satisfied?”
The young inventor spoke into a microphone, and pulses of sound, disguised as fish-talk, alerted others lurking nearby that it was time to move. A minute later, Tom said: “Okay! Let’s pin him.”
With the flick of a switch, the invisible beam turned visible, startlingly brilliant.
His shadow trailing off into the far dimness, the frogman froze in shock, then whirled about, thrashing his legs frantically. “Too late, Herb-o,” grinned Bud. “Here come the trawler boys with the big nets.”
A squadron of six Fearing security personnel in Swift diversuits converged on the hapless frogman, sped along like living torpedoes by the jet drives on their backs. They orbited the obviously frightened sub-man at a fifty-foot distance, gesturing for him to make for the surface—where, Tom and Bud knew, an armed motor launch awaited him.
The man abruptly flipped backwards, flailing his arms wildly. “Good grief, the guy’s freaking out!” Bud laughed. “Total panic!”
But Tom frowned. “No—look at that plume of― ” He broke off and studied the readout on the aquatomic tracker’s control panel. “It’s blood!”
The man was now floating like a shred of limp seaweed. Two of the Fearing team grabbed his arms to pull him to the surface, while the others approached the chestlike container half-buried in the bottom.
It was an hour later, back on the island, when the boys were briefed by Mace Vendiablo. “It was Nelson all right. Dead in the water.”
“How?” asked Tom somberly.
In reply the security man held up a long, straight object, narrow as a finger.
“What is it?” Bud asked. “A harpoon?”
“Well, it might as well be—it harpooned him!” snorted Vendiablo. “Went right through that fancy plastic stuff he was wearing. Went halfway through him, matter of fact.”
Tom examined the object curiously, noting its needle-point and cluster of fishlike tail fins at the rear. “Look here,” he said. “This deep groove runs the whole length of the main shaft, wrapping around in a tight spiral.” Tom glanced up. “I’m taking this over to the lab. I’d like to scan it with a TeleTec and some other instruments.”
Soon Tom returned with his own report. “It’s not a harpoon,” he told the small group, which now included Amos Quezada and Phil Radnor. “It’s a kind of super-miniaturized electronic torpedo. Basically an underwater spy satellite!”
“What!” snapped Radnor. “That dinky thing’s been spying on us?”
“I’d say so. And not just this one. There may be a whole fleet of these things out there, circling Fearing under the surface just like our own drones circle us up above.” Tom explained that the device had its own battery power source and some kind of unconventional receiver-transmitter. “The part of the shaft between the nose section and the tail is a freely rotating sleeve surrounding a rigid central strut. It’s ingenious!”
“Well don’t fall in love with it, Tom!” Bud gibed.
“But it’s an amazing example of micro-technology! Transverse magnetic induction makes the sleeve ‘float’ above the central shaft and drives it into a rapid motion—something like those high-speed maglev trains they’ve developed. The outer groove acts as a kind of longitudinal prop-screw, and the system counteracts torque directly by locking the excess angular momentum in the suspension field. I doped out that it can receive remote-control signals, which modify its onboard ‘guidance computer’, and it can transmit back whatever it’s designed to record as it orbits around Fearing.”
“To someone on the mainland?” asked Bud.
“No. One of the divers stopped by the lab and told me that the hidden container had data-storage equipment inside, along with other equipment. My guess is that the drones transmit whatever they have in very brief low-power bursts as they pass close to the chest in their course, receiving any new instructions in the same way. It’d be too localized for our sensor instruments to pick up.
“Nelson must’ve been going out nightly to pick up the recorded data and slip-in any new control instructions. But tonight it played out differently. ‘They’ must have been monitoring the situation remotely, somehow. When they saw that their operative was on the verge of capture, they risked transmitting an override code long-range, with new instructions.”
Radnor finished the thought. “Instructions to turn on their master and make for the middle of his chest, top speed.”
Bud shot Tom a wry glance. “Guess the guy had good reason to be frightened!” The young copilot noticed that his friend had turned pale.
“All nice and neat,” stated Quezada. “Now tell me why we couldn’t detect these ‘satellites’ on sonar—or the frogman himself.”
“Because of this.” Tom withdrew a small shred of dark-gray material from his pocket. “It was torn off by the projectile as it ripped into him, and the diver gave it to me to look at.”
“Reflects light in a funny way,” Mace observed.
“Real funny!” Bud retorted. “Tom and I have seen it before.”
“It has a coating of Li Ching’s anti-energy crystals,” said Tom. “It absorbs and partially refracts nearly every form of energy, including radar, sonar, and light! Under the right conditions it can cause objects to become blurred and distorted to the eye—hard to see.”
“Then it’s confirmed,” Mace added in grim tones. “Your Black Cobra is involved in this, just as Ames and Radnor told me.”
Tom nodded, wiping a hand across his forehead. Bud noticed its quiver.
“Him, or at least his organization. But we don’t know what he’s after. He must’ve used Herb Nelson to cause the rocket engine problem, and the blowup somehow... somehow caused... uh...”
Tom hesitated in midsentence. “Bit by one of your on-the-fly ideas, Tom?” asked Phil Radnor.
“No!” Bud gasped. “He’s going to― ”
Crumpling backwards, knees giving way, Tom tumbled toward the floor!
“JETZ!” Bud lunged forward and caught his friend in his powerful arms before head met floor.
Tom’s eyes fluttered. “Th-thanks—Bud—I...”
“You’re burning up,” Bud said gently, lowering him to the carpet. “Lie down flat.”
“I’ll get Carman!” said Amos Quezada.
Tom coughed. “I felt it... coming on for hours, but—I d-didn’t want to foul things up...”
Bud knelt by him. “It’s the fever, isn’t it.”
“I think so. My muscles... I’m so weak all of a sudden...”
“Don’t talk, Tom.”
After a quick examination on the spot, Dr. Carman had Tom moved to the base infirmary, where he spent a limp and restless night, but one marked by steady improvement hour by hour. By midmorning he was able to sit up for a breakfast in bed.
“I feel pretty good,” he told Bud. “Thanks for taking care of my jutting brow last night. I need it to shade my deep-set blue eyes, y’know.”
“Instinct. I treated it like a football,” joked the athletic youth. He motioned toward a spiral-bound pad of paper next to Tom’s tray. “What’s that? Getting psychic symbols like Oldmother?”
Tom laughed. “Maybe I am—in my own way!” He handed the notebook to his chum, who held it one way, then another. Bud finally gave up after a complete turnabout.
“You sure you’re not loopy, genius boy? To me this looks more like a scribble than the latest product of the mind of Thomas Edison Swift!”
The crude sketch showed a set of polyhedral structures, open frameworks constructed of what Tom explained were tubular struts. The polyhedrons appeared to be connected on gimbaled joints to a compact central body, which was solid. “The struts that make up the frameworks are actually extensible ‘arms’ which are jointed together. The sketch shows ’em folded and tucked-up, but they can be unfolded straight.”
“Hmm! Reminds me of that paper-folding art the Japanese make, origami. That, and modern sculpture—which I can’t make anything of either!”
Tom laughed again. “If you want another analogy, think of it as a cluster of huddled-up legs, like you’d find on a grasshopper or a mantis.”
“However I think of it—what’s it for? Something tells me it’s not art for your living room.”
“It’s how I plan to get past the Green Orb’s defenses to find out what’s really going on in there.”
Bud dropped down into a big chair. “Sure. What does it do, jump the wall?”
With a grin and a burst of fresh energy, Tom explained that the framework units would have Tom’s 3-D wavefront holoceivers attached to each joint of the many legs. “The structure is so completely reconfigurable and expandable that we’ll be able to collect light waves from many different angles, which is what we need to do for the telejector to produce a detailed 3-D image.”
“Good grief! You’re not saying this deal is gonna be big enough to reach all the way around the Orb!”
“No, it’ll only be a few yards across—much smaller when it’s all folded up tight, of course. But there’ll be six of them, initially approaching from all four sides, and above and below, equally spaced.”
“Okay, now I see. It’s a space probe—a flock! Will you launch these guys directly from Earth?”
Tom shook his head, explaining that he wanted to build the delicate structures in the stressless environment of zero-G. “My plan is to have them all constructed up on the space outpost, and launch them from there toward the Orb on a special carrier vehicle.”
“Will they stay outside the Orb taking pictures? Or will they― ”
“If all goes well, they’ll rendezvous and ‘boldly go’ right into the unknown world like Viking explorers! I’m determined to get a 3-D view of the inside of our green friend.”
Bud grinned, happy to see his pal back to his normal vigorous self. “Let’s hope the TV show doesn’t put us to sleep this time.”
Presently Dr. Carman came to examine his charge. “You’re ready to leave, Tom,” he pronounced. “I wouldn’t operate any heavy machinery for a while, though.”
“Doctor, you’re talking to the one person on Earth least likely to take that advice,” Bud wisecracked.
“And now that you’re doing better,” Carman went on soberly, “I need to tell you about a call I took late last night from Simpson.”
Tom’s nod interrupted him. “About Hank Sterling and Dr. Grimsey?”
The medic’s eyebrows lifted. “Someone told you?”
Bud held up his hands. “Wasn’t me!”
“I figured it out myself,” said the young inventor with a degree of wry grimness. “When did they come down with it?”
“They went symptomatic last night, just as you did. Their fevers spiked around 3 AM; now they’re both pretty much over it.”
Tom turned to his boggling friend. “Now that we know it takes a couple days or so to incubate, I knew I couldn’t have picked up the infection here on Fearing. So I mentally backtracked.”
“Jetz!” Bud exclaimed. “The telejector blowup the other day—like the incident with the rocket motor!”
“That’s right,” said Tom. “And Hank and Grimsey were present. We were all exposed to something.”
Dr. Carman regarded Tom thoughtfully. “Yet these two machine failures have nothing in common, as I understand it. The rocket business wasn’t any kind of explosion.”
“But it was a venting of heated gases and smoke into the air,” was Tom’s reply. “Same thing when the telejector blew. I think the bursts must have sprayed out particulates of some sort—maybe something like spores or pollen, with something riding on them that got into our lungs.”
“To what end?” the physician asked. “The effects were inconvenient but ultimately minor.”
“And besides, what about Arv Hanson?” Bud objected. “He didn’t have anything go blooey on him.”
Tom could only shrug as he turned toward his pile of clothes. “If you’re saying that a lot doesn’t fit—I agree. Rad and Mace tell me they’re pretty sure Aciema and the other project people weren’t involved in whatever Herb Nelson was up to. He was a last-minute addition to the team when another member became― ” Tom paused significantly. “Sick!”
“But Nelson was infected himself.”
“Which is smart,” retorted Tom. “It threw off suspicion. And besides, as you said, Doctor, the fever is harmless.”
Bud flew Tom back to Shopton in the cycloplane, leaving Radnor behind on the island to continue his investigations. “What we have so far,” mused Bud, “is too much plot and not enough resolution, pal. Snakeman and company skulk around finding ways to get Enterprises employees infected with some 24-hour bug. Psychic celebrities get kidnapped—unless they’re all off chanting their mantras someplace. Somebody pretends to be Pete Langley to Tom Swift, and pretends to be Tom Swift to Pete Langley, and pretends to be a peg-legged ghost; plus a little girl wants you to go see her, and a phony mindreader wants you not to do something, and way out there in space is this green thing that isn’t really there, but it puts you to sleep. Why, why, why? What do we do now, huh?”
“Well, you could add another ‘why’,” suggested the scientist-inventor dryly.
Bud laughed. “Yeah. I know you say ‘the outcome is the reason,’ Skipper. But right now I don’t think we’ve got much of a handle on either one.”
“I know. It’s enough to make me switch to Langley’s version—‘the consequence is the cause’!”
Back at Enterprises Tom made a quick visit to Doc Simpson to verify that Hank, Arv, and Grimsey were well, continuing his rounds with visits to his father, Harlan Ames, and finally to the lab where the telejector was being repaired. Tom asked Dr. Grimsey, “I saw you unseal the container the triamplicon came in, but was there anything unusual about it that you recall? There’s reason to think it might have been gimmicked to explode and spread whatever it is that infected us.”
Between bushy beard and haystack hair, the telecommunications engineer turned white. “Hey-mama! You think this was deliberate? But why would I be― ” He glanced at Hank Sterling. “Why would any of us be targeted?”
Hank observed, “I don’t know about you and me, Edmund, but our boss here sits right on a permanent bullseye.”
Grimsey had no further information, and Tom returned to his office, sitting down at his desk. Using the number provided by Dr. Rogo, he was soon in touch with Bylands Residence School and Lorna Darvey. “Stan Rogo told me to expect your call, Tom,” she said. “I understand you’re interested in one of our charges, Jennifer December.”
Tom provided a measured, toned-down account of his reasons. “I was amazed that she really existed, and had been tested as having some ESP abilities.”
“That she does,” confirmed Dr. Darvey. “I’m hardly an expert, but she converted me from skeptic to—well, maybe not a believer, but someone with questions.”
“Does she show her abilities there at the orphanage?”
“Oh yes. No major miracles, but she often seems to know in advance things that happen, and I’d swear she’s taken peeks into my mind. But the strangest thing...”
“Don’t worry, ma’am—I’m expecting it to be very strange!”
“It is,” said the physician. “I think Jennifer can create dreams.”
“You mean she can consciously control what she dreams about?”
Darvey took a deep breath, as if afraid how her story might sound to a scientist. “No, I mean she can control what other people dream about!” There was a long moment with no response from Tom. “I know. Sounds like something from the movies, doesn’t it?”
Tom chuckled. “Well... yes. But she doesn’t use it malevolently—does she?”
“Oh my, thank the Lord, no! And she isn’t a ‘firestarter’ either,” the woman laughed. “But many times she’s mentioned to various staff members striking images that we recall from dreams of the preceding night. And she’ll say, Oh, I sent that to you, wasn’t it funny? or such things. But she’ll describe it and comment before it’s been mentioned!”
After further discussion, Tom admitted that he still lacked a clear picture of what Jennifer was able to do—and how she accomplished it. “Then why not come up to Maine and visit her? She’s a very sweet, pleasant little dear. She’s not really able to explain what she does, but perhaps we haven’t been asking the right questions.”
“I’ll do that,” Tom promised. “Tomorrow afternoon?”
“We’ll expect you.”
“Ma’am—I think Jennifer December is already expecting me!”
TOM and Bud rented a car at the city airport where they landed the Pigeon Special. “Genius boy, you’ve got to get into the notion of traveling around in your atomicar,” Bud remarked. “I mean, the Silent Streak can fly, not to mention tooling along the road without stopping for gas.”
“Uh-huh. I shouldn’t mind the traffic jams and accidents as the other drivers do doubletakes?”
“Chum,” said Bud, “you worry too much.”
Bylands Orphanage was small but modern and pleasant, nestled among low, rolling hills. In Lorna Darvey’s office, the youths were given the brief history of Miss Jennifer December. She had been taken to Bylands as a toddler, after her parents had lost their lives in an auto accident. Her only close relative, an elderly great-aunt, was unable to take her, but wealthy enough to provide for her board and care. “She goes to public school in town,” explained Dr. Darvey, “and there have been no problems or incidents. Just a bright, ordinary little girl.”
“Who can transmit TV programs into people’s heads,” noted Bud.
Tom asked, “Ma’am, are these ‘dreams’ she takes credit for in the form of stories?”
The physician shook her head slightly. “I wouldn’t characterize them that way. It’s more a matter of intrusive images, sometimes little scenes that you see, as you might look at the picture on a postcard. I’ve been given such things as a fox in an overcoat, a flying chocolate cake, and a bright blue rose.”
“Has anyone ever reported seeing images like that when they’re not asleep?”
“You mean just floating around in the daylight? No, Tom.”
The Shopton visitors were taken outside to meet the girl of the hour, who was at play in a sandbox. The perfect image of the little space girl, she stood up and shook Tom’s hand gravely, seeming to pay no attention to Dr. Darvey’s introduction. “I know who you are, mister.”
“You can call me Tom.”
“Uh-huh. And that’s Bud. He’s your friend.”
“His bestest friend,” commented Bud.
Tom asked the girl, in a gentle way, how she knew of him. “Did you see me on TV?”
“Uh-huh. On the night TV.”
“Late night news shows?”
“Uh-uh. The TV in your head, when you go to sleep.”
Lorna Darvey interjected, “That’s what she calls her dreams.”
“Ever’body has it,” said Jennifer. “But most people don’t tune it in. A few people do. I meet them in the TV and we play. That’s how I met you and Bud.”
Tom sucked in his breath and glanced at Bud, whose gray eyes were wide. “Do you remember when you met us, Jenny?”
“Uh-uh. Jennifer! It was last week. You were in the window, where all the stars are. You talked to me.”
“What did I say?”
“Dream things. You’re not s’posed to repeat ’em.”
“No-buddy. You can’t, cause there’s no real words, just things you see and feel. But both of you were skeered.”
Tom grinned. “We sure were! We never met a little girl up where the stars are.”
“Some of the dream TV goes up there, right past the moon. I even play with― ” She stopped herself abruptly. “I can’t tell you about them. They don’t want me to.”
“Oh, that’s okay,” Tom said. “Have you seen that big green place out there? The one Bud and I were going to?”
She nodded excitedly. “Uh-huh! It’s all funny. There’s all those people!”
“People!” Bud blurted out. “See, Tom, it’s just like I― ”
Tom shushed him with a look. “Jennifer, who are they? What do they want? Do they want you to tell me something?”
She shrugged, in the eloquent way children can shrug. “I dunno.”
“You can tell me. I’ll keep it a secret.”
She looked at him soberly. “It’s bad to tell lies, Tom. You already know you’re gonna tell other people.”
The young inventor reddened slightly. “Yes, I—I know. But, see... People could be hurt if you don’t tell me. It’s really really important.”
She suddenly plopped down at the edge of the sandbox, which was bordered by a redwood bench. “The dream people think so too, but I don’t know how to tell you. They get so sad. When I saw you in the window, I tried to tell you, but I couldn’t!”
The last was said with tears in it. Dr. Darvey knelt down and held Jennifer’s hand reassuringly. “Would you like to go back to playing, honey?”
She didn’t answer, but hunkered down in the sand and began to draw with her finger. “Look what I can do, Tom.”
The girl drew a big fat circle, then added a squiggle to it. Tom and Bud exchanged startled glances, and Tom asked in a faint voice: “What—what is that, Jennifer? It looks like― ”
“It’s not a ‘Q’ letter, Tom,” she declared firmly. “I gave it to my friend the old mother man, but when he got woked up he thought it wrong. See, look.” Her pointing finger traced out the circle. “That’s the green balloon, where the people live. That’s why it’s round. This little tail...” She indicated the squiggle-mark. “That’s the snake coming up to bite it.”
“The... snake?” Bud repeated.
“You a’ready know, Bud,” Jennifer stated reprovingly. “Tom knows too.”
“Jennifer—why does the snake want to bite the Orb? The green thing?” inquired Tom.
“I dunno. It’s not real biting. It’s more like when you have telephone wires, except it’s for the dream TVs. There are lot’s of ’em, cause he has a buncha my friends with him. He’s trying to make them tell him about the green balloon people.”
Tom murmured quietly, “Li is using the kidnapped psychics to communicate with the Green Orb.”
“I knew you knew it.”
“I’ll bet you did.”
Jennifer searched the young inventor’s eyes intently. “It’s okay to say die, Tom. The green balloon people are all going to die if you don’t go to them. That’s what they want me to tell you.”
Tom crouched down to her level. “Jennifer, I’ve seen strange pictures, and so have other people. Did you― ”
“Oh, you mean the pirate, and the man with the towel on his head, and when you were in the chair.”
“Did you make those pictures yourself?”
“Nuh-uh. Umm, not zackly. See, it’s the balloon people. They told me to tell you what they want you to do, and they made me strong so I could do it, just sometimes. But I can’t just think it up, like I do on the night TV. I just...” The girl hesitated, perplexed. “When there’s pictures in people’s heads, I can push ’em out in front. But for some people, like the towel-head man—they’re like my friends, the ones with the snake man. I just tap them, and they can see what the balloon people want to show them.”
“Hey, Jennifer,” Bud interjected, “could you make us see something right now?”
She waggled her head at Bud. “Not now. The balloon people aren’t making me strong now.”
“But the next time they do it, do you think you could ‘tap’ me?” asked Tom. “It’d be cool if I could talk to the balloon people myself.”
Jennifer December looked at the crewcutted youth for a long moment. “Uh-uh. Nope. You got turned off, like a buncha your friends.”
Tom frowned. “How do you mean?”
“It was what the snake man did. Oh—you named him the Black Cobra! He made you sick, so your nightlight would go out.”
“Yes. That’s exactly what he did!”
“He wants to be the only one who can talk to the people in the green balloon. Tom,” she added very gravely, “he’s real bad.”
“Real real bad, Jennifer.”
The little girl had begun to fidget, and Dr. Darvey called a halt to the visit. But as the three turned to walk away after their goodbyes, she called out, “Tom, she’ll say no, but then she’ll say yes.” Then she turned back to the sandbox, dismissing them.
“I don’t know what she means by that,” said Lorna Darvey apologetically. “I don’t know what any of it means, really. But has this helped you, Tom?”
“Very much, ma’am.”
On the way back to the airport, Bud asked if the plot now had been given more resolution. “It sure has, flyboy,” Tom answered excitedly. “Evidently Comrade-General Li has known about the Orb for some time, somehow, and he learned that the only way to communicate with its inhabitants is mentally.”
“By telepathy, hunh.”
“Well—it doesn’t seem to be exactly what most people mean by that word. It seems to work by using the mind’s own store of visual images to bring up feelings that communicate the essential message. Sometimes it stops there, as when Pete Langley’s thoughts about me—which were pretty negatively charged, I’d say!—pulled in Jennifer’s ‘signal’ and made him see my image.”
“With a pleading expression.”
“Which was as much of the message as got through. But when we all saw old Pegleg, for example, more came through, what I lip-read. The ‘ghost’ was at the top of all our minds, so we all saw it together.”
Bud nodded sagely. “Uh-huh, sorta like on the tip of your tongue, but higher up!”
“Okay, Tom, the jigsaw puzzle is making a picture,” Bud agreed. “An arm, a little sky, half a tree, Abe Lincoln’s nose. But still—what about that phantom phone call you got? Howcome Chow and the others on the Challenger saw images that basically meant buzz off?—scarecrow stuff. Not the message I’d send if I wanted somebody to come help me!”
“I don’t know,” conceded the young inventor. “Those other images were frightening, or disturbing in some other way, and they did seem to communicate the idea that we should go home and not approach the Orb. I wondered if it might be coming from the Cobra’s captive group at his instigation—but why didn’t it happen on Earth, but in space as we got near the Orb?
“Anyway, now we know one thing more,” he continued. “The purpose of that fever-contagion has something to do with ensuring that none of the people likely to comprise an Enterprises space team has the capacity to communicate with the ‘Orb-ites’ directly—and that includes me, along with anybody else who’s unlucky enough to be in the ‘hot zone’. He can’t tag everyone—he didn’t infect you yet, pal—but he’s sure working at it!”
Bud absorbed the matter quietly. But as the two sat in the Pigeon Special awaiting departure permission, he turned to his friend and asked, “What do you want to do, Tom? I know you—even better than Jennifer December does. You’ll try to rescue those Orbites, whatever it is that’s threatening them. But how? Nobody really knows what anybody’s talking about!”
“You’re right,” stated the young inventor. “And that’s why my Video Vikings have to storm the Green Orb before― ”
“Before the Cobra strikes?”
“Before the end that’s near—is here!”
TWO BROKEN LINKS
“IT SEEMS you were right all along, son,” nodded Damon Swift. “All our instrumental studies suggest that, in some bizarre and barely conceivable way, the Green Orb is a three-dimensional form of light, a kind of self-sustaining image that can only be made subject to science by means of a device like your telejector.”
Tom whistled slightly. “I never would have dreamed that this invention, mostly meant for entertainment, would turn out to be a real scientific instrument—like a microscope or a telescope.”
“Nor did anyone dream there could be such a thing as the Orb. Much less that this image-object could be inhabited!”
Returning to Enterprises, Tom had immediately sought out his father and given a full account of his encounter with Jennifer December. The elder scientist had in turn apprised Tom of some recent findings concerning the eerie space intruder. “The matter seems indisputable,” continued Mr. Swift. “We applied the decryption algorithms, the ones you used in cracking that ‘Drowning Roman’ code, to the raw optical data from the outpost telescopes. Sure enough, out popped features that our usual enhancement techniques missed completely.”
“Jennifer calls it a balloon,” Tom mused. “That’s a pretty good description of an object that’s basically a spherical surface with no measurable thickness and nothing inside.”
“Just the vacuum of space, completely empty. All the work is done by the surface of the ‘shell,’ absorbing all but a tiny fraction of the ambient light and emiting—nothing! Where is the energy going? What is it being transformed into?”
“The inhabitants, the Orbites, must be utilizing it somehow,” Tom noted thoughtfully. “We may not be able to detect them, but I believe Jennifer when she says they’re in the ‘balloon’ somewhere.”
Mr. Swift leaned forward across his desk. “And I’m sure of something too, Tom. The Green Orb is using some form of energy to alter its movements through space.”
Among the new findings was something intriguing and somewhat ominous. Since its original sighting, the space object had deviated from its course. At first the variations were relatively small—though sufficient to have thrown off the megascope’s beam settings. But within the last few hours the Orb had begun to swerve alarmingly and unpredictably from one heading to another.
“I know what people are worried about,” Tom responded. “If the Orb were to turn toward Earth, it could constitute some kind of danger.”
“All the more reason for your video probe to proceed, Tom.”
Leaving the administration tower, Tom began to cross the plant grounds on a ridewalk as he headed toward the lab where the telejector was being worked on. Seeing a familiar figure, he hailed him and waved him over. “Come join me on the ridewalk, Dr. Grimsey.”
The older man did so. He seemed somewhat subdued. “I’m a bit... preoccupied with this fever business, Tom,” he said. “I’m not one of your space-travel team. Yet I was one of the ones infected deliberately by this Li Ching.”
“Yes. I understand your worry,” Tom responded. “But while we’re out here by ourselves, let’s be honest, shall we?”
The man seemed to pale under the Shopton sun. “Honest? But—what do you mean?”
“I’ve figured it out, Doctor,” Tom went on. “Maybe I’m wrong. Let me run it by you, though. I decided to use the triamplicon to fix the telejector’s problem—its apparent problem. I recall now that it was you who first mentioned that approach. It was you who got the component, and you who took it out of its container, which appeared to be sealed. But perhaps it wasn’t.
“When the chassis blew, you said something like, That wasn’t supposed to happen. Hank and I didn’t think much of it. But Doctor― ”
“It wasn’t supposed to happen,” said Grimsey slowly, in a strained, husky voice. “The doctored component would only have produced a ‘mysterious’ system anomaly that might have taken days, even weeks, to work out. It was never suggested that there would be an explosion, much less that the smoke from it would spread some sort of infectious agent.”
“Are you working for Li Ching, Dr. Grimsey?”
The man sighed deeply, looking off into the distance. “Certainly not! Yet I suppose it isn’t certain, is it. It seems I’ve been duped into doing his work.”
Tom thought for a moment. “Then, much as I hate to think it—I gather Peter Langley was behind your actions.”
But Grimsey shook his head. “No. I’m sure he knew nothing about it. He’s a good lad, basically, though not likeable. Shortly after it became known that I was leaving Wickliffe for Enterprises,” he continued, “I received the first of several telephone calls from a man who said he was a major stockholder in the corporation. He refused to give his name, but claimed to be concerned that if the Enterprises 3-D system came on the market before Langley’s version—well, it would affect his financial interests.”
“There’s the motive, then.”
“As you’ve surely guessed, he offered me a great deal of money, with a substantial down-payment. All I had to do was foul your telejector enough to cause you to install the triamplicon he mailed me. He said he only wanted to impede you, to delay the public release of the machine for just a little while.”
“And no one would ever know,” Tom stated.
“As they say—no harm, no foul.”
“The Black Cobra’s preferred style is to use and manipulate others. You’re just his latest tool. But thank you, sir, for confirming my hypothesis.”
Grimsey was silent for long moments. “I wanted to work here. I was sincere about that. And now... I suppose it’s a police matter.”
Tom shrugged. “I don’t know what Dad and I will decide to do, Dr. Grimsey. We prize loyalty here. We need to be able to trust our workforce—and I think we repay that trustworthiness. Yet there’ve been several occasions where we’ve been willing to set aside a person’s mistakes. The Cobra has no tolerance for human weakness and imperfection. We do.”
The young inventor alerted Harlan Ames, and a security guard escorted Dr. Grimsey off the grounds—but with a hint of hope from Tom as to his future at Enterprises.
After several stops and necessary conversations, Tom finally arrived at the lab, where Hank, Arv, and Linda Ming has succeeded in restoring the telejector to operation.
He told them the latest startling developments. “So Grimsey was in on it, hmm?” said Arv. “Seems like any little thing can be disaster on the way. I finally remembered that a couple days before I got sick, I had what I thought was a minor problem with my air conditioner, in my car, on the way in to work. The vent blew out a puff of hot, dusty air, right in my face.”
“And so you got sick,” Linda declared. “Somebody must have got to your car when it was parked at home.”
“Maybe the same guy who called Grimsey,” Tom noted. “Li Ching’s current ‘area rep’.”
They worked for hours on the problem of making the telejector image visible in the light, or in front of an illuminated background. “We’re making progress, boss,” Hank Sterling told Tom, who nodded.
Toward evening, after his helpers had left for the day, Chow brought in a tray of supper. As Tom ate hungrily, the stout Texan produced a small postmarked envelope from the pocket of his gaudy red cowboy shirt.
“Got a letter here I’d like you to read, boss. It’s from a sheep-herdin’ friend o’ mine over in west Texas, name o’ Pedro Uzcudun. Knew him years back, when I worked on th’ Horton spread.”
“Uzcudun? Is that a Basque name?” Tom asked.
“I’d say! Purty hard on the tongue, ain’t it?” Chow explained that the immigrants were so skillful at tending sheep that many came to the United States from their homeland in the Pyrenees Mountains between Spain and France to take jobs herding sheep in the Western states.
As he ate Tom skimmed through the opening of the letter, then read it again with care. Wondering why the westerner had brought it to him, his forehead wrinkled with interest as he read:
Heyo, Chow-Poke! The reason I am writing to you now, amigo, is because you are working at Swift Enterprises. Something most strange has been happening to me. You know I spend many lonely nights with my flock up in the hills. Well now, lately, I have begun to get messages and visions in my mind about Tom Swift. It is almost as if they are coming from the stars up above. I am sure I am not crazy, but people will think so if I tell them. They already think I am, eh, amigo? I am worried. Maybe it has something to do with radio. I have heard of that. Please ask Tom Swift if he can explain. Your friend from old times, Pedro Uzcudun
Chow looked somewhat embarrassed. “Mebbe it’s jest plumb foolishness,” the cook said, “but I figgered I ought to show it to you.”
Tom rubbed his jaw thoughtfully. “What sort of a guy is this Uzcudun, Chow? Is he a sensible person?”
Chow nodded vigorously. “Yep, he is, Tom. I don’t cotton much to sheepmen, but Uzzy’s as nice an’ level-headed an hombre as I ever met.
“But y’see now, people jest don’t much take to what they cain’t make out. See what I mean, boss? Uzzy kin sometimes read th’ signs an’ see things. People come to ’im fer advice. That’s what has ’em spooked out there.”
Tom frowned. “In that case, it may not be all that foolish after all.”
“Then you think he ain’t tetched?”
“Chow, I may be tetched in the head myself, but this could be like what other people have been seeing—me and Bud, and you too, when you saw that fire.”
“That there psycho stuff? Brain pictures?”
Tom smiled. “He could have extrasensory abilities like the little girl I told you about, Jennifer. But because he’s older and has lived with it longer, he may have a better handle on it. He might be better able to control it.”
“Say! Mebbe so.”
“It sounds as though he might be ‘plugged in’ to the Orb—one of those who started receiving impressions early, when the Orb hadn’t yet been detected visually. Pardner, someone like your friend might be a help to us, a link to communicating with these ‘green balloon people’ directly!” said the youth excitedly. “Thanks for showing this to me.”
Chow nodded, but looked downcast. “Yer welcome, son, but that ain’t why I did it. I got that letter a few days back. Ever since, I been tryin’ to call him. He don’t answer! That ain’t like him no-how!”
Tom’s face went dark with concern. “You say Pedro has a local reputation for being a psychic. If the Cobra found out about that― ”
“Ye-ahh, boss, that’s jest whut I ’as chewin’ over! What if that there snakeman took him, like th’ others?”
Tom tapped his long fingers on the supper tray, nervously. “There’s a man we’ve worked with before, an FBI agent in the Albuquerque office. I’ll ask Harlan Ames to get in touch with him concerning this.” He thought for a moment. “Maybe there’s something else, too. That researcher in East Haven, Dr. Rogo, has collected a great deal of information about people showing these special talents, from all across the country. He showed me some of his files. It’s possible your friend is one of the ones he has a file on. There might be information in it that could help us locate him, things you might not know.”
The ex-Texan brightened. “That there’s a fine idee! Never did know much about ol’ Uzzy’s family—mebbe he’s got one ’r another out there with him. But—we gotta wait till t’morrow, I’d guess.”
Tom stood suddenly. “No need to. Dr. Rogo said he usually works late in his office at the college. I’ll call right now. I’d planned getting in touch with him again anyway.”
“How come, boss?”
“I realized those files of his might contain some clues as to how the Cobra has been able to track down the psychics he’s kidnapped.”
“Say, thet’s not bad thinkin’.”
“Thanks, Chow—let’s see what Rogo has to say.”
He dialed the phone number. There were six rings, then the click of the call being transferred automatically.
“East Haven College, main switchboard. May I help you?”
“Yes, ma’am. I was trying to reach Dr. Stanton Rogo. He’s not picking up.”
“I shouldn’t wonder. You didn’t hear?”
A chill surged through Tom. “About what?”
“There was a break-in sometime last night, while he was working late, I guess. His office was trashed, and somebody set fire to it! They say there’s nothing much left.”
“What!—but what about Dr. Rogo?”
“Well, sir, you should really be talking to the police, or maybe the Dean’s office. I just know they can’t find a trace of him anywhere!”
When Tom hung up, he explained the situation to Chow. “Looks to me like Comrade-General Li plans to wipe out every possible source of information that might be a help to getting into contact with the Orbites!”
“The jim-danged sidewinder!”
“He sure is, pardner! We had two links almost in our hands—your friend Pedro, and Dr. Rogo and his files. And now,” he concluded bitterly, “both links are broken.”
THE VIKING INVASION
NEITHER the police of East Haven, Connecticut, nor the FBI of the southwest, turned up any information on the disappearances of Pedro Uzcudun and Stanton Rogo. “Rogo’s paper files are nothing but ash,” Harlan Ames reported to Tom and his father. “And all his computer files, including those he was storing on his server, have been deleted.”
“Anyone in those files could be in danger,” muttered Damon Swift. “We can’t even tell the authorities whom to protect.”
“But we do know that one of them is Jennifer December,” declared Tom. Ames promised to contact law enforcement to arrange for Jennifer and the orphanage to be protected round the clock.
While the outpost in space was constructing Tom’s Video Viking 3-D TV probes according to the designs Tom had transmitted, the young inventor plunged back into perfecting the telejector.
“Tom, is it really important to the Orb probe to be able to project a vivid, stand-alone output?” Linda inquired. “It seems like gravy to me, no offense.”
Tom replied tersely, “It could be crucial. If the thing has taken a notion to approach the earth, knowing everything possible about its nature and structure may be vital. Creating a better 3-D image to study is like an information enhancement technique: it gives us a richer range of data to play with.”
“Sure. You don’t want a dirty microscope slide.”
“No. And—er—besides,” the youth added with sudden sheepishness, “I have to give my brain something to chew on!”
After days of work and many dead ends, the results of their labors were clear—and suspended in mid-air! “Gosh, genius boy, that’s just incredible!” exulted Bud, eyeing the vivid test images of downtown Shopton and the countryside surrounding. As the scene switched to an elevated view of Lake Carlopa, caught by holoceivers mounted on one of Tom’s Workchopper helicraft, Bud almost shaded his eyes from the sparkling vividness. “Quick, where’re my shades?”
“And this is a ‘live’ telecast, flyboy,” Tom noted happily. “The same sort of thing we’ll get from the Vikings—I hope!”
Sam Barker, formerly renowned for his role as the Peg-Legged Ghost, had been invited to join the group observing the telejector test. “So how did you do it, Tom?—blank out the background glare, I mean. Would I understand it?”
Bud laughed. “Tom may not have ESP, but he has a real gift for explanations!”
Tom joined in the laughter before replying, gleeful with success. “I’ve learned to explain just enough but not too much. Actually, thinking about the Green Orb and the way it seems to be absorbing light energy sparked off a few ideas. I’ve added a sort of extra overlay to the 360-degree layer of projected holograms. You could say the second layer acts like a hologram in reverse, scattering and de-tuning the light that passes through it, making it invisible to the eye and producing what amounts to a dulled, blank background for the main image.”
“Okay, but why doesn’t it affect the image you want?”
“Because I’ve added some coded phase-tuning to the projected image, which filters right through the damping layer.”
Bud finished for Sam. “I think ‘incredible’ sums it up, pal.”
Next came an even more important test. The six Video Vikings had now been assembled and tested at the space outpost. Transmissions from their holoceivers produced amazingly sharp, realistic images of the rotating space base, glittering in stark sunlight, and the outpost’s personnel. “Good night!” Bud chuckled, “Even up close—man, I feel like I could reach over and shake Ken Horton’s hand!” Horton was the man in charge of outpost operations.
Grinning, Tom gestured. “Try it.”
Bud walked forward, hand outstretched. The hand thrust right into Horton’s image, disappearing from view within it as the damping layer blotted it out. “Weird feeling—don’t think I’ve ever reached into somebody’s body before!” He stepped back and turned toward his friend. “This is great, but—aren’t you afraid the Orb will just slough-off the Vikings, like it did the Repelatron Donkey probes?”
“Well, it’s an experiment. It may be the Orbites are especially sensitive to induction effects, which means they might have a strong reaction to metal—as if to an allergy. Believe it or not, the Vikings are constructed entirely out of nonmetallic substances, even down to the wires in the circuits. T’weren’t easy, friend. But it might give us a chance.”
Tom called in his father and other key personnel to witness the success of his invention. “We’re about ready to fly down to Fearing,” he remarked.
Bud looked surprised. “Fearing? Why not just watch the show here in the lab?”
“Because several scientists with the expertise we need to analyze the results are down there already—part of Aciema Musa’s research group,” explained the scientist-inventor. “They have special instruments there too, already set up and waiting.”
“Guess we’re in a hurry.”
“A big hurry, Bud. The Orb’s latest lane-change will bring it close to Earth—closer than the Moon, in fact, though angled above the South Pole.”
“Is it official—the Green One is on a collision course?”
“So far it seems to be heading toward the inner solar system.” Then Tom added worriedly: “But no one knows what it will do next.”
Tom and Bud flew to Fearing Island by Swift Construction Company jetrocopter the next day, where they contacted the outpost by Private Ear Radio. “We launched the ‘longboat’ seven minutes ago, Tom,” Ken Horton confirmed. “On its way to the Orb on repelatron power.”
“How are the Vikings holding up?”
“Telemetry nominal from all six.”
When Tom clicked off the communicator unit, Bud asked, “You say it won’t be until tomorrow night when they start the probe?”
“Longer than that, actually.” Tom explained that the Video Vikings’ unmanned carrier vehicle was accelerating at a much lower rate than the Challenger’s customary 1-G acceleration. “I wanted to keep down the G-stresses to forestall any warping of the structures—those delicate grasshopper-legs of theirs.” He told Bud that the actual probe operation would begin just before dawn.
The boys could not sleep that long night. Tom arose hourly to check with the communications center on the outpost, tensely verifying that the space-longboat was proceeding smoothly on its planned course to the weird image-object.
Finally, at four AM, Tom alerted the study-project team that the space encounter was imminent. They assembled their arrays of instruments on a pair of flatbed trucks and slowly rumbled out onto the Fearing airfield, not far from the looming Challenger.
Tom unloaded his own equipment. The improved 3-D telejector, with its triple antennae of gold-metal ring columns, had been mounted atop a wide base set on casters. Tom rolled it into position fifty feet from the trucks, angling the antenna array slightly upward.
Bud glanced back at the watching scientists. “You don’t want the image closer to their setup?”
Tom shook his head. “Not right away, at least. The Orb is itself an ‘image,’ more or less. For all we know, the replica image here on Fearing might actually replicate some of its powers! Safer if everyone stands back a little.”
“Except for Tom and Bud.”
“Except for Tom and Bud.”
Day had begun to break through and touch the Atlantic with its cool, colored fire. The two looked skyward. The speck of greenish light was still tiny, faint and hazy among the southward stars; but by now the whole Earth had seen it—and wondered.
“Confirmation, chief. The Video Vikings have been ejected from the carrier,” PERed Horton. “The longboat is veering away as planned.”
“Good. Ballistic trajectories from here on. We’ll do everything we can not to startle our big friend into a fit of temper!”
Bud nudged Tom and pointed. Up on the elevated vehicular stage of the Challenger, which projected like a front porch from the central cabin, a number of workers had gathered to take in the astounding 3-D telecast from space.
They waited tensely, minute by crawling minute. “All right,” muttered Tom. “Time for the fan-out maneuver. It’s showtime.” He switched on the telejector, using the remote controller in his hand, and the two stepped back unconsciously.
acquisition!” whispered Tom Swift. “Now—let’s see!”
A WORLD OF ITS OWN
BEFORE the boggling eyes of dozens of startled Earthlings, an eerie sight, like none ever seen, blinked into view!
Awed, almost frightened, Bud ran a nervous hand through his black hair. Tom stood and stared, heart thudding.
The Green Orb floated low over the Fearing Island airfield, a globe of yellow-green that only faintly reflected the light of the sun. The Video Vikings, still hundreds of miles distant from their objective, were fanning out to assume their various positions around the object, but the computer wove their six points of view—and the separate inputs from their many holoceivers—into a single form, startlingly real.
“Tom,” Bud gulped, “I—I think it’s starting to get mad.”
The image was now large enough, and detailed enough, to show the strange churning and writhing of the Orb’s visible, immaterial surface. Separated sparkles and glows began to multiply and join together across and around the spherical form.
“So much for a gentle invasion,” Tom said wryly. “It knows the Vikings are there.”
“Pal—it may know we are here!”
The Orb swelled as the Vikings drew steadily nearer, and its details became sharper. Now the watchers could see clearly that what seemed to be, from a distance, a featureless haze was composed of thousands of small specks or motes, swirling about one another in furious motion. “Can you tell what those little things are, Tom?”
“Not so far. That’s why we’re probing.”
The flatbeds had begun to circle the 3-D projection, taking instrumental readings from all sides. Not far away, a crane boom swung up high for a top view.
The luminous globe grew larger still. Tom knew the six Vikings were carefully maneuvering into their assigned positions, guided by tiny ion-drive thrusters. “We have configuration,” reported Ken Horton. “Vikings are in position. Descent program on your word, Fearing.”
“That’s go, outpost,” Tom said as calmly as possible. He turned to Bud. “This is it. The Vikings are coming together as they approach, to video-capture the smaller local features. Now we find out what that sphere is made of, besides light.”
The boys had the dizzy feeling of watching through a great window, the viewport of a spaceship descending into the murky atmosphere of an unknown world. Adjusting the telejector settings, Tom allowed the lower parts of the expanding sphere to disappear beneath the tarmac. Only an ever-flattening horizon protruded into view, a curving band of luminescence boiling with silent energy.
The crowd of watchers shouted as one.
The image of the Green Orb had shattered into a myriad of whirling, writhing fragments!
For a moment the projection was replaced by a weirdly twisting flicker, a surreal tangle of stars wrapped in 3-D “static.” Then it all vanished.
“Tom!” gaped Bud. “Wha—what in the― ”
“I switched it off,” Tom grated, plucking the PER from his belt. “Outpost, what is the status of the― ”
“Signal breakup, Fearing. Total loss of targeting. In other words, Tom,” Horton went on, “the Vikings have flipped out.”
“Are you getting anything?”
“We still have locator tone from all six, but no coherent 3-D image data. I’d say it’s the same thing that happened to the Donkeys—they’ve gone tumbling off in all directions.”
“Good gosh!” rasped the young inventor in bitter disappointment. “Nothing can break through that green shell!”
Bud put a hand on his pal’s arm. “The welcome mat says No Visitors, I guess. But look—that’s never stopped a salesman yet, genius boy.”
The team dispersed with their equipment, hoping they had managed to scope out some useful data from the initial phase of the probe. Tom packed the telejector away, downhearted. “Humans are knocked out if they approach the Orb, and drones are just batted away. Whatever it is, it doesn’t want Earth to approach it. But it sure doesn’t mind approaching Earth! Bud, the sort of power used to affect the Vikings could easily overwhelm the world’s defenses!”
“And you don’t know what it is—the Orb, or the force it uses.”
“There’s no sign of electromagnetism or nuclear radiation, or the sort of spectronic wave field we use in the repelatrons.” Tom hesitated. “I guess I should face another possibility, which I’ve been dismissing. Bud, the Orb may be a kind of black hole!”
Bud gulped. “Like the micro-sized black hole we nicked in the Star Spear? Jetz, it just about tore us to pieces!”
“We’d have no protection against it,” Tom nodded. “But in some ways the reaction of the automated probes, and the way the Orb seems to use light, suggests what’s called gravitational lensing—local distortions of the fabric of spacetime connected to intense gravitational stresses. And yet...” The young inventor seemed to be resisting his own theory. “How could such a thing exist? We detect no gravitational anomalies—no G-field at all!”
“Only light,” Bud pronounced. “But light that packs a punch!”
Within hours the science team began to issue reports based upon their various instrumental observations. Aciema Musa sought Tom out and told him, “Tom, your telejector gave us just what we needed, right up to the moment of― ”
“Of failure,” said the young inventor.
“But a good deal of success before that point. My own assessment is that there’s really something to your hypothesis, the gravity-lensing idea. But the forces involved are intensely localized—to a degree no one thought possible.”
“Then we couldn’t detect the G-forces because they don’t radiate far enough into space.”
She smiled. There was excitement in her eyes. “They don’t radiate at all, Tom! We’ve made a very minute, unorthodox interpretation of the optical data, the 3-D wave patterns, and the only conclusion that makes sense is that the gravitational effect is turned sideways to us in spacetime! Fantastically, the Green Orb is a self-contained two-dimensional object!”
Tom drew in his breath. He knew he had an involuntary expression on his frank face that bespoke skepticism. “But it’s not two-dimensional, Aciema. If nothing else, the 3-D telejector image showed us that. It’s a sphere.”
Musa gave a nod. “Of course. But look, exactly what do we mean when we say something is a three-dimensional object?” She picked up a piece of paper from a nearby desk and drew a line on it. “The idealized, abstract line that this visible line stands for is treated as having only length, not thickness—it’s one-dimensional, true?” She drew a simple circle next to it. “A circle is a two-dimensional figure, we say. But if you think about it, every part of a circle is just a line, isn’t it?”
“Well—you’re right. It can be regarded as an infinite number of infinitely small line segments, connected together.”
“Every part, down to the smallest, is one-dimensional. Yet somehow the bunch of them acquires the property of being two-dimensional! In that special sense, you could say that a circle is a one-dimensional object that extends into a two-dimensional space.”
Intrigued, Tom murmured, “Yes, I see.”
“Tom, I think the Orb is similar. What we think of as its surface is really a curved two-dimensional plane with no measurable thickness whatsoever, limited in extent but having no internal boundaries, that penetrates our own 3-D space—cuts into it. The Orbites are not living inside the sphere, they’re embedded in its surface!”
The youth gasped at the thought. “Good night, a ‘balloon’ of twisted space—its own separate space that barely touches ours!”
“Physical objects of our sort would just slide sideways as they tried to enter it. They’d whirl away on their own momentum.”
“Yet these inhabitants can make themselves aware of our realm,” declared Tom, “and communicate with it psychically, mind to mind—probably the only kind of communication possible between our two spacetime worlds!”
The astounding picture of the Orb’s sideways world haunted the young inventor. What would happen if such an object were to enter the atmosphere, or touch the solid body of the 3-D world of man? The interface forces could unravel the material substance of the planet, he thought desperately, setting off a chain reaction that nothing could stop!
Tom called Shopton by PER, then sought out Bud. “Get ready for a supersonic trip back to Maine, flyboy!”
“To the orphanage?”
“Yup, to Bylands. All our cards have been taken by the Black Cobra—except one.”
“We need to bring her here to Fearing, and take her into space with us to the Orb! The Orbites’ extrasensory powers seem to be limited by distance, to some degree. But if we can bring Jennifer near the ‘skin’ of the ‘balloon’, she may be able to put us into contact with whoever, whatever, is in charge up there.”
Bud’s brow crinkled above his gray eyes. “Tom, I don’t think it’ll be easy, getting permission to take an untrained little girl on a space trip to—to whatever Mr. Green-genes is.”
“Easy?” Tom snorted. “It’s just short of impossible! But if we don’t succeed, the outcome that’s our reason for trying could be a cataclysm for this innocent little world of ours!”
HIGH LEVEL THREAT
TOM SWIFT had a talent for doing the impossible.
It was Bud who piloted the jetrocopter to Maine and back again. “Saying No at first was just common sense,” said Lorna Darvey, quiet but resigned.
Bud grinned. “But then you said Yes, just as Miss Mental here predicted.”
Jennifer giggled. “I knew she would. I guess I sorta threw a tantrum.”
“That’s not what made me change my mind, sweetheart,” Dr. Darvey continued. “It wasn’t even to ‘save the world.’ I don’t understand any of what Tom Swift told me. But I know they took my friend Stanton Rogo away, and I know they won’t stop until they take you, Jennifer. Take you—or― ”
“It’s okay to say die, Docky-Dee,” stated Jennifer firmly. “Ever’body dies.”
“That’s right,” Bud commented. “But maybe this way ever’body won’t have to die before Christmas.”
Darvey sighed despondently, looking out and down at green landscapes. “Let’s see, what am I guilty of? Let me count the ways! Child abduction, child endangerment, violation of medical ethics... if I had told my superiors, it would have been insubordination, too. What’s going to happen to me?”
“Well,” said the black-haired pilot, “maybe we’ll all be heroes.”
“You’re an accessory,” the physician pointed out; “you and Tom. But they’ll let you off easy, because you’re so young.”
“It’ll be okay, Docky-Dee,” said Jennifer December. But she had to add one reluctant word: “Maybe.”
The jetrocopter landed them at Harrietts Bluff, the Georgia town nearest by air to Fearing Island. Tom met them at the small airfield with a car. “We’re putting you two up in the Ashmueller Hotel under assumed names,” Tom explained. “New and safe, and you’ll be more comfortable there overnight than on the island. Let’s keep that talented brain of yours as calm and relaxed as possible, Jennifer.” The young inventor knew that the asserted skills of even adult psychics were vulnerable to stress and anxiety, and he hoped to minimize it for the little girl. “We’ll fly you across to Fearing tomorrow afternoon. The ship takes off at 5 PM.” He glanced in the mirror at the little figure in the back seat. “What do you think, Jennifer? Scared? I’m always a little scared when I― ”
“No you’re not,” she interrupted.
“No,” he admitted, chagrined. “Guess I’m not always. Just sometimes.”
As the car approached town, Bud suddenly exclaimed in a choked voice, “J-J—Tom, stop!”
Tom screeched on the brakes. “What?”
“To your left. Up!”
Tom looked. His eyes widened. “No! Good gosh, it—it can’t be!”
“The Orb!” Bud whispered.
A green disk, slightly luminous in the light of sunset, was moving in the clear sky against the early stars!
Tom threw open his door and ducked out, face white. “It can’t have gotten so near the Earth since I left Fearing! We have to leave for― ”
“You’re silly!” giggled Jennifer. “Look at it!”
The Orb had turned as it bobbled. Something black appeared on its rim and slowly moved inward.
GREEN ORB DINER
sky-high service—down-home cookin’
“Somebody’s a mighty smart businessman,” Tom muttered sheepishly as he got back in the car. “Squeezing some advertising out of current events.”
“I want to go there,” said Jennifer.
“Sure, if you want. Maybe tomorrow, before we leave.”
After checking Jennifer and Dr. Darvey into the hotel, the boys returned to the airfield and jetted the few-minute trip to Fearing Island.
“I know you’ve thought this all through, Skipper,” Bud said quietly; “putting that little girl through... whatever’s going to happen out there. And I know you wouldn’t do it for anything less than the biggest stakes of all.”
“Then you know everything, flyboy.”
The next morning, as Tom oversaw preparations for the flight, a phone bleat interrupted him. “Tom, this is Dr. Darvey.”
“Lorna! Has something happened? Is Jennifer― ”
“She’s very upset and wants to speak with you. I think, perhaps, you ought to hear her.”
Jennifer’s voice was trembling and faint. “T-Tom? I had dreams!”
“The dream TV?”
“Uh-huh. My friends, the ones that the snake man took—we played and they told me things.”
“What things? Bad things?”
“The bad men are here, the snake’s men!”
Tom’s heart felt leaden. “There? In town?”
“Uh-huh. There are two of ’em, someplace up high, in a room. They keep looking out the window, and they can see where the hotel door is—this hotel!”
“Great...! —Jennifer, can you tell exactly where they are, what building they’re in, or what floor?”
“Uh-uh, I can’t! I can’t remember it all. Tom, I’m scared! So’s Docky-Dee!”
The young inventor was scared too—and was very sure Jennifer knew it. Yet it felt better to try to stay in control. “Do you know—remember—what these men plan to do, what they want?”
“Like what they did with my night friends. They’re s’posed to kidnap me and take me to the snake man.”
“We’ll call the police. We’ll get protection for you immediately, and Bud and I― ”
“No!” she cried out in fear. “You can’t do it like that! They have guns, and—‘put her down’ means kill me, doesn’t it, Tom? If they can’t get me, they’ll shoot me when I go out, and anybody with me. And if I stay inside, I—there was fire all over! My friends showed me!”
Tom took in a deep breath. Should he contact the police? The men were clearly desperate enough to do anything if cornered! “Jennifer, I’m going to tell Dr. Darvey a few things to do. We’ll get you both out safely, I promise.”
It was nearing eleven when the man in the window stiffened and clenched his hand on the high-powered rifle lolling in his arms. “Here’s someone coming out the door, V. Look.”
The other man, the man in the suit, came close and peered down four stories and half a block to the left. Two figures had exited the door of the Ashmueller Hotel, a woman and a little girl. They seemed to be headed toward a car that had just parked a ways down the street, closer to the two men. “Yes, F. So I see.”
“Looks just like them!”
“It does indeed.”
“Slipping through our fingers! So― ”
He began to raise the rifle. V.’s hand stopped him. “No.”
“But he said if we can’t take her, we― ”
“Ah now, you see but you do not observe, young man. Do you not smell something of a trick? Should we open fire, what then? We give away our position, hmm? Might there not be police watching? These people have shown they can know things before they happen. Or are you a natural skeptic, dear F.?”
“So they just drive off to Tom Swift. Is that it? You’re okay with that? He won’t be!”
“Nor is he tolerant of failure. That car may drive as it will, but our quarry is nowhere near it. The boy’s machine is a projector of illusions. Was it not you yourself who remarked a delivery of bulky cabinetry not long ago, two men with hats and overalls? Even at the time there was a thought in my head― ”
“They’re getting into the car!”
“—that perhaps this was the beginning of a ploy, as they term it, involving Swift and Barclay and the image machine. Now then, train the binoculars on the car window. Do you see the girl’s pretty head?”
The gunman looked. “No.”
“Or the woman’s?”
“Only the driver. But still they― ”
“Now now, why walk openly down the sidewalk if the intent is to duck out of sight in the car? No, we are to believe they are innocent of the knowledge of our existence, eh? But I do believe, F., that what we have seen is merely another of those marvelous 3-D picture shows, the projection beam blocked by the metal of the car. And so. We shall not be drawn in. We shall not fire.”
“We will take our silenced revolvers and walk calmly to the front desk of the lovely Hotel Ashmueller, where we shall use our guns to request such information as we need. And then up to a certain door, and inside. One will leave with us. Three shall not.”
The hotel room was found to be on the second floor, on the side facing the boulevard. “Predictable,” noted the man called V. “How else could they project the images into the street?”
The man knocked politely on the door, then used the key the terrified desk clerk had been compelled to provide.
The door swung open. “Hello? Little Miss Jennifer? Young Swift and perpetual entourage? Surely no point in hiding.” The room was small, neat, and empty, four walls and no hiding places.
F. checked the bathroom. “Not here, either. How about― ” He gestured toward the door of the room closet.
“Well, let us see.” V. raised the revolver and brutally slammed a round through the frail door, a series of chuggy sounds behind the silencer. “Perhaps I make a poor babysitter, eh?” He strode over and slid open the mangled door. There was nothing inside but rocking, rustling hangers. “Hmm.”
“Dagnab, dag nab, V.! They slipped by us. But no, you have your― ”
“Kindly remain respectful. I do not care to be dissed by an American. Perhaps our unlucky friend the clerk has a bit more current information to divulge.”
Tom Swift did not speak, nor did the others—Bud, Lorna, and Jennifer—dare to draw even a breath as they stood frozen, pressed flat against the wall. Next to them stood Tom’s telejector, roughly turned to face the door to the room, a pair of holoceivers on either side, on tripods. What the telejector had created, one second before the door had opened, one second after the knock, was another wall of the room. And so the hotel room, now narrower, had the appearance of four walls and no people. But one of those walls duplicated the one behind it, with four terrified people standing statue-like, hidden from sight—but not sound or touch!
The men left, delicately pulling the door closed. The footsteps receded.
Tom grabbed his cell phone. “They didn’t take the bait—they’re here in the hotel! You’d better move in now, officer,” Tom said. “They’re going back down. I don’t know what they might do to the clerk.”
“Right,” said the policeman on the other end. “We started regrouping when your pictures didn’t draw any fire.”
The two letters of the alphabet were smoothly apprehended, the desk clerk freed from his handcuffs and his broom closet. Upstairs Tom dried the tears of a brave, terrified little girl.
“I’m surprised you don’t have to dry me off, pal!” Bud gulped. “When they knocked—!”
“Thank heavens you were able to swivel your machine and use it,” breathed Dr. Darvey. “That man, the way he just shot through that closet door—we could easily have been hiding there!”
“Tom’s a mighty quick thinker,” Bud semi-chuckled, no humor in it. “But next time, man! Don’t cut it so close!”
“It was even closer than you think, I’m afraid,” replied the young inventor. “Remember, I didn’t have any prepared vid-recording of the room, and no time to make one. We were running off a live feed from the holoceivers—the left half of this wall covering the right half! If they had taken a few steps further in that direction―”
“They didn’t notice that the chest of drawers had been doubled, but they sure would have noticed running into themselves!”
On the way to the airfield, Tom kept his promise to Jennifer and stopped for lunch at the newly-named Green Orb Diner, with its high-flying tethered balloon. “You can see ’er all the way inta Florida,” noted the waitress proudly.
As they ate a light lunch, Tom asked Jennifer if the “dream TV” had revealed any more about the Orbites—their physical form, their motives.
“Uh-uh, sor-ree,” she said. “I mean... I see ’em, just like they see each other, but when I wake up I can’t remember, zackly. Just that there are the really sad ones who talk to me—it’s sorta like talking, but more like seeing—and the others. The others aren’t sad. It’s like—I dunno― ”
“They’re joyous,” Tom declared. “I felt it too, when I used Dr. Rogo’s machine. But why are they coming to Earth?”
The girl shrugged. “Oh, I dunno. Just because it’s—like when you see something in a store window and you want to look at it. Like being curious. It’s just on the way. See?”
“The way to where?”
“I dunno. When they try to look through the green balloon, everything’s funny.”
Bud lowered his sandwich to ask, “Are there a lot of ’em? Is it like a spaceship, with a crew of explorers? Or maybe—whoa!—colonists?”
Jennifer’s brow became all-frown. “Nuh-uh. That’s just on TV—the real kind. There’s lots an’ lots, more than I know the number for.”
“Jetz! That many?”
“As many as there are in the whole world—this one!”
“Tom,” said Lorna Darvey, “you mentioned a humming sound.”
Tom nodded. “That’s what ‘Lunario’ said. He thought it was like an electrical transformer or similar device. I’ve wondered if the Orb might be something automatic, like a robot drone.”
But the little girl gave a vigorous shake of her head. “No! Machines an’ stuff, like my game computer, are just lumps. They’re like lightbulbs when you turn ’em off. They’re not in the dream TV. And it’s not humming. That’s not the idea. It’s buzzing. You don’t really hear it—you just think the picture that way, cause it’s the only way you can. But what it’s s’posed to be, is buzzing.”
“Do you mean like a timer, Jennifer?” asked Darvey. “Or maybe a doorbell?”
“No! It’s not sound, it’s like—that’s just the way that towel-man remembers things.”
“A mental impression that stands for something else—a symbol,” Tom suggested encouragingly.
“I can almost say it...” Suddenly her face brightened and she reached a hand across the table, to touch a jar with her dainty finger. “There! That’s it.”
Bud was ruefully puzzled. “Okay. The Orb is like a jar that buzzes.”
Tom was staring, the stare of a growing idea. He picked up the little jar, a jar of honey, and spoke in hushed tones that silenced the table.
“The Green Orb isn’t an asteroid, or a comet, or a plasma cloud. It isn’t a black hole. It isn’t a spaceship.” He turned the glass jar so Bud could see the label—and the picture on it. Bees!
“It’s a swarm!”
SEEING IS BELIEVING
IT TOOK Lorna Darvey a moment to find her voice, though only half a moment for Jennifer to give a happy nod. “Then you’re saying—Tom, what are you saying? This object in space is a swarm of bees?”
“Space bees!” Bud repeated, grinning at the thought.
“They’re not zackly bees,” cautioned Jennifer. “Now I can remember them better. They don’t look like anything we know, but if you wanna talk about them, they’re more like moths.”
“Good gosh!” Tom breathed. “I get it! The swarm is making for the Sun!”
Jennifer nodded. “Uh-huh. Like when moths fly to a porch light.”
“But I thought these were intelligent beings,” Lorna objected, bewildered.
“There’s all kinds of intelligence, ma’am,” Bud pointed out. “Me, for example.”
“The Orbites could have a very sophisticated intelligence,” Tom stated, working it out. “But they’re not disembodied minds. They have bodies of some sort in their 2-D world, and they think of the world around them according to the way their bodies process and organize their sense-perceptions, the ‘category-labels’ that come with the package. It’s the same with us.
“For the Orbites, heading toward the brightest object in view could be as obvious and natural as—as ‘one plus one is two’. It might not even occur to them to ask why.”
Dr. Darvey had begun to grasp the notion. “I see—like the unquestionable axioms that a logic problem starts off with.”
“Logic and Barclay don’t always go together,” Bud declared. “I get what you’re saying, though. Thinking has to start somewhere, and if you spend your time fighting the beginning, you’ll never get to the end!”
“Bud’s a good explainer, too,” Tom chuckled affectionately. “Anyway, it seems we have to talk the Orbites out of their present course, somehow. They seem divided—I suppose it’s the ‘sad ones’ who are dominating the swarm. Maybe they’re heading toward the Sun because― ”
“The term is Goodbye cruel world!” his chum said.
“You’re wrong!” Jennifer exclaimed. “It’s the op’sit. The happy ones are almost all of ’em, and they’re the ones that drive. Cause you’re talking about it, I can ’member now—the sad ones are sad cause they don’t wanna go!”
They finished lunch—purchasing a jar of honey—and traveled on, the telejector apparatus packed away in the car’s big trunk.
At Fearing Island, Tom oversaw the loading of his invention aboard the Challenger, having it set up on the flight deck. “What’s it for, Skipper?” asked Hank Sterling. “Entertainment for our mini-passenger?”
“It’s still true that the Orb is more like an image than an object—at least, ‘object’ in the sense we usually understand,” answered the young spaceman. “I have the feeling the telejector’s image-making capability could help us communicate with it. With them! Call it one of my intuitions, Hank.”
“Tom, we’ve all learned to trust them.”
Tom also had to answer an objection from his best friend. “Whattaya you mean you invited that jerk Pete Langley to Fearing!”
The young inventor added an apologetic grin to his reply. “But not for the space trip, Bud. Dad and I agreed to invite a number of prominent members of the experimental science community here, to personally receive whatever data we collect upon our return. Pete’s obnoxious and competitive, I agree. But he’s not a bad guy. And he is a good scientist-inventor.”
Bud bought it reluctantly. “If he shows up in a striped tee, I swear I’ll punch him out!”
At last loading was completed, all passengers in place—Tom and Bud, Hank and Arv, a veteran astronaut named Bert Everett, and Lorna Darvey and her charge. Chow Winkler, left behind in Shopton, had protested his exclusion, but Tom provided a compelling reason. “Pardner, I’ve had that fever, and you know about Hank and Arv. Bert was one of the ones who had it here. You see, in this circumstance Li Ching’s plot backfired. Because of the fever, or maybe the antigens it built up in our bodies, we’re immune to the Orb’s psychic effects. We shouldn’t see any of those ‘keep away’ visions this time—and we shouldn’t get knocked out as we approach.”
“Ye-ahh,” Chow had conceded grumpily. “An’ you gotta have the lady doctor an’ the little kid. Okay.” The cook didn’t bother to challenge Tom’s inclusion of Bud.
The Challenger lifted off precisely on time. Dr. Darvey and Jennifer December were fearful, awed, and thrilled all in one, and the feelings lasted unabated through the flight to the Orb—a briefer flight than the previous one, as the weird intruder was now much nearer the earth.
“We’re coming in at the thousand-mile mark, Tom,” Bert called out.
“Reporting as your ‘test canary’,” Bud wisecracked, “I feel fine. No visions—nothin’.”
“I’m sorry I skeered you when I made my picture outside the big window,” said Jennifer to Bud, very earnest.
“S’okay, sweetie. Keeps my blood moving.”
“Continue the approach,” Tom directed.
Dr. Darvey asked Jennifer if she were detecting anything from their destination now that the ship had drawn near. “A little, kind of. They all wonder what’s going on, an’ they can feel that they can’t use their pictures like before, to scare you. I’m trying to tell them not to be afraid. We bother them, a’cause they don’t know what we are. They can’t see anything outside, unless it’s real big an’ bright.”
“Something tells me we’re more like a big headache than anything else,” half-joked Arv Hanson.
“Or a bad dream,” Tom murmured.
Presently the Green Orb loomed huge, strangely dim and ghostly compared to the stark brilliance of Earth and Moon, or the distant white fire of the Sun. “Can’t go into orbit,” remarked Hank Sterling. “No gravity.”
“And the repelatrons can’t get a fix on it either,” Tom muttered.
Arv asked, “Then just how are you planning to maintain position?”
“Hey, easiest thing in space. We use a half-dozen celestial bodies to slow us to a dead stop—and just hang around!”
The Challenger was brought to a halt some hundred miles above the margins of the sphere, its hazy corona. Now that they knew what they were seeing, it was obvious that the darting “motes” comprising the granular surface were indeed individual entities of some incomprehensible form, swarming about violently within the flat confines of their strange world like living beings in a state of alarm. “It’s amazing we can see them at all,” Tom declared. “We’re looking at them at an extreme angle, from three dimensions into two—and the light we see by is going through a curlicue course like― ”
“Like the tail on a Q,” was Bud’s wry conclusion.
“Ohh!” Darvey cried out suddenly. “Something’s happened to― ”
Jennifer was standing rigidly, her face pale as she stared at the green expanse outside the viewport. “I—I’m okay,” the little girl whispered. “This is how it’s s’posed to be. They’re makin’ me strong. It’s auti-matic, because they’re paying so much attention—like, concentrating. That’s what they—he—does when he tries to understand things. ‘It can’t be! It is not real!’”
The last was in a little girl’s voice—yet not the voice of a little girl.
“What is it? Why is it happening? It is part of the lesser light. We can no longer push it from our thoughts. I fear, I fear.”
Tom spoke gently into Jennifer’s ear. “Tell them: ‘Don’t be afraid. Can you understand me?’”
“The delusion is strong this time. It seems to speak to us. Yet it is not one with us.”
“I am called Tom Swift. We inhabit the—the lesser light you are approaching.”
There was a long, tense pause. A thought crossed Tom’s mind—“They’re calling somebody to the phone!”
“Yes. We know you. I know what you are. We fear you because you are Fear itself. I cannot deceive myself any longer—the two paths, the Great Finality so near—what will become of us? What you think comes in a different way. But with every thought, I know more and understand.”
“I mean no harm to you.”
“You are from the shadow. You have no reality. I understand because now you have entered within. But you are not one with me. The lesser light has disturbed me. I will not allow!”
Jennifer suddenly shrieked and fell backward, as if in pain. Dr. Darvey held her. “It’s hurting her! We’ve got to stop this!”
“N-no, Docky-Dee,” half-sobbed the little girl. “I’ll be okay. We can’t stop. My night friends—they’re helping me now. The snake doesn’t know. They’re helping with words...” She looked up at Tom. “The green balloon people think this is in their, like... imagination! They only believe what all of them can see, at the same time. Out here where we are—it’s like we’re behind them. They call it the shadow, and they think it’s all made up. But—Tom—what’s new-roses?”
Tom knelt to look in her eyes. “I think your psychic friends gave you that word—neurosis! It’s something in the mind that makes you think and do things that you really don’t want to do. Is that what the Orbites think I am—all of us?”
“Just somethin’ made up—but they can’t stop thinking it.
“Why do we think this now? As I feared, the lesser light is madness. Only the Great Light is the true path for me.”
“Jetz!” Bud muttered. “Is it a ‘me’ or a ‘we’? Talk about a split personality!”
“It has its own fears. It puts me aside with amusement-thoughts over its dread.”
“That’s my—my friend you hear,” Tom said to Jennifer and the Orb. “He is another one of us. We are not like you. We are each separate.”
“My name is Legion, for I am many.”
The quote startled Tom, but then he reasoned that it derived from the little girl’s own mind, or perhaps the psychic captives that now were assisting her.
“I am not like you, Tom-Swift-One. With us, what one knows, all know. What one sees, all see,” the Orb-being resumed.
“There is a division within you.”
“We know that you are a part of the division within me. I see it now. Because I am of two minds, the fearful part speaks to me as if it were real. But what is separate cannot be real. You are from the shadow.”
“I can prove to you that I am real, that the lesser light—where we live—is also real,” Tom pronounced as calmly as he could. “Will you wait?”
“What else is there ever, but to wait?”
Jennifer stirred, herself again for the moment. Dr. Darvey held her comfortingly.
“I guess now I know where my intuition came from,” Tom reflected. He directed that the telejector be moved out on the vehicular stage and linked to the ship’s tremendous power circuits, its triple antenna aimed square at the Orb. Then he stood in a bright worklight between the holoceiver array, which remained on the command deck.
Tom directed Bert to rotate the Challenger to a new orientation, and Arv Hanson to re-angle the telejector antenna. Then he turned to Jennifer. “Jennifer, I don’t know if you can make him understand, but somehow the part of the swarm near us has to move aside to allow the telejector beams to reach into the center of the sphere. Do you― ”
“S-Skipper!” called out Bud in raw astonishment. “It knows!—it’s doing it already!”
A dark circular aperture, like something unrolling from a center, was opening beneath them!
Tom glanced at the others. “The Orbites look inward, toward the center and toward each other, always. They spend their lives looking at one another. I guess that’s the way they’re made. They can only see the brightest exterior lights that penetrate—anything else is taken to be transient thought, imagination. Fear!”
“Uh-huh!” exclaimed Jennifer firmly. “For them, ever’thing else is just a mind-eye picture. They don’t believe it!”
“Now we’ll give them something to believe!”
Tom actuated the telejector. Jennifer—those who spoke through Jennifer—cried out in shock.
“I see it! It is real!”
The creatures were seeing, each and all, a solid looking figure, a gigantic form that they had somehow sensed but had never grasped amidst their fear and skepticism. “What you see now is how I appear to myself,” explained the young inventor. “I am using a—a method to produce this image for you. So you’ll believe.”
“Help me in my unbelief! Then the unbelievable thing is so indeed—you of the lesser light are as real as we.”
“Yes. You’re a small part of a world much bigger than you ever thought. We are out here. There may be others of your kind, too—but separate.”
“Separate! Now that we see you, I begin to understand. I have great fear, Tom-Swift-One, and yet if it is real, it is part of the true path.”
“Will you tell me― ”
“I will tell you.”
“Why do you approach the great light, which we call our Sun?”
“That is not a Why. How could it be otherwise? The end is near, the purpose of time. To go there is to be completed. Is it not so with you? Unthinkable!”
“But some of you― ”
“I will conquer my fears.”
“But—it’s a waste of― ” Tom stopped himself. How well did he know the truth of what he was trying to say? “There is something else. You are coming near to the lesser light...”
“In all our journey to the Great Light, which we thought would be endless, I have known no thing like it—another light. We were guilty of wondering if the Great Light were really all, really the only true path. It was a new idea, a thought to consider. I was fascinated by it. It tempted me and forced itself upon me, and yet I was ashamed to think such a thing. It was dangerous and I tried to push it aside in every way we knew. Yet because it was dangerous and new, it was also...” Jennifer broke in after a moment: “They means it’s fun to think about, Tom. Like a horror movie or a thrill ride. You don’t want to, zackly, but you kinda do.”
“I understand,” Tom said. “But for you to come close may harm us. It could—prevent us from reaching our own purpose. Do you see?”
“Yes, as you show us these things of the shadow, now we see in the light, with my own eyes. I will move away. I was uncertain; my course became uneven and hesitant, because I had blinded ourself to a disturbing truth, that to reach the good end, the joyous completion, is also dreadful. We could not think as one. A part was sad and unwilling; they called out to you, Tom-Swift-One. I could not see what I myself was doing, for it was not before me in the light, but behind. All is different now. You have shown me the true path. You have given us the unknown, and I now see that to accept it is not to lose what we had already. Our faith is restored. All is well.”
Bud leaned over to whisper in Tom’s ear—which made the image before the Orb’s million eyes morph unexpectedly and grotesquely as one became two—and Tom nodded. “Mm, you need to know this too... because we are separate, there can be many true paths for us. There is one who’s following a path that—well, I don’t think it could really be true for anyone!”
“I see now. That one is the twinge, the ache that promises its own end but never ceases. You think of that one as—we see the picture. The idea that tempts, that tries always to speak to us from the shadow. It intruded upon me with thoughts that fascinated us, thoughts we did not want. We would not give in to his temptations, yet they could not be silenced. I must be strong and not deviate—I have left the path too much. I will have no more of him.
“It is done. I have an appointment to keep. But I will think of you as I go.—Tom,” said Jennifer weakly, easing back into Lorna Darvey’s comforting arms, “that’s all they want to say.”
“It’s already begun to change course,” noted Hank at the instrument panel. “I’m sure its new heading will be straight for the Sun.”
Tom sought out a chair, almost panting with the concealed strain of what he had been through. “I—I guess maybe I’m one of the ‘sad ones’, too,” he mused. “Taking a death dive into the Sun seems wrong.”
“Pal, that’s one thing that’s out of your hands!” Bud admonished quietly.
The Challenger returned. Bud groaned at the first sight to meet his eyes upon touching the ground. “There he is,” he grumbled to Tom. “And look who’s with him.”
The young inventor strode up to greet Peter Langley and Amelia Foger, who both responded with polite coolness.
Tom had finished making a brief statement to the assembled crowd of scientists when Amelia appeared and drew him aside, obviously not wanting to be seen by Langley. “Pardon me for the moment of intrigue, Tom. Something I’d like to mention.”
“You’re suing me?”
She smiled. “So amusing. No, just this. It might be construed to be a violation of professional ethics, this little private conversation—but really, no law was broken by my client, no liability incurred.”
“About the telephone stuff?”
“You figured it out.”
Tom nodded. “Eventually. The Orb created visual images, because that’s how it thinks, in what we call ‘pictures.’ It couldn’t make a telephone beep, or fake a call—much less divert a phone call and answer it.”
“It was just a prank, Tom,” she said. “Pete’s a little too competitive for his own good. Call it a harmless, healing neurosis. It gave his ego a real boost, interrupting your neatly logical day with his own ‘mystery’. Masculine power, I suppose—damaged when you snagged Grimsey. He’ll never admit it, but I felt like telling you. No need to let these things fester and blow up in his face. Whatever else I am to that kid,” she added, “I suppose I’m a bit of a mother.”
“Mm-hmm. ‘Consequence, cause’, Amy.”
Tom didn’t answer, but walked away with a cryptic smile. He resolved to give himself a week or two to enjoy life on mysterious Earth, before throwing himself into the invention already making its own picture in his mind, his Polar-Ray Dynasphere.
Lorna Darvey and Jennifer sought him out. “It all worked out marvelously, Tom, thanks to you and your telejector. But I have to wonder what will happen to me now, given my involvement. I’m afraid it will have a bad effect on― ”
“Docky-Dee wants to adopt me,” broke in Jennifer. “I knew before she did.”
Tom grinned broadly. “That’s wonderful! Believe me, we’ll do whatever we can to explain the importance of what you both did.”
“It means a great deal to me,” said Lorna.
“Oh, it’ll be okay,” Jennifer reassured her. “I know they’ll give in. They’ll get real tired of bad dreams!”
There was one final bit of a sequel, some days later at Swift Enterprises, and the news came from Tom’s father. “Son, a couple things. Ames tells me the European authorities have found and freed the captive psychics, including Rogo and Chow’s friend, from a sanitarium in the Swiss Alps. As usual, in the tedious way these things go, the Black Cobra eluded capture.
“And also you’ll be interested in this,” Mr. Swift went on. “As you know, the outpost telescopes have continued to watch the Green Orb on its way to the Sun. They just reported that they’ve detected something jetting out of it, a sort of plume of glowing material. It’s heading off into interstellar space at an enormous rate of speed.”
The news from space pleased the young inventor immensely. “I’d say a little part of the Orb has developed a mind of its own!”