TOM SWIFT LIVES!
TOM SWIFT AND HIS
This unauthorized tribute
Is based upon
the original TOM SWIFT JR. characters.
As of this printing,
The New TOM SWIFT Jr. Adventures
is owned by
SIMON & SCHUSTER
This edition privately printed by
PRINTED IN THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
TOM SWIFT AND HIS
THE SILENT TREATMENT
“WE SWIFTS have been interested in the problems of sound and silence since the time of my great-grandfather,” Tom Swift said into his microphone to the assembled group of avid listeners on folding chairs. “I’m sure some of you have read how the first Tom Swift developed ultra-quiet aircraft motors back in the World War I era. Later, toward the end of his active career as an inventor, he came up with what he called his ‘magnetic silencer’. You sound engineers know the principle: the supercooled Bartantalum alloy, which has natural semiconductor properties, generates a fluctuating magnetic field that interacts with the minute static charges developed along sonic wavefronts. In effect, it lassos the vibrations magnetically and hauls ’em back!—or at least discourages them a little.” On cue, Tom’s lovely assistant—his pert sister Sandra—held high a set of headphones.
Remarked a woman loudly, “That’s our newest model, you know, for the true connoiseur consumer with discriminating tastes. My company uses the Bartantalum noise-damping system in our fine high-end audio equipment.”
Responded a rumple-suited man who was evidently a business rival, “So your everpresent Sunday-supplement ads tell us, Mavis. Of course the Bartantalum approach doesn’t produce complete silence, mmm? That sound one hears is the snooty sound of penthouse one-upsmanship.”
Calling for peace, Tom held up a quieting hand. “As Mavis Baeddersmat points out, that’s not a Tom Swift Enterprises product; we lost the silencer patent years ago. Too bad—if we’d held on we’d be pretty well off these days.”
Tom’s audience chuckled appreciatively. The famous Swift invention company, whose renown had spread from the Enterprises plant in Shopton, New York, across the face of the earth, was far from short on resources!
A few eyes darted toward the graying, athletic-looking man seated near the front. Damon Swift flashed his son a grin, as did those seated next to him—Tom’s best friend Bud Barclay, and raven-haired Bashalli Prandit, Tom’s usual social date in Shopton.
Swifts and company were attending a well-publicized scientific conference in Denver on the subject of noise reduction in the modern world’s close-knit, and increasingly ear-splitting, technological society. Tom knew the growing problem was both physical and medical, psychological and social. Typically, he had tackled the challenge with a new invention, which he had come to demonstrate.
The blond, crewcut youth now gestured toward a pair of objects affixed to the top of microphone stands on either side of the conference room, flanking the gap between the front row and the speakers table. The devices had the appearance of rectangular grids, curved into a trough-shape and facing each other across the twenty feet that separated them. “First I’ll demonstrate the sonex system,” he declared. “Then I’ll tell you how it works—assuming it does!” Which brought him another stir of laughter.
Tom nodded toward Sandy. With a theatrical flourish she switched on a large boombox sound console that rested on the table behind Tom, its speakers aimed threateningly at the audience. The listeners winced back as jangly music blasted across the room. “Not my favorite tune either,” Tom called out in a raised voice. “Let’s see what we can do about it.”
Stepping around behind the table, the young inventor slowly adjusted a dial on a control box. The volume of the annoying noise gradually diminished, as if the powerful speakers were being smothered by thick pillows.
Appreciating the soothing silence as much as the science behind it, the audience burst into vigorous applause. Tom grinned, then lifted a hand-mike to his lips. “I can see you, folks—but I can’t hear you at all, and you wouldn’t be able to hear me either if I weren’t using this microphone. The sonex system is creating a sound-damping barrier between us. Sounds can’t pass through. But believe me, on this side of the wall it’s still mighty noisy!” He demonstrated by de-tuning the sonex, allowing the fashionable racket to once again surge forth.
Switching off both the boomer and the sonex, Tom again walked up to the standing mike. “Some of these inventions can be a little tricky to explain, ladies and gentlemen. But my friend Bud Barclay is here in front of me—I’ll pretend I’m talking to him. It’ll relax me. And believe me, he’s used to it!” Bud nodded and grinned.
Tom went on, “The idea behind the sonex is simple, and in fact it’s also widely used in audio technology on a smaller scale. Sound waves are, of course, just moving regions of compressed or rarefied air, gradients of alternating densities that spread out from the sound-source in curved ‘shells’ that lose energy as they expand. If we produce counterwaves of the same frequency, but exactly out of phase, the highs and lows cancel out, resulting in silence.”
“Tell us something we don’t know,” muttered a listener.
“Well, what you don’t know, sir, is how we handle the big problem with wave-cancellation systems, namely the fact that the counterwaves have to precisely match up with, and travel along with, the waves that you want to damp-out. Your radiating counterwave source has to be located at the same place as the original wave source—for example, right at the boom-box speaker. But if you could do that, you might as well just clap a hand over it.”
“And also,” floated another voice, dry and authoritative, “one rarely deals with single-source sounds of a pure frequency. You have numerous points of reflection, which scrambles the phase parameters, as well as absorption and acoustical resonance effects.”
“In other words,” Tom grinned, “a real mess! But still, at any point in space at any instant, you have something definite, a cross-section of sound-energy data produced by the incoming wavefronts from all angles. If you could scan this ‘slice of air’ you’d have a kind of phonon hologram, on the model of the optical holograms that are the basis of 3-D laser holography.” Someone snorted, superciliously. “Skeptical? I was too. How do you take an instantaneous ‘snapshot’ of these wavefront cross-sections, which change moment by moment as the sound patterns pass through space? You can’t fill every cubic inch of air with microphones.”
“That’d sure block the sound, though!” called out a polite heckler who’d made early acquaintance with the conference center’s bar.
This is what I’d call a real “live audience!” Tom thought wryly. He glanced at Bud with a look of warning—his chum sometimes jumped to Tom’s defense a bit too impulsively. “So, the sonex tackles the difficulty by adapting an approach we developed for a device called the Eye-Spy camera, which some of you have probably heard of. It’s a TV camera that can see through opaque barriers, and it can also reproduce sounds from whatever it’s eye-spying on. To put it roughly, the scanning beam is sensitive enough to optically detect the moving pressure gradients at a distance. The frequency data is then used to produce the corresponding sounds in the camera’s audio output.”
“Get to the point,” grumbled another savant, with the impatience of advanced age and faded reputation.
Bud half-rose to glare at the outspeaker. “Maybe he would if you guys could maybe just shut it for a minute!”
The audience rumbled, but Tom managed to lighten the moment. “As you see, noise can be a big problem! But to go on, if I may...
“The sonex also has the capacity to scan and analyze oscillation-patterns in space ‘on the fly,’ by measuring the microcharges of static electricity created by the pressure changes as they spread through the air, a sort of radar principle. This gives us our on-the-spot sound picture, the phonon hologram I mentioned. The info is then used to produce the appropriate cancellation waves.
“Instead of trying to generate the counterwave pattern at the various sound-sources, which isn’t feasible, these two emitter-antennas that you see create between them a thin barrier composed of invisible nanofilaments of the nonatomic substance called Inertite—a sort of netting that can be made as thin and fine as you want it to be. It doesn’t interact with light, and it just flows around solid objects without breaking. But by adjusting the degree of porousness it can be caused to interact with the sonic wavefronts as they pass through it. By reproducing the local hologram pattern with the pressure gradients exactly reversed, as with a photographic negative, the sound energy is totally damped out.”
The crowd—eager to chide the several hecklers among them—rewarded the young inventor with a new round of applause more than sufficient to damp out any ambient skepticism.
Taking questions, one woman asked Tom when the sonex system would be available for widespread use. “Despite my demo, it’s not quite perfected yet,” was the reply. “Creating an invisible and intangible soundproof wall is a big step, all right― ”
“—but it isn’t really a practical approach in many real-world situations where noise reduction is especially needed. For example, wouldn’t it be great to have a ‘sonic boom trap’ to eliminate some of the racket that comes down from the sky? But you can’t very well mount nanofilament emitters on every cloud.”
“Not that my brother couldn’t find a way to do it if he wanted to!” Sandy put in loyally, which didn’t count as heckling.
“What I hope to do is figure out a way to nullify ambient sound throughout a large area, using a single compact unit without an extended set of separate filament generators. In other words, I want to create a bubble of silence in the middle of our noisy world.”
The Swift Enterprises presentation—by far the best-attended of the conference, stirring some unscientific jealousies—drew to a close and the audience began to disperse with many personal expressions of interest and a hubbub of handshakes. As Tom’s convoy of friends and family congratulated him, a sharpened voice proved that the finish of the presentation hadn’t brought an end to the joy of heckling. “Well, a ‘bubble of silence’! You scientific company men are real phrasemakers—but how much should we bet on your being able to deliver?”
The group turned to look, frowning and annoyed at the man’s blaring rudeness. The speaker was a wizened character of advanced age, white hair darting madly in all directions above his horn-rimmed glasses. He stared at the Shoptonians with an expression of vaguely hostile glee.
“I take it you have an opinion on the matter, sir,” said Mr. Swift coldly.
“An overly audible opinion, ‘sir’,” added Bashalli Prandit.
The man sneered. “Excuse me, but I believe in free speech. I think what I think, and I say it. Or are the inventing Swifts now sacred idols?”
Tom stared at the man but responded mildly. “I don’t believe we’ve been introduced.”
“Ah, a gentleman among the common herd, eh? I’m Phineas Gull. Ever run across that name?”
Sandy had. “The science fiction writer?”
“Author! And yes.”
“I’m afraid I’m not familiar with your work,” Tom stated.
“Oh, Mr. Gull was big back in the... well, they call it the golden age,” sniffed his sister. “You know, little pulp magazines.”
“Skin-tight spacesuits with fishbowl helmets, all the better to show the space girls having their fits of screaming meemies,” Bash commented. “My father has a box of them in Pakistan.” She smiled blandly. “He inherited them from his father, I do believe.”
“I see I’m to be demeaned for my impudence,” Gull snapped back. “But you Swifts, all you tech people with your corporate mentalities—it’s you who’ve filled this world with the very noise you now propose to profit from!”
“Let’s go,” murmured Mr. Swift. “Tom’s grip on Bud’s arm will leave a bruise.”
They turned their collective backs on Phineas Gull and followed the conference staffers who were carting the sonex equipment out to the van Swift Enterprises had rented. As they began loading the van in the parking garage, a more pleasant voice called out to Tom.
“Excuse me, um—could I speak to you for a moment, Tom?” The speaker was a pretty girl with red-tinged hair, who had apparently departed from her teens only recently.
Tom approached in a friendly way. “Can I help you?”
The girl offered a dainty hand and a shy, hesitant smile. “Oh, I—I wonder if you can. I hope so. I’m Elsa Wyvern, Tom, and... well, you see, it’s about my father, Dr. John Wyvern.” She paused, somewhat embarrassed. “I don’t suppose you’ve heard of him, have you?”
The young inventor shook his head apologetically. “I don’t think so. Dad might’ve, though. What field is he in?”
“He’s a medical doctor, engaged in research on the physiology of sound, the neurological effects of sound on the human body and brain.”
“Important stuff,” smiled Tom. “I know loud or dissonant sound can cause long-term hearing loss. It’s one reason I’ve become involved in noise suppression.”
“Father was anxious to come here to the conference to hear your presentation and speak to you.”
“I’ll be happy to, Elsa.”
Her green eyes fluttered with worry. “But that’s the problem. He arrived in Denver two days ago, but hasn’t shown up for the conference, and I can’t get in touch with him. He—he seems to have disappeared!”
LOST, STRAYED, OR
“WHEN did you last hear from your dad, Elsa?” Tom asked sympathetically. “I take it you’re not traveling together?”
“No,” the girl replied. “I’m a fulltime grad student at the University of Colorado, and father lives in Clarksville, Tennessee, where I grew up. He still has his medical practice there—he’s a specialist in the treatment of hearing loss. In a way we’ve drifted apart since Mother passed away a few years ago, but we both have an interest in these subjects. We had very definite plans to meet here in Denver and attend the conference together.”
“And you’re sure he arrived?”
“He called me from the airport yesterday. But a few hours later, when I went to the hotel he’d named, they told me his original reservation had been cancelled, and they had no record of anyone by that name having registered there.”
Tom rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “Perhaps the accommodations weren’t to his liking.”
Elsa shook her head. “I was very assertive with the hotel manager—perhaps even a bit unreasonable. He asked his employees, and no one had seen anyone matching the description I gave. The room cancellation had been made by phone, and the strange thing, the thing that upset me, is that the cancellation was made three weeks ago!”
“Gosh! But he was still telling you he planned to stay there?”
“Yes! And now—I don’t know what to think.” She glanced away, but the youth could see that her eyes were filling with tears. “I had hoped he might show up here anyway, might have contacted you, that you might know something.”
Moved and sharing her feeling, Tom gave Elsa’s shoulder a gentle touch. “Elsa, this could just be some kind of mix-up. Say—let’s ask my father if he was approached by anyone during the other sessions of the conference.”
Tom introduced Elsa Wyvern to the others and explained the situation. “No one approached to speak to me on the subject of hearing loss or neurology, Miss Wyvern,” said Damon Swift.
“But one of us might have seen him in the crowd,” Bud pointed out. “Do you have a picture of your dad, Elsa?”
She nodded and produced one from her purse, which she explained was a small copy of a recent formal portrait. It showed a dignified, pleasant-looking man of middle age with a pointed chin and thick mustache.
One by one the Shoptonians shook their heads. “I’m sorry,” said Sandy. “I’m sure I’d remember—he has a very striking appearance.”
Elsa sighed. “Thanks anyway. Now I—I don’t know what to do next. I hate to go to the police, but...”
Tom had stood apart while the others were examining the photograph, thinking deeply. Now he said: “You know... there might be something I can do to help find your father, Elsa, if you decide that he’s really missing.”
Bashalli turned an intent gaze from Elsa Wyvern’s drawn face to that of her friend. “Thomas, often as you’ve proven yourself an expert at ‘search and rescue,’ wouldn’t it be better to leave this to law enforcement professionals?” There was a certain tone in her voice that Sandy marked down mentally, but which failed to penetrate the barrier of the males’ natural sonex system.
“Son, what exactly do you have in mind?” asked Mr. Swift.
“The reactron mobile platform setup I’ve been playing around with, the thing I called a ‘sensitector’ in the ForeSite article awhile back.” A webzine produced and maintained by Swift Enterprises, ForeSite served as a public announcement bulletin for company projects as well as a low-key scientific journal highlighting research and speculation connected to its ongoing work.
“I—I’m sorry,” murmured Elsa. “What are you referring to?”
“It’s an invention I’m working on alongside my work on the sound-nullifier system,” was the response. “It’s a habit of mine, working the ol’ brain on both sides at once.” Tom briefly described an earlier invention, his aquatomic tracker, which allowed the user to detect infinitesimal molecular traces in order to trail moving objects underwater. “The technical approach I used underwater wouldn’t work well up in the air, but I’ve been experimenting with a different method.” He explained that the equipment would be mounted on a compact self-guided “robot-mobile”.
“Just think ‘bloodhound’!” Bud declared proudly. “Genius boy here thinks it could follow the scent for miles.”
Damon Swift nodded. “You’re suggesting the sensitector could be used to track down Dr. Wyvern.”
Elsa’s face had brightened. “Oh, Tom, if only you could! You could trace his movements from the airport terminal, and― ” But then the glow of hope faded. “But surely he would have taken a taxi, or rented a car.”
“Yes,” said Tom, “but that’s the point. In theory at least, the SenTec could follow the distinct molecular ‘scent’ from the terminal jetway to the spot where he entered a vehicle, if that’s what happened, then switch to following the route of the vehicle itself, even in the open air along a street or highway. But—er—it’s just ‘in theory’ at the moment. I’ve barely begun. Still, it looks promising so far.”
“I’ll pursue the ordinary methods first, of course,” declared the young lady. “That’ll give you a little time to work on the device. I’d be terribly grateful, though, if you’d keep me, and Father, in mind.”
“Why don’t you join us for dinner, Elsa?” invited Sandy, sending Bashalli a slightly teasing look for which a frown was returned.
“Oh yes,” said Bash. “You really must.”
“I’d love to.”
As arranged, Elsa rejoined the party three hours later at a quiet restaurant not far from her hotel, the hotel her father had planned to stay at.
“No offense meant,” Bud said over appetizers, “but did Dr. Wyvern have any... problems?”
“You mean, financial problems?”
“No, I mean—well, did he tend to wander off by himself, get lost, that sort of thing? We have a guy at Enterprises who’s a major genius, but his brain doesn’t always check in, if you see what I mean.”
“Bud’s quite the diplomat, as you can see,” noted Sandy with an apologetic expression and a chiding glance Bud’s way.
“And yet,” added Bashalli, “perhaps the question is not irrelevant.”
Elsa gave a meek nod. “No, it’s a good question. But I suppose I’ll have to duck it, Bud. I should be honest—Dad and I have been a little estranged since I moved out. I haven’t noticed any particular problem with his behavior, but perhaps I haven’t been around him enough.”
“There is such a thing as a fugue state,” Mr. Swift said thoughtfully. “It happens quite unexpectedly. No one quite knows the cause, although it seems to be linked to intense personal stress or trauma.”
“I’m afraid I don’t understand.”
Tom elaborated. “It’s a psychological condition. Victims suddenly wander off, forgetting where they’re going or, sometimes, who they are. I read about one young fellow who lost the most recent ten years of his life, as if it had been deleted. And then, just as abruptly, all the memories can come back, but in the meantime the victim may have established an entirely new life and identity.”
Elsa looked horrified, and Mr. Swift added hastily, “Forgive us this speculation, Elsa. It’s still most likely that your father has simply been delayed in some way, somewhere here in Denver. You may find a message awaiting you back at the hotel.”
She sighed deeply. “I hope so, Mr. Swift. I... I’ve never been so scared. I feel that this is my fault somehow.”
Elsa made a quick call to the front desk of her hotel—no messages, and the clerk had seen no sign of the man she had described. Returning to the table for dessert, she tried to lighten the mood. “I was hoping to meet you, Tom, and you too, Mr. Swift. I’m afraid I haven’t read the stories― ”
“The popular fictionalizations,” interjected Bashalli pointedly.
“But of course I follow the news. Your rescue of the Hubble and that Titan space probe—oh my, I was terribly thrilled!”
Tom laughed. “So were we! It was worth the trouble we went through to do it.”
Tom cast Bud a sly, unseen wink. His most recent strange exploit, which had evolved while he was perfecting his polar-ray dynasphere, had drawn both boys into political and criminal plotting in the tiny Himalayan county of Vishnapur. At the request of the government there, much of what had transpired had been kept in discreet shadow.
At the conclusion of the evening Mr. Swift and the girls returned to their hotel in the van, while Tom and Bud walked with Elsa the three blocks back to her hotel. She checked again at the desk, and again there was no news and faltering hope. “Try not to worry, Elsa,” Tom said warmly. “Whether there are any new developments or not, please call me in Shopton in a few days at the number I gave you. It’s our private home number.” With a catch in her voice, she promised that she would.
The two youths caught a taxi outside the hotel. Tom was still frowning thoughtfully as the cab sped northward along crowded streets.
“Nice girl,” said Bud. “I’d like to think this whole thing about her dad will just blow over. But then—I’m sitting next to the master of never-a-dull-moment, Tom Swift.”
Tom gave a rueful nod. “Don’t I know it, flyboy. At least this has nothing to do with my new invention.”
“Uh-huh.” The response was humorously skeptical. “We’ll see.”
Suddenly a shrill blast of sound split the air. The taxi driver was so startled that he almost swerved into another car. “Golldurn!” he blurted.
“What’s that?” Bud asked, yelling to make himself heard across a gap of three feet. “Some sort of siren?” The shrieking cacophony, the type to make the teeth edgy, came from all around them, rising and falling—mostly rising.
The driver shrugged. “It sure don’t sound like any si-reen I ever heard!” He glanced at his fares in the rearview mirror. “If you’re thinkin’ it’s the cops on my tail, I’ll have you know I’m a certified safe driver. Except just now—couldn’t help that one, though.” He had no trouble making himself heard—the man was born to boom.
Covering his ears, Tom’s gaze darted from window to window as he craned his long neck. “Good night! It sounds like somebody’s stuffing a steel girder through a meat grinder!”
“That’s pretty good. Maybe you should try becoming a cabbie,” joked the driver as the taxi ground to a halt in the suddenly immobile traffic.
There was no letup. The noise grew louder and louder until the explosion of sound was almost skull-bursting!
Many cars pulled over to the curb. Tom told their driver to do so too. The man retorted, “Sure, fella. I’ll just lift ’er up on top of my head and climb over all these other cars.”
But not all traffic had stopped. Other cars sped up wildly, as if the noise were an alarm signal of some danger, to be screeched away from at breakneck speed.
The blasting sound began to waver crazily in pitch. Wincing pedestrians scurried into buildings and doorways, clutching their ears. Bud, gray eyes as wide as they could be while squinting in pain, turned to his pal. “Jetz!” he shrieked. “Tom, maybe—m-maybe this is a warning of an atomic attack!”
Tom forced a half-smile. “C’mon, Bud, you’ll scare our friend!” he yelled.
“Hey!” the offended driver shouted back.
“Turn on a local station!” Tom urged. “If it’s some kind of emergency situation there may be an announcement!”
The man obeyed with trembling fingers, adding sarcastically, “Don’t need the radio t’tell me what my ears already know, kid.” As Tom and Bud leaned forward to hear, a barely audible crash outside drew their attention to the street. Two speeding cars had just sideswiped each other. In an instant one of them skidded into a curbside hydrant.
Brakes screeched and another crash could be heard as cars began to jam up behind the two vehicles. Horns honked vainly above—below!—the din. After a wild exchange of ungentlemanly shouts and unrefined gestures, the two panicky motorists sped on, one with a shattered windshield. A plume of water jetted across the boulevard from the damaged hydrant, drenching the cab. “Got a repelatron on you?” Bud asked Tom in a yell.
Pedestrians were running for cover in evident terror. A bulging-eyed woman opened her mouth in an unheard scream, then collapsed on the sidewalk. A man hoisted her back up on her high heels, then into a jewelry store. Through the glass front Tom and Bud could see the owner frantically locking the door and lowering protective metal blinds.
Meanwhile, the driver had turned the radio on to full volume. Throbbing music was cut short by the excited voice of an announcer: “Your attention, please! This is a special bulletin! Civil Defense officials say that the sounds being heard throughout the city are not sirens to warn of an emergency! Repeat, there is no emergency! So far, police have been unable to locate the source of the sounds, but Commissioner Salazar promises speedy action. Meantime, he begs citizens not to panic! He asks all vehicles to pull to the curb safely—keep your windows rolled up.”
“Yeah, real good useless advice.” His bluster evaporating, the taxi driver turned a frightened face to the boys and yelled, “Don’t panic, he says! Whadda we supposed to do? Plug our ears and go nuts?”
Bud grinned wryly. His own face was looking strained. Even with the taxi windows closed, the din was deafening. Both boys’ heads were throbbing from the torrent of sound, and the weird undulations in pitch made it even more nerve-racking.
Tom tried to shut out the noise by focusing his mind on the problem of who or what might be causing the devilish outburst. He racked his brain but could think of no answer.
How much longer can this go on? Tom wondered desperately. Perhaps he should return to the hotel at once on foot and check on the safety of his father, Sandy, and Bash. But one glance at the wildly disordered traffic and the crazed drivers honking, crashing, and careening past convinced Tom that it would be wiser to stay calmly where he was. In fact, it was impossible to do otherwise.
Suddenly a new tone pulsed through the air, weirdly deep and full of power. The taxi seemed to shudder as if caught in an earthquake. Its windshield vibrated. “T-Tom—look!” Bud pointed.
The young inventor’s gasp was unheard but horrified. Blocks away, its striking profile poking up above the city skyline, a gleaming skyscraper was enveloped in a halo of dust, shooting in ragged bursts from window sockets on all floors.
Then, before their unbelieving eyes, the building began to collapse upon itself!
THE WALLS of the skyscraper seemed to peel away, crumpling inward while filling the air with tangled fragments that sprayed out in all directions, shards of glass glinting in the late sun like sparks. In ten seconds the top of the building had ducked from view as a grayish-white cloud mushroomed up in its place.
“Ohh-hhh!” Bud moaned in shock.
“That the best you can do?” piped the driver, whose thick bristly face was pale and twitching with fear.
Suddenly the shrieking sounds began to diminish. They faded to a wail and died out. Tom and Bud looked at each other in relief piled on shock and warily removed their hands from their ears.
“Whew!” Bud shook his head. “Oh man! My ears are still ringin’ off the hook.”
“Same here,” put in the driver. “My skull feels half busted! That building—it musta been one o’ those terrorist attacks!”
Charged with dread, Tom could barely speak. “I—I think the building’s not far from our hotel.” He snatched up his cellphone and tried to contact the others. “Nope—‘no service.’”
“Yeah, bet the whole thing’s jammed up just like the streets,” was the driver’s cost-free opinion. “But look, guys, traffic’s startin’ to move. I’ll getcha there. Hold on!”
As they struggled on to the hotel in jagged bursts and heroic swerves, news flashes over the radio reported numerous traffic accidents and cases of people who had collapsed during the eruption of sound. “But of course the big story is the collapse of the new Rukeda-Tentrex Tower in midtown. Fortunately, it was only in the early phases of construction and unoccupied, but there surely have been deaths and injuries. The authorities have not yet confirmed whether the collapse was related to this incredible noise phenomenon.”
Minute by minute, the news bulletins dribbled out more details. Listening intently to the reports, the boys were startled by the wail of sirens. As the taxi driver pulled over, an ambulance rushed past—then more. Though some were headed in the direction of the ruined skyscraper, others were speeding crosswise or in the opposite direction.
“There must have been a lot of people who couldn’t take it,” Bud commented.
“No wonder,” Tom replied. “Another half hour or so of that screeching could send a whole city into mass panic! But at least they’re saying that the collapse, whatever caused it, was limited to that one building.”
Bud checked his own phone. “Service coming back. I’d like to call the hotel just to make sure everyone’s okay.”
The youths managed at last to contact Tom’s father and learned that the group from Shopton were safe. Mr. Swift was as puzzled as Tom by the strange phenomenon, and just as horrified by what seemed to be a smash-attack on the skyscraper.
“I can’t imagine what caused the sounds,” the scientist said, “but they definitely weren’t from ordinary sirens. Yet offhand I don’t see how the sounds could have had anything to do with the building collapse.”
“Maybe not directly,” speculated Tom. “But it may have been part of a plot to tie up traffic and keep emergency vehicles and police at a distance.”
“Could be a car bomb!” Sandy said in the background. “Maybe a bunch of them all converging on the building!”
Tom made no comment on his sister’s theory. But as he clicked off, he had to admit to himself that the destruction of the tower had the earmarks of a new terrorist strike on American soil.
In the Enterprises suite at last, Tom made a hasty call to Elsa Wyvern. “I’m fine,” she assured him. “But that noise!—awful!”
The young inventor agreed, adding: “I just hope people won’t suspect me of cooking this up to create a demand for my sonex system!”
“Please, Tom—don’t joke about it.”
“Sorry, Elsa. You’re right.”
As he ended the call, Tom noticed Bashalli frowning at him from across the room. Sandy, standing next to him, whispered: “Major green eyes, Tomonomo.”
“But that’s just silly.”
“If it weren’t silly, big brother, it wouldn’t be jealousy,” retorted Sandy.
Early the next morning the five from Shopton drove to the huge parking lot of a suburban shopping mall not yet open to the public, where Enterprises had arranged for Tom to land his famous Sky Queen. The three-deck Flying Lab rose smoothly into the Denver sky on its jet lifters. Then Bud, piloting, opened up the throttle to make for New York somewhere on the far side of sound.
In the top deck viewlounge the Swifts and Bashalli listened to the morning’s satellite-relayed news broadcasts, full of the usual faces of wisdom and panic. “To recap, the President has reassured the nation that there is no sign that the events in Denver were terrorist-related. No traces of explosive materials have yet been recovered from the site. The company in charge of construction has indicated that their own investigation is underway, and that early signs indicate an interior structural failure, yet unexplained.”
“They ask us to believe a lot,” Bashalli remarked. “By coincidence the girders decide to bend and break just as the air fills with horrid screeching.”
Tom nodded, but said thoughtfully, “It might be possible that those sounds were a result of the steel skeleton starting to break apart, not a cause. The building might have begun collapsing internally minutes before there was anything to see on the outside.”
“It’s surely possible,” Mr. Swift agreed. “More and more, modern buildings are given a ‘skin’ of synthetic composite materials that are light in weight and have a certain amount of ‘give’ to them. To help save energy, the buildings are sealed up like shrink-wrapped packages, in effect. I can see how a huge closed structure like that might act as a sort of echo chamber as its insides shake apart.”
“In other words,” commented Tom grimly, “it could turn the whole skyscraper into a fifty-story-high loudspeaker.”
Bashalli smiled. “The ultimate in boom-boxes. As Budworth would surely say.”
Conversation and speculation sped the time, and presently the long crescent of Lake Carlopa gleamed ahead, Shopton and Enterprises stretched close beside it. The Sky Queen set down on its special landing platform, which descended on pistons as the lid-doors of the enormous underground hangar folded above it like protective arms.
As Mr. Swift and the girls strolled toward the hangar exit, Bud followed his pal to Tom’s private lab, which was adjacent to the hangar. “Anxious to get to work on your improved sonex, Tom?”
“Not just at the moment,” the youth replied. “I keep thinking about Elsa Wyvern and her father’s disappearance.”
Bud gave his pal a shrewd look. “I gather she’s evoked some scientific interest on the part of our famous young inventor.”
Tom frowned slightly. “Not you too! Look, I can imagine what she’s going through. Can’t you? There’s no great urgency to the sound-deadener, but the sensitector could make all the difference in helping her and her father, if—if something happened to him.”
“Just jokin’ around, Skipper,” Bud said meekly. “You know me.”
Unlocking the big lab with an electri-key, Tom gestured toward his robotic micro-mobile resting in the middle of the tiled floor. “Meet Rover Boy!”
As yet lacking in wheels, the sensitector’s platform vehicle was low to the floor and about the size of a power mower. Sculpted of Tomasite plastic, its body was all compact curves and chrome-bright extensions that resembled car bumpers, which Tom explained were special radiating antennas. “Rover Boy uses the same kind of repelascan approach as the aquatomic tracker to create a baseline distribution profile of the trace substances in the area.”
“Right, feeling-out the lay of the land by repelatron.” The repelatrons were among Tom Swift’s most remarkable inventions, generators of invisible beams of force that selectively interacted with the elements and mixtures to which they had been attuned.
“The repelascan ‘map’ is still just the first step,” Tom continued briskly. “It’ll need to follow up with a minute analysis of trace samples. But obviously I can’t use the sort of sample-conveyer system that worked underwater.”
“You’d have to have something more like a vacuum cleaner.”
Tom grinned. “Since when do I take the boring, predictable approach, chum? Nope. I have other ideas.”
Bud nodded as he walked around the robot-mobile, examining all sides with fascinated interest. “What was that word you used before? Something about a reactor?”
“The reactron—that’s the key invention this time out.” Tom strode over to a long workbench and uncorked a large beaker filled with a transparent liquid. “This stuff is in a state of supersaturation—the molecules are packed close together and ‘on edge,’ you might say. If I were to drop in a tiny flake of dichromium manganate, there would be an instant reaction that would change the fluid’s optical properties throughout.”
Tom now picked up what looked like a long, stiff wire, so thin the eye could hardly catch it. One end was connected to a control box, but the free end terminated in a small bead. Tom gently lowered the bead through the neck of the beaker and into the fluid. There was no change.
Then Tom reached over and nudged a control dial. Bud chuckled as his expectations were rewarded—the fluid turned a metallic orange color in the blink of an eye. “So I take it that little thing on the end of the wire is made of that chromo stuff you mentioned.”
The young inventor shook his head. “It’s a complex micro-engineered structure—they made it up in the space outpost, at zero-G—that’s basically ceramic. The material itself is about as neutral and chemically nonreactive as you could get.”
“Well, I sure saw a reaction.”
“Yes, a reaction to virtual atoms, which simulate the chemical properties of the real thing!”
Bud’s forehead puckered. “Virtual—as in ‘virtual reality?’ But that beaker’s real, isn’t it? Or are you playing a gag with your 3-D telejector?”
“It’s real, flyboy,” Tom laughed. “Stick your hand in if you don’t believe me!”
“Want some detail? The reactron’s ‘simul-atom’ unit, that little bead, is completely covered with pointed projections, tiny spikes that come to such a sharp point that they make a sewing needle look like a baseball bat! The machine allows me to generate patterns of unipolar charges over the surface of the points, which mimic the configuration of orbital electrons in the space surrounding atoms. That’s the basis of simple chemical reactions.”
“So what we’ve got here is an electronic fake-out.”
“Dip the simulatom in a reactive chemical, and—like you saw.” The young inventor noted that in most cases the chemical reaction would be very localized and undramatic. “This was just one of my Bud Barclay demos! The supersaturated fluid acted like an amplifier.”
“No one does ‘well-Bud’ like Tom Swift,” grinned the athletic young Californian. “So how does this reactron gimmick fit in with your bloodhound machine?”
Tom showed his pal a sketch of the planned sensitector vehicle in final form. Curving lines, tipped with dots, bristled from its front end like the bunched antennae of a super-mantis. “These are flexible strut-wires, like the one I showed you, with the simulatom beads at the end. There’ll be dozens of ’em, fanning out in front of Rover Boy and almost touching the ground.”
“I guess those are your detail-sniffers, huh?”
“Static attraction will sweep up loose molecules and particulates and bring them into contact with the nanospikes. Then, based on the repelascan info, we’ll run through various virtual-atom configurations and measure the chemical reactions that result.” When Bud nodded, the young inventor added: “The reactron is sort’ve an all-purpose litmus strip—with the capacity of a chem lab.”
“Chem lab? Got it,” said Bud. “The kinda thing I used to blow up in high school.”
A little work, and it was time for lunch. And thus it was time for Chow Winkler to put in an appearance. The hefty former chuck-wagon cook made his usual colorful entrance in a gaudy western-themed shirt, pushing a cart that was utterly overshadowed. “Chow down, you two! Welcome back.”
“’Bout time, six-gunner,” Bud joked. “Breakfast on the Queen is a little too airy for my tastes.”
“That’s what happens when y’ travel without yer cook.” The ex-Texan uncovered his luncheon trays and set places on a lab table. “Hear you two got inta the usual hijinks in Denver—fallin’ building, sumpin about a big noise.”
Chow’s tone was breezy, but Tom described what had happened very soberly and the older man’s eyes grew wide. “Brand my cactus salad, boss! That there builder company musta got their steel girders at a markdown!”
Tom shrugged. “They don’t know exactly what happened yet. And as far as the weird sounds—I’m not sure my ‘boombox’ theory really holds up.”
“Wa-aal, bet she holds up better’n the buildin’ did. But now...” The cook gave Tom a chiding look. “Since when d’ya hold back on ole Chow?”
The boys were puzzled. “That’s what happened, Chow,” Bud declared. “Just like he said.”
“Oh yeah? Not what I hear.”
Tom groaned inwardly. “Okay, pardner. What did you hear?”
“Hear’t you cut loose that nice Basherelli ’n took up with some― ”
Tom flushed and held up a hand. “We met a young lady—all of us!—named Elsa Wyvern, who asked for some help with a family problem. This is getting all blown out of proportion and I don’t like it!”
Chow gulped, visibly and audibly. “Er, yeah, well—y’know how some people like t’talk.”
“And now you, both of you, can put them straight. Right?”
And Bud also gulped. In minutes, with weak excuses, both had fled the lab, leaving the disgruntled young inventor alone.
Good night, maybe I should give priority to my silencer, he thought. Just to shut people up!
Tom worked through the day in his lab, focusing on Rover Boy and making good progress. But the next day was a day for some unavoidable paperwork. He ended the afternoon in the Swifts’ shared office in the Administration Building that towered over the airfield of Enterprises’ four-mile-square installation.
As he studied some requisitions, a hesitant knock made him look up.
“Something wrong, Trent? A visitor?”
Munford Trent, the two Swifts office secretary, was big-eyed and searching for words.
“Tom, I—this is—of course it’s not here, but—I thought you should― ”
“Please get a grip, Munford, and tell me.”
“It’s what happened in Denver. It’s happened again!”
TOM stared at the secretary. It wasn’t a joke, obviously—but what was it? “Do you mean... there’ve been more of those sound blasts in Denver?”
Trent thrashed his head negatively. “Not Denver, Tom. Omaha! Nebraska! And it’s not just sounds. I was just talking to my friend Phil Pram over in Avionics... Er—do you know Phil?”
“It’s no wonder he never gets a promotion. I tell him: lose the mousy attitude.”
“What about Omaha, Munford?”
“It’s another sonic attack. Horrible screeching, and then this big freeway overpass cracked up and fell apart. Oh my god, terrorism! I’m sure terrorized.”
The young scientist-inventor shook his head, as if to fend off the news. “Are you sure this isn’t just a rumor or a false report? If something like that had happened, Harlan and Rad would be in here right now telling me about it. We wouldn’t have to wait for an alert from your friend.” Harlan Ames, office next to the Swifts’, was the head of Enterprises security. Phil Radnor was his assistant.
“They’re over at Swift Construction Company today.”
Tom frowned impatiently. “Fine. Then they’d call me immediately.”
“You’re absolutely right.”
“So then― ”
“I have Mr. Ames on hold right now.” As the man turned away from Tom’s look to scurry for his desk, he ventured to say: “And please, I prefer Trent, not Munford.”
The voice of Harlan Ames was typically cool and crisply reassuring. “Same thing as the Denver incident, Tom. Booming, wailing sounds from no-one-knows-where, panic, and then the big cross-city freeway cloverleaf cracks up. I don’t know if there were any deaths, but there were terrible injuries, cars driving off the edge—you get the picture.”
“I do,” Tom murmured into the receiver. “Remember that theory I mentioned to you? Forget it! Obviously this is some sort of deliberate attack, using some kind of high-tech equipment.”
“An attack. And yet the witnesses don’t report anything like an explosion. You don’t suppose it could be the same sort of targeted earthquakes we dealt with before?” Tapping the technology of the Swifts’ extraterrestrial space contacts, a foreign faction had created artificial earthquakes in the United States, wreaking havoc with various scientific and industrial installations before the mammoth quake-maker had been destroyed.
Tom dismissed the idea. “There wasn’t anything like a quake in Denver, Harlan—just a lot of noise. I don’t know how it ties in, but it sure works as a diversion.”
“Strangely enough, the sound blast also accomplished something good this time,” Ames pointed out. “During the several minutes before the destruction, people were fleeing the area, or pulling over and stopping in the jam-up. Traffic on the overpass bridge was far below what it might have been.”
“Thank goodness for that, at least,” replied Tom thoughtfully. “But intentional or not, it just adds another layer to the mystery.”
At home that night the Swifts spent the dinner hour in the living room, watching their satellite-fed television. The faces of the news had become calmly, smilingly hysterical, notwithstanding fresh soothing words from the White House.
“No one knows anything!” Sandy sniffed.
“Just enough to be afraid,” agreed Damon Swift dryly. “Yet I can’t blame anyone for that.”
“These incidents remind me of a camera,” Tom’s mother commented. “When you’re going to use the flash attachment, you push a button and it takes a moment to build up a charge—you hear that whirring sound. Could those sounds be some kind of energy build-up, do you suppose?”
“That theory’s way better than the one I came up with, Mom,” was Tom’s remark.
Mr. Swift took off his glasses to rub his eyes. “It may still be a phenomenon of nature. I recall reading something—it was all speculation—about the notion that as rock strata crash and fracture deep in the earth, the process might sometimes evolve unusual effects.”
Tom nodded. “Yes. They called it ‘earth lights.’ A kind of luminosity rising from the ground.”
“Which has never been verified. But I’m referring to something else, ground-wave phenomena with complex harmonics that might have a destructive effect at certain points of focus on the surface. Perhaps some sort of fracturing is progressing along a network of fault lines”
“If everyone gets to put in a Swift theory, I’ll go with super-spies on the attack,” Sandy declared pertly.
“In Omaha?” Tom joked.
“Tomonomo, Omaha counts as a legitimate target. Ask anyone who lives there.”
Mrs. Swift suddenly stood and picked up a piece of note paper from the telephone table. “Oh, Tom, I forgot to tell you—you received a call here while you were on your way home.”
She handed him the note. Elsa Wyvern.
As Tom looked down, he had the strongest feeling he was being looked at. “I’ll have to return the call. She probably has news of her father.”
Sandy smiled. “Probably.”
Anne Swift seemed to nod subtly toward her husband, and Tom’s father cleared his throat. “You know, Anne...” he said into vague space, “I remember when we first met and started seeing one another.”
“I wondered if you’d worry I wouldn’t be able to keep up with you,” Mrs. Swift responded on cue. “Such a brilliant man. I was afraid you’d become impatient with me and look elsewhere.”
“Well, I realized that there’s a lot to be gained in giving an acquaintanceship enough time for it to grow and reveal itself. Uh, so to speak. And look at what a wonderful― ”
The italicized urgings were less than subtle. Tom interrupted, hoping he sounded just blunt enough. “Excuse me, won’t you? I’d better return Elsa’s call.”
“Yes,” said Sandy. “You’d better.”
Mounting the stairs, smiling politely but not looking back, Tom said: “I think it’s great, the way you’re all taking this national disaster without panicking.”
Sandy replied smoothly, “There may be bigger disasters to come.”
Tom called Elsa Wyvern in Denver at the number she’d left. “It’s good to hear from you, Elsa. Any news?”
There was a cross-continent sigh. “Nothing, Tom. The police say not to worry—they say many people ‘go missing’ for a few days, and they don’t get too involved unless there’s some sign of foul play, or a ransom note, or—something. And they keep harping on the fact that Dad and I haven’t been on the closest terms recently. They want me to just wait.”
“Believe me, I know how hard that can be.”
“Your friend Bud was kidnapped once, wasn’t he?”
“He was in a plane crash in New Guinea. It was quite awhile before we were sure he’d survived.” An awkward silence reared up. “Elsa... I’ve made some progress on my sensitector tracking device. What if I fly back to Denver, let’s say Friday, and see what I can do?”
“Oh, Tom—that would be so wonderful. It eases my mind very much.”
They made arrangements to keep in touch on the details. Just as the young inventor clicked off the receiver: brrrrr! He pressed the button again. “Elsa?”
The voice was male and brisk. “Is this Mr. Tom Swift?”
“Please hold for Admiral Krevitt, sir.”
Admiral Krevitt, the head of the Office of National Defense Applied Research! Tom had worked with ONDAR previously, solving a difficult case involving a threat to American coastal shipping that had utilized an advanced scientific weapon. Could the call be about the bizarre events in Denver and Omaha?
Another officious voice came on the line, older and maler. “Hello, Tom. Sorry to call so late, and on your private line.”
“I know it must be important, Admiral, and I think I know the subject.”
“The sonic attacks, obviously.”
The words nudged back into view the disturbing idea Tom had asserted but hadn’t quite faced. “Attacks? Then ONDAR thinks― ”
“It doesn’t matter what ONDAR thinks,” said Krevitt brusquely. “I was asked by Martin Frome to make this call—smooth the way, that sort of thing. You recognize the name, don’t you?”
“Assistant Secretary of Defense. Newly appointed, anxious to make waves and a name. He wants to set up a teleconference with you and your father—bring that chief engineer of yours, Sterling, as we’ll want some comment on technical issues. Shall we say tomorrow, 9 AM?”
“Well, 8 AM would be just as― ”
“9 AM it is. Usual teleconference procedure. How are you and Damon these days? All recovered from that Vishnapur business?”
“We’re doing― ”
“Tomorrow, then.” Click!
Sleep was uneasy.
The next morning Tom and his father were joined at the Enterprises teleconference table by square-jawed Hank Sterling, a good friend who was the company’s young chief engineer. The table was partly unreal: many of the places in the darkened room were simply digital television screens producing lifelike representations of the distant conferees in Washington DC.
Admiral Krevitt greeted the Enterprises participants and introduced Martin Frome, a surprisingly young and bustling man.
“Hello, hello,” Frome said, and then spent five minutes amplifying upon these remarks as the others tried not to fidget. One of these others was well-known to the Swifts—Bernt Ahlgren, whom they had encountered on several occasions, a man with a technical background and security connections not entirely clear. Tom caught Ahlgren rolling his eyes as Frome seemed to expand to fill the available space.
At last a slight nod from Frome seemed to trigger another individual, bald and bearded. “Sam Cordwin, M.I.T.,” he introduced himself. “On hiatus to assist the Department of Defense in an advisory capacity.”
“Opaque enough, boys?” said Ahlgren mildly.
“What can we do for you today, gentlemen?” asked Damon Swift. “I gather you’ve concluded that the recent incidents are hostile in intent?”
“That is the memo-rec from the FBI,” replied Cordwin.
“He means the Director’s office secretary talked him into signing off on it,” explained Ahlgren, which earned him a glare.
Cordwin stated, “I endorse the recommendation fully. There is no sign that these two collapses result from any normal structural failures.”
“Nor explosions,” added Frome.
Hank Sterling asked, “What about those sounds?”
“What about ’em?” put in Ahlgren with a smile.
“We know now that any naturalistic hypothesis can be excluded,” continued Cordwin. “We carefully considered the possibility of unusual deep-earth effects, but concurrent seismometric data rules it out. And we have been able to examine with great care some video shot by telephone cameras during both events—more than a dozen points of view. With enhancement, we see― ”
“Presto!” trumpeted Bernt Ahlgren, holding up an enlarged photo print. In the center, against a background of sky, was something like a reddish disk with a wide circular gap in the middle. “This may look like the key constituent of a good morning breakfast, boys and boys, but it’s a couple feet across and reflects light like slightly translucent plastic.”
“Some sort of drone?” asked Tom’s father with furrowed brow.
“Doubtless,” nodded a nameless man in a military uniform.
“No sign that it’s carrying explosives, though,” noted Mr. Frome, who seemed to want the point made perfectly clear.
“This is the best image, but there are a number of similar objects in the sky,” Cordwin said. “They appear to have been somewhat clustered together above both structures, the skyscraper and the overpass, at the time of collapse.”
“They were the screamers,” Ahlgren declared. “The sources of the sounds. We think they flew in over the city like a flock of seagulls, and then—like a flock of seagulls—did their dirty work.”
Hank frowned. “Okay. But was the noise just to panic people? Or maybe to warn them, as Harlan Ames thinks?”
“No,” stated Cordwin. “We think it was the sounds themselves that caused the destruction.”
Martin Frome banged a fist. “A sonic weapon, gentlemen, directed against our nation!”
“WHEN Assistant Secretary of Defense Frome says ‘our nation’,” observed Bernt Ahlgren, “he means the United States of America, which by coincidence happens to be the very nation he’s paid to defend.”
Frome turned to stare coldly. “This jocular irreverence of yours isn’t winning any points with us, Ahlgren.”
“I wouldn’t think so. On the other hand, I see a twitch of amusement on the face of Tom Swift.”
The men all turned to look, and Tom’s face drained of twitch. “I’m just thinking over this idea of a sonic weapon,” he said. “A long time ago I read something about our military developing such a device.”
“Uh-huh,” Ahlgren confirmed. “I’m glad I’m not the only one who reads Sensational Tech Illustrated.”
“I don’t remember what they called the project,” stated Admiral Krevitt, “but ONDAR was involved in it. Powerful subsonic waves directed at enemy troops in the field.”
Ahlgren said, “Real bone-shaking stuff. Unfortunately, sound has this drawback called echo. The waves bounced back on the sound-cannon from all sides, and our guys would’ve had to lug around heavy shielding and ear plugs. Fun to think about, though.”
“As to the present, what I think you’re describing is some kind of super-amplified resonance effect,” Hank declared. “In other words, these flying sound generators used sonic waves of precisely tuned frequencies to induce self-sustaining vibrations in the metal undergirding frame of the skyscraper.”
Cordwin gave a sharp nod. “Which the containing outer walls—the inside was still incomplete and fairly open—reflected back and concentrated. Essentially, a tuning fork effect rapidly degrading girder stability.”
“There was a metal support structure under the concrete of that bridge, of course,” noted Frome. “For stability.”
“Worked great, didn’t it?” came from Ahlgren.
Tom tapped a finger. “Can we jump ahead? I know you’re all aware of my sound-deadening invention.”
“It may be the only counterweapon available,” declared Martin Frome grimly.
“Then you’re expecting further attacks?”
Ahlgren shrugged. “You wouldn’t?”
As Hank and Mr. Swift looked on silently, waiting, Tom rubbed his chin. “Mr. Frome, gentlemen, I’ll obviously do everything I can to help come up with a defense. But you should all realize that the sonex method is very limited. It needs work—a new approach. I have some ideas on how to take it further, but as it is I don’t see how it would be feasible to use it to counter the flying weapons. Do you have any idea where the next attack will occur?”
“No intelligence on that question,” muttered a dark man in a dark suit. “The government has received no threats. No group has claimed credit. The basis of target selection is unknown.”
“This meeting was a briefing in both directions. We need to be absolutely certain that America’s top technological imagineer is on board,” Frome declared forcefully. “What your country asks of you, Tom, is that you give your silencer work your highest priority.”
“Of course, sir. And for me that means freeing up my brain to get creative, to let in the ideas,” replied the young inventor smoothly.
“Very Jungian,” was Bernt Ahlgren’s cryptic non sequitur. “Constellate that gestalt, kid.”
“I’ll focus on the silencer counterweapon by working on something else. That’s how I do things.”
“With results that have proven quite useful,” added Damon Swift dryly. “I presume you gentlemen would agree?”
There were grunts of concurrence and polite smiles of gratitude. Layered over a certain nervousness.
As Tom, Hank, and Mr. Swift walked back to the Swifts’ office after the conclusion of the session, they attempted to map out what would happen over the next few days. “Do you still plan to focus on getting Rover Boy up and running, boss?” Hank inquired.
“I don’t know. If there’s imminent danger of another attack from these Screaming Meemies― ”
Mr. Swift touched his son’s shoulder. “Tom, do what feels right to you. I know you’re concerned about helping Miss Wyvern. Trying to force yourself to work on something other than the sensitector would just plunge you into distraction. You’d be blocking the intuitions you need to create an improved version of the nullifier.”
“You’re probably right, Dad,” the young inventor conceded. “I can give Hank—and Arv and Linda Ming—my early working concepts on the new silencer approach I’ve been playing around with. I can’t do too much until I have some prototypes to start experimenting with.”
Hank nodded. Modelmaker Arvid Hanson and his assistant had often worked in tandem with Enterprises’ young chief engineer, particularly on rush jobs. After a pause, he remarked, “I hear this ‘Helga’ is quite a pretty girl.”
Tom’s lips compressed into an irritated line. “And just where did you hear that?”
“From Jilly—you know, on the main switchboard.”
“Uh huh. And where did she― ”
“George Dilling’s secretary? At Communications and Public Interest?”
“Yeah. George mentioned it to her.”
“But how in― ”
“Perhaps there’s been a bit too much communications and public interest regarding this matter,” suggested Mr. Swift in what he hoped was a soothing tone.
Two days later, the day before Tom was to rejoin Elsa Wyvern in Denver, he stood with Bud and Chow on the crowded floor of Swift Enterprises’ big assembly hangar, which was nicknamed The Barn. On the concrete floor in front of them Rover Boy waited patiently for instructions like a loyal hound.
The sensitector had greatly evolved. A metal hoop now encircled it, angled vertically to rest upright and running front-to-back, the chassis suspended from a single bracket which rose from the top of the vehicle to grasp the mono-wheel. As the hoop rotated, it slid through this frictionless sleeve, which contained the mechanism that spun it.
“Brand my bowlin’ pins, how’s the varmint balance on that hoop?” demanded Chow. “Seems he’d jest plock over.”
“Rover Boy comes complete with gyro accessories and gravitex balancers,” Tom explained, bending down to make some final adjustments.
Chuckled Bud, “The guy’s half a ballet dancer and a right smart bloodhound, Chow!”
“He can even pirouette,” joked Tom. He demonstrated how the monowheel could be caused to pivot en pointe when the sensitector carrier needed to change direction. “By using just one wheel, touching the ground at just a single point, the SenTec minimizes stirring up dust and dirt. Otherwise the repelascan map might no longer correlate with the reactron spot-analysis.”
“Spot-analysis? Sounds like one o’ them spray-on cleaners fer shirt stains.” Chow glanced down at his gaudy shirt pattern without thinking.
“Just how do you tell if it’s stained, pardner?” teased Bud.
“Aaaa!—Anyways, Tom, what is it yew want me t’do? Jest walk around?”
Shutting the access port on Rover Boy, Tom nodded. “That’s all. You’re our test target, just like those ‘mechanical rabbits’ they use at dog tracks.”
“Seems t’me I’m a mighty big rabbit—like as Buddy Boy here’s about t’ say. Wouldn’t prove s’much to foller me, would it?”
“But remember, Rover Boy won’t be follerin’ you with his eyes, Chow, but with his twenty noses.” The young inventor nodded at the whiskery thicket of wire supports arching forward from the “face” of the sensitector, each one almost touching the floor with its simulatom bead. “I want to see how well the reactron ‘sniffers’ function in a complex environment like The Barn, where there are exotic chemical traces and particles all over everywhere. Make it a game, Chow. Just zig-zag around among all the crates and work benches, and we’ll see if Rover can hunt you down.”
Chow nodded that he understood, but looked a bit chagrined. “Guess I know why you picked me, son. My personal aroma from years o’ cookwork must be a mite distinctive.”
“I want Rover to start off on something easy.”
“Ye-aah.” The ex-Texan harrumphed away on his boots, cutting behind a jet fuselage and disappearing from view.
“So now the Chow hunt begins!” grinned Bud. “May I?”
Tom handed his pal a compact unit that could emulate almost any remote-controller, called a Spektor. “Go wild, flyboy. Rover’s all primed.”
A button-punch later the sensitector whirred forward on its monowheel hoop as if Rover Boy were on the scent, vanishing behind the fuselage in a split second. “Jetz, look at the guy go!” Bud chortled. “He’ll have Chow by the boot-heels before we can have any fun.”
“I’ll make it a little bit more of a challenge,” Tom muttered. He strode over to the nearby wall and switched off the overhead lights. Now illuminated only by a line of skylights, The Barn was full of shadows.
Chow had decided to enjoy himself. He walked rapidly, trying not to clomp, threading his way around crates and bulky machinery. Somewhere behind him was his electronic pursuer. He could hear the faint whir of its motor and the crunch of the wheel on the littered hangar floor. “Sounds like he’s gettin’ a mite close,” the cook told himself. “Mebbe I orta pick up th’ pace.”
But in the struggle of Man with Machine, it seemed Machine was winning. Glancing over his shoulder, the ex-Texan noted with surprise that Rover Boy was only about twenty steps behind him. Quarry now in radar-sight, the SenTec had slowed itself automatically, but nonetheless was closing the gap.
And something was wrong!
“Hey now, Rover, I don’t think you’re s’posed to be doin’ that!” The simulatom beads were sparking, and each spark illuminated a trailing haze of smoke.
Chow had paused, but what he saw next startled him into motion. As one of the beads rubbed against the side of a plastic shipping container, it left a long gouge mark that puffed a white vapor into the dim light.
“G-great hoppin’—that thing’s slobberin’ acid!” gulped Chow. “Gotta put in some distance!”
He ducked into a narrow space between two big compressors, then gallumphed crossways along a work table. A nervous look back told him that Rover Boy was out of sight. “Phew! Guess he lost th’ scent.”
Chow was wrong. Turning forward, his eyes bugged as the robot-mobile darted into view in front of him. “Gol-heck! Th’ dang thing outsmarted me!” Rover’s reactron feelers were now sparking and hissing furiously!
Chow backpedaled in full panic, heading toward an area of the hangar floor where parts containers and fuel drums were stored. G-guess I kin hide in there! he thought hopefully.
But hopes were dashed instantly. The sensitector lacked intelligence—even the artificial kind—but its sophisticated onboard computer understood the basic geometry of pursuit. Rover Boy knew how to corner any moving object he had been assigned to track. The machine glided into view in front of Chow and began to mirror the cowpoke’s every darting move, which were becoming desperate. “Cuttin’ me off at th’ dang pass!” he choked. “N-now what?”
He began to back away, but the single-minded hound seemed to have decided that his prey was his for the taking. He rolled toward Chow without fear—fangs bared and flashing!
THE LONG TRAIL
TOM and Bud were startled by a choking wail from somewhere in the shadows. “H-halp! Tom! T-turn it off!”
“Good night, what’s Chow panicking for?” reacted the young inventor in surprise. He checked the small readout screen on the Spektor unit. “Looks like Rover’s tracked him down. Let’s see what’s on visual.”
He switched to the transmitted input from the robot-mobile’s videocams, designed for clear seeing even in darkness.
The screen showed the concrete floor, piled crates, equipment—and no cowboys! “Where the heck did he go?” demanded Bud. “What’s he trying to do, trick Rover into giving up?”
But the distant cry was repeated. “The SenTec can’t get a grip on the trace readings,” Tom pronounced. “Chow’s moving around in some sort’ve unusual way that’s beyond Rover’s capacity.”
“Is the thing programmed for jiggling?”
“This is no joke, Bud. The readout’s showing smoke particles, chemical vapor—strange stuff. Chow could be in danger!” Tom instantly used the Spektor to shut down the sensitector, then switched the overhead lights back on.
“Chow!” he shouted. “You okay?”
What came back from across the hangar was only a strangled yelp!
Bud dashed into the lead. “C’mon!”
The two located Rover Boy quickly. The device was still balanced upright, as its sleep-mode setting allowed the stabilizers to continue operating. But its tiny LED running lights were dark.
Bud coughed and wrinkled his nose. “What’s all this junk in the air? Smells like fireworks.”
A weak, quavery voice floated to their ears from some unknown place. “Th-that you? Ya g-gotta help me afore― ”
“I shut down the robot-mobile,” Tom called. “Where are you, pardner? Are you hurt? Did you fall?”
“Th-that’s jest what’s on m’mind, boss!”
Suddenly Bud pointed—upward. A big weathered face and a cowboy hat were poking over the edge of a crate, atop a pile of containers stacked halfway to the ceiling!
“Jetz!” Bud half-chortled. “I can’t even guess how you managed to get yourself up there, slim, but maybe you oughta find a slow way to come back to Earth!” The stack of containers was visibly swaying!
“Gosh darn would if’n I could, buddy boy, but I akser-dently kicked th’ ladder over!”
“Okay, Chow, just keep still up there,” Tom called reassuringly. The boys quickly found the toppled metal ladder and helped Chow down to the floor, where he described what had happened in a blabber.
Tom nodded. “Well, look at it this way—you really helped― ”
“Naw, son, don’t yew even say it! This here’s one time I’d jest o’ soon not been any jim-danged use at all!”
The young inventor looked sheepish. “Got it, pardner.”
Tom carried the lightweight SenTec to a nearby workbench, where he studied it with several test instruments as Chow mopped his brow and calmed himself. Tom straightened and looked back at his older friend. “I apologize, Chow—you could have been badly hurt by Rover.”
“What went wrong?” Bud asked.
“I miscalculated how the reactrons might affect some of the trace substances here—highly reactive materials like magnesium, fluorine, powdered aluminum, sodium, and others. The virtual-atom simulations set off chemical chain reactions in the traces that I didn’t expect. I’ll have to reconfigure the damping gaskets on the simulatom units.”
Chow snorted. “Dang varmint jest about reconfiggered me, from th’ boots up!”
The next morning Tom and Bud flew back to Denver, the improved, thoroughly tested sensitector in the hold. As they planned to rendezvous with Elsa Wyvern at the airport, the start of the trail, they took a small company jet rather than the mammoth Sky Queen.
Debarking at Denver International, they met up with Elsa at the terminal her father had called her from. Her face was drawn and pale. As Tom approached, she leaned into his comforting hug. “There’s been no word at all, Tom,” she murmured. “The police—they’ve had so much to deal with, and― ”
“Let’s trust Rover Boy to make a difference,” Tom said gently.
“I trust you, Tom.”
“Er—Rover Boy’s in here, Elsa,” Bud said. The machine had been packed in what looked like a large trunk, pulled along on casters.
“Let’s turn him loose,” said Tom Swift with a confident smile.
After checking the carrying trunk, Tom activated his Spektor and brought the SenTec to life. Tom had received multiple permissions to use his invention at the airport and on the streets of Denver, but that didn’t stop the crowds of travelers from looking on curiously at the sight of the small machine scudding along on its single wheel. “Oh! It must be one of those new bomb-sniffers,” one woman speculated.
“Naw,” said another. “It’s a vacuum cleaner. We got ’em in Moose Hump.”
A young boy laughed. “Doncha guys watch TV? It’s a RC model tank—it’s got death rays n’ everything.”
At the exit jetway Dr. Wyvern was presumed to have used, Elsa handed Tom a number of folded letters. “My roommate sent these to the hotel,” she explained. “They’re all from Dad, and I kept them in their original envelopes, so they’re not too contaminated, I hope. I—I just wish I had more of them.”
Tom nodded. “These should be fine. It won’t be hard for the sensitector to enhance the scent-signal and identify your father’s trace profile. Human traces have quite a few distinctive elements.”
Rover led the three through the terminal building and down an escalator. At one point the robot-mobile paused. “Some extra trace-density right here,” Tom explained. Noticing a sign on the wall, he added: “Cellphone safe zone. This is probably the spot where he stopped to call you.”
They proceeded out to the sidewalk and the passenger zone pickup curb, then stopped again. “Another gradient—and now I’m seeing― ”
“Something good, Skipper?” asked Bud hopefully.
Tom tried to give a casual tone to his reply. “Dr. Wyvern stopped here for a time. And then—his trace profile is interlaced with a couple other people.”
“Oh, Tom!” quavered Elsa. “Then your detector can figure that out and separate the tracks? With all the people standing here since—since then?”
“It can determine, at least roughly, the order in which various sets of traces were laid down,” he affirmed. “In fact, this gives us a more distinctive trail to follow.” Tom chose not to mention one element of that trail. Rover Boy was sensing minute traces of the kind of oil and powder most likely associated with a gun!
The trail went to the curb, and faded out. “That’s no surprise,” Bud remarked. “A car picked them up.”
“And now we have the trace-profile of that particular vehicle,” noted the young inventor. He had anticipated the development, and had arranged for a rental car, a pickup truck. The SenTec was firmly lashed down in the truckbed under a tarp, its reactron “noses” allowed to extend out and dangle down as close to the pavement as could be managed.
The scent was much fainter and spread wide chaotically, but even after a span of days the three were able to follow it with a fair degree of confidence. They left the airport and turned eastward on Route 470. After only a few moments, Tom told Bud to slow and turn around on the shoulder. “Lost the trace. They must have left the road.”
The track resumed on a very modest roadway across a stretch of open land. Elsa noted that they were heading toward Denver, which was some several miles from the airport.
They skirted the National Wildlife Refuge on the now unpaved road. Eventually they joined a fair-sized highway, crossing through Commerce City. Rover Boy’s test was a severe one, but he passed: they were able to track the vehicle to midtown Denver.
Finally Tom had Bud pull over to the curb. “They parked the vehicle here,” Tom said with intense concentration on the readout data. The three got out and Rover Boy was loosed again, on the sidewalk. “Okay, he’s caught it again. The same three, walking.”
They walked one bustling block, another, and turned a corner. Some distance ahead the street was blocked off by red cones, concrete blocks and yellow tape.
“It’s where the building collapsed,” breathed Elsa. “What if—what if they put Dad in― ”
“Don’t assume anything, Elsa,” Tom said grimly. “Please.”
“With us, things usually aren’t what they seem,” noted Bud. He added mentally: For better or worse!
Both uniformed police and private security guards were stationed around the half-block of ruin, and it took some time before Tom’s official permissions were verified. At last the three humans were issued protective hardhats and allowed to pass through the line.
The Tower had collapsed top down. Though rubble was strewn everywhere, the bottom few floors of the skyscraper had remained fairly intact. Confused by the mass of traces, Rover Boy required frequent readjustment, but it soon became obvious that they were being led directly into what was left of the ground floor.
Tom stopped. “Elsa, you wait here. I’ll go in with the SenTec.”
“Please do as I ask. There’s no light, and it’s too unsafe.” He turned to Bud. “Keep her company, won’t you, flyboy?” With some subtle movements Elsa couldn’t see, Tom added a postscript by ASL hand-signing: Don’t let her follow.
Tom and Rover picked their way through a jagged gap, into semi-darkness choked with mounded rubble. Dead power cables snaked down from the ceiling, and the ceiling itself was mostly hole. Tom had the SenTec direct its pair of tiny searchlamps upward.
The intense beams revealed an open view up to the fourth story. The building’s skeleton had been structured in such a way that the bulk of the downsliding materials had been forced sideways and were heaped in the surrounding lot and the street.
“But he was here,” Tom muttered. He urged the SenTec further along—and then it wavered and stopped. The trace-trail was lost in the massed confusion of the collapse.
Tom now switched Rover Boy to his dark-vision mode, studying the screen on the Spektor unit strapped to his forearm. In a moment he stopped the scan. “Something there.” It was odd enough to pique his interest.
Marking the location mentally, Tom clambered over the rubble as cautiously as he could manage. Switching on the Spektor’s own mini-flashlamp, he aimed the beam at a tiny object poking out from beneath an acoustical ceiling panel. It was a small box that gleamed with polished decorative inlays. Freeing it, holding it delicately to avoid smearing any possible fingerprints, he returned to the waiting SenTec and had Rover Boy sniff it.
The result was definite. Whatever it might prove to be, the box had been held by the hands of Dr. John Wyvern!
MUSIC BOX CLUE
BACK in the sunlight, Tom held the tiny box up for Elsa to see. “Your father’s personal chemical markers—perspiration, bodily oils, soap, skin particles—are all over this, very densely.”
“I know what it is, Tom,” she said in hushed tones. “Can you open the lid?”
Tom popped a latch mechanism and opened the hinged lid with a fingernail. Although the box was empty, a tinkling melody began to play, apparently from a Swiss-type musical mechanism.
“It’s an old German song, ‘The Lorelei’,” Elsa murmured.
A small slip of colored paper was tucked inside the box. Elsa put a handkerchief over her fingers and drew it out.
“‘For My Own Dear Lorelei’,” she read aloud. She looked up at Tom with eyes luminous with tears. “Dad knew that’s my favorite tune. He wrote to me that he was making this for me. He was trying to reach out to me, to overcome the—the distance between us.”
“He sure did a beautiful job,” Bud said admiringly.
“Wood carving and inlay work was his hobby. He must have brought this to Denver to give me as a gift.”
The spring-wound mechanism slowly gave up the ghost and stopped. Elsa turned away.
“He was here,” said Tom. “Now we know that for sure. But Elsa, he didn’t remain here. Police and investigators have combed the ruins carefully, with real search dogs. All the...” He searched for words. “Everything they found has been identified.”
“Then where is he, Tom? What do I do?”
“I’ll tell you what you do,” Bud pronounced. “You leave it in genius boy’s scientific hands.”
“I promise we’ll uncover the truth,” Tom declared firmly.
After turning the clue over to the investigative team and stowing the sensitector in the jet, the three had a somber lunch at one of the airport restaurants. Tom asked Elsa:
“Now that we know your father’s disappearance has some connection to the two sonic attacks, can you think what that connection might be?”
The pretty girl was silently intent for a moment. “I know that Dad was doing some work on the specific effects of noise stress as part of his medical project. But he’s hardly a world expert on the subject, just one of many investigators. I can’t imagine why he would have been singled out. What could anyone gain from kidnapping him?”
Bud was frowning. “Here goes my big undiplomatic mouth again. I’m sorry to ask this, but—couldn’t there be another possibility? I mean, you’ve been out of touch with him. What if Dr. Wyvern wasn’t kidnapped? What if he’s part of the sonic plot?”
Elsa stared at the black-haired Californian. Then the red faded from her face. “I can’t believe that. But... I suppose it isn’t impossible.”
Tom touched her hand. “I can’t believe it either. A man capable of making such a delicate work of art as the music box just couldn’t be involved in terrorism and destruction.”
Elsa gave Tom a warm and grateful look, but Bud only scowled and muttered: “I think I heard somebody say that it’s not impossible.”
Tom was interrupted by the quiver of the cellphone in his pocket. “From Shopton. Hello?”
“Hello, Thomas. You may remember my voice.”
“Hi Bashalli. What’s― ”
“Might Elsa Wyvern be there with you?”
“Walk a ways away, please. I need to tell you something private.”
Tom excused himself and walked over to the restaurant lobby. “Okay, Bash.”
“This is about Miss Wyvern, Tom,” said the young Pakistani. “Sandra and I find her a most interesting person, as do you, I’m sure. We’ve taken the liberty of doing a bit of research.”
“Research? About Elsa?”
“On the internet, with search engines. They do say they are ‘your friend’. But perhaps they aren’t such a good friend to Elsa.”
Tom was passing irritation and well along the way to anger. “I’m tired of this. Just what are you saying?”
“Just listen,” replied Bashalli with icy calm; “and try to set aside any personal feelings. Yes, Dr. John Wyvern is a medical doctor who has a practice in Clarksville, Tennessee, and he advertises a specialization in hearing problems. But we find no indication, not in journal articles, not in news reports, nowhere, that he’s engaged in any sort of special research on the physiology of hearing or neurology or anything of that nature. He’s just a plain doctor with an office in the suburbs—that’s all. I called his office, Tom. He doesn’t even have a receptionist or nurse or whatnot, just a message machine. And business must be slow. The message doesn’t even mention that he’s out of town for a few days.”
“Fine. None of that proves anything. Good night, maybe he’s kept his practice small in order to work privately on his investigations.”
“Why yes, a very nice insight. Now please explain to me why the Denver police told me one hour ago that they have no record of any missing person report concerning a ‘John Wyvern,’ nor an open file on the matter.”
“What! Are you sure you― ”
“Please Thomas, your sister is a well-read investigator—at least in terms of crime fiction—and I hope you’ll grant that I am quite precise by nature. And by the way,” she continued, “there is more.”
“I called her hotel, where her father was supposed to have planned to stay. I used my feminine charm, by the bucket, on the manager. Did not Miss Wyvern tell us that she had talked to employees to try to determine if her father had shown up?”
“Are they denying it?”
“No. But new wrinkling has developed. They are all unanimous in stating that this young lady did indeed ask around. But!—the description she gave them was verbal and fairly general. Why didn’t she show them the very detailed photograph she keeps with her in her purse?”
Tom did not respond for a long moment. “Thanks, Bashalli, for your ‘research.’ And thank San for me too, won’t you? Now—bye!”
He clicked off the phone.
As Tom sat back down at the table, Bud studied the shadows on his pal’s face. “What was it, Tom?”
The crewcut young inventor turned his blue eyes toward Elsa Wyvern. “Elsa, you know we’ve been working hard to find your Dad.”
“I just received a, a report on some things that have come up and—and I― ”
“Please, Tom, what’s wrong? You’re frightening me!”
He summarized the several facts he had been given, trying not to sound accusatory, and not specifying the source.
Elsa wiped her eyes as Bud looked on in amazement. “I understand your needing to clear all these things up. Everything is so mysterious and confused. But there’s a simple explanation for all of it.”
“I’m glad, Elsa.”
“Some years ago Dad worked on a big research project with several others, professors associated with a major university. He made something of a breakthrough, but was denied public credit. In a word, they used their positions to steal his work.”
Tom nodded. “I know things like that happen.”
“And that’s why Dad’s conducted his researches secretly. He maintains his medical practice as― ”
“As a cover,” Bud concluded.
“I suppose. He does see patients. But he’s been very careful not to publicize his work prematurely. At least,” she noted wryly, “that’s what he’s told me. If you think he’s been lying to me, what can I say?”
“No one’s calling him a liar,” Tom reassured her.
“And I surely did file a missing person’s report, Tom, and I have called them about the case repeatedly. But I—I didn’t want to tell you what they said yesterday, because you were coming here and... Well, they said they were ‘deprioritizing’ the file, as no one had turned up any evidence of kidnapping or foul play. They haven’t exactly tossed it in the trash can, but― ”
“I understand,” said the scientist-inventor. “Some kind of bureaucratic thing. Now that I think of it, they probably have some policy limiting the release of information to casual inquirers. Our investigator may have mis-heard some of the details of what was said. Right now, of course, the department is overwhelmed.”
Elsa smiled. “Feel free to call them yourself. Now that we’ve found that music box, they’ll just about have to take things seriously. But as to the photo business, I don’t see why that matters.”
“Well, you said you’d shown the hotel people the picture,” Bud began.
Tom cut him off. “No—she didn’t, pal. I think Elsa just mentioned describing her father.”
The girl nodded. “And that’s just what I did. I told them what he looks like. Maybe I should have shown them the photo, but I had already checked in and it was in my suitcase up in my room. I was feeling a little frantic. It was only when I left for the conference the next day that I remembered to put the photo in my purse, to show you. Do you see?”
“I do, and I’m embarrassed,” replied Tom. “I didn’t mean to sound as if you were under suspicion or something. I’m afraid our investigators get carried away at times.”
“Yeah,” Bud put in, “some of these guys are as bad as teenage girls with their ‘theories’.” His tone and sly glance let Tom know that Bud suspected that Bash and Sandy were the mystery source of the revelations.
Said Tom wryly, “We should fire them.”
They drove Elsa back to her hotel, letting her off with a sober promise that Enterprises would do everything possible to help her find her father.
As Bud jetted them eastward into a lengthening day, he gave his chum a curious look. “Do you have any doubts about Elsa, Tom?”
The young inventor shrugged. “Since I started up inventing I guess I’ve learned to have doubts about just about everything. We’ve sure found out how much people lie—and how well they do it. But as far as Elsa goes... I’m more inclined to wonder just how much she knew of her father’s activities over these last few years.”
“You’re thinking he might have made a few bad choices of friend?”
“Could be. And yet, why the charade? Why arrange to meet his daughter and then disappear?”
“Whatever was cooking must have started weeks ahead of time,” Bud pointed out. “Remember, he cancelled the hotel reservation.”
“Yep—if he’s really the one who cancelled it.”
It was late afternoon in Shopton when Bud brought the jet down to an expert landing. After speaking with Harlan Ames and asking him to confirm that the Denver authorities had an open file on the disappearance of Dr. Wyvern, Tom sought out Arv Hanson and Linda Ming in their workshop.
Arv gestured proudly toward several tangles of electronics on one of the assembly counters. “All your silencer test components are ready and waiting, Skipper. Linda, and Hank Sterling, really knocked themselves out. Me, I played video games.”
Tom chuckled. “Sounds like a good way to keep sharp!”
“And speaking of sounds,” Linda spoke up, “maybe you could explain to me this ‘new approach’ we’re supposed to be prototyping. What we’ve been building doesn’t sound much like your sonex system.”
“It still uses the wave-cancellation principle, but I’ve worked it differently, so as to eliminate the need for those two free-standing emitters.” He added, “In fact, I’m giving this Mark II version a new name. I’m calling it a silentenna.”
“A ‘silencing antenna’,” nodded Arv. “Sure beats anti-inverse-square-wave generator!” This was a key component of Tom’s megascope space prober.
“Easier on the jaw!”
Tom proceeded to describe his new approach to the sound-nullification challenge. The compact main unit of the silentenna would continue to use the electronic scanning technique to map out the details of the sonic wavefronts throughout the local region. It would then generate a small “bubble” around itself, the same sort of nanofilament barrier as the sonex system had utilized. “But in the Mark II version, we’re no longer creating a standing wall. Instead the spherical barrier will expand out through the affected space and then contract again, back and forth at a variable rate of about 200 cycles per second.”
“So it’ll be passing through the sound waves, instead of the sound waves passing through it,” summarized Linda with a nod.
“She’s stealing my lines,” gibed Arv.
“You could put it that way, Lin,” the youth agreed. “But as before, the moving barrier will reproduce the on-the-spot ‘sonic hologram’ of the sound-complex as it exists at that exact point in space, in the form of a negative, a reversed wave pattern.”
“And there’s your bubble of silence,” Arv observed. “How big a region can the silentenna handle?”
“That’s pretty much a matter of detail,” was the reply. “The model I have in mind will have an effective radius of about 100 feet, maybe further.” He noted that as the radius increased, the expansion-contraction rate would also have to increase and the machine would require more power. “But the solar battery should be plenty sufficient—unless we plan to hush-down a whole political convention.”
Linda smiled. “There’s an idea.”
The afternoon’s tests of the new system were encouraging, and Tom promised to send Arv and Linda his more completed plans for the device the following morning.
As he strolled home from Enterprises at supper time, a relaxed and mind-clearing stroll whenever he wasn’t threatened or kidnapped along the short route, Harlan Ames interrupted his thoughts with a cellphone bleep. “Boss, I think I’d better make you aware of something that’s starting to feel like a problem.”
Tom sighed. “Well, I guess we can always use a few more problems.”
“You asked me to follow up on the business about the Denver authorities having a file on Dr. Wyvern. I’ve now called them several times.”
Tom’s heart sank. Was the security chief about to tell him that Elsa Wyvern was not to be trusted after all? “Is there a difficulty, Harlan?”
“There sure was for me, and it might be more than that. I’ve been given the runaround—several levels of runaround. Lots of talk about policies and procedures, ample quotes from rule books. So I applied my years of accumulated persuasive skill, Tom. I think I charmed a few secretaries and desk-bound types. But I couldn’t get anywhere. No one would tell me outright if they’d even heard of John Wyvern.”
“Maybe they’re sticking to the rules pretty tightly right now, since they’re dealing with a media frenzy. But since we found that music box clue― ”
“Oh, I thought of that,” declared Ames. “I called the federal investigative team, the ones you turned it over to in Denver. ‘Of course we’re not yet authorized to make any comment to the public.’ More stonewalling!
“Finally I thought to try calling Martin Frome and his group, since they’re supposedly riding herd on the whole sonic-threat angle, and finding the music box in the rubble obviously has relevance. Repeated calls—more walls!
“Tom, something’s happened. The word’s gone out from somebody, somewhere, in some office. For some reason, the authorities no longer trust Swift Enterprises!”
“IF THAT’S what’s going on,” Tom exclaimed in blunt anger, “it’s me they’ve decided not to trust! But why? These guys came to us asking for our help!”
“I know that,” said Ames. “Look, I’m running on hunches and intuition—maybe there’s nothing more involved than official inertia and a few mislaid memos.”
“I’m not willing to jump at the idea that Elsa’s deliberately misleading us.”
“There’s no reason to, Tom. I’ll keep working my contacts; so will Phil Radnor. But we all have to remember that everyone’s caught up in an immediate national crisis that everyone’s afraid of—and no one understands.”
Tom brooded over the whole affair as he continued on his way, thinking with such intensity that he was startled to find himself at the driveway gate to the Swift home.
He discussed the matter with his parents over dinner—anger and resentment all around, but no solutions.
“So where’s Sandy tonight?” Tom asked as supper ended.
“Oh,” said his mother with a careful and calculated vagueness, “something with Bashalli. Off in town.”
“Good idea,” commented Tom dryly.
That evening Tom sought answers on his own. After a failed attempt to contact a group of deep-cover security operatives who had assisted him on several occasions, called Collections, he called a number he had been keeping in a drawer for some time—a number he preferred not to use.
“Well! Hello there, Tom Swift!”
“I’m sorry to bother you at home, Dr. Carne.”
“Oriella, please. We’re old friends, you know.”
Dr. Oriella Carne, adviser to the President of the United States, had been a key player in the complex matters of politics that Tom had become enmeshed in while using his electronic hydrolung to find a space probe lost in the depths of the Atlantic. She was not the sort of personality Tom enjoyed dealing with. Sometimes she was coy and guarded in the manner of a politician, sometimes frank to the point of rudeness. She had a talent for manipulation, and for protecting her personal interests as well as those of her mighty employer.
But her employer had let her go. “I’m in temporary retirement, Tom. I’m sure you know that. If you want access to higher circles, my key has been taken away.”
“I recognize that, ma’am,” responded the youth. “I don’t know if you can help me at all. Then again—we are ‘old friends’.”
“I love sarcasm in young people. So—what?”
Tom had the intuition that Dr. Carne already knew what far better than he did. But he summarized the matter, the strange, sudden blockade between Enterprises and officialdom. “I don’t know what it means—or if it means anything. But if I’m supposed to drop the whole idea of using my silencer as a defense against the sonic attacks, I’d like to know it. But I won’t back down on trying to help Elsa Wyvern discover what happened to her father!”
“No, of course. You never back down. People like you are just so awfully admirable. Are you thinking that someone in our own government might know what happened to Dr. Wyvern?”
Tom was startled by the idea! “Do you—do you think that might be it?”
“Mmm, if it is, the plot hasn’t turned into gossip yet. But as to the stonewalling business... ‘of course I shouldn’t tell you this,’ as we always say. But off the record― ”
“I’d be grateful, Oriella.”
“You’re under what the President’s speechwriters call a dark stormcloud of suspicion.”
Tom’s mouth tightened. “Why?”
“Well now, Tom, I think it’s all a case of idiotic conclusion-jumping, with a bit of elbow-throwing as well,” Carne said with an unseen but audible smile of condescension. “You see, Frome and the task force boys—I think they’re all boys—recovered some electronics from the tower wreckage. I gather they think it’s connected to whatever caused the sound-blasts.”
“How does that relate to me?”
“Because they pulled some partial prints which they’ve matched to a certain young inventor with deep-set blue eyes.”
“Not good for trust-building. Sudden alarm. Could Swift technology be behind all this? Has Tom Swift gone psycho, or sold out to terrorists for money? We both know of a few scientists who’ve reclassified themselves into the mad category. So—‘rumor has it’—they’ve used their toys to keep watch on you. Ah!—here’s Tom going back to Denver, rooting around in the ruins like he’s trying to make off with evidence that might prove embarrassing. With a mechanical bloodhound to lead him to it, no less.”
Tom didn’t trust himself to respond. Oriella Carne waited patiently.
“All that I’ve done—all that Enterprises has done—and they don’t hesitate for a second to make a snap judgment. They did the same thing to my great-grandfather.”
“Time doesn’t pass, Tom, it just stumbles around. Nothing’s really new. Take a look at Machiavelli some day. By the way, if you start in on them about old family resentments, they’ll classify you as a revenge-seeking mad scientist. Also by the way: if they ask you where this stuff came from—just wink.”
After the call ended, Tom and his father talked into the night. “Once again, we have to prove ourselves,” concluded Damon Swift.
Tom nodded bitterly. “And lives are at stake. All I can do is keep working on the silentenna.”
By the middle of the next day, the new prototype of the Mark II sound-nullifier had been finished. Tom—quiet and grim—ran through a series of tests with Hank Sterling, using a powerful, adjustable source of sound. “It works,” said the young inventor.
“Even with the sort of complex harmonics those cellphones seemed to be picking up at the scene,” noted Hank. “Now it’s pretty much a question of overall power.” Hearing Chow approaching in the hallway with his lunch cart, the engineer grinned. “Hey, how about a test in real-time—on a foghorn?”
Tom was listless, but his shrug amounted to a nod. “Why not?”
As Chow entered, he found a pair of serious faces. “Hey, you two, sumpin’ wrong? Looks like you swallered a couple steers horn-end first.”
“We have something to tell you,” Hank said. “Now don’t take this personally.”
“Take what? What’s goin’ on?”
“It’s just this, Chow,” continued Hank. “We’re having a little dinner next week for some important scientific—er, dignitaries, and we― ”
“Aw, izzat all? Don’t need a lot o’ warnin’ to cook up a right nice― ”
Hank held up a hand. “But that’s the thing. We think—just this time—we’d like you to leave the work to Boris.”
Chow eyes bulged like two whooping bullfrogs. “B-b-b― ”
“He’s a trained professional, Chow,” Tom put in. “You yourself picked him as your number two man. We think he has the special expertise in certain foreign dishes that we’ll want.”
Added Hank, already starting to wince, “Just take a couple days off. Relax—old-timer.”
Tom threw a switch just in time. He did his best not to read Chow’s lips, which had gone into furious motion. But though the red of the ex-range cook’s face filled the big lab, his words did not. Instead, dead silence. With a good deal of gesticulation.
Finally Chow ran down like Dr. Wyvern’s music box. He felt his mouth, and poked fingers into his ears. Tom made a slight movement and said calmly, “You’re taking this real well, pardner. We were afraid you’d be upset.” He poised his finger over a button.
But if Chow hadn’t heard a sound, he had seen the light. “Okay, okay. Big joke, you pokes. Wouldna fooled me, ’cept Barclay ain’t around this time—caught me off’n my guard. So I guess this is that new muffler contraption you said you ’as workin’ on.”
Hank was laughing, but Tom only smiled. “That’s right. Don’t take offense—as a perfect test subject, you’re the most important guy in the room.”
“Wa-aaal... ye-ahh.” Though not entirely mollified, Chow raised a sagebrush eyebrow in agreement. Then he approached the object on Tom’s workbench to give it a Texas eyeing.
The sonic silentenna was box shaped, about the size of a large packing crate, composed throughout of some hard gleaming substance that was as transparent as glass—evidently a solid block. Behind the oval depressions centered on its four sides Chow could make out the complex twists and turns of the block’s embedded electronics. A short, curving column rose from the middle of the top face of the chassis, supporting a wide, thick disk-shaped component with a slot running around its outer edge. This portion was metal, shiny as polished chrome and set horizontally, like the head of a wide, low mushroom.
Chow had another analogy. “Some kinda silver birdbath, looks like t’ me. And that there’s what shet me up?”
“Like a cork in a bottle,” confirmed Hank. “Or maybe a wide-necked jug.”
“Yew might well leave th’ jokes to Buddy Boy. So why’s the thing made outta glass, Tom?”
“It’s not glass,” replied the youth, “but a special formulation of the Tomaquartz material we manufacture, with piezo-electric properties.”
“I expect you know I’m gonna get that’n confused with pizza, so let’s jest lasso ’er down.”
Tom grinned openly at last. “Okay. What I mean is, the crystal structures in the Tomaquartz respond to mechanical pressure by producing electricity, very tiny microcurrents. You see, the silentenna projects an invisible ‘net’ that sort’ve sweeps-up the sound waves as it fluctuates back and forth through the room.”
“Shor—thet there’s what gets rid o’ the sound an’ makes it nice an’ quiet.”
“Yes,” Tom nodded. “It counteracts the mechanical effects of the vibrations, which is what the eardrum registers as sound. But energy can’t be destroyed outright, pardner, only changed into another form. In this case, the sound energy is absorbed into the moving shell of the ‘bubble’ in the form of heat. Some of this waste heat is then radiated away. It warms things up a little on the outside, but the main problem is that it also transfers heat to the chassis of the machine, where it builds up. In canceling noise as power-packed as we’re dealing with in the sonic attacks, or in sonic booms, the heat energy would be too much for the silentenna to handle.”
“Ohh-kay then,” Chow pronounced dubiously. “So why did yew make it outta that glass pizza-quartz? So’s y’kin see it melt?”
“Because the material efficiently conducts that waste heat, and the piezo-electric effect transforms it into electricity, which can be safely stored.”
Hank picked up the description. “The ‘birdbath’ assembly on top is the ‘soundwave radar’ that tells the machine about the wave patterns moving through the air, so it can inscribe reverse patterns on the damper shell. It also produces and emits the Inertite nanofilaments, and the scanning-flux that move them back and forth.”
“Yew say inner tight?—Oh yeah, I remember.” Chow shrugged. “Mighty fine work, boys. Like they say, don’t expect it’ll ever r’place a good pony, though.”
As Chow was leaving after setting out lunch, Bud Barclay came sauntering in. Innocent and in Chow’s favor, he was rewarded with a sandwich.
“Sorry I missed out on some Chow comedy,” he chuckled as the door shut. “Is the jet test still on, Skipper?”
“If you are.”
“Always. I’ve been foolin’ around in that new parasuit so much lately I’m itching to actually wear it in a real cockpit.”
The young flier stared with keen interest at the crystalline box and its chrome “birdbath” topper. “So this is your new silentenna gear,” said Bud. “And it works?”
“Sure does,” Hank replied. “Even made Chow Winkler quiet as a mouse.”
Bud retorted, “Quieter than a Texas mouse? I’m blown away!”
Tom had already briefed Bud, earlier in the day, on the general operating principles of his new invention. Now the athletic youth was to take to the air in a small jet with supersonic capacity, to explore the limits of the silentenna in dealing with the complex, powerful vibrations produced in high-velocity air travel—including the piercing of the sound barrier. “Your sonic boom trap idea,” Bud remarked.
“The test is about more than that, flyboy,” Tom cautioned him. “If the silentenna’s going to function as any kind of practical counterweapon, it’ll need to get to where the Screaming Meemies are at a moment’s notice—and I mean fast! I’m going to recommend, assuming anyone cares to take my call, that the government keep a whole fleet of jets constantly on patrol for the immediate future all across the country, each one equipped with a silentenna.”
“And when they get the signal, you just have ’em buzz the critters, right? Over and over till they give up? But you’ve got to be sure it’ll work right ‘on the zoom’.”
“If it doesn’t, we may be in for some sleepless nights of redesign work.”
Hank added a sobering note. “For all we know, we may not even have one night. The next sonic attack could happen anytime.”
It was two o’clock when the designated plane was wheeled out of the hangar where Hank Sterling and a mechanic had been installing the silentenna model. The craft was a small, twin-engined jet of advanced design, built by the Swift Construction Company for the discerning business commuter with too little time on his hands and the stomach for multi-Mach travel.
Tom was watching from the airfield control tower with his father and the regular tower crew. “The machine’s bolted down in the hold, Dad,” he explained.
“I suppose you’ll have to extend it out into the air, won’t you?”
“Yes, at least for fullest efficiency. Bud will slide it out into the airstream beneath the fuselage in a cradle-frame, on pistons, for experimenting with its effect on the basic engine sounds and wake vibes. Later, after he achieves full acceleration and a high enough altitude, he can retract the device closer to the fuselage for supersonic testing.”
Damon Swift nodded. “A bit of sonic-booming, hmm?”
“Over Lake Carlopa.”
Bud climbed aboard and soon the jet was roaring down the runway. Once airborne, he zoomed steeply and extended the silentenna’s cradle-frame out of its berth, feeling the vibration as it cut into the airstream. Good thing Tom made that block of solid crystal, he thought.
As a landmark for the initial point of his dive, Bud had picked a wooded peak next to the town of Mansburg, some miles from Shopton. By the time it lay directly below him, his altimeter read 80,000 feet.
Bud banked into a turn and lined up on the distant fleck of the Enterprises airfield. Just beyond it, Lake Carlopa looked like a long puddle of reflected sun and sky.
“Ready to begin descent!” Bud radioed.
“Understood. Proceed with your dive.” Watching the control radar, Tom and his father listened for the growl of the jet through a window that they had slitted open.
The jet streaked closer, and the familiar sound rumbled across the sky. “Okay, Bud—cut ’er in,” Tom directed.
Instantly the jet-roar was wiped away!
As Tom murmured a cheer of pleasure, Mr. Swift squeezed his son’s shoulder warmly.
After several passes, it was time for the supersonic test—the big boom. Doubling back from the high horizon with the lake in his instrument crosshairs, Bud moved the stick forward. The nose dropped and the ship tilted smoothly into its dive. In a moment it was plunging toward its target.
Bud’s gray eyes flicked back and forth, from the terrain below to the Machmeter on his instrument panel. Its needle rose steadily as the jet gathered speed. 0.5... 0.7... 0.9...
At 19,500 feet the plane passed Mach I, sending a train of shock waves down toward the lake and the Enterprises installation. The observers heard a low, muffled explosion roll over the field like a faint peal of thunder.
Tom clenched his fist in disappointment. The silentenna had failed its major test! Although the sonic boom was much reduced, his invention was far from completely effective. “So much for the plan to confront the attackers with high-speed flybys,” he said. “It’s not strong enough to handle a real power situation.”
Far above, Bud had already hauled back on the stick to pull out of his dive. To his horror, the plane’s nose refused to come up!
Bud put all the strength of his muscled arms into his effort to overpower the stick. Servo-emulating its effect on the trim and flaps, it moved back slightly, but still not enough to recover. The plane was definitely nose-heavy!
Instinctively he thumbed the electrical trim-control button to set the floating stabilizer for noseup. Still no response!
“The trim control must have conked out!” Bud realized.
Beads of sweat began to trickle down his face. Second by second, the ship was plummeting closer to a highspeed gouge into the lake!
Desperately Bud tugged at the manual standby. The tabs seemed to be frozen rigid—the plane’s nose was like lead.
“Tom!” he grated into his mike. “It’s not recovering! I’m going to crash!”
A SLIP OF PAPER
BUD’S frantic call struck fear into Tom. The occupants of the tower had already observed that the jet was not pulling out of the dive.
“Have you tried the trim control?” Tom radioed.
Aboard the jet, Bud’s face was white as he watched the altimeter reading drop backward. 11,000... 10,000... 9,000... The jet was plunging like a thunderbolt!
In the tower Tom racked his brain in desperation. An ejection bailout was still possible, but the margin of safety was narrowing and the extreme measure was unavoidably hazardous to the pilot—not to mention the havoc the abandoned jet might wreak on homes or buildings if its uncontrolled crash-course overshot the lake.
Tom seized the microphone. “Bud, jettison the silentenna!”
“Fire the CO2 cartridge for emergency lowering of the extension gear in case it jams,” Tom ordered. Continuing half to himself, “With the gear already in the extended position, that may pack enough wallop to kick it loose! The slipstream will do the rest.”
Bud obeyed with trembling fingers. The altimeter indicator was passing the 6,000-foot mark. As he fired the cartridge, the silentenna cradle wrenched loose from its mounting.
An instant later Bud felt a sudden response as the nose lightened! The gleaming silentenna plunged free toward Lake Carlopa.
The young pilot’s heart leapt. The plane was recovering. A massive force of seven G’s plastered him to his seat as he eased back on the stick. The pullout was changing his face to a skull-like mask. He could feel a dizzying “gray-out.”
Suddenly the ship was seized by violent vibrations! Bud was pounded to and fro in his seat as if by a thousand trip-hammers.
“I’m approaching an accelerated stall!” he gasped over his mike. “I pulled out too fast!”
With expert piloting he regained a measure of control over the jetcraft, slowing it greatly and flattening it out. It bought a few moments, but wasn’t enough. “Enterprises, I can’t—she’s going down.”
Tom had already envisioned the desperate next step. “Bud—eject-delta. Ditch the jet.”
One of the traffic controllers in the tower, new on the job, looked stunned. He turned to his supervisor, seated next to him. “Nick? Is Barclay really gonna eject? Man, he’s so low now his chute wouldn’t have a chance to― ”
Nick shook his head tensely. “No chute.”
“So he’s gonna, what, bellyflop into the lake?”
“C’mon. The kid’s got a parasuit on him.”
The parasuit was a Tom Swift invention, a protective garment for fliers rigged to allow them to glide to safety, in the manner of a human flying squirrel, after an emergency-eject. It had been thoroughly tested, and Bud understood its operation. Now it would be wrung-out by crisis, a life bet upon it!
Bud followed procedures. He did what he could to ensure that the plane would come down with mechanical conviction and finality, not skitter away dangerously across Lake Carlopa. Then he flipped open a protective panel and grasped a hand-grip. With a gulp and a tensing of his muscles, he yanked it back.
The foremost section of the cockpit enclosure blew off, and Bud Barclay blew up, propelled by a fine-tuned fuselage repelatron into the knife of the slipstream. He winced at the shock as large flaps slammed against the air, opening up between his sides and his sleeves, and between his legs, spread wide by struts that had suddenly turned rigid. His suit itself was now his parachute, a chute with glider capabilities.
The vibration and shock of deceleration was like a massive body-block. Jetz! People do this stuff for fun! he gasped inwardly.
His limbs felt heavy as lead from the violently abrupt slowdown. Then, almost before his next thought, his lower body was setting up a spray as his speeding form slashed into the calm lake. Bud sucked in his breath with a gasp of relief—cut short as he watched the jet slap the water a couple hundred feet ahead of him and thunderously duck beneath the surface.
In the control tower, Nick reported, “Radar shows the jet down, Tom—Barclay too.”
There was a tense radio silence, but only for one long moment. “M-man! Tom—Enterprises—one wet pilot in Lake Carlopa.”
“Nice going, fish-boy!” Tom radioed in tremulous relief. “The inflators out?”
“All the pods popped up as they touched water. I’m just bobbin’ around and enjoying the sun.”
“A Workchopper’s on the way to snag you out, chum,” Tom assured him.
Bud was back at Enterprises within minutes and was rushed to the plant infirmary. Meanwhile Mr. Swift had arranged for the Swift Construction Company facility, closer to the lakeshore and the point of splashdown, to send out retrieval teams to recover both the jet wreckage and the ditched silentenna.
By the time the silentenna had been ferried to Enterprises, Bud, free of injury, had joined Tom and Mr. Swift in the administrative office. “Just a few bruises,” the black-haired youth announced. “But I’m glad what I hear happened to your gadget didn’t happen to my head, genius boy.” The strong crystal block that was the main chassis of Tom’s invention was unaffected by its plunge, but the emitter-disk had snapped off its support column.
“You handled like a pro.”
“You take the bow, pal—it would’ve been curtains for me if you hadn’t told me to dump the silentenna!” Bud said. “Had to nose-up and decel. No way I could’ve survived an eject at super-Mach, even with your parasuit.” With a wrinkled brow he added gloomily, “Too bad about the machine, though.”
“Forget that,” Tom replied. “My invention didn’t really silence the boom.”
Beneath forced calm Bud was still white and shaken. “The trim definitely malfunctioned,” he reported.
“Something about the silentenna’s operation made the fore-wake go chaotic up there right after you broke the boom,” Tom said tersely. “Ditching it cut off that aspect of the prob, but the turbulence had already fouled the servos, I guess.”
“Your silentenna, as it now stands, couldn’t counter an all-out sonic attack,” said Tom’s father, “not in a rapid-response situation.”
Bud clapped a reassuring hand on his friend’s back. “Tom’ll work it out.”
The next hour reminded them that the crisis wasn’t going to pause to let Tom work. “South Bend, Indiana!” exclaimed stocky Phil Radnor, bursting into Tom’s office. “Emergency bulletins all over the news!”
“What are they saying, Rad?” Tom asked.
“Like the other times—noise, flying gizmos swarming around a structure—sports arena this time—lots of damage and panic.”
Mr. Swift asked if there were any reports that the sonic weapons had been detected on radar during their approach. “Apparently they weren’t. They came in too low, below the skyline. Visual reports seem to be saying they converged from all directions.”
“Maybe now we’ll hear something from Frome and Ahlgren,” Tom muttered.
Tom’s prediction came to pass quickly. Bernt Ahlgren suddenly came knocking on the Enterprises videophone system. He no longer evinced his irritatingly jocular attitude and snide asides. “The White House is afraid of a national panic,” he said stonily. “That’s enough of a problem in itself, but the real danger is that the confusion could tempt a foreign enemy to launch some kind of mass attack with something a little more destructive than noise. For all we know, that could be the real objective back of all this.”
“Have you received any kind of communication yet, from the attackers?” asked Tom. “If you care to tell me.”
“I know what’s on your mind, Tom. I’m sure you’ve doped out― ”
“Loss of trust is the phrase.”
“We had something to investigate. And now that investigation is complete. There’s excellent reason to think someone was trying to implicate you, kid—a frameup with planted evidence. The attackers may have selected Denver for their first strike for the precise reason that your presence in the city could be used against you.”
“And it worked, didn’t it. Am I cleared, Mr. Ahlgren? Or just worth the risk?”
“Forget semantics and bruised feelings, Tom. As to your last important question, the answer is No. No communication, no credible credit-taking by the usual groups. We have no idea of who or why. We just need to find a way to stop the next one.”
Tom described the result of his silentenna test. “The bottom line is that the invention works. It could probably nullify the sonic attacks, in principle.”
“But not on the fly, hmm? You’ll have to know where to expect the attack, so you’ll be ready to roll out at the first screech.”
“That’s right. I’m beginning to think the system won’t work cleanly enough unless the device is relatively stable, not bobbing around on a jet.”
“Some sort of helicraft, then? A fleet of your company’s jetrocopters?”
Tom snorted. “Swift Enterprises doesn’t exactly have a fleet, sir. But as soon as I study the readings on today’s test, we can start turning out silentennas for installation on what’s available.”
“Go to it, partner.”
“I intend to.”
Ultimately the young inventor decided that he lacked the luxury of sufficient time to discover why the silentenna performed poorly at jet speed. Instead, he concentrated on working with Enterprises personnel on installing duplicate machines, along with the extender system, on the five jetrocopters—advanced jet-assisted helicraft—then available.
“Put one on the Sky Queen’s hangar deck as well,” Tom directed the plant’s Chief Assembly Engineer, Art Wiltessa. “We can’t go darting around between city buildings in the Flying Lab, but― ”
“But who knows what’s coming up.”
“Or when,” added Tom grimly. He was very aware that the incidents had been separated by only a few days.
That night Sandy handed her brother the telephone with a certain impenetrable look on her face. “It’s Elsa,” she said. “For you.”
Elsa Wyvern’s voice came in a rush of excitement. “Tom, I have news!”
“About your dad?”
She explained that she had retained the slip of paper that had accompanied the music box. “Maybe I was wrong, but—oh, it was in Dad’s handwriting, and― ”
“I know, Elsa.”
“This afternoon I took it out of my wallet, just to look at it; then I set it down on the dresser for a time, in the sun. When I remembered that I needed to put it away—Tom, there was more writing on it!”
The young inventor raised an eyebrow. “You mean writing we didn’t see?”
“I think the sunlight must have brought it out—it was on the reverse side from the message, and it’s very faint, just scratched out. He must’ve written it in a hurry, maybe while he was in the car.”
“But you can read it?”
“Yes, just barely. ‘aussi— ayers— outback— delperta— prisoner’.” She spelled the words to Tom. “It’s something to do with Australia, isn’t it?”
“I’m sure it is!” Tom declared. “The word ayers could mean the Ayers Rock, a major landmark, and the Aussies call the desert region the Outback.”
“Could Delperta be a town? Maybe that’s where he’s being held captive!”
She continued hesitantly, as if summoning the courage to ask a question whose answer might dash her hopes. “Tom... you’ve done so much for us already, but—could you use your Rover machine to track down where he’s being held? Would it even be possible, over all that open space?”
The youth paused before answering, trying to make certain he wouldn’t be raising vain hopes.
“I think it’s possible, especially if we have a few leads to narrow down the scope of the search. Look—I’ll ask our security chief to put me in touch with whoever’s in the area that might help us. If things look promising, you can bet I’ll fly down there first thing!”
“With me, Tom.”
But as he hung up, Tom wondered if he had made too rash a promise. “But if I hold off and let the trail go cold, they could kill Dr. Wyvern!” he warned himself.
How could he help his friend and her father—when any moment could bring news of a new terror attack against his country?
INTO THE OUTBACK
TOM SWIFT sat behind his office desk, voice grim and intent. “This morning Harlan told me that he’d been in touch with a sergeant in the Territorial Police in Australia who’s stationed in the town of Alice Springs. He recognized the name Delperta, the word in the message Wyvern wrote, from the alert Interpol sent out. There’s a cattle ranch owned by two brothers with that name in the Northern Territory, right in the center of Australia not far from Ayers Rock.”
Arvid Hanson stood facing his young boss and friend. “And the message said Ayers too, didn’t it,” he observed.
Veteran Enterprises pilot Slim Davis, who had been briefed on the developments, nodded at Tom. “You’re asking Hanson and Davis to play detectives-for-hire down under. Right?”
“Representing Tom Swift Enterprises,” stated Tom’s father, seated at his own desk.
“Tom Swift Enterprises—and Tom Swift,” his son added. “Guys, we’re not asking you to do anything more than get down there and meet with this Sgt. Kincaid, and see if the sensitector can pick up anything that might justify someone knocking on the Delpertas’ door. I promised Elsa I’d do what I can, but I can’t break away right now, not with the sonic attackers out there and my nullifier the only counterweapon in sight. So I’m turning to two of the most resourceful people I know.”
Hanson snorted. “We gonna give in to this flattery, Davis?”
“I need to keep the Sky Queen available here, so you’ll be piloting the cycloplane, Slim. You’re as much an expert at it as I am. We can’t use the SwiftStorm for sonic defense—the output from the ultrasonic generators would make the silentenna unusable.”
“But she’s a good choice for speed and versatility,” declared Slim approvingly. “Didn’t do so bad down in New Guinea, hmm? Maybe not in the same league with your atomicar for near-ground maneuvering, but― ”
Arv put in, “She’ll get us around just fine, and there’s plenty room for the sensitector.”
Tom’s ultrasonic cycloplane used rotating cylinders to maintain flight in place of conventional wings and allowed the jetcraft to hover and to descend vertically. Capable of multi-Mach flight, it was large enough to carry a crew of four, but far too small to accommodate Tom’s slower-moving, atom-driven auto.
“Just us and Rover, then?” Arv inquired. “Brains and beauty?”
Tom smiled. “I’d suggest taking Linda’s brother along too. Not that you’re likely to need any Chinese translations, but he’s between projects at the moment and he’s a pretty handy guy. Likes adventure, too.” Felix Ming was an amiable Chinese-American engineer employed in the Enterprises aircraft development division. He had become friendly with Tom and Bud when the boys had confronted a ruthless international criminal of Chinese descent.
“Mm-hmm. I gather you want a certified level-headed type along with us wild men,” Slim Davis grinned. “Bet you’ve already asked him.”
“This morning. He’s probably waiting at the plane!”
The sleek, compact SwiftStorm was on its supersonic way by noon, Rover Boy battened down in the storage hold behind the cockpit. As they roared across the continent south of west, Felix remarked, “Boy oh boy, you really see the world working for Enterprises. My venerable ancestors look down in amazement.”
“I think a few of my ancestors are looking up,” cracked Slim at the control board.
“I have read of the social life in Australia,” Felix continued. “I’ve read of the social life everywhere, as a matter of fact. This is what I regard as basic research.” The young man often made humorous complaint of his difficulties and disappointments in the departments of dating, romance, and its hoped-for consequences. “The girls of Australia are described as lovely and sport-minded.”
“Do your sources mention what sport?” Arv needled.
“No, but I plan to make use of a good search engine to find out.”
Slim laughed. “That’ll set your ancestors spinning!”
“They could surely use a good spin.”
Cruising at Mach 3, the cycloplane streaked down out of the skies over the Pacific island continent about five hours later. Passing above the Great Barrier Reef and the settled eastern State of Queensland with its snow-capped Great Dividing Range, Slim headed westward into the interior.
In the wink of an eye the country became flatter and more barren. Below them spread a harsh, vivid landscape of reddish-brown desert, rippled by long dunes and ridges, with occasional patches of gray-green scrub. Here and there stood the homestead of a remote ranch.
“Looks sort of like our own Southwest, don’t you think?” remarked Felix. “It’s great cattle county, say my extensive sources.”
“Geography and economics as well as social anthropology! You spread a wide inter net, Felix,” Arv commented slyly.
His unruffled co-passenger continued, “The people call their ranches ‘cattle stations.’ I’ve read that many of them are as big as two thousand square miles.”
Slim chuckled. “Makes those Texas spreads sound pretty dinky. Better not tell Chow Winkler.”
“Assuming you wish to keep eating.”
Presently the SwiftStorm arrowed down toward the neatly laid-out town of Alice Springs, nestled in a spur of purplish-red mountains. Under the control of its robotic brain, the cybertron, it hovered for a time on its whirling cyclocyls.
“What time is it here?” Hanson asked.
“Almost ten o’clock Wednesday morning,” was Slim’s reply. “Remember, guys, we’ve passed over the international date line.”
Felix Ming added, “It’s midwinter down under, too, but I guess we won’t notice it in this part of Australia. I’m amazed at how few people realize that the seasons are reversed below the equator.”
Arv Hanson shrugged and said, “They say geography isn’t well taught nowadays. If you had kids in school, Felix, you wouldn’t be so ‘amazed’.”
“If I had kids in school, Arv, I wouldn’t be here at all.”
Soon after the strange, sleek jetcraft touched down at the Alice Springs airport, a police car came speeding out on the field to meet them. A tall, lanky, suntanned man in a khaki uniform and broad-brimmed felt hat jumped out of the car, his face split in a friendly grin. “Hi now! Welcome to the Red Heart of Australia, Yanks! I’m Sergeant Kincaid of the Territorial Police.”
Arv Hanson introduced himself and the others. Sgt. Kincaid said he had been fully briefed on their mission to Australia by the authorities in Sydney, who had promised to cooperate with Swift Enterprises on a semi-official basis. “Bit ‘under the table,’ if you see,” winked Kincaid. “I asked the airfield tower to alert me as soon as your what-is-it plane approached.”
“Just call her the SwiftStorm, Sergeant,” Slim remarked with a smile.
After seeing to security for the cycloplane and its vital cargo, the sergeant drove the three arrivals to the police station in town. The Americans were struck by the vista of smart shops, blossoming gardens, and modern suburban tracts of what was still, even in the new millennium, a remote desert outpost. Many of the streets were lined with cedars, pepper trees, and oleanders.
“Beautiful place!” Arv exclaimed.
“Real bonza,” Kincaid agreed proudly. “Some say it’s the loveliest spot in Australia. People come here to visit and end with a good naildown for life!”
“I’d be happy to retire here,” Felix noted, “depending upon the social scene.”
“For older retirees?”
“Alas, it would appear so.”
Tourists mingled with dark-skinned stockmen in cowboy hats and tight jeans. A screeching flock of sulphur-crested cockatoos burst from a grove of orange trees as they drove past.
At the modern police station Sergeant Kincaid held his own briefing for the visitors. “An abo on walkabout reported having sighted a white man out in Kollingee Quarter—great big desert region between Ayers and Bildana Station, the Delperta spread. Fella saw ’im a couple days back, but we just got word of it this morning.”
“I know an abo is one of the native tribal people of Australia, Sergeant,” interrupted Arv, “but what’s ‘walkabout’?”
“An abo, or aborigine, is a blackfellow, heh?—one of the race that lived in Australia long, long before the white men came,” Kincaid said. “They make fine stockmen, or cowboys, and can be as citified and suburbanized as anyone these days.
“But you see, mates, many have retained their old traditions and customs—point o’ pride. About twice a year a good-lot-many of ’em dosh their townie clothes and head out into the bush, the Outback, with just a boomerang and a spear. Get in touch with the inner man. They call it ‘going walkabout.’”
“In the U.S. we call it ‘going backpacking’,” Slim put in.
“Any-heyr,” the policeman went on, “this abo sighted a white man off in the Quar who could be John Wyvern, going by description. But he acted so wild and crazed that the abo kept his distance. Worth a look, I’d think. Could’ve escaped his nabbers.”
“Is this place far away?” Felix asked.
“Rough’t-put, about two hundred fifty miles southwest of here, near Lake Amadeus, bit north of the bit’men to little Yularu.” The bitumen, Kincaid added, was the popular name for the highways of the Outback, especially the vital Stuart Highway running a thousand miles northward through the Territory from “the Alice” to Darwin on the far coast.
“And Yularu is also not far from Uluru—Ayers Rock,” observed Felix Ming.
“Yup, know your joggri, I see. Did some skyin’ this morning—patrol planes—but so far not a sign of the bloke. We think he must move about only at night. Also sent out a police tracker, horse-fella, to pick up his trail. He’s out there now. We’ll meet up and he’ll keep us company.”
Arv reminded Kincaid of the tracking device they had brought with them.
“Sure thing. But you’d best believe, my mate Ben’s a good man to keep that mekky bloodhound of yours with his nose pointed straight. It’ll be a slow business, though, and a plane won’t be much use, even a super jobby like yours. We’ll have to move at the tracker’s pace.”
“I’ve been told the sensitector can’t move much faster than that anyway, and has to keep ‘nose to the ground’,” observed Felix.
“I’ll follow up above in the cycloplane, for whenever you guys see a chance to skip on ahead,” Slim added.
“Well, fine-fet. But unless you can carry two horses and a rov—desert jeep—I don’t see much use for it, eh?” In the end they decided to leave the SwiftStorm behind at a police patrol outpost on the edge of Kollingee Quarter. From that point Kincaid and Ben would travel on horseback, leading the three Americans in the jeep to the spot where the SenTec would be deployed.
After some final arrangements Kincaid, an experienced flier as well as a horseman, climbed up into the cycloplane’s pilot compartment with Arv, Slim, and Felix. Lifting off like a balloon on the craft’s silent cyclone of ultrasonic waves, the officer first had them head to the north above the Stuart Highway. “Might well show you the sights, hey? Big beautiful Oz.” In minutes he asked Slim to slow and hover.
Kincaid pointed below to a cluster of enormous boulders on either side of the bitumen. “Now then, you tourists, there you have the Devil’s Marbles. No one knows how they got there. Or if someone does know, they hain’t about to tell and spoil a good story. The abos believed they were eggs laid by a monster snake back in ‘the dreaming’—the old days long ago.”
Kincaid told Slim to veer back south, then west. For a time they skimmed above the highway that stretched westward from The Alice to the remote town of Yularu.
Presently Slim called out, “Those buildings coming up must be your outpost station, Sergeant.”
“That they are,” said Kincaid. The cycloplane circled the area at a moderate altitude. Through binoculars, Kincaid spied a lone rider traversing the rust-colored flats some miles distant, a second horse in tow.
“There’s our tracker,” he said. “Comin’ back in.”
Slim landed nearby. The man, who wore torn, faded dungarees, rode over to the SwiftStorm and dismounted to meet the visitors. He was dark-skinned, with a wide brow and curly, grizzled hair.
“This is m’mate Ben, our tracker.” Kincaid introduced him to the Shoptonians. They noticed that the blackfellow, though spindly-legged, seemed to be wiry and strong, and stood very erect. Arv eyed his spurred boots, comparing them mentally to Chow’s. Unlike Texas-style boots, they had elastic sides and thin soles.
“G’day-ee!” said Ben pleasantly. “Good I got some warn about that plane o’ yours. Seen nothing lika.”
Kincaid asked Ben to give what information he had about the sighting. “It was my fella-mate Johnjames who told me. Known him for a bit. Works at Bildana Station, when he works. So, see now, he’s off on walka and sees a white man way-by, all burnt out, skinny, raggy, beard. For all that, what Jo’ay says is a bit-rather on the line of this Wyvern.”
“He got that close?” asked Arv in surprise.
“Got him two good squinters.”
“What chance we might look up Johnjames and show him our picture of Dr. Wyvern?” inquired Kincaid.
“Nottaway chance, Kinca. Man-fella’s off walka, t’day. Mmm heya, bet try Delperta’s next week, I wage. Luck then, meb.” Ben said the white man seemed to be travelling in a circle. “Got me some trail on ’im t’mornin’, Kinc, but weakwat now. Wind an’ days. But just p’raps this Tom Swift bloodhound machine’ll trick it.”
“Ah!” smiled Felix. “Then you know of Tom Swift.”
“Say, think I don’t watch th’ news? B’sides which, ‘Diving Seacopter’. Good readie, that. In my sidesaddies I’ve a reg travelin’ paperback library, mate.”
Hanson asked Ben if his friend had any impression of the man’s mental state. “Most sure,” he replied. “Crazed crock-potty! No hat—sun’ll do it.”
Slim and Arv flew the SwiftStorm back to the police outpost, where they transferred Rover Boy to the jeep that had been readied for them. In twenty minutes they had rejoined Felix Ming, Kincaid, and Ben. “Ben thinks the man’s wandering south,” Felix reported. “That’s where the trail seemed to be leading when it petered out, what remains of it.”
“Let’s get onna,” Ben nodded, “and let me show you th’ lay. Trail skep—where it ends, I mean—is some ways off, not too far.” He grinned. “I’ll keep reg slow for you wheela boys.”
The search party started out, on horseback and jeepback. In about half an hour, Ben, in the lead, called a halt and dismounted. “Right, here’s where I turned back. Didn’t get me s’far beyond where Johnjames made his see.”
“All right,” said Arv. “Time to turn loose the dog.” Rover Boy was set down on the ground, leaning over on his side. At a touch of the button on Arv’s Spektor the sensitector’s indicator lights came to life and the robot swung upright to balance on his monowheel.
Ben gave a slight whoop. “Whooka! Man mighty! Apt to scare th’ dingoes with this little fella-dog, hey?”
Rover Boy retained the trace-profile of Dr. Wyvern in his memory, and in seconds he began to move—in a circle. “Is he having trouble with the scent?” asked Sgt. Kincaid.
Hanson shook his head. “Not at all. This is a pre-set routine that allows him to get a ‘feel’ for which direction on the track is the ‘forward’ one. I don’t understand the math—but it works.”
Rover suddenly gave forth a bark—in the form of a beep-tone—and swiveled his monowheel decisively. The SenTec paused, giving Ben and Kincaid time to mount up and the three Americans time to clamber back into the jeep.
“Aw-right!” chortled Slim Davis. “The chase is on!”
PHANTOMS ABOVE AND
THE search party headed south, a meandering track that appeared to have far-distant Ayers Rock, poking above the horizon, as its goal. “That makes sense,” observed Felix. “It’s about the only landmark in sight.”
Hour after hour the animals, jeep, and robot-mobile plodded and whirred across the dusty, sun-brassed wasteland. From time to time Ben dismounted to study the ground for tracks and traces which were too faint for even Rover Boy to distinguish. “We Ozzies think they have a sixth sense,” remarked Kincaid with a jerk of thumb; “and they are happy to agree. After all, the abos have been down here as long as the mountains, eh?”
The sky was blue and cloudless, yet not empty. During one stop Ben stood gazing into the distance, then pointed.
“I don’t see anything,” said Arv.
“I do,” Ben declared. “And before that, I heard.”
Presently a small plane appeared. It passed over them, then undertook a sharp curve and disappeared on the eastward horizon. “Don’t like ’er, mates,” Kincaid muttered. “I do think we are being tracked ourselves, from up high. Curiosity? One might wonder.”
Shadows gathered late in the afternoon. Ben drew rein and pointed behind them. Two weird reddish columns were moving swiftly toward the riders.
“Good grief! What are those?” Slim gulped.
“Willi-willies,” said Sergeant Kincaid. “Dust devils. A kind of dust storm we get here on the Outback.”
The whirling pillars passed close by with a whooo-ing sound and a stinging spray of sand.
“Yeow! I’m glad that missed us!” cried Slim.
“Unfortunately, that’s just the sort of bad weather that scrambles the trace-tracks for the SenTec,” Arv pointed out.
At sundown the party made camp and Ben built a fire of brushwood, carefully banked. Sgt. Kincaid worked the stored supplies into a tasty supper. Then they spread their “swags,” or blanket rolls, and were soon fast asleep.
Arv Hanson awoke with a start under a night sky bright with stars like flecked light through the weave of a blanket. A din of stampeding hooves was thundering toward them out of the darkness! Someone yanked his arm.
“Look out, mates!” yelled Sergeant Kincaid. “It’s a flamin’ mob of wild brumbies!”
“Wha—?” mumbled Slim with a thick voice. “Bumblebees?” For a moment he was confused. Then, as his eyes resigned themselves to being open, he could make out in moonlit darkness the lunging forms and flying manes of horses in an onrushing herd.
“A wild-horse stampede!” Felix Ming exclaimed.
Their own two mounts, tethered to rocks, were snorting and whinnying in fright. The two Australians struggled to calm them as the three Enterprises men joined Rover Boy in the jeep.
Ben had snatched a stick from the pile of brushwood and lit it in the glowing campfire. He waved the blazing brand as Kincaid shoved shells into his rifle and fired a series of shots into the air. Frightened, the front ranks of the wild horses veered away and went cloppering off, but it was only a split in the onrushing torrent. “Still coming!” shouted Arv.
The engineer snatched up the Spektor control unit and adjusted it with shaking fingers. Rover Boy leapt to life and whirred forward toward the brumbies, his twin “eyes” burning with the laser-like gleam of his powerful searchlamps.
The searchers saw the horses rear up, and heard the sound of their hooves tearing the ground and their snorts of startled fear as the blazing, beep-ing creature charged them. Then they swerved as one and fled into the darkness after the others.
“Oh man!” Arv gulped, panting. “The Spektor has a limited range—another hundred feet and Rover would’ve reached the end of his leash.”
“Fine moves, Hanson,” said Kincaid as he lowered his rifle. “Never seen bush horses cut up like that at night before.”
“Maybe something spooked ’em,” put in Felix. “That’s an American expression which― ”
“Same with us, bloke,” Kincaid interrupted.
“Wasn’t spirits,” added Ben, expression alert, still listening. “Wasn’t no accident, hey?”
“You mean the guys in that plane?” asked Slim.
“Why’n be, fella-man? Whole banga is just a big landing field, mile-a-mile.”
The sergeant muttered, “Even easier to radio a pack of cronies down on the ground. Say, mates, we just may end up with a few more questions to toss at the Delperta boys.”
As things settled down again, Arv used the equipment in the distant cycloplane to relay him to Tom in Shopton, where it was midday.
“Thanks for the report, Arv,” said the young inventor. “Never thought of Rover being used as a border collie to herd wild horses! But it seems you fellows are in as much danger as Bud and I usually scout up.”
“What’s the latest on the sonic scene?”
Tom’s voice lost its joking quality. “The media have connected the dots, and I mean literally. The third attack puts the three of them along a straight line aimed square at Manhattan! Frome and Ahlgren are pretty frantic about getting the jetrocopters in the air with the silentennas, but there’s a dispute about whether to bet it all on New York or distribute them along the apparent route.”
“Which could just be a ruse, obviously.”
“Right. And there are only three jetros out of five left to argue about, plus the silentenna in the Sky Queen. They’ve already decided to send the first two jetros to DC and the Pentagon. We’re working to get them up within the hour, but we’ve had more difficulties than expected turning out the additional silentennas—flaws in the crystal blocks.”
“All my bets are on you, Tom.”
As Hanson clicked off his radiocom unit, the eerie howl of a wild dog split the air.
“Dingoes,” said the sergeant. “Possible that’s what set a fuse to the brumbies.”
“No,” Ben stated simply.
There were no more disturbances and at dawn the group broke camp and resumed the trail. The sandy waste was dotted with tufts of bristling spinifex grass, saltbush, and mulga scrub. Among them rose queer-looking knee-high mounds.
“Anthills,” explained Kincaid, riding along next to the jeep, “up nearer the tropics they rise eight feet tall.”
Felix Ming gave a sage nod. “Yes—‘up’. For here the tropic zone is to the north, not the south.”
“Up or down, lately I prefer to avoid the tropics,” Slim remarked dryly. “Not that the jungles of New Guinea didn’t have a quaint charm all their own.”
Ayers Rock now dominated the scene, but to their surprise it seemed the man they were following had abruptly changed direction. “It’s definite, I say,” pronounced Sgt. Kincaid. “If it was just your machine I might be doubtful, no offense to it, but Ben concurs.”
Ben nodded. “What I think, Kinca, is that he stopped—saw something off a ways toward Uluru that he didn’t like. His nabbers, meb? Doubled back a bit, then off a ways. Stumbling, maybe down and dragging sometimes. Poor fella.”
The team followed the new trail. But all they saw by high noon were a grazing herd of kangaroos and an ostrich-like emu that scampered off at their approach. “Neither I nor my ancestors can figure out what the heck the man’s doing,” grumbled Felix. “All this flat land. Why can’t we see him?”
“Don’t underestimate the effects of the heat shimmer and dust in the air,” Kincaid advised. “Even if you don’t make ’em out, they’re there and can make dead-on ground visibility a tad tricky at times. We may have to search from your SwiftStorm after all, lads.”
“Nope, no good now,” grunted Ben. “A few more nuts up on the tree.”
“Huh? What do you mean?” Arv asked.
“Others have joined in—maybe looking for him too, maybe just by happnee. But the job’s worse now whether we’re up top or down low.” The tracker pointed down at the fresh “signs” he made out in the sandy soil. “Blackfellers,” he announced.
Kincaid nodded. “Not much of a surprise. We’re not far from the government r’servee—tribal reservation area. If Wyvern had known of that from the getgo, he could’ve headed there direct.”
“Probably Chief Nabbari’s mob,” Ben added. “But he’s not s’bad. Old mate o’ mine. Wouldn’t get his tribe involved in anything doziboo.”
To the discouragement of the search party the sensitector could no longer distinguish John Wyvern from other human traces, interleaved by the winds. “Rover can tell that Nabbari’s tribe came through recently, as recently as Wyvern,” Arv pointed out; “which means they may have helped him and taken him with them. I’ll switch the trace settings on the SenTec to follow whatever’s distinctive of the group.”
“Ah, if you want,” stated Ben. “I can track on my own, but you wouldn’t want to hurt the doggy’s sensibilities, hey?”
An hour later the searchers sighted a grove of eucalyptus along the banks of a creek. Feathery smoke drifted upward.
“That’s where the abos are camped,” said the sergeant. “Must he having a corroboree.”
“What’s that?’’ said Slim.
“Sort of a song-and-dance feast.”
“Yeah?” The young pilot nodded. “Dinner theater on the Outback!”
The medicinal scent of eucalyptus from the white-trunked ghost gum trees greeted their nostrils as they approached. It mingled with the scent of cooking meat. The three Americans were startled by the jackass laugh of a kookaburra bird, perched in the tree branches.
A large number of Outback natives squatted around the campfire. They arose with dignity as the travelers came closer and the two riders dismounted. The lubras, or women, in dresses of bunched and tied cloth, clutched their babies across their hips and retired into the brush-and-earth “humpies” which had been built near the creek.
The men were half-naked, with their heads circled by snakeskin bands. Dilly bags, for their tobacco and personal possessions, hung around their necks. The adults were bearded and had tribal scars on their shoulders and chests.
A gray-haired elder faced the policeman. Kincaid said to him, “Day-ee, Nabbari. You know why we come here?”
Nabbari made no response, but looked first at Rover Boy, then at Ben, who made a hand-sign and spoke a few words in the language of the tribe. As the chief shrugged, the sergeant went on, “We are looking for a lost white fellow. You have seen him?’’
Nabbari exchanged darting, uneasy looks with his comrades. “Nothing to tell you on that.”
“He has been close to your camp. Your trails crossed up further.”
Nabbari avoided the sergeant’s accusing gaze. Kincaid muttered, “Ah well,” and took some plugs of tobacco from his pocket and handed them out. Then he got a sack of flour and a sack of sugar from the pack horse. The aborigines eyed them with reserved interest.
“Now, perhaps? A lost white fellow, eh?”
Nabbari seemed to be getting more and more nervous. “For the gifts, thank-tassa you. But I have nothing to tell you.”
Kincaid’s eyes hardened. “Then no more tucker for Nabbari!” he snapped, and put away the sacks.
The chief glared stonily. Arv touched Ben and said quietly, “Tell him we don’t mean to insult him or intrude upon their ceremony. We just want to find this man, who is our friend.”
Ben and Nabbari began to exchange words, and the words evolved into a heated conversation. The chief finally broke it off, turning to Sgt. Kincaid. “Fare-wellah!”
As the man stalked away, Ben motioned for the others to remount and re-jeep. “For now, mates, mighta we should go off a ways.”
As they moved out of earshot, the sergeant remarked angrily, “They’ve seen him, all right—or at least they know he’s around—but they aren’t talking.”
“All t’right, Kinca,” said Ben. “Nabbari wouldn’t come out with it right plain, but I could tell.”
“Then why wouldn’t the help us?” Felix asked.
“Well now, because-because, mate-fella,” replied the tracker. “There is a tale. So he tells. Long enough o’ one, heyee?
“Nabbari spoke one blackfella to another. He says one of the― ” Ben paused, searching for the English equivalent of a word. “Within each tribe there are smaller parts, see now.”
Kincaid nodded. “Yes. Extended families, Yanks—not just Mom and Dad and the tykes, but all manner of relatives. It can mount up to quite a little crowd. And a tribe like this one might be made up of a dozen such groups.”
“Well put, Kinca,” said Ben. “Nabbari and his people are a little j’mi at whitefellas and the government right now—resentful, angry, a little afraid too. The reason is that one entire family has disappeared.”
“Disappeared?” repeated Slim Davis. “Lost in the Outback?”
Ben gave a rare laugh. “Lost! Fool notion. You get lost in your bedroom, m’mate? No, that family—the Kalabroong’gy—went off alone from the encampment to perform a ceremony, way away, men, women, tykers. For a baby on the way, see now? Would’ve been a few dozen or so. They did not return!”
“When was this?” inquired Kincaid.
“Meb week’n half back, he says. A big party went out trackin’ them, but at a place the trail stopped, everything all shuffled-up and confused. Didn’t go out the other side either, Kinca. Just gone. A whole family gone, except for just a few who were a bit frail to make the hike and stayed back.”
The new development amazed and worried Arv. “All this stuff has got to be tied together—Wyvern’s kidnapping, now a whole family!”
“Nabbari’s gang must have found a few clues,” urged Kincaid.
“Ah, much so,” Ben responded. “They met other abos, walkies, who said they saw airplanes and big trucks in a caravan, first toward the place, then away. From the description, Nabbari thinks it’s from the Army! So he will not help on anything. Not lost whitefella, nothing. Wants to strike clear of all this nurru.”
Sergeant Kincaid shook his head. “It’s hard to figure these bushmen. Sometimes they’re too distrustful, eh? And if Wyvern’s out of his mind, they may he frightened of him, too. They’re superstitious about such things.”
Arv Hanson wondered if the blackfellows’ fear might be due to some more sinister reason. “Even if they’re wrong in blaming the government or military, it’s not exactly paranoia to avoid an outfit that seems to have kidnapped—or worse!—a big chunk of your population.”
Ben shrugged. “But they are blaming wide for something narrow. Who knows if these trucks were what they appeared to be?”
“They also spoke of planes,” Slim pointed out. “And we saw one just a while back, acting suspiciously.”
“What do you advise us to do now, sergeant?” Arv asked. “Our dog doesn’t have any new tricks, and it looks like the old ones won’t work.”
Kincaid shrugged. “I’ll think on it a bit, Hanson. Let’s put in a few miles and camp further along the creekbed. One good night without brumbies, eh?—then things might suggest themselves.”
Yet whether or not John Wyvern could be trailed, the caravan and the stolen family was a new mystery that might have left traces. As the day wore on, Ben paused more and more often to study the ground. He reported that the indications were as unclear to him as they were to Rover Boy. “Yet I’m a leg or two front of your doggy, an’how,” he declared. “He only sniffs what is beneath, but I know the wind.” Ben frowned. “I do think, all you, that we are being followed, one man.”
“Could it be Wyvern?” asked Arv excitedly.
“No. Abo. Just a walkie? Meb. But best be safety’s-off, mate-fellas.”
When they came to a spot where their veering, lazy creek undertook an S-curve that gouged the land, they made camp. On either side were nondescript hills barely more than mounds, and a few tumbles of jagged rock along the banks.
They talked and planned, and eventually had supper. The sky flamed red and gold as twilight closed in over the Outback. “Chow would love all this,” remarked Slim.
“He’d be in rapture at the thought of wallabee meat pies,” Felix added. “With rice and soy sauce, Chinese style, it mightn’t be so bad.”
“Don’t have it around me, or I’d have a duty to do,” Kincaid shook his head. “Not allowed these days, walla pies.”
As they ate, Ben cast frequent glances all around, as if looking for silhouettes where the round-shouldered hilltops interrupted the luminous sky. Then, meal over, Ben looked up sharply. “I heard something!” he muttered.
Before anyone could speak the tracker had darted away from the fire into the gathering darkness. Dimly the others could make out Ben’s figure clambering between the boulders and up the gentle slope that overlooked their camp. They saw him crouching low at the summit. In a moment he had moved out of sight.
And in just as slight a time the stillness was shattered by a shout of pain!
THE search party were grimly sure that what they heard next, distant and muffled by the hill, was the thud of a falling body!
“That’s Ben!” exclaimed Kincaid. He snatched up a flashlamp and unholstered this gun. “One of you—Davis—come with me. Hanson, you and Ming stay with the mounts and your machine.”
“We have our electric guns,” Felix noted.
“Keep ’em ready. Take care not to flash us good boys though, heh?”
Sgt. Kincaid and Slim Davis made their way around the base of the low hillock, keeping to what little extra shadow could be found among the starlight. They soon came across Ben lying head downward on the slope, the side of his head damp with blood. His eyes flickered as the two crouched next to him.
“Got me,” he chuckled weakly. “Don’t much like to be got.”
Awkwardly but gently, Kincaid and Slim half-carried the tracker back to the campfire. In its light the others could see that Kincaid was pale with rage over the cowardly attack on his trusted assistant and friend, but the officer knew it was hopeless to seek the assailant in the darkness. He dressed Ben’s wound as best he could from the jeep’s medical kit.
“The only fella who can rock the skully of a good tracker,” groaned Ben, “is another good tracker. First he draws me to him with a noise, then he comes up from behind. Not much of a see I got, just a glimpse. Blackfella. Nabbari’s, sure of that. Already far away, says my sniffer and my two fine ears.”
“Unless he plans to take to the air, the SenTec will track him down,” Felix exclaimed angrily.
“No need to waste time on that,” stated Kincaid. “This h’yere was stuck under Ben’s belt.” He held out a ragged strip of dirty cardboard, the words handwritten on it barely readable.
NABBR FOUND WHIT MN BELLDAY
BAD IN HEAD
GAVE WATER FOOD
WHEN BETTER CHIEF MADE GO
LAST SEE GO EAST
DONT TELL I TELL
“Ah! Now it’s clear,” murmured Ben. “Oh yes. Some nice Nabbari fella, tracking us to leave this message. To uppagint the Chief is a grave matter, and our informant didn’t dare let us see his face. Made me his postbox. Hopes we won’t go back to the corro and confront them about all of it. Blow ’is cover.”
“He’s done us a good deed,” Arv declared, “even if it wasn’t so good for Ben’s skull.”
“Aaa, no matter. It’s got right thick in the sun over the years—ripened.”
“What’s ‘bellday’?” asked Slim.
It was Felix who answered. “Sunday—church bells.”
“So what now, gents?” inquired Sgt. Kincaid.
“We get Ben to a doctor,” stated Arv firmly, stifling Ben’s protest with a wave of his big hand. “Then we continue the search. To the east.”
When Arv radioed Tom and reported the troubling developments, the young inventor was grim and frustrated by his own captivity by events. “I want to join you down there, but it’s impossible. The next attack could happen anytime. But,” he added ruefully, “Dr. Wyvern could die anytime. Also true.”
“Then it’s up to us, boss,” said Hanson.
“For now it has to be. When all the new silentennas have been tested and all the jetros are in position, then I might be able to pass the management angle off to Dad and others. We’ll see.”
The radiocom call had been relayed to Tom’s personal cellphone by the Enterprises switchboard. As he clicked off he turned to the two seated next to him and recounted the report.
“Jetz!” gulped Bud. “”We’ve got a real handful of crises to juggle!”
“But of course you are both such talented jugglers,” added Bashalli somewhat sarcastically.
The three were sharing the cab of a canvas-covered truck, with Bud at the wheel and Chow Winkler back behind with one of the new silentennas. The thought of inviting Bashalli Prandit along had given Tom a nudge of motivation to make this particular test, necessary for all the new units, a public one “on the road.”
Bashalli had not seemed anxious. “Nice that I should hear from you,” she had told Tom when he had phoned her at The Glass Cat, her brother’s coffee emporium, from Enterprises. The young Pakistani’s voice was polite, and no more. “But to spend some hours with you and your machine...”
“And Bud and Chow,” the youth had said hastily. “We’ll just tool around town casually and see—hear—how this unit functions in nullifying various sounds sources. We’ve been having problems with one of the components; we had to do a patch-up on the crystal blocks.”
“You can’t perform this testing at Enterprises?”
“It’s the real-world situations that count.”
“I see. So no doubt you are testing all the new ones by driving through Shopton and silencing loud people?”
“Well, look, it’ll be fun, Bash,” Tom pointed out evasively. “The thing—the business with—there’s no need to feel― ”
“Eloquence is not required,” she interrupted. “I will be ready in an hour.”
Now the truck was prowling slowly along Commerce Avenue in the bright sunshine, looking for noise. Tom swiveled his head to glance back at Chow in the rear of the “covered wagon.”
“How’s the board looking, pardner?”
“All them lights ’n meter-pointers look jest like you told me, boss,” replied the ex-Texan. Hoping Chow’s genial presence might make Bashalli feel more at ease, Tom had asked him to monitor some simple test readouts.
“Have we got your ears ringing yet?” called Bud.
“No more so’n usual, Buddy Boy.”
The test trip soon became enjoyable for everyone aboard. Keeping the “bubble of silence” close to the truck, they all made a game of identifying tempting noise targets. A squalling baby sounded content for five hopeful seconds before his unquiet riot resumed. Bashalli gleefully had a ranting cellphone-user rendered wordless in mid-gesticulation. “You must start selling these,” she giggled. “Every store should have one installed, like air conditioning.”
“Look at that jerk!” Bud snorted as a sportscar swerved around them with a screech. “Hunh!—it’s Trev Stochasto. Figures. Pushy loudmouth.” The young Californian maneuvered the truck next to the sportscar, which was stopped at a traffic light bumper-close behind a sedan. “I know what he’s gonna do when the light changes,” Bud said. “Get ready with the button, genius boy.”
The light went green, Trev Stochasto went for his horn, and Tom Swift punched a button on his Spektor control unit. A loud bleat instantly fell away into silence. As Stochasto beat up his horn-honker and yelled in redfaced mime, Bud motioned to Tom to cut the power. “Hey, Trev!” he called across. “You okay?”
Stochasto glared at Bud and opened wide his mouth again, but a quick flick by Tom cut it to silence. As the Enterprises truck moved on into the intersection, taking its bubble with it, a startling honk! sounded at last—the car behind Trev Stochasto had become impatient.
“Every store,” Bud remarked smugly, “and every traffic signal, please.”
Eyes twinkling at last, Bashalli asked Tom if his testing program were done for the day.
Tom shook his head. “Not yet. First I want to check this new gear in an all-around raucous environment. So far we’ve just been playing around.”
“And just where, Thomas, shall we go to find ‘raucous’?”
“You know that stretch on Prospect Street that’s being torn up?” Tom said. “Well, that should give us a real check-out.”
They sped across town. Bud swung over to the curb on Prospect Street near a jackhammer crew who were busily ripping up the concrete paving. The din was deafening.
“Man, if you can silence this racket, you’ll have it made!” Bud shouted into his pal’s ear.
“What’d yew say?” came from the back.
Tom grinned and switched on power to the silentenna.
As if by magic, the entire street was instantly blanketed in silence!
In a moment both boys and Bash were doubled up with laughter—voiceless, for the silentenna affected the truck as much as anything around it. Dumbstruck pedestrians stood staring around in amazement. The workmen gaped open-mouthed at the pneumatic drills vibrating noiselessly in their hands.
The workers tried turning their machines on and off, as if they could not believe what was happening. Two ran to the foreman. All three began exclaiming wildly, and became even more frantic when not a word came from their mouths.
A burly man came charging out of a parked car—a supervisor in a loose tie and a rumpled white shirt with rolled-up sleeves. The veins stood out on his thick neck as he confronted the hapless foreman, who drew back for a moment as the boss gesticulated violently and rammed silent fist into silent palm, sending his cigar spinning away in the process. But it seemed patience had a limit. Tom saw the foreman aim a deadly glare at the man in his face and suck in a deep breath. The young inventor switched off the power. The foreman’s counterblast melded into the renewed roar of the street scene, and the big boss was rocked back on his heels!
Several bystanders had noticed the Swift Enterprises truck and pointed to it. The foreman and the boss began to stalk over to have a word with whatever wizards lurked inside.
Bashalli waggled her fingers at them daintily and Bud pulled away as fast as he could manage. “So now what?” he asked his pal.
Chow leaned forward across the back of the seat. “Say now, kin I take a pick too?”
Tom laughed. “Sure!”
Chow directed Bud to the road along the long park that skirted Lake Carlopa from the recreation pier area. They presently halted at what was normally used as a big playing field. Now it was surrounded by temporary chainlink fencing, and a framework stage platform had been constructed at one end, with speakers at either side that loomed like the pyramids of Egypt. From the speakers came thunder and strange crashes!
Bashalli pointed at a billboard. “Oh yes, I read about this! The rock group is touring—nostalgia tour, or comeback, or whatever they call it.”
Tom read the group’s name. “Guess I’m out of it. Never heard of them.”
Bud had. “They were big—huge!—forty years ago. I think my Mom and Dad really liked them.”
“My parents as well,” added Bashalli. “They once passed through Pakistan, on the way to India to glean wisdom from a guru. Father has an old trunk full of quaint vinyl phonograph records.”
“Wax cylinders, weren’t they?” gibed Bud.
Tom noted with a grin, “They called them LP’s, I’m told. Big bulky CD’s with a hole in the center. Believe it or not, you had to flip them over to hear the second half.”
“And look!” Bashalli exclaimed. She pointed to a gaunt, elderly man struggling across the field with his electric guitar. “I am sure that is the man himself, the lead singer whom Mother thought so much of. And now his great mane of blond hair is― ”
“No hair at all,” finished Tom. “Makes a guy really stop and think about life.”
“They’s jest rehearsin’ right now,” Chow stated, “so this won’t do no harm. Boss, kin yew make your sound-bubble big enough to take in that stage?”
Tom eyed the distance. “I think so. It’ll sure be a great test of the silentenna’s capacity.”
They made ready and Tom activated his invention. The projected sonic shell, with its negative sound-holograms, passed through the canvas cover of the truckbed as if it didn’t exist, surging back and forth invisibly across the field and all the way to the performance platform. The jangled thunder of chords fell silent!
In the middle of a blissful country quiet there was an explosion of frantic waving and soundless bellows. After a moment Tom switched off the device. The first sound the field-testers heard was their own raucous laughter.
The lead singer, staggered to the depths of his bell-bottoms by the fantastic phenomenon, had lowered his guitar to the ground. He fished something out of the pocket of his too-low-cut pants and popped it into his mouth.
“Guess he thinks this is a good time to space out,” Bud laughed.
“His interview said he no longer did that,” noted Bashalli. “Perhaps it is only a breath mint.”
“More likely,” chuckled Tom, “pills for his blood pressure.”
“Oh? Does he have high blood pressure, Thomas?”
Bud winked. “Bash, without those pills he doesn’t have any blood pressure!”
“Never did like that cocky kid,” snorted Chow Winkler. “Sorry if’n he’s feelin’ poorly, though.”
Bud steered them back to Enterprises, and Tom drove Bashalli back to The Glass Cat in his bronze sports car.
Inside they sat over coffee and doughnuts. Bashalli spoke with what would have been, on another face, sober, chastened apology. “All right, Thomas, if I must say it—I was wrong. I did not react well to Elsa. I should not have undertaken cyber-stalking, as they call it.”
Tom looked sympathetic. “All we’re trying to do is find her father, you know. She’s in trouble, and she came to us—that makes her a friend.”
“Oh, of course. You must help her. As to the forest-fire of my intuitions, I shall damp them out. Elsa can not help being pretty, however much she has helped it along.”
“I am saying, I feel for her. You are good to lend your services. Indeed, Tom,” she went on, “you are never less than good. The entire Earth knows it.”
The young inventor wondered at the comment. “Bash, I just try to do what I can for people.”
“Why yes. So you do. It’s the way a person should be, isn’t it? And of course, you always have the last word.”
Tom’s brow furrowed. “I don’t always have ‘the last word.’” Bashalli smiled blandly.
Tom’s pocket phone alerted him to an incoming call. He listened and his face blanched. After a few cryptic words he clicked off the receiver and turned to Bashalli with wide eyes.
“Bash—I need your help! Don’t ask me to explain, but we’ve got to run out into the street and stop traffic! Right now!”
WAR ON A ROOFTOP
WHATEVER had occupied Bashalli Prandit’s mind fled immediately. She sprinted after Tom across the sidewalk, following him along the curb to the wide, busy intersection at the end of the block. They both edged out into the street with hands upraised. Horns blared and cars screeched to a stop.
In moments the intersection was cleared and open. Tom and Bash exchanged glances—trust, curiosity, reassurance, gratitude.
From above came the thwup! of helicopter blades as a shadow fell across them. A Swift Enterprises jetrocopter was descending onto the street, gently touching down with rotors whirring. “Thanks, Bash!” Tom called as he boarded. She waved, fearful but resigned, as the jetro lifted away, switching almost immediately to jet-flight mode.
“They’d just finished installing the silentenna when the word came,” grated Bud, on the stick. “Jetz! Not a second to spare! The jetros in D.C. wouldn’t have had a prayer of getting there in time!”
“Did Hank have a chance to test out the machine?”
“It’s the one we just tested in the truck. That’s why I was hangin’ around the jetro.”
“Good,” Tom said. “What’s the status of things, flyboy?”
“Harlan Ames got the call. The patrolscope drones—the ones your Dad sent over—picked up incoming Screaming Meemies minutes ago, practically hugging the ground.”
“Coming from where?”
“From all over—all directions. They’re making their way along the streets at about a fourth story height, in flocks. I guess nobody knows yet where they’re heading.”
“Have the sounds started?”
“They hadn’t yet, Skipper. But man, you can count it in minutes!”
“We can’t get there all that quickly,” pronounced the young inventor with a sober, compressed fear. “The only hope is, it seems to take a little while for the devices to get in position and build up the sounds to destructive resonance. I think they have to ‘feel out’ the target first.”
The jetrocopter roared frantically across the state of New York, straining for top speed—and more! Soon the sawtooth horizon of manmade pinnacles rose up before them.
Even as he checked out the silentenna, held fast inside its extension-cradle, Tom was in radio contact with the city authorities. “They’ve started screaming, all right,” he reported to Bud. “Traffic is― ”
“Yeah, I can imagine.”
Tom studied the radar input from the fleet of Enterprises mini-drones circling the city, relayed to the jetrocopter. “They’ve definitely converged on a target, but I don’t know what it is.”
“Jetz! What if it’s the Statue of Liberty or the Brooklyn Bridge?” Bud gulped. “Or the Empire State Building!”
It turned out to be none of those. “It’s the new skyscraper, by the German design firm,” Tom declared quietly. “The Abourlandt Building. And pal, this one isn’t under construction—it’ll be full of people!”
“Just tell me what to do.”
“Pull in close and circle.”
The sky was full of the ring-shaped Screaming Meemies, surging and darting all around them! The cockpit vibrated with bizarre sounds that made an effort of every thought and compelled them to shout at one another.
Bud pointed. “It’s starting!” A row of the big windows surrounding the skyscraper’s top-floor view lounge suddenly erupted in cracks, the shatterproof plexiglass panes visibly quivering within their frames!
Tom motioned for his chum to switch on the tiny device each of them had attached to their collars. These micro-communicators, called televocs, would permit them to speak to one another without need to vocalize externally, using a form of computerized muscle-reading and electronic manipulation of the auditory nerve. “Okay, pal,” Tom “said,” lips shut tight. “Keep circling the roof. It’s up to the silentenna.”
Using his Spektor Tom carefully tuned the sonic silentenna and fed it power. The sound volume dropped—but not enough! Increasing the power he extended the carrier cradle further away from the fuselage. The jetrocopter began to shudder and screech violently!
“Good night, there are too many subfrequencies for the silentenna to handle!” Tom gasped.
“Then what can― ”
“I’ll shift the power output toward the lower-peak harmonics.” Again the pulsing roar diminished for a moment. Then it came surging back! “The emitters are changing so rapidly I can’t adjust, not with the bounceback from our own blades getting into the act.”
“So let’s cut the blades. There’s enough room on the roof for me to land,” Bud suggested. “But the carrier cradle is underneath, Tom—won’t the fuselage mess things up?”
Tom snapped off a tense nod. “Too much interference. The counterwave mix has to be exact. Get close. Hover about a yard above. I’ll release the machine from the cradle brackets and set it down—I’ll show you where.”
In seconds the silentenna had been set down and the jetro had landed on the rooftop nearby, blades slowing to a stop as the boys clambered out. Despite the partial damping effect of Tom’s invention, the blast of the Screaming Meemies was all around them and made them stagger drunkenly. “It’s affecting our inner ears,” Tom Televoc’d, “our sense of balance.”
“G-good night, the whole roof’s shaking!” Bud gasped. “Can’t the machine do any more?”
“Can’t get any more power out of it,” replied Tom. “Now that we’ve solved the prob with the chopper blades, we’re getting a distortion shadow from the roof surface—it’s confusing the frequency scanner.” The youth’s slitted eyes searched the wide rooftop—and lit upon hope! “Bud, help me drag the silentenna over to that platform!”
A workers’ utility crane, with a railed platform atop its extensible boom, stood empty at the other side of the roof. A pair of girder-arms extended forward from beneath the platform, and Tom and Bud hastily attached the silentenna block to them, using the clamp attachments that had linked it to its carrier-cradle. “That should hold it,” Tom muttered.
They scrambled up onto the platform. Tom hooked his Spektor control unit to the railing, then turned his attention to the crane control box at his elbow. In seconds they were rising smoothly into the air atop the telescoping piston arms, looking out dizzyingly upon panicked, choked Manhattan!
As they rose higher, the entire lift-crane vibrated like a tuning fork. “She’ll hold, though,” gritted Tom Swift. “Okay, pal?”
“H-hey, you know height doesn’t bother me.”
As it lifted away from the rooftop, the full power of the silentenna at last began to take hold! The throbbing screech diminished, then faded away. The Screaming Meemies had stopped screaming! Helpless, they still darted about the boys like a cyclone.
Suddenly Bud touched his chum’s arm. “Something’s happening to the machine.” A shimmer had formed in the air about the crystal block, and a backwash of heat pulsed against their faces.
“The sound energy from the Meemies must be tremendous,” Tom Televoc’d. “The piezo-crystals can’t absorb the waste heat fast enough.”
“If it goes on much longer—very!”
But it didn’t. Suddenly the swirl of flying rings peeled away and broke apart. The Meemies fled into the sky.
“It’s over!” Tom gasped.
After a long cautious wait, Tom switched off the silentenna and lowered the platform back to the roof. He soon confirmed that the flock of sound-emitters had zoomed away from the city as a group. “Out to sea,” he observed, “and over the horizon. I’d love to snag one of the things to examine, but the landing-forcers on the drones don’t seem to work on ’em.”
“Too bad we didn’t have time to scramble the Sky Queen too,” Bud remarked. “Maybe we could’ve scooped up a few of those babies.”
New York was full of awed gratitude and generous with its congratulations, but Tom knew another attack could happen any time, anywhere. He and Bud jetted back to Shopton immediately, where Tom pored over the waveform data the silentenna had detected and recorded. “Holy Mo!” gulped Hank Sterling, gazing over Tom’s shoulder at the oscilloscope output. “Those patterns look like webs from spiders on LSD!”
“And changing a hundred times a second according to some preset transform sequence that maintains the pulse-frequency ratios,” murmured the young scientist-inventor. “In a sense, the harmonics are encrypted, Hank. I’m going to add a decryption analyzer function to the silentenna’s computer.”
“Great idea. I’ll work with Art Wiltessa to get it installed in all the units.”
Tom nodded. “We’ll have to get a lot more units turned out, too. It looks like we’ll need to mount the carrier-cradles directly on high rooftops, and have them raise the machines up and out.” Then he frowned, shaking his head in frustration. “But that won’t be enough to stop a determined enemy. Good gosh, they have all the advantages—every city in the world is vulnerable, and it would take hundreds of units to fully defend just one of them!”
“Unless you can figure out a way to expand your ‘bubble’ to something on the order of several miles!” Hank noted. But he knew as well as Tom that such a degree of improvement wouldn’t be soon in coming.
The next hour brought a new shock, by way of Martin Frome. “Our operatives received it soon after the New York attack, and Ahlgren and Cordwin regard it as authentic.”
“A blunt ransom demand. Is this line secure, Tom?”
“What you’re speaking over is what we call a parallelophone,” Tom explained. “We usually use the nickname Private Ear Radio, PER. It can’t be tapped in any way, sir.”
“Oh, yes. Well—here’s the main part of the message. ‘We now choose to communicate. We have attained our objective and have drawn Tom Swift into exhibiting the capacities of his defense against our sonic weapon. Now we shall compensate. Be assured that our power is undiminished. You will have five days of safety. That is our promise. Then within the week following we will make simultaneous attacks upon several large cities across the earth on all continents. The effects will devastate and we will produce terror and loss of life on a large scale. Our demand is monetary.’ I won’t go into the specifics, but they want an enormous amount of money, Tom, a huge amount. They have some sort of ultra-complex way to get it to them—Ahlgren doubts we could follow it or trace it, not very soon.”
“And of course paying the ransom doesn’t mean you’ve seen the end of them.”
“Obviously! Horrible situation.”
Tom muttered the sound of a moment’s thought. Then he said: “I suppose you’ve doped out why the attackers chose the particular cities they did.”
“Naturally,” Frome hastily replied. “But of course I’d be interested in hearing any supplementary theory you might have come up with.”
The young inventor smiled. “The first cities were chosen along a straight line in order to identify New York as the upcoming target—to alert us to it without the extra risk of an overt contact.”
“To what end?—in your opinion.”
“That message says it. They wanted us—me!—to be prepared for an attack on Manhattan because the goal was to see us give it our best-shot defense. They may have gotten nervous because we didn’t have jetros already in the air! I think they actually mounted the attack more slowly that usual, to allow me time to arrive.”
“Of course I can’t discuss our own security analysis,” commented the official, “but you can certainly pat yourself on the back, Tom. Clearly we’re dealing with enemies who regard themselves as strategists. Horrible, horrible.”
“Well, Mr. Frome, you’re the government. What do you intend to do?”
“We’re working on that!” snapped Martin Frome. “The President will make the final decision. Your silentenna is clearly a major piece of the puzzle.”
Tom spoke bluntly. “It’s not the solution, sir. I have some improvements in mind, but I can’t protect the entire Earth! But there may be something I can do.”
“I’m listening. Ahlgren seems to think highly of you and your people.”
“That’s reassuring,” said Tom dryly. “Sir, the clues we picked up in Denver show a definite connection between the disappearance of Dr. Wyvern and the sonic attackers.”
“Now, we’ve already located Dr. Wyvern in Australia,” Tom continued. “At least we think we have. And the trail may lead back to the activities of two brothers, the Delpertas, who have a ranch in the Outback.”
“We’ve been working that angle,” declared Frome impatiently. “Our two governments are hammering out a protocol to― ”
“Mr. Frome, there isn’t time for diplomacy! I can fly down there with a silentenna, and use its special sonic-detector instruments to survey a large part of the region from the air, looking for any sort of unusual sonic testing. The waveform profile produced by their equipment is pretty distinctive. And of course if my sensitector tracking machine can catch up to Wyvern, he might be able to tell us everything we need to know.”
Frome’s tone seemed to turn on a dime. He was suddenly cordial. “That’s a generous offer, Tom. You’re a private citizen, and no doubt your passport is in order. You don’t need permission. Go! Just make sure your company continues turning out those silencers.”
That night Bud Barclay joined the Swifts for dinner, as did Jake Aturian, chief of the Swift manufacturing affiliate in Shopton, the Swift Construction Company. “If the problems with the crystal have been cleared up,” said Uncle Jake, “SCC should have no trouble with a production run. It sounds like the decryption component is just a software issue.”
Mr. Swift nodded. “We know the things can’t be just run off like the daily newspaper. Some of it has to be hand wired. But we’re committed to doing what we can.”
“Let’s remember, we’ve got just a few days,” Tom pointed out quietly. “It’s not a done deal. We don’t even know what the group is after.”
Sandy was all raised-eyebrows. “You don’t? I thought they wanted money!”
“By the truckload!” Bud added.
“Oh, they do, sis,” Tom agreed wryly. “But that can’t be the whole thing. The operation involves governments and political stuff—it’s way too big to be aimed at giving some mad scientist a nice retirement package! And there’s also this strange business Arv Hanson spoke of, the disappearance of that whole tribal family.”
“Why sure!” exclaimed Sandy, eyes bright. “It’s a scheme, a big plot. We just need to put all the pieces together... clues, suspects...”
Damon Swift chuckled. “We’ll see the mystery solved before you take off, son.”
“Yeah,” said Bud. “Maybe before we leave the table!”
Mrs. Swift entered the dining room. “Tom, you have a phone call.”
The young inventor stood. “Elsa Wyvern?”
“No, dear,” replied his mother. “It was a man’s voice.”
As Tom left the room, he heard Sandy ask: “Mother—did he have an evil voice?”
Tom picked up the phone in the study. “This is Tom Swift.”
“Hmmph! I am astounded to find this number working. Pulled it off the Net. You never know what’s floating around out there. Do you recognize my voice, Tom?”
“Well... not really.”
“No, I suppose you wouldn’t!” the man snapped in reply. “Perhaps you don’t bother applying that prodigious brain of yours to unimportant people.”
“Oh—now I recognize you, Mr. Gull.”
“Very good,” stated Phineas Gull sarcastically. “And perhaps I’m not as unimportant as you suppose. You see, Tom, I have information about this sound-weapon business—important info no one else knows about. I just might be the key to solving the whole thing!”
“ALL RIGHT, Mr. Gull,” said Tom. “You’ve made your point, and I’m sorry if I offended you. Now please tell me what this is all about.”
The man snorted. “Interested enough now, eh? Well, pardon a touch of the dramatic, but I’m not going to tell you what I’ve got, not over the telephone. I’ll show you! Trust me enough to meet me one on one, in a library?”
“You mean the Shopton Public Library?”
“No,” responded the author brusquely. “The Library at Grandyke University—Special Collections Room. I’ll give you the exact shelf location. Just you, Swift, alone, or it’s not going to happen.”
Tom cautiously agreed to meet Gull in the morning, at the specified spot. He drove to the little town of Walderburg, not far from Shopton, and parked next to the new Grandyke University Library building.
In the big Special Collections Room, Phineas Gull was waiting for him. He held a sheaf of papers in one hand, a thick bound volume in the other.
“Hello, Swift,” he nodded curtly. He held out the bound volume, flipping it open with his thumb. “Take a look.”
The binder evidently held a run of issues of an old science fiction magazine. The cover that met Tom’s eyes—garish and thrilling—showed the Statue of Liberty collapsing under assault by menacing rocket ships, fins and all.
“Okay,” Tom muttered. “Spectacular Space Romance, June 1953.”
“Lasted a whole four issues. Cheap pulp, usual lousy word rate.”
“The cover illustrates this issue’s delivery of garbage, a ‘complete short novel’ called The Stars Scream. Author, Nelson Sammerlind. That was one of mine. I’ve lost track of all my pseudonyms. No sense being overly linked to what I did to eat.”
Tom frowned impatiently. “Mr. Gull, I don’t know what your gimmick is, but we have some problems to deal with right now in the real world. This old pulp story― ”
“Old yellowing pulp story,” Gull corrected. “I’ve run you a copy to read.”
“Because this story of mine predicts the very sonic attack you just defeated in Manhattan!”
Tom stared at the elderly man in disbelief. “What do you mean? Space invasions are as old as― ”
“I don’t mean that,” he retorted angrily. “The story was terrible, not trite! The space angle was just to spice it up; the meat of it was the use of sonic resonance weaponry to knock down buildings and aircraft—flying robot weapons that converged on their selected targets. Sound a bit familiar?”
The reply was a shrug. “I’m sorry. What is your point, sir? Are you saying you had a prophetic dream or something?”
Gull snatched the binder from Tom and shoved it back on a high shelf. “Has modern life really dulled even your imagination so badly, Swift? This decrepit old story, barely read even then, foreshadows a terrorist plot against our country in considerable detail! Don’t you suppose the government might find that somewhat interesting?”
“Yes, that’s true. If the details are so close, maybe it is connected, somehow.”
“Which makes it a key, Swift! And let’s be blunt. It also makes forgotten old Phineas Gull a suspect!”
Now the young inventor began to understand. “I see. Have they questioned you?”
“No. But that doesn’t mean someone somewhere hasn’t brought this matter to their attention. Just because I put this tawdry old gem out of my mind doesn’t mean everyone has. There are people who collect these crumbling wads of cheap paper.” The author looked at Tom fiercely, but his next words were meek. “Tom, I’m an old curmudgeon. It’s what I enjoy. I do it well, don’t you think? But good lord, I’m not some sort of criminal.”
“Of course not. It’s just a coincidence.”
“Yet a suspicious one. And now...” He gulped nervously. “Over the last few days—ever since the Denver incident, in fact—I’ve had the impression I’m being watched. I think cars have been following me, and I heard clicks on my telephone line.”
Tom wondered if the events were real. Or were they a case of paranoia arising from an excess burden of age and imagination? “Do you want me to speak to the authorities, Mr. Gull?” he asked.
“No, Swift, I want you to hide me!” the man snapped. “Well, perhaps hide isn’t quite the word. I’m asking you—please don’t make an old man beg—to permit me to live on the grounds of Swift Enterprises, or some other secure facility of yours. Yes, yes, have your own people keep an eye on me if you want. For all you know I could be a saboteur or a spy. You folks have dealt with enough of those. But I’ll feel safer, and...” He suddenly seemed pathetic. “Tom, the truth is, it’s been years since I’ve really felt safe in the world.”
The youth knew he was a soft touch. He felt sorry for Gull. “All right. I’ll clear you to stay in our guest quarters on the plant grounds for― ”
“A week or two.”
Tom smiled. “Fine. Give me your phone number, and as soon as― ”
“My bags are packed and in my trunk. I’ll just follow you back to Shopton.”
“Okay.” What am I doing? he asked himself.
By midmorning Gull had been moved into the duplex at the edge of the grounds, acknowledging that he would be under security watch at all times. “Exactly what I want,” he stated with a hint of gratitude. “I don’t plan to be a sightseer here. I’ll pay for my room and board, and watch TV—I presume you get satellite. Meanwhile, Tom, read that asinine story of mine!”
Tom did, quickly, and passed it on to Harlan Ames. “Definite similarities,” Ames commented. “But Tom, they’re pretty general. I think Mr. Classic Sci-Fi is overreacting.”
Tom nodded, brow creased. “I’m afraid the guy has... problems. But if he stays put, he can’t do any harm. I reminded him this morning that he was to remain in and around his quarters during my Australia trip. He didn’t look too pleased—I think he feels safer with me around—but I won’t postpone the trip. The Sky Queen leaves tonight.”
“You can’t wait any longer, Tom,” Ames agreed; “not with Wyvern’s life at stake.”
Yet an incident later in the day made Tom and Ames wonder if there were more to the Gull matter than they had assumed. The Swifts’ friend Captain Rock, of the Shopton police, called the young inventor with a disturbing report. “Of course, we get crank calls and letters all the time about you boys out there,” said Rock, “but this one made reference to that special guest Ames told me about. No one’s supposed to know about it. The call came in just before three—couldn’t trace it.”
Rock played the brief recording—a deep, gruff voice, muffled. “You can tell Tom Swift to give up any hope to protect Phineas Gull. Those high walls and cameras won’t stop us. We can remove him at any time, wherever you try to hide him. Our power will reach in to Swift Enterprises, and by the end of this week he will have paid the price.”
The recording ended, and Rock played it one more time, promising to send Harlan Ames a copy. “Corny but serious, wouldn’t you say, Tom?”
“I think we have to take it seriously,” pronounced the youth. “Mr. Gull may be in danger from someone even on the grounds of Enterprises.”
Several hours and several meetings later, Tom called on Gull at the duplex. “Mr. Gull, I’m asking you to come along with us tonight on a flight down to Australia in my Flying Lab. We leave at eight sharp.”
“Wh-what? Australia?” Gull sputtered. “I have no interest in― ”
“I’m afraid it’s not a request, sir,” interrupted Tom firmly. “Assuming you still want my protection, this is how I want to handle it.” He refrained from telling the man about the day’s threatening phone call.
“Very well then,” sulked the author. “No doubt your flying mansion is also outfitted with satellite TV.”
Tom smiled slightly. “And the reception is even better.”
The Sky Queen jet-lifted off from Enterprises on the dot. Aboard was Tom’s reluctant “special guest” and the rest of his team—Bud, Chow, veteran crewman Bob Jeffers, and, to keep his promise, Elsa Wyvern.
“I just have to be there when you find Dad,” she quavered softly. “I’ve done a fair amount of travelling, Tom—I know enough not to get in your way. I’m pretty independent.”
“Say now,” said Chow to his young boss, “wudden that your flyin’ car I saw down in th’ big garage?”
Tom nodded and said to Elsa, “Chow means my triphibian atomicar, the Silent Streak. It’s way too pokey to fly to Australia on its own steam, but if we freight it there along with us it’ll come in handy.”
“Mountains ’r desert ’r the big ole prairie, she kin do the job, ma’am,” added Chow proudly.
The fast flight allowed for only a bit of napping and a single light meal. Soon enough the Sky Queen had set down on the outskirts of Alice Springs, where Arvid Hanson and his group joined them.
As Tom and Bud shook hands with Sgt. Kincaid, the officer explained that Ben was recovering in a local hospital from his head injury. “Bloke’s fine and well,” stated Kincaid. “Just a precaution. He’s done above-beyond, I’d say.”
“But I—that is—will you be able to continue the search without him?” asked Elsa worriedly.
“We’re going at it from two directions,” Tom reassured her. “Arv, Felix, and Slim will continue tracking your father with the sensitector, to the east of where the Nabbari tribe is encamped. They’ll have the jeep, and the atomicar will replace the horses.
“Meanwhile the sergeant will go along with us in the Queen to scout out the area of the Delperta ranch and pay them a visit. I’ll be using the silentenna’s ‘soundwave-radar’ system to look for any indications of sonic testing or other suspicious activity.”
“The idea is, find the meemie-screamers and it’ll help us find your father,” Bud added.
Elsa’s face fell. “Then—you don’t think the man in the desert― ”
“He may well be, Elsa,” said Tom. “Think of this as a backup.”
“And realistically—and I’m sorry to say this,” Arv stated as gently as possible, “—if our enemies have been following us out there, they might have recaptured Dr. Wyvern after he left the camp and taken him back to wherever they’d been holding him.” Elsa understood and nodded as Tom rested a hand on her arm.
Elsa chose to accompany the ground expedition, riding with Slim in the two-seat atomicar. By morning light the two teams set off toward different horizons, the Flying Lab jetting westward toward Lake Amadeus, then further beyond on a northerly heading. They streaked over the barren, rust-colored Outback slower than the Sky Queen’s customary cruising speed, eyes and instruments alert for any sign of something unusual.
Kincaid guided Bud, who was piloting, to the Bildana station. From the air it looked much like any other cattle ranch in the Territory—a small cluster of buildings, with horse paddocks and a circular reservoir tank.
The Flying Lab settled down gently on the sunbaked ground near a stand of scraggly trees. Sgt. Kincaid followed Tom, Bud, and Chow down the extensible rampway to the ground. It was midmorning and several of the station hands came strolling over to stare at the mammoth skyship. Some were white Australians and others were aborigines or men of mixed race.
Before Tom and his companions could speak to any of them, a big ruddy-faced man with a dark mustache came striding out from the main ranch building.
His eyes shifted back and forth suspiciously. “Morning, gentlemen. It isn’t often Bildana gets visitors. You must have some special reason for coming. That so, Sergeant?” He spoke with a faint foreign accent.
“That’s right, sir. I’m Sergeant Kincaid of the Territorial force.” The policeman introduced Tom and the other members of the party. The rancher identified himself as Serge Delperta.
“We’re looking for a friend of mine, Mr. Delperta,” said Tom, “an American named John Wyvern. He’s believed lost somewhere on the Outback.” Trying not to be obvious, Tom scrutinized the man’s reaction.
“Ah, yes. That must be the lost white man I’ve heard talk about.” Delperta stroked his mustache. “My abo Johnjames told me about him—some wild fellow he saw, anyway, eh? But I thought that was quite far—off by the Rock, nearer the Alice.”
“It was, but we’ve picked up some indications up this way too,” said Kincaid smoothly.
“Is that right. Thinking he might circle back?”
“It’s possible,” Tom answered. “We were hoping you or your brother or some of your other men might have glimpsed him.”
Delperta shrugged. “I myself can tell you nothing. My brother Otto is up at Darwin—on business. But perhaps you would like to speak to the hands.”
“Thanks. We would,” Kincaid said quickly.
Delperta called over his men. Tom and the sergeant questioned them, but they replied mostly with shakes of their heads. None volunteered any information. Nor did Delperta show any of the traditional Australian hospitality by inviting his visitors into the ranch house.
As Tom turned his back on Delperta for a moment, Bud yelped a warning and something silver flashed by Tom’s head, burying itself in the tree trunk next to him! He whirled and found Delperta grinning—with a trace of sneer. “Not to worry, my friend. My brother and I performed with a travelling carnival when we were very young, tricks with knives.” His thick, muscular arm effortlessly yanked the deadly blade from the trunk. “You see? The little darling went in perfectly straight. No danger to you. If you were wearing an earring I could have whisked it off and left you most of your ear.”
“I’d suggest keeping your knives out of sight when the law is around, Delperta,” said Sgt. Kincaid coldly.
Delperta chuckled. “Eh well, meant no harm. Call me a showoff.”
As the Sky Queen took off again, Bud remarked, “Glad I gave up the earring! Knife tricks or not, he’s a pretty unsociable guy—and secretive.”
“Too right,” Kincaid said dryly. “I’ve a nice warm feeling Delperta was glad to see us go.”
“One thing I noticed,” stated Tom. “He mentioned speaking to this ‘Johnjames,’ but your friend Ben told you he wouldn’t likely have returned to the ranch for a while—and he wasn’t among the men, either.”
The officer nodded. “Perhaps a little hint that Delperta has a more immediate source of info. Let’s see if your plane’s scientific eagle-eyes give us a reason to poke at him a bit more.”
Tom asked Bud to circle slowly over the cattle station and surrounding area before heading across Lake Amadeus again, toward Ayers Rock. Tom had fastened the craft’s silentenna to the Swift Searchlight apparatus, which could be extended down from the fuselage. Now he commenced a methodical scan of soundwave patterns for many miles around, knowing they could be inaudible to the human ear.
“All rather science-fictional in the classic sense,” observed Phineas Gull, who had been given freedom to observe the crew’s activities. “I always preferred those great days of invention tales, back before Sputnik ruined it all. Oh for a few blazing rockets and atomic blasters! So, Swift, what has your blinking marvel come up with?”
Tom regarded the man coolly. “Nothing interesting so far. But of course they may be doing their development and testing in a shielded facility, or underground. I’ll be switching over to my gravity-gradient sensor and heat scanners.”
Yet the day produced nothing for its many wide circles. “Don’t well like to be wrong,” grumbled Kincaid. “But no sign our nervous Mr. Delperta is involved in anything untoward, not at Bildana Station anyway.”
“Wa-aal now, brand me fer a mule, but that word Delperta was in the secret note and it shor don’t mean p’taters!” retorted Chow.
“It may refer to the other brother, Otto,” Tom pointed out pensively. “Serge may be running a legitimate operation.”
Bud looked skeptical. “Maybe, Skipper. But legitimate types aren’t usually so free with knife-tossing!”
“You have a point,” said Phineas Gull. “It’s the sort of gimmick that’d pop up in my kind of fiction. Lets the reader know the character’s a ‘bad ’un.’ Sometimes, of course, it’s just a red herring.”
“I don’t care for that sort of literature,” pronounced Kincaid.
“Then I’ve got great news for you, Sergeant. It’s not literature. It’s science fiction. Only bad science fiction is ‘literature’. Ask anyone who enjoys it.”
As twilight descended on the vast, flat tablecloth of the Outback, Bud set down the Sky Queen and Chow served the crew a supper out of doors. “No kangaroo burgers, pardner?” joked Bud.
“That’d be a right fine sight—they’d likely flip th’mselves!”
“You should try ostrich,” suggested Sgt. Kincaid with a chuckle. “Tastes like chicken.”
Chow snorted dismissively. “Aaaa, everything tastes like blame chicken unless you cook it right!”
Tom was in a thoughtful, troubled mood. He wandered toward the other side of the ship and leaned against one of her big landing tires, gazing out over the bronzed sky and new stars. It was supposed to be a snap, finding Elsa’s dad with the SenTec, he mused. But he’s still out there. All these great inventions of mine...
Suddenly he stiffened. “What’s wrong with me?” he gasped. He had begun to tremble violently from head to toe!
Before he could cry out, Tom collapsed to the ground!
“THAT’S a plane out there,” Bud Barclay muttered to Bob Jeffers. “Hear it?”
“Sure do,” the crewman replied, his eyes raking the darkening skies.
Bud motioned for the others to be quiet. “Single prop job, real small—getting closer.” But after a moment he said, “No, she turned away again.”
“Our mates up high,” snorted Kincaid. “Don’t see anything, though.”
“Seems like t’me it’s comin’ from the other side o’ the ship, out that way,” Chow put in. “Lemme go take a prairie look.”
The ex-Texan clumped around to the far side of the Sky Queen, and in a moment was screeching for help. “It’s Tom! Sumpin’s wrong!”
The others gathered about the young inventor, and Bud fearfully checked his pulse. “Doing okay,” he breathed. “But look.” Blood was dripping from Tom’s nostrils!
“I’ll get the First-Aid kit,” Bob offered.
“I’m trained in it,” declared the sergeant. “We’ll get the lad stood-right.”
Tom recovered consciousness quickly and found that he could stand without difficulty. “I don’t know what happened to me,” he said faintly. “But I have a guess.”
“Some desert varmint bite you?” asked Chow.
“A great big varmint. I think our enemies used a sonic weapon against me—a long-range model shooting its mouth off from that plane!”
Bud nodded his head knowingly, but Kincaid was astounded. “It works over such a great distance?”
“It’s not the resonator weapon,” Tom responded grimly. “Though it’s probably derived from the same basic technology. I’m guessing it’s a sort of ‘phonon maser,’ something that can project a phase-locked dual beam with a frequency mix that the body—which is basically a big balloon-bag of bone and wet laundry—is especially vulnerable to. It may have knocked me out by affecting my inner ear.”
“Not a very new idea in science fiction,” sniffed Phineas Gull.
“But what was the point?” asked Bob. “A warning?”
Tom shrugged. “It may have been a test to see if we had my silentenna constantly running, or some other kind of defensive device—that kind of probing seems to be the way they operate.”
“Delperta strikes me as the sort of fellow who doesn’t need much of an excuse to, pardon the pun, make a point,” declared Kincaid. “If our visit spoiled his day, this may have been what he does to recover his blessed self-esteem.”
“Well,” Tom said quietly, “I’d feel a lot better if we went inside the ship. The Tomasite hull should protect us from any further sonic attacks. I think if the group of us had been standing on that side of the fuselage, the beam would have taken us all down.”
Before anyone could reply an eerie booming sound broke the darkness. Its low, vibrating tone wavered up and down in a strange rhythm.
“Wh-what in blue blazes is that?” Chow exclaimed fearfully. “Another sneak attack?”
“A didjeridoo!” said Kincaid. “It’s a long wooden tube the abos blow to summon spirits.”
The Americans looked at one another uneasily.
“They may be nearby, watching us,” Bud muttered.
The sergeant shrugged. “It may mean nothing—nothing to do with us.”
“Or it may have something to do with that plane. Or whoever’s inside it!” observed Tom with a frown. The local tribes had ample reason to alert one another to suspicious intruders.
Tom felt weak after his experience, but insisted on spending time in one of the Queen’s lab cubicles, scrutinizing the day’s records from the various sensor instruments. He never knew at what hour he slumped his head on the workbench and fell sound asleep. Almost at once, it seemed, he was being shaken awake. Tom lifted his head groggily and saw the handsome, frank face of Bud.
“Huh?... What’s wrong?”
“Take a look out the window, Skipper!”
Snapping alert, Tom jumped to his feet and peered out into the darkness. Balls of fire were rolling along the ground! Since they were coming from somewhere behind the plane, it was impossible to see the source, but the sky astern was lit by a hazy glow.
Tom’s face paled. “Good night, I think that’s what the Aussies call buckbush, pal—like our tumbleweed! It must be wind-driven from a brush fire!”
The two ran through a passageway from the lab compartment, then down metal stairs and out the plane’s entry hatch. Tom saw at once that his guess had been right. The entire plain to the north seemed to be blanketed by a sheet of flame! Here and there, an especially reddish patch burst out as a scrub tree caught fire and flared like a torch.
Tom and Bud were appalled. Already they could feel a searing wave of heat from the blaze. Panic-stricken animals—wallabies, kangaroos, and wild dogs—were scampering through the darkness, heading for the safety of higher ground in the low hills some miles distant.
The other members of the crew had now awakened and were clattering down behind the boys. “Man! It’s awful!” muttered Bob Jeffers.
“It happens,” pronounced Sgt. Kincaid. “Usually lightning—but obviously that’s not the case this time. My instincts tell me it was set.”
Tom turned to Bud. “Lucky you spotted it this soon. What woke you up, flyboy?”
“I got restless and stood in the hatchway for a while. I thought I heard a noise—maybe it was the roaring fire,” Bud replied. “I started to head back to my bunk, but I got a mental itch to take a look from one of the starboard ports. Then I saw those rolling balls of fire.”
The flames were racing across the dry brush-land, coming closer by the moment.
Tom shuddered. “I hate to think of Wyvern out there! Come on, guys. Let’s get airborne!”
The Sky Queen quickly soared aloft. Tom flew a wide, sweeping search pattern in desperate hope of sighting any human figures, raking the landscape with the Flying Lab’s Swift Searchlight and special motion-sensing radar. As the raging bush blaze drew closer to the line of hills, there was little chance that anyone in the open could be left alive.
Phineas Gull was as much affected by the sight as anyone. “Nature!—man and his toys don’t really amount to much in the end.” He glanced at Kincaid’s grim face. “Do you think there’s any chance of saving Wyvern?”
“Practically none if he was in the path of the fire. It runs along twice as fast as a man.”
“And the worst of it is this,” stated Tom sadly. “They may have known that Dr. Wyvern was wandering out there.”
Kincaid nodded. “Murder!”
“N-now, ya cain’t give up hope,” Chow urged. “Mebbe Rover’ll still find him over on the other side, where Hanson’s bunch is sniffin’ around.”
Tom nodded. “That’s still likely. I can tell you one thing, though—a fire like this will have obliterated any trackable traces from this stretch of ground.”
“Uh-huh,” nodded Bud. “Wyvern’s tracks—and any other evidence of the sonic gang.”
Kincaid used the Sky Queen’s radiocom to notify the Territorial authorities of the fire. Tom flew a final, hopeless sweep of the terrain without sighting any sign of human life. Then he headed toward the east and the area of the Outback where Arv Hanson’s team was searching. Landing near their campsite, they slept what was left of the night.
Hearing the news of the fire in the morning, Elsa, fear-stricken but dry-eyed, was determined to stay on and press the search for her father. “He wasn’t there!” she insisted. “I know he’s alive.” But Arv reported that the sensitector had failed to pick up any further traces.
“That may not be as ominous as it sounds,” Tom responded. “We’re dealing with an environment with plenty of surface instability—wind, dust, extremes of temperature. It’s a lot more difficult than tracking on the streets of a city. The traces could have become very diffuse here, but might form a more coherent trail again as we go along. I’ll see if I can work on Rover Boy to enhance his analysis processors. The reactron nanospikes might also need some cleaning.”
“If a little more scent-trace data would help, Tom, I found a silver dollar paperweight that I know Dad used to handle a lot,” Elsa offered.
She handed it to the young inventor, touching it carefully. “Thanks—a ‘richer’ profile could help a lot, Elsa. And don’t worry about contamination. Rover Boy’s clever enough to ignore unwanted scents.”
“A mighty smart pooch!” grinned Felix Ming.
As the day progressed the SenTec continued its spiraling search as the jeep rumbled along behind it. Tom flew Elsa in the Silent Streak further back, at an altitude of twenty feet. Bob Jeffers remained behind on the Sky Queen with Slim Davis and Phineas Gull.
Hours brought no result. As noon approached Tom tried to lighten Elsa’s flagging spirits by demonstrating the atomicar’s capabilities, soaring high and making cloverleaf loops as she clapped her hands in delight.
Suddenly the girl gasped out, “Tom!”
Far ahead, a number of large black rocks had been lined up in a pattern, stark against the desert floor.
J W Y V
“John Wyvern!” Tom cried. “He must be somewhere nearby!”
The jeep met the atomicar at the site of the rocks, which were evidently intended to attract the attention of aircraft. “If this here bloodhound’s worth his salt,” pronounced Chow Winkler excitedly, “he orta be able to track the man easy, since we know he ’as here!”
“And not long ago,” added Sergeant Kincaid. “I’m sure of that—the rocks are barely touched by the blowing sand and dust.”
With a gulp of anticipation and a glance at Elsa Wyvern, Tom made some final adjustments to Rover Boy, giving the device a fresh “sniff” of the silver dollar paperweight.
“A double dose of data,” he said, dropping the paperweight back in his pants pocket. Then at the touch of a button on Tom’s Spektor unit, the robot tracker leapt forward in pursuit of its quarry.
If Rover had seemed hesitant and wavering before, he now proceeded with confidence. As the others followed in their two vehicles, the automaton whizzed and rumbled over the broken, increasingly rocky ground for hours, the trail twisting and looping wildly.
“It’s as if he were afraid of something, running away and trying to hide among the rocks,” Elsa said. “Something alarmed him before he could finish his sign.”
“He felt safe for a moment, until he caught sight of something. I think your dad was trying for higher, rougher ground—that rise up ahead,” Tom told her. She held up crossed fingers.
At last the sensitector stopped dead in front of a tumbled outcropping too jagged for even its deft monowheel to overcome. “But I see a pass higher up,” the young inventor told the others, shading his eyes against the sun. “I’ll carry Rover as we climb, then let him down again. Elsa—please stay back here for a few minutes with Arv and Felix. I know you want to come, but let us scout it out first.”
“With weapons at ready,” added Sgt. Kincaid. “If your father’s up there, the kidnappers may be also.”
Tom, Bud, Chow, and Kincaid struggled over the rocks to the narrow pass, whose floor was relatively smooth and open. Rover Boy again picked up the trail, now beeping to show that the scent-traces had become robust and unmistakeable. Thirty feet ahead of them he suddenly veered toward a dark opening among the rocks on their left.
“It’s a cave!” Bud exclaimed.
They glimpsed light as the SenTec automatically activated its penetrating flashlamps. Suddenly an eerie scream sounded from within!
ISSUES OF TRUST
AS THE scream echoed away into oblivion, the searchers looked at one another with wide eyes. “I heard me many a coyote an’ many a man,” shuddered Chow, “but I shor never heard nothin’ like that!”
“Good grief,” Bud Barclay whispered hoarsely. “Was that human?”
“I’d say half-human,” muttered Sgt. Kincaid. “If our man’s in there, blimey!—he must be in a bad way!”
Tom unholstered his Enterprises electric-impulse weapon, called the i-gun. “I’ll go in first,” he said. “I’m glad Elsa isn’t here with us.”
“You kin go in first, boss,” said Chow, “but all of us’ll go in second!”
They advanced toward the opening, a dark gap where boulders leaned together to form a ceiling, Tom in the lead. Rover Boy had halted a few feet inside the black-shadowed cave. The diamond brilliance of his flashlamps were probing the darkness within, trying to focus on his trace-quarry, but no sign of life could be seen.
Touching the Spektor controller, Tom had the sensitector advance further and switched off its beeping “bark.” Instantly he heard a whimpering sound that made his scalp bristle! He whirled and made out a blacker silhouette in the darkness, the figure of a man trying to flatten himself out of sight against the rock wall to Tom’s left. Tom had the SenTec swivel its beams, and his breath escaped in a rush.
The scientist was a pitiable sight—gaunt as a skeleton, his shirt and trousers in filthy tatters. His face, brick-red from the sun, was fringed with a sandy growth of beard. His eyes twitched and squinted
“Jetz! Don’t tell me that’s Wyvern!” came Bud’s horrified voice. The others had crowded up behind Tom.
“Stay away!” gibbered Wyvern, faint with terror. “D-don’t let that—that thing touch me!”
“Easy there, mate,” Kincaid said soothingly.
Wyvern’s right hand was clenched into a tight fist, ready to defend himself with a rock. Tom could tell he would resist ferociously if he moved a step nearer.
“We’re your friends, Dr. Wyvern,” Tom said urgently. He put his i-gun out of view. “This machine won’t hurt you. We’ve come to rescue you and take you back home to America.”
“We know you were kidnapped, but you’ve got to trust us,” continued Kincaid. “We’re on your side. We’ll keep you safe from the men who did this to you.”
The researcher lowered his hand, then suddenly fell back against the wall and slid down to the cave floor, trembling. “I can’t—I can’t run any more. But I’ll die before I’ll go back!”
Tom advanced a step. “Please trust us. Your daughter’s waiting for you, just down the slope.”
The man’s face hardened. “I have no daughter.”
“Now looky, mister,” said Chow, as if gentling a range steer. “Whatever an’ all happened, she loves you. Jest put all that aggravation behind you and come down an’ talk to her. She’s yer flesh an’ blood.”
Wyvern’s head thrashed from side to side, listless and weak. “A trick, all a trick. Any lie to trap me. I know you’re working for them.”
Taking two more steps, Tom knelt down and put a hand on the man’s arm. “Come on, sir. Taking a chance on us has got to be better than what you’ve been through in the desert.”
Wyvern managed a nod, fearful but resigned. Helped by Tom and Bud, he struggled to his feet, and in moments was stumbling and blinking down the rocks.
“Oh!” cried Elsa with a catch in her voice as he emerged into sight. “Tom, you—you found him!”
Tom urged the man forward, and Elsa threw her arms around him. Wyvern stared with wide eyes, too weak to draw back, obviously stunned.
“L-let—let me go― ” he croaked. “W-who are you?”
“By the ancestral spirits!” gasped Felix Ming. “He doesn’t know his own daughter!”
Dr. Wyvern glared at Tom helplessly. “What’s wrong with you people? I don’t know this young woman. She’s not my daughter—I have no children!”
The others exchanged glances of alarm. Was Dr. Wyvern raving? Had his ordeal left him without memory?
Elsa sighed and released him, stepping back one step, two steps.
“Jetz!” breathed Bud.
Elsa had produced a gun—and was aiming it straight at John Wyvern!
Her voice had turned hard and brusque. “I’m sorry, Tom—all of you. All you’ve done to help us, and now I have to be ungrateful. Dr. Wyvern is right. I’m not his daughter. And if anyone moves, if anyone comes closer, I’ll do what I have to do. I’ll shoot him!”
She motioned with her head. Felix and Arv, hands half-raised, joined Tom, Bud, Chow, and Sgt. Kincaid. “I’ve counted three of those little guns among you,” she said, “plus the sergeant’s police revolver. I want to see all four lying on the ground between us. I think you’re all smart enough to move carefully. It doesn’t take much effort for me to move my finger, and this pistol can do a lot of damage, small as it is.”
“Who are you?” demanded Tom, reeling with astonishment.
“My name is Lazla Modora. Pleased to meet you.” She smiled. “No, I’m not mocking you, Tom. I regret these measures. I’m sorry to have had to lie to you. I’ve hated doing it, playing this role all this time. But it was necessary.”
“Then you work for the rotters, heh?” grated Kincaid. “The sonic gang?”
“Yes, Sergeant, I work for the rotters. But I must correct you. Your impression of our motives is wrong. Our goals are noble, humanitarian.”
“By terrorizing the Unites States? By kidnapping and blackmail?” barked Tom bitterly.
“Easy, Skipper,” Bud urged quietly.
“You’ll understand more as we get underway,” she replied. “We’re prepared to prove our good intentions—no, more than good intentions: good work! But,” she added firmly, “please don’t forget my pistol.”
She ordered Tom to contact the Sky Queen—carefully. In minutes the ship had landed nearby, and the young inventor had explained the situation to Slim Davis and Phineas Gull. “Don’t try anything, guys,” he said with reluctance. “Elsa—Lazla Modora—has the upper hand at the moment. I’m afraid she might be ready to kill Dr. Wyvern rather than allow herself to be arrested.”
“I’m afraid you’re right,” Modora smiled. “What we are doing is much more important than any one person’s life. Perhaps you don’t believe that yet—but humor me.”
Leaving the atomicar, the jeep, and the weapons in the Outback sun, she directed the others to board the Sky Queen, keeping John Wyvern close by. “But bring Rover along, please,” she said. “I think my friends will want to look it over.”
“I beg you,” quavered the scientist, “don’t take me back to them!”
“What are you afraid of, Dr. Wyvern?” Lazla asked. “Tell us, won’t you?”
“I—I don’t quite remember,” he admitted. “I was kidnapped from my office in Clarksville. It seems to have been a long time ago. But what happened after that... my memories are confused. Offices, laboratories, a huge room—huge!”
“What did they do to you?” asked Slim Davis.
“Tell them,” said Lazla Modora firmly.
Wyvern rubbed his sunburnt face. “I remember being afraid. I was in terror. Each day—there was some kind of process. Between times, I think they had me working with them, working on a project, medical studies. Somehow, my—my mind was divided. I barely knew who I was, yet I remembered my researches in detail—the effects of sound on the cerebral cortex.”
“You don’t remember what was done, because what was ‘done’ was not as dire as you think,” declared Lazla. “Yes, we took you from America involuntarily, Doctor, but when you learned our purpose you worked with us willingly. Unfortunately, your exposure to the sonic experimentation had unanticipated side effects on your own mentality. You became unstable, violently paranoid. Toward the end we had to restrain you during the worst attacks.” She addressed the others. “We were transporting him to a hospital when the van overturned and he ran off into the desert. We’ve been searching ever since, and we’ve spotted him a few times from the air. But he’s a wiry fellow, and energized by his paranoid terror. Each time he’s fled and hidden himself. Look at him, gentlemen—you see for yourselves the state he’s in.”
“A state you put him in!” snapped Tom. “Now I understand what’s been going on—from day one, this hoax of yours was aimed at getting me to use my sensitector to track him down for you.”
“A dastardly plot. But given that fact, it’s a good one,” commented Gull. “If I live long enough, I’ll use it.”
“I’ll tell you the rest of it up in the air,” promised Lazla calmly. “Now permit me to give you directions to our destination.”
The destination lay well to the west in the Gibson Desert at the foot of the Carnarvon Range. “Nothing there,” muttered Sgt. Kincaid. “Spot-middle of big flat nowhere.”
“Absolutely,” replied the woman. “But about twenty years ago, don’t you recall the Grand New Plan? The Rickston development project?”
“Tell us, won’t you?” Tom said dryly.
“It was a government-backed project, financial incentives to create a sort of oasis town in the Gibson—open it up to development, industry, residential tracts, all that.”
“Right, right,” nodded Kincaid. “Artificial lake, monorail to Wiluna town, factories making computers and cars― ”
“And the recreational resort, don’t forget. Gambling, big sporting events.”
Bud couldn’t help being interested. “So did it work out?”
Kincaid snorted. “Of course not. Idiot notion! Funds ran dry, investors scattered to the winds. Typical booneebag.”
“And yet,” continued their captor, “one thing was completed, more or less. Right there in the desert, amid a few traces of almost-roads, is a roofed-over sports arena, the MacNanty Round. Very big, a marvel of construction and design, utterly useless sitting out there. For a time they used it as a giant indoor stage for shooting movies, but it was too isolated to be practical. Quite abandoned. I’m not entirely sure who owns the property now—the government, I suppose. We were able to plant our own employees as guards; we’ve hired a lot of abos from the local tribes, with a nice wage. Their loyalties are to our project. We’ve been using it for about a year.”
“Using it for what?” Tom demanded. “Weapons development? Is that why you kidnapped that tribal family—to use them as live guinea pigs to test your sonic blasters?”
She shook her head calmly. “Tom, I understand your thinking so. But you’re wrong. We’re doing what you Swifts do—helping people, saving lives. To briefly explain something very, very complicated—
“But perhaps it would be best to start with our Dr. Wyvern. Won’t you tell us, Doctor, the subject of your researches, the specific nature of your discoveries? You do recall, don’t you?”
Wyvern winced, as if trying to clear his mind of confusion. “Yes—yes, of course. The effects of sound, complex sub-harmonics, upon the living organism, the human body and nervous system. I had only begun to publish my findings, bits and pieces of data, controversial and disputable. It would have taken someone very attentive to discern the real significance of my work.”
“We were most attentive,” stated Lazla Modora.
“The effects of audible and inaudible sound upon the human nervous system have been explored by others, to an extent,” explained Wyvern, momentarily a lecturer. “My researches took me further. I came to understand that the sonic environment, the atmosphere of unheard sound in which we live, has some direct effect upon the endocrine system and other organ complexes that affect health, healing, and immunity to infection—t-cell production and so forth. There are resonance effects all the way down to the cellular level, you see. I have determined that certain harmonics stimulate the body’s self-repair mechanisms.”
Tom shook his head skeptically. “Are you trying to tell us, Lazla, that this is all about curing disease?”
“Please, Tom, give me a chance,” she urged, keeping her pistol aimed at Dr. Wyvern. “To speak dismissively of ‘curing disease’ doesn’t touch the gravity of the situation. Why not put it bluntly? The purpose of the MacNanty Round operation is to prevent the imminent destruction of the human race!”
IN THE ARENA
CHOW WINKLER summoned up a look of scorn to accompany his bulging eyes. “Ye-aah, ‘im’nent d’struction o’ the human race’. Sounds like the sort o’ thing this here feller would come out with!”
“I resent that,” frowned Phineas Gull. “I very much doubt you’ve ever even glanced at one of my stories!”
“Naw, but I know how you scientific fictionizers think. Don’t have to read the blame stuff.”
Lazla Modora smiled at the exchange. “Well now! Have I been too melodramatic for your tastes? How should I talk about worldwide deaths in the hundreds of millions—even complete extinction?”
“You haven’t told us anything,” declared Tom fiercely.
“I was interrupted. Now listen carefully. Over the last several years, a debilitating, inevitably fatal disease has shown up among several rather isolated population groups, mostly in southeast Asia and the Pacific islands. It’s been repeatedly misdiagnosed. But the Delperta Brothers are brilliant medical researchers, much honored in our home country. They studied the matter carefully, and determined the horrifying truth. This viral disease—no need to provide the scientific name—exploits an otherwise harmless flaw in the human genome.”
“Yes!” exclaimed John Wyvern. “I’m remembering! An innate defect, a sort of ‘gap’, in the immune system.”
Tom nodded slowly. “I see. Humans ought to develop an immunity to this disease, but the defect prevents it.”
“That’s it exactly,” Lazla said. “Do you all understand? A terrible contagion, irresistible. And yet—not quite.”
“Not quite?” repeated Bob Jeffers.
“The Delpertas located certain subjects who had overcome the chromosomal gap through a natural immunity factor.”
Tom finished the thought. “Members of one family. The family you kidnapped.”
“Yes indeed,” the woman confirmed. “The trait comes from a heritable mutation, evidently. Unfortunately—I’m only repeating what I’ve been told—the precise mechanism hasn’t yet been identified. But the Delpertas worked up an hypothesis based upon their initial studies and their reading of Dr. Wyvern’s reports.”
“Of course!” Wyvern burst forth. “That was it. I was helping them experiment with a sonic medical treatment, the use of sound to stimulate the desired immunity response and induce the development of specific antigens.”
“To do so required extensive experimenting with a population of significant number, subjects already possessing the natural immunity factor.”
“The tribal family,” pronounced Arv Hanson. “The ones Ben called the Kalabroong’gy. So your people found an opportunity to abduct the whole group.”
Lazla shrugged. “There was no alternative. It gave us experimental access to eighty-nine subjects.”
“Brand my big ole thermometer!” stormed Chow. “Why’n high holy heck didn’t you jest ask ’em?”
Gull answered for Lazla. “Because they might have said No.”
“They themselves were already immune. They had no personal reason to cooperate, and would surely have alerted the government.”
“Let’s say this is all true,” Tom said. “What you have is a worldwide medical crisis, with a solution already at hand. It’s your duty to inform national governments and medical researchers!”
But she shook her head. “You have a great deal of faith in ‘the establishment,’ Tom. Yet you came here to Australia, to help me and my poor lost ‘father,’ as a private citizen. You yourself avoided official involvement. And those officials didn’t seem to mind. You spared them some possible political headaches. I don’t mean to lecture you, but in this world as it is, things that must be done quickly—especially controversial things—have to stay out of sight. Let us perfect the immunization treatment; then, of course, it will be a matter for the world to handle openly.”
The captives exchanged glances, unsure of what to make of the fantastic story. “But good night!” exclaimed Bud impatiently. “Don’t forget about the sonic attacks and the demand for money! You can’t tell us that’s all about medical research!”
Tom looked at the former Elsa Wyvern. “You needed the money, didn’t you. Is that your story?”
She nodded. “We couldn’t exactly apply for a public grant. This is a war, a true world war, and war has its need for top-secret operations. Again, some aspects of Dr. Wyvern’s work, combined with that of the two Delpertas and their hired technicians, proved invaluable. Yes, I agree with what you must be thinking—an outre, fantastic scheme, frightening the United States with a series of attacks in order to set up credible blackmail.”
“A plot for spirit-demons!” muttered Felix. “The ransoming of entire cities.”
“An entire country, Felix—many countries. The Delpertas calculated that billions would be required for the last crucial stages of research and the promulgation of the sonic treatment equipment worldwide. And it all would be spent, in various concealed ways, in a matter of months. Of course we would eventually be traced and found, perhaps even by Rover Boy, hm? But the contagion is on the verge of sweeping through the population, what they call a break-out. These next months are critical.”
“One of my patients was their agent,” continued Wyvern with a raspy voice, recalling more and more. “He overpowered me and injected me with a hypodermic needle.”
“I take it you never were in Denver for that conference, were you, Doctor,” declared Tom. “It was all just part of the plot.”
Wyvern shook his head. “Denver?—I recall planning to attend the sound reduction conference... I believe I had made a hotel reservation.”
“Which we cancelled for you after you joined our team,” explained Lazla Modora. “And then John escaped us, and the Delpertas—they are geniuses—hit upon the idea of making Denver the first of our demonstration attacks, getting Tom enmeshed in the whole made-up problem of ‘Dad’s’ mysterious disappearance and kidnapping. The man you tracked from the airport was not John Wyvern, obviously—though he wore his clothes, to excite this robot bloodhound that we had learned of from the public statements of Swift Enterprises.”
“And the planted music box and ‘secret message’ was how you got me down here, to start searching in the right place,” Tom declared angrily.
“Well, not exactly. We planted the clue in the wrecked building in order to tie the kidnapping more solidly to the sonic attack crisis—obviously you would need to strongly justify pursuing a missing-persons search while your cities were under siege, but our overall plans couldn’t be postponed. So we neatly tied the two elements together. I’m told the strategists had to do some thinking to figure out how to get you headed down here, to the area of Bildana Station specifically.”
“And so, that ‘secret message.’”
“Mm-hmm. I’m afraid the strategists aren’t really as clever in strategy as they are in medical matters and technology. I was afraid I’d blown the whole thing when you picked up on a few of my oversights in Denver.
“My goodness, boys, you can’t anticipate everything. Just as our sources told us of Mr. Frome’s emergency task force, so we learned that some lost piece of our equipment—cannibalized from a Swift Enterprises repelatron, as a matter of fact—happened to have on it the fingerprints of none other than our boy genius himself! Just happenstance. But what a headache if Tom had been arrested!”
There was a silence. Only the slight rumble of the Sky Queen’s jets could be heard for a time.
“I know very well that it’s obnoxious of me to keep referring to myself,” Phineas Gull said abruptly. “But as a professional author I’d like to note that such lengthy exposition goes down better if broken up and spread out. It was all a little hard to follow, Lazla.”
“Perhaps you can edit it when you write it all up, Mr. Gull.”
The entire group had been crowded into the spacious control compartment, allowing Modora to keep an eye on Bob Jeffers at the flight panel. In minutes she told him: “All right, Bob, you can begin your descent. The arena, MacNanty Round, is close ahead. Blends in with the desert, but you’ll be able to make it out. They’re expecting us, of course.”
“I’d guess the Delperta boys can’t wait to get their knife-tossing hands on Tom’s silencer machine,” Sgt. Kincaid muttered sourly.
“I’m told they would like to examine it,” admitted Lazla with a smile. “They’ll have to counteract it if the ransoming plan is to retain force. Also they’ll look at Rover Boy—why not?” Suddenly she put her pistol away. “There. At your mercy. I sense that I’ve convinced you all of at least the possibility of our good intentions. So take this as a sign of my sweet innocence.”
Tom was stony. “It’ll take more than that—Elsa.”
“I didn’t want to hurt you, Tom. I’m afraid you’re a pretty vulnerable boy.”
The arena was oval and flat-roofed, like an enormous pill. Other than a few skylights, the entire surface of MacNanty Round was unbroken, though beginning to show signs of ill-repair. As the Sky Queen set down, several jeeps appeared with armed men aboard, most of them blackfellows. “Science enthusiasts or hired thugs?” asked Slim sarcastically.
“Not mutually exclusive,” commented Gull.
Said Lazla simply: “Employees.”
Exiting into the harsh sun, the ten captives were frisked by the security men, Lazla apologizing for the necessity. Then Kincaid and the Americans were escorted silently through dark concrete corridors and into a vast open space, dimly lit by light falling from the skylights. “We conserve electricity,” said Lazla Modora.
They had stopped at an elevation, at the rail of a higher tier of spectator seats. The floor of the arena, well below ground level, was spread out before the viewers. To one side they could all make out shadows that disturbed them. “It’s like a concentration camp!” muttered Bud.
They could see rows of cots, with dozens of human silhouettes mostly reclining or sitting. Armed men stood guard at the four corners of the area. Here and there were examination tables, instruments, unusual pieces of equipment, and big trucks that had been driven into the arena and parked. One beam of sunlight fell upon a small plane at the opposite wall, near what appeared to be a broad sliding door. “Our eye in the sky, hmm?” said Kincaid.
A familiar figure approached them along the tier railing, nodding and flashing a leer. “What sort of horror show is this, Delperta?” demanded Tom. “This doesn’t look to me like humanitarian medical testing.”
Serge Delperta stopped next to Lazla and put an arm about her. He looked at her with mock surprise as she nestled in. “Now what does young Mr. Swift mean by that, my dear?”
She smiled up at him, and then at Tom. “I practiced my dramatic skills, just as I said I would. You’d be proud.”
“Ah! The story. Were they entertained?”
“It kept them docile for the entire flight. Useful when you have one little girl dealing with a troop of big men.” She laughed slightly. “ ‘This is a war, a true world war’! And they just sat there.”
Chow sputtered and Felix Ming said faintly, “Are you, then, saying... this terrible threat of disease...”
“Now now—Ming, I believe, isn’t it? Surely you do not expect us to lie to you? Servants of humanity as we are?” Delperta laughed. “Yet you see, elements of truth may be woven together in various ways.
“There is indeed a grave question of disease and immunity involved in our work with all these involuntary patients of ours. But our aim, dear friends, is not to prevent a fatal contagion—but to spread it!”
“I—I THINK—I’m gonna be sick!” murmured Chow. “You dang sidewinders—usin’ a woman, too!”
“But I’m a very modern woman, Chow,” said Lazla brightly. “I do not mind being used.”
“Do you plan to give us the real story?” demanded Tom.
Phineas Gull harrumphed, “I urge you to do so at this point.”
“Not so much to tell,” shrugged Delperta. “I have heard Lazla’s rehearsed story, our foolish prank. It is substantially correct. But we found it amusing to twist a few parts backwards. The disease is quite real, and utterly devastating. How lucky, then, that humanity already possesses chromosomal immunity to it!”
“Which you are trying to destroy,” stated Tom Swift flatly.
“Just so. By the application of sound, of complex harmonics artificially produced by our technology, we have already substantially reduced the immunity of our population of experimental subjects—a group valuable to us for testing because of the degree to which, as an extended family, they share the same DNA. Not so easy to come by such a group. Yet to take them—surprisingly easy.”
“My God, I remember more now!” choked John Wyvern. “They’re using my research to suppress the specific immunity factor!”
Tom nodded. “Germ warfare, basically.”
“Call it chromosomal subversion. Do you like the colorful term, Mr. Gull? One might release the viral agent, you see, while rendering the target population vulnerable through the effects of our directed sonic transmission. Obviously, though, we must neutralize the world’s counterweapons. It seems our main threat is your silencing device, Swift.”
“Main problem with germ warfare, isn’t it?—keeping your own people from comin’ down with whatever you’re turning out,” observed Kincaid.
“We are very close to a solution. Alas, though, the coffers of our beloved country cannot support the project without a massive infusion of wealth. And so, we ransom cities.”
“Please don’t think we really plan to release the contagion, beyond a small demonstration,” said Lazla. “No, it will be a bargaining chip, a threat to be negotiated away. Our goal is to achieve a certain result by means of such negotiation.”
“Yeah? What result?” asked Bud.
Lazla replied forcefully, “Freedom!”
Chow snorted. “Them folks down there don’t look s’ free to my ole eyes.”
“Our ‘freedom’ is that which comes with independence for our people, our nation,” was Delperta’s smooth response. “We have so rarely had the respect of the world. A few years of self-rule now and then over the centuries, followed by decades of absorption into our ever-hungry neighbors. The West allows it. Now perhaps they will listen.”
“Just what country are we talking about?” put in Arv. “I thought you Delpertas were Swiss.”
“So we have led others to believe,” Delperta sneered.
“Nothing can wipe away our true identities,” declared Lazla. “By blood and pride, our heart lies with Ruthenia!”
Ruthenia! Tom’s eyebrows flew up in surprise—and recognition. “My great-grandfather Tom had a run-in with agents of Ruthenia.”
“While building his magnetic silencer. What irony.” Serge Delperta had removed his knife from his pocket and was balancing it on a finger, the point of the blade tickling the air. “Poor, sad, victimized Ruthenia. How many in America even know her name? After the second world war, she was again annexed, gobbled up. Your government, your NATO, your United Nations—all smug and pleased with the status quo. If we must fight our way free, so be it.”
“Not to be cynical,” spoke up Arv Hanson sarcastically, “but with billions in ransom money floating around, I’d say you Delperta brothers, and Miss Whatsername here, stand to walk away with a nice reward for your efforts.”
Delperta grinned. “Surely we deserve compensation for our time. Do you know how much a surgeon gets for shrinking a nose?”
The silentenna and SenTec had been carried in and deposited some distance below them on the arena floor. One of the armed guards handed Delperta Tom’s Spektor. “That is the remote control,” Lazla explained to him as he turned it over curiously. “For the robot tracker—I believe for the silencer as well.”
“American toys for us to play with!” chuckled Delperta. “Now then, Tom, please show me how to make your metal hound move about. I love these remote-control cars. Otto, my dear brother, will also enjoy it. He is to arrive soon.” When Tom did not move, Serge Delperta’s smile broadened toward glee and his knife-hilt slipped down into his palm. “Do you think it was just a suggestion?”
The young inventor silently held out a hand and Delperta put the Spektor into it. “Act with care, Tom. My engineers have scanned it—and your aircraft—for beacons and beepers; still, you would be wise to keep me from getting nervous. I think you know how I release tension and anger.”
“Do you mean the sonic blast or the brushfire?”
The man’s face hardened. “Show me how to operate the hound, if you please.”
Tom showed Delperta the basic guidance control, which controlled the SenTec without activating the reactrons or trace-analyzer components. In minutes the Ruthenian had Rover Boy speeding back and forth across the floor of the arena. He brought the robot-mobile close to the rows of cots and made a game of “buzzing” the weak, sick victims, forcing them to run or stand on their cots. Delperta and Lazla Modora seemed to enjoy themselves immensely, but the abo security guards stood without expression, hands near their holsters.
The game stopped when an employee approached Delperta and spoke quietly in a language the Americans could not understand. “Very fine!” he exclaimed. “My experts have completed their study of your great ship, Tom. Now, it is surely obvious that it cannot remain parked beside us, for searchers—even satellites—to find. No, no. We will fly it a very great distance away, to the Great Dividing Range, where it shall crash and incinerate. First, naturally, we must load aboard the remains of her gallant crew.”
“H-he means us!” choked Chow.
“Not much good without us,” noted Sgt. Kincaid. “Have to leave some teeth and bone for identification.”
“The whole business is embarrassing and distasteful,” Lazla said with mocking apology. “But it must be done. Patriotism demands it.”
“However, you may relax, John,” added Delperta to Dr. Wyvern. “You will remain here. A few refreshing sound treatments, and again you will resume your work, confused but with enthusiasm.” He turned to Lazla. “Where do we tell him he works?”
“The university at Denver. I find it a lovely setting.”
“Our employment of you won’t be much longer, eh, John? Ruthenia will be free, and then—in a certain sense!—you also.”
Almost swamped by a feeling of helplessness, Tom’s bright eyes continued to scan the shadows for some trace of hope. He caught a movement behind Delperta and Modora, at the front of the tier near the railing. One of the blackfellows turned slightly and raised a bulky pistol, pointing it out over the immense arena floor.
It was a flare gun. The captives jerked back as a streak of spark and smoke jetted across the dimness.
Was it a signal for the killing to begin?
THE SONIC CELL
THE MAN with the flare-gun hurled it off into the darkness and drew the revolver from his holster, as did the several other guards standing around the group. They aimed their weapons—at Serge Delperta and Lazla Modora!
“Traitors!” spat out Delperta, whipping back his hand to hurl his knife.
The flare-gun man—evidently a leader of what appeared to be a mutiny—expertly shot the knife from Delperta’s raised hand, sending it whirling away with a shattered blade. “What did you think, Delperta?” he snarled. “That we would allow you to keep torturing women and children, our brothers, our people?” As the Ruthenian rushed forward with a shout of rage, guns roared from all sides. Delperta tumbled backwards over the railing. An instant later came the thud of a body hitting the tier below.
Another body collapsed against a seat near Tom. Lazla had been hit and lolled unconsciously, bleeding and moaning faintly.
The great MacNanty Round echoed with shouting and the sound of gunfire. Tom could make out running figures and muzzle flashes. He realized that the flare had been a prearranged signal for rebellion to begin!
It seemed the various technicians and medical personnel down on the floor were unarmed. Some raised their hands in surrender, but others fled raggedly toward the access corridors. The captive patients began to spill out onto the arena floor, staggering, helping one another as the mutinous guards called out encouragement.
“Come on!” gasped Slim Davis. “We’ve got to get out of here!”
But as the group began to turn toward the corridor, Tom called out: “Wait!—Chow!― ”
The big westerner paused and turned—and he understood immediately. “C’mon, Arv. We got a load t’ carry.”
“We can’t just leave her here to bleed to death,” said Tom with a gesture.
But as Chow and Hanson lifted the semiconscious Lazla Modora, the mutiny-leader and the others around him suddenly raised their guns. “She is with Delperta,” grated one of them, stone-faced. “Let her die with him.”
The leader slowly lowered his gun and raised a hand. “No. She’s helpless.” He gestured to the Enterprises group. “Come, follow. There is a room with medical supplies below. You can lock yourselves inside until it’s safe here.”
They began to hustle away, but Tom touched Bud’s arm. “Hold back, flyboy. We need to keep watch on what’s happening—the project people aren’t likely to just give up.”
“Right,” agreed Bud grimly. “And they’ve got the Queen too!”
But the Ruthenian counterattack, beginning in seconds, did not involve Tom’s mammoth skyship. Suddenly the arena dome reverberated with a screech, a scream of deadly sound that slammed Tom and Bud to their knees, faces twisted in pain. “They must have big sonic-boomers all over the arena!” Bud shouted to his chum.
Though remaining conscious, the youths could not stand up. Through the railings they could see that the mutineers and escaping subjects—as well as the Ruthenians who had surrendered—were similarly helpless, shooting off guns at random which could barely be heard.
Tom dragged himself several yards to the small object that lay in one of the aisles. Lifting himself on a elbow, he grasped the Spektor unit and accessed the programmed file that allowed it to function as the remote-control for the silentenna. Trembling almost uncontrollably he worked a dial and thumb-wheel, then stabbed the main switch.
Instantly the huge arena fell silent, as if swathed in a thick blanket!
Relieved, Tom felt his heart pounding. As he tried to rise and turned toward Bud, the Spektor slipped from his grasp and went tumbling between the railings, falling out of sight. But at least it worked, Tom thought, and we can use a little quiet for a while!
The magic of the silentenna neutralized the sonic counterattack. The startled, wondering crowd regained a measure of control—boggling at the weird silence and their sudden inability to speak, but grateful. Guided by the mutineer guards, the liberated victims streamed toward exit corridors on all sides.
Tom hand-signed to Bud: Down to floor. Shut off by hand.
After you, Bud responded with a grin.
They found their way to the lowest tier of seats, then hopped the rail for a silent fall to the arena floor. The crystal and chrome silentenna sat some yards distant.
They trudged past a gap in the curving wall—and two figures suddenly erupted at them from the shadows, one of them limping, his clothes running with blood.
Tom didn’t need sound to deduce what Serge Delperta was saying. He held a gun, as did the white-coated man with him, evidently one of the Ruthenian technicians. They motioned Tom and Bud into a corridor, shoving them violently forward.
As they went deeper into the catacombs and rounded a corner, the effect of the silentenna faded out. “Now you can hear me,” Delperta choked in blind rage. “You are prisoners of war, attackers of Ruthenia, destroyers of our― ” He coughed, spitting out blood. “I do not die so easily, Swift. We shall see about you and your friend.”
“The police—“ Tom began.
“No matter now. We patriots will not be taken alive—eh, Gonzallo?”
As they were herded down the concrete tunnel, Tom racked his brain for some way to keep his enemy talking. “What do you intend to do now?”
Delperta gave a vicious laugh. “Scientific research! Your bodies will be found in due time without a mark on them to show what happened. I will be gone—all will be gone. But Ruthenia will be avenged.”
They entered a large space. A sealed chamber, like a room-sized tank, had been set up in the middle. Next to its thick-walled hatchway was a long observation window.
Gonzallo muttered something in Ruthenian and again Delperta chuckled, blood seeping from the corners of his mouth. “This should afford us a splendid opportunity for scientific observation and note-taking! And you, Swift, will now have a chance to learn firsthand the horrible effects of noise stress. Even Dr. Wyvern did not guess the full extent of the experimental treatments we have developed here.”
“Tom already had the ‘experience,’” Bud grated.
“Oh? Oh yes—in the desert. But that, that was nothing, just shaking a naughty child. H-here we have― ” Delperta was racked with coughs for a moment as Gonzallo covered the boys. “The effect is neural, audible sounds—resonating upon the eardrum—coded in the auditory nerve...” He stopped, gasping for breath. “The neural code... instructs the brain to shut down the, the vital... functions... painful death, as heart and lungs cease to― ” He staggered back, motioning to his henchman. “My guess is that you will survive not more than a matter of minutes.”
Delperta began to manipulate a control panel. There was a high-pitched sound, electronic equipment gaining power. Tom and Bud were forced into the sonic test cell. Gonzallo slammed and sealed the heavy door of the chamber. In a moment Delperta and Gonzallo reappeared outside the observation window.
The two Americans now became aware of something else—a strange pulsing, hissing sound. “Jetz!” Bud murmured fearfully. “Is it starting?”
“It’s the blood in our eardrums!”
With the sound came an unpleasant, oppressive feeling—a feeling of increased pressure and strange disorientation, as if they were dropping in an airplane. Tom waved a hand toward the walls and ceiling. They were completely covered by slots and scalloped ridges. “I’ve been in one of these before,” Tom told Bud. “This is an anechoic chamber, a ‘dead room’ designed to absorb or baffle-out all sound. We can hear each other, but our brains don’t know what to make of the total lack of ambient noise.”
Then the sound sequence was turned on—a low shriek of many shifting tones that gradually swelled to a shattering blast. The cell seemed to explode with noise!
In the silence outside the sealed chamber, Delperta peered through the quartz-glass window. As the minutes passed his grin changed to a furious scowl.
The two boys were lounging casually against the wall, smiling and chatting!
The Ruthenian angrily checked the control switches as his compatriot looked on, bewildered. Still the boys appeared totally unconcerned. Had the elaborate sound system failed them?
Panting, near delirium, Delperta had Gonzallo open the door a slit. A torrent of sound came blasting out. Puzzled and furious be rushed into the cell to search Tom Swift for some undetected counterweapon.
But a leg was suddenly thrust in his way. Delperta tripped and cursed. Before he could lash out, Bud gave him a kick that sent him sprawling forward! The man’s head struck the wall with stunning force, and he sank down, senseless. As Bud stood over him, ready to kick again at the first sign of movement, Tom charged the half-open door and yanked Gonzallo into the chamber. The boys dashed from the cell at top speed.
In a second they had locked the chamber door and Tom, making some educated guesses, had switched off the deadly sound.
He turned toward Bud. The San Franciscan grinned and signed, Can I pop my cork now?
Tom laughed and nodded. The two pulled from their ears the tiny buttons they had plucked off their shirts to use as earplugs.
Bud gasped with relief. “Whew! I can hardly see straight! Your idea helped, genius boy, but another minute of pretending I didn’t hear that noise and I’d have gone nuts!”
“It was our only hope of outwitting them,” Tom said. “I was a near-stretcher case, myself!” He glanced in the window. “Delperta’s not moving, Bud. He may be gone—he knew he wasn’t going to survive those gunshot wounds. But― ” he added. “Gonzallo’s dropped his gun. I don’t think he intends to stick to the program, whether it hurts Ruthenian honor or not.”
“What next, pal?” the young copilot asked. “Can we take the Sky Queen?”
“Let’s not even try. If we can get the authorities here, the Ruthenians may just give up.”
Bud nodded but said, “We’ve walked all around, but I haven’t noticed any phones. And they took our cells. Wait a sec!—that plane in the arena must have a radio aboard!”
They wound their way back out onto the arena floor, where the silentenna still maintained utter silence. Amid the dim sunlight from the high windows they could detect no movement or life. All had fled outside.
Passing the motionless, lonesome SenTec, Tom began to cross the ghostly arena floor. I’ll make for the plane, Tom signed to his pal. You go find the others in the med room.
Bud nodded and turned away, seeing steps ahead that led up to the lowest tier of seats. He climbed several levels, seeking the spot where they had been before and where the others had been led into the access corridor. But as the corridor came in sight, Bud paused and chuckled to himself. “Good night, Tom forgot—with the silentenna running, he won’t be able to make himself heard on the radio mike!” Thinking his pal was probably heading back to the silentenna across the floor, Bud turned to look—and froze!
Directly behind his chum, a hulking figure was moving straight toward him at a determined pace. As the man crossed a patch of light, Bud made out the man’s resemblance to Serge Delperta. “Good gosh!” Bud exclaimed—inaudibly. “That’s gotta be the brother, Otto!”
His dread increased as he saw that Otto Delperta had reached inside his pocket and drawn out a small object, easy to recognize.
A knife! And Serge had said that his brother was also an expert knife-thrower!
“Tom! Tom, behind you!” Bud cried desperately at the top of his lungs. But not a whisper penetrated the atmosphere. There was no way to warn Tom that death stalked his back!
AS IN a nightmare, Bud could only watch helplessly as Otto drew closer behind Tom, unseen, hand drawn back to hurl his knife. With the silentenna blanketing all sound, Tom couldn’t hear even his own footsteps, much less those of the man approaching at his back!
Bud glanced about wildly. Tom was already most of the way across the arena floor. Could Bud attract his friend’s attention by throwing something into view? But even a footballer like Bud Barclay couldn’t make such a long pass.
“If I could shut off the silentenna― ” But the machine was several levels down at floor level. Bud would break an ankle if he tried to drop that distance.
“Wait!—if I could find the Spektor― ” He ran up to where he had seen the remote-controller fall from Tom’s hand over the railing. Bud leaned out over the railing and looked down at the tier below. The Spektor unit lay atop one of the seats!
Bud didn’t hesitate. He whirled over the railing and dropped onto the lower tier, jamming a leg against a seat and ignoring the flash of pain. Snatching up the Spektor unit, he noted the indication on the readout screen—the controller was still set to direct Rover Boy. He scrolled down to the “silentenna” line and stabbed the Enter button.
Nothing happened! “Jetz! The fall must’ve fouled up the controller!”
Yet the scroll function worked. Bud saw a line that read:
TRACK SEQ WYVERN
P-WEIGHT TRACE PROFILE
“Tom still has that silver dollar in his pocket! They didn’t bother taking it away!” He selected the line and thumbed the activator button.
Rover took off like a shot! He wheeled across the arena floor along the path Tom had just taken, the smooth surface allowing him to move at top speed.
Otto Delperta was now near enough behind Tom to make his throw. He paused slightly and poised his throw-arm—and twin beams of light flashed across him, and across his prey as well. Rover had pinned down his quarry!
Ahead of Tom, two shadows leapt into view, grotesquely elongated across the floor. The young inventor whirled, just as something whooshed by his ear. Momentarily startled, he regained his footing and charged Delperta. The man, confused by the presence of the sensitector at his heels, tried to turn and run, but Tom grabbed his shoulder and spun him into an uppercut. The treatment was twice repeated. Then Otto Delperta was down for the count.
Tom ripped a power cord from one of the nearby pieces of medical equipment and bound the hands and feet of his dazed captive. Then he sprinted across the arena toward the silentenna, meeting Bud halfway.
In a moment Tom had shut off his silencer by the controls on its crystalline chassis. Now the boys could hear their own panting gasps. “Pal, I was—stupid not to think of― ” Tom choked.
Bud squeezed his chum’s shoulder. “That may be the only time is history that too much quiet was worse than too much noise! But thank goodness for Rover!”
Tom grinned wanly. “The guy’s earned a couple bones.”
Using the radio in the plane, the boys contacted the territorial authorities. “Say now, mates, you’re behind the times. Kincaid’s already called us from your Sky Queen, and we’ve got jeeps and choppers on the way—plenty of rifles, too. Seems those men on the plane decided the game was up. Surrendered to old Kinca right meekly like good little boys.”
“Too bad,” Tom chuckled. “I guess we missed the action!”
The helicopter fleet included medevacs by the score, to carry the worse-off of the captives away to hospitalization. As the former Elsa Wyvern was trundled by on a stretcher, she motioned slightly for Tom to lean close. The watchers could see that she had whispered a few words before being whisked aboard a chopper.
“So what did she say?” asked Slim Davis. “A few parting sweet nothings?”
“What she said,” replied the young inventor, “I’d rather not repeat.”
Felix Ming nodded. “Many of my romances have ended on precisely the same terms.”
“Maybe you should ask for some help from your venerable ancestors,” Bud gibed.
“My venerable ancestors don’t care for me either.”
Another day and the Sky Queen was winging north and east through a high-altitude twilight, the sensitector and silentenna packed away in the lab deck, the cycloplane and atomicar at home in the hangar-hold below.
Phineas Gull sat alone in the dining area reading and snacking when two figures entered silently, seating themselves across the table from the waspish science-fictioneer. Tom and Bud sat with folded hands and no words, gazing across impassively. “Hello, heroes,” he said nervously. “Something wrong?”
The youths sat like patient statues.
Gull paled and lowered his book. “I... I see. Been doing a bit of research, have you?”
Tom nodded. “You might say so. Actually, Mr. Gull, it was my sister Sandy who found out the truth.”
“H-how long have you known?”
“I knew the afternoon of that mystery call to the Shopton PD. I happened to talk to Sandy about your situation, and it happened to be the case that she knew enough about science fiction― ”
“A reader, is she?”
“—to know that ‘Nelson Sammerlind’ is a woman. Helen Musgrave.”
Gull shook his head. “Poor Helen. No real talent. Five short stories and she retires to Florida, to run a gas station with her husband. Passed away some years back.” He looked at Tom sheepishly. “I didn’t expect anyone to remember Helen, or that old story. I barely recalled it myself. But when it crossed my mind, I realized that it was just similar enough to the real sonic attacks to serve as a basis for my little... well, it was a plot, wasn’t it?”
“Sure was,” said Tom. “Life hasn’t been so good for you these last forty years or so, has it, sir. I gather the idea was to worm your way into some kind of close contact with me and Enterprises.”
“What a wonderful chance to write a best-seller, eh?—a firsthand narrative of the latest Swift exploit, defeating a terrorist threat! And then I find out you’re planning a trip Down Under. Had to motivate you to keep me by your side. So—my melodramatic faked call. Conveniently, calls originating from the grounds of Swift Enterprises are untraceable.” Gull suddenly turned toward Bud. “And just what are you here for?” he snapped.
Bud shrugged. “Muscle.”
“Harlan Ames checked you out pretty thoroughly; it didn’t look like you had a connection to the sonic gang. I decided to take you along to keep an eye on you. But I don’t think much of your deception. If you’d asked outright, I just might’ve agreed—it’s been allowed before. But I guess you’re beyond trusting people.”
“It seems to me, Swift, that an excess of trust is what got you into trouble this time!” he replied defensively. “Be that as it may, I have a right to give the public a stirring account of my adventures.”
Tom nodded. “I suppose you do.”
“Er—do you suppose—if you were to write the introduction― ”
“I’m busy that year.”
Back in Shopton, Sandy and Bashalli had arranged a small welcome-home party at Enterprises. A small crowd gathered in one of Tom’s labs, Rover Boy and the sonic silentenna on proud display on one of the work counters.
“Too bad, Tom, about that Wyvern girl,” commented Arvid Hanson.
“Too bad for her,” retorted Sandy, “getting tied up with the brain of Tom Swift!”
Tom shrugged, embarrassed. “She was a distraction. I made a lot of mistakes along the way. Good thing I had a warm-blooded pal and a cold-blooded bloodhound to save my hide.”
“Nobody can blame you, chief,” put in Slim Davis. “I mean, the gal was sure pretty.”
Bud shook his head. “Tom Swift doesn’t notice stuff like that—not when somebody’s in trouble.” He couldn’t know, but could surely guess, that more trouble was already on its way, to be met by Tom Swift and His Subocean Geotron.
Bashalli smiled superciliously. “Oh, what nonsense. Our observant scientist notices everything.” Tom started to protest with a grin, but Bash waved him down. “No no, I won’t permit it. For this once, I shall have the last word!”
And to enforce the matter, she daintily pressed the control button on the silentenna to On—which stifled all comment most effectively.