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
A TALE OF TWO SATELLITES
“SORRY, Tom,” came the voice of the Flying Lab’s radioman through Tom Swift’s cellphone. “Don’t want to interrupt. But.”
“Problem on the Sky Queen, Luke?”
“Not for us, chief—maybe for you. Your Dad’s on the videophone. Says it can’t wait.”
Tom Swift grinned. “I’d say the biggest problem around here may be with my traveling companions! I’ll head back now. Give me fifteen.”
As Tom clicked off his phone, a pretty raven-haired girl pretended to bury her face in her hands. “Oh no, oh no,” she moaned. “Even in Pakistan, trouble follows Tom Swift.”
The crewcut young inventor’s grin had quickly become a sheepish half-smile of abject apology. Vacationing in Pakistan with his good friend Bashalli Prandit, who had been born there, the relaxing tour of Karachi now faced the kind of interruption that all too often had cut short the young people’s dating life back in Shopton, New York.
Bash’s mother, accompanying them down the modern streets of the new-old city’s tourist district, said something in Urdu, to which her daughter gave a wry response that required no translation for other ears. “Oh yes,” commented a blond girl, Tom’s year-younger sister. “It’s fate, absolute fate. The stars of the East are against us. Just like the stars over Shopton!”
Bud Barclay, Tom’s best friend, gave Sandra Swift a look of pure skepticism. “C’mon, San. You don’t speak Pakistani any more than I do—‘hello,’ ‘goodbye,’ ‘how much?,’ ‘does it come with fries?’ ”
“My dear Budworth, she does not have to know the language,” stated Bash. “She knows the gist—by sad and repeated experience.”
“Okay, okay,” Tom protested. “I’ll try to keep it brief. Go on with your walk-shop. Maybe it’s nothing.”
“Ye-aah, an’ mebbe I’m th’ blame Duke o’ Paducah!” snorted the large, rounded, very Texas-like figure of Chow Winkler, professional chef, devoted friend. “Jest try not t’get yerself kidnapped, boss.”
“Don’t worry, pard. Not my turn!”
Tom headed for the Karachi International Airport in one of the city’s dauntingly risk-taking taxis. Out of sight of his Shopton friends and the Prandit family, the young inventor dropped his humorous pose. Whatever was behind his father’s summons, it was more than likely a serious matter. I must’ve been dreaming, thinking I could manage to unwind for a couple weeks! Tom thought ruefully.
A life of danger and challenge—brief though it had been so far—took an inevitable toll. From the moment his giant Flying Lab jetcraft had carried him into deadly intrigue in South America, he had endured the sort of unending excitement that would gray the blond hair of anything less than an extraordinary prodigy, the genius descendant of the first Tom Swift. Tom had already traveled to the remotest corners of Earth—to Antarctica, to the Yucatan jungles, to the steamy marshlands of Africa, even to Trenton, New Jersey. He had plumbed the depths of the sea, the nuclear fires of an antimatter volcano, more than one lost city, and the airless plains of the Moon.
But it was Tom’s most recent exploit, an encounter in space with a nomadic lifeform of frightful power, that had finally led him to the ultimate sacrifice—time off from the demanding art of invention. His 3-D telejector now in the hands of others for whatever further development and commercial manufacture lay ahead, the youth had gladly accepted the invitation extended to Tom and those closest to him to join Bashalli Prandit on one of her visits home to her extended family.
And now, four days in—this.
The silver-white three-deck Sky Queen sat grandly in a broad section of the airport that was still under construction. Though it had flown its passengers to the ancient, troubled land in modern comfort and scientific luxury, they had chosen to stay in one of Karachi’s better hotels along with the Prandits, leaving only two crewmen behind on the skyship.
On the other side of the Queen’s side-hatch, pilot Luke Tor greeted his young boss. “All ready up above, Tom. Mr. Swift stayed on line for you.”
“Good night!” Tom groaned. “No way this isn’t important.”
The Swift Enterprises videophone system was a private television network that spanned the world via satellite. In the spacious control cabin at the prow of the ship, the digital flatscreen awaited the young inventor, full of the sober visage of the man who sometimes called himself The Old Inventor—Tom’s father Damon Swift, CEO of the family’s Shopton invention factory.
“Believe me, son, I would have done anything to avoid bothering you on your vacation with this,” he said. “But― ”
“Oh, I know, Dad,” Tom reassured him. “Imminent worldwide destruction? Or just a little espionage?”
Mr. Swift smiled. “A scientific puzzle—maybe one should call it a scientific crisis—with significant implications. Within the hour I was contacted by NASA, who in turn put me in touch with the head of the GenRev team in Toronto, Professor O’Malan.”
Tom’s mind flashed across his mental filing cabinet. “The satellite project developed at the Toronto Institute of Applied Physics.”
“Yes—measuring the finer details of Earth’s gravitational field to confirm some predictions from Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity. The satellite went up on a European booster nine days ago.”
“Have they discovered something interesting?”
“The concern is that something may have discovered them. Tom, the GenRev satellite has inexplicably gone dead in orbit, as if something attacked it in space!”
Tom gulped. “That’s terrible news. Physicists around the world were hoping the project would go a long way toward discovering how gravity works its wonders—me too. But what happened, exactly? Is the satellite still up there?”
“Yes, according to radar and optical,” replied the older scientist. “But it went dead silent without warning. The telemetry didn’t fade out, it was cut off in an instant. Yet long range instrumental readings show nothing abnormal in the area—no debris, no radiation, no sign of outgassing from a blown thruster.”
“Could a micrometeorite have fouled the solar panel?”
“The satellite has battery backup. In fact, it has a sort of ‘black box’ aboard, as airliners have, with its own power source, which should be automatically reporting some basic information to ground control. But they’re getting nothing at all.”
“I see,” nodded Tom. “I’m sure you’ve already taken a look with the megascope.” The megascope, a remarkable invention of Tom’s, used an electronic principle to create a television-like viewing point at any distance, even in deep space.
“Of course, that was my first response,” said his father. “But there was nothing to see—no superficial damage is visible. The satellite is gliding along perfectly, at least as far as I can tell. I’ve sent the viewer images on along to Toronto.”
“I take it there were no signs of a missile assault. Or...”
Mr. Swift gave Tom a shrewd look. “No spacecraft—I know what you’re thinking. No sign of the Fanshen. If indeed it still exists.”
The Swifts had battled the self-styled Black Cobra—a stateless scientific criminal named Li Ching—several times now, in situations that had endangered countless lives. The man’s private spacecraft, the Fanshen, had been thought destroyed; but the Cobra had outwitted the death notices, and it was thought his ship had also survived to fight-or-flight another day. “We know the Cobra has been pretty lively recently,” Tom pointed out.
“Yet, as the NASA people are saying, there are no signs of the Cobra’s signature weaponry, nor was the satellite snatched out of orbit—not that there’s any reason for Li to want to do so.”
“There’s no reason to ruin the experiment, either, Dad!—but something wants to,” declared the youth. “Are we being asked to do anything? Maybe go up and retrieve the GenRev?”
“Not just yet. They’d prefer to study the tracking data over several days-worth of orbits, so as not to miss any clue to the cause of the aberration. This is a head’s-up about something that might grow large very soon.
“But another problem has cropped up in space, perhaps a more serious one. Though it’s hard to imagine how they could be connected― ”
“Right, Dad, we’ve learned to distrust ‘mere coincidence’!” Tom half-laughed. “So what’s the second problem?”
Damon Swift paused, pulling out a drawing to place before the eye of the videophone’s camera. “You know what this is, don’t you?”
Tom frowned. “Well... maybe. Another satellite?”
“Exactly so,” nodded Mr. Swift. “I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that you don’t recognize it right off, son. It’s been a good ten years or so since Canaveral sent it up.”
“Oh, of course,” exclaimed the youth. “I’ve read the journal articles, the reports of its findings. I just forgot how it looks. The Kronus 3—the Titan orbiter.” His mind leapt back to the exciting images the NASA space probe had sent back in the years when Tom’s megascope was less than a dream. Radar-scanning the shrouded surface of Titan, distant Saturn’s giant moon, the satellite had launched a score of atmosphere-penetrating offspring which had returned a torrent of images of the eerie world beneath its deck of methane clouds. “Has something happened to the Kronus as well?”
“Yes—something quite different but equally hard to explain. The details are complex. Rather than go into it now, I’ll digitransmit the report to you. Perhaps it’s just Swiftian imagination, but I thought the double-problem in space was worth an early alert. As a matter of fact, for reasons that will become clear to you, the Kronus matter may well require some fast action. Probably a new invention, I’d say.”
“Hey, Dad, it’s what we do. I’ll look for the report and read through it tonight—bedtime reading!”
Puzzled, concerned and somewhat at angry odds with inconsiderate Fate, Tom called a cab and rode back into town. To ascertain his party’s location, he dialed Bud’s cellphone. Receiving no response, he tried Sandy—again, nothing. Aw, good grief, he grumbled inwardly. Can’t leave ’em alone for a second. But then he added a rueful concession: Me neither, I guess.
Finally Tom tried the number he had been given for the cellphone of Ulnash Prandit, Bashalli’s father. To his surprise, it was Chow Winkler who answered! “Chow! What in the gosh-darned world is going on? Where are you?”
“Huh? That you, Tom? I ’as jest answerin’ the phone, cause ever’body’s all—oh, son, it’s jest like you said!”
“Just like I said? What did I say, pardner?”
“About gettin’ kidnapped! That there Bashalli’s gone an’ disappeared!”
MR. AND MRS. Prandit and the Shopton travelers—Bud, Sandy, and Chow—rushed up to Tom as he jumped out of the cab at the police precinct station nearest the department store from which Bashalli had vanished. Five voices overlapped, trying to tell Tom what had transpired within the hour.
“Wait, wait!” demanded the young man, fear mounting. “Please, just one of you tell me.”
“Then I will tell,” declared Mr. Prandit, who spoke English, if somewhat haltingly.
He explained that the group had decided to visit a large, well-known department store, Mo’urdass, that catered to tourists. Inside they had separated, Sandy accompanying the Prandits to the section devoted to women’s fashion, Bud and Chow to the toy section.
“Never seen sech toys, boss!” Chow blurted. “Wind-up, plug-in, all manner o’ them little video― ”
“Chow—let’s let Mr. Prandit continue.”
“Yes, for I am the father,” harrumphed the gray-haired Pakistani. “My little honey-heart, I see her walking down a further aisle, where there are scarves. She waves, I wave kisses to her. You see?” He pantomimed.
Tom nodded impatiently.
“Then she turns her head, as if—well, maybe I think somebody has called her, from just around a corner. She walks away. I no longer can see her.” The man’s broad face assumed an expression of dignified anguish. “When we look to find her, she is nowhere. All over the emporium, out to the streets—nowhere is she! And so at last we demand of the manageress that she call the Sur’muq’a, the civil policemen. They come, we tell the story, they tell us to come here to tell it again, and to wait.”
“We are here,” put in Mrs. Prandit. “But where is Bashalli, where?”
“Do the police have a theory, ma’am?” Tom asked.
It was Bud who answered, hotly. “These guys? Forget it! They don’t give a hoot about Bash or any of us. They just tell us to wait out here cooling our heels.”
“That’s right,” Chow stated with bobbing chins. “Like tryin’ t’push a barrel o’ molasses up a hill without th’ barrel.”
Trying to hold himself together and not allow his alarm to surge into the open, Tom’s frown raked the others like a searchlight. “Look, I don’t understand. Why won’t the police cooperate? Don’t they believe you?”
Ulnash Prandit lowered his voice. “I will help you understand, Tom, srimam. It is the way here, the way of Pakistan, of the cities, of ‘the way the roads go’—we say that. There are factions and sects, people opposed to others, matters of who is to rule, of religion and tradition.”
“Yes,” nodded Tom. “I know about all that.”
“So, we give our family name, where we are from, where we live now—the very street, even—and it tells about us, who we are. That is, you see—where we belong. And for these police here, in this part of town...”
“The Prandits don’t belong,” finished Sandy bitterly. “The stupidest thing. So the police would just as soon ignore them.”
“And also, pal, they don’t much care for Americans,” Bud added. “Or even people who hang around with Americans. Or speak American.”
“I am so frightened, I do not know how to think,” murmured Mrs. Prandit. “If they know she lives in America, perhaps they will hold her for ransom!”
Tom noticed a uniformed officer eyeing them with cold disapproval. “Come on,” he said quietly. “The hotel’s nearby. We can talk there.”
“I tried to tell mimroh Prandit—that’s how Bashi says ‘momma’—that everything will work out all right,” Sandy said to her brother as they walked. She essayed a slight smile. “I told her we all get kidnapped over and over and it always works out.”
“Weren’t s’much comfort,” snorted Chow grimly. “Th’ blame problem is, here in this here country they also get kidnapped time’n agin, but it gen’rally don’t work out. They send ya back a little bit at a time.” The blunt westerner regretted his words instantly as stricken faces surrounded him.
In the hotel lobby they all sat palely facing one another as Tom attempted to get further details. “Mr. Prandit, you said she disappeared around a corner...”
“So it seemed.”
“Did it lead into another room in the store?”
The man shook his head, and Bud stated: “It was an alcove in front of an elevator. She may have taken it to another floor.”
“Or the basement?”
“It went only to the upper two floors, above us,” said Mrs. Prandit. “And we looked all over everywhere, of course.”
Tom mulled the matter over. “This may sound a little ‘off’—it’s always hard to know what to do in a situation like that—but—did anyone happen to actually look inside the elevator?”
“Oh, of course we did!” huffed Sandy. “We went to the upper floors in the elevator! That is... well, didn’t we?”
But Chow was scratching his bald head. “Er—wait now—I don’t think I reckerlect that.”
“We did not use the elevator,” said Mr. Prandit. “No! We took the escalator, and this one, Bud, ran up the stairs first of all.”
Bud looked down at his shoes. “I guess nobody looked inside the elevator car for a while. We—we didn’t handle ourselves so well.”
The young inventor nodded in an understanding way. “But other shoppers must’ve used the elevator.”
“That is so!” said Mr. Prandit, his face brightening. “A body inside would have been― ”
“Ulnash!” reproved Mrs. Prandit harshly.
“There’s no reason to think Bash has been harmed,” Tom cautioned. “Or even that she’s been kidnapped. We only know that we can’t find her.”
“No, Tom, it is more than that,” disagreed Bashalli’s mother, whose name was Dhavhaz. “No one will say it, but I know it is true. The police do not help because they are ordered not to, by others. You are important Americans, Tom, and my Bashalli is your friend. Many officials in this part of Karachi belong to tribes and groups that would be anxious for her to be punished—taken away and punished for being friends with America!” She began to weep.
Tom stood and whipped out his cellphone. “We tried that first thing, genius boy,” said Bud quietly. “We managed to think of that, at least. No answer.”
“And now we’re trying again!” Tom snapped. “And then I’m calling Shopton.”
The bleating cry of Bashalli’s cellphone seemed muffled by the darkness in which she lay, but its grotesquely happy tune roused her. This time she stayed awake. She felt the blanket below her that was her only cushion, and sensed that the hard surface beneath it was bare, cold concrete. Opening her eyes, she studied the brace-beams of a ceiling, mostly shadow, mostly cobweb.
The phone, somewhere far beyond reach, stopped ringing. “Maybe they will try again,” she murmured in her thoughts. “Perhaps they will leave a nice message on voicemail.” My name is... She allowed the answer to float to the surface in its own time. Yes—Bashalli, still. In Karachi. Or am I? But alive—so I presume. How presumptuous of me!
Her inner bravado was a lie. Limp with fear, she was able to sit upright, finding that she was not bound in any way. Her head pounded, but she could feel no bump or bruise. There was a stinging feeling in her nostrils, however. Ah ha! she thought. Chloroform—or whatever is the style nowadays.
She was in a room that was very broad and square, but its ceiling was low. Bud would hit his head! she reflected. Indeed, the ceiling is just a floor—planks. I am in a basement crawl space. How romantic. Across the room, high near the top of the wall of dirty brick, were some slitted windows, perhaps just above ground level. They were covered with ancient newspapers, but traces of ivoried light seeped through. It seemed to be daylight. But is this today or tomorrow or a week from Wednesday? she wondered groggily.
There was a metallic clank, a sound of chains rattling, a square of light in the ceiling not far away. Legs slid down onto a wooden stepladder, and a dim figure stood near Bash. “Can you eat now?” asked a woman’s voice in the language of Pakistan. “I have meat cakes, some water for you, some honey candies.”
“Thank you,” said Bashalli, surprised by the croak of her weak reply. “Who are you?”
The woman came and crouched down, her sad face barely visible. “You ask me each time. I am Harsa. They told me to care for you. And now you will ask who ‘they’ are, and again I will say I don’t know. Men, Pakistanis and some foreigners. My husband works with them, but he says he knows little of their affairs. We are paid to hold people here for a time, now and then.”
“Who knows? A few days, then they are taken away in cars. It will happen to you too.” The woman passed the food and cup to her. “Are you afraid, my miss?”
“Fear!—what good is it? Very much.”
Bashalli ate for a time while the motherly woman sat cross-legged on the concrete nearby. “I’m surprised you don’t have a gun pointed at me,” Bash remarked.
“I won’t touch such things. But up above, two men with big guns, those very loud ones.” Harsa was silent for a long moment. “May I ask, my miss—do you remember what happened to you?”
“Rather well. I was at the big department store― ”
“Are we not in Karachi?”
“A man called out to me from in front of an elevator, a young man. He smiled very nicely, but I could not make out what he was saying. I stepped closer to him. And then I think the elevator door opened and two others jumped forward.”
“I heard them planning, for I do not matter to them,” said Harsa matter-of-factly. “A cloth to put over your face with something from a little can that makes you sleep. Then, inside the elevator, they lift you up through the ceiling of the car. They bring the car to the top, into a workers’ space in the shaft, and take you out onto the roof. At last they take you here. It was only hours ago.”
“And you don’t know what they want?”
The woman took Bashalli’s cup and stood. “Perhaps they themselves do not know.”
In Karachi, in the hotel, Tom Swift first spoke to Swift Enterprises’ head of security, Harlan Ames, then to his father. Both men were shocked and deeply troubled. “We’ll use every law enforcement contact and political route available to us, son,” promised Damon Swift. “Our congressman can help us with the State Department. But I know you understand the situation in Pakistan. If the civil authorities will not cooperate― ”
“Time is against us,” Tom interrupted. “By the time the different factions get all the protocols and jurisdictions sorted out, by the time everyone’s ego gets out of the way, it could be too late. I’ve got to figure out a way to find her now!—on my own.”
After breaking the connection, Tom returned to his group, brain tumbling in furious thought. As he crossed the lobby the way was blocked suddenly by a large man in an ornate uniform—accessorized by a nicely polished revolver. He spoke first in Urdu, then in English. “American? Ah? With the others? Yes. Please wait here, sir. A moment only.”
“What’s going on? Is something wrong?”
“No sir, no wrong. Just safety for the royal guest.”
The young inventor’s eyebrows rose. A small knot of well-dressed people were crossing the lobby. Amid them, best-dressed of all, was a handsome young man wearing a turban of saffron hue and a white sash. “Who is he?” Tom asked.
“You do not know? He is Prince Jahan, sir. Of Vishnapur.”
Though Tom had heard the names in the news somewhere, they meant little to him. Vishnapur—one of those countries. But the Prince’s air of authority and the deferential attitude of his entourage gave rise to a sudden impulse. This was a visitor with power and authority, whose voice could command action! As the royal security man glanced away, Tom ducked past him. “Sir, stop! Mol! Mol gipa!”
Jahan had halted in surprise, staring warily at the blond crewcutted youth charging up to him. “Your Highness! Forgive me, but—I’m Tom Swift from America. I—I need― ”
The Prince smiled. “Well! Tom Swift!” He extended a hand, which Tom shook vigorously. “Had I known you were here, I would surely have approached you.”
“Thank you. I have to ask you—for assistance.”
“You wish my assistance?”
“My friend, a Pakistani named Bashalli—she’s disappeared here in the city just this morning. She may have been kidnapped! The local authorities, the police...”
“I see. Yes, they are reluctant to intervene. They must first find out whether it is a good kidnapping or a bad one.”
“Your Highness, as an honored guest here, I thought you might― ”
The young man smiled a brilliant gleam. “Swing some weight on your behalf?” Tom nodded, grateful that he had been understood. “It is I who am honored, to be asked to assist the great young inventor. And perhaps I can do rather better than you have in mind,” continued Jahan. “I am here with a retinue of loyal men who are expert in the field of—protection. Let us sit down together. Tell me all you know.”
In the dimness of the cellar, a captive hour passed. Bashalli had experienced many strange, exciting things since she had come to America and met the Swifts. But now it was her own country, her own people, that made her weak with fear. She knew that the plight of captives rarely had a good ending. And I am a most valuable captive, she thought.
Harsa again came down the ladder, very hesitantly with many a look back. She approached Bashalli and bent down to whisper in her ear. “My miss... I can not be part of this any longer. You are innocent. You have those who love you. This is not for you.”
Bash’s heart thudded—hope, yet fresh fear as well. Perhaps a dangerous escape would be worse than captivity! “You will help me, Harsa?”
The woman nodded. “I will go outside on an excuse and unlock one of the windows. They will think—oh, I don’t care what they will think! I will flee these people, even my husband. Ghul upon all of them! He will pursue me, but I am told there are organizations in Kabulistan who will help me, as a refugee.”
Bash’s eyes filled with tears. “You’re so brave! What shall I do when I leave the cellar? Where do I go?”
“This is Gonss Abr, an hour from Karachi by motor. Go north, Bashalli, but stay out of sight until you are far away. Do not seek the authorities. When you are nearer the city, then telephone your people.”
“If you brought me my phone― ”
“I cannot while they watch. Now be ready. May angels make short your path.”
In three minutes Bashalli had squirmed up and out into a paved alley separating two dilapidated houses. She worked her way back from the street the houses faced, ducking beneath windows, stifling her breath. Beyond was a weedy field with oil derricks and bobbing pumps. She glanced down at her shadow, then turned north.
“Okay, you angels,” she whispered. “Up to you now.”
In the hotel, the sun had begun to dip across the windows when Tom’s cellphone bleeped. “This is Jahan,” said the familiar voice. “I have good news for you, my friend!”
Tom could barely speak. “You—you found her?”
“We have her. One of my teams came across her near the southward highway. She ran away but my men ran faster.”
Tom laughed in giddy relief. “I’m just glad she didn’t bean your guys with rocks! How is she, Your Highness?”
“They say she is well. She will be at the hotel in minutes.” He added with a chuckle: “Assuming she survives a drive down the highways of Pakistan at a breakneck speed, eh?”
Bashalli was welcomed with many tears, and when the Prince came down to greet her, she was all but speechless with gratitude.
“All neat, nice, and wonderful,” said Bud. But then he turned to Tom and said more quietly: “Except for the fact that it happened at all. Who did it? And why? Is it over now, or will they make another try?”
Tom nodded. “And one more question, flyboy. Who is the real target?”
FLASH ATTACK IN SPACE
THAT EVENING the Shopton vacationers and the Prandits were invited by Prince Jahan to dine with him in the huge royal suite in the hotel. “This here’s quite a spread,” conceded Chow, dressed up in a manner that almost fit the dignity of the occasion and the formal elegance of the table. “Lookit all them silver pots ’n pans ’n suchlike.”
“Miss your spangled shirt and ten-gallon hat, pardner?” teased Bud.
“Naw, buddy boy. Too busy thinkin’ about which blame fork goes with what.”
Tom leaned over to ask, “Chow, whatever happened to that great wild west tux you put together for the banquet in Montaguaya?”
“Don’t fit. Guess I’m still growin’.”
The Prince, only a few years older than Tom and Bud, was charming, witty, and well-educated, speaking English flawlessly. “Miss Prandit, the photograph we gave my searchers did not do justice to your radiance.”
Bashalli radiated all the more in a somewhat fluttering way. “Ohhh, Your Highness is most perceptive. Flattering, that is.”
Compliments were lobbed in Sandy’s direction as well. Both girls seemed about to tip over the edge into uncontrolled giddiness. At times Bud and Tom looked like two captive gentlemen too polite to frown—barely. Yet it was clear that Jahan’s comments were cultured gallantry and represented no more than the proprieties of royal etiquette.
“Gotta be perlite at these here things,” Chow whispered to Tom reassuringly. “Their heads’ll turn back around after a good night’s sleep.”
“Assuming they don’t dream,” Bud amended.
As Bashalli’s ordeal wasn’t right for the mood of the occasion, the talk evolved in other directions. Tom discussed the two satellite mysteries his father had brought to his attention. “Now don’t anyone start tossing forks my way,” he begged sheepishly, “but I think Dad would like me to cut the vacation short and head home. He was going to transmit some details that explained the seriousness of the problem with the Titan probe.”
“The Kronus,” said Jahan musingly; “named for a demigod of the Greeks, one of the Titans, who deposed his father.” There was a darkness on his face, but then he brightened and continued. “But in space the father of the moon Titan is the planet Saturn, the god whose domain is time, years, and the wisdom of age. I am young, but I hope I have a trace of such wisdom.”
“You seem to be doing all right,” Sandy piped up with faint breath.
“Thank you indeed, Miss Swift. In fact, perhaps it is such wisdom that prompts me to make a suggestion as to how to extend your vacation even as Tom returns to America.”
“Oh? What’s your idea, Your Highness?” Tom inquired.
“Please, all of you—I am Jahan. As to my suggestion, why do you not join me on my jet and return with me to my country when I finish my trade mission here?”
Bud looked openly skeptical. “ ‘You’ means who—Jahan? Not just the girls, right?”
The Prince smiled good-naturedly. “I fully intend to preserve and honor the reputations of these young ladies, Mr. Barclay. I extend my invitation to all of you who can accept—including, naturally, Mr. and Mrs. Prandit. One of our festivals is coming up. You will find it fascinating, I think. And thus our Tom here will be free to return to America aboard the majestic Sky Queen without having the holiday cut short for the rest of you.”
It was clear that the girls wanted very badly to accept. But Sandy touched Bash’s arm and glanced at her brother. “Jahan, what a great invitation, but—we’ll have to discuss it a little.”
“Yes, of course. You must speak to your own parents in Shopton, and no doubt Mr. Winkler must consult with Mrs. Winkler.”
Chow snorted courteously. “I left off askin’ permission from Ma back when I still had hair.”
Over a sumptuous dessert Mr. Prandit politely asked his royal host about the political situation in Vishnapur. “I do recall some mention in the papers of certain recent difficulties, my dear sir.”
“Yes. The matter of the succession,” replied Jahan soberly. “It is not a situation that would stir up any threat to foreign visitors. The question has reached a satisfactory conclusion.”
“I’m afraid I don’t know anything about it,” Tom said.
“Perhaps you would not find it as interesting as we do in Vishnapur.”
Sandy spoke hesitantly. “I read—mm—about the—how you― ”
The Prince smiled, if somewhat grimly. “Don’t be embarrassed to mention it. It’s all public knowledge. You see, Tom, all of you, my father the King died three years ago. As Crown Prince I naturally expected that I would ascend to the throne at the end of the official mourning period. But on his deathbed Father promulgated what amounts to a will. Without explanation he altered the line of succession, which is permitted by our laws and ancient customs. His brother Glaudiunda was crowned nej’h—that is, King. His eldest son, my cousin Vusungira, is now Crown Prince. So you see, my friends, I have been demoted.”
“Ouch!” gulped Bud. “Must’ve hurt.”
“There was more hurt to come.” Prince Jahan was silent for a moment. “His Majesty chose to revive an ancient tradition of my country. He claimed as his wife the former King’s widow. And so my mother, Aju, continues as Queen of Vishnapur—my mother, who is now also my aunt.”
Chow ventured a comment. “Reminds me of a movie I saw’r once. Hope ever’thing works out better fer you than it did fer those poor folks with their swords.”
“I hope so too, Mr. Winkler.”
Tom said, “We’re all most appreciative for your invitation, Jahan.”
“Perhaps, then, I might ask of you one small service in return?”
“A small group of my countrymen is now in New York City on a mission of importance, not unlike my own here,” the Prince explained. “But in this case it is not a trade mission. They are visiting as students, engineers in training who have a special interest in scientific and technical matters. It would greatly honor my country if you would permit them to visit Swift Enterprises during their sojourn—particularly as it includes the Crown Prince, who shares these inclinations.” He added: “For the good of my country, we wish more of our professional people to learn how things are done in the western world.”
“Oughta go t’ San Antone,” Chow remarked. “That there’s about as western as you kin get.”
Tom smiled and nodded to the Prince. “We’ll welcome their visit. I’ll serve as their guide myself.”
After discussing the matter with Mr. Swift and with Harlan Ames, Tom told Prince Jahan next morning that they would be honored to accept his invitation to Vishnapur. “I know Sandy and Bashalli are thrilled. My friend Bud and I will fly back to America on our jetcraft. I think my work in Shopton won’t require me for too many days. We’ll fly to Vishnapur in the Queen to take everyone home after your festival is over. Perhaps we can even catch some of it.”
It was the afternoon after the dinner—the day after Bashalli’s terrifying experience—when the two jets headed off in opposite directions. As Luke Tor piloted the Flying Lab across southern Europe and then the cellophane carpet of the Atlantic, the young inventor discussed with Bud what his father had transmitted concerning the Kronus satellite problem. “Basically, the satellite’s orbit has shifted in a way that takes it too close to the edge of the Titanian atmosphere, for some reason no one yet understands. It’s no longer circling in a stable way, and there’s not enough fuel left in the maneuvering thrusters to correct it. As the parameters change—the orbital perigee and apogee—there’s real concern that the Kronus will end up plunging into the atmosphere of Titan all the way.”
Bud nodded—but shrugged. “Too bad for space science, I guess. But pal, how is that any kind of crisis?”
“There are some complicating factors that make it a lot more serious than it sounds.” Tom reminded his chum that Titan, large as a planet, was the only moon in the solar system to have an appreciable atmosphere. “Hydrocarbon rains, lightning, oceans of methane—and trapped heat emanating from its core, which may be generated by the crunch of tidal interactions with Saturn. It all adds up to the possibility that organic materials may have started forming, just as they did when Earth had a similar environment.”
“Way back when,” joked Bud. “So they’re thinking something may be living up there?”
“There’s well-reasoned speculation that Titanian life is at least possible. There may even be oceans of liquid water down deep under the surface ice. We’re not sure yet.”
“I get it, but I still don’t see― ”
“Flyboy, the problem in a nutshell is this,” continued Tom seriously. “The Kronus relies on a midget nuke reactor for power, so as to avoid power loss during orbit, when the satellite crosses into the shadow of Titan—not to mention similar problems when Titan itself is on the shadow-side of Saturn. The team running the project calculates a better-than-even chance that the reactor core won’t burn up during the plunge, but will shoot right through the ice layer, into—whatever’s down there.”
“Good night! You mean there’ll be an atomic explosion?”
“Well—no,” Tom smiled. “But contamination of a possible biosphere with radioactive waste is pretty dire. It could certainly compromise future bioscience explorations of Titan.”
“Yeah, not to mention making the Titanian fish pretty mad at Earth!” The young Californian asked his pal what Enterprises was being asked to do.
“They want us to study the problem and see if we can come up with a scientific solution.”
Bud chuckled. “In other words, an emergency Tom Swift invention, made to order! But look, isn’t the solution pretty simple? Let’s fly out to Saturn and pick up this Kronus gizmo—or maybe just shove it back into the right orbit.”
Tom knew Bud had in mind Enterprises’ huge spacecraft the Challenger, which thrust through space on the force-beams of Tom’s versatile matter-repelling devices, the repelatrons. The ship had already taken them to the Moon, to the vicinity of Venus, and recently to an intruding space object called the Green Orb. “No time for that, Bud. The Kronus orbit is shifting rapidly, and will probably go critical in a matter of weeks. Even if we exceeded our usual constant-1G acceleration, it would take months for us to reach Saturn in the Challenger.”
“Then I’ll return to my starting shrug. What can you possibly do, Tom? How do you fix a problem that’s hundreds of billions of miles away?”
“If my brain knows, chum—it hasn’t told me yet!”
The Sky Queen touched down in Shopton at dinner time, and Tom and Bud had supper at the Swift home near the gates of Enterprises.
“What a horrible thing for Bashalli to endure!” exclaimed Mrs. Swift feelingly. “Fortunately, her brother here had barely learned of it when he got word that she was safe. What was the motive, do you suppose?”
Tom answered, “They say it was probably to embarrass us ‘foreign entanglers’ and gain status—with a little ransom on the side. Seems it’s all too common in that part of the world.”
Mr. Swift added, “This Prince Jahan seems a remarkable young man. According to our various sources, he’s universally regarded as intelligent and honest—excellent character. Our State Department was rather disappointed at the change in succession. No one knows a great deal about the new King and his son.”
“Sandy and Bash are sure to get a lot of info about all these guys,” Bud noted.
“But you know, the best source of information may be good old Chow,” said Tom. “He’s always had a good nose for character.”
Bud nodded. “Absolutely. It’s the best part of his face.”
The next day, working in his office at Swift Enterprises, Tom took a telephone call from Professor O’Malan, the physicist leading the GenRev satellite team in Toronto. “Tom, I know your father has briefed you on the problem with our satellite.”
“Have you determined the cause of the episode, sir?”
“We’ve made zero progress,” replied the man disgustedly. “Thus far we’ve deduced nothing from studying the orbital parameters—no change whatsoever. We can rule out a meteoroid collision or some unexplained explosive event inside the GenRev itself. It simply fails to respond. Absolutely dead.”
“What I find especially strange,” said Tom, “is the fact that all its systems went ‘absolutely dead’ at the same moment, even those operating on separate batteries.”
“Which includes your own Swift Enterprises solar batteries. We can’t explain the matter, and have no way to investigate it further—unless― ”
Tom grinned. Expectation fulfilled! “Unless Enterprises goes up and brings it back to you.”
“The GenRev’s ‘black box’ should tell us the details of the event. But as it’s not transmitting, it seems we’ll have to download its data directly, here in mission control.”
“I’ll be glad to perform ‘towing services,’ Professor,” replied the youth. “In fact it’s pretty convenient patrolling the local spacelanes now that we have a midget vehicle available to us here at the plant.”
There was no reason to wait. In an hour Tom and Bud were rising—with somewhat frustrating slowness—through the atmosphere in the young inventor’s remarkable Space Kite.
“She may not be fast,” remarked Bud, “and she’s sure no Challenger, but I get a kick out of this little cosmic compact. It’s weird to think, though—the wind of particles that pushes her along is sweeping right up through the earth and through us even as we go!”
“The subtrinos are weird, flyboy, and they’ve set off quite a revolution in the physics community. Which reminds me...”
“I’ve been in touch lately with that Australian scientist who discovered the subtrino, Dr. Clarke MacIllheny.”
“Found anything exciting out there in the desert with that big racetrack of his?”
Tom nodded, with a chuckle accompaniment. “Since the Hyper-Celerator was rebuilt, he’s been pursuing a few interesting leads on what he calls his ‘polar ray investigation’.”
“Polar ray. Should I go for it?” Bud pretended to muse. “Ahem. So, Tom, polar rays, hunh? Opening a tanning parlor in Antarctica?—No need to laugh, pal. I’m just exercising.”
But Tom laughed nonetheless. “It’s just the casual way he refers to dipolar field phenomena—basically electromagnetic radiation and the electrical fields and magnetic flux effects that produce them. All electromagnetic waves—from radio waves to gamma rays, with plain old light in between—are basically electrical and magnetic fields propagating through space at right angles to each other, alternating between positive and negative polarity.”
“I’ve managed to pick all that up somewhere or other. So what’s the latest on the polar-ray scene?”
Tom made an adjustment to the Space Kite’s ascent trajectory before answering. “Nothing that most people would find at all interesting, though it’s a very big deal to scientists. Dr. MacIllheny is investigating some unexpected properties of space itself that can be used, in principle, to modify how field phenomena and associated forms of radiation propagate across distances. He asked me to develop a test device to more fully explore the theory. I’ll probably work on it a little before we rejoin the girls and Chow—maybe it’ll clear some space in my mind for the Kronus problem.”
“Let’s face it, genius boy—that’s your idea of a vacation.”
Soon radar, and then two pairs of eyes, alerted the astronauts to the tiny GenRev satellite ahead, gliding along its orbit in silent serenity. Tom guided the Space Kite to within 100 feet, but then stopped the approach. “What’s wrong, Skipper?” Bud asked as he felt the tug of the craft’s anchoring gravitex. “Why are you hanging back?”
“Professor O’Malan asked that we wait until the GenRev had completed a final orbit back to the exact position where the original ‘event’ occurred,” was Tom’s response. “They want to feel confident that they’ve extracted every bit of data from the orbit parameters, though they read as unaltered.”
Presently Tom announced that they could proceed with the retrieval. They both clipped on belts bearing several specialized tools that would allow them to safely link to sockets in the shell of the GenRev. Then, snapping shut their spacesuit helmets, they depressurized the tiny craft’s pilot dome and swung it open. With bursts of their suit microjets, the pair thrust off into space in the direction of what was now an electronically lifeless hulk. They slowly closed the gap, bantering relaxedly as bright Earthshine illuminated their faces from below.
Suddenly they cried out together in startled fear as a flash of blinding light erupted in space!
There was no concussion in the void, but the blaze surrounded them. Its intensity caused their transparent bubble-helmets to darken automatically, becoming effectively opaque. “B-Bud!” choked Tom.
“Still with you, Skipper,” came the familiar radio voice. “Can’t see anything yet, though. Jetz!—did the satellite blow up?” The unvoiced question was clear: was this a deliberate attack?
As his visor-dome cleared, Tom saw that the satellite was still intact and apparently undisturbed. “I don’t know what it was,” Tom murmured. “Maybe the same thing that caused the GenRev to break down originally. But it seems not to have hurt us, thank goodness.”
“Yeah, well—speak for yourself. My suit jets got a little screwy for a second, and now they don’t work at all. I’m afraid you’ll have to come pick me up—Dad.”
Tom rotated and saw that Bud was now drifting several score yards away. The young inventor activated his jets and approached slowly, hand outstretched.
“C’mon Tom,” Bud objected impatiently. “I’m not on any pick-up schedule. Why’re you slowing down?”
Tom was puzzled. Slowing down? Yet he did feel a slight nudge of deceleration at that. What’s going on? he wondered.
“Wait a sec, pal,” Bud radioed suddenly. “You’re not just slacking off—I’m moving faster away from you, too.” And then an edge of panic crept in. “Jetz! Tom, something’s got hold of me! It’s dragging me off into space!”
“IF there’s something there, I sure don’t see it,” Tom radioed, striving for a calming voice.
“Okay, it’s loosening up,” replied Bud in relief. “But I sure felt it. It accelerated me with a yank backwards—you’ll have to catch up.”
Tom gunned his microjets. Again he began to draw near—and again they both felt as if some phantom force had taken hold of them, pushing Tom gently back while pulling Bud away from him. And again, as the distance between them widened, the grasp faded away. “It’s great for the ego to be wanted,” the Californian wisecracked nervously. “But if some alien has a yen for me, he’s got slippery fingers.”
A hunch led Tom to check—and recheck in surprise—his suit instruments. “Good night, now I get it. We’re repelling each other!”
Tom grinned. “No mystery. Since that flash. It’s given us both a powerful electric charge—and charges of the same polarity repel one another.”
“Oh yeah?” came the skeptical comment. “I don’t feel particularly electrocuted.”
“It’s static electricity, not a current. But how in space could it have penetrated the Tomasite and Inertite of our suit material? —Wait! Flyboy, unhook that tool belt and let it drift free.” Tom did the same. Instantly both belts began to accelerate away in opposite directions! “That settles that. The belts have no protective coating. The flash phenomenon charged them up like capacitors. But we’re still our normal neutral selves.”
“Maybe. But my limpid gray eyes may never be the same.”
Tom snagged his chum and was quickly able to readjust and reactivate Bud’s microjet system. They resumed the satellite retrieval, and in seconds had their hands on the GenRev’s hull. “No sign of obvious damage or scorching even up close,” Tom muttered. “Of course, the coating wouldn’t necessarily carbonize in a vacuum. Well, let’s wrangle her back into the Kite. Without those linkage tools it’ll be awkward, but we shouldn’t have much trouble doing it by hand.”
In minutes the GenRev was safely stowed away and the Space Kite was arcing back toward Earth and Swift Enterprises. “O’Malan asked me to check it out with our special instruments before freighting it to Toronto,” Tom told his pal. “I’m anxious to see what I can make of it.”
The trip back was worry-free. In one of his laboratories, Tom examined the satellite with a platoon of unique detection devices as Bud Barclay hovered near Tom’s shoulder. “It’s clear that whatever ‘flashed’ us up in space is the same thing that disabled the GenRev,” Tom announced at last.
“You mean it’s all charged up?” responded Bud in surprise.
“Not any more. But there are plenty of clues that the circuitry was victim to a very powerful surge of electromotive force—so powerful that it came right through the insulation and overwhelmed the suppressors. Matter of fact, the ionizing effect literally boiled the insulation materials right off the components!”
Bud’s brow knitted beneath his floppy lock of jet-black hair. “But it wasn’t some kind of heat blast, like from a laser?”
Tom shook his head. “Not a trace of external burning. Whatever heat was developed was internal, as a consequence of the electrical surge. In fact...”
Bud had learned long ago to read the signs of a dawning idea. “Is this one gonna knock me over?”
“Maybe! People can get knocked flat by lightning.”
“Lightning?” Bud gasped. “In space? Don’t you need thunder clouds for lightning?”
Tom perched on the edge of a stool. “I know how fantastic it sounds. But way back before the first satellites went up—they call it the ‘pre-Sputnik era’—some scientists speculated that clouds at extreme high altitudes might develop sufficient excess charge, mainly from particle bombardment, that low-dipping satellites might get hit by lightning-like phenomena.”
“Gosh—lighting from below!”
The young inventor smiled at his chum. “Actually, most lightning—that is, the visible bolts—does come from below, shooting upwards from the ground to the clouds. Of course, this is a very different situation. And I’m not so sure Mother Nature is the culprit, either.”
“Neither am I,” Bud agreed; “on general principle! Bet we find that somebody’s doing target practice with some kind of lightning-cannon.”
“It could even be something similar to our own Enterprises electric weapons,” mused Tom. “What makes the matter very suspicious is this, flyboy—it’s happened twice now at the same point in orbit.”
“In other words, over the same spot on Earth! So where is that spot, Tom?”
The scientist-inventor fed the data into his computer and soon had a map on the screen. “The position wasn’t precisely the same, and if it is something like lightning it would’ve zigged and zagged along the way. So we’re dealing with a general area, about a hundred mile radius.” The map showed a region in the Himalayas, mainly Tibet, claimed by China, but also nipping the borders of India, Nepal, and—
“Vishnapur!” Bud exclaimed.
“Yup! We may have some detective work to do when we rejoin the others.”
The two went their separate ways for a couple hours as Tom reported to his father, to an astonished Professor O’Malan, and to Harlan Ames. “Tom, if Vishnapur—of all the lousy luck!—is tied up in this, it invalidates my earlier recommendation. The place may not be safe for the girls after all.”
Tom sighed ruefully. “I’d hate to see their trip cut short.”
“Well, boss, if I haven’t completely trashed my credibility, I have another recommendation.”
The former Secret Service agent looked uncharacteristically meek. “I—er—could go along with you and Bud to Vishnapur. Now before you say anything― ”
“I’m not objecting― ”
“—let me just point out how I could help the local police, or the royal guard, or whatever, organize themselves to accommodate the habits of Western tourists, which they’re not too familiar with, as I understand. I could― ”
“Harlan, you don’t― ”
“Of course Phil Radnor would be on duty here at the plant the whole time.”
“Sure, I― ”
“Tom,” said Ames very soberly, leaning forward across his desk, “I need a vacation. I really do. It’s been—I don’t know how long. One thing after another. Li Ching, lab explosions, chameleon suits, flying starfish, pirates, voodoo dolls, that kid over in Thessaly... It starts eroding a guy’s judgment. I mean, I snapped at Munford Trent yesterday! He’s a sensitive guy. With my daughter away at school, right now is― ”
Tom interrupted by leaning forward to meet the security chief mid-desk. “Harlan, won’t you please join us on our trip to Vishnapur?—and that’s an order!”
As the youth left Ames beaming in his office, he thought: We forget he isn’t just steel and concrete—he’s a human being. He felt a little ashamed.
After a late lunch prepared by Chow’s second in command Boris, Tom showed Bud the polar ray test device he had been working on. Crudely assembled, it consisted of two thick crystaline plates, upright and facing one another across a gap of nine inches or so. A shiny metal ring was embedded inside each plate.
“Want to predict what I’ll say it looks like, genius boy?” Bud invited Tom.
“A very expensive napkin holder?”
“Hey! Pretty swift.”
Tom switched on the power and adjusted the controls. “Stand over there and look through the gap between the plates.”
Bud complied. “Okay. I see that lightbulb you’ve got going on the other side of the lab.”
He blinked in surprise. As Tom twisted the dials, the white light took on various colors, became brighter and dimmer, shrank down to an intense point, and became encircled with glowing rings of different rainbow hues. “Now watch this!” Another click, and the light disappeared completely—the gap was suffused with a hazy black shadow.
“That’s great!” Bud exulted. “Like stopping down a camera—except there’s no lens, no shutter, no camera—just empty space!”
“But what we call ‘space’ isn’t empty, not exactly.” He told Bud to stand aside and move to a corner of the room. The athletic youth watched in gleeful amazement as a faint cone of shadow—dark light!—flashed from the gap in the device. Tom swung it across the lab wall like a flashlight beam, where it produced not light but a small circular area of moving darkness. He maneuvered the beam so it struck Bud in the face. His face, which had been brightly illuminated by the overhead lights, was suddenly wrapped in dense shadow. His features were scarcely visible.
“Jetz, who turned out the lights?”
“What do you see?”
“In the middle, nothing. It’s like looking from a lighted hall into a dark room.”
Tom switched off the instrument. “The field produced between the plates selectively modifies the dipolar conduction and transmission characteristics of what they call free space. The field can be extended a ways like a beam, as you saw. In this case, I tuned the dyna-field to affect waves in the optical spectrum, but it can just as easily modulate microwaves, X-rays, infrared heat rays—you name it, the whole range of ‘polar rays.’ And the larger version that Arv Hanson is working up can do even more!”
“Fan-flukey-tastic!” chortled Bud. “Me, I can’t imagine what’s left for it to do!”
The boys turned as a door burst open. Phil Radnor, Enterprises’ stocky, red-haired assistant security chief, came striding in with a piece of paper in his hand. “Tom!” he said. “Take a look at this!”
Tom glanced at the sheet. It bore a message, hand-printed in letters that seemed to suggest that the writer was more familiar with Oriental-style writing than English:
WE HAVE PROOF THAT ONE OF YOUR VISITORS FROM VISHNAPUR IS A DEADLY SPY AND TRAITOR WHO WILL STOP AT NOTHING TO SABOTAGE THIS MISSION TO AMERICA . WE GIVE YOU THIS FRIENDLY WARNING FOR YOUR OWN SAFETY.
THE PROUD PRINCE
TOM groaned at the unwelcome development. Two space mysteries, and now another one on Earth! “Did this friendly warning come through the mail, Rad?”
“Yes—postmarked New York City.”
“Which may mean little, of course. Have you checked with Vishnapur’s representative in Washington?” Tom asked.
The security man nodded. “The official himself got a similar note hours ago. He was very much upset—seemed to think the warning may be authentic, since Vishnapur is in a state of political unrest.”
“Right, because of the succession controversy, I guess.” But Tom also recalled that Prince Jahan has assured him that matters had been settled, making it safe for the Shoptonians to visit. What was the truth of the matter?
Radnor asked, “What exactly is this ‘mission’ business, anyway? Why are these people coming to Enterprises?”
Tom soberly, and Bud excitedly, described how Bashalli’s brief kidnapping in Pakistan had led to the favor Prince Jahan had asked of Tom. “I did a little Net research on the flight back to New York,” Tom said. “Vishnapur puts out an English-language newspaper for the international community called Enlightened Times. This current ‘mission’ is part of a continuing effort to teach members of the leading class, the educated people, about the Western world—especially as regards scientific research, engineering, and technology. It’s hoped that they might modernize their country and raise its living standards. I guess most Vishnapuris are poor.” The new ruler’s son, Crown Prince Vusungira, had been sent to America with the group not only as part of his education as an engineer, but to better prepare him for his eventual political role.
When Radnor commented that the visitors were scheduled to arrive the next morning, Bud asked, “Did anyone check out these brain boys before they made final arrangements to come to Enterprises?”
“As thoroughly as we could,” Radnor said. “Harlan took charge of it. But you know,” he continued, “Vishnapur is located deep in the Himalayas. Hardly any Westerners are allowed to enter, though that seems to be changing now. Our State Department got a rundown on each of the students, but mostly had to take Vishnapur’s official word that they were okay.”
Tom looked thoughtful. “Rad, we shouldn’t take any hasty action in response to that mailed warning. If we turn back or restrain the whole group as security risks—especially when one’s the son of the King—it could wreck friendly relations between our countries and set back their own policy of modernization. Let’s check into this tip-off first.”
“But what if one of them is a spy?” Bud demanded.
“They’ll all have the customary security scans with our detector instruments,” Tom pointed out. “Besides, he can’t do much harm even if we wait a bit. The students won’t actually have the run of the plant, and it’ll just be for a few days. As far as my lecture-demonstration goes, and my—mm, tour-guide work, I won’t be giving away any great secrets. If somebody wants to copy my electrodynamic controller device, more power to ’em!”
But Tom did agree that Ames and Radnor should keep the student engineers discreetly under watch. “Especially since one of them is supposed to be deadly!” he joked. “Oh—any leads on who might’ve been behind the kidnapping incident?”
“Not yet,” Radnor replied. “According to Ames, the consensus of opinion is that it was just another of the incidents perpetrated by the many competing factions there. It’s like street gangs defending their turf and one-upping each other. There’s probably no real ‘mastermind’ behind it.”
Everyone ended up sleeping on the problem; whichever problem they chose.
The eight young men from Vishnapur—Tom gathered that it was not yet considered suitable for women to enter the field—arrived in Shopton the morning following, and were greeted at Enterprises by Tom’s father. After some words of formal welcome, the Vishnapurians filed into Tom’s lab. Crown Prince Vusungira came first, the others following respectfully. All wore Western-style slacks and sportcoats and were bareheaded and mostly bespectacled, except the prince. He always appeared publically in a white turban, which was studded with a large star sapphire to mark his royal rank.
“Namaste!” The students smiled at Tom and Bud and made the usual gesture of greeting—bobbing their heads and pressing their palms together with the fingers pointed upward, as was their ancient custom.
Of the eight students, most looked like typical, handsome East Indians, with olive complexions, jet-black hair, and flashing white teeth. But a couple were almond-eyed, and seemed more Asiatic.
After acknowledging His Majesty the Crown Prince, Tom took his place at a central workbench and explained, “I thought you might like to start off by seeing some experiments I’ve been working on lately.”
A device stood on the bench in front of Tom. It consisted of a round, insulated base with a slender metal rod sticking up which served as the axis for two spheres of crystal, one inside the other. Two coils were mounted on the machine, one above and one below the assemblage of crystal globes and wrapping about the axis. Within the gap that surrounded and separated the two spheres could be seen an encircling silver ring. A thick cable led from the base to a portable electronic console.
“Ah! It will be most rewarding to see the latest invention of the famous Tom Swift!” said a big-haired student named Rakshi, who appeared to have become “westernized” already. “These globes—made of quartz?”
“A special kind of quartz, doped with fine filaments of semiconductor material from our source in New Guinea.”
One of the young men nudged another and said softly in English, “The rare-earths mine—Ultrasonic Cycloplane!”
Bud grinned. “Right!”
“And this isn’t an ‘invention’ yet,” Tom said. “It’s a test prototype our miniaturization engineer, Arvid Hanson, prepared to allow for some research into advanced electrodynamics theory. I’ve already begun the research with a simpler version. This one is more powerful.”
“And what shall we call it?” asked Vusungira rather haughtily. “You see, I must prepare reports each day of what I see and learn, to send back to my country.”
Tom was silent for a moment, and Bud suddenly realized: Good night, Tom hasn’t given it a name!
“I’m calling it a—a polar-ray dynaxializer,” Tom said in a mumble. “—tron.”
Not for long! Bud promised himself.
“Anyway, I’m working with a physicist in Australia to carry out some experiments in the area of electromagnetic radiation and its propagation through space, based on his recent findings. It’s another aspect of what they call the ‘new physics’.” Tom explained that the device used a novel principle to control and change the shape of electrical and magnetic fields and related dipolar phenomena.
Another student spoke up. “My name, sir, is T’yaghokya, and if I may inquire—how is such a thing possible? We have learned that what you refer to involves fundamental constants of the universe. The photons by which electromagnetic energy is conveyed are bound by the strictest of laws. Is this not true?”
Tom accepted the challenge with a smile. “You’ve been well taught. You’re referring to laws involving such physical constants as the magnetic permeability of free space and the dielectric constant, which nowadays is more often called the absolute permittivity of free space. As you know, both are regarded as fundamental properties of space itself—of the vacuum.
“But over time other such presumed constants have been found to be subject to modification under certain circumstances. For example, the constant found in the equations of momentum, mass, has been shown to vary at the extremes of velocity, as has the supposed constant of the passage of time. Dr. MacIllheny has discovered a more comprehensive conservation principle that allows electrodynamic permeability and permittivity to be modulated and distorted under the influence of an intense field of space-stressing force.” The young inventor noted that he had previously found a way to do something similar in connection with the anti-inverse-square-wave technique utilized by his megascope space prober.
“We have studied that technique,” stated the Crown Prince.
Tom reminded the students that the megascope’s method focused artificially generated waves into a beam of constant signal strength, instead of allowing them to radiate outward in all directions, by bending them into a self-containing helical course. “The new approach utilized by this instrument applies to existing electromagnetic waves as well—photons already en route, you might say—and also to electrostatic and magnetostatic fields. Now, I’ll demonstrate it.”
As the students murmured in anticipation, a number of electroscopes were placed about the room by Bud, who was serving as Tom’s assistant. These were glass jars, each with a metal rod passing through its sulfur stopper. Every rod had a metal ball on top and two thin gold leaves hanging at the bottom inside the jar. Tom took a plastic wand with a metal ball on one end and put an electric charge on the ball by touching it to a high-voltage terminal.
“Of course you all know what will happen when I bring this near the electroscopes,” he said.
Tom held the wand near the ball of each electroscope in turn. In every one, the gold leaves swung apart as they became similarly charged by the ball’s induced electrostatic field and repelled each other. The young inventor smiled, knowing that he and Bud were sharing the same thought. A vivid demonstration of the same principle had recently taken place in space!
“As you see, the charged wand has to be very close to the electroscopes because its field is so weak. But now watch what happens when I place the wand next to my dyna—er, my machine here.”
Tom put the wand into a clamp, its metal ball-tip almost touching the outside of the crystal globe. Then he twirled several tuning knobs on the console. He swiveled the ring inside the sphere, which pivoted on the spheres’ shared axis rod. As he aimed at each electroscope in turn, its leaves swung open!
“I must say, quite amazing!” Prince Vusungira pronounced with minimum emotion, as if his royal dignity were at risk. “It seems your device has focused and beamed the little ball’s electrostatic field as far as ten meters.”
“Ya got it, Vusungira,” nodded Bud.
The Crown Prince frowned coldly. “‘Your Highness’ is appropriate. If you please.”
Tom rushed in verbally. “But His Highness is correct. The distortion field extends across the lab, and in theory, with a more advanced machine, the range can be almost unlimited,” he said. He now made some adjustments to the instrument. As Tom switched it on again, the nested spheres glowed with a bluish-red radiance.
“The space between the inner and outer spheres contains a mixture of gases, including neon and argon, which of course glow under electrical stimulation. When wanted, this model produces its own electrical or magnetic fields, so there’s no need to use an external charged object.”
To preface the next part of the demonstration, Tom explained that by shaping the distorting dyna-field into paraboloidal form, he could make use of its ability to bend and reflect electromagnetic radiation. “For any frequency, not just visible light, the field can act as lens, mirror, or prism.”
The young inventor demonstrated this by turning on a portable TV set. He tuned his device to the proper frequency and the screen promptly went blank. When Tom turned off his device, the picture appeared again as clearly as ever.
A student spoke up. “The electronic field drew in the whole picture signal so that none was picked up by the TV antenna—is that it?”
“Right, dispersing it away into space,” Tom said. “And now for an even more interesting experiment. As you know, white light is made up of the whole spectrum of colors—red, yellow, green, blue, and violet. I’ll tune the field to ‘trap’ light waves of the frequency of green, leaving the other colors unaffected—and watch what happens to the ambient light in the lab.”
Everyone stared with wide eyes as the light from the windows and the overheads began to darken and take on a reddish-purple hue.
Suddenly the light went out completely! Even the morning sunlight flooding in through the windows faded. In a moment the room was plunged into pitch-blackness except for a pearlescent glow from the sphere!
“Hey!” Bud cried. “What’s happening?” Everything had been swallowed by darkness. Weirdly, the sphere’s steady glow was visible to the eye but powerless to illuminate anything else. It seemed to be hanging unsupported in black space.
There were mumbles of alarm. Suddenly came a loud crash! “It’s the spy!” Bud cried. He leapt toward where he had last seen Tom, ready to protect his best friend though he couldn’t even make out his own feet.
Bud collided with a flailing pair of arms. Two bodies thudded down to the lab floor.
“Don’t move, everyone!” a voice called out.
Light dawned again suddenly.
“P’tul! Arise!” demanded a furious voice somewhere beneath Bud’s musculature. He had taken down Crown Prince Vusungira!
“Oh man am I ever sorry, Your Magnitude!” gulped Bud, scrambling off the royal personage fast enough to forestall war.
Tom was working frantically to correct the trouble with the electrodynamic modulator as the room filled with a smell of burning insulation. Though the blackout had ended, he seemed momentarily unable to switch it off completely. Sparks flickered about the coils.
Finally control was restored. “I’m afraid my experiment misfired—er, obviously. Instead of trapping light of one wavelength, the dyna-field pulled in a wide band of frequencies—the whole visible spectrum!”
“And in doing so blacked out the whole plant?” huffed Vusungira with a supercilious smile as he adjusted the royal turban. Bud thought the smile looked a bit too much like a frown.
“Just in here, but it was enough. My device absorbed so much energy it burned out the control circuits,” Tom admitted.
“Well,” Bud joked weakly, “Maybe the Defense Department could use that gadget for air-raid blackouts, Skipper.”
“Very funny.” Tom turned to Vusungira. “Your Highness, please accept our apologies for this embarrassing incident.”
“Of course,” he replied with brusque dignity. “But I suggest, sir, that we proceed to more sedate pursuits for a time.”
Tom called George Dilling, head of Enterprises public relations, to take charge of the guests. As they waited silently, the prince said abruptly, “Am I to understand that we are suspected of spying, sir? For I heard what your assistant shouted.”
Their youthful host struggled for the proper diplomatic language. “Bud had in mind a comment we received from an anonymous source, perhaps someone unfriendly to Vishnapur. We don’t mean to imply any sort of accusation.”
The Crown Prince nodded but withheld any trace of a smile.
Dilling and an assistant arrived, and the eight Visnapurians were guided away to their quarters.
“S-sorry, Tom,” Bud muttered. “I was just trying― ”
“I know, pal. It was my fault that you couldn’t look before you leapt. Anyway, look at this mess.” One of the panicked visitors had evidently knocked over a shelf of test tubes and equipment. “I’ll contact Custodial.”
The young inventor plucked the phone from his pocket and pressed the button—and he and Bud winced as it erupted in a shrill, high-pitched squeal like a full-throated warning of danger!
BUDDHA IS LISTENING!
HIS FINGERS fumbling, Tom switched off the phone unit and the lab fell silent.
“Are you giving me the razzberry?” Bud asked.
Tom examined his phone. “Strange. How could it...” He switched it on again, with the same alarming result!
But now Tom noticed something further. “Flyboy, something’s screwy,” he stated as he switched it off. “Don’t you hear it? That screech is coming from two places!”
By switching the cellphone on and off, the boys finally discovered the other source, hidden on a shelf behind some equipment, next to the shelf that had been overturned.
Brushing asides some shards of glass Tom held up what he had found. It was Buddha!—a tiny bronze figure.
“One of the students must have put it there!” Bud pronounced.
“Maybe during the blackout.”
“So what’s up with the thing?”
Tom tapped on the figure. It was heavy yet rang very slightly, as if hollow. He then commenced an examination with the lab’s detector instruments, including a device, called the leptoscope, which combined the key features of a microscope, telescope, and X-ray scanner. “There’s the answer,” Tom declared, nodded toward the monitor screen. “Crammed with electronics!”
Bud rolled his eyes. “I get it. Our bi-weekly encounter with a bugging device. So what’s the gimmick with this baby?”
It took another half-hour of careful scrutiny before Tom had a confident response. “Buddha here is meant to listen in on cellphone conversations—namely mine!” He explained to Bud that the statue had super-miniaturized diode antennas behind each eye sockets. “It’s clearly intended to pick up a cellphone signal. We were just plain lucky that the antenna response set up a feedback resonance affecting the cellphone itself as well as the metal surface of the statue.”
“I thought your cell signals were encrypted,” Bud objected.
“They are. The local phone output, calls within the walls of the plant, is picked up by repeating transponders which rebroadcast a ‘scrambling’ signal that covers it up to outside receivers. What Buddha does is repeat the original signal in a way the transponders don’t pick up. A backup signal, in other words.”
“Not bad for a guy in the lotus position. Think you can tell which of the students planted the statue, or where the signal’s going? It must be the spy you were warned about.”
But Tom shrugged, hesitating for several long moments. “Unless that’s only what we’re meant to think, Bud. The message could have been a fake, with this to make it seem credible.”
“Well, how about the business of the satellite knockout? Vishnapur was in the vicinity of the apparent source of that space-lightning bolt, if that’s what it was.”
“True. Maybe Buddha has a thing against satellites.” As Tom grinned, Bud added seriously, “At least you caught it before it caught you.”
His chum raised an eyebrow. “Ah, but I’m going to let it catch me, flyboy! I’ll just set it right back in place. Now that we know what’s going on, we can let the plot go forward and let the plotters trip themselves up.” After replacing it, Tom said, “Come on if you want—I need to report all this to Harlan Ames.” The two left, continuing to discuss the matter in low tones.
The students had a busy day at Swift Enterprises, with Tom only one of their tour guides. At the end one of them said to Tom, “What wonders you have shown us! If only our own people could be shown such things.”
“It’ll happen,” Tom replied. “The tools of science are provided by nature, and can be found anywhere and everywhere.”
That night Boris prepared a dinner in honor of the eight visitors, promising that the meal would consist of native dishes from their Himalayan homeland. “Pfah!” sniffed the native Russian. “I cannot account for how they can eat such things. Yak butter! Absurdity.”
Tom smiled. “Thanks for preparing it, though, Boris.”
“I did my duty, holding my nose.”
To give the Vishnapurians some contact with American family life, Tom’s mother joined his father at the dinner, as did the young family of his friend and chief engineer Hank Sterling.
The foreign visitors seemed delayed. As they waited, Mrs. Swift wandered over to the window and suddenly exclaimed in alarm:
“Oh my—look!” The others ran to her side and gaped at what they saw in the twilight.
A weird procession of prancing figures was approaching the administration building. The creatures had huge, fantastic heads and wore gaudy robes of red, gold, and black!
“They’re coming inside!” gasped Hank Sterling’s wife.
They heard a thunderous pounding on the door. Then it was thrown open and in surged the nightmarish group, playing bells, drums, and cymbals. The crazy din continued as the people capered about the room.
Suddenly Mrs. Sterling giggled in slightly chagrined delight. “It’s a masquerade!”
Some of the figures wore grinning, goggle-eyed demon masks, each topped with a ring of tiny skulls. Another had on a deer’s head with flowers blooming from its antlers. Two more were giant-headed buffoons—a white-faced woman and a blue-faced, mustachioed man.
The invaders swirled around their audience, energetic yet graceful, with sudden lunges that startled. At last the wild dance came to a halt and the figures pulled off their masks. Tom and his companions applauded and cheered. The panting, laughing masqueraders were Crown Prince Vusungira—as a kingly figure—and the other young men from Vishnapur!
“Terrific!” Tom exclaimed as the dancers bowed.
“It’s the most exciting thing I’ve seen in ages,” declared Mr. Swift.
“Then our humble efforts are more than repaid,” Vusungira said with formal gallantry.
“But what brought this on, if you don’t mind my asking?” Bud put in.
The young prince bowed his head slightly. “This night is the beginning of the lunar month in which we celebrate the Festival of Chogyal.”
The Americans looked interested, and Hank Sterling asked, “Respectfully, Your Highness, who or what is Chogyal?”
“The highest mountain peak in Vishnapur,” answered Vusungira. “The name Chogyal means ‘god-king’ in the various Himalayan dialects, and the festival is proclaimed by our priests every seven years in honor of the gods and spirits of his mountain.”
“The mountain watches over our country,” added one of the men reverently. “It is our protector. By honoring him, perhaps he will take back the curse of the lake that has― ”
“There is no need to discuss these superstitions of the uneducated,” Vusungira brusquely interrupted. “We wish to become a modern nation.” He went on to explain that the homesick students had brought the costumes to America, since they would be far from Vishnapur when the festival was celebrated. “Your Enterprises policeman Mr. Ames gave us permission to bring them onto the grounds, and promised to refrain from telling you ‘bigwigs’. It was to be a gift of surprise and, we hoped, an entertainment.”
“The great festival itself is still more than two weeks away,” added the engineer named Rakshi, “but we hoped that a small preview might cheer our young professor. Your morning was perhaps a bit disconcerting.”
“And besides,” said Vusungira with raised eyebrows, “is it not right that the spirits should honor a scientist who can even blot out the sun’s light?” Then he chuckled.
Tom took the sly ribbing good-naturedly and asked what the masks portrayed. The young Asians told him the deer represented a former incarnation of the lord Buddha. The chief demon, black-faced, was called Mahakali—Lordly Kali, ruler of the dead. He and his cohorts were made to look as horrible as possible to help the watchers overcome their fear of death.
“And the blue-faced man and white-faced clowns,” Prince Vusungira added, “are really acharyas, or wise men, who keep the demons amused until the good spirits can defeat them.”
Tom now introduced the individual students to those who had not yet met them. “Your country is almost a part of India,” Tom’s mother remarked to Prince Vusungira, “and yet those aren’t Hindu masks, are they?”
“Quite right, Mrs. Swift. The people of Vishnapur are a mixture. Many, like myself, are of Indian descent, while others, like my friend Gyong”—Vusungira indicated a student with high cheekbones and Oriental features—“are of Tibetan stock. But all celebrate the Festival of Chogyal. As is the case in much of that part of the world, our traditional religions are combinations of many customs and rituals. The common religion of Vishnapur has features of Hinduism as well as Buddhism.”
At the mention of Buddha Tom and Bud exchanged meaningful glances.
The fussily authentic Russo-Tibetan dinner was now served up by Boris, with a polite if pinched expression. The meal began with wheat pancakes, called chapaties. This was followed by kabobs, a highly spiced mutton curry, along with rice pihin and two vegetables—brinjals bhurta, which was mint-flavored eggplant, and fried bhindis, or okra. Before dessert came another meat dish, a sort of souffle with a wisely unidentified meat mixed in and a powdered topping, blue in color.
“It is called jabnob’r,” said Rakshi, who seemed to be the youngest of the visitors. “Always served last before the sweets.”
Mr. Swift sampled it tentatively. His eyebrows rose in surprised pleasure. “Why, it’s quite wonderful! The flavor is most unusual to my American palate. What is this topping on it?”
Crown Prince Vusungira answered. “It is hoobragam, and your chef has my commendation for including it. It is specifically Vishnapuri.”
“The blue color is very striking,” commented Tom.
Bud added, “I don’t think I’ve ever even seen a shade of blue like that, not even on Chow Winkler’s shirts.”
Vusungira gave one of his rare smiles. “Exotic, is it not? The blue spice that gives it its color is called yorb, and it is used in many dishes, as our Hindu cousins to the south use curry. Indeed, yorb is called ‘the heart of Chogyal.’ From it one derives not only food spices, but a kind of beer, incense, even a blue dye for our fabrics and ritual body-paint.”
One of the engineers said, “An ancient traditional song begins, O Buddha by your light we see the yorb that is our savior.”
Mrs. Swift asked if yorb were only produced in Vishnapur. “No,” responded Vusungira, “although it is something we are known for. It comes from a plant, a sort of algae growth, that only flourishes at very high altitudes and needs long periods of cold. But it is also harvested elsewhere in Tibet, and I believe it has been introduced into the Andes region.”
“Also in the high Urals of Russia,” noted Boris, pouring tea.
“One can order it on the internet,” Gyong declared. “It has stimulating medicinal properties well regarded by men of years.”
The dessert was called rosagollah. It consisted of sugar-soaked lumps formed from curdled milk and covered with a thick, saffron-flavored syrup.
“Mmm! Delicious!” Tom said enthusiastically.
The others agreed, and Bud said, “Your Highness, if this is typical of your country, make room for one more!”
The prince beamed. “My father would be horrified if he found out, but cooking has always been a hobby of mine.”
As they left the table, Vusungira said, “And now, I should like to present Mrs. Swift and Mrs. Sterling with small mementos of Vishnapur.” He withdrew from his briefcase two small wrapped packages, which turned out to be figurines—elephants carved from ivory and enameled in gorgeous colors. Each bore a brass howdah. As the ladies expressed their gratitude, Vusungira said: “We Vishnapuri also use the services of the faithful elephant, as do those of India.”
One of the students, who doubled as the assigned bodyguard for the Crown Prince, stood next to the door to the makeshift dining room. At a knock he opened the door and announced: “Your Highness, honorable hosts, it is Mr. Ames from the security department.”
Vusungira nodded to the new arrival. “Then you have been able to join us after all.”
“I’m afraid not,” Ames replied tersely. “This is not a pleasant matter, Your Highness.”
“What is it, Ames?” asked Damon Swift.
“My office was contacted earlier by Mr. Patil Ram, Vishnapur’s representative in this country. The Vishnapur government has received some alarming information, which he passed along to me and asked me to deal with. It involves a matter of security, Your Highness, and I am obliged to investigate it on behalf of both our countries.”
Vusungira frowned gravely. “Then do as you must, sir.”
As the students muttered in surprise and worry, Ames commenced to search them one by one, then the huge masks they had worn when entering.
The security chief approached Prince Vusungira last. “I’m sorry, Your Highness.”
“You intend to search me as well?”
“And the mask you wore.”
The prince remained stoic as Ames patted him down and searched his pockets, even taking the turban from his head. Finding nothing, Ames’s eyes roved about the room. “I take it this is your mask? The King?”
He felt about the inside surface. When he drew his hands into view again, they were filled. “This is the evidence we’re looking for,” he said quietly.
A HAIR-RAISING CAPTURE
“WHAT’S this all about?” Tom demanded.
“You’d better see for yourself,” Ames replied. He opened his hands in the light.
He was holding two tiny bronze figures, identical to the Buddha Tom had discovered earlier!
Ames turned to Vusungira. “I presume these belong to you, Your Highness? Unusual place to keep them.”
The glare of the Crown Prince was glacial. “I know nothing about these objects. What is the implication, sir?”
“Here is what your consulate provided me, passed along to them by channels they regard as credible. Shall I read the translation aloud?”
ESTEEMED HIGHNESS, ROYAL VUSUNGIRA, WE HAVE NEGOTIATED A SATISFACTORY PRICE FOR THE AMERICAN SCIENCE DATA TO BE INTERCEPTED BY THE BUDDHA STATUES . WE WILL BEGIN ARRANGEMENTS TO PURCHASE ARMAMENTS FOR THE OVERTHROW. BY MIGHTY CHOGYAL, SOON YOU SHALL BE KING!
The prince’s dark eyes blazed in fury. “I deny this insulting insinuation! I know nothing of these statues, or of any supposed ‘plot’ against my father, whom I honor with my soul! How did these channels receive this false message?”
“It was explained to Mr. Ram that the message is a copy of one acquired in Burma by agents of the Burmese security apparatus,” Ames answered. “It’s thought the originators are still unaware that the plot has been broken.”
“Preposterous!” Vusungira exclaimed. “What have these little statues to do with spying? You have found them in a mask, evidently concealed but hardly of any use.”
Ames handed one to Tom, who scrutinized it with a scientist’s eye. “Good gosh—electronic circuitry! Set down in the right spot, it would look like a common souvenir or knick-knack but could monitor our conversations!”
“Then it’s most fortunate you discovered these implements before they had been placed,” said Prince Vusungira coldly. “Yet I insist that I know nothing of the matter. Someone has hidden these in my mask without my knowledge.”
Harlan Ames was unyielding. “It’s for others to determine, sir. For now I must ask you to come with me. Let’s not make this more difficult than necessary.”
The prince snapped off a grim nod and Ames led him to an adjoining room, followed by Tom and Bud, and Mr. Swift.
Mr. Swift pulled the door shut behind him. Vusungira let out his breath and smiled slightly. “I trust my theatrical performance was adequate?”
“You belong in Hamlet, Your Highness,” Bud joked and Tom shook the man’s hand.
“All right,” said Mr. Swift. “Now we’ve got the others believing that the figure in the lab hasn’t yet been discovered, and that the statues planted in the mask have succeeded in casting suspicion on His Majesty.”
“As Tom reasoned when we found them earlier, that’s the obvious purpose—to falsely implicate the Prince,” Ames nodded.
Damon Swift frowned. “But I don’t quite follow the thread of all this. How were you able to satisfy yourself that this plot was directed against our royal guest, son?”
Tom explained, “Because I was able to put together a sequence of events that didn’t make much sense otherwise. Some glass fragments underneath Buddha showed that the nearby shelf had been shoved over first, before the statuette was put in position.”
“Which my royal personage could not have accomplished,” interjected Prince Vusungira, “as I was being sat upon at the time.”
“Unless it was just a careless accident, I’d guess the shelf was knocked over so we’d discover the figure while cleaning up,” Tom continued. “Whoever’s behind this is quick at thinking on his feet, taking advantage of my inadvertent blackout—but he didn’t know that what was happening in the dark would foul his plans.”
Harlan Ames chuckled. “These young engineers need some seasoning before they go seriously into the espionage game.”
“Genius boy’s had a lot of seasoning since his first invention,” noted Bud gleefully. “Jetz! I was ready to do a little of that fancy bowing when Tom told me about it after we left the lab.”
“As was I,” stated Vusungira; “redoubled when our search revealed the two hidden ones in my mask. Yet who is the culprit?”
Tom responded thoughtfully, “Perhaps someone who wishes to alter the new line of succession.” His thoughts were: And it’s Prince Jahan who has a special interest in that issue! “Now on to Phase Two!”
“Mighty smart of you, boss, to make the group think you hadn’t yet discovered the first statue,” nodded Ames.
“And smart of you to come up with a way to use that fact to apply a bit of pressure, Harlan,” commended Mr. Swift.
Bud grinned. “Let’s go make somebody sweat!”
Leaving Ames and Vusungira behind, the other three reentered the room. Tom announced soberly, “Fellows, you need to be aware that His Highness is now in custody and will be turned over to federal marshals.”
“He is surely innocent!” protested Gyong.
“Then we’ll trust his innocence will be proven,” the young inventor replied. “I intend to use a special detection device to learn if it was the Prince who handled the statues.”
“What sort of device, sir?” asked one of the students. “For fingerprints, perhaps?”
“No, it’s my new photronic ultra-DNAlyzer, which detects the traces of individual DNA emanations that are picked up and stored by metal molecules through skin contact.”
“Yet surely he would have taken precautions?” objected Rakshi. “To prevent fingerprints, he would surely have worn gloves.”
Tom shrugged. “Then the test won’t show anything. It only works if there was direct skin contact. We’ll see.”
The students filed out glumly, and Tom’s father quickly apprised the others of the series of events. “Holy Moe!” gulped Hank Sterling. “So what happens now?”
“Everyone was bare-handed this afternoon in the lab,” Tom replied. “As he had to act quickly, without planning, I’m betting our spy didn’t think to slip on gloves or use a handkerchief. So right now he’s in a panic, thinking we’ll identify him with my Magical Mythical Machine when we run across the statue.”
Bud’s grin was almost wicked. “So later tonight the lab will have a secret visit—from an unseasoned spy in a cold sweat!”
Two AM was passing across the Enterprises sky when a click announced that someone had unmade the lab’s door lock. A silhouette snuck across the tile, and a tiny beam, from a pencil-flash, pinned down a solemn bronze figure seated on a shelf in lotus position.
Suddenly a glow suffused the electronics lab—and a shriek of alarm and fear!
“Trying out a new style, Rakshi?” asked Tom Swift dryly, crouching next to the controls of his electrodynamic modulator.
Rakshi’s stylishly combed black hair stood out from his scalp like a gigantic dandelion puff!
Bud rose into view, holding one of the electric impulse guns developed by the Swifts. “Or are you just glad to see us?”
“Wh-what have you done to me?” gasped the young Vishnapurian, feeling about the crown of his head, like a weasel darting through tall grass.
Tom switched off his machine. “Just a slight electrostatic charge I thought I’d beam across the lab—to add a little drama to the dreary lives of after-hours intruders.”
“Back away from Buddha, pal,” Bud commanded.
Rakshi raised his hands, glaring in fury. “Okay, guys, so I’m caught. I’m also a foreign visitor in America with permission and diplomatic papers. Get it? I’ll be shuffled back to Vishnapur before the sun has a chance to get up!”
“Maybe,” said Tom. “You may not enjoy what happens back home, though. I think your secret sponsors will be even more upset with you than the King.” Rakshi’s sudden flush of white indicated his unvoiced agreement.
Raksi was indeed gone by sunrise, leaving a tired Tom and Bud to review that matter with Prince Vusungira over breakfast. “Evidently political matters in my country are not as settled as we have believed,” mused the royal. “But I can’t accept the notion that my cousin Jahan is involved in this. He is a good man.”
“But it could be someone who would gain if Jahan became King,” Tom pointed out. “Or it might be a faction who only intend to use the issue to block the modernization program.”
“Yes, Tom,” Vusungira conceded, “for there are those who object to westernization on grounds of religion and tradition.”
“Your Highness, what was that you mentioned?” asked Bud. “About a clue?”
“Perhaps I myself am a bit of an amateur sleuth as well as a cook,” chuckled the Crown Prince. “I noticed at once that these Buddha figures are not merely trinkets of the sort mass-produced for tourists. You see, by tradition there are many different ‘Buddhas,’ differentiated by certain details of how they are portrayed. The common one, the ‘Happy Buddha’ giving his blessing, is the one most people know. But these statuettes portray something quite rare, the ‘Mocking Buddha,’ who holds a branch to chastise fools.”
“Is this sort of figure unusual enough for us to be able to track down where it came from?” Tom inquired.
“If we were in Asia, no. But all of us—myself excepted—passed through our own stringent security procedures upon leaving Vishnapur for America by plane, and I feel certain the three figures would have been detected if they were being carried at that time. Assuming I myself am not the guilty party,” he added with a wink.
“And so,” Tom noted, “they must have been picked up by Rakshi while you were all in New York.”
“That is my thinking as well. We all had some private time to engage in sightseeing. If there is a place in New York that sells the ‘Mocking Buddha,’ it could well be a front for this group of subversives. Someone working there might have inserted the listening circuitry and is involved in this distasteful plotting.”
“True,” said Bud. “Of course—they might just be importing these things from a supplier someplace without knowing what they’ve got. Tom had to use his prying-eye gadgets to look inside.”
“But perhaps you will get, at least, a lead.”
Some investigations the next day produced the desired result. As it turned out there was such a place in Manhattan—one only.
“‘Treasures of Tibet.’ I think Bud and I will pay that place a visit,” Tom told Harlan Ames and Phil Radnor.
Bud remarked, “This office could use a few more Buddhas.”
Late that afternoon the two boys flew to New York City in the Skeeter, a jetrocopter—an advanced jet heliplane which Tom had designed. From the marine facility on Long Island leased by Swift Enterprises they taxied to East Twenty-Eighth Street and entered the import shop, Treasures of Tibet, whose window bore a sticker: China—Hands Off Tibet!
Its interior was dim and musty. The front section displayed silken saris, rugs, jewelry, and Oriental art objects. Its back wall shelves were piled high with jars and cartons of East Indian foodstuffs, such as ginger, saffron, and spices. Bud nudged Tom and indicated the label on one container—“Yorb from Vishnapur.”
A man came round the counter and shuffled forward to greet the youths. He was an elderly, dark-skinned man with a kindly face and gentle eyes. “Welcome, young sirs. How may I help you?”
“Are you the owner, sir?” asked Tom.
“Indeed yes. I am Mr. Singh,” he replied.
Tom pulled out one of the Buddha figures from his pocket. “I believe you sell these ‘Mocking Buddha’ statues, don’t you? I received one as a gift, and would like a companion piece for it. I know it was purchased here in Manhattan.”
“Why yes, we do import these,” he said. He pointed to a small mark on the underside. “This one is from Vishnapur, and we have others that are identical.”
Bud spoke up. “Er—this was given by one of our friends who wanted to be anonymous. The note challenged us to try to figure out who it was—sort of a joke. We were thinking you might help us win the contest.”
“Oh, I see, I see,” nodded the man. “I believe we did sell one the other day—ah, even several. Rather odd, as few know of this ‘Mocking’ style of Lord Buddha.”
Smiling, Tom asked if Mr. Singh had retained any information about the purchaser. “I saw only the record of the sale. It was handled by my clerk, Mr. Susak.” He gestured, and for the first time Tom and Bud realized that there was a fourth person in the shop—a thin, sallow-faced young man—who had come out of the back room and was listening closely. “Benni, do you recall—?”
Susak shrugged. “Yes, sir. I remember him asking for the Mocking Buddha quite definitely. A rather young man.”
“Narrows it down,” Bud commented.
“I’m afraid he gave no name. He purchased three of them. We are almost out, now.”
“I’d like to buy one more, if I may.”
Benni Susak suddenly appeared flummoxed. “Oh! I see. But pardon me, I meant to say that we are out of them—we have no more at present. Too bad.”
Mr. Singh laughed. “But where is your mind, Benni? I saw one upon the back shelf just this morning.” He turned to his visitors. “I’ll get it for you.”
Tom asked a few more questions in a casual manner and learned that all goods carried by the shop, produced in India, Burma, Nepal, and Vishnapur, were obtained from the firm of exporters in Mumbai—Bombay—who were the actual owners of Treasures of Tibet. “If you are curious, you might wish to contact Mukerji and Sons,” suggested Mr. Singh.
Purchase completed and neatly wrapped, the boys left with expressions of thanks.
“That clerk looks like a phony to me,” Bud muttered as they walked away. “He sure wasn’t thrilled at selling that statue. I’ll bet this Buddha has an unenlightened stomach too. An overstock on bugware.”
Tom agreed. “And our visit may worry him. It’s almost closing time. Let’s see where he goes after work. Maybe to warn someone the plot’s in danger.”
After circling the block, Bud found a lookout spot in a dark doorway across the street, next to a movie theater that had seen better days and a higher caliber of entertainment. Tom stationed himself in the alleyway behind the shop. A pile of trash—steel drums and discarded crates—hid him from view.
Presently Susak came out the back door. He glanced around furtively, in the traditional suspicion-provoking manner, then scurried off down the alley. He appeared to be carrying something in the crook of his arm, slouching to conceal it.
The man rounded a corner, ducking into a narrow gap between the old buildings. After waiting a moment, Tom started in cautious pursuit. Edging his eyes around the corner, he stifled a surprised grunt. To his amazement, Susak was already out of sight! Had the clerk slipped into the alley entrance of some other building?
As Tom darted forward to investigate, he passed a grime-laden door. A slight noise made him turn his head just enough to see an arm lunge into view—an arm clutching a heavy stick!
In an instant Tom was sprawled on the pavement, dead to the world!
TOM stirred and opened his eyes as consciousness painfully returned. “What happened?” he wondered dully.
A huge gray rat scuttled across his line of vision.
Wincing, Tom forced himself to his feet, and rubbed his throbbing head gingerly. He struggled to collect his wits while looking around the alley.
Suddenly he remembered what had happened. “That clerk—Susak! He must have guessed he was being followed and was lying in wait for me!”
Tom was disgusted. The suspect had slipped through his fingers! And as it developed there was worse to come—both the Buddha Tom had brought, and the Buddha Tom had bought, were gone!
Good night! he thought in self reproach. There was nothing to do but join Bud and return to Enterprises.
Brushing himself off, Tom strode through the alley and across the street that ran in front of the import shop. He darted to the dark doorway which Bud had selected for his stakeout—but he was no longer there!
Tom was perplexed. Could Bud have spotted Susak after the man emerged from the alley? The young inventor knew Bud would call him on his cellphone. Fishing the instrument from his pocket, glad that it hadn’t also gone missing, Tom noted that a new voicemail message was waiting. “Hey, pal, you don’t need to stake the guy any more—he came running out the alley and grabbed a cab. I’m following him now—you know, ‘follow that car!’. Call. I’ll put the phone on vibe, but if I don’t pick up, I’m probably in the middle of a shootout! Anyway, don’t get clunked on the head this time, okay Skipper?”
Tom called and found his friend available. Bud said the taxi had dropped Susak at a cheap rooming house near Battery Park. “His name’s not on the doorbell cards, but there’s somebody who sounds like a countryman—J. Radamantha, Apartment 305. The other names are hispanic.”
As he told his chum what had happened, Tom’s brain was working fast. “Bud, I have a hunch Susak doped out that I was waiting for him and panicked. So he dropped me to give himself time for a getaway.”
“Then why would he risk stopping here?”
“Maybe to clear out some incriminating evidence. Are you sure he didn’t spot you?”
“Fairly sure,” Bud replied. “Which I guess means, No.”
“Where are you now?”
“A little cement playground down the street. I have the rooming house in plain sight.”
“Okay. I’ll call the FBI and get there fast.” Tom recorded the address Bud provided and added, “Don’t let him get away!”
Bud chuckled. “You’re not gonna warn me not to get knocked out?”
“For all the good that ever does.”
Tom made a quick call to the FBI field office, then took a taxi to the street Bud had given him. He got out some distance down the street and started walking back toward the rooming house. He quickly found where Bud was waiting, next to a forlorn swingset.
Minutes later a black car glided to the curb. A square-shouldered, gray-suited man in a snap-brim hat leaped out and walked over to Tom. “Hello, boys,” he said.
Tom nodded. “Thanks for coming so quickly, Agent Martin.”
The man looked surprised. “Excuse me? I just stopped to ask for directions.”
As the man drove off again, Bud groaned. “Good grief, our boy Benni’s going to lose himself before the FBI gets here!”
“Let’s consider ourselves deputized. Maybe we can find out something about that rooming house.”
They strode toward the rooming house, hurried up the steps, and walked in the front entrance. The tenement building was shabby and dirty. A spring lock on the inner door did not work.
“Whether or not he lives here, apparently our chum had no trouble getting in,” Tom observed as he pushed the door open.
Inside was a long hallway ending in a flight of stairs. Tom and Bud hurried up the steps as cautiously and quietly as possible, earning a few suspicious stares through some half-opened doors. The wailing of babies and the clamor of television was everywhere.
As they neared 305, weird East Indian music reached their American-tuned ears.
“Susak’s in the room,” Bud declared in a whisper. “With that racket going on, we could slip in and take him before he knows we’re there!”
Tom was puzzled. If Susak were eager to make a getaway, why would he be lingering in his room? Then a new thought occurred to him.
“Did anyone else arrive here after Susak?”
Bud shook his head. “Nobody except us. Why?”
“Susak may have called someone—maybe his boss in the spy setup—and now he’s waiting for that person to pick him up.”
“Good hunch, Tom,” Bud agreed. “Maybe we should wait and see who comes up.”
They found that the landing halfway up the stairs to the next floor afforded a good hiding place, with a peep view of the door to the suspect apartment. Here they waited, tense and silent. Minutes dragged by. Suddenly Tom gasped in dismay.
“What’s wrong?” Bud hissed.
“That music! The same piece has played three times now—the player must be on auto-repeat!”
Bud’s face fell. “Good grief! You mean Susak’s not even in there?”
Tom was already on the move. He hurried down to the door, Bud behind him, and found to his surprise that it was not only unlocked but open a slit. With a gulp Tom inched the door open.
The furnished room was vacant! It was clear from the turned-out drawers and general disarray that Susak had made a hasty flight. “Aw jetz, he’s off on his merry way to somewhere!” Bud groaned.
“My lousy attempt to tail him must’ve made him extra alert. I’ll bet he noticed your taxi following him, Bud, or else he spotted you after he got here,” Tom speculated. “So he ducked out either by the roof or the rear fire escape.”
Chagrined by the suspect’s escape, the two entered and looked around, careful not to touch or disturb anything. “These magazines are in Hindi,” Tom pointed out.
“No surprise with this incense in the air. And look.” Bud was leaning down over a trash basket. “I see a trashed envelope with a name handwritten on it—Jaisit Radamantha. And the return address― ”
Tom’s face was right next to his friend’s. “Mukerji and Sons, Ltd.—Mumbai, India!”
The delayed and embarrassed FBI agent, Martin, finally arrived. His search of the room failed to turn up any further clues. “Our guys’ll go over it, of course,” he said. “Fingerprints, hairs, the works. But for now I don’t see anything screamin’ out at me. And I have to point out,” he had to point out, “Mr. Susak is only a ‘person of interest’ at the moment.”
“True,” conceded Tom. “I don’t even know if he’s the one who slammed me in the alley.”
“Right. This is New York, you know.”
“I hear it’s a lot better, though,” Bud remarked.
The FBI agent telephoned the police, requesting that all prowl cars be on the lookout for the fugitive “person.” Then he drove Tom and Bud to the jetrocopter and they returned to Shopton with their freight of mystery.
Next day brought Tom both possibilities and disturbing news. A call alerted the scientist-inventor that the Kronus probe had begun to orbit Titan in an even more erratic manner, giving Tom a renewed sense of urgency. If anything could be done, it would have to happen sooner—not later!
Bud dropped by the laboratory and found his pal deeply engrossed in an experiment. Tom was just switching off a vacuum pump connected to a thick-walled chamber with a view-window of ultrastrong Tomaquartz. Inside the chamber, a small object, like a ping-pong ball, hung from a nylon cord, while the large model of the electrodynamic controller glowed on the workbench at Tom’s elbow.
“What’s this—a new game?” Bud asked.
Tom chuckled. “No, a demonstration of how I hope to rescue that loopy satellite. I guess my head-bang yesterday shook down a few fresh thoughts.”
“It should happen to me. Give me the low-down, prof.”
“Well, let’s pretend that the ball is the satellite,” Tom began. He switched on his dyna-field device and trained the sphere’s inner focusing ring toward the chamber.
Instantly the hanging ball swung toward Tom!
“Neat, genius boy. How does it work—by magnetic attraction?”
“Nope. You might say I’m using the machine to turn the problem against itself.” When Bud looked jocularly blank, Tom explained that the scientists in charge of the Kronus project had finally gained some insight into the cause of the satellite’s strange behavior. “Their analysis is based on new data from Japanese space studies involving the solar wind—the stream of charged particles that jet into space from the sun.”
“Which you’ve used on a couple inventions already.”
“Yes, but without too much knowledge of some of its details—for example, the specific process that accelerates the particles, which are mostly hydrogen atoms and helium nucleii, to something like two million miles per hour!”
Bud gulped. “Hey! You just stunned my quip-maker!”
“The team consulted Aciema Musa and her study group on Fearing Island, who think the new data indicates that something called Alfven Waves—huge surges of magnetic force induced by the interactions among the charged particles—are driving the wind. The particle-wind makes space a conductor of what amounts to electric current, producing erratic ‘eddies,’ called spicules, near the sun’s surface. Now it looks like similar eddies are disrupting the local environment around Saturn, which Titan is part of.”
“High winds and bad weather, hunh?”
“Very high!” Tom grinned. “Basically, the solar-wind Alfven Waves are interacting with the halo of gas molecules and ice particles that surround all the giant planets and give Saturn those big rings. Some of the material is always being scooped into space from the various moons by the ‘wind,’ or blasted into space by meteor impacts or volcanism.”
“And that’s what’s bouncing the space probe around?”
“They think so. Now what I’m trying to do with this, mm, yet-unnamed polar-ray beamer is to distort the electrodynamics of the effect in the area of the Kronus. The main idea is to turn the surges back on themselves to change the direction of push, and also to concentrate it. You can see what happens. The near-vacuum in the test chamber contains a haze of charged atoms and replicates the Alfven Wave space phenomenon on a small scale.”
Bud nodded enthusiastically. “And it works! You’re basically going to shove the Kronus back on track—like using a hose to blow leaves out of a drain gutter. But look, Skipper, why not just use a big repelatron to push the satellite around? Couldn’t the Nameless Wonder beam the repulsion field across space—like you did the other day with the electrostatic field?”
The young inventor shook his head. “Wish I could. But the dyna-field only affects electrical and magnetic dipole phenomena. The repelatron’s spacewaves are based on an entirely different principle. It interacts with the force that holds the atomic nucleus together, called the strong nuclear force.”
“Okay. Scratch my Swift idea.”
“My Swift idea is tough enough,” replied Tom wryly. “This little lab demo is nothing compared to the difficulties involved in producing controlled effects on the other side of the solar system. It’ll require a much more advanced model. But I’ve already begun designing it in my head.”
Bud snorted admiringly. “Glad you’re keeping busy, chum.”
“Busier than that—I’ve also been thinking of a carrier spacecraft to mount it on. I’m beginning to realize how the device could have many uses. If I can beam out a powerful enough field― ”
A call from the Security Office interrupted the thought. “Harlan Ames,” Tom murmured to Bud as he answered. “Maybe it’s news on our Buddha mystery.”
It was. “Agent Martin just contacted me, Tom, about Benni Susak. He’s dead!”
“The police found his body—I suppose it’s not exactly his body now—washed up on the East River docks. He’d been beaten to death with some sort of club or blunt instrument, looks like. No sign of those little statues, by the way. Guess somebody wanted them back bad.”
Tom paused, shocked. “Was anything else found on him? It looked to me that he was carrying something when he left the shop, something too big to put in his pocket.”
“Funny you should ask, boss. Something was found on him,” reported Harlan Ames. “And when I say on him, I mean that literally!”
SWIFT SKY RESCUE
AS Bud listened in excitedly, Ames explained to his puzzled boss that the unfortunate Benni Susak had been found to bear a peculiar tattoo that might be of significance to the case. “Oh? I didn’t notice any tattoos, Harlan,” Tom remarked.
“Right—because it wasn’t there! Despite the effects of river water, not to mention being beaten to a pulp, the medical examiner thinks Susak was already dead when the tattoo was inscribed on the back of his neck.”
“What did it say, Harlan?” Bud asked. “One of those ‘dire warnings,’ maybe?”
“No, it didn’t say anything—no words, just a picture. Offhand I have no idea what it signifies, or even what it is. Then again, I suppose the perps didn’t have much time for artistry.” Ames asked his young boss to stop by the office to look over what he’d been faxed from New York City.
The image turned out to be very hard to describe and impossible to identify. “What the heck is it?” Bud asked. “Some kind of crab?”
“It looks more like a plant,” offered Ames. “Maybe an undersea plant.”
Triangular “fins,” ending in curved claws or thorns, fanned out from a central body. At the top was something shaped like a sea-shell, with markings inside it. “Can’t imagine what it is,” Tom murmured, fascinated. “Which end is up?”
“The FBI is trying to identify it. It could be a symbol used by an Asian or Indian gang,” Ames explained. “They’re holding this back from the media for now, as they often do—helps separate the good tips from the bogus ones. You can keep this copy, boss.”
As Tom and Bud entered the Swifts’ shared office next door, Bud’s skepticism was writ large on his handsome face. “Makes no sense to me, Skipper. I know nutjobs like Li Ching leave ‘calling cards.’ So do serial killers. You gotta wonder, why leave these dumb ‘clues’ that just help the police to track you down? In-your-face arrogance?”
Tom shrugged. “Don’t count it out. In this case it could be an attempt to plant a false lead—maybe that was the whole point from the beginning. On the other hand,” he added mischievously, “I hear wolves make a point of marking their turf!”
They spent some time on the office PER unit speaking to Sandy, Bashalli, and Chow in Vishnapur. “Oh Tom, it’s just wonderful here!” Sandy enthused. “The royal buildings—it’s like a combination city and museum!”
“Shor is fancy stuff,” noted Chow. “Feel like I orta wipe m’ fingerprints off ever’thing I touch. An’ then ya got these here elephants runnin’ around.”
Tom laughed. “Do they have elephant traffic jams at rush hour?”
“With trumpeting instead of honks,” giggled Bash. “Thomas, you really must try to get here in time for the festival.”
“We’ll try,” replied the young inventor.
“Better try right hard, son,” Chow added meaningfully as the call ended. “That prince feller’s got more charm’n he knows what t’do with. Yew catch my drift?”
Tom’s father passed through the office briefly on his way to a meeting at the Swift Construction Company across town, and Tom reported on the Benni Susak affair.
After he had left, Tom and Bud chatted for a time. Suddenly George Dilling came rushing in, swathed in panic! “Tom!”
Bud grumbled sarcastically, “Do we ever finish a sentence around here?”
“There’s a—I just—they want—!”
“Come on, slow down, George,” Tom interrupted. “What’s going on?”
“The FAA just called me on my cell—there’s some kind of crippled airline flight—a disaster on the way! They’re asking if Enterprises can do anything!”
“Which means you, Skipper!” Bud exclaimed.
Tom asked for the details. “I’ll tell you what they told me—talk to them directly for more,” answered Dilling, wiping his brow with an Enterprises-monogramed handkerchief. “A big passenger jetliner out of India is over the Atlantic right now, apparently on autopilot. It’s en route to Baltimore. They’ve lost touch with the pilots—completely! The cockpit is totally sealed off, and the flight attendants are reporting by cellphone that they can’t communicate with the pilots either. It’s slowly drifting off course minute by minute.”
“Heading for a crackup,” declared Tom grimly. “But why can’t they get into the cockpit?”
“Something about a security system—protection against terrorist takeovers.”
“Okay, George, put me in touch with whoever knows something about it.”
It developed that the commercial flight, out of New Delhi, had gone silent while crossing Spain, with no prior warning or hint of any unusual conditions aboard. A representative of the Indian airline company explained to Tom: “With respect to our cockpit, Mr. Swift, the company has instituted new safety measures. In effect, the cockpit is an entirely separate unit from the passenger section, entered through its own hatchway in the hull. The connecting door has been welded shut. Indeed, even direct communication by intercom is prevented, to discourage hostage-taking among the passengers, by terrorists who might use such threats to impose some new course upon the pilots. But something must have happened to the flight crew, two very experienced and trusted pilots. It has been almost ninety minutes since ground contact was lost.”
“Do you know anything about the physical condition of the jet?” asked Tom.
“Such telemetry as we have indicates that there are no mechanical problems or failures in the major systems, and fuel is adequate for now. But what of the future? The pilots may well be dead!”
“I—I think we may be able to help, sir. Please transmit to Enterprises blueprints and specs for the jetliner, and its precise course and location.”
“Immediately, Mr. Swift. I pray you can do something!”
The call ended, and Bud stared at his friend. “Whoa!”
It took only minutes for the Sky Queen to take to the air with a skeleton crew, Bud manning the controls as Tom pored over what had been sent to him electronically.
“Well—I’ve eliminated a few approaches, Bud,” Tom muttered. “That’s a kind of a start, I guess. It looks like our minidrone landing-forcers couldn’t affect this brand of system electronics.”
Bud glanced back over his shoulder. “Maybe you could use the Challenger, as you did in bringing the Highroad down.”
Some time before, while Tom had been perfecting his megascope space prober, Bud had participated in an attempt to make a manned flyby of the planet Venus. When his craft had become disabled, Tom had used the Challenger to carry it down to Earth safely, papoose style, on the cushioning beams of its repelatrons.
Tom had to shake away the idea. “This jetliner is a lot bigger and bulkier than the Highroad command module, flyboy. We’d have to put so much repelatron power into carrying it we wouldn’t be able to keep aloft.”
A crewman, Jack Vincenzo, cleared his throat respectfully and asked, “Okay, but you do have something in mind—right?”
“Yes. Something off-the-wall. It’s why I brought along the new polar-ray machine, Jack. I’m working on the plan. But as they say, the devil is in the details.”
“In this case,” muttered Bud tensely, “I’d say the devil is in the clock!”
As the Flying Lab hurdled the miles at supersonic speed, Tom’s tentative, hopeful plan evolved into solid action. When radar detected the jetliner nosing toward them ahead, Bud took the Sky Queen in a loop that brought her into a station-keeping position some two hundred feet above the stricken craft, slowing her to the cruising speed of the jet. “Okay, Tom. Speed matched. We’re in position. Ready?”
“Dressed and ready.” The young inventor had donned a pressurized flight suit and spoke to his pal via the suit’s transiphone.
Descending to the lower deck, Tom entered the skyship’s big hangar-hold, sealing the hatch behind him. He ran a quick, final check of the dyna-field machine, which had been firmly bolted to the deck. Then he ran a cable of twisted Tomasite fibers through a ring on his suit harness, hooking its free end to a stanchion. The other end was coiled around a winch-drum, putting Tom at the vertex of a V. This ought to hold me in place! he told himself, urging the truth.
It would be death if it didn’t, as Tom intended to partially lower the hangar deck, opening it to the battering-ram force of the airstream!
The rescue of the jetliner depended upon a skillful utilization of the youth’s new invention. The test model was far too puny to affect the craft directly, in the manner Tom planned to employ to give the Kronus its shove to safety. But Tom calculated that he could use the dyna-field to distort and extend the intense electromagnetic flux surrounding the pontoon-like nacelles of the Sky Queen’s aeolivanes. Mounted on either side of the bottom of the fuselage, this pair of devices used intensely localized electromagnetic fields to funnel the air streaming next to the hull toward the ship’s contoured underhull, providing additional lift to the wingless Queen. It was Tom’s plan to beam these aeolivane fields to the jetliner, using them to alter the airflow around its wings. If all went well, this would allow him to guide the jetliner along, and eventually to slow it for a safe water landing near the coast—far ahead, but now not so far.
“All right, Bud,” Tom signaled. “Lower away.” His heart thudded. It understood the danger ahead.
With the slightest of jolts, the deck began to descend like an elevator on its extension pistons. As a thread of sky appeared, the windwash blasted the young inventor, rocking him backwards. His safety line snapped taut.
“Okay, Tom?” came Bud’s voice, almost lost beneath the roar filling Tom’s helmet. “Want me to take in the line a bit?”
“Maybe three feet—the controls are out of reach.” Tom was unable to make any headway toward the machine against the wind. His feet were barely skimming the deck! Good gosh, I’m just about flying like a human kite! he gulped.
The winch-drum began to turn, reeling in the cable. As it slipped through Tom’s suit-ring, the tension inched him forward against the roaring blast. He stretched out a hand toward the polar-ray machine’s master control.
And then the cable broke.
A TWO-FACED VACATION
TOM SWIFT cannoned backwards helplessly across the deck. The break had occurred where the cable-end had attached to the stanchion, and as Tom hurtled at, literally, jet speed, the now uncoupled safety line sizzed through the ring on his harness.
His brain formed no words, but even as the rear edge of the deck flashed by and he shot into space, he had managed to grab the slithering cable with his thickly gloved hands. The cable whipped through them, and for a terrifying instant Tom was sure its torn end would fly through the harness ring before he could get a grip. Almost by instinct he exerted full pressure, trying to tangle the fleeing line about his forearm. He saw the cable-end darting toward him—and then was snapped to a painful halt as his grip took hold.
Dragged along by the Sky Queen at the end of a string, he spun and bounced in open air twenty feet behind the hangar deck!
Battered, in agonizing pain, it was impossible for the youth to collect his thoughts. But there was a voice in his ear. “Pulling in!” The winch was continuing to revolve. At the controls, Bud had seen what had happened on the deck videocam!
Vision was chaos. Tom couldn’t mark the moment when he again passed across the aft edge of the deck. But at some point he was sprawled flat on a deck that had just clicked back into place in the hold of the ship.
Infrared heatlamps spread their warming glow as Tom lay in surging pain, barely conscious. In seconds the hatchway hissed open and Bud and Jack came sprinting in.
“G-genius boy!” Bud cried, kneeling down to unseal his pal’s helmet and bring his white, bruised, blue-lipped face into the open air.
Tom eyelids tremored. “Uh—I—oww!”
“We’ve got to get him to a doctor,” fretted Jack. “He’s pretty banged up.”
“No... no,” gasped the young inventor. “I’ll be okay. I have to work the machine. No other way.”
“No, l-look.” Tom struggled to his feet, trying very hard not to wince. The arm that had been wrapped in the cable shrilled with shouts of pain. “See, guys, I’m... all right.”
Bud impulsively drew Tom into a bearhug. “I’d never accuse you of lying, Skipper,” he murmured. “But I know you are.”
“Th-thanks for reeling me in.”
“Tom, you’ve got to stop this business of falling out of planes.”
“I’m trying to quit.”
Jack examined the end of the cable. “The lynch-hook failed at the join,” he pronounced. “Easy to splice up. But are you sure you want to trust it again?”
Tom said bleakly, “I’ll have to.”
In minutes the program resumed. The deck was again lowered and Tom began to work the controls of the electrodynamic modulator, daring the waves of pain to distract him. Over the open edge of the deck Tom could see the stricken jet below.
“Take the Queen closer, Bud.” The Flying Lab descended, but the youths knew there was a limit. To maintain forward flight without the full lift of the aeolivanes, Bud would have to open up the jet lifters slightly. The down-thrusting jets would endanger the stability of the liner at too-close range.
Tom tuned the dyna-field to the form and frequency of the aeolivane flux. Contact! He rotated the focusing ring and began to extend the field downward.
At a touch of the controls, he saw the jetliner sway against the clouds beneath it, just a hair. “It’s working!” he exulted. “Start feeding me the numbers, Bud.”
The rest was easy—if taken proportionally to what had gone before. The jetliner was herded toward a waiting rescue ship, then guided downward, gently. Finally, as it was nearly clipping the waves, Tom used the field to divert the airstream away from the jet intakes. The jets stalled out—just as the craft skimmered down onto the cushion of the Atlantic. “She’s down,” Tom breathed. Above, Bud and Jack cheered.
Tom spent the flight back to Shopton lying flat in sickbay, powerful analgesics stifling his pain. At Enterprises the plant’s young medic, Doc Simpson, gave him the once-over. “Bruises and muscle trauma,” he pronounced. “Nothing broken. You managed to keep all your bones in their sockets. And of course we don’t bother worrying about your skull anymore. Anyway, let’s keep that arm wrapped for a couple days. By the way,” Doc added, “how are those plane passengers?”
“I’m told everyone was taken off in fine shape,” Tom replied. “That is—the passengers were.”
“What about the two pilots?”
Tom’s brow furrowed. “When they opened up the cockpit, the pilots were alive but unconscious; still are. The first examinations were inconclusive. No sign of anoxia—the hull was tight. But... it’s strange...”
“They were badly bruised all over their heads and faces.”
Simpson shrugged. “I suppose they got tossed around in the cockpit.”
“But that’s the thing—there wasn’t any turbulence. The passengers report a perfectly smooth flight.”
Doc smiled but looked Tom in the eye warily. “Skipper, if you even try to tell me some invisible sky gremlin attacked them, I’m putting you in cold storage for a week!”
Tom smiled weakly. “I don’t have a theory this time, Doc.”
Keeping in frequent touch with Sandy and the other Vishnapur tourists, who were anxious that he and Bud rejoin them, Tom spent several days working on the more powerful dyna-field machine and the special vehicle he had in mind to carry it.
The device finally had its name-christening. “Genius boy, that dynaxio-whatsis name you came up with is birdseed on toast, not to mention tough on the tonsils. How about polar-ray dynasphere? Hmm? Whataya think?”
Tom grinned at his friend and frequent rescuer. “That’s amazing—I came up with the same name!” He sneaked a hand over the notebook open on his desk, where he had scrawled the word spatiodynex.
The young inventor then showed Bud the design for the vehicle. Bud stared at the flatscreen for a long moment. “Now that’s something I never expected to see. It looks a little like my old portable phone.”
The carrier craft was flat-sided and had a sharply angled, three-sided U-shape. The leg of the U that served as the prow was topped by the pilot’s dome, with the big crystal sphere—the dynasphere—at the end of the other leg, which was longer and higher. “Are these parabolic dishes along the ‘spine’ repelatrons?”
Tom nodded. “Yup. You see, I’ve realized that this invention, which I started off thinking of as just a test instrument, has some practical uses even beyond the Kronus rescue. The same principle could be used on dead Earth satellites and other space junk, to clear the spacelanes and keep falling hunks of metal from, say, wiping out Detroit.”
“We sure could’ve used something like that on the GenRev job.”
“Exactly. So—the repelatrons will be used to guide and cushion whatever the dyna-field reels in, so we can cart it home on our back.”
“I see.” Bud pointed to the lower side of the hull. “What about these metal ears?” The objects had a curving horn-shape with oval, angled-off rims that scooped outward and downward.
“Those are more repelatrons,” Tom explained, “but with a special new design. As you know, the repulsion field isn’t stable too close to the surface, because the lag effect prevents the radiator antennas from being readjusted quickly enough to match the changing composition of the ground.”
“Right—no room on this little baby for a set of super-repelatrons like the Challenger has.”
“Not enough power, either. So I’ve outfitted it with what I’m calling horizon-scan repelatrons. On both sides, they’ll push against the horizon, which is so far off that the element details are blurred together into a generalized ‘signature.’ The main problem to solve at this point is the liftoff. Since the thrust is sideways, the vertical vector of the push is practically zero.”
“Good hunting, pal.”
Tom had already directed his engineers and construction team to commence assembling the midget spacecraft, which he had named the Dyna Ranger. Seeing that progress was satisfactory, he told his mother and father:
“My staying in Shopton won’t speed construction at this point, and I can run my computer as easily in the Himalayas as at Enterprises. Bud and I—and Harlan Ames—might as well take that trip to Vishnapur. It’ll be another nine or ten days before I can make the attempt to fix the Kronus problem.”
“The basic conformation for the carrier craft is all worked out?”
“Right, Dad. I’ll ask Hank to assign the systems engineers. Art Wiltessa can follow through on the new dyna-field device as I transmit the specs to him.”
Mr. Swift considered a moment. “A great deal rests upon this, Tom, with respect to planetary research. Then you can have the project well under way by the end of the week?”
Tom nodded eagerly. “Yes, and the mission control people are sure we have at least a couple more weeks before the Kronus orbit goes critical. But the construction and testing will need supervision while I’m gone. Could you—er― ”
His father smiled. “I’ll be happy to boss it, son,” agreed Damon Swift. “It’ll be cutting it close, but there’s really nothing to be done to shorten the time. I see no reason why you couldn’t work out the final details of the new dynasphere in Vishnapur and send your instructions back to Hank Sterling and Arv Hanson.”
“Dad—thanks.” Tom grinned. “My aching arm and I need a vacation. And having a little inventing work will be a vacation from my vacation—which makes two vacations.”
Tom’s mother spoke up. “It’s a wonderful opportunity, dear. And you surely must need a vacation. It’s not like you to leave a mystery behind unsolved.”
“Don’t worry, I’m not,” he explained. “I plan to make a stopover in India to look up those exporters who sent Mr. Singh the Mocking Buddha. That counts as keeping my nose to the mystery, right? And don’t forget, there’s also the other mystery of that space-lightning from the Himalayas.” He added with a frown, “—though whether its a scientific mystery or a human mystery, I don’t know. But I will!”
LATE Sunday evening the Shy Queen took off for Asia. Included in Tom’s party were Harlan Ames and several crewmen.
Tom had also invited Crown Prince Vusungira and the other engineering trainees to take the luxury ride back to their homeland. They all were delighted at the chance to ride in the huge, sun-powered Flying Lab, famous across the earth.
“I have to stop off in Mumbai on some company business,” Tom told Vusungira as they streaked across the moonlit Atlantic into the westward-sweeping dawn. “It shouldn’t take long.”
The prince smiled slightly. “Business? To investigate a threat to one’s safety is business indeed.”
Bud Barclay chuckled at the comeback. “You’re one mighty sharp prince, Your Highness.”
“Call me Vusungira.”
An hour later, as the Queen overflew the African continent, Tom joined Harlan Ames in the view lounge on the top deck. The security chief was more excited than Tom had ever seen. “Boss, this is already a marvelous experience. I’ve only had a few chances to travel in this giant cloud-skimmer of yours.”
“Say, you’re getting poetic, Harlan!” Tom laughed. “She’s quite a ship, though. And I’m glad to have you along. I may need a few security tips in Vishnapur.”
“Need ’em or not, you can expect them.”
Just over three hours later the Arabian Sea, doorstep to the great Indian Ocean, gave way to the teeming subcontinent that was their first destination. It was midmorning in Mumbai as the skyship swooped down over a land of mud-brown and palm-green, and increasingly asphalt-black. They landed at Santa Cruz Airport on the outskirts of India’s bustling west coast metropolis.
After clearing customs, Tom inquired about the export firm’s address, which was on Dadhahai Naoroji Road near the waterfront. As the other passengers, including Prince Vusungira and his retinue, dispersed for some sightseeing during their brief stay, Tom and Bud took a taxi into the city. “Mystery first,” remarked Bud, “tourism later.”
Part of the route into the city led through grimy factories and tenement districts. It was also a route through time. When they approached the heart of Mumbai’s business district the past was left behind. The boys were thrilled by its leaping skyline of office buildings and modern glass-tiered apartments along wide palm-fringed avenues, elephant-free. Red double-decker buses and sleek sports cars jockeyed their way through the heavy traffic. And India’s principal product, people, flooded past endless advertising billboards, often in English—India’s second language.
“You know, this place has come a long way since the twelfth century,” Bud wisecracked.
The taxi stopped at a modern glass-fronted building shouting Mukerji & Sons, Ltd. in crimson letters. The establishment seemed to be both a streetside retail store and a warehouse.
It turned out that the shop portion was much the smaller, and not well populated. Entering, Tom and Bud noticed only a few patrons in the store, their dress suggesting that they were tourists seeking bargains.
The Shoptonians walked up to a counter heaped with inviting merchandise pinned in track-lighting. A babu, or clerk, in a high-collared white coat and a dhoti, came forward.
“May I help you, sirs?”
Tom chatted with the clerk and mentioned the import shop in New York. “Mr. Singh told us he obtains his goods from your firm,” Tom went on, “so we thought we’d stop in and look around.”
A stout, mustachioed man in a business suit had come out from the stacked aisles behind the counter. He beamed at the boys. “Ah, Mr. Singh! A good customer of ours for many years. I am most happy to have you visit us and mention his name! Permit me to introduce myself—Ved Mukerji, the present owner of this firm.”
Tom introduced Bud and added, “I’m Tom Swift.”
“Not the famous young inventor?” Mr. Mukerji exclaimed. “But yes! This is indeed an honor.”
The bustling man insisted upon showing the two over his entire establishment. The back of the building was used as warehouse space. On the upper floor, clerks were busy checking goods from all over Asia, while in the office three young Indian women, clad in graceful flowing saris, were engaged in keyboard work. Tom found it hard to believe that any of the three could be connected with a spy plot. But then he recalled that he had been threatened with death by a team of young women not many months before.
Returning to the shop area, Tom told Mukerji: “You have a lot of tempting merchandise, sir. Actually, there’s something specific I’m interested in, which Mr. Singh, mm, ran out of.”
“Ah! You will surely find it here. We import for resale from all Asia. What do you wish?”
“A little bronze statue of Buddha, small enough to fit in your hand—the Mocking Buddha. I’m told they come from Vishnapur.”
The man looked surprised, but nodded. “Why yes, I know precisely of this. We have many of them at present.” He gestured and Tom’s eyebrows lifted. The shelf was stocked with dozens of them, identical.
He picked up a few, tapping them with a fingernail as he looked them over. He finally selected one to purchase, along with several shawls from Kashmir and some silver cuff links as gifts.
As Tom stood at the front counter to pay, Bud suddenly crouched down as if to tie his shoe. Standing up again, he whispered in his pal’s ear, “Behind the counter, bottom shelf.” Tom stepped around the end of the counter nonchalantly and glanced down.
He tried to keep his expression steady. On the lowest shelf, half in shadow, was a bas-relief picture in an elaborate frame. The image resembled that tattooed on Susak’s neck!
“Mr. Mukerji, that picture down there fascinates me,” smiled Tom. “What is it?”
Mukerji also smiled—but the smile suddenly died. “Nahim! Ise mat chhuo—No!” He collected himself as Tom looked startled at the man’s outburst. “Hmha, I am sorry, Mr. Swift. You surprised me. That is not for sale. It is my own—something of sentiment, you see, that I keep to inspire me.”
“Rawther ominous,” said a smooth voice behind the visitors. “Are we to trust a shopkeeper who keeps something like that as an ‘inspiration’?”
The British inflection belonged to a youngish man, evidently one of the other patrons. He was dressed in European style, but appeared to be of Hindu descent.
“What—er—is the thing?” asked Bud.
The man chuckled lightly. “Hard to make sense of the little fellow, isn’t it? But that’s what it is, a god, Yamantaka. Tibetan deity. All of nine heads, the chief one that of a bull. Terrifying bloke, powerful enough to wrestle Yama himself—Satan, more or less—to the ground, and all the way under it. Must be nice, to have dominion over death.”
“What you say is only one manifestation of Yamantaka,” said Mr. Mukerji coldly. “He is a complex divinity in the Hindu pantheon. I call upon his devis, his messenger spirits, to bless me with the virtue of endurance.”
The customer shrugged and extended a hand to Tom. “Beg pardon for interrupting—bad habit. Hugh Mortlake.” Tom introduced himself and Bud and asked Mortlake if he were a fellow visitor to Mumbai. “Yes, just touring through. In case you’re wondering, I’m a native of little Sri Lanka. I was adopted by a British couple at the age of six months. Spent most of my life in London.”
“It’s good to run into you, Mr. Mortlake,” Tom said. “Thanks for telling us about Yamantaka.”
“A pleasure. Well, have to run. Don’t let old Mukerji sell you any wooden devis, eh?”
As he left the shop, Mukerji glared at him. “Arrogance, arrogance. British! But now, let us complete our more pleasant business.”
As Mr. Mukerji rang up the purchase, Tom remembered another point of investigation. “I happened to meet, through Mr. Singh, a couple men who know of your company. Benni Susak and Jaisit Radamantha.”
Mukerji did not glance up. “Ah? I fear I am not acquainted with them.”
Tom shrugged casually. “Nice fellows.”
After leaving, Tom and Bud waited until their cab pulled away before commenting. “Do we know more than we did when we came in?” Bud asked.
“A little,” was the uncertain reply. “I could tell that the Mocking Buddhas on display were solid metal, no electronics. Which is not to say Mukerji or a crony couldn’t have doctored up a few to send to Susak.”
“He seemed pretty upset when you noticed Deathboy-Times-Nine.”
“True. But he might’ve just felt sensitive about trying to explain his religious feelings to non-Hindu patrons. At least we have an idea what the tattoo represents.”
The taxi driver asserted his ability to function as a tour guide. They taxied along the scenic Marine Drive, then up past beautiful hanging gardens to the top of Malabar Hill. With Chowpatty Beach spread out below, the boys had a breathtaking view of the seaside city.
It was now almost noon, so the boys had the taximan take them to the New Mahaputraji Hotel overlooking the water, where they were to meet Prince Vusungira and Harlan Ames for lunch. Nearby stood an imposing arch which the driver said was called the Gateway to India.
Ames had arrived early at the hotel lounge, which opened out onto the patio restaurant, choked with businessmen and gaudy tourists. The Prince and his bodyguard soon arrived, and they repaired to a large table at the edge of the patio, beneath a canopy-like umbrella.
Tom asked the Crown Prince if he had heard of Yamantaka. “I have,” was the reply, “although I had not noticed the resemblance to the tattoo. In the religion of Vishnapur, Yamantaka is not a divine being but a deceiving spirit, one of many. It is his way to promise mortals great power, then snatch it away.”
Once again Tom was reminded of Prince Jahan. His power had indeed been snatched from his grasp unexpectedly, by his own father. Could die-hard followers of Jahan be seeking revenge? Or restoration?
“Look at that,” nodded Ames. Near the beach, a flock of movie cameras and trailers had been set up.
“Bollywood!” laughed Vusungira. “Mumbai produces even more motion pictures than Hollywood does! Perhaps this will be the future of Vishnapur as well.”
The four were able to watch the shooting of the film as they lunched. With the bay for its backdrop, they gathered that the story took place during the British Raj of the 19th Century. Troops in British mufti swarmed back and forth on cue—with retakes—their polished rifles emitting puffs of smoke, but no sound. “They’ll dub in all the sounds later,” Bud explained.
There were also Hindu-costumed men, outfitted with sabres and dirks as well as guns. It appeared that there was a subplot involving personal hatreds or rivalries. As the bulk of the battle moved away, two of the Indian characters engaged in swordplay, evidently fighting a duel that sent them darting vigorously along the periphery of the field of battle. As they neared the patio, they suddenly tossed their swords aside and rushed together in hand-to-hand combat.
“I fear American fantasy has come to dominate our films,” commented the Crown Prince. “No doubt one of these men is the latest ‘action hero’.”
The patio audience watched raptly as the duel danced right up to the balustrade. The two men stopped fighting and backed away from one another, panting heavily. Then they drew pistols.
“Watch for the blood squibs,” Bud grinned.
Then the men suddenly turned toward Tom’s table with respectful smiles. “Your Highness,” said one of the men in a low voice, nodding slightly. As Vusungira nodded back, the man added in a near whisper:
“I beg your pardon, but I must ask you to rise calmly and join me. You others must remain seated. Make no sound, no commotion. These pistols are not props, but we do not wish to kill.”
With a smile, and a broad wink toward the other diners on the patio, the man aimed his pistol toward Tom’s table and fired!
TOM and his party jolted back in shock at the very authentic report of the gun as a tiny hole winked into existence in the canopy just above Prince Vusungira! The patio crowd started—then murmured appreciatively at the realistic open-air entertainment.
The prince stared but showed no emotion. He nodded once and stood.
“Eysan maja’nehjhi!” gasped Vusungira’s bodyguard in protest, but the Crown Prince silenced him with a curt gesture.
“Your Majesty,” began Tom in a whisper, but the prince interrupted.
“I will do as he asks. I will not endanger this crowd. Remain seated. Brimonghu, ni abqong d’yomtala.” The bodyguard reluctantly lowered the gun he had drawn.
Tom and Bud watched in breathless suspense as Vusungira left the patio and approached the two men, who held their pistols casually but were clearly ready to use them to make a point.
Tom could see Bud’s muscles bunched beneath his shirt. “Flyboy, we should do as Vusungira told us,” urged the young inventor quietly.
But Bud was already on the rise. “He’s not King yet!”
Prince Vusungira was steps away from the man who had spoken, who now gestured for the Prince to precede him in the direction of the shoreline, where a small motorboat bobbed. The three began to stroll across the broad lawn.
Then the growl of a motor surged across the bay. The three halted suddenly as a speedboat came roaring into view, arrowing toward the beach! “Look—the kidnappers didn’t expect this!” Tom exclaimed. In moments the speedboat slammed into the shore and four men, daggers drawn, sprang out!
As the four thugs from the boat rushed toward him, Vusungira turned to meet their attack. As if forgetting the guns in their hands the two kidnappers fell back in confusion as the four men charged them like a football phalanx, daggers targeting not only the prince but the kidnappers as well.
But Bud Barclay was first on the scene, Tom, Harlan Ames, and the bodyguard, Brimonghu, a few legs back. The athletic youth threw himself at the dagger-wielder approaching Vusungira, knocking the man’s arm skyward and sending the dagger spinning away. The man bellowed and shot a fist at Bud’s head, barely ducked.
What followed was indeed a battle royal with eleven participants—reduced to nine as the original two kidnappers whirled and fled across the hotel lawn toward the boulevard. The Shoptonians and Brimonghu struggled to pry the determined attackers away from the prince, with many a thud but little progress. Vusungira engaged in wily combat with his dagger-slashing opponent, landing a few blows and dancing away. But the prince took a misstep. The bearded attacker seized his chance and felled Vusungira with a blow to the head.
“Your Majesty!” choked Tom.
“I’ve got him,” gritted Ames, loping over to yank the prince to his feet and shove him violently away from the bearded dacoit.
The four attackers hesitated for an instant, regrouping for a fresh charge en masse. Yet it was only a feint. As Bud swiveled to take a stronger defensive position, one thug darted sideway toward him with a startling leap, dagger raised high and arcing toward the youth’s neck!
Before Tom could voice a warning cry, the daggerman crumpled backwards as a rock struck like a meteor! It hit him on the temple, knocking him to the ground before the dagger could strike.
“T’ya batt!” barked the bearded man, and all four dug out toward the speedboat. The battle was over. The panting, doubled-over defenders watched as the boat roared away.
After a few moments of silence, Tom became aware of a new sound. The crowd on the patio was giving them a standing ovation!
“I—I want—profit participation,” gasped Bud.
The rock thrower came trotting up. “What in God’s name was that about?” he exclaimed.
“Y-you have a pretty good arm, Mr. Mortlake,” panted Tom. “And a great sense of timing.”
Hugh Mortlake grinned. “I’d say! I hope you don’t think I’m following you fellows. Actually, I had dined in the hotel and was watching the movie shoot when it seemed things were going a bit awry.”
“You have my gratitude, sir,” pronounced Prince Vusungira, “and the gratitude of the people of Vishnapur.”
“My neck says thanks too,” Bud added.
Ames was studying the man keenly, but his words were directed toward Vusungira and his bodyguard. “Prince, it’s my job to protect Tom and Bud, even on vacation. I need to know what’s behind all this. Two men try to kidnap you, four men interrupt and try to kill you. Are there aspects to the political situation in Vishnapur that you haven’t quite bothered to tell us about?”
The Crown Prince shook his head slowly. “I respect your loyalty and responsibilities, Mr. Ames, but I know no more than you do. We Vishnapuri are largely a peaceful people. It is not our way to settle differences through violence.”
The bodyguard muttered in halting English, “To touch disrespectfully the son of the sacred Nej’h—unthinkable!”
“All the royals are sacred.” Mortlake winked in Tom’s direction. “Perhaps Yamantaka didn’t care to be looked over by an American.”
“Perhaps it was Mr. Mukerji who didn’t care to be looked over,” was Tom’s quiet response.
Mortlake shook hands with Vusungira and said, “Your Highness, we may meet again very soon. I intend to fly to Vishnapur quick as my business here in Mumbai is done, probably a matter of a day or two. I’m anxious to see your country, now that it’s opened its doors to tourism.”
Tom said, “The least we can do is fly you there in our jet.”
But the young Londoner shook his head. “No, wouldn’t dream of it. The timing’s a little uncertain—might hold you up. But Vishnapur’s pretty compact. We’re sure to bump into one another.”
“Bring your rocks,” Bud advised.
The Mumbai police were reassuringly cooperative but offered no clue as to the identities of the kidnappers or the attackers. According to the movie company the two men had been hired as extras and were otherwise unknown to them. Their “duel” and subsequent actions were entirely unscripted.
Tom was determined to allow the vacation to proceed. The next day, the prince having hired several armed bodyguards to provide extra protection for all of them, the young inventor suggested, “Let’s visit those cave temples at Elephanta we’ve heard so much about.”
Everyone readily agreed. The group taxied to the ferry landing and boarded a jammed motor launch for the island of Elephanta, six miles across the harbor.
The beautiful little island had two long hills with a valley between. Picnickers were lounging among the trees. After picking up some guide booklets, the small convoy accompanied other tourists from the landing stage to the main cave, Ganesh Gupha. It had been excavated in a terrace of rock. Wide steps, flanked by elephants of weathered stone, led up to the temple entrance.
Inside, the American visitors were struck with awe by the huge sculptures of Indian gods and goddesses, frozen forever in voluptuous dance. Most imposing of all was the Trimurti—a three-headed figure of Siva, Vishnu, and Brahman, carved from living rock.
“Mighty impressive,” Bud remarked. “Maybe a little spooky! I’d swear it just moved.”
“I have always admired the artistry of India,” said Prince Vusungira. “My people were architects, but never sculptors.”
As they came out into the sun, Ames discreetly drew Tom and Bud aside. “Thinking things over like a security chief,” he said quietly, “I have a couple problems with what happened yesterday.”
“The attack on Vusungira?” asked Tom.
“That one’s obvious. What I have in mind right now is Mr. Hugh Mortlake.”
Bud expressed surprise. “I’m jealous of his pitching arm, but other than that he’s been a real help all the way around.”
Ames shrugged slightly. “But a few pieces don’t quite fit. Tom, didn’t you tell me that Mortlake had said in the shop that he was here on vacation? But an hour later, it’s suddenly ‘business’ with an uncertain schedule. Sure, maybe just a careless choice of words, but—I have this habit of wondering.”
“So do I,” Tom nodded. “And we don’t really know that he didn’t follow us to the hotel by car. He could be in league with one of the groups that targeted the Prince—or both of them.”
Bud gulped. “Good night, you mean it really was just some kind of performance?”
“My throbbing head tells me it was a little more than that, Bud,” Ames noted ruefully. “I can only say that as far as I’m concerned, Hugh Mortlake is another of those ‘persons of interest’.”
“And,” Tom added thoughtfully, “we can expect to see him in Vishnapur.” His voice bore a frown.
The Sky Queen lifted off in the early afternoon. Flying over the hazy blue mountains beyond Mumbai, they streaked across the great Indian subcontinent and finally passed over the Ganges River, giver of life, sacred to the Hindus. Soon the green foothills and snowy peaks of the Himalayas loomed in the distance.
A land of steep gorges, emerald valleys, and rocky uplands came into view as the Flying Lab zoomed out of the clouds toward Vishnapur’s capital city of Chullagar. Tom had radioed ahead that they would land shortly before two o’clock.
The raw dirt airfield lay just outside the city. As the Sky Queen touched down, Tom glimpsed two outmoded twin-engine planes poking into the sunlight from a wooden hangar. Prince Vusungira said these were the King’s aircraft. A helicopter also stood on the field. “That belonged to my late uncle, King Gopal, who was a skilled pilot,” the Crown Prince added. “Now it is Jahan’s.”
“That’ll bring the country into the new millennium!” Bud remarked. “Flying’s a pretty exciting recreation, Vusungira—better than racecar driving.”
“In our cramped valleys there is no room for a racetrack—barely enough room for roads. But as for me, I shall stick to my cooking.”
As the passengers disembarked and the engineering students went their separate ways, a smiling, turbaned man with a twirled mustache came out to greet them, followed by several aides. The prince introduced him as Phudrim, chief minister to Q’Maja Nej’h Glaudiunda kug Shajhyamind. “Do forgive our very lengthy names and titles, with their many syllables,” smiled Phudrim. “To say ‘King Glaudiunda’ is most acceptable. He is out of the city today, regrettably. On his behalf, welcome to Vishnapur!”
“I thank you,” replied Tom, “on behalf of my countrymen and my father.”
The minister explained that he also served as the King’s special advisor on matters of engineering and technical development. “I am especially happy that you are here, Tom, as we all know the many great achievements of your family. Imagine!—to walk on the moon and beneath the sea, to build a road that flies above the treetops!”
Tom grinned. “It just might be that Prince Jahan had more than politeness in mind when he invited us to visit for the festival, sir.”
The man’s eyes twinkled. “It is surely not impossible.” He then turned to Harlan Ames. “And when you are pleased to do so, Mr. Ames, I shall be happy to arrange for you to meet with our minister of police and security. All these peculiar events, in Pakistan, in America, and now in India!—most embarrassing and worrisome.”
“I’ll agree to ‘worrisome,’” replied the lean-faced security man with barely polite terseness.
The minister’s assistants ushered Ames and Prince Vusungira off to a waiting limousine, but asked Tom and Bud to remain behind. “We have provided a special honor for you.”
They rounded the airfield building, and Tom and Bud yelped in amazement. Two huge elephants awaited them—living limousines!
From the gilded howdah atop the lead elephant, three figures waved down at the youths. “Sandy!” Tom cried. “Bashalli!”
“And don’t forget me,” laughed Prince Jahan. “I am your driver!”
“It is the wish of His Sacred Highness King Glaudiunda that you ride to the palace aboard the ceremonial elephants,” declared Phudrim. “I suspect you will find it rather pleasant.”
“We’re honored,” Tom replied, “and very pleased to accept.”
“Now all we have to do is figure out how to get on board!” gibed Bud.
Special ladders of jointed bamboo provided the solution. Tom rode with Sandy and Bash in Jahan’s howdah, Bud and Phudrim behind them.
“Isn’t all this just incredible, Tomonomo?” bubbled Sandy. “Ever since we arrived here, Jah has shown us one thing after another.”
Tom repeated mentally: Jah! “We’ve had a few adventures too, sis.”
“So we have been told,” commented Bashalli dryly. “Not to anyone’s surprise.”
The elephant train lumbered up the central boulevard of the ancient city. The streets were noisy as mountaineers and peasants poured into Chullagar for the festival. Heavily loaded yaks plodded along, jostled by mule caravans which were driven by boisterous fur-hatted Tibetans. The men wore turquoise and coral earrings and their animals were decorated with red pompoms of yak hair.
Prayer flags were draped across the fronts of buildings, and many of the whitewashed brick houses were being repainted pink, yellow, or blue in honor of the Feast of Chogyal. As the carriage passed, there were shouts of “Jai kumar Jahan!— Long live Prince Jahan!”
“Sounds like you’re pretty popular, Jahan,” observed Tom quietly.
The prince merely shrugged, but Sandy enthused, “The common people just love him! I think everyone wishes he were King now, instead of― ”
“Please don’t allow yourselves to be misled,” interrupted Jahan. “We of the royal blood are all well loved, and my uncle and his son are respected by their subjects.”
His curiosity feeding an urge toward boldness, the young inventor asked, “And your mother? Is there any feeling of resentment toward her remarriage?” Sandy nudged him sharply with her elbow.
The prince paused for a long moment. “To be frank, my friend—perhaps a bit. What is permitted by ancient custom can be nevertheless rather... I shall use the word surprising.”
Tom discerned he was speaking of himself as much as the populace. “I understand, Your Highness.”
The boulevard was lined with a single row of modern buildings, but it proved to be something of a false front. It became apparent that most of the royal city consisted of small wooden structures. Though brightly painted and bedecked with silk banners, most were little more than huts. “Our prosperity lies in the future,” said the prince. “The near future, I would hope.”
The Sacred Palace was at the far end of Chullagar, on a flattened rise that was like a doorstep to one of the country’s great presiding mountains, capped with snow. It was more like a miniature city than a building, a city of gilded walls and exotic, curvaceous minarets—yet also uniformed soldiers with modern machine guns. The elephants passed beneath a pentagonal arch decorated with jewels and ceremonial torches, then on into a central courtyard as big as a park, the various wings of the compound enclosing it on all sides. Walkways of colored pebbles wound between low trees, their contours forming what Jahan explained were unceasing prayers in the ancient language of Vishnapur. “We only use the traditional Vish’u’u language, the language of the lamaseries, for ritual observances,” explained Jahan. “Our daily language is derived from many Tibetan dialects, and also elements of Hindi and Burmese, even a bit of Chinese.”
“And English?” asked Bud.
“Of course. We have learned to say deeveedee, essyoovee, and sah-ell-fhon.”
As they arrived at the entrance to the guest wing and climbed down, Prince Jahan quietly asked Tom and Bud to join him for a moment as the others went inside. “Let me show you our fountain.”
As they approached the fountain, Tom said, “It’s beautiful. But we’re not here to see this fountain, are we, Your Highness?”
Jahan shook his head, a frown deeply etched. “No, Tom. It is time that I disclose something to you. There is more than one reason why I was glad of the opportunity to invite you to Vishnapur. I was preparing to do so even before the incident involving Miss Prandit.”
“I see,” said Tom. “We had thought you might have wanted to bring Swift Enterprises into this project of your government, this effort to move your country forward technologically.”
“That is surely one part of it,” confirmed Jahan, “a motive shared by the King and Crown Prince. Yet I have to admit, it’s not the element that is most on my mind these days. The matter is quite personal—quite painful.
“How shall I say this? You see, Tom, Bud, my father, the late King—he has spoken to me!”
THE GIFT OF CHOGYAL
TOM was speechless, but Bud was not. “Got it. You’re saying your Dad’s ghost is restless—walking the battlements, they say. Is that right?”
But the prince responded, “No, not his ghost—unless you choose to call something very modern a sort of ghost.”
“Jahan, are you saying King Gopal isn’t deceased? He’s still alive?” asked Tom.
“No, Father is quite gone, his ashes interred. Yet I have received...” He hesitated. “I took you aside to ask you, in confidence, to meet me tonight in my apartment in the Palace—you come as well, Bud, as I know you are Tom’s special comrade. It is best and most efficient if you see with your own eyes how—how the hand of the past still reaches out to the future.” The boys agreed immediately, promising to keep the matter confidential. “Thank you. I shall send my aide, Kur, to bring you. It must be late—let us say eleven thirty.”
Tom and Bud were guided into the palace wing where royal guests were quartered in elegance. A familiar figure came bustling up to them immediately. “Hey, buckaroos! Welcome to th’ best blame hotel in th’ Himoo-layers!”
The boys bearhugged Chow Winkler. “So how’s the food, pardner?” asked Tom.
The ex-Texan hoisted his bushy brow. “Brand my curry sauce, son, it’s right d’licious when you’ve gulleted it fer a few days. Not s’much the first few times, true enough.” He added sheepishly that he had also had the occasional steak. “They don’t have proper french fries, though, jest these here thumb-sized tater slabs in that funny butter o’ theirs.”
“Is that butter funnier than this shirt, big guy?” gibed Bud. The colorful chef was more colorful than ever, his billowy Vishnapurian blouse, or tulpsap, a pattern of saffron crescents against the distinctive background of yorb-blue.
“Doncha jest love this blue color?—even a fill-a-stein like as you, Buddy Boy!”
Bud laughed. “Can’t deny it! I plan to bring a whole crate of that yorb stuff back with me to Shopton.”
After settling in, Tom, Bud, and Ames were given a lengthy tour of the royal palace and its ancient wonders, joined by Sandy and Bashalli for a second pass at it. Their guide was Prince Jahan, who had dialed himself up to full charm. “This palace, Moc’hogh’ypvu, was built in the year 443 of your Christian era by my ancestors. In our history that time is called the cigmu, the migration. The royal family were finally compelled to abandon the ancient capital, a holy place.”
“I suppose foreign invaders bit off some of your country, the old story,” remarked Harlan Ames.
Not answering immediately, Jahan motioned for his audience to sit down on a gaudy-hued crescent sofa some fifteen feet broad. “No, Mr. Ames, it was an invasion by nature herself. The people took it as a sign of disfavor by the gods.
“To tell the tale, Vishnapur was first founded in the valley known as Krei’i Bu—Long Valley—some twenty-six miles from Chullagar at the very foot of Chogyal. How long ago this happened, no one really knows: much of our early history is lost and forgotten. At the low point of the valley was a thriving lake surrounded by the yorb plant. It was our Garden of Eden, you might say, with everything in abundance. The people lived prosperously upon its fish, the spice of yorb, and the fertility of the valley with its many farms. The lake was called The Gift of Chogyal. The ancient palace-temple, Shankaru, stood upon its banks. That, at least, is what the old songs and stories tell us.
“But something happened, perhaps a matter of geology in the Himalayas, or the start of a new cycle of weather.”
“Did the lake go dry?” Tom speculated.
“Just the opposite. Its waters began to rise, year by year taking up more of the floor of the valley. The farmlands were flooded out, and the great fields of yorb became marshes. At last Shankaru itself became flooded and uninhabitable, and the capital was moved here. But as I say, these are matters of tradition that have been passed along over the centuries. At that time we Vishnapuri had no real written language.”
Tom nodded and said, “The ancient ruins must be a magnificent sight, though. I’d love to see them.”
“No can do, Thomas,” Bashalli put in. “It’s all underwater now. I also asked, because I hoped to sketch it.”
“Maybe we can come back with diversuits on,” Bud suggested. “Jahan, Tom’s diversuits have hydrolungs for underwater breathing and all sorts of gimmicks.”
“I know of them,” replied the Prince. “But perhaps it would be unsafe and certainly very difficult, as many other divers have found. Over time the lake of Krei’i Bu has become choked with the masses of algae which, if exposed to air and sunlight, produce yorb. You can’t see to the end of your arm under the surface due to the murk of floating spores, and the lower portions, including the area in which Shankaru is thought to have stood, are mucked with a dense growth of algae streamers, which are as tough as woven rope. I’ve read how you were able to handle the Sargasso seaweed, Tom, but this is a good deal worse.”
“Too bad,” Tom pronounced, “and obviously a real loss to Vishnapur. Now I know what one of the engineering students was starting to mention when Prince Vusungira cut him off.”
Jahan shrugged. “It’s a sad and hopeless matter, which has become a source of the kind of peasant superstition that King Glaudiunda and my cousin Vusungira find embarrassing. And these days the situation has worsened in a very distressing way.”
“Why’s that, Your Highness?” Ames inquired.
“One wonders why indeed, Mr. Ames. Over the last decade or so, The Gift of Chogyal has become increasingly poisonous, and the poison is spreading through the ground to the last bits of farmland in the valley. As you’ve guessed, we were particularly glad to have the trainee mission visit your facility, as we were hopeful that they might establish connections there leading to a solution. I suppose our national pride made us somewhat indirect in asking for the assistance of Swift Enterprises. ”
“But now you’ve got Swift himself!” Sandy declared proudly. “You’ll have the solution in no time, Jah.”
Tom smiled but added ruefully, “This is going to be even more of a working vacation than I’d thought! But I’ll be glad to help if I can.”
That evening the palace guests, which included Mr. and Mrs. Prandit, ate together on a heated terrace overlooking the courtyard. They were joined by the several Enterprises employees who were staying aboard the Sky Queen and some of the palace officials, who apologized for the absence of the two Princes and the King and Queen. “They all are occupied with various duties involving the Festival of Chogyal. But Their Majesties will certainly join you for a State Dinner in a matter of days,” Tom was assured by the Minister of State Security, Gen. Utrong’j, with whom Harlan Ames had been meeting. The Shopton youth wondered if whatever “duties” were occupying Prince Jahan had to do with what he would be showing Tom and Bud late in the night.
After the Minister had left, Sandy said airily, “Of course we’ve met His Majesty ever so many times. When you boys meet him, you mustn’t let him scare you. He’s really kindhearted and very gracious.”
“For a tyrant,” added Bash mischievously. Presently a clump of court ladies, young wives, crossed the courtyard. They wore silken saris, gold bangles, and embroidered lace shawls. Tom saw them darting jealous glances at the two attractive American girls.
Bashalli murmured in dismay, “Those court ladies resent us!”
“I’m afraid you’re right,” Sandy agreed, laughing. Suddenly her blue eyes twinkled. “We’ll just have to go ahead with our special—diplomatic mission.” Opening her purse and turning to her brother, Sandy handed him the girls’ only can of hairspray. “Please, Mr. Genius, can you whip us up a couple of gallons of this?”
“Sure, I guess so,” Tom said, puzzled. “Gallons? Why?”
“Maybe the beehive look is making a comeback,” Bud suggested dryly.
“There’s no time to explain. Oh, and could you make something to spray it on with?”
“Would a mini paint spraygun do?”
“Wonderful! But please hurry!”
Back in their apartment, Tom and Bud spent some time talking with Shopton over the Private Ear Radio. The young inventor was pleased with the report on the Dyna Ranger project he received from Hank Sterling. “Your Dad’s riding herd with a gentle rein, chief, and things are really falling together nicely. You know, Dyna may look a little weird, but I think I could get to love her.”
Tom laughed and said, “What about the tests on the big dynasphere, Hank?”
“Also in great shape. Incidentally, your father’s out right now, but he mentioned wanting to talk to you about a special test for the machine, something he thought would be unusual and pretty exciting. All I know about it is, it has something to do with the Smithsonian Institution.”
“The Smithsonian! Gosh, it must be ‘special’! Have you received any updates from the Kronus team lately, Hank?”
“Nothing major. The orbit is still deteriorating, no faster, no slower.”
After signing off, Tom and Bud had a wait of several hours before a faint knock on the door announced the arrival of Prince Jahan’s aide, Kur. The man guided them through the maze of corridors to Jahan’s huge, ornate private suite.
Bud’s eyes grew wide as he entered. “Man! And this is just for the second-banana prince!—er, pardon me, Your Highness.”
Jahan laughed. “Don’t worry, Bud. I’m not as stiff-necked as my cousin. I enjoy your plain-spoken ways.”
The black-haired Californian maintained a smile. Good night, enough with the charm! he muttered silently.
Jahan asked the youths to sit down in front of a large TV screen. “Four months ago, I was handed an unopened box by a personal friend, who had received it from a source he trusts, but whom he declined to name. It contained this.” Jahan held up a video cassette. “Allow me to play it for you. I’ll provide the narration and translation.”
The Prince inserted the tape in the VCR, and a somewhat staticky picture popped onto the screen. In dim light a bearded man lay in a massive bed. “My father, King Gopal,” said Jahan with sober intensity. “He is in what was to be, in a matter of hours, his deathbed.”
Gopal began to mutter, very weakly, and the prince translated. “My dearest son, my little Jah, my hour is almost done. I have been unable to speak, they say for days; now, with some help, I have rallied a bit. Don’t pity me now, don’t mourn, for I need all your attention to what I have to say. Murder! Foul crimes that I command you to revenge!”
Tom gasped. “Good gosh! Is he― ”
“Just listen, please.” Jahan continued translating as Gopal murmured the language of Vishnapur. “They tell me I have signed a bequest-decree, signed with my own hand the decree to take the crown of Q’Maja Nej’h away from you, beloved son, and give it to my brother. I swear, this was not my wish! I was not in my senses. I was no more willing to alter the succession than I now am willing to die.
“To die, to die—but not a death of nature, Jahan, but by the hand of him who is to wear the crown—yes, Glaudiunda! For now, this moment, I remember the hunt with your uncle at my side, how he handed me the chalice, how the yorb was bitter and stung my throat. I coughed, my muscles twisted, I fell from the howdah; but even as I lay in the shadow of Chogyal, begging for help at his feet, Glaudiunda only looked down at me unmoving. And then—O, betrayal!—your mother Aju joined him and took his hand! She said, ‘Forgive us, husband. It is for the best.’ And then the shadow embraced me.
“Avenge me my dishonor, son! They have murdered me and have cut you off—it must not stand!” Then King Gopal began to cough violently, and gave a weak wave of his hand. The screen went black.
Bud’s voice was husky with shock. “Jetz! His own brother!”
“Who else knows about this, Jahan?” Tom inquired grimly. “The police?”
The Prince shook his head. “No one knows. I will not have it made a matter of law, Tom. My father commands me to make it a matter of honor. I must deal with it personally.”
“Jahan, I don’t know much about Vishnapurian custom and culture,” said Tom. “It’s not for me to tell you how to handle this. But listen, if Harlan Ames can provide any sort of investigative help, or if Bud and I― ”
“I will finish it,” was the blunt interruption. “But I must know, must know absolutely, if my uncle and my mother committed this crime. Father was a man of strong will. Even if he became deluded in his last hours, it isn’t surprising that he would express himself forcefully. Was it murder? Was Glaudiunda involved?”
“You know, the whole tape could be bogus,” Bud declared. “The light was pretty dim, and the guy’s voice was wavery. Are you really sure it was your father, Jahan?”
The Prince’s shoulders drooped. “Not entirely. It’s not impossible that someone is trying to manipulate me into disgracing myself and... doing to a King what no man should do.”
“You’re wise to be cautious,” agreed Tom. “We already know something’s going on behind the scenes, aimed in some way at the royal family and the government of your country. It may involve something I haven’t mentioned yet.” The young inventor now described to Jahan the bizarre matter of the space “lightning bolt” that had disabled the GenRev satellite as it passed over the Himalayas.
“Amazing! And you think this might have something to do with Vishnapur?”
“It might have come from some installation within your borders, Your Highness. As of yet we haven’t pinned it down—but it’s possible.” After a moment Tom went on: “Now tell me, why exactly did you want Bud and I to watch this tape?”
“I’m hoping you can assist me in resolving my doubts,” Jahan responded. “What Bud says is true—the tape may be a fake. I know you have all manner of high-tech instruments and devices aboard your Flying Lab, Tom. Perhaps you might examine the tape, enhance certain features to prove its authenticity. Isn’t that possible? I know your retroscope machine can do things like that.”
Tom said apologetically, “I’m afraid I don’t have the retroscope along with me on this trip. And anyway, it wouldn’t be effective in dealing with this problem. But I’ll be glad to study the cassette with what we do have on the Queen.”
Jahan handed Tom the tape. “Then I thank you. I don’t dare use any of my countrymen in my investigations. Who know who might be involved in this?”
“Right,” Tom stated. “Who knows?”
As they left the apartment, Bud whispered: “Maybe Yamantaka does!”
CLOUDS OF FIRE
BREAKFAST came with sunrise, a lazy sunrise that touching the high peaks long before the valley of Chullagar. To Tom and Bud’s surprise, the King entered the dining hall briefly to greet his guests. “Forgive me my absence upon your arrival,” Glaudiunda said in cultured English. “My Vishnapur is very small in extent, but tradition demands a schedule of visits to its outlying prefectures. I was, as we say, at the left hand of Chogyal.”
Tom, who had risen to his feet, gave a nod. “We’re honored, Your Majesty.” He hoped, not wanting to look, that the expression on Bud’s face was sufficiently respectful.
“We a’ready said that,” Chow declared. “The King here’s a real friend, now.”
His Majesty nodded gravely. “As indeed I intend. I bid you explore my Vishnapur in safety. Soon, Master Swift, we shall nod heads and speak of other things. And now, good day.”
By the end of the meal, Prince Vusungira had joined them, offering to escort Tom, Bud, and the other Shoptonians on a brief tour of Chullagar. “Of course, several of you have toured it already.”
“Ye-aah, but that feller Jah’s jest a Number Two,” said Chow, “not a blame crown prince.” Sandy, tight-lipped and pale, moaned.
With Gen. Utrong’j supplying discreetly armed guards front and back, the group walked down the hill to the main boulevard. Here and there squatted yellow-robed Buddhist monks, holding out their required begging bowls. “There is no shame in their begging,” the Crown Prince explained. “The true gift is in the reverse direction. Every offering they receive carries the giver closer to the light of Lord Buddha.”
“Nice gimmick fer a panhandler,” Chow observed.
Lamas, or temple priests, with drooping mustaches strolled along, spinning small cylinders, called prayer wheels, mounted atop their staffs. The cylinders, Vusungira noted, held written prayers which were believed to be wafted up to heaven by the spinning. “Chow,” hissed Sandy quietly, “please don’t say anything!”
“Shor. Speaks fer itself, dunnit?”
Remembering that the Mocking Buddhas were crafted in Vishnapur, Tom was scanning the shop signs. Presently the party passed one which bore a name, both in English and in Vishnapuri-Hindi:
CHULLAGAR TRADING COMPANY
In the storefront window was a row of Mocking Buddhas!
Harlan Ames had noticed them even before his young employer. “Just a second, Your Highness,” Ames called out.
Tom approached the display window. “This could be the outfit that Mr. Mukerji said ships him goods from Vishnapur.”
“On the alert, I see,” reproved Bashalli with a twinkle. “But as a kidnappee, I do see the importance of following these clues.”
“I am not familiar with this company,” remarked Vusungira. “But if they might be connected to these things that have happened, we must look into the matter.”
“I’ve already started,” Bud declared, trying the door.
To their surprise, the shop was locked.
“Mebbe it’s what passes fer Sunday over here,” suggested a Texas gravel-voice.
But Prince Vusungira shook his head. “No, all shops are open today. It is odd. But there to the side, a pull-bell.”
At last a woman, red-eyed from weeping, answered their clang. With the Crown Prince translating, she told the boys her husband had been arrested the night before by the King’s security police. She did not know why. “Nor do I,” stated Vusungira. “But in fact, it would be quite unusual if the order actually came down from Father. The Ministry acts independently in keeping the peace. It would have been Gen. Utrong’j’s decision.” He added, with some embarrassment, that it was fairly common for citizens to be hauled in for questioning by the state security apparatus. “As in Nepal, we have had some concerns about Maoist agitators producing disturbances.”
Bud whispered to Tom, “Seems Vishnapur isn’t as laid-back as we’ve been told, Skipper.”
“No,” replied the young inventor. “And look what’s on the inside of the door.” Though the pose was different, it was a picture of Yamantaka! The Prince seemed not to have noticed, and Tom chose to say nothing.
As the tour proceeded, the Americans witnessed an archery contest and visited several temples and shrines. After a luncheon at Chullagar’s one modern restaurant, Tom politely excused himself, Bud joining him. “I need to check in with Enterprises. Should have brought the PER with me.” Prince Vusungira gave Tom a sharp look—it was after midnight in Shopton, half a world distant.
As they walked back toward the palace, Bud said, “Itching to get started on that cassette, pal?”
“Sure am. We need to get all our clues in order before the Kronus rescue starts taking up all our time.”
In their guest suite, Tom headed toward the massive dresser of mahogany that lined one wall. The night previous, realizing that lurking intruders who knew of the visit to Jahan might search the boys’ room, Tom had decided the cassette would be too easy to find in his luggage. Instead he had taped it to the underside of a dresser drawer, which could be locked in place.
Tom unlocked the drawer and pulled it open, feeling beneath with his hand—then kneeling down and using his eyes. “Good gosh! It’s gone!”
Bud groaned. “Stolen! So someone broke in and― ” Then he halted himself abruptly. “Now wait. It was still there when we stopped by the room after breakfast, just before we left. So the break-in happened while we were walking around in Chullagar. But― ”
“I get the point, flyboy,” said Tom angrily. “Since they didn’t know where we might have stashed it, they wouldn’t have risked a break-in unless they were sure we’d be gone long enough to turn the room inside-out if they needed to, and then put it back in shape. That means the intruder isn’t just someone in the palace, but someone likely to have access to Prince Vusungira’s daily itinerary.”
“It may not be open-and-shut logic, Tom. But given what we saw in the city, I think we’re dealing with someone in the state security department, Gen. Utrong’j’s muscle guys. Those guys are stationed all over the grounds, and their boss would have to be kept informed of what the royals are doing.”
Tom nodded but had another thought to throw in. “There’s another possibility. I’m pretty sure King Glaudiunda keeps on top of what his son is doing. And if you want to go even further down Possibility Pier—another person likely to know is Prince Jahan!”
“Good night, you mean Jahan just gave you the cassette in order to steal it right back?” Then Bud shrugged. “Well, I guess nothing else makes much sense, either.”
As he had done in the matter of the eavesdropping Buddha in his laboratory, Tom decided that the best course would be to pretend, for a time, that the theft had not been discovered. “In fact,” he mused with a sudden grin, “I wonder what would happen if we came to Jahan in a day or two with a report on our examination of the tape aboard the Sky Queen!”
Bud laughed. “Chum, the world lost an evil mastermind when you went into inventing!”
Freighted with thoughts and suspicions, Tom and Bud headed out to the Sky Queen to accomplish Sandy’s “mission,” quickly done by the employment of scientific genius. Then, sending the hairspray containers on to the palace, they rejoined the others on their tour of the city.
Prince Vusungira led them through an archaeological museum, a newly-built factory, and a large, long stone structure called a tem’dat. “It’s a sort of common hall where the poorest people live,” the Prince explained. “Hundreds sleep together in the central chamber, and there are cooking facilities in alcoves along the walls. The building is ancient, but Father has had electricity put in, and modern plumbing.”
“Cookin’ where you sleep, hunh?” repeated Chow thoughtfully. “Mixin’ smells like that ain’t s’good fer appreciating food.—You okay, Sandy?—They all sleep on them rolled-up mats?”
“No indeed, Chow. By tradition, the stone floor is covered by colorful, elaborately woven carpet. As it wears thin, it is not replaced—new carpet is spread on top of the old one. After eleven such layers the floor is cleared and it begins again.”
Bashalli smiled slightly. “I must say, a nicer system than what they gave me in my cellar.”
“We Vishnapuri are a nicer people,” smiled Prince Vusungira.
They returned to the main boulevard. Suddenly Tom felt a nudge. “Across the street,” muttered Harlan Ames. He indicated a young, dark-skinned man in western garb who carried a large, flat leather case beneath his arm.
Bud looked too. “Hey now! Whattaya know, Hugh Mortlake!”
“He told us he’d be here,” noted Tom. “Let’s say hello.”
Ames held back. “You two go. Too many might make him—more cautious than we’d like.”
“But make sure to tell him he can come visit us in the—ahem!—sacred royal palace!” Sandy called out.
Tom and Bud caught Mortlake’s eye as they approached. “Well! Our paths cross!” He added dryly: “Need any rescuing today?”
“Did you bring your rocks?” asked Tom with a smile.
“I have a couple on me at all times.”
Mortlake invited the boys to join him in a nearby coffee-cafe, outpost of a familiar franchise. “Even in the Himalayas!”
“Yeah. I hear they’re putting one in on top of Mount Everest,” Bud joked.
As they chatted over cups that steamed thickly in the cold, dry air, Tom mentioned Sandy’s invitation. “By coincidence, I was visiting the palace just this morning,” responded Mortlake.
Tom tried to keep his voice even. “Oh really? A shame we didn’t run into you.”
“A shame. They said you were all out touring the city.”
“Got business with the royals, Hugh?” challenged Bud in blunt tones. His gray eyes flicked toward Mortlake’s leather portfolio case.
The man’s smile seemed to turn cool. “Oh, just visiting an acquaintance. It’s expected. You see, Bud, courtesy is important here in Vishnapur.”
“I don’t doubt it.”
After some talk and more than a few exchanges of veiled glances, Tom offered, “Let me buy you something at the counter, Hugh—my pleasure.” As the two walked to the counter, Tom maintained a constant flow of conversation.
When they walked back into the street and parted company, Tom repeated the invitation for Mortlake to join them at the palace some time during the rest of the trip, and the man accepted politely.
“How shall we reach you?” inquired the young inventor.
“Good question,” was the reply. “I’m afraid the cell service in Chullagar is pretty spotty, and I’ve decided to change hotels. I’ll call you in a couple days.”
After Mortlake had sauntered off on his way, the young inventor turned to his pal with inquiring eyebrows.
“Invasion of privacy? Not for Tom Swift!” Bud declared jokingly. “But Barclay has no scruples.”
“What’s he got in that case?”
Now Bud turned serious. “Skipper, I’m sure he’s up to no good—maybe even real bad! What he’s got inside are big flip-page notebooks full of drawings!”
“Not to my eyes,” Bud snorted. “It’s sketches, real detailed—of things like buildings and machinery. That factory we toured is in there. I also saw tanks, artillery, aircraft, and what looked like a military base with guards in the uniforms of the Gen. Utrong’j crowd! Also hand-drawn maps.”
“We’ll have to tell Harlan,” responded Tom. “It just might be that Mortlake is collecting information that could be of use to subversives, the way spies use secret photos. And the fact that he admits to being at the palace this morning ties him to the theft of the cassette.”
His friend grinned. “That thought had crossed my mind.”
The busy day concluded with a quiet, casual dinner, which both princes attended, and a late-night report to Harlan Ames. “Good info,” he pronounced. “It’s clear something’s going on with Mr. Mortlake.”
“What do you think about this Gen. Utrong’j, Harlan?” Tom asked.
The security chief shrugged. “He’s pleasant enough. Very professional. The sort of person who’s hard to read; but I’ve heard security guys like to play things close to the vest. Anyway—we’ll see, hmm?”
The next day Sandy and Bashalli were invited to accompany the Nej’hli, Queen Aju, to several public functions that showed the guests how the women of Vishnapur participated in the Festival of Chogyal. Chow and Ames joined the Enterprises employees for some shopping and sightseeing. Thinking of the poison lake problem as well as the space-lightning mystery, Tom proposed to Prince Jahan that he take a sightseeing flight with him and Bud over Vishnapur in the Sky Queen.
Jahan was delighted. “It could hardly take very long—you can almost take in the whole country in a single glance—but I’d love to experience your famous jet-ship. As you know, I have made a hobby of flying. Though our skies are awfully small, eh?”
The sleek silver craft jet-lifted off from the airfield and headed northward, the rising terrain forcing them into a constant stairstep climb. Tom and Bud were amazed at the gorgeous variety of the scenery in tiny Vishnapur. Rice-terraced slopes rose upward from valleys strewn with lush mountain forests. At higher levels, the slopes flattened into bleak plateaus, slashed by breath-taking gorges. Here and there could be seen a lonely hilltop lamasery or a mud-walled mountain village. Straggles of amazed Vishnapurians could be seen pointing skyward in disbelief. “They probably think we are Rempbol, the watchful devi of the skies, who pushes the Moon,” commented the prince.
Bud chuckled. “We paid him a visit a while back.”
In the distance ghostly, snow-capped peaks soared against the deep sky. Jahan pointed to the most majestic, murmuring, “That is Chogyal.”
Veering toward the mountain, they presently passed over a broad, treeless valley, the largest they had yet seen in Vishnapur. In the midst of the valley floor, almost covering it completely, lay a lake. It had the look of a slate, somber but flecked with the distinctive blue of the yorb algae. A line of moving specks indicated a train of pack mules, but otherwise there was no sign of human life or habitation beyond some farms that appeared weed-strewn and abandoned.
Tom was struck by the stark loneliness of the scene. “So that’s it. Boy, there’s a grim-looking spot!”
“Grim indeed, my friend—the poisoned gift of Chogyal,” said Jahan. “It is the Lake of Krei’i Bu, where they say Shankaru lies hidden in sleep.”
“I’d like to take a closer look,” Tom said. “I see a spot where we can set down.”
As the Prince nodded, Bud asked, “Um—the poison won’t be a problem, will it, Jahan?”
“You’ll smell it, but in the air the chemical isn’t concentrated enough to do harm.”
“And nobody knows what it is?”
“The scientists say it’s a variant of the normal exudations from the yorb algae, perhaps the result of some kind of underwater fermentation.”
Bud laughed. “Good night, a lake of beer!”
Tom was curious to know more. Landing near the lakeshore, he scooped up a sample of the murky water in a bottle. Using a Swift Spectroscope and a gas chromatograph, he analyzed it aboard the Flying Lab. The test showed an organic substance containing chlorine, carbon, and nitrogen, as well as some unfamiliar compounds that he assumed were associated with the algae. “But it’s definitely from organic sources, Your Highness, rather than minerals in the soil,” he told Prince Jahan.
Jahan shrugged. “I don’t know whether that news is good or bad.”
They went back outside. By now, the pack caravan with its tinkling bells was approaching the Sky Queen. The native mule drivers, awed by the huge plane, halted to chat with Tom’s party.
One, who managed some sparse English, said: “We see now that this is an airplane. At first we wondered if gur’tu’laksma had risen early.”
“Who’s that?” Bud asked.
“He is saying cloud fire demon,” explained Jahan. “I don’t know what he means, though.”
“The word is still ‘caught in Chogyal’s ear’ and has not reached the city,” said the muleteer. “It is all recent, just weeks. Some nights we see fire in the high clouds, even sometimes in the mists of early day, between the peaks.” He pointed northeast. “That way.”
“The border is that way, very close,” Jahan said thoughtfully. As the muleteer proceeded with his account, it developed that the sky-fire usually took the form of a circular phosphorescence in the clouds, often marked by flashes. “What do you think could cause a weather phenomenon like that, Tom?” the Prince inquired.
“I don’t know,” Tom answered. Then he flashed Bud a meaningful look. “It sounds like some strange kind of lightning!”
CATCH A FALLING STAR
JAHAN looked surprised. “Lightning? Perhaps the very lightning you― ”
“Could be,” stated Tom.
“What’s up there around the mountain, Jahan?” Bud asked. “A secret military installation, maybe? To watch the border?”
The Prince smiled. “No. Nor hidden caverns or camouflaged laboratories, so far as I know. One thing only—I’ll show you from the air.”
Bidding the muleteer goodbye, they reentered the Flying Lab and lifted off. As they swerved low about the peak of Chogyal, Prince Jahan pointed. “There. Does it look ominous?”
Below them, half-carved directly into mountain rock, was a weathered structure of arches and ancient statues in bas-relief. “A lamasery?” Tom asked.
“Yes, the lamasery of Mahachogyal, dating from the year 1291. It has been studied very thoroughly by archaeologists and historians. Still in use. No mad scientists, though.”
“Any Mocking Buddhas?” joked Tom.
“If so, the archaeologists have overlooked them.”
After a long look, the young inventor continued, “I don’t see any signs of high-tech equipment. And actually, the mule driver was pointing in a somewhat different direction.”
“Yes,” Jahan agreed. “He seemed to be indicating peaks across the border. Perhaps our large and oversensitive brother China is behind these phenomena.”
The Sky Queen returned to the Chullagar airfield, and the three motored back to the palace. As their limousine passed through the great gate into the courtyard-park, Prince Jahan called their attention to the mahouts washing the royal elephants, six of them, outside the mansion-sized stables. Bud and Tom chortled. Chow was helping them!
“He must have taken a shine to one of the elephants,” Tom said with a chuckle as they pulled to a stop.
The Texan was whistling happily as he sloshed water over the huge beast’s wrinkled gray hide. “Hi, folks!” Chow called. “Figgered an ole Texas wrangler like me oughtta get acquainted with the ridin’ stock around here. Met this’n the other day.”
Tom grinned. “The elephant certainly looks as if he’s enjoying that bath. You two seem to be pretty good friends.”
“Yup, we sorta understand each other—got me a nice gentlin’ way with ani-mules, remember. Only it’s a she. Her name’s Chini, meanin’ ‘Sugar.”’ Chow added, “She’s got false teeth.”
“False teeth! Are you serious?” asked Bud.
“Sure. Bein’ a lady, her tusks don’t grow very big, so they fit her up with wooden ones.” Chow tugged at one white-painted tusk to show how it came loose. “See? Jest like my ol’ Uncle Earlie has. Fer parades, they even gold-up her toenails.”
“Same with your uncle?” Bud inquired innocently.
“Heh. An’ you know what, boys? These critters are ticklish!”
Tom looked affectionately skeptical. “With those thick hides?”
“Honest Injun—I’ll show you.” Chow ran his fingers softly over the elephant’s flank.
A mahout bringing a fresh bucket of water exclaimed, “Stop, Sahib!—it is dangerous!”
The warning came two late! Chini reared skittishly and trumpeted. Then the beast plunged its trunk into the bucket of water and arched its trunk menacingly. “Chow’s gonna get it now!” Bud warned with a laugh.
Then the elephant sprayed Bud from head to foot! The young pilot stood spluttering and dripping while his audience shook with laughter.
“Brand my poncho,” Chow mumbled gleefully, “Guess m’ little lady knows enough t’ treat her boyfriend right!”
He stepped toward his little lady to give a pat of appreciation—and slipped with a whoop!, plopping down in the water puddle she had just made with a mighty splash. The laughter became universal, the drenched cowpoke included.
That evening Tom found out, via PER, the amazing test his father had arranged for the now-completed Dyna Ranger. “Good night!” Tom laughed. “This’ll sure give George Dilling some headlines about Enterprises!”
Mr. Swift laughed as well. “It occurred to me when I read developments in the newspaper. What could be a better test for your ‘satellite catcher’s mit’? The Smithsonian is thrilled, obviously.”
The conversation was expanded to include Hank Sterling and others, and the details took shape. The new spacecraft had already passed its initial flight tests, Hank having taken her on a suborbital space jaunt in which the new dynasphere had been given a successful wring-out. It was determined that Hank would fly the Dyna to Vishnapur immediately, with veteran Enterprises astronaut Neil MacColter as copilot. “But don’t forget, with this baby immediately means hours, not minutes,” the engineer reminded Tom. “It takes a long time just to clear the atmosphere!”
Clicking off, Tom excitedly scouted up Bud to tell him the news. “You’re not kidding? Jetz!” the black-haired youth enthused. “I knew it was dying up there, but I didn’t think anybody wanted to bring ’er back down!”
“It didn’t seem possible,” Tom explained. “But the dynasphere makes it possible, and the Smithsonian would sure love to put it on display.”
The test target was to be the world’s most famous unmanned satellite, the Hubble Space Telescope! NASA and the consortium managing it, called AURA, had announced that its recently completed repair mission would be the last one. In a low orbit, its aiming gyros no long functioning, the mighty instrument was doomed to a decaying orbit that brushed Earth’s atmosphere. It would eventually plunge to fiery death—but as with the Kronus, there was a strong likelihood that parts of it would survive to pose a danger to ground-dwellers. “This will be a real dress-rehearsal for the Kronus rescue,” Tom pointed out happily.
News spread quickly, and by the middle of the next morning it seemed all Chullagar was in a state of excitement, crowding the streets, watching the skies for the first sign of Tom’s oddly-shaped craft. The Enterprises party, joined by Their Majesties and the two princes, waited on one of the terraces of the palace of Moc’hogh’ypvu.
“And you are sure,” Queen Aju said to Tom, “that this flying vessel will be able to land here—at the palace?”
“Yes, Your Majesty. The Dyna Ranger is really rather small, and she can land vertically like a helicopter. No runway is required. The palace courtyard is more than large enough. You’ll see.”
Gen. Utrong’j spoke up. “And also, there is the advantage of greater security. Within the palace walls, the vessel will be well protected.”
“Yeah,” Bud added in a wry whisper to Tom. “But only from outsiders!”
Tom had kept in constant touch with Hank and Neil by means of his PER unit. He presently announced that the Dyna Ranger, descending from its half-orbit, had entered Vishnapurian airspace. “Wh-what if some o’ the jet pilots haven’t got the word?” fretted Chow. “They could shoot at ’er with them little missiles they carry!”
“But you forget Tom’s polar-ray dynasphere,” reproved Prince Vusungira with a smile. “Our defensive weapons would surely prove no match for Tom Swift’s technology.”
“All air defense units have been ordered to stand down,” snapped the humorless Gen. Utrong’j. “I have seen to it myself, naturally.”
Suddenly cries of “Yi! Sa q’kon!”—“Look! She comes!”—began to float up from the city.
Bashalli pointed. “I can see her!” Everyone on the terrace, except the King and Queen, rose to their feet as a crystal-tipped speck appeared in the southern skies. In less than a minute the U-shaped vehicle was settling down in the courtyard on its extensible landing struts.
“No problem with the horizon-scan repelatrons,” Tom murmured. Bud clapped him on the back.
Disembarking, Hank and Neil confirmed that the flight from Shopton had been uneventful. “And we’ve brought you a machine that’s all checked out and anxious to go,” Hank pronounced. He turned to Bud. “I hope you don’t mind my riding shotgun with Tom on this mission, Bud.”
The youth shrugged, but smiled. “I understand. It’s a test flight, and you’ll be doing delicate work—it’s like surgery. I’ll leave the operating room to the pros.”
There was no reason for delay. With a wave, Tom and Hank entered the Dyna and climbed the interior ladder up to the pilot dome. After a final check of the instruments, the young inventor activated the side-angled repelatrons and the craft rose smoothly like an elevator.
As the Himalayas fell away on all sides, Tom studied the latest positioning data from the Hubble. “She’s over Malaysia, as expected,” he noted. He altered course, ascending steeply.
Hank Sterling worked the dynasphere controls. “Getting her warmed up,” he said. “Readings all nom, boss. As I told you, we had to change the formulation on― ”
He broke off as both astronauts shouted with shock, covering their eyes. A blinding flare of blue-white light engulfed the viewdome!
The flare disappeared almost instantly, but Tom and Hank were dazzled. “I—I can’t read the instruments,” the engineer gasped.
“We’re under attack!” grated Tom Swift. “It’s the space-lightning!”
Even as the purple started to fall away from his vision, the flash attack came again!
“Holy Mack,” Hank exclaimed, “they’re going to keep at it until they fry us!”
“And we can’t get clear—because we can’t see!”
TOM fumbled at the dimly seen controls ahead of him, controls he had designed but never touched until minutes before. He managed to flip the Dyna Ranger onto her side, placing the lower hull between the viewdome and the spot in space where the lightning seemed to be flashing.
The next flash turned the cabin paper-white for an instant, but was far less dazzling to their eyes. “Gettin’ it together now,” Hank muttered. “What do we do? We can’t get much speed out of this rig, Tom.”
“I know,” was the grim reply. “The hull materials will protect us, thank goodness, but the dynasphere could be knocked for a loop just like the GenRev was.” He paused. “So let’s let the dynasphere defend herself!”
Under Tom’s direction, Hank manipulated the dynasphere controls as the lightning burst about them, flash upon flash. He swiveled the inner focus ring—there were two now, each capable of independent rotation in any direction—and aimed the dyna-field toward the earth. He then began to re-tune the energy-mode selector.
“The bolts must be passing along streamers of plasma,” Tom pronounced, “probably induced by some kind of phased microwave setup. We can take the sizzle out by suppressing the conduction coefficient.” Through the rear of the viewdome they could see the crystal sphere starting to glow brightly.
There came one final burst, weak and wavering. Then no more. “Got ’em!” laughed Sterling in triumph.
“No damage,” muttered Tom. Then he checked the recorded instrument readings—now that he could see them. “It’s the same as before, Hank. We’re over the region of the mountains that seems to be the danger zone, but we can’t pinpoint the precise source. I’m sure it’s somewhere near where the mule driver was pointing, though.”
“Think we can go on to our rendezvous, Tom?”
“Whether we can or not—we will!”
The Dyna Ranger arced away from Vishnapur, gradually shouldering its way into near-Earth space. They cruised eastward. At long last their radar showed a blip hundreds of miles ahead, barely peeping over the bright horizon. “Right where she should be—unless it’s a rogue Kranjovian or Brungarian spy satellite!” joked Hank.
“Or the Black Cobra’s ship. But let’s pretend it really is the Hubble, shall we?”
To fully test the dynasphere’s capabilities, Tom drew no closer. Getting a radar fix on the orbiting telescope, he activated a complex prerecorded program, a series of dyna-field adjustments that would culminate in the desired grappling with the atom-thin solar wind. The big globe of crystal was alight with a dancing corona of many colors.
“Got something,” Tom murmured in hushed excitement. “Orbit parameters starting to shift...”
The space wind was as weak as it was tenuous, its redirected wafts barely nudging the satellite, which was as big and bulky as a truck. Yet the effect was cumulative. As the minutes passed, it became certain that Tom’s invention was a success. The Hubble had changed orbit and was approaching the Dyna Ranger!
“Time to slow her down,” Tom noted. He adjusted the repelatrons inside the curve of the Dyna’s swaybacked spine. The push gently held back the satellite as the Dyna’s gravitex stabilizers anchored the craft in position relative to their established orbit.
The drumshaped fuselage of the space telescope now loomed near. Watching in breathless tension, the pilots carefully maneuvered the their craft, easing off on the dynasphere as flexible gripper-brackets swung up from the sides. Seconds—inches—and the hull rang with the sharp clank of contact. “Snagged her!” Tom cried happily.
The rest of the flight was happy anticlimax. They orbited across the Pacific and the U.S., finally easing down in Washington DC on the National Mall—yards in front of the Smithsonian Institution. To surging cheers and endless congratulations, the Hubble was lifted from its cradle by crane. “Don’t drop her, boys,” Hank gibed. Turning to Tom, he said, “You know, some day I’ll be visiting the display with my kids, tellin’ ’em what the whole thing was like.”
Tom chuckled. “They probably won’t believe you, Hank. Kids are natural skeptics when Dads start in with the history lessons.”
The two slept the night on cots at the Swift Enterprises videophone studio in downtown D.C., fending off all requests for interviews. Next day—already nighttime in Asia—they flew back to Vishnapur in the Dyna Ranger. Tom had decided that he would take off from the palace courtyard when it was time for the Kronus rescue effort. “The ship might come in handy in another way, too,” he mentioned to Bud cryptically as his pal greeted him with his usual enthused congratulations.
“Does it happen to have a demon-catching setting?”
“Workin’ on it, flyboy!”
They wiled away the rest of the too-soon Vishnapur night with DVD’s, late snacks, and occasional naps. Tom spoke by his Private Ear Radio to his parents in Shopton, learning that Agent Martin had turned up no new information on the murder of Benni Susak, or the mysterious Jaisit Radamantha. “Nor has that boy Rakshi provided anything useful,” added Mr. Swift.
Morning brought the dignified plaudits of the royals, the General, and Mr. Phudrim. After breakfast Tom and Bud spent some downtime with the other Shoptonians as Hank and Neil MacColter took in the sights of Chullagar in the company of Bashalli’s parents.
The group played an ancient native game called bakro with several of the children of the lesser royalty, all of whom lived in the Sacred Palace. The game was a kind of checkers, played upon a tiled floor that served as a room-sized board, its rows of checker-squares spiraling into the center in pinwheel form. The squares were of three colors: red, saffron-yellow, and yorb-blue. The tokens were heavy disks of mahogany that slid easily on the polished floor.
“This here game board gives me a few idees fer a shirt,” remarked Chow as he nudged a token along with his high-heeled boot. “Lookee them colors!”
A little princeling tugged at the westerner’s pantleg. “Lord Cow, tell me please, why do you wear the bright blouse and high-heels like a woman of America?” As Chow reddened in embarrassment, the boy added: “We see them in movies, but here only the most enlightened sufri’ah would dress in a woman way.”
The boys stifled laughter, but Sandy took pity on her grizzled friend. “Dmong, Mr. Winkler is our very best meditator and—sacred guru. He thinks of nothing but food.”
Dmong’s eyes grew very round. “Oh! You mean Heeyapa has blessed him! Heeyapa is Lord of all cooked things.”
“Feller’s my special favorite,” nodded Chow happily. “An’ I jest happen t’know that he wears clothes like this when he’s off duty.”
“And also the big hat?”
“Naw, that’s jest t’ pertect my brain from too much enlightenment.”
After the game was over, Tom and Bud excused themselves to scout up Harlan Ames, who quickly drew them to a quiet corner. “I’ve made a few inquiries, and last night I confirmed with my own penetrating eyes what I’d been told.”
“What was it?” asked Tom.
“You mean you saw Mortlake?”
Ames nodded. “I’d been describing him to the servants who speak English, in a neutral way, and several told me they had seen him in the palace on several occasions over the last few days. They said something more, too. And that’s what I saw last night. I saw him having a little moonlight face time in the courtyard with Prince Jahan!”
“Jahan!” Bud hissed angrily. “I never did trust that snake-charmer snake! He’s been playing us from the start!”
But Tom put a hand on his pal’s arm. “There could be an innocent explanation, Bud. They might be old friends. It could be that Jahan is the person Mortlake felt he had to pay his respects to, as a courtesy, when he arrived.”
“Uh-huh. Over and over. Seems to me a guy can only afford to pay just so much respect, genius boy.”
“I’d advise you not to confront him yet,” stated Ames quietly. “Give me some time to do a little background checking on the Net. Let’s see if I can find out just who ‘Hugh Mortlake’ is before we set the dogs barking.”
Tom nodded. “Makes sense. Besides, I’d rather not get thrown out of the country just yet.”
Bud nudged his friend and said to Ames, “Tom’s got some scientific trick up his sleeve.”
Returning to the game room, the youths found that Mr. Phudrim had entered. “Ah, now I can tell you all! There is to be a royal dinner tonight, signifying the first of the six days that are the climax of the Festival of Chogyal. Naturally you are all invited. It should be most pleasant and interesting, as His Highness Prince Jahan has himself arranged for entertainment.”
Tom smiled noncommittally. “Yes. Pleasant and—interesting.”
“And as for this morning,” continued Mr. Phudrim, “allow me to suggest that you take in the carnival of the acrobats, one of the Festival’s ceremonial events. It is at the edge of the city.”
Sandy and the others were thrilled, but Tom begged off politely. “Thank you, but Bud and I have plans. We’ll be spending a few hours testing some equipment that we brought to Vishnapur aboard the Sky Queen.”
As the two strolled back to their rooms, Tom said softly, “When word gets back to Jahan, he’ll assume we’re working on that cassette.”
Bud gave a skeptical snort. “Come on, pal. I think you and I both know that the guy already has that bogus box of fiction in his hands.”
“Maybe. We could know more by the end of this big banquet tonight.”
They taxied to the airfield. In one of the lab cubicles of the Flying Lab, Tom took out a flat, shallow, boxlike object, a foot in length, and began to fasten it to his forearm with elastic straps. “What’s that, pal?” asked Bud curiously.
“You mean I never showed you my Spektor? I worked it out right after we got back from Iceland and our sunken jail.” The reference was to their recent harrowing experience involving Tom’s subsea aquatomic tracker.
Bud looked it over as his chum held up his arm. “Blood pressure monitor? A box for ties in case of a sudden formal event?”
The young inventor grinned. “It’s basically a super-miniaturized emulating computer. Y’see, flyboy, modern high-tech gadgets usually have two aspects, the mechanical output gizmos that ‘do’ things, and the inner circuitry that tells them exactly what to do.”
“Sure—chips, disks, printed circuits, that sort of thing.”
“This little emulator has various kinds of generic ‘doers’ that can be adapted to a wide variety of uses. In other words, they’re functionally flexible. But inside the box we don’t use dedicated circuitry at all. Instead there’s a computer-memory setup that electronically emulates the way different physical circuits, for varying devices, process currents—which, when you get down to it, are really just signals carrying information, separate from whatever powers the output.”
“Got it. One little box, but you can use it for anything.”
“Well, not exactly anything—you can’t clean your teeth with it just yet! But quite a bit in the areas of monitoring, remote control, and communication. As we ride along today, I’ll be using it to emulate a Lookor, my localculator invention, to tell us exactly where we are.”
“Great!” Bud exclaimed. “So let’s get riding!”
Tom had brought along in the Queen’s hold a pair of new inventions, one-man offroad vehicles designed for negotiating rugged terrains safely, at high speeds. He and Bud had tested the vehicles, nicknamed Roughriders, in the low hills surrounding Shopton, but the Himalayas would offer a grueling challenge like no other on Earth. The shirtsleeve weather of midday, which would turn freezing cold as the shadows lengthened, made it a perfect opportunity.
Raising the skyship a few yards on its extensible landing legs, Tom lowered the deck of the hangar-hold to the ground. In a moment the boys were whooping along in the morning sun at the speed of the open freeway!
They headed away from Chullagar, soon leaving the paved roads and winding among huge boulders and the sharp-tilted landscapes that bordered Vishnapur’s maze of narrow valleys. They bounded up rippling slopes like motorized mountain goats, often at the dizzying speed of 60 miles per hour, occasionally startling the unwary humans and animals who lived there.
Even without their hard-charging speed, the Roughriders had a strange appearance. The pilots sat strapped in an open framework on comfortable saddles similar to those of motorcycles. But what passed for wheels was similar to nothing at all! Twin hoops, some seven feet across, rose on either side of the rider. Composed of a material Tom had devised that could be electronically directed to alter its shape almost instantly, the hoops were usually not round, but any manner of shape—even square or triangular—depending upon the composition of the terrain and the angle of its slope. Pointed vertices sometimes bit into the ground like hiking poles, while on other occasions the rim became momentarily concave to soothe them over bumps and boulders with no slackening of speed. It was only on smooth surfaces that the wheels turned circular and looked like wheels. Usually the wheels were vertical, perpendicular to the ground, but they could easily shift their axis shafts in such a way that the tops of the whirling hoops nearly met over the rider’s head!
“Jetz!” Bud shouted to Tom in glee. “This is more fun than I’ve had since the Millennium!”
The young inventor was enjoying himself—but also maintaining a keen watch on the performance of his new invention, occasionally switching the function of his Spektor device to use it as a monitor. “Gyro sensors... gravitex compensators... solar battery junctions... perfect so far!” Glancing at his Spektor, he called over to Bud: “Tack a little right, toward the gap over there. The lake’s just over the rise.”
They had set off with a specific destination in mind, the sad, deadly lake of Krei’i Bu. Tom wanted to take a private close look at its shoreline and other geological features—and also to pay a visit to the mountainside lamasery they had seen from the air.
They spent an hour at the lake, and Tom collected a number of additional samples of its murky waters. Then, guided by the Spektor’s emulated localculator, they mounted the lower skirts of great Chogyal. “We couldn’t literally climb to the summit on these bikes,” Tom told Bud, “but we shouldn’t have any trouble picking our way around to the lamasery.”
“Yeah— gur’tu’laksma willing!”
In minutes the ancient lamasery of Mahachogyal loomed ahead, looking down at the two from somewhat higher ground. They swerved and mounted up the slope, drawing nearer the gigantic bas-relief statues carved into the mountainside in shallow recesses.
They halted abruptly in a splash of pebbles and dust. Beaming brightly through the thin air, the midday sun beat down on a carved figure they had not seen clearly the other day from above. Like its companions it was at least one hundred feet high!
Bud stared at the eerie stone giant, then glanced at his chum questioningly. “Is that who I think it is?”
THE IMAGE OF A MURDER DONE
“WHAT do you make of it, Skipper?” asked Bud tensely. “The lightning throwers are somewhere around here, and now we have a real tie-in to the bit with the spies and the bugged Buddhas.”
“I don’t know what to make of it,” Tom shrugged. “We know Yamantaka is a part of the Tibetan religion. The carving may not signify anything special.”
Bud flicked his head and chin-pointed. “Maybe we could ask.” Some distance away stood a wizened figure in a gray robe, evidently a monk or lama. Silent as a statue, his wrinkle-draped eyes regarded them unemotionally above wisps of white beard.
Stabilizing and locking down their Roughriders, the two approached the man. Tom smiled in a friendly way. “Hello, sir. Do you speak English?” The man stared, unmoving, and Tom repeated the question. At last the monk’s arm lifted rigidly, as if on a hinge. He pointed further up the slope to some flat boulders. For the first time the boys noticed another monk, sitting cross-legged on the bare rock in the lotus position.
The two approached, and Tom began, “Sir, do you― ”
“Of course I do,” the man said impassively, accent thick.
“We don’t mean to interrupt your, er, meditation,” said Bud hesitantly.
“You are not. I am only working on my tan.”
Tom laughed at the comeback, which was said with a perfectly straight face. “Are you from the lamasery, sir?”
“I know. Tom Swift. And Bud Barclay. My enlightenment comes from the television news—the BBC, in fact.”
Tom offered his hand, which the man only looked at. “It is empty,” the monk stated.
“What’s your name, sir?”
“I don’t have one.”
Growing impatient, Bud frowned. “Yeah? How do they call you for dinner?”
“I don’t eat.”
Looking toward Tom, the young San Franciscan said uncertainly, “I think he’s joking.”
The monk now smiled. “Of course I am. My name is, as you might put it, Brother Voo. Do I take it that you wish a tour of Mahachogyal, our beloved mother?”
Tom asked if very much of the lamasery was open to the view of visitors. “It is all open, to anyone. Why should it be otherwise? Our disciplines, our meditative practices, teach us to resist the world inwardly, not avoid it outwardly. Inside you will find halls of cold stone and many men in robes doing many things, most of them quite ordinary and uninteresting. In one chamber, chanting that never stops—the Nine Thousand Names of the Divine One-Who-Is-Many.”
Bud wondered if it were another joke. “You just read off nine thousand names, one after another?”
“In a rhythm, the chant never ceasing until the end of all things. One group chants for about four hours, then the next group takes it up without a break. It has continued unbroken for many centuries.”
“What happens when you get to the last of the names?” asked Tom.
“We start over.”
With a smile, Tom inquired whether the monk had seen the lights in the sky. “Yes. We all see it. It seems to always stay above one of the valleys across the border, in China. Probably they are being industrious, building an electrical plant. Or might you believe in gur’tu’laksma?”
“You don’t, I take it.”
“Electricity is enough of a miracle. The folk-demons of the peasants have no role in our beliefs. If that’s what you’re looking for, try our competitors on other mountains.”
“How about― ” Tom indicated the mountainside statue.
“Yamantaka? Yes, we give him honor here,” Brother Voo replied. “But not as a doer of evil, or a trickster. To us he represents the world of days, giving us tests and challenges to strengthen us. Without Lord Yamantaka, we would be like discarded yorb, limp and useless.”
“Another question,” Bud put in. “Do you have any—any idea what’s causing the lake to go bad?”
“That is a matter for science, is it not? Something geochemical, I would think.”
Tom and Bud thanked the monk, who nodded. “No doubt we’ll meet again,” he said. “Whether in this life or the next, who knows?”
The two returned to their Roughriders, and Bud said:
“Do we believe the guy, genius boy?”
“Well—what he’s saying matches what I’ve read about the Tibetan religions,” Tom answered thoughtfully. “And if something is going on in the lamasery, he took a risk in telling us that it was all open to view.”
“Then again, whatever it is might be hidden away,” Bud pointed out. “The ordinary monks might not know about it.”
Tom agreed. But he hedged his concurrence. “While we were walking, I was looking at the slope higher up, above the lamasery. I could be wrong, but it sure looked to my deep-set blue eyes like there were big char marks on some of the boulders. But still...”
“Right, maybe they’re into singing around the campfire.”
Returning to the Sky Queen and stowing their vehicles, Tom and Bud casually walked back to the palace, stopping for lunch and keeping their eyes open for Hugh Mortlake. “Jahan probably has him penciled in for a conniving session,” Bud grumbled.
The streets of Chullagar were now even more thronged and vibrant, as the Festival was in full swing and nearing its conclusion. Everywhere were men in colorful garb hawking what seemed to be doughnut-shaped pastries dipped in yorb sauce, stacked high on sticks. Others offered gem-studded pins is the shapes of animals or demons. The boys bought several, for the girls and Mrs. Prandit, and to take back to Shopton.
The ceremonial banquet was set for eight-thirty. Tom and Bud donned the formal wear they had brought with them to Vishnapur, then waited with many others in the big antechamber to the grand dining hall. The crowd was largely male, and Crown Prince Vusungira explained to the Shopton visitors that the women of court would enter as a group after the male guests had been seated. “But Sandy and Bashalli aren’t ‘women of court.’ Shouldn’t they be here like the other female commoners?” Tom inquired. Vusungira didn’t respond.
The boys noticed, pointedly, that Prince Jahan was also missing from the crowd.
The hour struck, but a servant announced that entry into the hall would be delayed. “That there prince must be givin’ his act some fine tunin’,” suggested a bedecked Chow Winkler.
Crown Prince Vusungira chuckled. “I suspect that Miss Swift and Miss Prandit have caused quite a dither among our court ladies!” Tom and Bud exchanged expressions of curiosity.
Presently the crowd was admitted to the vaulted hall and shown to their seats. When the event finally got under way to the whang! of a table-sized gong, Tom and Bud gaped. The court ladies, beaming with pride as they decorously entered the hall, had their long, jet-black hair done-up in fashionable American styles!
At the tail end of the procession came Sandy and Bashalli side by side. The two American girls wore traditional saris and gold bangles with a tikka, or beauty spot, above their eves. “Princesses everywhere, but Sandy and Bashalli are still the belles of the ball!” Hank Sterling confided to Bud with a chuckle.
“Man, I’ll say!”
“As I understand, they worked on these matters of style for many hours,” noted Vusungira. “Now please pardon me. I must take my place with Mother and Father for our grand entrance.” As he left the chamber, Prince Jahan entered, seating himself next to the Shoptonians at the table of honor, which was at the right hand of the royal dais. “A bit delayed,” he murmured.
All the men rose and grinningly applauded as Sandy and Bash took their seats next to Bud and Tom. Bashalli was smiling demurely, but her words were: “Boys, it’s not easy to sit down in these wrappers of ours.”
“But they do make a good impression,” stated Harlan Ames.
“Man, I’ll say!” put in Neil MacColter, which earned him a look from Bud.
At last the lights dimmed and the guests rose and bowed their heads as the King and Queen entered, the Crown Prince four steps behind them. His Majesty and Her Majesty seated themselves in gilded thronelike chairs as Vusungira took a lesser chair between them as was the custom, separating the royals. After a dignified silence King Glaudiunda clapped twice, and the banquet commenced.
The meal had many courses, each superb. At the end all the visitors were in a delirium of flavor, Chow loudly so.
“I guess this is where we get the King’s speech,” said Sandy. “Isn’t that right, Jah?”
“By our tradition it comes at the very end,” Jahan replied. He added coolly: “That is, if it comes at all.”
Tom whispered to Harlan Ames, “I’m afraid something bad’s going to happen here tonight, Harlan.”
“So am I. But not necessarily to us. All we can do is be ready to protect one another.”
Mr. Phudrim stood and asked for silence. After a few remarks in the language of Vishnapur, he said: “Sacred ones, honored guests, His Highness Prince Jahan has provided the gift that is to be our amusement this evening.” The audience applauded and Jahan rose to his feet. Though there was a smile on his handsome face, Tom thought he looked tense and grim.
“Anticipating this banquet in honor of the Festival of Chogyal, I have spent some time preparing what you are about to see. To our foreign guests, let me explain that this is to be a performance of an ancient form of theater. It has two parts. The first, which tells briefly the theme, is in our traditional style. The second shall be presented, for your amusement, in a manner entirely contemporary.”
“If they start in with them loud ee-lectric gee-tars, I’m leavin’,” grumbled Chow.
The theatrical troupe entered. All were women. They seemed to be divided into two groups, some wearing jewelry, others turbans of yorb-blue.
Jahan provided a quiet commentary for the table of foreigners. “The female actors in blue turbans are portraying men. The performance is entirely silent. The special movements and poses, and the positioning of the players, all communicate the basic story, which the second part elaborates upon in a more natural manner.”
The Shoptonians could make little of the first part, which seemed like a dance rather than a play or story. “Just what is the theme, Your Highness?” inquired Tom.
“A classic one—temptation and tragedy. The second part will make it all clear.”
After the short performance, the players withdrew to applause. Prince Jahan again rose. “Now, honored friends, let us provide the stage for the second act of the q’nul vedtri.” He gestured. To murmurs of surprise, a big movie screen descended from the high ceiling! “Yes, this part takes place on film. I could not have prepared it alone. Allow me to introduce the man who has donated his great expertise and craft, working with me behind the scenes, in secrecy, to make this performance a surprise. Do come and receive our gratitude, Mr. Hugh Mortlake!”
“Good grief!” Bud choked.
Mortlake stepped onto the floor as Jahan led the audience in applause. He glanced toward the guest table, and Tom thought he saw a wink.
As Mortlake left the floor, the lights dimmed and the screen came to life. Jahan sat down and quietly explained to the others: “Hugh is a professional in the field of animation whom I contacted months ago. He is Sri Lankan by birth, but grew up in Britain and has become well known among his peers under the pseudonym Jesterman. His London studio is recognized for its expertise in the new form of animation, which uses computers. We hope this will someday become an industry here, as it is in Korea and Japan. He’s spent some time sketching various aspects of Vishnapur life and culture, to prevent anything appearing in the film that might be so inaccurate as to seem insulting. Even within the hour he was doing what he calls ‘final tweaking’.”
“Oddly enough, we’ve already run into him a few times on this trip,” Tom commented dryly. “He kept your secret well.”
“As I asked him to, for reasons you will see.”
“I’m on the edge of my seat.”
The animated story had no sound but was easy enough to follow. It took place in a kingdom situated in the treetops of a great forest, with Chogyal always looming in the background. The inhabitants were birds, who walked and dressed as people—and in the case of military types, carried modern weaponry. Many visual details made clear that the tree-city represented Chullagar, its fictional palace the very one the audience was sitting in.
The main characters were two families of obvious royal birth, with the husband and wife of one family wearing crowns. Each couple had a young son, and the boys were shown playing together with many signs of mutual devotion.
Then, suddenly, the mother in the crownless family was snatched away by angelic beings and deposited upon the peak of Chogyal. “I know what that means,” whispered Bashalli. “The devis of the Lord of Good Death have carried her to the next world.”
“Traditional symbolism,” said Prince Jahan.
The widower father was shown mourning. The two young boy-birds grew rapidly through several youthful exploits, close and loyal friends. But then the story seemed to take a darker turn. The remaining wife was shown meeting alone with the widower, then embracing him in a tender way. Suddenly the entire screen was filled with a flower of dark red hue. “Hunh! No myst’ry about this here part!” snorted Chow. “Got a little hanky-panky goin’ on b’hind the sheets.—That dee-sert a little rich fer you, Sandy?”
Next a royal hunt by the two royal fathers was portrayed, with giant canines as riding-elephants with howdahs, their tiger-like quarry a huge striped rat. As Tom and Bud watched in tense anticipation, the rat was brought down by a rifle shot, and the crownless man passed a cup of blue wine to the other, the King, as if honoring him. The wine was downed—and the King suddenly slipped to the ground. The wayward wife now appeared from the leaves, joining the other man. They stared at the dying bird-King before them. Then the woman knelt down and plucked the crown from her dead husband’s head, placing it atop the head of the other.
The screen went black.
Tom had kept himself aware of Jahan throughout the film. The prince seemed to be studying keenly the royal dais, and when Tom followed his glance, he noticed that King Glaudiunda and Queen Aju were becoming distressed and nervous. As the showing ended both rose abruptly and left the dais, followed by the Crown Prince.
As the room lights came up to thunderous applause, Prince Vusungira appeared and spoke to Mr. Phudrim, who stepped onto the floor and waved his hands for silence. “Their Majesties have chosen to retire early,” he said, “and will issue their commemorative decree through the Palace Ministry. We thank you all. Good night to you.”
As the animated crowd filed out the doors, Tom spoke quietly and frowningly to Prince Jahan. “Do you think that was a wise decision, Jahan?” he challenged. “You’ve stirred things up and put yourself in real danger.”
The prince shrugged. “It was necessary. I regard their reactions as confirming the fact of their betrayal of my father. But now tell me, what of the cassette I gave you? What did you find?”
Tom withdrew a videocassette from his inner jacket pocket. “You can have it back. I discovered quite a few things, unexpected things.” Jahan reached forward to take it, but Tom shook his head and withdrew it. “No, Your Highness. This is just a blank from the Sky Queen. Forgive me, but I had to do just as you did—gauge your reaction.” He described the theft of the cassette.
Jahan was livid. He said but one word in English—“Outrageous!”—and stormed away through the door to the great hall.
In the antechamber Tom and Bud heard their names called, and Hugh Mortlake approached. “Wasn’t this a night? But I hope you’ll forgive me for my little deception, fellows. A promise is a promise, as they say.”
“You really pulled it off,” said Tom.
“Thanks. I did get a bit nervous when I saw Bud here poking through my sketch book. No, please don’t be embarrassed, Bud—with all that happened you had every right to be suspicious.”
“Then I’m sure you’ll understand why I’d like to know if our running into you in Mumbai was just an accident,” Bud declared coolly.
Mortlake shrugged. “To be honest, only in part. I was in that shop just as a simple bargain-hunting tourist. But I was indeed at the restaurant patio by schemery. You see, it’s my way as an artist to create caricature by viewing my subjects in live motion and sketching it down—I call it ‘the line.’ The palace had Vusungira’s daily itinerary, and Jahan had told me he’d be there. Lucky thing, wasn’t it?”
“In several ways,” Tom agreed.
Bidding the others goodnight, Tom and Bud strolled across the courtyard, circling the Dyna Ranger and whispering about the escalating events. Then, as they neared their wing, uniformed men came running down a walkway, meeting several others who came swarming from the palace wing. As they all stood in a knot of gesticulation and raised voices, the youths noticed that General Utrong’j and the King’s Minister, Phudrim, were among them.
Remembering Jahan’s anger, Tom rushed up with a sick feeling. “Mr. Phudrim, what’s wrong?” he asked fearfully. “Has something happened to Their Majesties?”
The man’s eyes froze on Tom Swift. “Their Majesties? What could make you think such a thing?—Yet it is horrible, horrible! To imagine that this terrible event could happen here, in Vishnapur—!”
“Come on!” snapped Bud. “Tell us!”
“Horrible! We have learned of deaths—many, many deaths!”
“GIVE us the details, Phudrim!” came a stern voice from behind Tom and Bud—Harlan Ames.
“Mr. Ames, I—of course this is an internal matter for my country—I’m not authorized― ”
Phudrim was cut off by a curt bark of Vishnapurian from General Utrong’j. “Your help may be useful, Mr. Ames,” declared the general; “all your help. Not everything is understood as yet, but my police are reporting some sort of massive death scene at a crossroads outside the city limits.”
“An auto accident?” asked Ames.
“Surely not. But the cause is unclear. Will you three join me at the scene? Perhaps your scientific viewpoint will help us make sense of this.”
The three rode with General Utrong’j and Mr. Phudrim beyond Chullagar, turning from the paved highway onto a winding mountain road, along which roadblocks had been set up. Presently they came to a broad pass where two descending roads came together.
Uniformed men and medics swarmed about in the light of powerful lamps and flashlights. Tom and Bud had seen death before—but nothing like this. Bodies were strewn everywhere!
The sight was sickening. “Horrible” is too soft a word! thought Tom.
Harlan Ames was already crouching down over the bodies. “Cuts and bruises, mostly on the face and neck and the exposed forearms. No bullet wounds.” He stood up pensively. “In fact, I see very few weapons here at all—a few knives, a sabre.”
“Could this be an animal attack?” Bud speculated. “Maybe a herd of tigers or something?”
General Utrong’j shook his head. “Here? No sign of such a thing. And it would be unprecedented.”
Leaning down over one of the bodies, Tom suddenly pointed. “But look at this! Harlan, don’t these look like bite marks?”
Ames studied them. “I think so. Much too small for a tiger, and there’s no ripping, as an animal would cause. Yet... the smearing of the blood...”
“Let us not fear to say what is obvious,” snapped the General. “They are from the teeth of a human being!”
“And I see marks like that on many of these poor people,” Tom said. “Sir, do you have any idea who these people are?”
“Oh yes, we surely do. Two large groups, from the two mountain villages in the valleys at the top of these pathways. From what they are wearing and carrying, they were on the way to this night’s Festival event in Chullagar.”
Tom nodded slowly. “I see. The groups walked down the two paths—look at the scuffs in the dirt—and arrived here at the crossroads at the same time. And then...”
“Was there bad blood between the two villages? A rivalry or feud of some sort?” asked Ames.
Mr. Phudrim answered quickly, “No, no! The villages were like brothers! We Vishnapuri are peaceful and learn the ways of understanding and friendliness.”
“I’d say they’ve been friendlied to death,” Bud pronounced, without humor.
After a time the authorities began to receive bits of better news from the medical personnel. “By grace of Chogyal they are not all dead after all,” announced Utrong’j. “Many are alive, but persist in unconsciousness. We must get ambulances up here and begin to transport the bodies to our two hospitals in Chullagar—the only two in the country.”
“General, we’d be glad to house as many as we can aboard my aircraft,” Tom offered. “We have medical supplies aboard, and could fly the most critical cases to facilities in India.”
“You are most kind,” nodded the General.
Suddenly Ames said, “Then perhaps you might indulge us a bit in return, General.”
“Of course, sir.”
“Thank you. I realize it might be considered a bit undignified and offensive to your beliefs― ”
“What do you wish, Mr. Ames?”
“I’d like you to remove your turban and turn around.”
The security minister was stonefaced, yet amazement leaked into his voice. “What! Ji nej’h! You ask me to—! But why?”
“I ask also, Mr. Ames,” said Phudrim. “Perhaps you do not realize that this is insulting to our customs.”
“My apologies. What I need to do is examine the General’s neck, where it meets his hairline.”
Both Vishnapurians sputtered in bewilderment, and Tom put in: “It could be important, General Utrong’j. You’ve just been examining a great many of these bodies at close proximity. Do you see?”
The man’s mouth snapped shut into a grim line. “Then you suspect a contagion of some sort? Something that first shows on that part of the skin?”
Ames stepped forward. “If you don’t mind, sir.”
Utrong’j turned and lifted off his turban. Ames took a close look, but barely a glance, then backed away. “Thanks, General. I don’t see anything. You’re fine.”
The man gave a twitch of a smile. “I am relieved. I must be fit to deal with this crisis.”
“Yes,” Ames agreed. Then he turned his gaze. “And now, Mr. Phudrim, let’s have a look at you.”
The Royal Minister seemed to pale. “Me? But I have barely― ”
“No nonsense, Phudrim,” commanded General Utrong’j. “Let us get past this. I will not have you spreading a contagion to Chullagar. All here must be inspected.”
“Actually,” said the Enterprises security chief calmly, “I don’t believe that will be necessary. Mr. Phudrim?”
Trembling, Phudrim removed his turban and Ames drew close. “Mm-hmm. I think we have a winner. Anyone else want a look?”
Tattooed at the top of Phudrim’s neck was the image of Yamantaka!
“Jetz!” Bud breathed. “Like on that Benni Susak guy!”
“I’d say you have a few things to answer for, Mr. Minister,” pronounced Tom dryly.
“I shall say nothing!” snapped Phudrim.
“No? The night is young, Phudrim.” General Utrong’j motioned for his security men to handcuff the minister.
As the three Americans turned and stepped away, Ames chuckled quietly. “You’re mighty quick on the uptake, boss.”
“I guessed what you were after.”
“What made you suspect Phudrim?” asked Bud.
Ames shrugged. “Just a little flatfoot investigating over these last few days. Clearly someone inside the palace gates was involved in the plotting—probably the same person who had the tape stolen. As you reasoned, Bud, it was someone who knew of your plans that day, how long you two could be expected to be away from your room.”
“I get it now,” Bud said. “Phu would also have known.”
“Phudrim or General Utrong’j, unless you want to get into the royals. Either was a viable suspect. But without asking outright, because honesty is a lousy policy in the security business, I ended up finding that the owner of that shop in Chullagar could have been snatched away without Utrong’j’s prior knowledge after all—namely by some of the Palace Guards who are effectively under the control of Minister Phudrim, the King’s chief advisor.”
“But,” Tom noted grimly, “I’m sure he’s under the control of someone else.”
Bud grinned. “Yeah. Old Phu doesn’t strike me as the kinda guy who could throw lightning bolts on his own.”
They were driven back to the palace, the cause of the terrible event still a mystery. But Bud had a final thought for his friend to chew over before turning off the light. “I’m sure you’ve already been hit by this, Tom. What happened to all those villagers—it’s a lot like what happened to the two pilots in the India jetliner!”
“Yep. And the pilots are still unconscious, too. It may be quite awhile before anyone can tell what happened.”
A short night of sleep led to a long morning of shuteye. It was nearing noon when the bleep of the PER unit roused Tom from his sleep. “H-hello?”
“I’m sorry, Tom.”
“It’s okay, Dad,” said the youth groggily. “What’s up? I know it’s late over there.”
“I just took an emergency call from NASA. The Kronus team says the satellite has taken a sudden turn for the worse! The orbit parameters have shifted greatly in the last few hours, and they think she’ll start clipping the Titan atmosphere very soon—today, probably.”
Tom took in and let out a deep breath. “I’d hoped to run a few more simulations on the Queen’s computers, Dad—but we’ll have to make the attempt ‘b’guess and b’gosh’.”
“I know how terrifically difficult this will be,” Mr. Swift declared. “As we’ve discussed, we’re ready to help you at our end, just as much as possible.”
“We’ll win this thing as a team—Mr. Swift!”
“Indeed we shall, Mr. Swift.”
Before noon struck Tom and Hank Sterling were once again airborne in the Dyna Ranger. “No need to tempt the lightning boys this time,” Tom muttered. “Head us west, Hank.”
They slowly accelerated up and out through Earth’s blanket of air, Tom maintaining close contact with his father at Enterprises via the Private Ear Radio. Finally the young scientist-inventor was able to announce that the spacecraft had attained its chosen position, 350 miles out from Earth, high above the Sahara. The Dyna Ranger was not in orbit, but was hovering on its repelatron beams and gravitex anchors, parked on the invisible line-of-sight that connected the planet below with far-distant Titan and its stricken companion. “How much longer for the megascope picture, Dad?” Tom radioed.
“I began transmitting the conveyor beam before you launched, as we planned,” came the instant response. “Let’s see—the image terminal should be established near the probe in about 40 minutes. Then I’ll start sending you the picture feed, by our videophone satellites.”
“With the parameters shifting so radically, the megascope image is about the only quick way to get good positioning info,” commented Tom. “And even then it’d be another 200-some minutes for the redirected dyna-field beam to reach Kronus.”
“They ought to make the speed of light—velocity C—a tad faster in emergencies! But at any rate, I have the megascope antenna constantly microshifting in anticipation, according to our best estimates, so the beam terminal should track the movements of the Kronus to some extent, at least.”
As Tom clicked off, Hank said wryly, “All this fuss and tension—and it looks like we’ll have a several hours to kill up here.”
“I’ll use it as thinking time.”
Presently Tom was moved to contact Harlan Ames, the Dyna’s radiocom call relayed to Ames’s personal cellphone. “We didn’t have a chance to connect before I left, Harlan,” Tom said. “Now that we know Phudrim’s involved, I wondered if there might be any news on the Benni Susak case and the whole Mocking Buddha business.”
“Well, boss, there is quite a bit of news this morning,” Ames confirmed. “I’m told that our Buddha kid Rakshi has decided to start negotiating on the subject of his future. He’s still holding his cards tight for now, but the basics have started coming out nicely.” The security chief crisply summarized the emerging plot outline.
It appeared that an international gang was engaged in moving some kind of lucrative contraband from Tibet into the United States. “He claims not to know what it is—technical secrets, weaponry, gemstones, maybe even archaeological treasures of some kind. The pipeline starts somewhere in Vishnapur, and evidently some part of the operation is being run right out of the Sacred Palace. Rakshi refuses to name who’s involved, but we can assume Phudrim was up to his turban in it.
“The shipments evidently are passed along on a sort of ‘trade route’ linking various small shops, like that one in Chullagar, to places like Mukerji’s in Mumbai, and finally to America.”
“Mr. Singh’s shop, in other words.”
“Right. But that needn’t mean Singh himself knew about it—it could have been Susak’s secret responsibility. Which got him killed by someone, somehow. Anyway, that’s Rakshi’s tale so far, chapter one. He won’t explain why he was using those doctored statues to put Vusungira under suspicion, or why the Crown Prince was double-attacked in Mumbai.”
There was a pause, and Tom’s next words seemed to Ames like a non sequitur. “You didn’t get Rakshi’s tale by way of Agent Martin, though.”
“Well, no, actually. Agent Martin was out of his office when I called. It filtered out from some of my other contacts. But how did you know that, boss? Are you thinking something might have happened to him?”
“Thinking? I’ve been doing a lot of thinking up here, Harlan!” Tom replied. “I remembered a point Bud had raised—why do these guys attract attention by leaving ‘calling cards,’ such as the tattoo on Susak? They went to some real effort to put it on his neck after they’d killed him. Why?”
“They could be fanatics or cultists of some kind. I took it as a warning—you know, ‘Don’t let this happen to you’!”
“Sure,” Tom agreed. “A really dramatic, attention-getting warning or message. But to whom? Wouldn’t these international ‘businessmen’ know that a detail like the tattoo would be held back by the authorities until the close of the case?—which they must hope won’t happen any time soon!”
“That’s true, Tom. I suppose it might’ve been intended for one of the dockworkers who found the body.”
“And I suppose it was aimed in the direction of Agent Martin!”
After a startled silence, Ames whistled. “Boss, that’s—good lord! It makes sense, ‘flipping’ the person most likely to go after the gang at some point, and then providing him with a timely advisory on the virtue of loyalty that only he would understand or know about.”
“As you said, Harlan—‘Don’t let this happen to you!’ I’ll bet the guy’s skipped town.”
“You can bet I’ll be on it as quick as it takes to hang up the phone!”
Presently Tom began to receive image data from the megascope, relayed from Enterprises to the Dyna Ranger and displayed on the small viewscreen on Tom’s versatile Spektor unit. Although the glittering speck that was the Kronus satellite wavered and drifted on the screen as the megascope’s viewing point executed its predetermined maneuvers, Tom was able to take sightings against the background stars and use the spacecraft’s computer to determine how to aim the dynasphere’s linear-field beam.
The crystal sphere burned brilliantly against the endless night. “Okay, the dyna-field’s on its way,” muttered Hank. “All we can do now is wait for it to get there.”
“At least we’ll see the result instantaneously when it does, thanks to the megascope.” The quantum link used by Tom’s invention conveyed its data timelessly once the beam terminus had been established.
Hank shrugged slightly. “Uh-huh. But if the push isn’t on the nose...” The young engineer didn’t need to finish the thought. Traveling at light speed, any adjustments to the dynasphere beam would lag hours behind ever-changing reality. There was no possibility of any on-the-spot fine tuning: by the time the recalibration could reach the neighborhood of Titan, the Kronus would be well beyond any hope of rescue. If the pre-calculated sequence transmitted through space were flawed, the effect might not only fail to save the probe, but could even shove it the wrong way—to destruction!
Hank Sterling switched off the dynasphere without comment. The rescue of the Titan probe was now out of the hands of Planet Earth. The astronauts now could only watch the monitor and hope the fabled devis of starry space would be with them!
THE CLAWS OF THE TRICKSTER
TOM SWIFT did his best to keep his thoughts keen and clear as the hours passed, but the tension in the Dyna Ranger’s cockpit was almost unbearable.
“Just about time,” said Hank in a dry whisper.
Tom nodded. “And about time!—the star sightings I’m looking at tell me the Kronus is drifting off course faster than Dad anticipated. Within ten minutes I’m afraid the sequence will be useless!”
“Jim-danged Alfven waves!”
A timer beeped for attention. “Whew!” Tom gasped. “The dynasphere beam’s reached the vicinity of the satellite—not as on-target as we’d hoped, but not too bad.”
But there was only more waiting, more apprehension. The spacemen could almost feel themselves straining to reach through space to grasp the Kronus and carry her to safety.
At last the results begin to come in. “She’s on the move, all right!” Tom breathed. “You can see it on the screen.”
“Tossed on the winds of Sol! The direction’s right, isn’t it.”
The young inventor was finally able to grin. “Yes—at least so far. But the Alfven effect is complex, Hank. The Kronus could go spinning out of control at almost any point.”
There came a sudden bad moment—the image of the satellite abruptly darted off the screen! “Dad!” Tom cried into the PER, “What’s going on with― ”
“It’s all right, son,” came the reassuring voice. “I realized after I’d sent it on its way that I’d made a momentary bad adjustment to the megascope beam headings. I corrected it in seconds—keep watching.” As predicted, the Kronus reappeared.
“It’s working, Tom!” Hank declared happily. “Look at that baby move!”
Tom agreed, first with crossed-fingered caution, then with real conviction. At last he PERed Enterprises:
“To Damon Swift, Shopton, from Thomas Swift, outer space—mission accomplished!”
Tom’s father was elated. “Now I can start breathing again, son!”
“The Kronus team must be on pins and needles.”
“Not any more—can’t you hear the cheering from the speaker phone? I’ve kept the line open from the start!”
The last megascope readings confirmed that the goal of the rescue procedure had been attained. The Titan probe was now stabilized in a much higher, circular orbit. The change would provide the mission team with a window of months to devise an approach that would permit the probe to resume its work safely—perhaps with occasional helpful taps from Tom’s polar-ray dynasphere.
“For a humble ‘test instrument,’ my electro-dyna-whatsis turned out to be pretty useful,” Tom laughed. “It’s sure proved out Clarke MacIllheny’s theories.”
The Dyna Ranger made its long, slow sweep back to Chullagar, its landing in the courtyard greeted with shouts of a triumph that many felt an emotional share in. Bud and the Shopton guests were in the crowd, as were the Sky Queen crew.
As Tom modestly acknowledged the acclaim along with Hank, Bud pointed out in low tones that there were some notable absences. “Namely the royal types—both princes, and King Glaudiunda and Queen Aju.”
Tom nodded. “Something tells me they’re all a little shaken up after last night.”
“And not just the crossroads incident, Skipper.”
As General Utrong’j joined the crowd and offered a congratulatory hand, Tom inquired with concern about the victims of the night’s calamity. “Most of the survivors remain unconscious,” he replied. “A few have regained—ah, perhaps I shall say that they are now semi-conscious.”
“What do you mean, sir?”
“The doctors tell me that they are in a strange state. They can give no coherent account of what happened. They seem to be suffering from distressing delusions.”
Tom nodded his understanding. “For example—delusions that it was they themselves who attacked one another?”
The man’s eyes widened in surprise. “But how could you know this, Master Swift?”
“I put it together piece by piece,” stated the youth grimly. “Nothing could have attacked those two jetliner pilots in their sealed cockpit. The only answer is that they must have turned on each other suddenly, with so much violence that they knocked one another out—which is lucky, because if the fight had gone on much longer, I think whoever got the advantage would have killed the other with his bare hands!”
“H’n Chogyalu, I do see that the airplane incident bears similarity to what happened last night. But what were the pilots fighting over? What could motivate such terrible violence? If your theory is true, these friendly villagers were literally attempting to tear one another to pieces!”
“That’s right, sir,” Tom said; “going after each other tooth and claw like trapped animals. General, I think we’re dealing with some sort of drug or toxic contaminant! It must suppress the higher brain functions and unleash primitive-level reactions of paranoia, blind fear, and berserk, aggressive self-protection. It’s the fight-or-flight instinct of an animal—but with the flight left out!”
“Then the two airmen had the delusion that they were mortal enemies? And so also the villagers?”
“It’s a theory. But think how it is with animals. Their inborn ‘brain wiring’ makes animals ultrasensitive to any sign that something nearby is ‘the other’, not ‘one of us’ and thus a probable danger. If something affected that buried part of the human brain, the smallest differences between people—an annoyance, even just the mere fact of being from another place—could cause that label of ‘other’ to be pasted-on indiscriminately and lead to out-of-control violence. The unconsciousness that follows for those who survive might be a form of extreme exhaustion!”
The face of General Utrong’j had been taught to give little away. But Tom knew by his silence that the theory was deeply disturbing. “Iy! You are a scientist. Let us say you’re right. What would be the source of the violence-making toxin in these situations?”
“That’s to be determined, General. But one thing’s for sure—all these people were breathing! It could be something released into the air, like a gas. I felt a strong wind in that crossroads pass last night.”
“That is true,” was the reply. “The wind always blows down those two valleys from the north—from the valley of the lake, The Gift of Chogyal.” He seemed to consider the matter gravely as Tom waited. “I wonder if I might impose on you and your crew to investigate this matter, with your scientific instruments?”
“I intend to. Among all the other terrible things that it is, this is also a scientific mystery.”
Changing the topic, the young inventor then asked Utrong’j about Their Majesties and the princes. “According to the Palace Secretariat, all four are in meditative seclusion today, as part of the Festival. The royals are sacred, you see. Their souls carry the prayers of our people to Lord Chogyal and return with his blessings. Why do you inquire?”
“I had hoped to speak to—well, whoever is the chief advisor right now, now that Mr. Phudrim isn’t. I have an idea for a project that could be of great benefit to Vishnapur.”
“Who is in charge? I am pleased to tell you.” The man smiled broadly. “It is I!”
Tom returned the smile. “Then you’re the one I want to talk to! You may think my idea is fantastic, sir. But here it is.
“I’d like to use my methods to drain the poison lake and open up the valley to farming, as it was before. It could also make the ruins of Shankaru available to archaeologists for study.”
“This idea has been proposed many times,” shrugged Utrong’j. “The mountainous terrain evidently makes such a large-scale pumping operation impractical, virtually impossible.”
Bud put in, “There’s a word we don’t use around Tom Swift!”
“I understand, General. Here’s where we get to the fantastic part,” declared Tom. “My plan isn’t to pump off the lake water, but to evaporate the lake completely!”
The man was astounded by the youth’s words! “Do you have the ability to accomplish such an incredible thing?”
“I’m sure I do—with my dynasphere machine.” Tom launched into a brief description of the project. Using the Dyna Ranger, he would hover high above the valley of Krei’i Bu and use the dyna-field to divert the sun’s heat rays, concentrating them on the body of the lake like a giant, invisible burning lens. “By my estimation the big dynasphere could gather together the solar infra-red output for miles around. The water temperature will rise very quickly and the lake will start boiling like a super soup kettle! I don’t yet have all the topological and hydrological details I’d need, but I believe the entire process could be completed in a matter of days.”
Bashalli Prandit, not one to be unduly reticent, had something to say. “It seems to me, Thomas, that you are proposing to destroy the lake in order to save it.”
Tom shook his head. “As it is, the lake is poisonous to nearly all life, probably as some effect of the runaway growth of the yorb algae under the surface. If the waters are boiled away, the algae could be dredged off and brought under control. The natural spring sources that have been feeding the lake all along could then be allowed to refill it.”
“Ah, but perhaps not quite so full this time!” chuckled the General. “His Majesty must review the matter, of course. But for now, you are authorized to proceed with your planning.” Tom was startled as the surrounding doughnut of people, leaning in close to hear, burst forth with applause!
Back in their shared apartment suite, Tom and Bud discussed the young inventor’s analysis of the crossroads disaster. “Chum, this all has to be related—I’m sure of it,” Bud insisted. “Here you have a smuggling pipeline, here in South Asia where drugs are big business, and it starts in Vishnapur. Then you have this wild ‘berserker drug’ blowing down from a poison lake—which is also next to a Yamantaka-lovin’ monastery—which throws lightning bolts at satellites!”
“Uh-huh. And don’t forget the fact that those pilots were flying out of India. They may have been carrying something in the cockpit that got out of control, and into their bodies.”
“There ya go, genius boy. Just connect the dots!”
Tom grinned affectionately. “Very astute, pal—you’ve convinced me! Something’s going down at the Chogyal lamasery besides meditation and chanting!”
“Probably something of scientific interest, doncha think?”
“And of course General Utrong’j has asked for a scientific investigation of the area.”
“Best carried out at night.”
“By a team of two!”
It was after midnight when two bizarre silhouettes scruffed through the deep shadows of great Chogyal. The boys had found a route for their Roughriders that took them to an elevation some hundred yards above the Mahachogyal lamasery. As the structure was entirely gouged into the rocky mass of the slope, they knew—and hoped—the angle would make it difficult for them to be detected from below.
Climbing down from his vehicle, his breath a cloud in the thin, frigid night air of the Himalayas, Bud whispered, “Checked the air sensor lately?”
Tom took a glance at his Spektor unit, to which he had clipped a miniature air-intake analyzer. “No trace of anything that shouldn’t be there. You don’t feel inclined to tear me to pieces, do you, flyboy?”
“Not so far.”
They worked their way down the steep slope, the perilous descent made feasible by another invention of Tom’s, special boots with soles that gripped the loose, yielding ground.
They had scarcely begun when Tom tugged back on Bud’s jacket sleeve. “Wait—here’s some of that black stuff I saw.” He knelt down, drawing a tiny pencil-beamlamp. “It’s charring all right.”
“No...” Tom’s voice bespoke puzzlement. “From some sort of high-temp fire with an accelerant. Bud, I think this was a fuel-fed fire from a crash!”
“Yeah,” stated Bud. “A helicopter crash.”
“Why do you say that?”
“Because I’m lookin’ right down on the helipad!”
Four tiny, intensely focused lights—evidently lasers aimed skyward—had suddenly appeared on the slope! They outlined a flat square of ground about thirty feet broad that had been cut into the side of the mountain to make a horizontal deck. “Wouldn’t be easy to see in daylight from the air or the ground,” Tom pronounced. “And I’m sure you’re right, Bud. It’s for choppers.”
“They must be expecting one soon.”
They edged their way closer. Then, within yards, the guide-lights went dark. “Must’ve been a test,” whispered Tom. “Let’s take a quick look at the surface of the pad. Walk softly!” They slid down onto the pad, barely disturbing a pebble.
Then, with no warning, the ground fell out from under them! The landing deck, covered with a camouflaging mat of artificial dirt and rock, was elevatoring down into the mountain at such high speed that Tom and Bud were almost whisked off their feet!
In moments they stood at the bottom of a chimneylike shaft, blinking as worklights flashed on all around them.
A metal door clanked open, admitting four things: a man, a crisp white shirt and tie, and a gun. “Hey there, Agent Martin,” sighed Bud.
“Pardon me if I don’t do like they do on TV and whip out my FBI badge.”
“I don’t suppose this is just some classified FBI operation?” inquired Tom dryly.
“You wish, huh.” Martin chuckled. “Naw. You’re in the clutches of the bad guys, fellas. Saw you on the nightscope and figured we just might be able to lure you onto our helipad.”
“We can be pretty dumb sometimes,” Tom said.
“Easy to make mistakes. ‘Dumb today, dead tomorrow’ they say at Quantico. Like the elevator?”
“I assume you use choppers to deliver your berserker-drug packets to Mumbai and elsewhere.”
“Oh, deliveries both ways, in and out. For Chullagar we just drive it down in an old sedan.”
“Looks like you lost a shipment.”
“Yeah. Darndest thing. Couple nice guys, too. Spilled the junk all over the place. I’m not a pilot, but you probably understand, Barclay—the winds get tricky up here.”
Tom’s superficial politeness disappeared. “Those same winds picked up what was left of that ‘junk’ a few days later. Dozens of innocent people died in the most awful way I can think of.”
Martin shrugged. “Most awful? Kid, I’ve seen worse in my job. For example...” Keeping the gun trained on Tom, he took a few steps back through the door and dragged an acetylene torch into view. “I faced down a gangbanger, real hardcase. Tracked him down to his warehouse, then got myself cornered. So he pulls out a torch like this and lights it up.” Martin did so. “And he starts walkin’ my way real slow. Talk about scared!”
He brought the flame near Tom’s face.
“See what I mean? Now then, Tom, how bout you take that box thingie off your arm. Drop it down and kick it over toward the door.” Tom complied, and in moments nothing remained of his Spektor but globbed plastic, glowing char, and white smoke. “Oughta finish her, hunh? Not that it’d be easy to get a loke signal out through all this mountain. But I’m not sure what you can do with that quantum radio you use.”
“How did these murder boys get through to you, Martin?” sneered Bud. “Always been down in the sewer?”
“No,” he replied cordially. “I was a good agent, good record. But, you know, a guy’s gotta think of his future. Money matters to us normal people out in the world, boys. Don’t let ’em tell you different. I got three kids to put through college.”
“Lots of money in drug smuggling!” Tom snapped. “But someone must’ve got worried about you.”
“That tattoo thing? A friendly warning, them to me. Ol’ Benni got scared and tried to blackmail the guys into lettin’ him walk away. He was sneaking a nice box of evidence over to this Rama guy, who was with him on it. Gets to the apartment, Rama’s off getting a finger-wagging, some angry guys with big heavy sticks are waiting for him. I never gave them any reason to distrust me, but, you know, you can never give too many warnings.”
“And so you― ”
“Excuse me,” interrupted Martin. “There’s no need for a big conversation. I don’t know much more than I’ve told you. I’m just a guy, right—a guy on ‘the lam’. Wherever that came from. Don’t start quizzing me about the electric-shooter thing and all that. Save your questions for somebody who knows.”
Tom and Bud were forced down long corridors, some lined with polished pipes. “I guess this used to be part of the lamasery,” commented Martin. “But they closed off all the connecting doors. Bricked ’em over. Those monks, or lamas, or whatever—don’t want anything to do with all this. Most don’t know about it.”
“But Yamantaka makes a nice insignia,” Tom observed.
“Aaa, for all their science, these goons are still superstitious. They think that Yama guy brings them luck. Talk about yer idiots, hunh?”
The captives were led at last into a big, high-ceilinged chamber. As Martin stood aside, Tom’s eyes went like magnets to two bulky assemblages of machinery bolted down at opposite ends of a flat concrete slab. They resembled crane arms with gimbal joints and many pistons and struts. At the end of each arm was a clawlike gripper-mechanism the size of an oil drum. He recognized them as handling arms used on automated assembly lines, somewhat modified.
The rear wall showed that it belonged to the ancient lamasery. It was covered with sinuous carvings of elephants and snakes, demons and gods. And in the center, looming and ominous, was the great figure of Yamantaka, the tempter and trickster!
The chamber also turned out to be a throneroom. An elevated platform ran along its length on one side. At one end, seated on an imposing thronelike chair, was King Glaudiunda, with Queen Aju at the opposite end. Several score feet separated them.
“So what’s the protocol, sacred ones?” Bud demanded sarcastically. “Who do we bow to first? Or maybe just hit it down the middle?”
“There is little need for words,” pronounced His Majesty coldly. “You are to show respect. If not for us, then for our country.”
“You’re asking a lot, King Glaudiunda,” Tom Swift retorted. “I take it your plan from the start was to― ”
Glaudiunda cut him off. “We have no intention of satisfying your curiosity, Master Swift. We speak English as a courtesy to our guests, but it is beneath our dignity to boast and preen before you, a foreigner. We owe you outsiders nothing. You come to exploit us and change our ways. My late brother indulged you. I do not.”
Bud snorted derisively. “Great. What-like-ever.” He jerked a thumb toward Queen Aju. “So did you have the old lady stuffed or is she still with us?”
Her Majesty responded with a tiny smile. “You are amusing. You remind me of my son Jahan—so impudent, such clever words. It was many years before I accepted that such a personality would make a poor sovereign. Alas, the son of Glaudiunda was more to my liking.”
“Easier to manage?” Tom put in.
“More reasonable. More respectful.”
Glaudiunda motioned to one of the two armed men in the chamber, who wore the costumes of Mr. Phudrim’s special palace detail. The man left through a door, and in a moment led two more captives into the room—with a slight bow as they passed. Prince Jahan and Prince Vusungira were unbound but pale.
“Well, I’m outta here,” called out Agent Martin with a wave. “Off to work. And listen, boys, I’m sorry about all this—I have sons of my own. But I tell ya, the world’s a tough place. Anyway, see you around.” He pulled open the door, then paused and chuckled. “Right. I dunno why I said that.”
“Are you two all right?” asked Jahan.
“We haven’t been mistreated,” was Tom’s reply. “Will we be, Your Highness?”
Jahan glared fiercely at his mother. “You are in the hands of murderers. The spirit of my father looks down upon you now, Mother.”
“It seems they intend us to fight, my cousin and I,” said Crown Prince Vusungira to Tom and Bud. “A duel. After all the terrible things they did to alter the line of succession, they have begun to dispute their decision.”
“Mere bickering. A common kind of family argument, as often develops between husband and wife,” commented Aju. “Ro vish’n, I finally consented to have my son bypassed in light of certain promises made to me by Glaudiunda, promises of personal benefit that he seems unwilling to honor now that the deed is done. Might not my own son offer his mother more respect after all? And yet His Majesty persists in making arguments in favor of you, Vusungira.”
“This is how they decide it, Tom—by ‘arm wrestling’!” pronounced Jahan bitterly. “No hard feelings between them, eh? The Devi Lords will choose!”
“One will die,” stated Glaudiunda. “And one shall be King when in my time I am carried to Chogyal.”
“These sons of yours are decent men—how that happened, I don’t know,” Tom called out. “With all respect, Your Majesties, you’re lunatics if you think either one will fall in with your drug-smuggling enterprise, or consent to cover up your murder of King Gopal.”
“That is for a future day,” was the King’s curt pronouncement. “One of our sons must surely become Nej’h. It is the will of Lord Buddha and mighty Chogyal.”
Tom and Bud were pulled aside, away from what was evidently the stage for dueling. They stood in the middle of the viewing platform and were separately handcuffed.
The King addressed the Princes. “You are to fight one another in a duel of swords, to the death. Yet if each of you are ‘hands’, your Queen and I will be ‘arms’. What sin there may be will be a shared one.” He gestured and the guards separated the young men, leading them to opposed sides of the stage area, each beneath one of the machines. Tom could see buttons and joystick-type controls on the two thrones, which the royals commenced to manipulate. As the machines hissed and rumbled, the girder-thick arms swung downward, and the princes were forced into a kind of framework harness that encircled their hips and midsection but left their arms and upper torso free to move. They were lifted up, their legs dangling below, unsupported.
“You are now in the claws of the trickster, royal sons,” declared Glaudiunda stonily. “Your Queen and I have made a game of it, and as we say of such games, it is Yamantaka who will decide who shall win—and who shall die!”
“Fight well, Jahan,” called Queen Aju. “Honor me. A bet is riding on the outcome. And so your uncle and I, to make for better sport and thus invoke the devi of chance, have made one further preparation.”
Jahan and Vusungira cried out, rearing back in shock as twin beams of intense light speared out from the stone eyes of Yamantaka, hitting each full on the face!
“The trick of the trickster, my boys,” stated Glaudiunda. “You are to fight one another blind.”
DARKNESS TO LIGHT
“YOU’VE blinded them?” Tom cried in outrage. “What will that prove?”
“It is our tradition in Vishnapur to let great matters ride upon the turns of the game,” replied the King. “Neither player has the advantage—I speak now of Aju and myself—as both our tokens are equally affected by this induced blindness. We two will bring them near to one another and move them about in quest for some advantage; we test our own skill to discover which of us is favored by the devis—by Chogyal and Yamantaka, by Lord Buddha himself.”
“Are you concerned that this blindness may wear off too quickly?” Queen Aju inquired of Tom and Bud mockingly. “They are not merely dazzled by the light. Those who made a study of the human brain, to help us refine the yorb derivative to make it saleable, discovered that when the eye is exposed to certain rhythms of fluctuation and subtle mixtures of hue, there is something—did they not call it the ‘photic response,’ my dear?—which shocks certain of the nerve centers into a suppression of normal activity. Thus, a deep blindness, lasting perhaps a quarter of an hour.”
“It is your western science that taught us this,” noted the King. “But we produce the rays of light in an artistic manner, q’yim?—to honor Yamantaka and his eyes, which see all things as they truly are.”
Jahan and Vusungira had been shouting in Vishnapurian, protesting or calling for mercy, but it was no use. Cut-and-thrust swords of Vishnapur design, called zagkas, were pressed into their hands and attached to gauntlets about their wrists. They were lifted higher and brought closer by the mechanical arms.
“Commence the duel,” Glaudiunda commanded. “Strike wide, thrust fiercely, in all directions. You do not know where your foe may lie. Now!—or we will dispatch both of you ungrateful children, and these foreigners with you.”
A horrifying struggle of steel now began. The two princes shouted in their own language, a constant clamor of voices and metal, as Their Majesties maneuvered them in great swoops and small twists. Vusungira’s blind slashes drew first blood, a gash on Jahan’s shoulder, but the next wound was his. They had at each other like blind wasps yoked by a string.
Yet as the minutes passed, it became clear that, somehow, no serious damage was being inflicted. The slashes were bloody but glancing. Finally the royals called a halt, separating the princes as their blood dripped across the chamber floor.
“They will soon be too weak to continue,” observed Aju.
“I now comprehend your strategy, royal sons,” the King declared angrily. “You cannot see, but by your shouting you alert one another to your positions. Bah! Disrespect! Shall we deprive you of speech as well? For we can do so.”
The two princes were released and their wounds were treated, as the King and Queen conferred in whispers.
“Can you see yet, guys?” asked Bud.
“A little,” Jahan replied.
“Now I can see what I have inflicted upon you, cousin,” muttered Vusungira. “Better for me to have died.”
“Not acceptable,” called out Glaudiunda. “Should either of you, as they say, throw the fight, four will not see the sun ever again. And yet,” he went on thoughtfully, “to cheat without being obvious is so easy and so tempting.”
“Your father often cheats at cards, Vusungira,” noted the Queen. “My dear Gopal was a fool, but he was never a cheat.”
His Majesty said something to the guards, and the two Princes were led from the chamber, along with Bud. “We wish to speak to you in private, young Master Swift,” said the King. “What might you think of all this? That we are bad parents? Monsters?”
“I won’t tell you what I think,” grated the young inventor.
“No? But we hoped for some advice from your logical mind,” Aju said. “How shall we continue our game? Which son shall be Crown Prince?”
“Ah!—an idea!” exclaimed Glaudiunda sarcastically. “Let us decide the matter by elimination. We shall first have Tom Swift duel your Jahan, dearest Aju. Should you dispatch Jahan to the mountaintop, Tom, we shall allow you and your friend Bud to live, and Vusungira shall remain Crown Prince. If not, Vusungira and Jahan shall resume their duel, after the small matter of removing the bodies of you two American intruders. But—what of this matter of voices, the use of hearing to cheat death?”
Aju mockingly pretended to have been struck by a solution. “Why, Sacred Husband!—let us do what we should have been clever enough to have done from the start. Let us use the lights of Yamantaka to deprive them of hearing as well as sight!”
Jahan reentered, and he and Tom were strapped into place. Tom squeezed his eyelids shut, but it was useless. Once again, in a flash, the blazing eyes of Yamantaka deprived them of their senses! His heart pounding, Tom found himself floating helpless in a black, silent world, resigned to serving as the remote-controlled pawn of the royal couple.
But on the far side of the silence, Glaudiunda was speaking to Jahan in Vishnapur’s language. “What a miracle, nephew—you can still see and hear! For we adjusted the light so it would not affect you this time.”
Jahan looked down at Aju. “What deviltry is this, Mother?”
She smiled affectionately. “Oh my child, have you forgotten that Lord Yamantaka is called ‘the trickster’? We have decided upon a small game before resuming the greater one.” She mounted her throne and operated her set of controls, lowering and releasing her son. “In the other chamber, this ‘Bud Barclay’ person is being told that it shall be he who will come in and fight you. We will remove his sight and hearing in the other room, by the small unit—Yamantaka will not object, I trust!—and then he shall be fastened into the claw-arm in your place. The two Americans will not know it, but they will be fighting one another to the death—deaf and blind!”
Prince Jahan watched in resignation and horror as Bud, blinded, was led in and fastened in place. In a moment he was dangling in midair five feet from his best friend. A violent shake warned both of them to begin slashing the air!
The eerieness made the horror of the situation macabre. They could feel themselves moving, the angles of their bodies, dizzying swerves and accelerations and the stretch of their muscles. Tom gasped as a slice of pain crossed his leg! What do I do? What can I do? his young mind churned. I can’t kill Prince Jahan! But if I don’t try—!
With his leading senses gone, time became uncertain. He had no idea how long the nightmare exertion continued, or whether his halfhearted, random slashing had met flesh. But then the nightmare changed. It seemed that he was being swung about wildly. And then there was a floor beneath him, and arms supporting him. “What’s happening?” he choked out, not sure whether he had actually spoken aloud.
Perhaps he fainted. Abruptly he found that he could see and hear, and that faces looked down upon him. “H-Harlan! General Utrong’j!”
Tom was lying on the floor of the chamber, which was swarming with Utrong’j’s forces. “Coming around, hmm?” said Ames gently. “That machine of theirs is really something, boss. To answer your next question, Bud’s all right.”
“Did they do something to him?”
“Just a little. Like you, he had some unexpected run-ins with a blade.”
“H-he did?—what about Jahan?”
“Both princes are fine. As for the King and Queen, they are now in... meditative seclusion.”
“They are dethroned and subject to our laws,” barked the General angrily. “I head the government for the moment, but soon Vusungira shall have the ancient crown. Perhaps he will choose to share it with his cousin.” The man leaned down and spoke quietly to Tom. “Phudrim confessed, and we have seen the videotape of His Sacred Majesty Gopal. Glaudiunda’s associates, the purveyors of the yorb derivative, are being tracked down and taken into custody—indeed, we just picked up the FBI man, Martin, in Chullagar, for a disturbance of the peace. He had indulged himself too much in the pleasures of the yorb drug.”
Exhausted as he was, Tom retained his curiosity. “But how did you come to be here? Harlan, you knew we were scouting out the lamasery, but I wouldn’t think you’d know anything was wrong until we didn’t show up at the palace.”
Ames grinned. “Maybe it was divine intervention. Or—a bit of detective work on my part. I’ve been spending some time looking for an individual who I thought might well be the key to all this.
“When you described the videotaped scene to me, you mentioned a detail that I later thought about with more attention—the fact that King Gopal made a gesture from his bed to end the taping. I had vaguely assumed that he had used a camera with a timer, but no, he obviously had a confidant assisting him. Who? I finally determined that it must have been a man who served as his personal religious advisor, a monk from this lamasery. I contacted him yesterday through an intermediary; an hour ago, he contacted me. It seems he’s a pretty savvy guy, and well aware of the intrigues and corruption in Glaudiunda’s government, even beyond the murder of Gopal. He and some other monks have secretly been monitoring the activities in this closed-off portion, and he told me that you had been captured and that something weird and deadly was going on. When the troops arrived, he showed us how to get in.”
“Good grief, I’ll have to thank him!” Tom declared.
“I’ll introduce you. His name is Brother Voo.”
Tom wheezed a laugh. “We’ve met!”
Many more details emerged over the ensuing weeks, revealed by General Utrong’j and the new monarch, King Vusungira. The yorb derivative had first been distilled by scientists in the employ of Asian drug lords. In its initial unrefined form, a very fine powder, it induced the berserker effect when inhaled. In this form it was smuggled to its many destinations, where further processing made it saleable, a potent hallucinogen and stimulant which was, lucratively, highly addictive.
Initial distillation took place over the border, in China. A hidden military base, supposedly devoted to weapons research, had come under the sway of corrupt army officers in search of expanded horizons. They had engineered an elaborate system of underground conduits and pumps which allowed them to take in algae-laden water from The Gift of Chogyal as their source of yorb, returning waste products to the lake that had promoted overgrowth and were themselves toxic.
“Okay, pal,” Bud had said when Tom related the account. “So that base was a manufacturing plant, and the lamasery was the distribution center. What about the space lightning?”
“A stupid overreaction,” Tom had replied. “The plasma-transmission device was a twenty-year-old experimental weapon that proved unreliable and impractical for missile defense purposes. It was mothballed at the base, but the drug-runners decided to use it to knock out the GenRev.”
“Because they thought the gravitational data would give away the existence of the underground pipelines and machinery. They figured that if they just rendered the satellite inoperative at an early stage, it would be taken as a technical problem and the data would never be collected by the mission scientists. But when we went up in the Kite—well, they had to try to stop us from the retrieval, didn’t they? And after that they were just plain panicked, not thinking clearly enough to realize that attacking the Dyna would just bring more attention to them and their installation.”
“Jetz! Guess they sampled a little too much yorb along the way!”
It developed that one intermediary in the chain, Jaisit Radamantha, had affiliated himself with a rival Chullagar drug gang, a group that preferred to deal with the popular and easy-going Prince Jahan as King, rather than the straight-laced Vusungira. Radamantha had convinced Susak to secretly assist him by providing Rakshi, a political supporter of Jahan, with the means to discredit Vusungira. The supposed actors who had attempted to kidnap Vusungira were employed by Phudrim and his palace cronies, who had learned that the rival group planned to assassinate Vusungira in Mumbai. The kidnapping was actually a concealed attempt to protect the Crown Prince.
Tom explained, “When it looked like we were nosing too closely into the affairs of the enterprise, Mr. Phudrim had his men arrest and hold the innocent shop owner whose shop was being used to ship the disguised powder packets from Chullagar.”
“Some of which were being ‘muled’ to America in the cockpit of the Indian commercial jetliner,” Bud added, completing the story.
But long before the explanations came the challenge of Tom’s great project, eliminating the poison lake.
For days the Dyna Ranger floated high above Krei’i Bu in the daylight hours, its invisible dyna-field stretching out mightily over a huge area of sky. There was no interruption of sunlight, as the dynasphere had been tuned to deflect only infra-red rays to a central focusing point, from which faintly visible beams jabbed downward into the dark lake waters. The lake steamed and roiled, sending puffy white columns high into the cold skies.
Tom stood on the shore much of the time, monitoring the readings from the Dyna with his replacement Spektor unit, in constant touch with the rotating crews manning the craft in shifts hour after hour. The surface level dropped even faster than anticipated, revealing spiky masses of the yorb growths like a thick carpet of pine needles.
On the third day, carved blocks of stone began to poke above the water. “There it is, Your Highness!” Tom announced to Prince Jahan.
“Shankaru! But I think it will be quite a long time before we can strip off the dead yorb from its walls and begin serious investigation.”
“Jah,” giggled Sandy, “let me tell you about a little something Tomonomo has in stock called a spectromarine selector. It makes chisels and steel wool as old-fashioned as a caveman’s club!”
Added Bashalli Prandit, “A wonderful household appliance, easy enough for a mother to use.”
“Not my mother,” said Jahan dryly.
At last the project was ended, the Sky Queen cleaving the stratosphere in triumph with Shopton many horizons ahead. George Dilling had, for the moment, all the Swift Enterprises headlines he could handle. And soon enough the headlines would be heralding Tom Swift and His Sonic Silentenna the world over.
“It’ll be good to be home,” Bud remarked to Tom; “me and my residual dueling scars!”
“I feel the same way, flyboy. There’s one thing I need, though.”