TOM SWIFT LIVES!
TOM SWIFT AND
THE CAPTIVE PLANETOID
This unauthorized tribute
Is based upon
the original TOM SWIFT JR. characters.
SCOTT DICKERSON, AUTHOR
As of this printing,
The New TOM SWIFT Jr. Adventures
is owned by
SIMON & SCHUSTER
This edition privately printed by
PRINTED IN THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
TOM SWIFT AND
THE CAPTIVE PLANETOID
“IT’S BEAUTIFUL,” said Bashalli Prandit. As Tom Swift glanced her way with a chiding look of humorous skepticism, the raven-haired Pakistani added: “No, Thomas, I am giving my sarcasm the day off. Your Little Luna may be a big pile of rocks, but it looks like a shiny marble with lovely veins.”
The twin viewports of the Swift Enterprises spaceship Challenger were filled side to side with a globe of auburn traced with thready veins of bright blue, shining in the stark light like rivers of glass. But the rivers on Nestria, Earth’s tiny second moon, were not of water but of air. Twin atmosphere-making machines of Tom’s invention, established at the poles of the moonlet, manufactured a breathable oxygen-nitrogen mix. Forced down close to the surface of the wandering asteroid, the manmade air filled the cracks and low valleys between peaks that thrust out into airless space.
Hefty Chow Winkler pulled off his cowpoke hat and scratched his bald dome. “I dunno. I don’t call it purty, Basherelli. Kind of a big ole clod of a thing.”
“I think of it as a gem,” Tom’s father Damon Swift put in, “a valuable gem for science to polish. So many secrets lying undiscovered!”
“What secrets, Daddy?” asked Sandra, Tom’s sister, one year younger than her famous brother.
“How it attains the power it uses to maintain its concentrated gravitational field, for example,” was the thoughtful reply. “How it utilizes Lunite metal to undo the forces that bind atoms together. The space beings who moved Nestria into orbit know the answers, but it seems they’re leaving them for us to discover on our own.”
“Don’t fergit that there clay food,” Chow noted. “Better’n Injun charms an’ patent medicine fer what ails you.”
“My opinion is this, my friends,” said a tall, stern-faced man in military uniform. “What science should look into is the ability of this little moon to inspire love.”
Bashalli smiled. “That is what moons are for, Colonel.”
Tom was wise enough to steer clear of the philosophical exchange. It was enough of a duty to pilot a spaceship to its designated landing site at the international scientific colony established on Nestria, a settlement that had grown enormously since the youth had led the American expedition that had claimed control of the phantom satellite.
The claim had been vigorously contested by a rival expedition led by the man who now stood among the group, Col. Streffan Mirov, wearing with proud dignity his be-medaled Brungarian military uniform. Mirov, upholding his patriotic duty to his native Brungaria, had opposed the American expeditioners with cunning and threats. But when Tom had rescued the man from death at the hands of infiltrators, Mirov had commenced a new relationship that had warmed, slowly and cautiously, into a respectful friendship.
Brungaria itself, newly democratic, was now a friend to the West. But its political establishment had very mixed feelings about the casual dealings of its national hero with the American prodigy who had beaten him to the moonlet. The government had been slow to protect Mirov from recent threats by an antidemocratic faction called the Sentimentalists, and Mirov’s son Dimitri had been compelled to purchase his father’s safety through murder, a plot Tom had defeated during the most recent mission of the Challenger. Upon the young American’s return from the mystery comet exploit, he had been placed in contact with Col. Mirov, living in seclusion for his own protection. As a result of their discussions, the Brungarian had decided to resume his position in COSMOSA, the nation’s space agency, and had requested a posting to the Nestria colony.
“Whatever else little Nestria may be,” Mirov continued, “to me it represents safety. To the crass politicians now dominating my country’s government, it means ‘Thanks to God, we get old Mirov out of the newspapers!’ If they ask me for campaign contributions, I will throw Lunite rocks at them.”
Bud Barclay, Tom’s copilot and best friend, chortled at the thought. “Be sure to invite me to watch, Colonel!”
“I surely will, young man. Indeed, I will alert the media!”
“Oh, I know taking you up to the colony is important, Colonel,” said Sandy. “But Bashi and I wouldn’t be along if it weren’t for the main mission.”
Bud cast a supercilious look. “Millions of people get married every day. Since when is it a mission?”
“When it is the very first such ceremony in outer space!” pronounced Bashalli firmly. “We are all to be a part of history.”
“Aw now, I been a whole lotta parts o’ history already,” Chow observed. “Good fun, but it sure don’t feed th’ ponies.”
Col. Mirov regarded the hefty cook tolerantly. “An Americanism?”
“A Winklerism!” laughed Bud.
The asteroid swelled before their eyes. “Beacon acquisition from Base Galileo,” Tom announced.
“This is the first time you’ve used the new landing field, isn’t it, son?” asked Mr. Swift.
“That’s right,” Tom replied. “A nice big pad for the Challenger.” The original base facility had been destroyed by bad weather of the worst kind—antimatter. But the scientific outpost had blossomed anew. Completely rebuilt and furnished with the latest research equipment, the science colony now boasted a population of several hundred—including a few newborn natives.
The rumpled sphere became a rugged round horizon, and in moments the huge ship, propelled through the void by Tom’s force-beam repelatrons, gently settled into place.
The passengers, which included Tom’s mother Anne, crowded close to the big viewpane windows. “Oh my,” said Mrs. Swift, “the sky still looks like midnight.”
“You are sure the air hasn’t drifted away, Thomas?” teased Bashalli.
The crewcut young inventor, relaxing after the touchdown, allowed himself a grin,. “Look right down that valley, folks, and you’ll see a little blue sky—even a cloud or two. Remember, the air hugs the ground pretty close.”
“Avoid the penthouse suite,” Bud wisecracked.
The passenger elevator lowered them from the cube-shaped crew module to the ground, where the visitors drew in tentative gulps of earthly air—crisp, thin, and rather dry. As always during daytime, the temperature was desert-hot.
“Welcome, space pilgrims,” called out a blond, husky figure, bounding high in Nestria’s weak gravity as he trotted toward them.
“Hi Kent!” Tom grinned. Turning to the new visitors, he introduced Kent Rockland, mineralogist and metallurgist, head of the United States operation at Base Galileo.
“Good to see you again,” said Col. Mirov as he shook hands. “I’m prepared to promise that I won’t shoot any missiles your way during my stay.”
“I imagine you’re anxious to meet your fellow Brungarians over in the Astra-Volkon complex?” said Rockland.
“Pfah! Not overly. I expect to thoroughly introduce myself to these hardy provincials during the ceremony in which I take command.”
“And speaking of ceremonies—” Sandy began.
Rockland chuckled. “At 4 PM! By the way, we use down-home time up here—otherwise we’d have so many hours to a day we’d feel sleepy by mid-morning.”
“I kin unnerstand that,” offered Chow.
“But I’m glad—honored—that you all came to be a part of our little space ceremonial,” continued the young mineralogist earnestly, “even though only a few members of the colony are Swift Enterprises employees.”
“But we consider you our friends,” Mr. Swift replied warmly.
“And some of us—we can set aside Tom and Bud—are hopeless romantics,” added Bashalli.
“ ‘Hopeless’ is the word,” Sandy commented wryly.
Tom nodded toward a figure approaching in the distance. “And here comes the bride.”
Violet Wohl joined the group with handshakes and hugs. “I’m already a little teary-eyed,” she murmured. “Do any of you cry at weddings?”
“Sometimes,” admitted Mrs. Swift in concert with her daughter. The men shrugged politely. Bashalli gave back a cryptic smile.
“That don’t figger t’ me,” Chow gravel-voiced. “Cryin’ at weddings!—brand my hitchin’ post, wait till th’ marriage has been goin’ awhile.”
“A word of prairie wisdom,” chuckled Mirov.
As they strolled toward the little community of huts, Bud pointed off and said, “Uh-oh, bad luck!”
“Oh Bud, it’s only seeing the bride before the ceremony that’s bad luck,” reproved Sandy.
Chow snorted. “Right fine!—this here marriage starts off jinxed.”
The man who joined them, small and somewhat crinkled with age, bore a wide smile on his face. “I think you’ve all met Dr. Jatczak before,” Tom declared.
“Nevertheless, memory being what it is in an old man, I had better take care to greet each of you,” said the distinguished astronomer, eyes twinkling with obvious delight. After handshakes, he kissed Violet Wohl. “Ah, another in a series for my wife to be!”
“Maybe I’ll start crying early,” murmured Sandy.
Since the first landing on Nestria, Doc Vi, a medical doctor and researcher, had kept close eye on Henrik Jatczak. The frail astronomer had joined the expedition with a heart condition expected to bring his long life to an end in months. Yet the moonlet’s low gravity, and a diet of the strange bio-mineraloid substance mined from a lode in the crust, had restored him to health and obvious vigor. But the ministrations of Violet Wohl had had further stimulative effects for both of them, and friendship and respect had become a promise of marriage.
Kent Rockland gave his guests a tour of the residential community, neat modular bungalows divided by fast-growing vegetable gardens. “Right now our suburb in the sky is made mostly of plastics,” he said, “but we’ve got a stand of young trees growing in the valley. Everything seems to grow fast on Little Luna. Won’t be too many years before we’ll have use for a sawmill and a few carpenters.”
“It’s a wonderful thing to see,” declared Tom. “With all the oxygen-yielding vegetation growing up here, someday you won’t need to manufacture air by machine.”
“How long do you plan to stay on Nestria, Tom?” asked Doc Vi.
“Two nights, at least,” replied the young inventor. “While we’re here, I thought Dad and I would continue our studies of the gravity cube.”
Bashalli frowned. “Not to flaunt my ignorance, but what might a ‘gravity cube’ be? One of those little toys that you twist and turn? It sounds like a game—a puzzle.”
“Ah, my dear, a puzzle is precisely what it is,” chuckled Dr. Jatczak. “The extraterrestrials who provided us our island among the stars, Tom’s Space Friends, speak of it—perhaps I should say, refer to it in logico-mathematical symbols—as an ‘energizer’. It appears to be central to generating the gravitational envelope in which we live, a highly localized and intensified field.”
“Of course, I’ve made studies of it before,” noted Tom. “I learned enough about the principle to make my own gravity-concentrator, the gravitex. But the thing’s immoveable and impenetrable, and—”
“Excuse me, which of you young men are we referring to?” asked Bashalli with mischievous innocence.
After some warily amused exchanges of glance between Tom and Bud, Dr. Jatczak turned to Tom. “Your mentioning this scientific mystery, Tom, reminded me that I have one of my own to tell you about—a matter of astronomy.”
Tom’s eyebrows raised. “A space discovery?”
“Indeed so. Several discoveries in one, you see. I suspect your mighty ship will soon be off on another mission into space!”
BUD groaned humorously at Dr. Jatczak’s announcement. “Jetz! Please tell me it’s not another comet!”
Bud and Tom had just returned to their planetary native soil from an interrupted voyage to Tarksi, the mystery comet that had entered our solar system from interstellar space. The Challenger expedition had reversed course midway when data from Tom’s telesampler revealed a grave threat from a companion body, a staroid—a tiny fragment of an ultradense neutron star.
“Not to alarm any of you,” said Jatczak mischievously, “but there is indeed a certain relationship between my discovery and our late solar intruders, Comet Tarski and the neutron staroid. A married couple, eh?”
Tom’s father smiled. “It already sounds intriguing, Dr. Jatczak.”
“But perhaps of no great interest to most of our guests,” responded the astronomer politely. “And yet—I have no wish to darken the ceremonial enjoyment of our two science-minded visitors with undue suspense. Perhaps...”
“Tell you what, Henrik—I’ll continue my tour and Tom and Damon can catch up after your lecture,” offered Kent.
“If no one objects, I should like to remain, Doctor,” declared Col. Mirov. “As head of the Astra-Volkon contingent, it is my duty to be aware of any such ‘intriguing’ matters in space.”
“Of course,” Tom nodded.
As the others were led away, the two Americans and the Brungarian waited for Jatczak to speak. “Well now,” he commenced, “some have wondered as to the value of my residence here on Nestria—no, please, it’s true, and it’s a reasonable question. Of what value is my modest astronomy station in this age of megascope space probers, orbiting electronic telescopes, and Tom’s marvelous celestial specimen collector?
“The answer is a pure matter of science, gentlemen—of astronomy, even. Our moonlet is comparatively near to Earth, and it rotates. During a portion of our solar night, we have simultaneously an earthly night, you see.”
Tom nodded. “In other words, the span when this part of Little Luna is turned away from Earth as well as the sun.”
“I understand how that would be of value,” commented Mr. Swift.
“Of great value,” Jatczak confirmed. “There are sensitive telescopic observations much aided by a double shadow—that is to say, when the bulk of Earth also eclipses the sun for us, obviously a frequent occurrence given our close orbit. But this benefit is less a matter of optical observation than the modern electronic variety. Naturally, I do both.”
“You are referring to radio-astronomy?” inquired Mirov.
“Precisely, sir—that, and more. Our blue world’s communications and power-transmission systems flood local space with waste energy, electromagnetic waves, all across the spectrum. Nestria, placing her metallic bulk between noisy Earth and my instruments for half of her lengthy day, acts as a very effective shield.”
“Sure,” Tom said; “all the more so because Nestria is laced with veins of Lunite. We had to deal with the inductive diffusion effect from the start.”
“Yes, of course, the annoying signal dispersion,” noted Col. Mirov.
“Go on, Dr. Jatczak,” Tom urged. “What have you discovered?”
The elderly astronomer’s face brightened in scientific delight. “Ah! You see, the protection of Nestria afforded me the opportunity to make a broad study of the heavens with instruments of heightened acuity—in particular the regions of space ‘north’ and ‘south’ of the plane of the ecliptic, the home of the planets.
“You are all familiar with the Oort Cloud, I should imagine?”
Mirov reared up defensively. “Perhaps I am not as familiar with it as you presume, my dear sir.”
“It’s the source of most of the longer-period comets,” stated Damon Swift. “The outer reaches of the solar system.”
“Exactly,” nodded Jatczak. “Leaving our planets behind, one first encounters the Kuiper Belt, domain of icy materials and source of shorter-term comets; and then beyond, at a distance of some five-thousand-billion miles—rather a long haul, but nothing to an astronomer—one enters the Cloud. Unlike the Belt, which is a flat ring, the Oort Cloud is spherical, completely enclosing the solar system like a bubble. Much too thin and diffuse to be seen with the naked eye, of course.”
“It’s so far distant from the sun, and its orbital coefficient so slow, that movement of the sun among the nearby stars can dislodge material that ends up crossing the solar system as comets,” Tom put in.
“And you have discovered something in this cloud?” demanded Mirov impatiently.
“A wonderful discovery! I have detected, within Oort, a rather thin spherical stratum occupied by what seem to be rocky objects of sizable dimension!”
Tom’s eyes widened in scientific enthusiasm. “Another asteroid belt?”
“I intend to call it the ‘Planetoid Sphere’,” replied the scientist. “Perhaps one day the name Jatczak will become attached to it, eh? Setting aside such vital matters, my instruments tell me that the Sphere—mostly composed of what we dismissively term cosmic dust—contains a scattering of substantial objects, thousands. Some of them, gentlemen, are hundreds of miles in diameter and are true microplanets—in the new terminology we are supposed to use nowadays.”
“Doctor, you referred to a relationship with Comet Tarski,” prompted Tom’s father.
“Yes, yes. My second discovery. Well, you see, it is a natural possibility that as Tarski and its staroid companion passed through the Sphere, delicate balances would be disturbed. And it seems that is what has eventuated. I have detected a small planetoid trailing in the wake of the comet and even now approaching the plane of the ecliptic. The glare of the comet’s tail made it difficult to detect from Earth by conventional means.”
Mirov frowned. “I don’t wish to be a worry-wart in the manner of Barclay, but if I may ask with utmost calm—do you predict a collision between this planetoid and our Earth?”
The astronomer chuckled mildly. “An interesting and perfectly legitimate question, Colonel. No indeed, nothing of the sort. No world crisis is involved this time. The Follower will be no less than eight million miles distant at its closest approach—an ant’s stumble cosmologically, but in no way a cause for concern.”
“We thought the same thing about Tarski,” murmured Tom wryly. “How big is the planetoid, Doctor?”
“Roughly—it has an irregular shape—ten miles in diameter, on the order of Mars’s small moons Deimos and Phobos. Little surface gravitation to speak of.”
Tom Swift’s deep-set blue eyes shone with excitement. “Dad, we had to pass up on the Tarski probe, but this planetoid—!”
The elder Swift smiled broadly. “Well, Doctor, you’ve set a fire under my son. And your prediction was right. The Challenger will undertake a mission to this ‘Follower’ and land on it.” As Tom cheered under his breath, he asked the astronomer how long it would be before the planetoid made its closest approach to the earth.
“Oh, you have a little time, a few weeks. The comet nucleus was well ahead of it. And with the disintegration of the staroid the parameters have changed, obviously. I’m making a study of the matter. I shall resume after the wedding ceremony—well, perhaps tomorrow morning.”
“I recommend a postponement to tomorrow afternoon, Jatczak,” dryly pronounced Col. Mirov. “In view of the circumstances.”
The marriage was solemnized in one of Base Galileo’s larger spacecraft hangars, which usually served as a church. Nearly all the colonists, now a fair-sized crowd, watched bride and groom march—or bounce—up the aisle and into the history books. Beneath an arch of enormous flowers from Nestria’s gardens, Henrik Jatczak and Violet Wohl became Henrik Jatczak and Violet Wohl. “Two doctors,” commented Chow. “Ain’t nobody gonna get sick in that family.”
“It’s lovely,” said Mrs. Swift. “Damon, this was a wonderful occasion for my first vacation in space.”
“And so far entirely restful,” Bashalli observed. “Unless this new planetoid guest of ours has overstimulated your brain, Thomas.”
Bud laughed. “C’mon, Bash. Genius boy gets overstimulated if he doesn’t have something going for his brain to chew over!”
Tom laughed too, knowing every word his pal said was absolutely true.
The next morning—so-called; there had been no intervening night—Tom set off for the cave of the gravity cube in one of the colony’s agile terrain-crawler tanks, equipped with treads that clawed into the ground, supplemented recently with Tom’s gravitex machine. His father and Bud accompanied him, as well as—by insistent demand—Sandy.
“After all, I do have a scientific education, Daddy—Tomonomo—Bud!” she observed forcefully. “I’m as well-qualified to take a look at this alien thingie as—”
“As me,” Bud put in.
“More so,” she daintily snorted.
Inside the energizer chamber, hewn from solid rock by the space friends, Tom worked for hours with the researchers stationed there, next to his father. But it didn’t take long for Sandy and Bud to lose interest—as there was little to see. The black-haired young pilot led his dateable friend down to the base of the mountain and into the “mine” of “edible substance to sustain life,” as the mineral food had been described by the extraterrestrials.
When they eventually returned, Mr. Swift said to his pert daughter, “And how did you like our clay entrée, sweetheart? As you know, it has healthful properties—some kind of stimulative effect on cell regeneration and the immune system.”
“I do feel energized,” she replied.
Bud reddened slightly. “I, er, picked up a few samples for Doc Simpson,” he said. “He said he wanted to test them in combination with his adapticum pills.”
“Good going, flyboy,” grinned his pal. He paused momentously. Then he added: “Doc plans to make a new version of aquadapticum for astronauts. To save on oxygen.”
“That explains why you’re not out of breath, Buddo,” Sandy commented. She was slow to add: “After our climb.”
Bidding goodbye to the chamber’s research team, they drove back to base. Both the sun and the swollen ball of Earth were now low on the horizon of the moonlet. It had become tomorrow afternoon, and they found Henrik Jatczak awaiting them at his elevated observatory outpost.
“How are you, Henrik?” asked Damon Swift as the party climbed down from the transport.
“Oh, fine, fine, fine!” he replied happily.
Tom’s eyes twinkled. “Made any new discoveries, sir?” Sandy nudged him in rebuke.
“I have indeed, my friend!” beamed the elderly man, whose stay on Nestria had made him a good deal less frail than when he had first arrived. “Something most interesting!” He gestured toward one of his radiometric instruments. “The MHD dipoliscopic resolver—I thank you for having shipped it to me, Tom; one can hardly do without one these days—has registered a second guest in our solar system!”
“Another planetoid?” asked Sandy.
“Yes, my dear, another one jarred loose by the passage of the staroid through the, ahem, Jatczak Sphere. There may well be a great many of them.”
“Not a—er—big heavy one, is it?” Bud asked.
“You must stop this needless worry, Bud, or you will wither your muscular youth,” remonstrated Jatczak with a warm smile. “No, this is just a tiny rock. I haven’t yet calculated its dimensions and mass. Perhaps a thousand feet or so. And no, it will not approach the earth. But I trust you will pay a visit en route to the Follower?”
“We surely will,” promised Tom.
After a grand feast prepared by Chow and their second period of sleep, the visitors from Shopton, New York, Earth, bade the newlyweds and the other colonists goodbye and mounted spaceward on columns of repelatron force. They made brief stops at the poles to show Sandy and Bashalli the atmosphere-making machines in operation. Then the Challenger zoomed homeward to the minute speck in the Atlantic that was its permanent base, Fearing Island.
As the ship penetrated the atmosphere at a modest velocity, the Private Ear Radio—an advanced quantum-link communicator—beeped on the control board.
“Hmm! Guess it’s an early ‘welcome home’,” remarked Bud.
Tom plucked up the unit. “This is Tom, Fearing Control.”
“Tom! This is Tower Three!” came a frantic voice, clear as a bell. “We have a situation!—There’s—”
The voice was cut off by a sharp sound!
“That was an explosion!” gasped Bashalli.
Tom nodded sharply. “Don’t I know it! Let’s bring ’er in on a low arc, Bud. We need to know what we’re getting into.”
“Aw, like as we don’t a’ready know what we’re gettin’ into,” groaned Chow. “Trouble!”
“It may just be a problem with the radio,” suggested Tom’s mother hopefully. “Mightn’t it be, Damon?”
The reply was grave. “Not likely,” said Mr. Swift. “Not with the PER units.”
A dark silhouette against the last traces of Atlantic twilight, the Challenger crossed the islet slowly at a 300-foot altitude.
Suddenly Bud exclaimed, “Hey! What happened to their power supply?” The blazing array of lights that gave evening illumination to the Swift Enterprises spaceport had gone out, plunging the base into darkness.
A pillar of fire shot up from the ground and in its glow a huge gantry crane seemed to come apart like a collapsing toy tower. An instant later an ear-shattering Boom! penetrated the hull of the ship!
Before anyone could speak, two more explosions followed. Another service tower and a tall radar-tracking antenna went to pieces in brilliant bursts of flame.
“Sizzlin’ skyrocks! The whole base is blowing up!” Bud cried.
Tom threw himself at the controls. “We’d better get down there and—”
“Son—stop,” came the quiet, commanding voice of his father. “You’re carrying passengers. There’s no need to set the ship down in the middle of all that. Let Base Security handle it.”
The young inventor felt torn. He was hungry to take action. Yet Fearing Island, leased by the Swifts from the federal government, was protected by assigned military guards as well as Enterprises’ own security forces. “I—guess you’re right, Dad. We can go back upstairs until we get the all-clear.”
“Jetz, Skipper!” Bud protested. “Those inventive eyeballs of yours are sure to pick out clues the base guys would miss! Look... Mr. Swift, you can fly this rig. Drop me and Tom off, then burn rubber outta here!”
Despite the situation, Tom flashed a grin at his chum. “Inventive eyeballs? But Dad, he’s got a point.”
Mr. Swift acknowledged the point reluctantly and took over the controls as Tom and Bud hastened down to the ground access elevator. “If the base’s power supply has failed, their central communications may be cut off!” the elder scientist muttered to the others. “I’ll start alerting the mainland authorities on the standard radiocom.”
As Tom’s father spoke excitedly over the radio, the Enterprises CEO “did a 180” and sent the Challenger swooping back to its special launchpad, the same spot from which they had taken off only a few score hours before. No one had any idea what had caused the explosions or whether their craft might be coming down in a danger area. The thought of lives to be saved or injured men who might need attention drove all other considerations from their minds.
“Yow! Look at all that blue fire!” gasped Bud as the hull hatch panel slid open and the elevator cab began to descend.
The eerie light through the view windows made their faces pale. Geysers of bluish flame were spouting up from a dozen different places around the island base. “Almost like incendiary bombs going off!” Tom commented.
As they neared the ground, dark figures could be seen dashing away from the flames. Other fires flared at scattered points. “They are incendiaries!” Bud shouted. “And those guys are throwing them!”
The words were hardly out of his mouth when the boys saw another figure sprint toward the timbered scaffolding around a half-constructed blockhouse. He aimed something that looked like a flamethrower, and a gush of fire sent bright tongues of light flicking over the wooden framework.
A force of merciless invaders was seizing the Enterprises space base—or destroying it!
THE NINTH LIGHT
AS THE sealed elevator touched down, the boys leapt from its cab. By now the lurid glare of the numerous fires was dispelling the darkness. Frantic shouts mingled with the crackle of the flames.
“Good grief, what should we do, Tom?” Bud queried anxiously. “Chase down some of these guys?”
Tom shook his head. “We need to reconnoiter—get some idea of what’s going on. Let’s find Mr. Bowden!”
Bowden was the chief engineer in charge of the base’s physical facility. Tom and Bud ran toward the two-story administration building where his office was located.
The whole base was in wild confusion. Security guards and construction workers were trying to cope with the attack as the raiders darted to and fro, spreading fiery destruction. The extent of the Fearing spaceport, Tom realized, would make it difficult to bring the situation under control. He could see that the attack had already spread beyond the space facility itself to the shoreline, where various Enterprises submersibles were docked.
Running, he scanned the mysterious attackers. They were clad from head to toe in black, tight fitting suits which masked their faces except for eye slits in a sort of bulbous hood. The mouth area was covered by a small cylinder. Some of the men were armed with the peculiar flamethrowers and others with the blue incendiary grenades. “Hold it!” Bud yelled. He broke away from his friend and rushed to the left, toward a raider who was about to ignite a stack of oil drums.
“Careful, Bud!” Tom cried in alarm as the raider swung around with his flamethrower to meet the unexpected assault.
Bud dived headlong and rolled beneath the viperlike tongue of flame. Springing to his feet, he knocked the man sprawling before he could trigger his weapon again. The raider fought back viciously, but he was no match for the athletic young flier. Bud, fighting mad, smashed an uppercut to the jaw that stretched his opponent senseless. Then he snatched up the raider’s fire weapon and turned to rejoin his friend.
Bud rubbed the back of his neck, wincing. “Oww! It stings! Got a little singed, but—” He held up the captured device. “I got a souvenir!”
“Good work!” Tom exclaimed, relieved. “Won’t be long before we know where those guys came from—and what they’re after.”
Both boys paused for a moment to stare at the one-piece outfit of the semi-conscious man. Tom bent close. “As I thought—an underwater suit. Not scuba, though. This little cylinder uses a compressed—”
“Never mind that now!” Bud urged. “Let’s find Bowden first and do something about these fires.”
Using the tubular weapon still grasped in his hand, Bud waved over a trotting platoon of security men, who immediately grabbed up the raider Bud had downed. “We’ve got a detention center going in the mess hall,” panted the lead officer. “Got quite a bunch of them already.”
The boys continued their dash toward the administration building. Several of the base fire trucks were in action. With sirens screaming they sped toward the worst of the myriad blazes. Along their sides clung the base’s firefighters, clad in spacesuit-like garments of Tomasite and Asbestalon. Midget helicopters had now joined the firefight as well.
Tom and Bud found Bowden issuing frantic orders on a walkway in front of the building to a cluster of the base personnel, including the Enterprises employee in charge of security, Mace Vendiablo.
“My dad’s radioed an alarm to the Feds,” Tom reported. “Help should be on the way soon.”
“Thanks! We can sure use it!” Bowden said in relief.
“But we’ve got the raid fairly well under control,” added Vendiablo with a defensive scowl. “My security guys are roundin’ them up.”
“How about power?” Tom asked Bowden.
“The power plant’s okay, but the line towers were knocked down right at the blockhouse. Tom, if you can help the crew patch up a connection, it would solve one problem.”
“I’ll see what I can do.” Suddenly Tom turned to Bud and held out his hand. With a can’t-fight-it half-smile, Bud handed his chum the flamethrower device.
The young inventor scrutinized it for a moment, then called over one of the suited fire crewmen. At Tom’s behest the man walked a distance away and pointed the tube toward an empty span of the walkway, pulling its trigger.
A weird jet of fire, like a tight beam of flame, laced thirty feet through the air!
“Good enough,” Tom muttered. He swiveled and hurried off toward the powerhouse.
“We already seized a bunch of those things,” declared Vendiablo.
Bud was put to work with several others setting up extra pumping equipment to fight the fires. Strangely, the raiders seemed to make no effort to hinder the base personnel from coping with the damage. Nor were any of the black-uniformed attackers in sight when the lights came on again fifteen minutes later thanks to Tom Swift’s ingenuity.
By now, Federal forces were on the scene, deployed from a Coast Guard cutter which had sped to the restricted islet from a point down the Georgia coast. “Where ya been, boys?” asked Mace Vendiablo. “Pretty much all over.”
Almost an hour went by before the scattered blazes were finally brought under control. Then Tom and Bud joined Bowden and a group of Enterprises security officers, FBI agents, Coast Guardsmen, and a National Guard colonel in the administration building.
“Whoever the raiders were, the bulk of them have escaped without leaving a trace,” Colonel Trump was saying. “Just melted away in the darkness.”
“What about the one I knocked out?” Bud put in.
“In your detention hall with the dozen others Vendiablo’s people apprehended,” an FBI man said. “We’ve been over every inch of the base and the island.”
“Any idea how they got in? Or out?” Tom asked. “We know those are diver suits they’re wearing.”
“Right. An underwater operation,” Bowden replied. “Definitely not by air or surface craft. They would have been spotted.”
“Trump, Fearing has one of the most sophisticated security systems on Earth,” stated Vendiablo doggedly. “Patrolscope personnel radar, mini-drones in the air, sonar alarms covering the seabed—”
Tom was grim and worried. “And since we found that tech-savvy frogman invaders can get by even that, we put in the new aquatometer system. Overlapping repelascan zones completely encircle the island, set for anything in the water that even might be human or artificial.”
The chief FBI agent shrugged. “And yet—the most likely answer seems to be that they sneaked in by water, probably on the windward shore from the outer edge of the point, using scuba gear or whatever you’d call it. Left the same way. I doubt they could conceal a sub from us, so they probably entered the water from the mainland coast.”
Mr. Bowden had been conferring in whispers with one of his employees. Turning to the others, he said: “Well, guess we’ve got one piece of the puzzle. Foss here just told me that four of the aquatometers went down—all of them adjacent to one another in a row. A big slice of underwater was unprotected.”
“They all failed at the same time?” demanded Bud skeptically.
“Sure did. Obviously not a coincidence. They’re not wrecked, power’s still on. They’re still ‘beeping-in.’”
“Then the most likely answer is—pretty unlikely!” Tom exclaimed. “Someone must’ve transmitted the coded ELF signal that recalibrates the scanners.”
“Or in this case, decalibrates them,” snorted Bowden. “We do a remote recalibration frequently, gentlemen, to compensate for changing seawater conditions. The access ‘handshake’ signal code is replaced twice weekly. Only two trusted workers—security-cleared by you FBI fellas—have access to the code at any one time.”
“We’ve begun interviewing both of them already,” Vendiablo piped up. “We don’t let a minute pass—”
“Calm down, Ven,” snapped Bowden. “Nobody’s accusing you of anything.”
“They’d better not!”
“The big question is, who were they?” said the leader of the Coast Guard unit.
“Want a guess? Enemies!” Bud’s capacity for wisecracks had resurfaced.
Tom nodded. “Enemies with access to some very high-tech equipment. That flamethrower device is a neat bit of work. It fires a hair-thin stream of globules of pyrolytic fluid under high pressure, which it simultaneously ignites en route by a focused laser beam. Good night, it’s almost like a rocket engine!—but there’s no pushback because all the ignition is out in the open air, separated from the unit.”
“I wouldn’t spend time in admiration, young man,” admonished Colonel Trump sternly.
“You’re right, sir. Come on, Bud.”
“Where are you going?” demanded Vendiablo.
“To take a look at the prisoners,” the youth replied. As the others began to protest, Tom cut them off. “I’m here representing Tom Swift Enterprises, folks. This may be an imminent threat. I have an obligation to investigate the matter personally and report to my father.”
“As this facility is under multiple jurisdictions, I’m not sure who has the authority to stop you, Tom,” grinned the FBI man, Ron Mardack. “Mind if we listen in quietly?”
They hastened to Fearing’s large mess hall, where guards armed with Enterprises impulse guns had herded about a dozen of the raiders together in the middle of the broad floor. Their underwater togs had been replaced by cotton tunics from the base infirmary. One oddity was immediately evident: all the men, of dark cast and black hair, wore a silver loop in their pierced left ears. At the bottom of the loop was a small dangling object, like a charm on a bracelet.
“What are those loops? Communications antennas?” speculated Trump.
“If we’re speculating,” murmured Bud, “I’d like to speculate that they’re not explosive.”
“We’ve used the detectors on all of them, top to bottom,” noted one of the guards. “Those fashion accessories are just cheap metal. Nothing inside.”
Mardack chuckled. “Guess they wanted to dress up as buccaneers.”
Tom approached one of the raiders, who glared back defiantly. “That ‘charm’ must mean something,” he told the others as he scrutinized the object. “It’s been worked into a shape like a letter or symbol.”
“These guys don’t talk,” said the guard. “Just grunt.”
Suddenly Tom jumped back, and Bud’s muscles tensed, as one of the raiders strode forward toward the young inventor. “No, no,” he said in a quavering voice, raising his hands to show they were empty. “Please, I shall not hurt—I must speak!”
“Don’t come any closer,” Tom said coolly. “What do you want to tell me?”
The man jolted, startled, as one of the other prisoners hissed out “Purjitai!” in a threatening voice.
“Guards—guns at ready,” commanded the Colonel.
“Is that your name?” Tom asked the man. “Purjitai?”
The man nodded, stark white with evident terror. “Yes, yes, I am he. My comrade, he warns me, but—but Swift, you are a science man, all know of you. Protect me! I beg you! I no longer wish to serve the Ninth Light, but—but he is all-seeing! If he should work u’umat on me—!”
Purjitai stopped, trembling violently head to toe, eyes bulging. Tom tried to speak in a calming tone. “No one can hurt you here. What is this ‘ninth light?’ Whom do you serve? Tell me!”
The man gasped. “It has started! U’umat!”
Before Tom could speak the terrified man dropped to his knees—then collapsed completely! Tom started to kneel down, but Bud shouted out: “No, Skipper! It could be a trick!”
Tom edged back toward the group. “We need to separate this man from the others and get medical help. He might be having some kind of seizure.”
“I’m calling Dr. Carman,” declared Bowden.
An ambulance team arrived, and the man named Purjitai was rushed away on a stretcher-cart. He was breathing and his eyes were open, yet he was limp and lifeless as a burlap sack. He spoke no more.
As the group left the mess hall, Tom glanced back at the crowd and nudged Bud. “The raiders are terrified—utter terror! They must be afraid the same thing will happen to them.”
“Man, I don’t blame them! But what was it, Tom? Some kind of remote-control poison capsule?”
Tom shook his head musingly. “We’ll find out if anything’s in his system. But...”
“Pal, if it is some kind of remotely-controlled implant to take down potential talkers—how did they know the guy was about to talk? None of the others were affected. Why him? Why then?”
The San Franciscan nodded. “Know what I think? I think those are great questions!”
The danger apparently over, Mr. Swift landed the Challenger on its dedicated pad, and the boggling party of space-vacationers were rushed to a well-guarded place of safety, where they slept the night—those who could.
Next morning they all boarded Enterprises’ three-deck Flying Lab, the Sky Queen, and had a Chow Winkler brunch somewhere over the state of Virginia. “Wa-aal, guess ever’thing’s per normal—mystery guys runnin’ around gunnin’ fer who knows what,” said the grizzled chef in sour tones. “Got so’s I don’t let it bother me. Not gonna lose weight over somethin’ that happens jest about every blame week.”
“You’ve got to keep up your strength,” winked Tom. “You never know when we might need a little six-gun protection, pardner.”
“You think you’re jokin’, boss. But it’s true as Texas rain.”
Anne Swift asked her husband, who was silent and intent upon deep thoughts: “Dear, what did you find out this morning? Do we know yet where the raiders come from?”
“We know essentially nothing,” replied the head of Enterprises. “If any of them intended to speak, the collapse of that fellow Purjitai has scared it out of them. No one at Enterprises or the government as received any kind of demand or communicae. None of the known terrorist groups have claimed responsibility.”
“It’s in the morning news all over,” Tom noted. “The Federal people don’t like it, but there’s no way to hold it back—not with everybody having cellphones. They’re playing down the security-breach angle, though.”
Sandy turned to Bashalli, who was her closest friend. “Bashi, is that man’s name, Purjitai, one you’ve heard of?”
“In Pakistan? No.” The raven-haired Pakistani thought for a moment. “Well... perhaps I spoke too soon. Pakistan, you know, once had an eastern part, on the other side of India. But East Pakistan declared independence and became Bangladesh. ‘Purjitai’ sounds to me like a name from the northernmost region, which is close to Nepal and Bhutan. The dialect there is influenced by the Tibetan peoples.”
“Might be a clue,” mused Sandy, who loved clues.
“Bash, is there anything unusual about that part of Bangladesh?” Tom asked. “Are there groups there that might be especially opposed to the United States?”
“Or might they have religious objections to space travel?” suggested Mrs. Swift.
“I’ve heard of nothing along those lines,” the girl responded. “I’m thinking back to what we learned in school. The only thing that comes to mind is what they call the area, just a nickname. It is called—how shall I say it in English?—the handful of sultans.”
“A sultan’s like a king, idden that so?” inquired Chow. “I heard o’ the Sultan o’ Swat.”
“A sultan is a king or prince,” confirmed Bashalli with a smile. “In Muslim countries that have not adopted the European style of government, sultans rule sultanates, as kings rule kingdoms.”
“But Bangladesh isn’t a sultanate,” objected Tom’s father.
“No, it isn’t. I think the name is just a kind of joke—what Bud calls a ‘dis’.”
“A put-down,” said Mr. Swift. “At any rate, the fact that one person claims to have a name that sounds like it might come from a part of Bangladesh—”
Sandy winced sheepishly. “—is admittedly not conclusive evidence.”
“They all do appear as if they might come from that part of the world,” Tom said. “We’ve sent digital photos of that charm-symbol to Grandyke U., as well as the State Department and FBI. We’ll see if anyone knows what it means.
“But I’m mostly interested in some other things,” continued the young Shoptonian. “What’s the bit about the ‘ninth light’? What exactly is this u’umat that Mr. Purjitai mentioned just before he collapsed? If his boss is ‘all-seeing,’ how does he do it?”
Anne Swift asked about Purjitai’s condition. “Carman says he’s stable,” answered Tom’s father. “In fact, all life-signs are normal. No trauma, and he doesn’t show any sign of pain. Nothing in his blood. The EKG is fine. Yet his eyes don’t track a moving hand, he doesn’t react when touched—he doesn’t react at all.”
“My word,” Bashalli said, “it sounds like a meditative trance—the sort of things Buddhist yogis do.”
Tom gazed out the viewpane at the drift of morning clouds. “It’s as if his higher cognitive functions—the ‘top story’ of his brain—have been shut down.”
“A waking coma,” pronounced his father solemnly. “If the Ninth Light can do something like that from a distance, anyone could be vulnerable, anywhere on Earth!”
BUD, piloting the mammoth skyship, landed them at Enterprises with a gentle bump. It was not yet noon. The trip had been an effortless hop for the supersonic Sky Queen.
As the far-travelers went their separate ways with expressions of thanks and worry, Tom went at once to the big hypersonic wind tunnel in which his newest invention was to be tested. It had beckoned in the back of his mind throughout the trip to Nestria. He was determined to let the mysteries and plotters fend for themselves for the moment.
Bud, at his chum’s side, pretended to take a piece of paper from his pocket and read it. “Oh, that’s right. ‘Tell me about your new invention, Tom.’”
Tom laughed. “Which one?”
“Whichever one gets us into the most trouble the fastest,” Bud joked.
“My duratherm wing is supposed to get people out of trouble, smart guy!”
The newest Tom Swift invention was a system designed to rescue astronauts stranded in orbit, along the lines of a life-preserver or parachute for travelers in trouble. “It happens, you know,” he told Bud as the two entered the big test facility blockhouse. “Power can go bad, fuel tanks can spring a leak—”
Tom nodded—wryly at Bud, politely at the several test technicians who ambled past them in the hallway. “And even with repelatrons we can’t totally eliminate the threat of meteoroids. There’ll always be cases in which astronauts end up stuck up there, maybe in critical condition, unable to manage reentry. So what we have here is a kind of ‘emergency backup’ reentry vehicle that a spacecraft can carry along folded into a tight bundle.”
“I see—like a parachute,” nodded Bud. “But how the heck do you deal with all the friction heat? It’s like a smelting furnace if you can’t make a fully powered descent!”
“I’ll show you,” promised the young inventor.
The hypersonic wind tunnel, nicknamed Tornado In A Can, had been specially designed by Tom and his father to test the lift and drag characteristics of aerospace vehicles cleaving the atmosphere at speeds up to Mach 10—ten times the speed of sound. To create the air flow, pressure was built up at one end of the tunnel by multistage compressors and drawn off at the other end by a vacuum pump. In both the “pitch” and “catch” elements, the pump mechanisms were supplemented internally by micro-repelatrons tuned to the basic components of Earth’s atmosphere. The walls of the tunnel, which was like a huge long barrel lying on its side, were made of metallumin, a transparent moldable metal that Tom had developed to deal with extreme high pressures.
Arvid Hanson, the big, genial craftsman who helped to build the prototypes of Tom’s inventions, had already set up a large model of the D-Wing on a test mount in the tunnel. Heavily insulated cables for various metering devices sprouted from the base of its swivel-pedestal. “We can’t just monitor performance by wireless transmission from the wing sensors,” Tom explained. “The hypersonic flow-stream creates an electrified plasma around the wing that blocks signals.”
“Right,” nodded the veteran pilot, “that rainbow-colored stuff that gloms around the fuselage when we reenter superfast, like we did in the Star Spear.”
“And it’s something we can use, flyboy.”
The test D-Wing was in the shape of a delta wing with a lengthy, rounded forward extension, thick enough in the mid-section to enclose a four-foot mockup of a spacecraft. Twin tail booms extended aft from the wing. “Neat. Looks like it’s all molded out of one piece of plastic,” Bud observed.
“That’s the idea,” Tom said. “The basic structuring material is Durafoam, the stuff we made the skyway out of.”
Bud nodded. “Yeah—you squeeze it out into the air and it expands and solidifies. Pretty tough stuff.”
“In this case it’s a lot tougher, because this batch is laced with filaments of metallumin, somewhat along the lines of fiberglass. As you remember, metallumin is very flexible at one stage of its manufacturing process. In this formulation, the filaments are triboresponsive; their properties change according to pressure. When the extruded material reaches its maximum ‘stretch,’ the metallumin filaments sort’ve snap into place and become rigid, like an internal support framework for the wing.”
“Pretty good, genius boy!”
Tom added that the wing contained long strips of his transifoil, a composite metal foil he had developed some time before. If folded up in a tight bundle, an electric current caused the transifoil to unfold to a pre-patterned conformation, neatly refolding itself when the current was cut. “It’s the transifoil that establishes the overall shape of the wing as it expands. Same basic idea as the liftbag for the paraplane.”
“Okay, you’ve got the gizmo in a bundle on the rocket, and you get it to blather out into space all around the fuselage—instant wing! But what about all that reentry heat?”
“What about it?” Tom joshed. “Air friction can shoot the temperature above 20,000 degrees Fahrenheit. But my duratherm wing will stay fairly cool.” The secret of the cooling, Tom explained, lay in a myriad of microsized semiconductor terminals—somewhat like transistors—embedded in the Durafoam sheath. Using the thermocouple principle, these would convert much of the surface heat energy into electricity, which would then be stored in capacitor-layers in the core of the wing. “The electrical properties of the plasma actually makes the process more efficient, because we can manipulate it to increase the heat flow and direct it right into the absorbers.” He ended his account by noting that he called the heat-management system a durathermor. “It’ll have plenty of uses apart from space rescue.”
As Bud watched, Tom commenced his test. The shielded machinery was silent even as the walled-in tornado began to grow fierce. Wisps of vapor, darting from one end of the tunnel to the other at bullet speed, hinted at the tremendous power of the test mechanism. Soon even these had vanished from sight as the windspeed approached the supersonic—and then crossed into the hypersonic.
A glowing corona began to form at the surface of the D-Wing. As it expanded, it became a mass of multicolored streamers trailing behind the wing like a neon shadow. “Just passed Mach 9,” Tom announced. “Good night, look at that plasma sheath!—even in the coolest parts it’s hotter than an acetylene torch!”
Bud gulped. “Glad we’re on this side of the glass! You’ve, er, tested this tornado rig pretty thoroughly... right?”
“Don’t worry, flyboy. Enterprises doesn’t have any use for crispy-fried spacemen.”
Tom monitored the output readings carefully. At intervals he manipulated some trackballs on the control panel, and Bud noticed changes in the shape and contour of the wing and the boom-extensions. “Did you put little motors in it?” he asked.
“It’s the transifoil,” replied the young inventor. “The rescuees will be able to make small changes for steering purposes—a few key joints remain somewhat flexible even after the wing is fully expanded.” He added that the twin tail booms, drawing power from the capacitor layers, would interact magnetically with the flowing plasma airstream, providing additional control and stability. “It’ll also slow down the plunge in a way that can be minutely controlled and adjusted.”
“You couldn’t just do it with repelatrons?”
“They gulp too much power. Besides, the plasma corona makes it hard for the trons to ‘read’ the element mix.”
A sudden flash of light from the tunnel made the youths flinch back. Weird flares of blinding purple-white luminance were darting and sparking all along the fuselage. “Looking at your face, pal—I gather it’s not supposed to do that!” remarked Bud nervously.
Tom nodded brusquely, not speaking. He cut the power, bringing the tornado winds to a stop. “Looks like half the durathermor absorption terminals have fizzled out,” he said, annoyed but calm. “Well, that’s why we run tests. Let’s see what’s going on.”
As soon as the interior of the tunnel had fallen to normal temperatures, Tom donned protective gauntlets and unsealed the hatch, swinging it open and entering. While Bud watched, his chum ran a hand along the D-Wing, examining the surface minutely.
“What do you see?” Bud called out.
“Not much yet,” was the reply, made hollow by the interior of the tunnel chamber.
A loud sound made them both turn and look. The heavy hatch door to the wind tunnel had swung shut on its own and slammed into place. “Want me to open it, genius boy?” Bud called. Tom, inside the metallumin walls, was unable to hear his friend. The young inventor half-shrugged and ambled around the D-Wing and toward the hatchway.
Bud Barclay suddenly frowned—matching the expression on Tom’s face. What’s going on? Bud wondered. Tom passed a hand over his face, then swiveled to look toward the “upstream” end of the tunnel. His frown deepened, surprised, puzzled—and alarmed.
“What’re you looking at?” Bud muttered.
He watched Tom stride uncertainly to the blower end. He stood still for a moment. As he stood, Bud noticed that his chum’s T-shirt seemed to be trembling, as if Tom were wriggling beneath it.
Then, suddenly, Bud understood. The loose shirt was rippling in a wind! “Jetz!” he gasped. “The blower must’ve started up!”
The young pilot remembered how rapidly the tornado had grown, becoming a full-fledged blast in less than a minute—and not stopping there! Running up to the glass-like metallumin shell, Bud pounded against it and yelled at the top of his lungs: “Skipper, get the heck out of there!”
If Tom had the same idea, circumstances made it futile. The young inventor staggered backward, trying to shield his face. He bumped against the nose of the duratherm wing and stumbled, falling to his knees. Then, to Bud’s horror, he began to slide on his knees along the glass-smooth floor. The airstream blast had become overwhelming!
Bud looked about frantically. Which buttons, which switches on the control board would shut the tunnel down? If he chose the wrong one, who knew what would happen inside the chamber? If might prove fatal to his best friend!
The black-haired youth tried to hand-signal: how do I turn it off? But Tom was already beyond paying attention to the affairs of the outer world. The wind had driven him against the exhaust grating at the back end of the cylinder. The force was so powerful it had lifted Tom right off his feet, pinning him flat against the middle of the barrier and twisting his white face into a contortion of pain.
Desperate, Bud picked up a lab stool and commenced pounding on the metallumin shell with all his strength. The only result was to smash the chair to bits. He grabbed a fire extinguisher tank and attacked the hatch area, but if Tom’s metallumin could resist the pressures of the deep sea and multi-mach wind, it could easily shrug off Bud’s puny efforts!
Any moment now the thermal plasma would start appearing on the wing. The deadly pressure would be compounded by incinerating heat, the heat of a screaming reentry at rocket speed!
“Jetz!” Bud gasped. “What can I do?”
NEW STARS FOR MAN
TOM SWIFT was within minutes—perhaps seconds—of being crushed flat. His breath was being ripped from his lungs!
Heart pounding, Bud glanced at the lab phone. Should he call for help? An engineer? A technician? But even dialing the phone would waste precious moments of Tom’s life. Even standing and debating the issue was wasting time!
Then inspiration struck in a flash. The way Tom had flipped open the multiple latches on the tunnel hatch... The blowers started up after the door slammed shut! he thought desperately.
Bud leapt at the hatch, fumbling with the sealer-lock latches with hands made steely by resolve. He had no time for trembling. “Come on, come on—!”
Suddenly the hatch clicked forward a notch, and a shrill whoosh! of burning-hot air jetted into the lab through the hatch sealer flange. Bud threw one more lever and yanked with every muscle in his body—and the hatch flew open with such speed and force that the athletic youth was flung tumbling halfway across the lab floor!
Bud winced from the hot blast and crawled to one side as worktables overturned. But in an instant he was on his feet and dashing toward the tunnel—and Tom!
The blower compressors had shut down. The fantastic Tornado In A Can faded in a matter of seconds. Bud staggered into the oven-like heat and yanked his pal, collapsed in a heap, out into the lab.
With barely a glance at Tom, Bud set the air conditioning at full blast and grabbed the phone unit. “Doc! Aerodynamics 1-7—Tom’s in bad shape!”
“Bud—listen!” commanded Doc Simpson, the plant’s youthful medico. “Tell me quickly the nature of the injury.”
“I—I think—suffocation—pressure on his chest f-from a supersonic jetstream—and m-maybe burns and heatstroke or something—jetz, just get here!”
“We’re on our way!” Doc promised.
Bud ran back to Tom and was relieved to find him moaning and moving. “S-Skipper...” said Bud gently. Then, impulsively, he grabbed a Bunsen burner setup from a lab counter. Igniting it, he stretched up on tiptoes and held the flame next to a sensor on the ceiling. Instantly the lab was awash in a spray of cool water.
Bud returned to the young inventor. Tom’s eyelids fluttered. “Bud...” he gasped faintly. “I’m—I think I’m—unggh!” He groaned in pain, forcing himself into a sitting position.
“Jetz, pal,” murmured Bud. “If it isn’t one thing it’s another. If you’re not high-diving into the bottom of Lake Carlopa, you’re gettin’ yourself blasted to death in your own—”
“Bud, you look terrible,” Tom observed with a trace of a smile. “I’m not too hurt—just aching. The tunnel never got beyond the default setting. Just enough to knock me around.”
“Yeah. I’m afraid you’re gonna have deep-set black eyes for a few days.”
“What’s with the sprinklers?—oh, I get it. But get me off this floor.” As Bud helped him up, Tom looked around. “Where’s the lab stool?” Bud pointed. “Oh.”
Doc burst in at a run, two assistant medics at his heels. They inflated an air body-cushion and pulled off the young inventor’s clothes, now in tatters. Examining him, Doc said: “Hmm. Not too bad this time—though you did the right thing, Bud, calling it in. Skipper, you’ve got bruises, on your front from the wind-force and up and down your backside, from the grating. What we call air burns on your face, not from heat but from the impact of the air jet.”
Bud gasped out a chuckle. “Don’t worry. The waffle look is ‘in’ this year.”
“Any damage to my ‘brand signature’?” Tom asked jokingly.
“Crewcut, blues eyes, all intact. But boss, stay out of the breeze for a few days, hunh? And somebody turn off this water!”
Tom sighed. “Look at this place! Flyboy, that was great thinking, opening—”
Bud grinned, almost shyly. “I just figured—with all that fuss to unseal the hatch when it’s closed, it must work like the door on a microwave. Breaking the seal cuts the power!”
“Yup. A safety measure that really paid off!”
Bud insisted on driving Tom home immediately, and Tom’s mother was equally insistent that he should take to bed. The young scientist-inventor was plainly outnumbered.
Yet the following morning found Tom, bandaged, back in the test lab, joined by Arv Hanson and Enterprises’ young lead engineer Hank Sterling. “I’m not making excuses, boss, but I can’t see how my prototype could have had anything to do with the problem,” Arv declared. “What do you say, Hank?”
Sterling shrugged. “Nothing obvious. The heat-absorbers got fouled, but that has nothing to do with the pneum-accelerator system. Remember, boys, things didn’t start to go wild during the test, only later when things had cooled off.”
“It was when the hatch slammed,” Tom mused. “And it must’ve been quite a slam if it was forceful enough to engage the sealing flanges. Without a full seal the air equipment couldn’t have powered up.”
“I s’pose you’ve considered an invisible enemy lurking in the lab?” joked Arv. “Hey—maybe he’s still here!”
Tom grinned. “I did consider that. The only reason it’s not still on the list is—an invisible guy would’ve been visibly outlined by the water spray!
“But seriously—less cutting edge!—I wondered if some kind of pulse effect from the plasma might have both fried the durathermor terminals and affected the basic motor circuitry in the hatch in some weird way.”
“We can eliminate that possibility,” noted Hank. “I didn’t see any trace of mechanical or electrical problems, in the tunnel or in the D-Wing. The absorbers just got warped by the heat a little more than we’d anticipated. Easy enough to fix. The big question, Tom,” he went on, “is why and how that heavy metallumin hatch door decided to slam itself. That’s the start, anyway.”
The young inventor strode over to the hatch, scrutinizing it with an intense, troubled look. “Heavy is right—which is why there are micromotors at the hinges to assist in opening and closing it.”
“They’re completely insulated from any kind of random power surge or induction pulse,” Arv reminded them. “And anyway, sealing the hatch doesn’t make the blower system start up; just makes it possible.”
The three fell silent. Presently Hank Sterling said thoughtfully: “You know, it’s a mighty big coincidence when you think about it—the hatch slamming, the tunnel starting up, just at the moment Tom Swift is inside. If it’s one of those personal attacks we all seem to get every second Tuesday, my question is: how did they know?”
Tom nodded ruefully. “As Bud says, great question! If this is the work of enemies, they’d have to know several things—my own movements, more or less in real time; how to close the hatch; how to activate the tunnel... and all of it remotely. You might say they’d have to be... all-seeing!
“But Harlan Ames’s crew went over the whole lab building personally, starting with the lab itself, before Bud and I even left the room.” Ames was the experienced head of Enterprises Security. “The TeleTec and other instruments showed nothing, no hidden cameras, no relays, no transmitters. Nothing!”
“Then Nothing’s got a grudge against Tom Swift!” Hank observed.
“It’s just like what happened on Fearing Island,” said the youth. “Some kind of effect produced by remote control—by the ‘all-seeing’ Ninth Light.”
Suddenly Arv Hanson gave a sharp handclap. “Hey, I don’t know about this ‘Light,’ but I think I know what must have happened in the lab!”
“Skipper, this new control console is wireless—WiFi! The controls aren’t physically connected to the tunnel mechanisms!”
“Good gosh!” Tom blurted. “I forgot all about it! If someone knew the security-signature, he might be able to access the relay transponders on the tunnel directly and override the board. He could command the system to shut and seal the hatch, and then fire up the pumps and compressors!”
“But could it be done from a distance? Maybe outside the plant completely?”
“I’d say it’s possible,” replied Hank. “This test building isn’t shielded-up like the big hangar. But you’d have to have cracked the ‘permission’ code that’s always running behind any control signal from the console.”
“Just as the raiders did with the aquatometers,” Tom noted grimly. “Raiders from nowhere, with no motive, and a great big fear of something called u’umat!”
That afternoon, paper-working in the administrative office, Tom received a call from the Department of Historic Language Studies at nearby Grandyke University. “Hi, Professor Simallen,” he said excited. “Did you find out something about that charm symbol?”
“Oh yes, Tom, it wasn’t difficult,” she replied. “It’s a stylized combination of two letters in Middle-Persian—Arabic, basically.”
“What do the letters mean?”
“They don’t constitute a word, but they were adopted to signify a certain phrase—”
“The Ninth Light?” Tom prompted, rushing in.
“The what? No. It’s idiomatic; the original sense of it might be rendered as ‘seek in faith all paths’.”
“A religious motto, maybe?”
“Yes, associated with a very tiny sect called the Qalqaram.”
“I see,” responded Tom. “By any chance—does the sect have something to do with a region up near the Himalayas, in Bangladesh? I’m told it’s called ‘the handful of sultans’.”
Dr. Simallen chuckled. “Well, you seem to already know most of what I’m telling you! The sect first emerged in what we now call Afghanistan, back in the 1200’s. But it was only practiced to any great extent in a small region just below Nepal and Bhutan. But Tom—Qalqaram was never any sort of important religious movement. I suppose you could call it a cult. The only reason it survived beyond the death of its founder, Eid-F’lqa Qalq’r, is that it was briefly adopted as the state religion in one of the so-called princely states. With the death of the Rajah who had proclaimed it, it was abandoned and forgotten.”
“What was the principality called?”
“Gureshpal. A pitiful thing, about the size of Monaco.”
“Does Gureshpal still exist?”
“It rather depends on what you mean by ‘exist,’ Tom,” she said with a touch of patient academic sarcasm. “It was absorbed into India in the 1700’s, then went with East Pakistan, now Bangladesh, in the division. The people are almost entirely Muslims, going back to the Islamic rulers of India, the Mughal, you see.
“I did a little research before calling you,” she continued. “To summarize, Gureshpal is now just the traditional name for a minor province, not a real political entity.”
“No ‘Gureshpal Liberation Front’ or anything?”
The academic laughed. “Oh dear no! The original people blended into the surrounding population centuries ago. I doubt they know anything about their ancient heritage. The only time the name even comes up nowadays is when the old ‘first family,’ the Boses, want to brag about their lineage. But to put it with the utmost respect, they’re just ultra-wealthy buffoons. They’d much rather enjoy the international high-life than run a country.”
Speaking later with Harlan Ames in the Security office next door, Tom related the end of the discussion. “Naturally, I asked all about the Qalqaram sect—I guess I had in mind the old Hashashim, the assassins cult. But it’s not like that at all. The founder tried to put together elements of Islam with Buddhism and Christianity. As religious sects go, it was pretty peaceful.”
“Yet the charm-symbol does look like a possible tie-in,” Ames nodded. “What about this wealthy family she spoke of? I take it they’re descendants of the old sultan.”
“The Bose family? Old money made centuries ago, hoarded and carefully invested. Professor Simallen said that if one person had the wealth of the entire extended family, he’d probably be the world’s richest man. But it’s divvied up among some seventy relatives, who own it jointly, as in a trust.”
“Interesting. One person must be in charge, though. Somebody’s got to hire the C.P.A.”
“She said the head of the family is a fellow named—let’s see—Desh Zai. No big ambitions. He doesn’t even live in his homeland, just cruises around the sunny Indian Ocean in his yacht. She said he has an estate in Madagascar for when he gets waterlogged, but he’s rarely there. I tried to find info or a photo on the Net, but I gather he lives a quiet life of luxury and avoids the public eye.”
Ames shrugged. “Doesn’t sound like a terrorist or a mad scientist, offhand. I’ll alert Wes Norris and the Feds, though. Never know.” Norris was Swift Enterprises’ customary FBI liaison.
Tom returned to his office to keep a scheduled appointment. Presently two men were shown in: one of late middle-age in an expensive silk suit, the other white-haired and skinny in casual, somewhat shabby attire. “Hello, Mr. Demburton, Mr. Gerard. I’ve been looking forward to meeting you.”
Demburton, the well-dressed man, smiled as he shook hands. “A pleasure indeed. Have you had occasion to stay in one of my hotels, Tom?”
“Many times, sir—on every continent except Antarctica!”
“We’re working on that one,” the man chuckled through perfect pearly teeth, easing down into a chair. “As to my colleague—”
“I’ve read your articles, Mr. Gerard,” Tom said with enthusiasm. “Your book, too.”
Neil Gerard shrugged. “Out of print.”
“Does it seem peculiar, the two of us coming to Swift Enterprises together?” asked Demburton. “A hotelier of world-class interests, and a—well, what shall we call you, Neil? A futurist? A prophetic engineer?”
“Hunh? Oh. Doesn’t matter,” replied Gerard. “Use my name.”
“I’ve thought a lot about your ideas, Mr. Gerard,” Tom declared. “I grew up with them. When we built the outpost in space, I wondered if it was the first step to the space colonies you envisioned.”
“And now you have such a thing on Nestria,” smiled Demburton. It was the same smile he had come in with.
“It’s not my vision, Nestria,” pronounced the shabby speculationist. “I mean, wha?—mm, nothing to be ashamed of. Just different. Differentness is okay.—I guess so! Without differentness, whatcha got?—sameness!”
“That’s very true.” Tom hesitated awkwardly, wondering if the man felt offended. “You’re right, of course. You were thinking in terms of terraformed asteroids and huge artificial structures, real cities in space.”
“Beaming down electricity from solar collectors. Microwaves! Safe microwaves. Birds fly, not fry. Make it a motto.”
Demburton nodded. “And now Swift Enterprises solar batteries—”
“Not the same thing. Nice enough. Not the same. Naw, it’s all out of date, my old stuff. Wha? Yeah. Oh? Big deal thirty years back.”
“It sure was,” said Tom. “My father and I often talked about ‘New Stars For Man’ and how your proposals could change civilization. It may well be the future, sir. The day may come when most ‘Earthlings’ never set foot on Earth!”
“Yeah? Really? Naw—well, maybe. Who knows?” said Mr. Gerard indifferently.
“That day may be on the horizon right now, Tom,” declared Mr. Demburton. “World Portico Hotels Corporation has a proposal for you—for Swift Enterprises.”
The young inventor chuckled politely. “I don’t know there’s enough space-vacationing yet to make an orbiting hotel a profitable idea.”
“Not a space hotel, Tom,” responded the executive suavely. “Not right now. But WPHC has many interests. We’re about progress.” This was their advertising slogan, Tom remembered. “We’d like to see some movement on Neil’s ideas. It’s time for mankind to push the envelope right out into space.”
“Nothing to do with envelopes,” muttered Neil Gerard. “Hunh? No. Not that you should bother reading the book. International geek! Well, it got me up in the morning. Hello sun, hello moon.”
“What sort of project do you have in mind, Mr. Demburton?” inquired Tom anxiously.
“A space colony, Tom, just as Neil imagined! We’d like to engage Enterprises in a magnificent, historic venture—a prototype city on, or rather in, an asteroid in orbit around the Sun!”
“Yeah, solar orbit,” Gerard said in his vague monotone. “Better test, away from the apron strings. Kind of a, wha? y’know, feasibility study. Like that thing where people lived in the ‘Mars Dome’ for a couple years until someone got appendicitis. They just did it in Russia, too, if you believe those people. So. Test out the whole Gerard vision. Felton here thinks he can get the money for it. That’s what I didn’t have thirty years back, Tom. Gotta have money or you’re dead. Me, I was dead. Don’t ever let yourself get dead.”
During the dense verbiage Tom Swift’s bright eyes contemplated the prospect—an incredible challenge! “Gentlemen, I’m sure my father will be very interested—and I’m about ready to take off right now!”
“Think so? Today? No, today’s way soon,” mused Mr. Gerard. “Give it a week or two. A decade. Sell it to the media, news people. Get the book back in print. Not for me, Tom. Never. It’s for—” He spread his arms wide, eloquently.
“Yes,” Tom agreed, not entirely sure what he was agreeing with. “But you’ll need to find the right kind of asteroid, in the right kind of orbit, to apply the overall approach you’ve outlined.”
Demburton snapped his thick fingers. “No problem at all! We’re here today because we’ve identified such an asteroid, you see. It’s out there now, a perfect candidate. It’ll be passing near Earth soon, Tom. You see, it’s a fairly large chunk of real estate, following along in the wake of the comet, Tarski.”
Tom had difficulty hiding his astonishment. Somehow these men knew of the Follower—the intruding planetoid Dr. Jatczak had detected with sophisticated instruments only days previous—a discovery not yet announced to the world!
“MR. DEMBURTON,” Tom said, “how did you, er, ‘identify’ this asteroid? I don’t recall it from any of the recent news reports, and we get science updates continuously here over our videophone network.”
The hotelier laughed. “Oh, we forward-thinking business types have our ways, Tom. I put out the word quite some time ago that WPHC had an interest in funding scientific research involving near-Earth asteroids with certain characteristics. A friend of one of my managers turned out to be an astronomer. The manager, Niras Ewelle, called me last Friday; I called her friend that evening—it was morning there...”
“It was overseas?” Tom asked curiously—curious for some instinctive reason.
“Yes, the hotel is in Madagascar. Off the east coast of Africa, you know. As we say, the sun never sets on our hospitality.”
Madagascar—where the head of the Bose family held court! Was there a connection between the Fearing raiders and this sudden proposal to Swift Enterprises? “Sir, if you don’t mind my asking, what is the name of the astronomer? I might know him myself.”
The executive searched his memory. “Hmm. I’m told he’s a well-regarded professional in the field...”
Gerard spoke up in his unwarned way. “Talmadge. My brain noted it down, directly on the lobes. Easy enough. Always a snap to remember names that start with ‘T’.”
“That’s right,” nodded Mr. Demburton. “Louis Talmadge. He said his observatory is in the mountains east of Fianarantsoa—‘Fianar’. That’s a growing little city near a big nature preserve. We anticipate tourism in its future. We opened the Fianar Portico Magnifico three years ago.”
“I think I’ve read of Dr. Talmadge,” Tom said uncertainly. “I’m curious, sir. Did he mention how he was able to discover such a small body?”
Demburton gave Tom a look that was mildly shrewd. “Why do you say ‘small,’ Tom? I didn’t use that word.”
“You sure did, Felton,” languidly objected Neil Gerard. “I heard you use it just the other day. I’m not saying it’s, wha? important that you did. Just trying to stickle. You can’t build this future stuff on word-stupidity. I’ve always said that. Or at least I’m saying it now. As you can hear. Hunh.”
After a kindly pause that avoided eye contact, Demburton continued. “It is rather compact, I’m told. Something like ten miles across. Talmadge said the weight—I mean mass—is promising as to our purpose.”
“I also said that,” added Gerard. “In a sense. You have to listen.”
Tom decided to be cautious in further probing and to avoid mentioning the developing plan to visit the planetoid. For the moment he thought it best to not reveal Dr. Jatczak’s discovery. “We’d want to focus on the scientific and technical elements of this sort of project, of course. Gentlemen, no promises yet, but I think you can count on interest by Swift Enterprises. I’m always working on something, but we have no time-critical projects at the moment.”
As Tom had come to fear, Mr. Gerard spoke up. “Time is always critical. Without time... well, where would space be?”
There was a split-second pause, rushingly filled.
“Wonderful!” exclaimed Mr. Demburton, shaking Tom’s hand. Mr. Gerard just shook, no exclamation, evidently bored at the prospect that his life’s dream might soon be realized.
As the two began to leave, Demburton waved Gerard ahead and strode back to Tom. He leaned forward and spoke in a near-whisper, with abundant coffee-breath. “Tom, please understand. Neil has always had his own unique way of expressing himself. His thinking is hard to follow at times... well, frequently. But I’m advised that he has substantial legal claim to his work, and his name does mean something to at least a fraction of the public. We keep him close and—keep an eye on him. Feel free to ignore him. As we do. But smile!”
The young inventor did smile, if warily. “It sounds like you’ve written him off, Mr. Demburton.”
“Don’t think ill of us, Tom. He made his real contribution in his youth.”
“They may say the same thing about me.”
“Yes. Well, surely not. Mm—we’d just like you to understand our position.”
“Yes sir,” replied Tom. “I really do understand.” But I don’t understand everything! his thought added.
The balance of the day was spent in discussion of the towering new space project. Tom met at length with his father and Jake Aturian, head of the Swift Construction Company affiliate and always something of the more cautious “voice of reason.” They solicited off-the-cuff opinions from the engineering and technical departments, and distributed copies of Neil Gerard’s many yellowing articles for comment. “We’ll have to look very carefully for ways to build the science into this kind of years-long voyage around the sun,” noted Mr. Swift. “But even as a ‘stunt,’ it’s an extended experiment in human adaptation to the space environment.”
“And much more than that!” exclaimed his son. “The planetoid could function as a base for research and close-up observation for distant parts of the solar system.”
“Does the planetoid have the right sort of orbit for such a research effort?”
The young inventor grinned broadly. “Well—maybe not yet!”
Tom ended his long day back in the Security office, for a brief head’s-up meeting with Ames and his assistant, Phil Radnor. The latter said, “Skipper, I don’t think I’m tracking you on this. What’s the worry about Demburton having gotten early word on the Follower asteroid?”
Harlan Ames smiled. “Come on, Rad. Worry is a good policy around here.”
“All too true,” chuckled Tom ruefully. “It just seems unexpected—surprising—that this fellow in Madagascar happened across such a hard-to-find object just before Dr. Jatczak, probably the world’s greatest astronomer, discovered it. Dr. Jatzak’s instruments are ultra-sensitive and very advanced, and his post on Nestria gives him a tremendous advantage in this case.”
“In other words,” said Radnor, “coincidence is getting stretched like taffy. Usually an early-warning signal for trouble on its way.”
“The Madagascar connection, and what looks like a link to the island raiders by way of this Bose family—all very striking,” pronounced Ames. “An attack on a spaceport, a proposal for a space project. And what links them together?—”
Tom completed the thought. “Space.”
“About the emptiest clue there is.”
Over the next several days, as contracts were debated and ultimately signed, Tom and his talented engineering team worked on their ongoing enterprise, the durathermor system and its application, the duratherm wing. “Look at this!” Tom told Bud jokingly, handing him a sheet on which long strings of formulae had been written.
Bud looked it up and down. “Mm-hmm. Must be what they call free-form poetry.”
His friend laughed affectionately. “Poetry in motion! If the muses are with me, this Durafoam reformulation is all we’ll need to get rid of that burnout problem with the durathermor.”
The final reformulation tested out satisfactorily. The problem with the heat terminals handled, Tom was at last able to send up a small model of the D-Wing, designed by Arv Hanson, for a brief, crucial test in space.
As the tiny booster rocket flamed into the Shopton sky from Enterprises, Tom and Bud rushed to the monitoring station. “Everything right on the button!” the young inventor announced happily. Presently came the word, via telemetry, that the D-Wing model was in low Earth orbit. Tom let it make one circuit of the Earth; then, as began to draw near again, he turned the monitoring and control operation over to Hanson and Hank Sterling. “C’mon, pal,” he said to Bud. “Let’s watch the test on the megascope!”
The two hastened to the plant’s domed observatory building, where Tom’s father awaited them beneath the towering column of rings that formed the antenna for Tom’s electronic space prober.
“All set and ready,” declared Damon Swift, pointing at the megascope’s circular screen. In the middle of the screen, between the sea of stars and the blazing blue of the earth, floated a small silver-white cone.
“So that’s your ‘rocket in distress’!” nodded Bud.
“Now for the Sir Galahad rescue!” Tom checked his handheld monitoring unit, called a Spektor. “Coming up... mark!”
They watched the screen tensely. For a moment nothing changed. “Of course we’re seeing this in ‘real time’,” muttered Mr. Swift, “Faster than the control signal from the plant—”
“There it goes!” Bud cheered.
From the underside of the cone, the side facing the world beneath, a sort of “tongue” of dull-colored material leapt out into space, swelling before three pairs of eyes with startling speed. In less than two seconds it had assumed a shape like the tapering head of a javelin, though with a blunted nose that turned slightly upward. Two guidance control booms jutted out behind.
“Man, the thing sure doesn’t waste time,” exclaimed Bud with a back-clap for his chum. “But—say, what happened to the capsule?”
Tom grinned and reached for the megascope controls, shifting the position of its viewpoint in relation to the duratherm wing. “There—you can see a bulge protruding from the upper surface of the wing. The capsule’s inside, completely enclosed in the sheathing material.” Bud nodded as Tom checked some readings on his Spektor. “All right, you two. Time to bring her down!”
Using the Spektor as a communicator, he told Hank to commence the set reentry procedure. The capsule drifted downward on the screen, and Mr. Swift touched the space prober’s trackball control. “I think I can keep it centered by eyeball,” he said.
There was no detectable movement against the stellar backdrop, but suddenly faint streamers of haze began to flick across the screen. “A few traces of air,” murmured Tom. “Still pretty much a vacuum.”
Bud nodded. “But just wait! By the way, genius boy, with no retros, what gets it out of orbit in the first place?”
“Micro-gravitex units inside the wing, pulling backwards to create drag and slow it down. They also help maintain stability and orientation. As you know, they take very little power, especially compared to a repelatron. Each one runs off a tiny solar battery.”
As the D-Wing speared into the denser reaches of the atmosphere, its shape was altered by remote control. The nose stretched further up, curving into a windshield-shape. The plasma corona had begun to form.
“How’s the temp?” Mr. Swift asked Tom.
“Fierce, Dad, but within the parameters. The new Durafoam sheathing is doing fine.”
The backdrop had begun to fade from the black of space to the indigo of the ionosphere. The duratherm wing now changed its angle relative to its trajectory, tilting up. Tom noted: “She’ll take the worst of the heat belly-first, flyboy. Then when she falls below hypersonic, we’ll straighten her out again and fly her more or less like a standard jetcraft.”
“Where’s the wing right now?”
“Over southern Illinois. Minutes to go.”
As planned, the flux-coils that interacted with the streaming plasma were used for fine-tuning the wing’s course, and to further slow it. “Dropping below Mach 1,” Tom announced, too intent to shout in triumph. “Dad—Bud—I’m bringing her in for a landing. She’s in one piece and cool as a cucumber!”
“More than I can say for myself,” joked Mr. Swift.
They abandoned the megascope and ran out into the sunlight. Like a great bird of prey, the sofa-sized duratherm wing was low in the sky and streaking toward its roost in Swift Enterprises. It slowed tremendously. Seconds later, ambling along at a modest forty miles-per-hour, it pancaked down on its designated runway, smoothly sliding on its flat plastic belly as if on wheels. Its molded wings grew flaps to slow it further. And then, with barely a sound, it had bumped to a stop.
“All nominal, Skipper!” radioed Arv Hanson through Tom’s Spektor.
And now the watchers were free to cheer! “Son, you’ve hit the mark on your first try!” exulted Mr. Swift.
As always, the young inventor responded modestly—a mountainous effort! “We don’t really know until we go over the telemetry record, but—it looks like it, doesn’t it?”
After a long gleeful day of tests and electronic debriefings, Tom finally headed home. Too late for dinner, he joined the others in the living room with a plate kept warm by his mother.
“You must feel like a million, big brother,” commented Sandy with a twinkle. “You’re scarfing up your dinner at meteoric speed!”
The crewcut youth wiped his mouth and grinned. “I’m pretty pleased. Okay—I’m bustin’ at the seams! Even though it seemed we’d solved the terminal problems we had in the test tunnel, you never know till you put it through the wringer ‘out in the world’. The test model was perfection on wings!”
“I’ve already given a dramatized account,” chuckled Mr. Swift. “Had to add a little suspense to something that turned out boringly perfect.”
Tom’s mother smiled. “I don’t mind a little boredom now and then—as a change of pace.”
“So what’s next, Tomonomo?” Sandy asked. “How do you plan to push your luck this time?”
Damon Swift answered for his son. “Tom and Bud go up in the Fire Eagle day after tomorrow,” he noted. “That’s the manned test flight I mentioned.”
“Is that some kind of new spaceflight invention?”
“No, sis, more like a little dummy ‘space canoe for two’,” Tom explained. “Art Wiltessa built it around technology and spare parts from the space outpost shuttle capsules. It can do a safe powered landing in the ocean if there’s any problem with the D-Wing, but what I want to accomplish is to fully test out the entire rescue routine. In other words, we’ll be playing ‘stranded spacemen’.”
“I don’t suppose I should even ask whether this test is particularly dangerous,” murmured Anne Swift very soberly.
Tom’s expression softened. “I know how much I put you through—all of you.”
“Bud’s dad Glynn deals with it in a fairly casual way,” Mr. Swift stated. “When I’ve mentioned the life of risks to him, he’s just said, Oh well, that’s Bud.”
“Bud’s dad,” observed Mrs. Swift, “is not a mother.”
Silence descended—broken seconds later by the burr of the house telephone. Sandy answered and called out: “It’s Bashi, Tom.”
As Tom greeted her, the young Pakistani cut him off excitedly. “Thomas, turn on Channel Nine this instant! Some nitwit is saying terrible things about you!”
Tom rushed to the control for the big wall-mounted TV, and in an instant it was filled with talking heads. “That’s the Brady Culvert program,” he muttered. “Who’s that with him?”
The Who was identified by a bottom-crawl of text as Henshaw Teek, Thor Astronautics. “Oh good Lord!” snapped Tom’s father in disgust. “What’s that foul-tempered babbler ranting about now?—!”
Teek was concluding a mighty mouthful of babble, piping hot from his thin pinched lips. “...media always falling all over the Swifts, so I wouldn’t expect much in the way of sanity. But I’ll tell you this, Brad. Bringing down that little mock-up meteor over Shopton today was a typical publicity stunt—typically irresponsible. And now he’s about to take a little space jaunt in a couple days, to test this new reentry wing of his. Call it duratherm or call it Big Bird, it’s a deadly risk for anyone underneath it. And I call that criminal!”
TWO FOR AN EAGLE
“DAD!” Tom exclaimed over the audio. “Who is that guy? What’s he talking about?”
“Who? Henshaw Teek!” snorted the elder scientist. “You’ve heard of Thor Astronautics, Tom.”
“Sure I have,” the young inventor replied. “But—but I don’t understand. Do you know him personally?”
Damon Swift clicked off the set. “I’ve known him for years. He was a classmate in college.”
“Does he have something personal against us, Daddy?” asked Sandy. “Against the Swifts? Enterprises?”
“He’s just a bitter man who can’t let go of ancient grudges. He always felt that I was given special treatment at the university because of my name. He’s always carping and grumbling behind the scenes. I didn’t think he’d dare make a jackass out of himself in front of the public eye.”
“Dear,” said Anne Swift softly, reprovingly, “we don’t need to keep this from the children. Let’s tell the real story.”
The eyes of the younger Swifts swiveled back and forth between their elders.
Mr. Swift sighed. “Very well. Tom, Sandy—Shaw Teek was something of a friend of mine. Not terribly close. We’d play handball together, golf. Talk about science. When I began seeing your mother, he joined us now and then, not always by invitation. Well. It seems he—”
“Oh!” Sandy interrupted excitedly. “Romance!”
Her mother nodded wryly. “I’m afraid I wasn’t as interested in him as he was in me. And Shaw became rather exercised over the whole situation.”
“This is fabulous!” tittered Sandy. “And of course then you two married, and he threw himself under a train!”
“Certainly not!” frowned Mr. Swift. “He was a scientist—or at least an engineer. But from that moment on he never lost an opportunity to make slighting remarks about me and my work. He’s used blogs, technical sites, letters to the journals—his constant taunting and needling—!”
Tom held up a hand. His father was becoming uncharacteristically agitated. “Whatever his motives, how could he possibly know about our test flight plans? Dad, we moved it up by nine days! We only finalized scheduling it a few hours ago—we haven’t even told Fearing Island yet!”
Calming himself, Mr. Swift sank down in a chair. “You’re right, son. Our general preparations are known, of course, but not that we’ll be launching the Fire Eagle day after tomorrow.”
“Yet he specifically said ‘a couple days’,” Sandy noted. “He must be bugging your office!”
Mr. Swift shrugged. “Perhaps. But that small-minded pipsqueak of an engineer hardly has the capacity to rig—”
“Er—let’s remember that there’ve been other ‘leaks’ recently,” Tom rushed in, “such as the ‘coincidental’ discovery of the Follower planetoid. Now that I think of it, those raiders got through Fearing’s defense setup thanks to somebody leaking the control code to them.”
“Yes,” agreed his father. “And also what happened in the test lab—some kind of security breach, obviously.”
“My goodness, is it really so easy to unravel all these security codes?” Sandy exclaimed. “What good are they?”
Tom smiled. “Guess that’s a good point, sis. But it’s not what I’d call easy. For example, the Fearing aquatometer access code is changed frequently. The code is broken into two segments; two ultra-cleared employees look into two separated view-visors to see the code segment, which they each memorize and then enter separately, by hand, which allows remote access to the equipment. Neither ‘code guard’ ever knows the other half of the code.”
Mr. Swift elaborated: “When remote resets are performed on the aquatometers, each code guard keys in his part of the access code himself. The code is only good once; when the reset is concluded, access via that code is ‘de-recognized.’ Next time, a new pair of code segments is randomly generated electronically. No ‘record’ is made—the computer output creates the final set directly on the visor screen. What they see isn’t a sequence of numbers but a series of simple visual shapes, like triangles and linked rings, drawn from a list of about twenty. It doesn’t exist in any form prior to the point at which it is readable to the eye. When the guard breaks contact with the visor, the image is obliterated.”
“Then that obviously means that the two guards are turncoats,” Sandy said in a smug tone. “That Rajah, or whatever he is, must have a hold over them. Maybe he’s holding their families captive!”
“Not a very novel idea,” commented Tom dryly. “And it doesn’t explain these other breaches—including the one we just heard on TV. I don’t think even a potentate can hold everybody’s family hostage!”
Mrs. Swift said, “I suppose all we can do is turn the matter over to Harlan and Phil.”
“Not on your life!” snapped her husband. He stalked over to the house phone and called George Dilling, the plant’s head of Communications and Public Interest. In minutes came a callback providing Henshaw Teek’s private number. “Dilling says that program is taped an hour in advance,” Damon Swift told the others. “Teek’s probably in his car; maybe already at home. If not—I have a message to leave!”
Wherever Teek was, he was answering his cellphone. A lengthy, loud, barely civil conversation then commenced. The half of it at the Swift home was hard to follow. But it was easy to get the gist. “I wish your father would calm down,” whispered Mrs. Swift to Sandy and Tom.
At last the confrontation ended. “He admitted his words were a bit ill-chosen,” reported Mr. Swift. “He said he received the information from what he called a ‘reliable third-hand source,’ whom he refused to identify. He mentioned you, Anne. He said to say hello. Always a little jab!”
“We’ll leave it to Harlan and Phil,” declared Tom firmly. At the moment he felt like a parent.
But the next day, as Tom worked over some final details for the upcoming space test, his father seemed uncharacteristically distracted and terse. At last a call came through from George Dilling. “Damon, I spent some time with Legal this morning. They have some concerns about what Teek said on TV.”
“Concerns about damage to the precious Swift Image falls under your job description, George,” pronounced Mr. Swift coolly.
“That’s not the issue,” came the sharp retort. “It’s just that—with public charges of criminality—there could be an impact on liability...”
“Yes. Of course. Sorry to snap at you. What would Legal like Old Man Swift to do?”
“Just talk to the guy. Calm him down. See where all this is coming from.”
“I doubt Shaw will be willing to take my call—not if he’s expecting it.”
“He will,” said Dilling. “I talked to his people just now.”
Mr. Swift frowned uncertainly, anger still stuck to his face. Tom, who stood next to his father listening, said quietly: “Dad—we really need to find out the details of where Teek got his information.”
The elder Swift nodded. “Very well, George. I’ll call him immediately. Tom can listen in—to nudge me if I become...”
“That’s great. Perfect.”
In a moment the awkward conversation commenced—clearly as difficult for Henshaw Teek as for Damon Swift. After some face-saving preliminaries that lowered the temperature below incandescence, Mr. Swift politely asked for more detail on Teek’s source. “Obviously you don’t have to tell me... Shaw... but we’ve had some security problems recently, and my son is about to be launched into space.”
“All right. I understand... Day.” Teek cleared his throat. “Here at Thor we have an informal group of ham radio enthusiasts who meet weekly. After hours, of course.”
“We have a similar group at Enterprises—of course.”
“Yeah. Okay. One of the members called me from home, late yesterday afternoon—her home, Day; she had a scheduled day off—well, she thought she’d tell me that she’d just picked up a bit of a short-wave broadcast that mentioned something about—”
Mr. Swift interrupted. “The exact words are important in this case. Or—I suppose Harlan Ames could speak to her directly—”
“That’s unnecessary!” snapped Teek. “As it happened, she was clever enough to jot down the words right after she heard them. She emailed them to me.”
“You said she called you, Shaw.”
“She called me and then she emailed me. Do you want this information or not?”
Tom gave a warning nudge to his father, who looked humorously rueful. “Sorry. I’m a bit distracted by a pain in my side.”
“I’m told marriage isn’t always bliss,” Teek sneered verbally. “The message was: ‘when Tom Swift test-flies his duratherm system in space day after tomorrow’.”
“That’s an incomplete sentence.”
“Am I responsible for the inadequacies of atmospheric transmission? At least it was in English.”
“Why wouldn’t it be?”
“She said it was heavily accented,” huffed Henshaw Teek. “Seems to me that rather ups the likelihood that this came from outside the United States.”
There was a lengthy silence. It seemed both old, now former, friends were struggling to calm themselves.
“Shaw...” began Mr. Swift.
“Yes, I know,” interrupted Teek. “We’re grown men.”
Tom’s father chuckled. “We weren’t always.”
“No, Day. I—I suppose it’s—”
“It’s not either of our faults,” said Mr. Swift. “Just the standard prickliness of human nature. I propose we place the blame on Anne.”
“Yeah. For being a lovely young woman.”
“She still is.”
Damon Swift grinned. “Not smart enough to choose you, Shaw.”
“Aaa, I just fumbled around on our first date.”
“Your—first? She told me—”
“The others were just... Now look, Damon, if you mean to suggest that Anne is less than truthful—”
As Mr. Swift opened his mouth, Tom nudged him sharply. “Well. Thank you, Shaw. N-nice to talk to you.”
“I can hear your teeth gritting, Day. But—yeah, it was. Old times, huh?”
After ending the call, Mr. Swift briefed George Dilling, then called in Harlan Ames.
“Nice work,” smiled the security man. “Having an accent is trivial in itself, but it does go along with the foreign connection—Bangladesh, Madagascar.”
Tom rubbed his chin. “Given this ‘theory’ we’re working on, it makes sense to me that the message might have originated on Desh Zai’s yacht. He could be on a cruise in the Indian Ocean.”
“As a matter of fact, I just happen to know that he is,” winked Ames. “At least his boat is. His yacht is called the Apocalypso, by the way. Brand new, custom built. And it’s huge!”
“This fellow has a mansion and a yacht,” snorted Mr. Swift. “Not a bad life.”
“If you don’t want to do anything,” Tom commented dryly.
The reentry test of Tom’s duratherm wing was scheduled for dawn the following morning, Wednesday. Flying to Fearing Island in the Sky Queen with the midget Fire Eagle in the skyship’s aerial hangar, upon which the D-Wing container capsule had been mounted, Tom and Bud spent the night on the Swifts’ tightly guarded rocket base, where crews continued to work round the clock repairing the damage done by the raiders.
“The bunch we caught have been moved to federal custody on the mainland,” Bowden told them. “The one guy, Purji-something, is still in his brain-freeze coma. No change in his condition—nor in the condition of the others, namely silence.”
“You’ve changed that code system, right?” asked Bud.
Bowden nodded. “Sure have. Mace Vendiablo assures us that security on Fearing is tight as a drum. His words.”
“I feel ‘assured,’” Tom stated dryly. “Reassured is—another question.”
The next morning they were driven to the main launch area, where the Fire Eagle had been mounted atop one of Enterprises’ small, reliable Sampson IV booster vehicles. The rocket had been named after Eradicate Sampson, the long-time faithful friend of the first Tom Swift, the young inventor’s great-grandfather.
In the distance the huge Challenger loomed ready for takeoff. “She’s prepped and ready in case you two end up stranded,” declared Amos Quezada, the chief spaceflight controller. “Not that I have any doubt about a Swift invention, Tom! I may just go swimming.”
Tom laughed. “Bud and I may end up swimming too—if something goes haywire when we drop in the ocean. We have our emergency paraglide system as backup. But really, every part of the D-Wing setup has been thoroughly checked out.”
“Sure, as always, pal,” Bud retorted nervously. “But you still ended up on the wrong side of a tornado. You’ve heard of Murphy’s Law—if anything can go wrong, something will go wrong!”
“Sure, there’s always a margin of risk,” Tom admitted in a serious tone of voice. “That doesn’t keep you from test-piloting for Enterprises, does it? Sooner or later the duratherm wing has to be test-flown, and since I invented it, I may as well be the man in the cockpit!”
Bud looked sheepish, then grinned. “Correction, genius boy—we’ll both be in the cockpit!”
Tom and Bud looked at each other in silence for a moment. Then the young inventor chuckled and squeezed his pal’s arm. “And that’s really ‘as always’!”
The gantry elevator carried the spacesuited pair up to the hatch of the tiny test craft, which was hardly bigger than Bud’s scarlet convertible. Attached to the nose of the Eagle was the compact, drum-shaped D-Wing pack. The boys took their places in the pilot’s and copilot’s seats, their shoulders almost touching, and the final checkout proceeded smoothly. Meanwhile, radar antennae were turning steadily, scanning the skies above the island—and the two were very aware that many other instruments and devices were on patrol. “And Dad’s watching us on the megascope,” Tom reminded his chum.
Liftoff was routine. Tom eased the Fire Eagle into orbit at an altitude of approximately two hundred miles, then reported to Amos Quezada that all was ready. “Happy landings!” replied the mission controller over the young inventor’s Private Ear Radio.
“Right,” muttered Bud. “I think we’re a little more concerned with the getting-down than the landing.” Bud had been shaken by Tom’s recent brush with death—by the sight of his friend pinned like a bug in the tornado tunnel. It haunted him.
Tom grinned through his transparent bubble helmet and circled a thumb and forefinger. “Come on, this is how we have fun! But if you want, I could let you off. Next bus on this route comes by in a few days...”
“Aaa. Hit it, pal!”
“Okay, here we go. ‘Oh help, we’re stuck in orbit!’ But never fear!” He pressed a button on the Spektor control unit attached to the main board. Looking forward through the two small portholes in front of them, the astronauts watched the cylindrical package on the Fire Eagle’s nose burst open like a flower-bud filmed in fast motion. The Durafoam sheath, its metallumin filaments glistening in the harsh sunlight, shot out into space in a flash and immediately molded itself into its programmed delta-wing shape, the twin tail booms streaming aft. In seconds the D-Wing had enclosed the Fire Eagle completely, like a protective hand. Light from the two portholes was blocked out.
“Skipper, I didn’t think to ask this before, but—just how do we see to steer this baby down?” Bud asked. “Just fly on instruments only?”
Tom replied, “The wing comes equipped with its own built-in instrumentation and ‘brain.’ It handles the reentry and landing almost entirely on its own, though there’s a PER-type link to Fearing to allow some remote monitoring—and remote steering if necessary. But I’ve told the control team to leave us to our own devices unless something serious goes wrong.”
“Still—kinda nerve-wracking to set down without knowing what we’re setting-down on.”
“I know—which is why I’ve designed things so that during reentry a small section of the sheathing fuselage, guided into position over the viewports by means of the transifoil, will purposely be allowed to burn away to a thin layer. Then we can blow-off that last bit, to provide pilot visibility and a degree of cabin control during the final landing maneuvers. Oh, by the way, flyboy...”
“We’re already on our way down! The gravitexes started running as soon as the wing was fully expanded.”
“Thanks for telling me! What now, Skipper?” Bud asked.
“We’re poor helpless space victims! Nothing much to do—except watch the gauges and keep our fingers crossed till it’s time to fly manually.”
Like a hurtling meteor, the spacecraft bit deeper and deeper into earth’s blanket of air. Tense minutes passed, and the D-Wing’s temperature shot up.
Suddenly Bud saw a tense look of fear creep over Tom’s face. “Aw jetz. Just to be polite I’m gonna ask you: Anything wrong?” the copilot queried.
“Look at those temperature needles! We’re overheating all over the wing! The heat cells aren’t functioning properly!”
“Glad I asked.”
Tom frantically studied the absorption terminal output ammeters and adjusted various controls, but the skin temperature gauges continued to soar.
Bud’s face paled and his heart thudded. No more jokes! Unless Tom could correct the trouble, they would plunge to fiery destruction in the atmosphere—or crash horribly if the craft somehow survived reentry!
THE PRIVATE EAR unit beeped with its incoming message alert. “Fire Eagle, what’s going on up there? We’re showing nom-plus thermal on the shell!”
“Acknowledged, Control. Amos, I’m trying to work it out.”
“We can get the Challenger up there—”
“No time!” choked Tom Swift. “Look—the Eagle’s own metallumin coating won’t burn through at these temps. Give me time, Amos!”
As Tom clicked off the PER, Bud said fearfully: “We’re safe at these temps—but we’re just starting reentry.” Bud’s pal didn’t reply. “I—I know you hate to hear this as much as I hate to say it, but—maybe you should jettison the D-Wing and deploy the backup paraglider.”
The young inventor didn’t break his attention to look at his friend, but the reply was dead grim. “I’ve been trying to activate the system. The explosive bolts are malfunctioning.”
“And... unless you jettison the wing, you can’t use the chute. Yeah. —Tom, what’s fouling up the heat cells? More of what happened in the tunnel?”
“I don’t know. I don’t think so.” The young inventor strained to focus his attention and his genius. His eyes remained glued to the gauges. Bud stared ahead at his own white reflection in the black-backed porthole viewpane.
“I still have some control,” muttered Tom. “The heat and plasma-corona are interfering with the transifoil, but I can tweak the aerodynamics at least a little.”
“Hey, how about the gravitexes?”
“Support struts are warped out of line. Besides, yanking us one way or another won’t make much difference to the outside temperature—”
“Look!” Bud cried, pointing. “The Durafoam’s starting to burn through!”
A rectangular area of the D-Wing, directly in the boys’ line of sight in front of the twin portholes, was glowing red—then white. It began to flake and sizzle away!
“The visibility slot,” pronounced Tom dully. “It’s supposed to burn away, but not so soon. The forward surface of the wing is already as hot as if the reentry phase were near completion!”
“Doesn’t sound so good, Skipper.”
“The durathermor system has failed completely. We’re doing a basic ballistic reentry with no parachutes, no counter-thrusters—nothing.”
“We—we do have a pretty fair heatshield.”
“The D-Wing sheath? The metallumin filaments won’t hold it together when the going gets hot.” His brain was working desperately, scanning the universe of possibilities for rays of hope. “Bud, there may be a way out of this!”
Given the situation, Bud’s quick grin in response was startling! “Let’s have it, genius boy.”
“Remember the antipodal bomber? The rocket plane dreamed up by a German scientist? I know you’ve read about it, flyboy. His idea was to increase the rocket’s range by making it skip, or ricochet, in and out of the atmosphere like a stone skimming over water.”
“Sure. But we don’t—” Bud’s eyes widened. “I get it! Every bounce into space will give us a chance to cool off.”
“Right, more or less. We’ll still retain our acquired heat—a vacuum amounts to a great insulator, as there’s nothing to conduct heat away and radiant cooling works slowly. But we’ll have a better handle on friction heat because each short dip into the atmosphere will slow our speed—maybe enough to keep us from overheating on our final descent.”
“Gradual braking—so we don’t melt the brake lining! Jetz! Can we do it with this crate?”
“Maybe, if the control surfaces work okay. The transifoil flex strips won’t melt in these temperatures; they just get weak and sluggish. The big danger is that too much of the wing may have softened.”
“Can’t fly a ship made of melted ice cream.”
Tom snorted as he turned to the controls. “That sounds like something Mr. Gerard would come out with.”
After radioing his plan to ground control, Tom checked the temperature gauges and power indicator. Then he turned a control knob which fed current to the transifoil strips embedded in what was left of the D-Wing. As the current diminished and the strips began to fold back on themselves, the youths could see—the last layer over the portholes was gone!—that the contoured wing nose had begun to curve upward.
The boys held their breaths. Gradually they felt a build-up of G-force which told them, even without watching the attitude indicator, that the Fire Eagle’s nose was coming up. “We’re climbing!” Tom cried as he checked the craft’s altimeter, derived from his Spacelane Brain invention. Up, up they soared until the craft was cresting almost a hundred miles above the earth. Without the constant resupply of heat energy from friction, temperatures along the forward cutting-edge of the duratherm wing had fallen sharply.
“You’ve done it, Skipper!” Bud exulted.
“We’re not home safe yet.”
“Yeah, not by a long shot. And that’s how we’re flyin’ her—like a long shot!”
Again they ducked down into the atmosphere, using what ever useful pull they could coax from the skewed mini-gravitexes. Again they rebounded spaceward when the Fire Eagle’s plunge reached sufficient velocity. Tom’s spirits rose as he saw the gauge readings remain well within the margins of safety.
They were losing speed, giving it up to the atmosphere a little at a time. On each successive dip, the rebounds became shallower. More than two hours later the Fire Eagle had completely circled the earth and was nearing its original reentry point—but many miles below. They were still traveling with blinding speed, but they could no longer reach airless space.
“That’s as far as we can skim,” Tom told Bud. “On our next dip we’ll have to go for broke!”
“Could we go for something else, please?”
Meanwhile, ground control had been tracking the craft’s progress. Quezada’s voice came over the PER, ice calm. “You’ll be entering at a much steeper angle than planned, Fire Eagle, and you can’t count on lengthening your final glide path more than twenty per cent. It’ll be touch and go whether you can make it to Fearing waters. Tom... your father called in—he wants you to switch your PER cartridge to the Enterprises one.”
Tom knew, instinctively, what his father wanted to tell his son. “Just tell him ‘I know,’ and he should keep his fingers crossed. All I have time to say.”
Tom clicked off the PER. Bud murmured, almost to himself, “This is what you Swifts do.”
The Eagle lunged into its final descent. Tom and Bud knew it might be their final descent as well! The eyes of the veteran space pilots never left the instrument console. The temperature readings rose steadily, ominously, crossing an invisible red line into the danger zone.
“Too hot,” Bud grated. “Way too hot, Skipper.”
Suddenly the spacecraft gave a violent shake. The readouts told the terrifying truth. Most of the D-Wing’s nose had crumpled and torn away! The Eagle would begin to corkscrew, completely out of control!
“Something to try—!” Tom gasped, flinging his gloved hands at the control panel. The cabin suddenly seemed to lean back at an acute angle. The boys were almost riding on their backs.
“T-temps leveling off,” choked Bud. “Tom! Temps, airspeed—dropping! Man, look at it!”
The young inventor allowed himself the luxury of catching his breath. “What’s left of the wing’s underhull is now flat-on to our line of descent. We’re using it as a combo parachute and ablation heatshield.”
“You mean you’re letting it burn away?”
“Each spatter carries off excess heat.”
“I’ll consider that question later, flyboy!”
The uptilted view-slots showed only stars against deep blue for an agonizingly long time, a view constantly interrupted by fire and bursts of sparks. Yet the Fire Eagle finally fell below Mach speed. With difficulty, Tom was able to shift the cabin angle back to horizontal. Below, like a misty blue tapestry, the boys could see the vast sweep of the continent of North America spreading before them. They knew their survival depended on reaching the Atlantic; an ocean touchdown was the only survival option. But the ship was losing altitude faster and faster now. The radar altimeter needle dipped near the twelve-mile mark. “Most of the sheath is gone, Bud,” Tom stated quietly. “Still a little lift from the wing-stubs, a little control and braking through the gravitex, the one that’s still functioning. That’s it. The Fire Eagle is basically the Falling Brick.”
Bud glanced at Tom. The young inventor’s jaw was set as he scanned the terrain sweeping past far below them. How long could the brick stay aloft, Bud wondered, before—
Suddenly the ship buffeted and shot ahead with a tremendous burst of speed.
“We’ve hit the jet stream!”
Tom nodded. “It’s what I’ve been counting on to carry us the rest of the way.”
The gambit worked. Presently they could make out the misty contours of the Atlantic coast.
“We’re going to make it!” Bud gritted.
Tom’s lips cracked in a smile. “Just pray we can keep enough lift on the wing to get us to a slightly soft landing! That water can slap pretty hard.”
Air Traffic Control had cleared an emergency flight route. The wide, empty ocean was now coming into view, dead ahead. They flashed across the coastline. They were well south of Fearing Island.
The two suddenly exclaimed in amazement as a fantastic, mammoth form swooped into view like a shot across their bow. The Challenger, skimming along only yards above the waves!
They shouted again as the Eagle abruptly slowed, as if they had plunged into a wall of molasses! “They’re using the repelatrons!” Bud exulted.
They passed over the gyroscope-shaped colossus and it dropped from sight—then nosed into view again. The Challenger was keeping pace with them, almost directly beneath—cradling them in arms of invisible force.
At last the big spaceship had to dart out of the way. Both boys braced themselves for the shock of splashdown.
With a jolt, the Fire Eagle slammed down into the water, bounced twice, skidding across the low waves like a hydrofoil, and bobbled to a stop amid a cloud of steam.
The boys sat stunned and breathless.
“Sh-should we—h-head for the designated exits?” panted Bud.
“What’s left of the Durafoam should keep us afloat. Says so on the label.”
“Gosh, genius boy... what a disaster. But you’ll fix the durathermor thing.”
“Well,” said the young inventor, “if you overlook almost losing our lives, I think we’ve proven that my duratherm wing is a practical method of spacecraft reentry—but admittedly the test wasn’t a complete success by any means. The thermoelectric conversion system definitely needs improvement to prevent the kind of trouble we encountered.”
“Perhaps just a bit of tweaking. George Dilling would approve of your way of putting things.”
Tom and Bud were taken off the Eagle by the Challenger, and a barge from Fearing towed the blackened test craft to the island for what promised to be a lengthy examination. Tom’s father managed to be jovial over the phone. “You know son, if you hadn’t cut off communication I would have told you about the plan we dreamed up to cushion your landing with the repelatrons.”
“Oh well,” Tom sighed, “it’s not like Bud and I mind surprises.”
The two adventurers flew back to Shopton in the Sky Queen, the hulk of the test vehicle lashed down in the aerial hangar. Only a few scraps of the duratherm wing remained. “Too early for a theory, genius boy?” Bud asked. “I know you gave her a lookover.”
Tom considered the question and finally shrugged. “There’s no mystery as to what happened—if you start off with the fact that the durathermor absorption terminals went bad. We fixed the problem we had before, with the warping of the cell arrays...”
“And it tested out fine! But what’s left? What happened to the apparatus between the tests at Enterprises and the test in space?”
“I’ll tell you,” Tom replied grimly. “What happened was that the Eagle and the D-Wing packet were mounted on the booster rocket. During the procedure the workers had easy access to the container.”
“And they sabotaged it.”
“Someone did! Someone could have inserted a little slug of something into the compressed material, some substance that splattered over the forward edge of the wing when it vaporized under the reentry heat. It caused the terminals to short out—the jettison bolts too, evidently.” The young inventor noted that the problem would be studied by Hank Sterling and the engineering section as well as by Security. “And the puzzle is the same as before: how some enemy knew all the details of the chemistry and metallurgy of the sheath, in order to precisely formulate the sabotage material.
“How—and who! The test D-Wing and durathermor were hand-built here at Enterprises over the last few days. No one on Fearing was involved at all. Only a half-dozen people—like Wiltessa and Sterling, Arv Hanson, you and my dad—have even glanced at the spec printouts.”
Bud nodded. “At least you can cut the list down by one. I may have glanced—but all my gray eyes saw were hieroglyphics!”
The Queen set down on its elevatoring pad-platform at Enterprises with its tail between its legs. As the long day drew forth its shadows, Chow brought Tom and Bud dinner in the small lab near the Swifts’ office, cluck-clucking at the fearsome antics of his young friends. “Not only have t’ keep you full o’ nutrition,” complained the westerner, “but I gotta clean up after you too!”
Tom smiled. “Oh? Since when, pardner?”
“Found yer mail settin’ out on the floor next t’ Trent’s desk.” Chow pulled a thick, padded envelope from a shelf in his cart and handed it to Tom.
The young inventor looked at it curiously, turning it over. Bud chuckled. “Maybe you’d better open it under water, Skipper—we do have this little problem with spies and saboteurs around here! It could explode!”
Chow gulped, goggle-eyed. “Aw now, buddy-boy—don’t pump up my ole blood-pressure like that! They X-ray all th’ mail around here, don’t they?”
“They sure do,” Tom reassured him, “with the TeleTec machine. But just to set you—all of us—at ease, I’ll give it an extra scan.” The crewcut youth put the envelope under several sensitive probe devices.
“S-so—what’s it say, boss?” asked Chow nervously.
“It says ‘BOOM!’” Bud ventured, earning a withering look from a crinkled prairie eye.
“Looks like a standard plastic ‘jewel case,’ as they use for data disks,” replied Tom. “But there’s no disk inside the case—just a piece of paper folded like a letter. I can’t read the writing; after all, these are high-tech security scanners, not ‘X-ray specs’! But I don’t see anything that looks like a bomb, not even a little one.” Glancing Bud’s way, he added wryly, “And no trace of contact poison this time around either, chum.” It was a danger they had faced before.
“In other words,” stated Bud, “junk mail. Boring.”
“Trent probably had set it on the edge of his desk and it got shoved onto the floor.” Munford Trent was the two Swifts’ executive office secretary. He had left for the day.
Tom slitted open the envelope with a fingernail and withdrew the folded sheet within. “Hmm! I’ll say it’s junk mail!” He held up the sheet for the others to see. It was blank!
“Say now,” said Chow with narrowed eyes. “Mebbe it’s that there indivisible ink. Ya gotta—”
“Hey!” Bud interrupted, batting out with a hand. “Who let these guys in?” Several tiny insects were buzzing around his head.
“Looks like bees,” said his pal. “Wonder how they—” But he stopped himself and looked at the open envelope. Another bee appeared at the slitted opening and darted off into the air.
“Looks like some o’ Bud’s leg-pullin’, seems t’ me,” stated Chow. “If I get stung, yuh’re gonna be on short rations till th’ cows come home and leave agin!”
“I’m not behind it,” Bud protested, still waving his arms for protection. “Tom—what if these are trained combat bees?”
The young inventor grinned, but suddenly his head jerked backwards. “Oww! Good night, one of them stung me right on the back of my neck!”
Bud and Tom grabbed two spray cans of insecticide and did their best to bring down the irritating invaders. It was a drawn-out defense operation. Minutes passed before Tom could declare victory.
Chow looked down at the half-dozen specks on the lab floor, some still twitching. “Blame buzzin’ varmints! Howdja s’pose the joker got ’em into that plastic case, anyway? Take it from a prairie man, bees don’t take t’ herdin’ so well!”
Tom crouched down on his knees. He said slowly: “I’m not so sure these things are bees, fellows. I think... maybe... we’d better head over to see Doc Simpson—right away!”
CLUES TO A CONUNDRUM
CHOW looked at his beloved young boss in stricken surprise. “Wh-whataya mean? Sumpin wrong with ’em after all? Poison honey, mebbe?”
“Tom’s saying they’re not bees,” Bud pointed out.
“I don’t know what they are,” said the young inventor. “They look like some kind of bee, but not the sort I see buzzing around in the garden. They may not be harmless—and I’ve been stung!”
“Good grief!” sputtered Bud, and exclaimed: “Maybe they’re carrying Bubonic Plague or something!” Chow just sputtered.
Tom called the infirmary and was relieved to find Doc Simpson still lingering at the end of the day. “Feeling any effects, Skipper?” he asked Tom.
“Well... not so far. Just some tenderness where I was stung.”
“Come on over, all of you.”
The plant infirmary was stocked with the latest in medical equipment, some of it not yet available beyond the walls of Enterprises. Doc ran a blood analysis of all three, then examined Tom’s scalp with a tiny instrument that used laser-light to reveal lower layers of the epidermis without an incision. Finally he probed deeper with a medical version of the TeleTec, which did not utilize X-rays.
“I’m not finding anything of interest,” he reported. “Chow—perfectly normal for a man of your—”
“Ye-ahh, I get it,” Chow snorted.
“Bud, just fine. As to you, Tom...”
Tom grinned. “Don’t take it back, Doc. You already said ‘nothing of interest’.”
“And I’m sticking to it. What you have up there is a simple bee sting. No toxins, no plague germs, no extraterrestrial worms invading the Swift brain! Hardly any swelling, either—the histamine reaction is on the low side, which shows it was a pretty clean ‘jab.’ In fact I don’t even see the stinger; it must not’ve hooked-in and just fell out somewhere. I’ll give you a little cream to rub on, but by tomorrow you’ll forget all about it.”
“Wa-aal, I ain’t partic’larly inclined t’ fergit,” declared Chow. “If that there was jest some loco joke, I’d sure like t’ know who pulled it.”
Tom nodded, his face thoughtful. “Me too. I’m going back to take a closer look at those dead bees. Maybe Life Sciences can tell us something about them.”
The three returned to the lab, which Tom had locked behind him. Inside the young inventor looked at the tiled floor and reacted in dismay. “Good night, they’re gone!”
Bud’s forehead crinkled. “The bee carcasses? How could that happen?—the door was locked.”
“Now jest wait a sec, boys,” Chow put in suddenly. “When we ’as walkin’ down the hall jest now, I hear’d some talkin’ round the bend up ahead.”
Tom led his friends out into the hall and trotted toward the cross-hall junction. Rounding it, he suddenly knocked fist against forehead, chagrined. The hall was occupied by the evening custodial crew!
“Hi there folks,” said one of the custodians. “Come to see us scrub the floors?”
“Jane, did you—I suppose you just finished with my little lab, round the corner?” Tom asked.
“Sure, just now. Hit it once a week.”
Bud cleared his throat. “There were some dead bees on the floor, near the big counter. Did you notice them?”
“Is that what those were?” another member of the crew, Dex, spoke up. “Vacuumed them all up before we started in moppin’. Why? Looked dead to me.”
“They were,” Tom said. “It’s nothing. I just forgot you were coming. Had a busy day.”
They strolled back to Tom’s lab. “At least the envelope, the case, and the paper are still here. Maybe Harlan and Rad can get something from them.”
“Like what?” asked Bud. “Doc didn’t detect anything, and you don’t seem to be at death’s door yet, chum.”
Chow was anxious to agree. “Aw now, let’s jest call it a joke an’ stop frettin’ over it. Let th’ fool feller have his laugh.”
“I’d sure like to,” Tom murmured. He picked up the envelope again, holding it delicately to preserve any fingerprints or other traces. “Just says ‘To Tom Swift, Personal’. No address ‘to’ or ‘from’. It might have come inside a bigger envelope. Ames can check with the mailroom. There should be securicam recordings of its delivery—the TeleTec record, too.”
Suddenly Chow bellowed: “Look there!” He was pointing at a shelf under the counter. “Earned my pay fer th’ week!”
“One of the bees!” Tom laughed. “They didn’t all fall on the floor after all! Thanks, pard!”
“Jest blessed with two sharp eyes, son,” replied the ex-Texan modestly, patting his heroic beltline.
Tom collected the tiny corpse and carried it over to the Life Science lab, then called Harlan Ames at home to report the incident. “Just wanted you to know it happened, Harlan,” Tom explained. “I’ll leave the other materials on your desk.”
The following day, Tom’s examination of the Fire Eagle was interrupted by an in-house call from Munford Trent. “Mr. Demburton would like to speak to you, Tom.”
The call was not unexpected. With the two Swifts’ approval, World Portico had issued a press release outlining the upcoming “exploratory” mission to the passing planetoid, hinting at the Gerard project by speaking of it as a feasibility study for some great leap by the future-visioned hotel megacorp. Both companies had been fielding a frenzied media response. “Is he on the line?”
“Not this line. He called me to say he’s in your Northern California videophone studio, the new one in San Jose.”
“I see. That’s where Lisa Francks is stationed.” The Enterprises videophone system was a private satellite-relay television “network” that linked Tom Swift Enterprises with its various operations around the country through a number of small studio-outposts. The several employees also served to review and forward news about science and research, like investigative reporters.
Tom returned to the administrative office. In a flicker he was looking at the eternal smile of Felton Demburton. “Wonderful TV setup, Tom. Perhaps we should think about making it standard as a guest convenience in our better hotel suites. Slight extra charge.”
“Enterprises doesn’t broadcast that kind of programming, Mr. Demburton,” replied the youth dryly. “What can I do for you?”
“Of course I read of your recent space—experience. Frightful! I wondered if this reentry-wing business would have any effect on Portico’s venture. There’s been a bit of columnar speculation—op-ed columnists, you know. Have to write something.”
Tom shook his head. “No sir, the duratherm wing has nothing to do with our trip to the planetoid in the Challenger. I’m willing to set the D-Wing aside while your company and Enterprises work up an overall plan of action for the Gerard Project.”
“Yes. Mm, Tom—let’s call it the ‘World Portico Hotels Project,’ shall we? Perhaps it wouldn’t be too wise to rest the whole thing on the shoulders of—”
“Of an embarrassment?” The young inventor regarded the hotelier coolly. “Mr. Demburton, I suppose I’m going a little beyond the bounds of nice contractual language, but I’d like to say that Neil Gerard has been an inspiration to a lot of people for many years. I hope you can assure me that this project will treat him and his ideas respectfully—not exploit him for his image. Even if he’s fallen on hard times—er, mentally—I’m not willing to see him just tossed aside. His words may be a little unfocused, but that doesn’t mean he has nothing of value to say.”
The hotelier’s smile became a somewhat different kind of smile. “Please, Tom, you’re completely misreading my attitude. We all have great respect for Neil and his stature as a trailblazing futurist.”
“Then I’m reassured.”
Demburton had more to say. “But Tom, speaking of respect, please take a look at our position. Let’s be candid, shall we? You’ve met the man. The cause of space exploitation won’t be advanced if its public face is someone who can’t string two sentences together without wandering off on some indecipherable tangent. The man’s a great visionary. But I hope you see that garnering support and resources is a down-to-earth matter.”
“Yes, sir. I do,” Tom affirmed reluctantly.
“Old heroes never die, but they do fade away—sometimes too slowly for the good of their reputations. To speak frankly.”
“Tragic. But it’s reality. We’ll both be there someday.”
Never! thought the young inventor fiercely. What he said was: “Mr. Demburton, if Swift Enterprises can... ease the burden in working with Mr. Gerard in some way...”
The man dialed up to full beaming. “In other words, a warmer, more attentive environment, among admirers. A generous and sensible offer, Tom. Perhaps we’ll take you up on it.”
After concluding the electronic conference, Tom stepped around the corner to the security office. Finding Phil Radnor at his desk, the youth asked if there were any word on the analysis of the remains of the bee.
“Sure is, boss,” Radnor answered, “just a minute ago, matter of fact. Life Sciences says it’s a bee, all right. Rarely harmful, unless you’re allergic or happen to pick up an infection where you’re stung.”
Tom shrugged. “Just a common New York style bee, hmm?”
“They said it’s a species more common in the south than up here,” he replied, glancing at the faxed summary. “It doesn’t much like the cold, but it’s been showing up more and more in the northern states. It’s a hardy little guy, resistant to the usual insecticides.
“You might find this comment interesting, Tom,” he continued. “They pointed out that if you wanted to send a live bee through the mail, or keep it inside a tight container for awhile, you couldn’t do better than this species. It’s a mighty tough li’l critter!”
Tom absorbed the news. “If there are clues there, I don’t know what to make of them, Rad.”
“As to the envelope and the case inside, and that piece of paper—I’d say the deliverer wore rubber gloves. Nothing interesting on the mailroom securicam. No postage, as you saw, so it didn’t come in the mail... unless, of course, it was inside a larger envelope. Outdoor cams show nothing out of the ordinary; no trench coat types sneaking around with envelopes or beehives. Maybe some employee found it somewhere and dropped it off after Trent went home.”
“I understand. Was there anything else in the report?”
“Mmmm, maybe one little thing,” grinned the husky security man with a hint of mischief. “These bees aren’t native to the western hemisphere. Specifically, they originate in East Africa. Aha!—and even more specifically—”
What was coming was an easy guess, and Tom said it. “Madagascar!”
Mulling, musing, Tom returned to the Flying Lab’s great underground hangar where the Fire Eagle had been stowed. Hank and Arv joined the young inventor, as did Art Wiltessa, the plant’s chief assembly engineer.
Wiltessa walked around the blackened, battered hulk. “Makes me sick,” he muttered. “Tom, we four put this thing together by hand. If there was a mistake, we made it.”
“And worse, didn’t catch it,” Arv Hanson said quietly.
Tom shook his head. “Look, I don’t accept that. The Eagle apparatus passed every test, and all readings were nominal, even as the wing was being deployed in space. The problems appeared after reentry had got going.”
“Pretty sure it’s sabotage, are you?” observed Wiltessa.
Hank chuckled. “Holy Mack, when isn’t it?”
“Sterling, whatever it was it just about killed Tom and Bud,” reproved Wiltessa. “Nothing to crack wise about. We’d all have been devastated. I’d spend my life wondering if I’d got careless and missed something.”
There was a nodding silence. “Let’s find the problem and fix it,” Tom said. “That’s what matters now.”
After hours, the four agreed that they’d attained the first goal. “That’s it,” declared Hank Sterling. “Between the time she left the plant and the moment of liftoff, some kind of glob of foreign matter was inserted into the container. As the Durafoam ballooned out along the transifoil guide strips, the stuff spread with it.”
Art Wiltessa stared at the disgraced space canoe. “Triaxial ferrochromatite. The ion transfer completely overwhelmed the absorption terminals.” He glanced over to Tom. They all did, awaiting his pronouncement.
But the space venturer said nothing for long moments. He stepped away from them, rubbing his chin, looking at the distant hangar wall. The seconds passed ominously—many opaque seconds before Tom spoke again, and then his voice sounded haunted. “Yes... ferrochromatite in a polymerized adhesive, precisely formulated to bind in strands to the Durafoam.”
“Deadly taffy!” Arv Hanson pronounced.
“The D-Wing containment cylinder was sealed,” objected Wiltessa. “I sealed it here at the plant with an electronic code-lock—sealed it myself, locked it onto the nose of the capsule myself, loaded the whole thing onto the Queen myself, with a forklift. And you and Bud were the only crew for the flight to the island.”
“But it happened!” Tom stated. “We not only have a saboteur on Fearing Island, but a spy here at Enterprises who’s able to know a lock code sequence created on the spot by one man in an empty room!”
The Ninth Light was all-seeing!
“SO IT’S all tied together,” pronounced Arv Hanson. “Mystery raiders on Fearing who crack uncrackable control codes and go yoga on you by remote control commands. Saboteurs who target you and Bud here at the plant and up in space—”
“Or were they targeting the duratherm wing itself?” Sterling interjected. “It seems they have something against space technology. Maybe.”
Wiltessa shook his head in disgust. “I want to spend my time building things, not solving these boys-book mysteries. That’s Ames’s job. But as long as we’re juggling ‘clues’,” he continued, “how about this? Screwin’ up the D-Wing sheath wasn’t just a matter of opening the container and sticking something inside. Chief, you know that this polymer bonding agent had to be formulated within a very narrow range of specs to work on the Durafoam. Forget how they got the codes to unlock the container—tell me how they knew the precise formulation of the Durafoam variant you used in the sheathing!”
“Exactly right,” Hank declared heatedly. “You can’t, pardon the expression, wing it. Tom was working on the last-minute reformulations right up to the time the prototype was packed away, and I’m the one who cooked it and squeezed it into the mix—Tom and I are the only pairs of eyes to even see that final formula!”
Tom said slowly, “Yes, the final formula... which I finalized just minutes before you produced and applied it to the compressed sheathing mix.”
“Yeah, well, what if they hacked into the computer?” suggested Art Wiltessa.
“I used the computer for the calculations, Art, but the chemical notations were just jotted down on a piece of paper,” Tom declared. “I hand-carried it over to Hank.”
“And I concocted the final version right on the spot, and destroyed Tom’s instructions,” continued Sterling. “So they would have to have started off by analyzing a sample. But holy mo!—I don’t see how anyone could possibly extract a sample from the D-Wing pack after it arrived on the island, analyze it, and create the sabotage stuff in just the few hours the Eagle was up on the launch pad—and then go back and insert it into the capsule. They must have prepared it in advance and had it ready on Fearing even before the capsule arrived on the jet. Which means somebody knew details of the final formula that only Tom and I had access to!”
Arv Hanson cleared his throat, somewhat embarrassed by a thought crossing his mind. “Tom, I’m a pretty practical scientific guy. But—you’ve come up against weird psychic stuff before, right? The Planet X visitor seemed able to read thoughts. And there was that little girl—”
“Jennifer December,” nodded Tom, referring to the inexplicable circumstances described in Tom Swift and His 3-D Telejector. “She definitely had some sort of paranormal ability to contact other minds. And that raider seems to be in some sort of trance state...”
Art Wiltessa gave a sour, impatient look. “I’ll do my job, boys, but please don’t tell me I have to believe in psychic swamis and all that new-age folderol!”
The young inventor smiled. “You don’t have to, Art. But it does seem there are things like that ‘out there’ for science to learn about. I’ve thought before about how to go about building a mind-reading machine.”
“Good gosh!” exclaimed Hank. “Do you think that’s what we’re facing here?”
“As of now, that’s a conclusion I’m not willing to jump to,” replied Tom dryly.
“Yeah, and don’t forget the bees, Skipper!” half-joked Arv.
“No chance of that!”
The scrutiny of the Fire Eagle concluded for the moment, Tom left the hangar to return to the main building. His agile mind was weighted down, preoccupied with his enemies, their unknown objectives, and their inexplicable methods. Outwitting these guys will be quite a test, he thought wryly, given that we know almost nothing about them!
What was the Ninth Light? What was u’umat? Bees... Madagascar... the durathermor...
How did it tie together?
How could it be stopped?
“I’ve got to figure out some kind of strategy,” he half-murmured. To which he added the thought: And this time I’ll be tackling it all on my own—alone!
He spent the rest of a busy, troubled morning hard at work, dividing his efforts between his office and his underground lab next to the Sky Queen hangar and the corpse of the Eagle. As lunchtime approached, he decided to stroll in the sunlight to the employee cafeteria and a quick meal. He told Chow he would be “out,” with no elaboration. For the moment Tom preferred to avoid the gravel-voiced distraction of his good friend from Texas. He wanted to be alone with his thoughts, even if only for a few minutes.
The few minutes ended. A voice hailed him, an expected one. “Hey, genius boy! What’s the body count so far this morning?”
Tom half-laughed, half-winced at Bud Barclay’s gibe. “Just one African bee, still dead. How was the overnighter?” Bud had jetted some machinery from the Swift Construction Company to a research facility in Northern Canada.
“Aaa, fine. Cold up there. Snowy. Dirty white everywhere. Startled a moose or two.”
“Welcome back. What’s that you have there?”
“What I was welcomed back with,” replied the young Californian. “I don’t suppose you’ve broken away from the lab to read the morning paper.” Bud unfolded the newspaper in his hand and held it up before his pal’s eyes. “Get a load of these headlines!”
Tom flushed with swift anger as he confronted the banner of bold black print:
SWIFT PLANETOID PROBE RESTS ON
The youth scanned the story, by a journalist whose name Tom recognized. “Bud, this is ridiculous! They’ve got it completely wrong!”
The actual content of the story was much briefer than its word count, but the gist of it was upsetting. The writer referred to the announced Enterprises mission to the Follower planetoid, and implied that the duratherm wing system—“the same invention which failed disastrously in its recent manned space test”—would be crucial to the probe.
“They’re saying Enterprises is needlessly endangering lives by pushing ahead with a ‘scientific stunt’ before the wing is perfected!” Tom snarled in amazement.
“But where’d that come from?” exclaimed Bud. “The D-Wing has nothing to do with the trip—we won’t even be taking it along on the Challenger, will we?”
“Of course not,” Tom snapped back. “It’s just sensationalistic garbage.” He fought to calm himself. “But that’s not what bothers me, flyboy. The article has details that weren’t part of the public announcement of our plans. How did this writer, Duke Laflin, get advanced word? Bud, some of these details reflect things Dad and I came up with just last night!”
Bud’s face was grim. “It’s like the business with that Teek guy.”
“I’ll tell you what it’s ‘like’,” pronounced the young inventor. “It’s like someone somewhere is trying to use inside information to mount a media campaign against Swift Enterprises!”
“But where are they getting their info?”
“The same place the saboteurs get their info—and the Fearing raiders too.” Tom thumbed through the paper, noting a contact telephone number. “You can bet I’m going to get in touch with Laflin about this.”
“Absolutely!” Bud nodded but added tentatively: “But—maybe closer to quitting time, hmm?”
Tom raised an eyebrow. “Oh? Why not now?”
“Yup. She predicted it. She’s getting to be a real expert.”
“Who predicted what? A psychic?”
Bud grinned. “Bashalli. She told me in the parking lot that it would’ve dropped out of your genius brain by now.”
“What’s she doing—” And then Tom groaned. “Gosh—the picnic! Am I late?”
“Sandy and Bash are a little early, Skipper. But you definitely will be The Late Tom Swift if you don’t grab your trunks and get going!”
“Actually, chum, I’m kidding,” said Tom with a wink. “I’m already wearing my trunks underneath. I’ve been looking forward to this outing all morning. My brain can really use a reset.”
Twenty minutes later the four friends were on their way to the public beach of Lake Carlopa in Bud’s fire-engine-red convertible, which bore the license plate TSE TSE FLY. They had gone hardly a mile down the highway from Enterprises when a buzzer bleated on the dashboard. Sandy and Bashalli exchanged anguished glances as Tom lifted the car cellphone from its cradle.
“This is Tom.”
“Tom Swift, hi there! I represent CyberNewsDirect, you know, ‘we make news by reporting it’—right? If I could trouble you for just a minute, I wondered if you’d comment on this morning’s—”
“Who is this?” demanded Tom irritably. “How did you get this number?”
“We can get into that if you like, but isn’t it more important to tell the public why—”
“Nice hanging up on you,” Tom said, clicking off. The phone rang again. He shut off the bleeper.
They continued the drive with many a grumble. As the convertible came through the gate to the beach parking area, a TV camera truck which had been parked nearby shot out from its space and pulled alongside.
“How about a quick interview, Tom?” a reporter shouted.
The rearview mirror showed a minor traffic jam developing in the lot as parking motorists slowed down to gawk at the famous young inventor and the television camera crew. Bud stepped hard on the accelerator to squeal away from the TV truck.
They could hear a loud shout from behind them, from the frustrated news reporter. “Good luck with your planetoid project! Hope you all make it back!”
Bud grunted irritably. “Boy, the way things are going, we’ll be lucky even to see the water today, much less do any swimming!”
“I know. It’s a pain in the neck,” Tom confessed. “But those fellows are doing their job.” He added a bit sheepishly, “Ducking publicity is one thing, but I hate to be rude.”
“‘Ducking’ is not ‘rude’, my dear Swift,” commented Bash. “They’re lucky we don’t run them over.”
“Let’s try to find a spot away from the Information Superhighway,” Sandy urged.
“They recognize Bud’s car,” her brother stated. “Pal, park over there at the edge of this lot. We can walk a distance, out of sight, before we settle down. I remember a good spot.”
“Right,” said Bud. “And Tom—if you want to keep us from being recognized—lose the darn striped T-shirt!”
Tom guided them to a relatively secluded place, a good private spot to spread a beach blanket and plant an umbrella. The sun was bright and hot as the four young people raced out across the sand into the blue waters of Lake Carlopa. For the next hour or two they enjoyed themselves, cavorting in the water, eating the picnic lunch which the girls had packed, and lolling lazily on the beach.
“Why do you keep checking your watch, Tomonomo?” asked Sandy. “Do you have a scheduled photo-op coming up?”
Tom shrugged. “I’m always a little jumpy when Enterprises has a big project in the works.” He gazed off in the distance, vaguely.
Suddenly Bud gave a groan of annoyance. “Oh, great! Media alert!”
A young man with a big, elaborate camera was clomping across the sand toward them. The front of his T-shirt was emblazoned “Just ask! Variety of answers available.”
Without identifying himself or asking permission, he swung the camera up to capture a picture of shirtless Tom Swift and friends. But Tom, edging past Bud, leapt to his feet and knocked the electronic camera from the man’s hands.
“Hey!” the man protested. “You’ll break it! All I’m—”
“Mister, I don’t care what you plan to use that camera for!” grated the youth. “We don’t care to be stalked!”
“Oh, I don’t really mind, myself,” Sandra offered unhelpfully. “But you should ask permission. Before stalking.”
She was ignored. The photographer sneered at Tom, picking up his camera. “Right, pal, another big newsmaker who’s just too big for the news. Guess what, I have the right—”
“Yeah? I have the right and the left!” muttered Bud darkly, bunching both fists.
“Oh, put those things away, Bud,” commanded Sandy. “Let’s just let him take our picture.”
“Wait!” exclaimed Tom. He grabbed the camera from the man’s hands. “Something’s fishy. I’m familiar with the latest models, but this big thing—!”
With a deep frown he held the camera out at arm’s length, aiming it down at the sand.
He pressed the button.
A fiery red needlelike beam lanced out from the camera—two beams! One from the lens flashed down into the sand, the other straight up into the sky!
Everyone, including the photographer, exclaimed in five simultaneous gasps. Suddenly Bud Barclay was in motion. “Here’s some freedom of the press!” he barked. The young flier’s fist preceded him—square on the photographer’s jaw! The man’s eyes went glassy and he toppled back to the sand.
“Those—those were laser beams,” whispered Sandy. “W-weren’t they, Tom?”
Tom nodded grimly as he bent to pick up the camera, which he had flung away in startled reaction. “High-powered. Some of the sand has fused into glass from the heat.”
“Bud, next time Sandra tells you to restrain yourself, please don’t listen,” Bashalli said, voice shaking.
“Someone—probably me—would’ve ended up with a hole right between the eyes,” declared Tom.
“Two holes! One for me!” choked the photographer, rubbing his jaw as the lay on the sand. “That crazy thing lased in both directions!”
Bud looked ready to resume his invasion of the photographer’s face. Tom waved him back. He stooped down next to the man. “What’s your name?” Tom demanded.
“V-V-Vern Sholt,” the man stuttered. “Now look, guys—Mr. Swift—I had nothing to do with this. That camera isn’t mine! I d-don’t know anything about it!”
“Just happened to find it in your hands, huh?” gibed Bud.
“C’mon,” quavered the man. “You don’t suppose I’d have pointed that thing at you if I’d known it was going to fire both ways, do you?”
“Never mind what we suppose,” Tom retorted. “If the camera isn’t yours, where’d it come from?”
“From the guy who hired me.”
“Hired you to do what?”
“To take your picture. He claimed you were so publicity-shy—especially today, what with that story in the newspapers—that no regular press photographer could get near you. That’s why he needed an outsider for the job.”
“Are you a professional cameraman—Vern?” Bud put in.
Sholt shrugged uncomfortably. “Well—no. I think he just picked me at random. I was standing in the crowd next to that camera truck in the parking lot. But hey, nowadays it’s just point-and-shoot, right? You don’t have to have a Masters Degree to push a button.”
“You simple-minded chump!” Bud exploded.
Tom asked quietly, “What did the man tell you to do, Sholt?”
“It was just—he said what I told you, gave me the camera, and pointed. He waved a fifty under my nose—all mine when I get back to the lot with the picture snug in the camera. See?”
“I’m sure he specified the subject of the pic pretty clearly,” commented Tom dryly. “They call it a head shot!”
“H-he—he wanted to—I mean, you and me, both of us—!”
“A very efficient way to eliminate a witness,” Bash noted. “And I’ve seen enough television to know there won’t be any usable fingerprints on the camera.”
“Probably not.” Tom added to Sholt, “Could you identify this man? Maybe enough to give a police sketch artist something to work with?”
Sholt nodded vigorously. “Sure I could. Looked to be about 40, short but kind of muscular, receding hairline—oh yeah, one other thing,” he went on, “he was wearin’ something on his left wrist. I noticed it because it was a little unusual...”
“Good grief!” Bud blurted out. “A bracelet with a little charm on it?—Tom, it could be like what the raiders wore!”
But the photographer was already shaking his head. “It wasn’t like that. It was more like those unbreakable plastic bands they give hospital patients, bright blue. There was one thicker part on it, sort of oblong.”
Tom looked at his friends angrily. “An Enterprises patrolscope amulet!” Like Fearing Island, the Swift Enterprises plant was security-protected by a radar system. Moving objects of human form showed up on the radarscope unless they carried on their person the special transponder amulets that told the system to disregard the radar bounceback.
Tom told Sholt: “This man you met was probably someone who’s been engaging in sabotage and spying in Swift Enterprises. He’s willing to kill, and will probably make another pass at you, since the laser trap didn’t work out—his idea of self-protection. He’ll have skulked away by now, but that doesn’t mean he won’t go all out to track you down. You know too much! I’d go directly to the police—and cooperate. They’ll have ways to protect you.”
“Oh, I will! Immediately! Absolutely! Th-then—I can go?”
“In a second. I’m inclined to believe your story, but you’ll still have to tell it to the police. Give me your address and phone number.” Tom had him scrawl the information in his pocket-size notebook.
“Jetz, Skipper!” Bud protested. “You’re not going to let him go!— ?”
“We have his prints, on the camera and now on this notepad.” Tom told the photographer: “If you do decide to run, Sholt, prepare to keep at it for the rest of your life.”
Sholt, badly shaken and perspiring nervously, babbled gratefully, “Th-thanks, Tom. What I said isn’t bogus. People know me in Shopton. I’ve got friends.”
“Next time get some better ones,” Sandy suggested sarcastically. “No matter how much money they offer you!”
As Sholt scampered away out of sight, Bud turned toward his friend in amazement. “Genius boy, what’s going on? Why’d you go so easy on that dope?”
Tom shrugged and said mildly, “I’m a trusting sort of guy.”
“I really think,” said Bashalli, “our fun in the sun is over for the day.” She added with thudding sarcasm: “Indeed yes, another typical ‘date’ with Tom Swift!”
Back at Enterprises Tom handed the killer camera over to Harlan Ames. The security chief said: “Obviously the only prints we’ll find on it will be Sholt’s. As with the ‘bee delivery system,’ these players are smart enough to get rid of all trackable traces. Unless—if you started at the beach parking lot with your sensitector tracker—”
Tom’s reply was a brusque interruption. “No. Rover Boy wouldn’t be able to isolate the spy’s traces from those of the others in the lot.”
“Oh? But the amulet—”
“Harlan, we can’t waste time. Have you and Rad had any luck monitoring that faux sultan?”
“Desh Zai? Wes Norris, and Thurston at the CIA, have been giving us what little info they’re allowed to provide. It’s too bad Teek’s employee didn’t have much in the way of useful information, but the Charger has been listening for anything of interest on short wave. We were able to work out the frequency by talking to the woman.” The Sea Charger, a huge ocean vessel designed by Swift Enterprises for use by the world’s scientific community, had been diverted to the Indian Ocean. Ames went on: “But they’re probably on to us—all quiet for now. Your dad’s been keeping track of Zai’s yacht by megascope; the Apocalypso is still out at sea. No way to tell if Zai is on it, but the Madagascar authorities presume so.”
“Have they been cooperative?”
“As much as possible. The country’s in a political crisis right now.”
“I’ve read about it.” Tom fell silent, brow knitted. “At least we know our suspicions are correct. The man who hired Sholt must be the same one who ‘WiFied’ the test tunnel console—a plant employee with an amulet.”
“And he was probably the one who somehow found out about the container lock code and the special Durafoam formula,” the security chief pointed out. “Assuming it’s not some telepath hanging around with Desh Zai! But a few henchmen for the Opposition must be on Fearing Island as well, to have broken into the D-Wing pack on the Fire Eagle.”
“And they’d have to have ready access to chemical apparatus. How likely is it that some of the raiders themselves remained in hiding on Fearing?”
Ames shook his head. “Not likely, Tom. I know it’s happened before, but I had Vendiablo eyeball every square foot of that island with his most trusted employees. Nothing. And besides, no one could have opened up the container after the Queen landed without being caught on the securicams. No one even came near the Fire Eagle except longtime technicians who’ve been thoroughly checked. I’ll compile a list for you. You probably know every one.”
“So security was perfect. That’s great to hear, Harlan. But don’t forget one thing.”
Tom left Ames’s office and headed for his main laboratory, adjacent to the Sky Queen’s underground hangar. Though it was now late afternoon, the young inventor had no intention of leaving his day’s work unfinished.
Presently he called his father in the office in the administration building. “Dad, I won’t be home tonight. Tell Mom, will you? For the next several nights I’ll just sleep on the cot and have Chow keep me fed. We can’t miss the deadline for the planetoid trip—not if we want to fulfill our contract with Demburton.”
Mr. Swift caught something in his son’s voice. “Tom—how much strain are you putting yourself under? Can I take some of the load off you?”
“No, Dad,” Tom replied tensely. “No one can help me on what I have to get done. After all—it’s not easy figuring out how to move a world!”
A SHOVE IN SPACE
TOM SWIFT’S fantastic plan, already explained to his father and approved by Mr. Demburton and Neil Gerard, was set forth to his circle of close friends the next morning. The rest of the world would have to wait.
“Now, son,” piped up Chow, “jest how d’yew plan t’ push around some big space rock like that? Mean t’ say—ain’t it bigger’n Manhattan?”
Tom was weary, but grinned. “Is it really such a wild idea, Chow? The space friends moved Nestria into orbit, you know.”
“Is that the idea?” asked Bud. “Get some help from the SF’s?”
“The Skipper has something else in mind,” Hank Sterling said. “It’s big and wonderful, as usual, but I’ve told him it’ll work. Expert approval!”
Tom drew a diagram on a display board. “It’s just basic, schoolboy orbital mechanics, fellows. When we reach the Follower on our trip—we take off next week—we’ll be carrying along some mighty big luggage. We’re going to embed a bank of oversize repelatrons in the surface of the planetoid. Over the following several weeks, while we’re back home making preparations for the construction of the Gerard space habitat, the trons will be running continuously, gradually shoving the planetoid onto a new trajectory.”
“What’ll the trons be pushing against?” Bud inquired. “Earth? The sun?”
“Neither,” Tom responded. “There don’t happen to be any big celestial bodies at the right angular position to achieve the orbit parameters we want, so I’m using the repelatrons to produce thrust in an entirely new way.” Using the board, the young scientist-inventor described how the repelatrons would use the material of the planetoid itself as a thrust medium. “I’ve designed a robotic machine that will roam around inside the Follower on its own, extracting solid material and ‘pumping’ the stream of fragments up to a feeder device built into the repelatron installation. We’ll then use repelatron force to shoot the fragments spaceward with tremendous speed, producing a counterthrust in the opposite direction.”
“I get it,” Bud spoke up. “A rock-rocket!”
“That’s the plan, flyboy.” Tom noted that there would be an additional benefit. The “rock-chomper” machine would be slowly creating a large hollow space within the planetoid, which was needed to make a reality of Gerard’s overall vision, a safe habitat for longterm occupation by fragile humans.
Hank said, “The whole process will take a while, of course. Even Tom Swift can’t make a flying mountain turn on a dime!”
“Guess I kin sorta see it,” pronounced Chow uncertainly. “Sorta. Now tell me why yuh’re gonna do it in the first place.”
“Right now the orbital path of the planetoid is quite elongated, as Comet Tarski’s was,” the youth explained. “It will essentially end up leaving the solar system after passing close to the sun. So we’re going to circularize the orbit, lasso it to the sun and make it a real ‘captive planetoid.’ The new orbit will be much more closed and compact. It’ll range from somewhat within the orbit of Mercury to a little beyond Jupiter, with a period of several years—years on Earth, that is.
“The purpose of all this is to test out Mr. Gerard’s basic space-habitat idea, but also to go beyond it. The team of ‘orbiteers’—about fifty of ’em—will live in a deep-space environment isolated from Earth. By our readjusting the Follower’s orbit, they’ll be able to make all sorts of close observations of some places in the solar system we won’t be visiting very soon, not even in the Challenger.” He noted that a new group of inhabitants would be “rotated in” whenever the planetoid made its nearest approach to our world. “It’s a research project that can go on for centuries!”
Bud piped up with: “Tom... if it crosses the Earth’s orbit—”
Tom grinned. “Good night, pal, you’ve got to stop fretting about the Earth! Like its present trajectory, the changed orbit of the Follower will be sharply tilted to the plane of the planets. Even at the nearest point it will never actually cross our path.”
After extended discussion and many questions, Tom’s audience left—all but one. “Tom, what’s goin’ on?” Bud asked, looking at his pal with troubled gray eyes. “It’s not like I don’t know you.”
“What’re you getting at, flyboy?”
“The way you handled Vern Sholt... other things too... it doesn’t add up for me. There’s something you’re not telling me. And I don’t like it. Look,” Bud went on, “did you plant some kind of bug or signal device on our boy Vern? Is that why you decided to be a ‘trusting kind of guy’?”
“I didn’t plant anything on him, Bud. I really do think he’s just an innocent pawn.” The young inventor stepped closer and clapped a lingering hand on his friend’s muscular back. “We do know each other, about as well as two people can. Maybe it’s you who should be a little more trusting.”
“Wh-what—what are...” Bud glanced at Tom curiously, then down at the floor. “Yeah. Okay. I—I guess you’re right. As always—whatever you say.”
“I knew you’d get the message,” said Tom.
Busy days later, her hold stuffed tight with bulky equipment, the Challenger lifted spaceward from Fearing Island. “From up here you can’t see all the damage, all the burn marks,” commented a crewmember, Marsha Davenport. She stood on the command deck, gazing down at the shrinking sliver of land through the big viewpane.
“Ye-aah,” agreed Chow. “Like as it never happened. But it shor did!”
“And I was caught up in it,” Marsha continued thoughtfully. “A bit of shrapnel from one of the explosions zinged my shoulder. They say there were no major injuries, but a lot off us took on souvenirs. Tom, have you figured out why those men targeted the installation?”
In the pilot’s chair next to Bud, Tom could only give back a shrug. “No one’s figured it out. There might be some connection to an old, wealthy family from Bangladesh. The head of the family lives in Madagascar. But the motive—who knows?”
Bud remarked, “Some kind of weird cult thing, they’re saying. Gosh, Skipper, a lot of people out there in the world have weird grudges against the Swift family, and against you personally—as we’ve found out more than once.” Tom just shrugged again.
Chow added, “Leastways, we’re way up here where they cain’t get in our hair, fer a while.”
“You’re worried about your hair, cowpoke?” teased Bud.
The all-but-bald westerner snorted. “Wish I had more of it t’ worry about, too!”
Day and night had little meaning in interplanetary space, but after many hours and sleep periods, accelerating and then decelerating at 1-G, the Challenger came to a floating halt a mile from the planetoid called the Follower.
“Will we start off doing a survey pass, Mr. Swift?” asked a crewman.
Tom shook his head. “It’s not really necessary. We’ve thoroughly mapped the surface with the megascope, and retrieved some subsurface materials with the big Enterprises telesampler. Other than taking some deep-core samples, our job is to set up the automatic equipment. Then back to Earth.”
“Still planning a visit to Little Brother?” asked Bud, using his nickname for the tiny micro-planetoid that accompanied the Follower.
“Not right away,” said Tom. “Little Bro has an entirely different trajectory and is still quite a distance away, more closely aligned to the plane of the ecliptic. As we put about, I’ll take some deeper samples with the telesampler. The transmission distance from Earth limits the effective penetration-depth of the probe beam. We’ve only studied the crustal strata, just a few feet.”
At last the great spaceship touched down, gently, on the blistered, porcupine-jagged surface of the planetoid. It was the easiest descent conceivable, as the tiny Follower was virtually free of gravitation. The Challenger drifted down to a gentle bump, and drill-anchors in its landing “feet” fastened it firmly to the surface.
Tom radioed their arrival to Earth via the PER. “So I see!” chuckled Mr. Swift, seated at the megascope screen. “Having an electronic ‘eye’ a few hundred feet away takes a bit of suspense out of the conquest of space, son. I might as well switch channels and go back to watching the Apocalypso.”
“Oh... it’s still safe to predict at least a touch of drama here and there,” Tom replied. “Mankind’s never tried to shove a mini-planet around like a billiard ball. Unexpected things could still happen.”
“And I’m glad to see that you’re ready for them,” said his father warmly. “No secret saboteurs aboard, I trust?”
Tom laughed. “If so—it’s still a secret!” Both father and son knew the astronaut construction force consisted of employees of long standing, men and women who had been carefully screened and were regarded as utterly trustworthy. If we can’t trust even these people, we might as well shut down Enterprises, Tom thought. Dad and I can’t do everything ourselves!
It took five hours for the work crew of sixteen—the entire crew of the ship—to float the giant repelatrons and their atomic power feed out of the hangar and into their designated positions near the Challenger’s landing site. A few more hours and the entire array of parabolic force radiators, aiming straight up into space, had been anchored to the Follower. Tom commented, “Dr. Jatczak thinks the planetoid originated deep inside some larger body that shattered, probably from a collision between two microplanets in the ‘Jatczak Sphere.’ That accounts for its density. It’s basically a few feet of silicate rock over a solid iron-nickel core. We’ll be using the heavy core material as our thrust medium.”
“Whole place is jest a great big ole cannonball, huh boss?” grinned Chow Winkler.
“About the size of it, pardner. And we’re up here to set off the cannon.”
Chow nodded inside his extra-large bubble helmet. “Say now, mebbe yuh could call yer contraption a ‘core-cannon’!”
“Er... let’s not.”
After a sleep period and a breakfast of Texas proportions, the team set to work on Tom’s rock-chomper, a torpedo-shaped cylinder about eight feet long, with a needle-nose protruding from the middle of a fore-end “mouth.” The drone combined certain features of Tom’s atomic earth blaster with elements he had developed for a recent invention called a lithextractor. “It also uses an X-raser to ‘slice’ the rock into manageable pieces before mechanically shattering them into fragments small enough to go through the feed conduit,” Hank Sterling remarked to a group of curious crew members.
“A computer brain and penetrating radar eyes,” continued Bud; “plus a little telesampler to ‘radio’ molecules back to an analysis unit, through a guidetube along side the conduit shell.” As usual, he had been well briefed by his friend.
The basic installation work concluded, the space team returned to the Challenger. Tom guided the craft a short hop away, then activated the rock-chomper, now hidden beneath the surface. “Working great!” Tom announced happily. “As soon as we activate the conduit conveyer, the repelatron array will get a steady stream of ‘feed’.”
Chow whooped. “Brand my rock garden, son—my ole head never had a doubt, big n’r small!”
“Now let’s see if the repelatron array does its job.”
Tom piloted the ship away from the surface, finally settling a few miles directly above—or out from—the repelatron “cannon.” “Won’t that big blast of force knock the ship around?” asked Marsha.
The young inventor shook his head. “No worry there. The trons are tuned to only affect the core-stratum material, as continuously analyzed by the telesampler in the drone. And we won’t be in the way of flying rocks, either. I won’t activate the feed system until we’re way off in space.” He noted that this would only be a longer-range test of the repulsion array focus, to be monitored by special instruments from the ship’s position directly above the installation.
“Here goes,” he said to Bud.
Tom activated the controlling computer routine, sending a signal down to the array. “Instruments showing full response,” he murmured. “Couldn’t be better! I’d say we’re ready—”
Suddenly Hank Sterling yelped out in alarm, “Skipper!—the radar—solid pings coming up from below!”
Tom switched monitors and his young face blanched in fear! “Good grief! We’re being blasted by rocks from the cannon! We’re right in the line of fire!”
The Challenger was floating in the path of a ton of rocky buckshot shooting up from the planetoid like a serpent’s tongue!
THE REPELATRON array had performed precisely as designed, accelerating its dense, massy fuel into space with enormous force. Tom knew he had only seconds before the first impacts began—metallic rock already traveling faster than bullet speed!
There was no time to adjust the Challenger’s super-repelatrons to move the ship sideways or punch the hurtling upward meteor storm onto another trajectory. Even as the ship’s tough magtritanium hull began ringing with the first scattering of rocks, Tom was attacking the controls.
The young astronaut had no time to warn his shipmates to brace themselves. Everyone standing tumbled violently across the deck as the Challenger leapt out of the way as if swatted by a baseball bat!
There was one final, farewell Bwang!—a powerful one—and silence descended. “W-we’re out of danger,” Tom panted. “Is everyone—”
Everyone was not all right. The compartment filled with groans and pained exclamations. As magnetic contact between their space boots and the deck and been broken, the entire crew—excepting only Tom and Bud, who were strapped in their seats—were flailing in midair and bouncing against the bulkheads.
“Golsarn blame—! Get me down!” bellowed a rotund figure, whirling like a runaway moon. Then came an Ooof! as Chow slammed into a careening technician.
“H-hold on—I mean—” Tom worked the controls in front of him, feeding a trickle of power into the ship’s repelatrons. At a slight touch of acceleration, the crew began to gently drift down to the deck, where the magnetic coils again took hold of them. They staggered to their feet one by one, wincing in pain. And commenting on the fact.
“Tom, what in the name of—” moaned veteran spaceman Neil MacColter.
Tom caught his breath. “I had to use the ship’s gravitex stabilizers to lurch us sideways, out of the path of the rocks. No time for kid gloves. We’re just lucky we’re still deep enough in the sun’s gravitational field to have anything for the gravitexes to latch onto!”
“Ye-ahh,” retorted Chow sourly, “I shor do feel lucky!”
“Tom—Skipper—before you tell us how this proves how well your planetoid-mover works,” interjected Hank Sterling, “how in space did the rock-feed conveyor turn itself on? Is this more of that remote-control sabotage?”
“Jetz! Does that Ninth Light deal even work across space?” gulped Bud.
Not answering, Tom began studying his diagnostic monitor as the Challenger accelerated away from the Follower. “No. It wasn’t sabotage,” Tom stated at last. “The error was all mine—a programming glitch. The command I’d intended to activate only the repelatron array simultaneously activated the conveyor. I—I’m sorry, everyone. No apology outweighs risking your lives.”
“No big hurts, Tom,” responded Marsha. “Don’t worry.”
Bud added quietly, “We all know you’ve got a lot on your mind, Skipper.”
For all its risk to fallible humanity, Tom’s rock-rocket system made an impressive sight. A hazy band, made luminous by sunlight against back space, now extended out from the planetoid like a puppet string from the stars. Even over many miles the rock material was still being thrust along with a powerful acceleration by the repelatron force, producing a constant recoil against the Follower. “I can see how getting in the crosshairs might’ve posed a slight challenge for the Challenger,” noted MacColter with irony.
Chow was squinting through the viewpane at the planetoid. “Hunh. I got me a couple good eyeballs, but it shor don’t look like it’s moved none.”
“But it has!” exclaimed Tom with a wide grin. “The instruments are already showing a definite change in orbit trajectory!”
“In other words,” Marsha said to Chow, “just be patient.”
“Not sumpin that comes natural t’me, ma’am.”
Tom chuckled. “Me neither.”
After communicating word of success to his father and Mr. Demburton, Tom turned his attention to Little Brother, a dim speck in the further distance of space. He extended the telesampler’s transmitron unit out into the void and focused its retrieval beam on its target. “Let’s see what we can dig out from way down deep,” he murmured.
Moments later Tom announced, “Got it!—traces in the containment cells.” He brought micro-images up on his monitor screen and intently studied the readings from the materials analyzer. “Hmm! Not typical meteoritic iron, that’s for sure...” He increased the image magnification until clumps of individual molecules became visible.
Looking over Tom’s shoulder, Bud observed, “What is that stuff, genius boy? Looks like salt.”
Tom wagged his head thoughtfully. “Ultrafine crystal dust, reading as aluminum oxide.”
“Corundum!” said Hank, surprised.
Bud scratched his head. “Is that unusual?”
“In this case—very!” replied the young inventor excitedly. “Bud—we’ve hit a vein of sapphire!”
“Sapphire? Jetz! A load of gems!”
“Not ‘gems’ plural—according to the beam-sweep, it looks like the entire solid core of the planetoid is composed of the stuff! Little Brother is one great big sapphire!”
From somewhere in the background, Chow Winkler gulped a mighty gulp. “B-brand my—! This one o’ your jokes, boss? Mean t’ say—sumpin that big—!”
“Incredibly valuable in monetary terms,” Tom breathed. “But I’m thinking of the technical and industrial uses. Rubies are a form of corundum, and the sapphire form of corundum is also used in laser applications and special instruments. If sapphire turns out to be common in Jatczak’s planetoid belt, it’d make possible all sorts of new uses and inventions! It could end up changing our whole way of life on Earth!”
“Man!” Bud gasped. “But are you sure it’s sapphire, Tom?”
“Absolutely! You can see the characteristic hexagonal structures right on the screen. It’s sapphire of gemstone quality.” Despite his certitude, Tom had the Challenger approach and circle the planetoid, which seemed tiny after their encounter with the Follower, and acquired further samples. “All the same,” he confirmed; “and the gravity-mapper shows the crystal is solid and continuous all through.”
Bud laughed. “Maybe we should chip off a few pieces to give to Sandy and Bash.”
“Once we figure out how to deal with Little Brother, we could give them a roomful of the stuff!”
The Challenger put about and commenced its long return to Earth, its crew energized and jubilant despite their brief peril. “A giant gemstone in the sky!” exulted MacColter. “But how can it be mined, way out here?”
“Tom’ll find a super-science way to do it,” declared Hank Sterling. “Tell you one thing, though—he’ll have to capture Little Brother just as he did the Follower. Otherwise it’ll be out of reach by the end of the year.”
“Aw now, th’ boss won’t have no trouble tamin’ this itty pea-size piece o’ buckshot,” Chow pronounced smugly. “No siree. We c’d jest lassoo ’er and drag ’er all th’ way down t’ Texas!”
The ship pursued its days-long return flight. As the hours passed and blue Earth bulked up in the viewpane, Tom remained in touch with his father by Private Ear Radio. “It’s an amazing find, son,” Damon Swift said proudly. “This shows how scientific ventures that seem to have only a practical goal—testing out Gerard’s approach to habitat engineering—can pay completely unexpected dividends in terms of pure science.”
Tom grinned inwardly. “Maybe we’ll get some grudging appreciation from that news writer Duke Laflin—although I don’t think I’ll publicize how we were almost blasted to space dust!”
Mr. Swift’s response had a serious tone. “We must never forget the risks we face, Tom. Every one of us makes errors now and then. That’s how humans are designed. But when burdensome concerns like this Ninth Light business hang—”
Tom interrupted. “Dad, I know I can turn to you when I need to. I made a bad mistake with the programming, all right, but it wasn’t due to being distracted by the Ninth Light or anything else. You and Mom—and everyone—have to trust my way of doing things.”
“We do, Tom.”
Switching PER quantum-cartridges, the young inventor next contacted the communications center at Base Galileo on Nestria and was patched through, by landline, to Dr. Jatczak. “Hello, Tom! I see your planetoid relocation operation has met with success!”
“You’ve detected the change?”
“Indeed so, with the interferometric polyphoton ranger. The Follower is definitely creeping and crawling into a new orbit like a meek solar captive. Oh, and by the way,” the astronomer continued, “I hope you won’t mind, but I’ve decided to confer a somewhat more dignified name on the planetoid, a right I’ve earned as its discoverer.” Tom had refrained from mentioning that the Nestria astronomer might not, in fact, have been the planetoid’s true discoverer.
“What did you come up with, sir?”
“I’ve decided to honor those who have made my discovery possible by giving me this marvelous perch from which to observe the cosmos,” replied Jatczak; “namely the Swift family. Henceforth the Follower shall answer only to the name Bartonia—in honor of your... let me see now...”
Tom laughed. “The family tree is a little complicated! Barton Swift was my great-grandfather Tom’s father. Honoring him that way is a wonderful thought, Doctor, because he was really the first ‘scientist-inventor’ in the family.”
“A motorized butter-churn, wasn’t it?”
“Er—that and other things. Mm, and in other news—” Tom now told the astronomer the big news about the small companion to Bartonia.
Dr. Jatczak was clearly thrilled. “My word, the Jatczak Planetoid Sphere is well-stocked with wonders of all kinds, it seems! In view of this discovery, perhaps we should provide the ‘Little Brother’ planetoid with its own suitable name, eh?”
“‘Jatczakia,’ maybe?” Tom suggested humorously.
“Come now, as a humble astronomer I seek no public celebrity; just a few stars. No—I have a name. Petronius! After a classical story of love and devotion.”
“Petronius it is, sir.” Then he added: “Bud Barclay will probably call it ‘Planetoid Pete’.”
“Petronius won’t mind what he’s called, as long as he’s not called too late for supper,” was the joking comeback. “Which reminds me: now I must eat. I find I nibble a good deal on that mineral food these days. Marriage can be somewhat draining, you see.”
“So I’ve heard.”
“Yes. Tom... I suppose... you and that lovely Pakistani girl—”
“Dr. Jatczak, I don’t try to predict the future. Predicting the present is hard enough!”
“The present” proved even harder to predict than Tom realized. With starry space at last above and behind, the Challenger had no sooner eased down upon its Fearing Island pad than Tom, motoring across the airfield with Bud toward the waiting Sky Queen, was flagged down by Mace Vendiablo. “Tom!”
Bud applied the brakes. “What’s wrong, Mace?” Tom asked.
“You probably heard—I got the word just now from the Feds—it’s outrageous that they blame—”
“Is it too late to head back up?” muttered Bud in disgust.
“Mace—please. Slow down!” Tom commanded.
“I’m sorry,” said the island security chief. “I just have a habit of making an aggressive response to imminent threat.”
“I haven’t heard anything about—whatever you’re aggressively responding to.”
“Oh? Well, good! I wouldn’t want your opinion to be shaped by outsiders.” Vendiablo leaned close to Tom. “Those attackers, the ones we captured—they’ve gone down! All of them!”
“What!—?” shouted the startled youth. “What do you mean?”
“Th-the coma thing?” asked Bud.
“Every last one of them, in a Federal detention facility, one hour ago!”
“U’umat,” breathed Tom. “Right under the eyes of the tightest security in the world.”
Vendiablo nodded with alarming vigor. “They were all being kept in separate cubicles, under constant watch, no unauthorized visitors, constant medical monitoring. My God, even the air was monitored! And they were keeping quiet, too—can’t blame ’em for that, after what happened to that one. And then, this AM, at the same moment, they all just collapse! Still alive, but their eyes just stare.”
“They’ve been neutralized,” Tom said slowly. “The Ninth Light risks exposure every time it—or he—induces the effect. But for some reason he thought it was worth the risk to prevent any of them from talking.”
“Worth the risk...” Bud repeated. “But why now, Skipper?”
There was no answer to Bud’s question. But Vendiablo was more than willing to fill the silence. “And obviously none of this is our fault, Tom. It’s all politics. They want to find a scapegoat!”
Tom stared at him. “What are you saying?”
“I just got word, word from Washington. The Feds are shutting down Fearing Island!”
“THEY can’t do that!” Bud cried in fury.
“I’m not sure they have, pal,” said Tom coolly. “Mace, what exactly has come down?”
The man’s face adopted its usual defensive posture. “It’s just as I said, Swift! That man Trump called me with a heads-up—”
“Colonel Trump isn’t in charge of our Federal authorizations,” Tom interrupted. “What he decided to ‘leak’ to you may not have been accurate. Have you heard from Defense? Homeland Security? I’ll settle for the FBI!”
Vendiablo flushed but shook his head. “It’s my job to give you advance warning, isn’t it? By the time all the bureaucratic wheels turn—”
The young inventor forced himself to be calm and appreciative. “Mace... thank you. Now we’re prepared for a few calls that I need to make.”
Ultimately the answer came from Tom’s father in Shopton. “All right, it’s cleared up,” he told his son. “Yes, all the prisoners have collapsed in their—well, they’re cells, aren’t they? Yes, there’ve been some loud discussions in Washington about whether the Fearing operation should be suspended until we know whether these induced seizures will spread to our own personnel—such as pilots in flight. But no, no official decision has been made. The leadership of the Subcommittee wants to be cautious.”
“Good for them,” replied Tom. “It’s usually a good bet that Vendiablo’s blowing things out of proportion. But Dad... even if u’umat only affects the Ninth Light’s own people—it’s clear something is being used to monitor what we’re doing at Enterprises, very closely.”
“That’s putting it mildly. It’s a frightful thought, some kind of listening device or long-range visual scanner penetrating the walls of Enterprises, even our own home. We’ve developed the technology to detect such things—so I thought. But we’ve thought that before.”
“And I’ve thought of a few other things,” Tom continued. “Given the way the Fearing maintenance-access codes are used, it’s hard to imagine how some sort of hidden camera device could capture the symbol sequence. That was the whole point! No record is made; each man has only half the code; the code-halves don’t exist apart from the screen, which a visor-hood makes ‘for your eyes only.’ The code guards have to remember the series; they can’t write it down. The final keying input is done entirely by touch—the key panel is never in view.”
“And the two guards are never in the same room prior to keying. How could such a system be defeated, son? I thought... perhaps... some adaptation of your megascope technology...”
“It wouldn’t be my megascope technology if they can establish a viewpoint-terminal inside the monitor-visor hood,” retorted the young inventor. “I’m not even close to figuring out how to project the matrix carrier beam through solid matter without decohering the quantum counterparticles.”
“I know, Tom,” Damon Swift said. “If this ‘sultan’ or his organization are advanced enough to accomplish that, it’s hardly likely they’d use it for pulp magazine ‘sabotage’ plots and planted news releases.”
Tom sighed, but added: “Then again—who knows what a mega-wealthy family of cultists might find worth doing?”
It was, both agreed, an unwanted point to ponder.
The next day—once again Tom spent the night at Swift Enterprises—the young inventor called Bud up to his office. “Don’t tell me you have time to look away from that screen!” gibed the athletic young pilot as he sauntered through the door.
“Sorry, pal,” Tom responded, his tone low and weary. “With Bartonia on the move, I can’t break away from the Gerard project. We’re all up to our eyebrows right now, the whole technical and engineering staff—Hank, Arv, Felix Ming—everyone.”
“Gosh! For once you have an excuse even Bashalli would accept.”
“And that’s why I need to ask a favor of you. I know I can...” He paused slightly and smiled. “Trust you.”
“More trust, huh? Got it.” Bud sank down into a chair with a wry expression. “So what’s the mission, genius boy? A bank job? A kidnapping?”
“More like high-altitude chauffeuring.” The young Shoptonian explained that he had taken a call from Felton Demburton within the hour. “The guy’s decided to take me up on an offer I made to help him with Neil Gerard.”
“Captain Future’s making a problem?”
“Mr. Gerard can be demanding, I guess. The corporation put him up in their big hotel down at the end of the lake, so he’d be nearby when—if—his okay is needed on some aspect of the project. Some kind of legal thing.”
“So what is it Gerard wants? If he’s demanding money, I’m all out!”
“He’s demanding attention, flyboy. He says he won’t play anymore unless Demburton flies him out to Idaho—now!”
“Idaho,” Bud repeated. “Does he want to go backpacking?”
Tom shrugged. “I don’t know. Something about needing to visit his old home—someplace in the mountains south of Burley.”
“I see. You want me to fly him?”
“Fly him, rent him a car, drive him where he wants to go, whatever. Basically, keep an eye on him, Bud. You know how I feel about Demburton’s attitude toward Mr. Gerard. You get along well with people.”
“When I’m not throwing a punch,” grinned Bud. “I see what you have in mind. I know there’s more to it than you’re saying.”
Tom looked floorward. “It’s a sensitive kind of situation.”
“This Gerard guy means a lot to you, doesn’t he.”
“Thanks for understanding, flyboy.”
“That’s what trust is.” Bud stood up briskly, like a good soldier with a mission. “Just give me my orders, Skipper. Say—what if I ask Chow along? He always keeps things on the light side. If you, er, overlook his waistline.”
“Let’s call it a load of Texas charm.”
“Almost an overload.”
Soon they were flying south of west in a Swift Construction Company commuter jet—Bud, Chow, and their placidly unfocused passenger. “Engine runs quiet,” said Neil Gerard. “I used to fly. Flying’s nothing like being in space.”
“You been in space, Mr. Gerard?” asked Chow.
“No. All I said was, there’s nothing like it. Someday we’ll all be in space. Of course, we are now.”
Chow looked blank. “Yeah. Er—we are?”
“Where d’you think Earth is, Chow?”
“Oh. Yup. Jest couldn’t picture ole Texas floatin- around in—”
“Pictures, pictures. That’s what we need, friend-o,” Gerard stated. “Pictures make it real. People won’t pay their taxes without pictures. The big picture—that’s what society needs to get space-minded. You see that, doncha?”
“The picture, y’mean?”
“Or maybe you’re too old. I’m old too. After a certain age—all gone. Over the wall. Comfortable clothes for the brain. See, we’re never gonna move on up into space in comfortable clothes.”
“What about hats?” Chow touched the big wide one on his head.
“Chow, our brains don’t need more covers. Leave the covers on the bed and get up! It’s morning! Up! Up!”
Chow stood up, alarmed. “Okay!”
“What’s wrong? Wha? Are you about to say something? Should I listen?”
“N-not me, Mr. Gerard.” Chow plopped back down. His nerves were becoming wracked keeping an eye on the mercurial Man of the Future.
“Boise, eight minutes,” Bud intercommed back.
“Now those ’r words I never e’spected t’ hear,” murmured the big wide cowpoke. “Not in this here life.”
Gerard shrugged. “But that is Life. Boise is always eight minutes away.”
Two hours later their rented minivan was charging up a twisty, poor excuse for a road between pine and boulders at the apron edge of the Uinta Mountains. “So that was Burley,” Bud remarked improbably. “Sure you didn’t want to just head on to Minidoka, Mr. Gerard?”
“I love Minidoka, but the gravity’s too high. I want to feel like I’m up there.”
Bud made a mental comment involving the phrase up there. “So—you say you grew up in the mountains?”
“Hunh?” The man leaned forward. “When did I say that? What time? What day?”
“Never said it!” Chow piped up. “I been listening. Buddy Boy, y’gotta lissen t’ this here hombre. Real close!”
A few more things were unsaid by the mind of Bud Barclay. Then: “What is this place we’re looking for, then? A little town? The only thing on the map before Utah is Black Pine Peak.”
“You can get mighty high on Black Pine Peak,” Gerard observed dreamily. “I used to go up there to dream the dream when I was in college. The College of Uselessness, by the way. Nothing I learned there mattered one bit.” He swiveled to face Chow, who shrank back. “You go to college? Do you any good?”
“No, sir. And no, not a dang bit.”
“You didn’t need to say No twice,” huffed his backseatmate. “We have too much No and too little Know in this human race of ours. Whatsat? See what I mean on that one? Same sounds, two spellings. Man oh man, I want to see the stars from above! Before I die, not after.”
The vehicle suddenly jolted to a halt. Gerard bounced off Chow with a strong rebound. Bud turned back from the wheel and faced Gerard angrily. “Look!—I’ve already been through space up and down and I want you to tell me where we’re going! Get it together, man, or I’m turning back.”
Gerard smiled amiably. “Sure. Exactitude! Two point seven one miles ahead, veer off left thirty-six degrees. I have a perfect sense of direction, and numbers are my friends.”
“Big wow. Then what?”
“How much do you want? How much do we deserve in this life? There’s a bare patch to drive on between the pines, uptending angle about eight degrees average, cool climate, no view, then you get to Longbone Ridge. Paved road up to the door. Used to be one, anyway. Thirty-two years now, but there must be some of it left. Maybe not.”
Chow looked at him with bullfrog eyes as Bud revved up, resigned to what seemed to be the Permanent Unknown. “You useta live up there?”
“Live is right, Chow. That’s the only place I ever lived.”
Many rumbling turns and harrowing cliffside views led them at last to an imposing concrete wall in the mountainside, and an enormously wide aluminum door, like the door on an Enterprises plane hangar. “Jetz! What is this place?” breathed Bud as the three stood next to the ATV-wheeled minivan.
Neil Gerard was grinning like a schoolboy. “What’s any place, Bud? Just a little crossing point in space and time. Right?”
“W-wudden that a barbed-wire fence we ran over back there?” quavered Chow.
“Naw, naw,” laughed Gerard, “it was two fences, and both were knocked down flat already. Snow thaw undermines the post bases more often than not.
“Doesn’t matter. Nobody remembers this place. Nobody cares now. Say, let’s be accurate—obsessive is not excessive, I may have said, probably—nobody cared even then, in the end. Not the politicians. They were glad to just let it go. Too controversial. But ‘controversy’ equals ‘future.’ Remember: someone said that, friendies. It was said.”
As the futurist was speaking, Bud had wandered some distance away. He had spotted a metal sign on a post, rusted, its lettering barely legible in the mountain shadows of late afternoon.
The young San Franciscan slowly picked out the words.
LONGBONE RIDGE SECURE CONTAINMENT FACILITY
FEDERAL REGULATIONS IN FORCE
NUCLEAR REGULATORY COMMISSION
He mouthed the words, then spoke aloud. The color had even drained from his voice.
“Ch-Chow, I think—what we have here—” He lost his voice for a moment in a gulp. “This is a nuclear dump site—radioactive waste!”
Neil Gerard grinned. “Scared?”
“THAT nooky-ler stuff ain’t so allfired good fer a body,” proclaimed Chow fearfully. “I sawr on TV—people in th’ future are gonna have eyes in th’ middle o’ their foreheads. Great big eyes!”
“They will not!” snapped Neil Gerard. “That’s not the future, that’s uninformed imagination.”
“Good grief, Gerard, are you saying you used to live here?” Bud demanded.
“I’m saying I didn’t used to live here! Not in your sense of that word. I’m saying I found my real life here. I came here. I came here a lot, back then, back when I made a lot of money from my books, back when I taught graduate seminars by invitation, back when NASA—not some hotel chain—used me to drum up public support. For the cosmic vision.” The man was lost among his many thoughts for a moment. Bud subtly indicated to Chow that they should edge back to the van. But Gerard resumed suddenly. “Life, love, being young. And money! The Society of Speculationists I started was a worldwide phenomenon, and boy, I was rakin’ it in! But look—don’t think I wasn’t sincere!”
“N-never thought a word!” Chow assured him with great haste.
“All right,” said Bud. “Here we are. We don’t have to get it. So is this what you wanted, Mr. Gerard? Shall we head back?”
The man looked at Bud in astonishment. “Head back?—! After coming this far? Honest God, we went through Burley! I’m the one who’s supposed to be nuts, Bud.”
“Okay. Then what do you want to do? Go inside?” Bud thought he was making a sarcastic gibe.
“That’s what doors are for!”
“Aw no,” Chow murmured. “No-nuh-no!”
Bud remained cool. “Uh-huh. I’m getting tired of the jokin’ around—and for me to say it means a lot! Before Chow has a core meltdown, how about telling us what this is all about?”
Gerard smiled blandly. “Why are we chatting? Let me show you the answer—inside.”
“W-we don’t really need all that much t’ know the answer!” Chow protested.
Bud persisted: “And how do you plan to get us through this big Federal-secured door?”
The man reached into his pocket and held up something that glinted of metal. “With a key!”
As Bud followed with astonishment, and Chow held back with even greater astonishment, Gerard approached the huge door and began to scrutinize it closely. “Uh-huh. Knew it was here somewhere.” He had found a tiny keyhole, unmarked. Bud watched him insert the key and twist it. “Rusty. Oxidation! Terrible. Not bad. So now I can slide the panel.”
Gerard walked along some thirty feet further. Stopping, he pressed both palms against a small section of the door surface, completely indistinguishable. A small rectangular panel receded a couple inches under Gerard’s pressure. He then moved it slightly upward until it clicked, then slid it sideways. Inside the recess now revealed to view was an input keypad.
“Now this, this is the real key,” the man explained. “The little physical key of matter was just the key to the key. See how Nature works?” He began to punch the keypad.
“Jetz!” Bud exclaimed. “You’re actually breaking into a government nuke site?”
A man-sized door—camouflaged in the middle of the big door—suddenly popped open with a loud creak. “At what point in galactic rotation did I say anything like that?” asked Gerard mildly. “The ‘N’ word came oscillating out of your mouth, buddy.”
Hearing this, slightly emboldened, Chow approached cautiously. “So... mebbe... this here place ain’t full o’ them radio-actors?”
“Do I look like a man committing suicide? Do you even know what a man committing suicide looks like? This big vault was constructed by the U. S. government as part of an experimental nuclear waste containment program. But it was never used—never even finished. Funding was dropped, whole program shut down. Had it in all the papers back then, for a few nanoseconds, like a vacuum-flux. ‘Not in my state!’ Bang bang.”
“So where did you get that key?” asked Bud.
Gerard laughed. “Why shouldn’t I have a key? I own this place! See, there were rich folk, future-minded businessmen, among the Speculationists. They bought this big hole when the government unloaded it for quick revenue, then deeded it over to me—some kind of tax benefit. Then they helped me fix it up. That was all years and years ago. Come see what I did with the place.”
He led Bud and Chow through the doorway into utter darkness. “I don’t much take to not bein’ able t’ use my eyeballs,” muttered Chow nervously. “Got a flashlight ’r somethin’?”
“Better than that,” came the futurist’s voice from the blackness. “Let’s see now. Workin’ my way by touch-feel...”
A faint rumble came floating out of the unseen distance. “There ya go. I figured the genny would still work. Designed it myself. Hydrogen fueled. See?”
“I don’t see anything,” Bud grumbled.
Then the Shoptonians gasped in sudden awe as gentle silvery light washed over them!
The three stood beneath a starry sky. A colossal vaulted ceiling, arched over a concrete-floored square space at least a thousand feet to the side, was flush with innumerable pinpricks of intense light. “Wh-what is this?” Bud gaped. “It’s like a planetarium!”
“Brand my big ole peepers, it’s like midnight on th’ Pecos!” squawked Chow Winkler, respectfully pulling off his cowpoke hat.
“It’s my midnight,” Gerard replied. “I turned emptiness into this! I called it Terra Proto. We Speculationists were going to build a prototype space habitat in here, same sorta thing Tom Swift’s gonna make inside that planetoid he’s captured.”
Bud and Chow looked from side to side. “Tell ya what I see,” Bud said. “Yep—space all right, plenty of it. One big naked concrete floor. That’s it.”
Neil Gerard flashed a smug look. “How about the stars? Doesn’t count? It’s the view from near the center of the Andromeda galaxy, astronomically correct. Micro-lasers paint it right on the ceiling—that is, they supply the energy feed that makes the coating fluoresce. Hunh? Right?”
“What about the habitat thing?” Bud demanded skeptically.
“Oh, well, we ran out of money. And I just ran out.” The futurist drew a deep breath of remembrance. “I love the stars, boys, but I tellya—it was human love that sent me spinning right out of orbit.”
Chow was suddenly interested. “Oh yeah? I c’d tell a few stories m’self!”
“The universal subject,” murmured Gerard. “Forget gluons and string theory. I admit that being future-minded made me pay a price in quirkiness. Sure did. Not many friends. Girls?—never expected much out of ’em. Not my bag.”
“Your bag?” repeated Bud.
“Then Cythera Duff started editing the newsletter—no Internet back in those days. We had things in common, friendies. Not physiologically but—overlapping dreams. Man! All those talks. She was the best listener I ever came across.”
“Mine was pretty,” Chow remarked.
“Well, to me Cy’s ears were beautiful. Hunh? Two big lovelies, because they heard.
“Now, see, I’d been coming up to Terra Proto pretty often. I’d get inside and spread my bedroll and just stare up at the stars. Hours at a time—days! By myself. Better than transcendental meditation to get your brain rovin’ around.
“But suddenly I wasn’t thinking of the big stars and the Big Future.”
“Yeah, I get it,” commented Chow dreamily. “Jest like with me an’ horses.”
“I thought about her,” Gerard went on. “So I brought her up here and turned on the sky and talked about asteroids and asked her to marry me. She didn’t answer. I assume she heard me. Like I said, she was a careful listener. But she didn’t answer. No answer. Answer equals zero. So.”
“Heartbreaker!” muttered Bud with a slight trace of possible skepticism.
The man stared at the youth. “And just what do you know? Ever have a great big love? The love?”
Bud reddened and sputtered. “Uh—I mean—it’s not like I’ve lived all that long—”
“Don’t wanna talk about it? Okay. Me, I had lived that long, and life came, and life went. She didn’t answer. It was a cosmically big question not to answer. Wha? So I switched off the stars and locked the place up and never went back.”
“And here ya are,” Chow said.
“Here I am, closing the circuit, tying off the old, ready for the New. The Big New. Bartonia! Took a while to get there.” Gerard turned to the Shoptonians with a look of pleading. “Maybe now she’ll think more of me. Name in the news again. Hunh? It’s been a few years, but there’s no reason she couldn’t answer the question. Know what thirty years means? Nothing. The past is nothing, boys, and the future is made of ideas.”
“Ye-ahh,” agreed Chow, “it’s th’ blame present that gets you.”
“And it’s never anything but the present.” After some silence, Gerard asked Bud and Chow to return to the van. “Leave me alone in here for awhile. If nothing else, I’ve got the stars to love. They’re all mine. I made them!”
Some hours later, suppertime, Boise, Bud placed a call to Tom’s number. Receiving no answer, he then tried the Swift residence. “Hiya, San,” he said. “Get you up from dinner?”
“We just finished, Buddo. How’s Idaho?”
“Hey, it’s beautiful. Kind of tall. —Is Tom around? Time to report.”
The cellphone was dead silent for a heartbeat. “Huh?”
“I just wanted to talk to genius boy. Just for a moment. I thought he’d be at the plant working his brain off, but he’s not answering.”
Sandy had a slightly irritated tone in her voice. “Bud, I have to help Mother clear the table. Save the jokes for when you get back. I’ll hold my laughter.”
“What jokes? I’m just asking to speak to Tom. You know—your brother? Blond crewcut? Blue eyes?”
“Uh-huh. So just turn around and talk to him.”
The strangeness of the conversation gave Bud a twitch of anxiety. “I don’t get it.”
“I don’t get it either,” said Sandy. “Tom went along with you to Idaho. Didn’t you notice? He’s there with you!”
STANDING in the Enterprises control tower, Tom Swift watched Bud’s jet until it disappeared in the western sky, bound for Idaho.
He left the tower and stepped onto a ridewalk conveyor, and began heading across to the plant infirmary. Fishing his cellphone out of his pocket, he called his father, who had spent the morning at home. “Dad, I’ve changed my mind at the last minute. Maybe you’re right. I think it’d be best for me to take a couple days off and fly to Idaho with Bud and Chow and Mr. Gerard.”
“I’m glad, son,” responded Damon Swift. “The Gerard project can struggle along without you for a little while. Spending every night at Enterprises will dull your edge.”
“Please let everyone know I’ll be back to work Monday, won’t you? Or I’ll call.” Tom frowned at himself, feeling guilty. “Oh—uh—there’s Bud waving me over. Got to fly, Dad.”
“Have a good time.”
Arriving at the infirmary, he sat down with Doc Simpson. “No bee sting problems, I trust?” asked the medic.
“Not a thing.” The young inventor cleared his throat. “Doc, I—could you take a couple days off? Break away from your schedule?”
Simpson’s eyebrows flew up. “I suppose. But why?”
“I’m going to take a trip, a long flight. I’d like to have someone along with me. Everyone’s involved in something right now, including Bud, and—”
“Bottom of the barrel, hm?” Simpson chuckled.
“Not at all. I think your medical training could be important. I know you’ve read the reports Dr. Carman sent over...”
“On the induced seizures—that u’umat business?” Doc nodded. “Ames asked me to make a medical assessment based upon the symptoms and examination data. He wants to know if some sort of drug is involved.”
“Have you drawn a conclusion?”
Doc smiled wanly. “Only that it’s outside my range of knowledge. Strictly speaking, it’s not a coma, not in the medical sense. It’s a kind of waking catatonia—almost a profound sleep, with the usual disconnect of the muscles.”
“With open eyes.”
“And the EEG readings are—peculiar. Symptoms like this can appear in the late stages of certain diseases, but there are no specific indicators of Parkinson’s, nor a neurological event. We have nothing but the symptoms themselves.”
“Could a drug cause this?”
Doc’s forehead wrinkled. “Sure—for instance, that so-called ‘zombie’ drug used to create victims in voodoo cults, tetrodotoxin. The effective amount is minute. But Skipper, we finally learned how to assess for things like that. All the ‘waking sleepers’ have been examined very thoroughly by the top experts in the country: bloodwork, spinal fluids, MRI...”
“They used the leptoscope, too,” Tom noted.
“As did I, when—just for fun—I tested you and the others after the bee sting incident. Would have been a clever plot. But not this plot.”
“So you’ve made my point, Doc. There’s a condition, causal factor completely unknown, that you’ve made yourself thoroughly familiar with. Even if you don’t know the cause, you know the effects.
“I’ve decided to take a quick trip to the other side of the world—Madagascar!—to talk to an astronomer named Louis Talmadge. His observatory is somewhere near a small inland city, Fianarantsoa. I don’t think the airfield there is very large, but we can take the Skeeter Two. She’s been upgraded to transonic, and our jetrocopters can set down—”
“I know,” said Doc. “On a dime! But Tom—my knowledge of the symptoms of the u’umat seizure doesn’t strike me as very useful. Just where do I fit in?”
Tom looked sheepish. “Well, to tell the truth—I don’t quite know. But it seems Talmadge has some connection to the raiders and this ‘Ninth Light’ that acts as their source of information—and punishment. We may well stumble across their method of inducing the catatonic state on demand, which is also—I hope—a clue to how they spy on us.”
“And you think a mighty Medicine Man like me might help you understand what you find.”
“I knew I could count on you, Doc!” Tom grinned. “And besides, several times you’ve proven that you’re pretty good in—”
“In action!” Simpson finished. “Okay, Tom. You’ve sold me! I assume the Enterprises insurance plan covers this kind of derring-do?”
Presently, even as Bud and company zoomed westward, Tom and Doc were jetting east. The Skeeter hurdled the Atlantic and the sands and jungles of Africa, and in a matter of hours they were driving their rented car out of the airport that served Fianarantsoa, island of Madagascar.
It was night, and as Bud and Chow were gaping at man-made stars, Tom and Doc were enjoying the real thing. “What an awesome sight,” murmured Simpson. “A person never gets used to it. You can really see why they call it the Milky Way.” He glanced over to Tom. “Skipper, do you think you’ll have any difficulty putting together this drop-in visit?”
“Well, Step One wasn’t hard,” replied the young inventor. “Mr. Demburton’s Fianar Portico Magnifico isn’t turning away guests. We’ll see if his employee there has any problem putting us in touch with Louis Talmadge. I’d like to go the informal, scientist-to-scientist route.”
“Going through Harlan and Rad would’ve made the guy paranoid. But say, I wondered—why did you make the hotel reservation yourself? Don’t you normally use the travel office at Enterprises?”
Tom shrugged. “Oh... this was all spur of the moment.”
“Well, yes, but—”
Tom interrupted hastily. “Doc, the important thing is to find a way to pump Talmadge for info he probably won’t be anxious to provide.”
“You really think he could be part of this ‘Ninth Light’ deal, Tom? A prominent astronomer?”
“All I know is: Mr. Demburton says Talmadge was the source of his detailed knowledge of the Follower—Bartonia, I mean—and it was hard enough for Dr. Jatczak to find that planetoid even from an observatory up in space, with all his sophisticated instruments.”
Doc Simpson shrugged. “Yet discoveries do come about by accident now and then. It’s happened a lot in medicine.”
“Sure they do,” replied Tom. “But his being located here in Madagascar, where that Desh Zai fellow has his home base—that’s one too many ‘accidents.’”
The Fianar Portico Magnifico was indeed magnifico in its garish way, resembling a tropicalized transplant from the wilds of Las Vegas. Even at a late hour the plush lobby thronged with milling tourists and weary businessmen trying and failing to look cheerful. As they checked in, Tom quietly noted the name badge of an attractive young woman standing nearby behind the concierge desk. “Niras Ewelle,” Tom whispered. “That’s the employee we need to speak to.”
“Tomorrow, I hope,” yawned Doc. It had been a long flight.
“My hope too. I’m ready to pass from ‘waking sleeper’ to sleeping sleeper.”
Morning posed no problems. Niras Ewelle was primly helpful. “I know Louis well enough to be sure he’d have no objection to my giving you his number. You’re Tom Swift, after all.”
Simpson chuckled. “I suppose you recognized him right off last night, when we checked in.”
“Of course, though I must admit—you look a great deal younger in person, Tom. TV and news photos give an older impression.”
“Well, ma’am, I’m getting older by the moment,” the youth commented. “Is it too early to call Dr. Talmadge?”
“Oh no, not at all. You’ll find Louis entirely charming and courteous. He says it gets lonesome up there on his mountain.”
Tom hesitated, then decided to take a risk. “I wonder... Just what is this Ninth Light I’ve heard spoken about? Some sort of Madagascar tradition?” He keenly watched her reaction.
Niras Ewelle frowned, prettily. “I’m afraid I’m not familiar with it, Tom. It sounds more like a bar. Maybe you’ll find it here in the Low Town district of Fianar. You know, I’m not a native. I’m from Ngombia. When I visit my parents I often drive the skyway.” The Swift Enterprises repelatron skyway was the small African country’s great claim to world attention.
Miss Ewelle called Talmadge and after a brief murmuring conversation passed the receiver to Tom. “Of course I’d be delighted to have you pay me a visit, Tom!” boomed the cell-o-voice. “Anytime today is absolutely fine! Niras will provide a map and directions. She’s... rather a frequent visitor. Eh, lad? Heh.”
As Tom and Doc began what was estimated to be a drive of several hours, the youth remarked, “Talmadge sounds pretty tame. We’ll see if he feels like being forthcoming on how he came across the planetoid.”
“Or the Ninth Light—if he’s even heard of it.” The medic went on: “You know, Tom, if he is a little reticent in giving details about his methods, it could have to do with the usual competitions and rivalries among ‘discoverers.’ Everyone has a big stake in being known as The First. You see it running wild in medical research.”
They were heading eastward, into the mountainous spine of Madagascar. Presently Tom noted a sign at a turnoff, directing visitors to Ranomafana National Park. “I read about it,” Tom said. “Forest, hot springs, and lemurs galore. Mr. Demburton told me he hopes tourist overflow will make his hotel one of the ‘big performers,’ as he calls it.”
Skirting the park they proceeded through foothills into the taller mountains. The dry air was exceptionally clear. The roads were exceptionally narrow.
It was afternoon and hot when the Shoptonians finally arrived. The Talmadge observatory was not the traditional dome, but a very lengthy rectangular structure running right up the side of a looming slope, with a small modern bungalow at the base.
Louis Talmadge, younger and taller than expected, came rushing out at the sound of the tires on the gravel. “Ha, long trip, isn’t it? Rather twisty, but you’ve seen some of the best sights the island has to offer. Pick up the Avenue of the Baobabs and you’re done.”
Tom shook hands and introduced Doc Simpson. Noting his accent, Doc politely asked Talmadge if he were from Britain. “Oh, no no, I’m a Newzy—New Zealand man. But the moisture back there makes serious star viewing quite a problem, eh? I came here some years ago.”
After a pleasant lunch and many expressions of mutual admiration, Talmadge showed his visitors his complex telescope apparatus. “Multistage polarizing reflectors,” he noted, “with continuous laser microflexing to cancel atmospheric perturbations. Not the Hubble, I admit; not your Swift space prober. Yet useful, I should say. We Earth folk have to have something to do, hey?”
Tom cleared his throat mentally. “Your system is obviously very advanced, Doctor. I’m amazed that you were able to find that little planetoid out there.”
“Are we supposed to call it a planetoid these days? I prefer asteroid; then again, I prefer to speak of the planet Pluto.” Talmadge gazed up at his telescope. “Yes, what a magnificent feeling, isn’t it?—the feeling of discovery. I’ve named my lovely little space star Niras. Should I ever break up with the even lovelier human version, perhaps I’ll be allowed another shot at it.
“But I gather you Yanks prefer to call it The Follower. A tad prosaic, don’t you think?”
Tom avoided comment and said instead, “I always try to learn from the experts, sir—that’s why I decided on this quick visit to Madagascar. I’d be fascinated to learn your technique.”
The man laughed. “You’ll redden my face, Tom! There are techniques that can only be learned in... the application. Trial and error. You’ll find Niras in agreement on that point, eh?”
“Actually, I meant your astronomical technique. How did you happen to locate the planetoid? Surely it wasn’t just a lucky accident?”
The astronomer suddenly was no longer smiling. He focused a peculiar stare on Tom.
Tom and Doc waited tensely for the answer.
THERE was a moment of frozen silence. “I hope you don’t mind my curiosity, Dr. Talmadge,” Tom said quietly. “I’m not an astronomer, but I admire your achievement.”
The man spoke warily, almost defensively. “Evidently so. I’d suppose asking that question was the main reason for this visit.”
Tom glanced at Simpson, then decided to speak frankly—as an experiment. “I apologize if I’ve come across as sneaky. The fact is, Enterprises has had to deal with some outside interference recently—”
“The assault on your rocket facility?”
“Yes, and some other things. There seems to be a link to Madagascar, and to our planetoid project. Sir, you’re probably Madagascar’s most prominent scientist and I—”
Talmadge’s face was grave. “You’re thinking I might be involved in this conspiracy?”
“Dr. Talmadge,” intervened Simpson, “Tom just wants to speak to you as one scientist to another—man to man.”
“But our young Tom is not a man, is he,” retorted the astronomer mildly. “Not until he’s had a large telescope fall on his head. It happened to me.”
Tom persisted. His blue eyes bored into the man facing him. “Do you object to talking about your discovery, sir?”
“I do. It strikes me, friend, that the questions you are asking—and what’s behind them—are inherently offensive.” He seemed to muse over the matter for a time. “I’ve done nothing wrong. I have no knowledge of these ‘raiders’ or whatever sort of connection to Madagascar you might have found.
“Let me say this. My observations of Niras were made by means of this telescope, here in this observatory. And they were perfectly correct. Your space trip demonstrated that.”
“There’s no question of your accuracy,” Tom responded. “My asking a question isn’t an accusation.”
“You wish to know what came before, how the initial discovery came about. Yes.” The scientist groped for words. “Tell me, Swift, do you account for inspiration in your work?”
The youth smiled. “That’s something I’ve debated a lot recently. Yes, sir, I think intuition and instinct have a crucial role in—”
“No!” snapped Talmadge. “I mean inspiration, very specifically.”
“I’m afraid I don’t know how to answer you.”
“I suppose you don’t.” The man walked over to the base of his instrument and rested a hand upon it, tenderly, even romantically. “This telescope was utilized for confirmation and measurement, for standard astronomical observation. But she’s mute, you know. She tells nothing. No amount of human gazing could have found that obscure spot of light in all that glowing emptiness. Many interesting things must pass our world unseen, never detected. One must have luck. Or... if not luck...
“I am a member of a small group of dedicated persons who are blessed—that is the exact word—to receive guidance from an inspired source. I was informed by this source to direct my attention to a certain place in the heavens. I was told what to expect, even as to its dimensions and trajectory. And by means of this advance knowledge, I was permitted to make an important discovery.”
Tom drew in a breath and tensed himself. “By source are you referring to the Ninth Light, Dr. Talmadge?”
The man stared coldly but made no response.
“You’re not being accused of complicity, Talmadge,” declared Doc Simpson, “but you need to understand something that hasn’t been reported to the public. Whatever the Ninth Light might be—it’s dangerous, a medical threat! He—it—is able to cause some kind of neurological collapse, even remotely. You need to grasp that this ‘power’ could be directed against you!”
“Whoever’s behind it has tried to kill me by sabotage,” continued Tom. “Its ‘inspiration’ amounts to long range spying. Wouldn’t it be real ‘wisdom’ to help us investigate and protect ourselves?”
Talmadge gave a sullen shake of his head. “You know nothing about all this, Tom. You don’t have a clue. Hasn’t it occurred to you that there might be higher beings than those aliens you’ve contacted?”
“Yes sir. It has occurred to me!”
“Is the Ninth Light some kind of religion?” asked Doc.
“I don’t care to discuss my personal beliefs with persons incapable of understanding them,” Dr. Talmadge stated. “Who are you two, to hold The Good accountable for its misuse by fallible humans? Who are you two at all?
“Please leave now, gentlemen. You have your answer. Take it back to America.”
Tom and Doc began the drive down the mountain, in an early twilight. “What’s to say, boss?” mused Simpson. “Is the man a mental case, or a cultist, or part of a sabotage conspiracy?”
“He could be all of those,” Tom muttered grimly. “For what it’s worth, I don’t think Talmadge has any direct involvement in the attacks or the spying. He’s getting his ‘inspiration’ from elsewhere—maybe via short-wave from Desh Zai on his yacht.”
Doc grinned skeptically. “From what you’ve told me about the ultra-wealthy Mr. Zai, it’s pretty hard to envision anyone worshiping him as the mouthpiece of celestial wisdom!”
“Yet the Fearing raiders carried that charm symbol, linked to the homeland of Zai’s family, the Boses. Maybe that ancient, forgotten religious sect Professor Simallen told me about—Qalqaram—isn’t entirely forgotten after all.”
“Could be, Tom. I’d say the possibility has to be investigated.”
“Yes. ‘Seek in faith all paths’!” the young inventor quoted. “That’s advice I plan to take.”
At the foot of the mountain, Tom, at the wheel, turned left on the main highway. “Left?” commented Doc. “Aren’t we heading back the way we came?”
Tom shook his head. “Miss Ewelle said to continue along for a ways to the northeast, then loop back on an alternate route. That way we avoid some late-afternoon traffic around the nature park.”
Doc shrugged. “Yes, I imagine she’d know.” The physician rubbed his eyes, and Tom said:
“You look a little jet-lagged, Doc. Recline the seat and get some shut-eye. I’m fine to drive.”
“Okay,” said Doc. “If you get u’umat-ed, I’m sure the crash will wake me up.”
Simpson’s drowsy rest became sleep, with appropriate sound effects. When he finally awoke and sat upright, he stretched—and frowned suddenly. “Tom, look at the sun. Why are we still heading northeast? Shouldn’t we have looped back by now?”
“Oh, we did, for a considerable distance,” replied the young inventor blandly. “This little road just meanders a lot.”
But the furrow in Simpson’s brow only deepened. He had the strong feeling that Tom’s explanation was untrue! “It must wander quite a bit. Let me take a look at that map Niras drew.”
Tom suddenly turned a fierce look on his friend. “Look, Doc—just relax. I know what I’m doing, and—I’m in charge. Please don’t argue with me.”
Doc was stunned by Tom’s reaction! “Skipper, are you sure—”
“I’m fine!” snapped Tom. “I shouldn’t have made such a big deal of that bee sting. You yourself said it was nothing.”
“But I wasn’t even talking about...” The medico stopped himself. “Sorry, Tom. I don’t mean to interfere with your plans.”
“I mean—a guy who can find his way through outer space can surely—”
“Feel free to go back to sleep, Doc.” So Doc said no more about their route. Or where it might lead. But his thoughts were heavy.
Darkness had fallen when they suddenly surmounted a rise, and Doc gasped at the sight in front of them. They had reached the eastern coast of the island—the Indian Ocean! “Tom, why—”
“Please, Doc. I’m just taking the scenic route.” The youth added calmly: “We might as well get the most from our company time in Madagascar.”
“Yes. Perhaps so...”
Tom briefly consulted some notes on the reverse side of the map, notes in his own handwriting. Doc caught a glimpse of them—the words seemed scrawled in a wavering, loopy way that made them all but impossible to read in a glance. Even Tom was frowning as he squinted at them. Doc thought with concern: He’s just not himself!
They turned onto a coastal highway and headed further north. But Tom doesn’t even glance to the right, at the ocean, Doc noticed. I don’t need medical training for a diagnosis of “something is wrong!”
Was it a sign of the u’umat phenomenon?
Abruptly Tom slowed the car, then swerved onto a small paved drive angling toward the beachfront. “Is—is this where we’ll be spending the night?” His young boss made no reply.
A high adobe wall suddenly loomed up. The road continued on to the left, but Tom turned off the road to the right. He carefully maneuvered the car among dense shrubbery, then killed the engine. “Well!” muttered Simpson nervously. “I gather we’ll walk from—” He was startled into silence as Tom held a finger to his lips—and smiled. His mouth moved, and Doc lip-read: play along. Then Tom added aloud: “Shsssh!”
Doc followed Tom, silent, along the base of the wall, the perimeter of something. Hunched over, they took advantage of whatever cover was provided by underbrush. They seemed to be working their way toward the shoreline.
Tom suddenly halted and flashed Doc a grin. “Okay,” he said in casual tones, “there’s the Magnifico up ahead. I’m sure ready for dinner.” He followed his strange non sequitur with a wink.
Now Doc understood. Good grief! he thought. Tom’s got some kind of listening device on him! The enemy can hear everything we say!
But was it an electronic bug?—or some kind of psychic eavesdropping from one of Talmadge’s “higher beings?”
Tom seemed to be gazing, vaguely, out toward the trees, which were only black silhouettes. His eyes had squinted down to slits. He moved purposefully, yet like a man watching something that Doc couldn’t see, something that Tom didn’t dare take his eyes from. But Doc’s eyes watched the young inventor’s hands as they drew a compact object from his pants pocket. It was a circular case with a small stub protruding from it. A reeled tape measure?
Without looking down, Tom knelt and somehow fastened the stub to a tree root. Then, back to the wall, Tom tossed the round casing high up, backwards over his shoulder. It arced over the top of the wall, tape unreeling all the way, and they heard it thud to the ground on the other side.
Tom now stepped backwards. Bumping against the tape, he fumbled behind his back with his hands. Doc made a sound of surprise—the “tape” had suddenly morphed into a sort of chain of large, interlinked ovals.
Transifoil, Tom mouthed Doc’s way. And then he jerked a thumb that said: up we go!
The strip had turned rigid and could be climbed like a ladder, the oval “rungs” just broader than the soles of their shoes. Somehow it seemed to have attached itself to the top of the wall. It was stable and didn’t slide sideways as they put their weight on it.
Doc knew enough about secret-agenting to keep low as he scraped over the top of the wall, following his friend, who was operating by finger-touch, his eyes shut tight. They dropped to the ground.
Doc Simpson couldn’t help a sharp intake of breath. Before them, in the slivered new moonlight, was a huge structure. It resembled a series of round canvas tents, overlapping and connected, each one as large as a circus bigtop!
A scruffy sound caused Doc to look down. Without looking, Tom’s heel was gouging a word in the soft ground.
Doc felt ashamed to have been slow on the uptake. Tom had brought them to Zai’s Madagascar compound, his home when he wasn’t out at sea on the Apocalypso. We’re going to break in, he concluded. Tom wants to find—probably anything he can find.
And then the doctor realized why the young scientist-inventor had been positioning his body to face away from whatever he was doing. The bugging device was also a camera!
Doc sensed what Tom wanted him to do. Looping a finger around Tom’s belt, Doc guided Tom as the young inventor walked backwards. They edged closer to the nearest side of the tent.
It developed that the “tent” was not a tent after all, but a solid structure of ordinary building materials designed in imitation of a tent, with roofs that draped down from sharp points in the manner of a canvas top supported by a tentpole. There were ordinary, if rather ornate, doors and windows. The effect was somehow Oriental, exotic, extravagant.
Weighing his words, Doc whispered “So how?” in his friend’s ear. In reply Tom gestured vaguely toward a small, round window, dark inside, risking only a brief glance. Backwardly approaching the window, the young inventor took from his pocket some kind of midget tool. Evidently he had packed well!
Tom finally had to turn and face the window squarely. Working fast, Tom pressed his device, evidently a cutting tool, against the window frame and slowly worked it around the circumference. Suddenly the round pane tilted and fell out heavily into four waiting hands.
In moments the pair had scrambled into a dark room. Tom could no longer avoid speaking aloud. “I’m sure he’s got servants and guards all over, even though he’s away on his yacht. We only have minutes before the Watchful Eye dopes out where we are and what we’re doing and alerts his men here.”
“Are you armed?”
“Too hard to conceal. You’d have said something. Stick close—I want to find evidence, maybe an office or even a lab. The surveillance monitor must be where Zai is, but they probably constructed it here.” As if by his own “inspiration,” Tom seemed to receive Doc’s thoughts. “Yeah—making it up on the fly. But we have to get some clue as to how to stop the Ninth Light! Otherwise Bud could be the next victim of u’umat!”
After listening for any human sounds, and not finding any, they scurried across the floor, hands outstretched for wall and door. They found a door. Tom pulled it open. They took three steps into a darkened hallway.
Light—soft, dignified lamplight from ornate sconces on the hall walls—suddenly flooded over them. In front of the two was a small, dark featured man in a white silk suit. Beyond were three tall and burly men with ominous gunbelts, staring impassively at Tom and Doc.
“Good evening,” said the little man in an accented voice. “May I show you to your rooms, Mr. Swift, Dr. Simpson?”
LAP OF LUXURY
TOM was cool—and dry. “I take it we were expected.”
“Oh yes, certainly sir,” the little man answered politely. “There was perhaps some uncertainty as to your time of arrival. Please do accept our apologies for not having shown you to the door. We permit no defect in hospitality here.”
“That’s nice,” muttered Doc. “Then again, those three goons behind you don’t seem hospitable, offhand.”
“Perhaps Mr. Zai’s hospitality is enforced,” offered Tom with narrowed eyes.
The man smiled, eyes twinkling. “Please regard it as an honor guard for distinguished guests.”
The convoy marched Tom and Doc to separate bedrooms in two different wings, well appointed, comfortable, and lockable from the outside. Before closing Tom’s door, the little man said: “My name, sir, is Binarz Sharim. I am, one might say, the head of the household staff. It is my pleasant duty to make your stay a comfortable one. I have taken the liberty of setting a warm dinner at your dining table over by the desk. You and Dr. Simpson will do us the honor of joining Mr. Zai at the breakfast table, seven thirty? Attire is quite informal, sir.”
“Mr. Zai is here?”
Sharim smiled noncommittally. “Do lift the telephone by your bed should you require anything.”
“Including an antidote to whatever you’ve salted into the dinner?”
“Please, Mr. Swift, you may dine and repose without anxiety. It is my honor to say that the Master is most enthused at the prospect of tomorrow’s breakfast conversation.”
Sharim left. Tom eyed the dinner. Well, he decided at last, I suppose if they’d wanted us dead, they’d have shot us as prowlers right away. So he ate, and then slept. Over his brief life he had become accustomed to dangerous situations and unusual surroundings.
In the morning obsequious servants—probably armed—provided Tom with a crisply pressed outfit and took his Shopton clothing away. “Planning to burn it?” the youth asked. “The hidden locator beacon is explosive.” But if the servants understood English, they understood even better not to talk.
Presently a servant guided Tom to a small anteroom, where he was reunited with Doc and Mr. Sharim. “Did you try the food, Skipper?”
Tom shrugged. “If it was laced with voodoo juice, it added a nice flavor.”
“We thought you might wish to try the supper cuisine of Mr. Zai’s homeland,” said Sharim.
“Gureshpal?” ventured Tom.
The Americans were guided to a decorous double-door of polished mahogany. With a gentle push Sharim threw open both doors and ushered them forward with a bow.
Dominating the room, lit brightly by the morning sun on the ocean, was a man who made Tom think of Alice’s Caterpillar atop his toadstool, hookah and all. But the toadstool was the man’s body. The “caterpillar” was the man’s head.
He was the most astoundingly obese human being Tom Swift and Doc Simpson had ever seen. A hill of flesh!
The man’s head, a multichinned bulge protruding from the hole in a flowing, patterned tunic, nodded slightly as he drew a puff from his hookah. “I am Mr. Desh Zai,” uttered the head faintly, dwarfed by the body that spread wide beneath it in the shape of a broad-based cone. “I welcome you to my home, gentlemen, and my breakfast.” A swerve of his slitted eyes indicated a breakfast table a few yards away, set for two. “As your host, I am ashamed to admit that I cannot join you at my own table. For you see, I cannot move from my throne, nor reach the great distance with my arms; the distance, you see, from my upper body to anywhere else. What is not already in my hands is as far as Paradise. If you don’t object, I shall continue to suck up my liquid nutrition through this tube. It is quite delicious, by the way.”
The Americans took their seats. “Mr. Zai, you’re treating us very well,” remarked Tom, “given that we entered your estate without your consent.”
Zai couldn’t gesture, but made some slight motion of an arm, hidden from view beneath his tentlike tunic of white hemp. “A good friend needs no invitation to become a guest.”
“Is that a saying from the Ninth Light?” inquired Tom with a front of politeness.
“Is it not from the Christian bible? I have always assumed so.”
“Mr. Zai,” began Simpson abruptly, “the fact that you’ve been—”
Zai interrupted as if Doc hadn’t spoken. “Tell me, Doctor, what do you think of this physique of mine? Do you consider a man with a height of five feet and eight inches, with a maximum circumference of some nineteen feet and four inches, as determined by the finest instruments available to professional land surveyors, to be medically overweight?”
Simpson gaped. “Uh... wh-what?”
“You may speak frankly, sir. I have many fine doctors among my retinue, virtually a private clinic. They have a habit of hinting at the desirability of an effort at weight reduction. I patiently explain, repeatedly, that it is the custom of the Bose family that he who is designated at birth to be its chieftain, its sultan—he is subject to one great rule. He must never marry. No imported family, no offspring, shall contest or adulterate the inheritance of the Boses. And perhaps you will understand that when one is denied the natural pleasures of life and love, one has little left but the pleasures of the table; which are considerable. Ah, but yet,” he added, “what irony that I cannot actually make use of ‘the table.’ Nor a bed, gentlemen, not for a great many years. I am merely rotated, somewhat; tilted back in my harness when I wish to sleep.”
“You know why we’re here,” said Tom.
“Not to pay your respects to me, I should venture to say. For I believe you expected not to find me at home. There are indeed times when I am loaded aboard my great Apocalypso, carried on my moveable throne by my devoted bearers, twelve very strong men, to take the sea air. But not recently.”
“I’m afraid salt air is known to increase appetite,” Doc observed.
“I have tried to lose weight by jogging, but my twelve bearers become easily winded.”
“Mr. Zai,” Tom said, “as a gracious host, please tell us your story. We know you—or someone close to you—is involved in some sort of secret operation. What is the Ninth Light, sir? Is it something to do with that ancient Gureshpal sect, Qalqaram?”
“You pose many questions,” replied Desh Zai with dignity. “For centuries my family has maintained a degree of faith—or perhaps a sentimental regard—in Qalqaram. We don’t force our beliefs on others. Merely a family custom.”
“I think it’s a little more than that,” Tom declared bluntly.
“Well, perhaps so in recent years. If you wish the ‘story’—forgive me if I must sometimes pause to regain my breath—I was approached a few years ago by a foreigner who had some most interesting things to say. He spoke of religion and destiny, and ultimately of Qalqaram. At first he would not provide his name. but at length he proved to my satisfaction that he is indeed the prophesied one, He Who Is To Come.”
Doc nodded sharply. “In other words, the Ninth Light.”
“So he would be called, in your language. That is his title; his name is Eid-F’lqa, the loyal ninth son of Eid-F’lqa Qalq’r, the First Celestial Light.”
“Are you saying Eid-F’lqa is behind the spying and sabotage, the attack on Fearing Island?” demanded Tom.
Desh Zai’s face twitched up a slight smile which was hard to find. “I shall be content to speak of myself only, young sir. Do I appear someone who could lead such vigorous action?”
“The question I have is, why in heaven would anyone want to do it?” Doc snapped. “What does your sect have against Swift Enterprises and space travel?”
“Not a thing, Doctor. Do not blame your many adversaries on me or my spiritual counselor. I wish all of you nothing but blessing and success. This trip of yours to the passing asteroid, Qalq’bah, was a most impressive achievement. And now you plan to change its travels, to inhabit it—what a marvel! And as your prize, a star of sapphire.”
“‘Qalq’bah’,” repeated Tom. “Your friend Dr. Talmadge gave it a different name.”
Zai opened up a line of large pearly teeth. “But surely it is not suitable to name this heavenly wanderer after the man’s sweetheart? I understand such relationships are transitory. It is like a meal: you eat, you enjoy—it is gone. And indeed, Louis Talmadge is not the discoverer.”
“No,” declared Tom angrily. “It was discovered by Henrik Jatczak on Nestria!”
“Or perhaps, as I politely contend, by Eid-F’lqa, in whose ear Great God speaks.”
“It’s obvious this adviser of yours can somehow monitor, from a distance, what selected persons hear.” Turning to Simpson, Tom added: “And what that person sees with his eyes, Doc! Now you know why I had to squint and look away, why I couldn’t even speak aloud about my plan to travel here to the Zai estate.”
“Naturally you chose not to annoy the Ninth Light with the details of your long journey to this breakfast of ours,” said Desh Zai. “But may I suggest, it was all quite obvious. My home would surely be on your itinerary. You suddenly come to Madagascar to—ah, Great God whispered your very words to Eid-F’lqa—to meet the astronomer, but also to uncover the source of u’umat, the moment of communion given by the Ninth Light to deserving ones.”
“Deserving of what?” frowned Tom Swift. “Paralysis? Death?”
“You misunderstand. No matter. You shall soon meet the Ninth Light.”
Doc snorted. “In this world or the next?”
The family-sultan glared out of his encumbering flesh. “A guest also has certain duties of courtesy, Doctor. Your insinuations are not appreciated. I need no divine whispers to know what you think of me, you two. Some sort of world threat! Perhaps I wish to reestablish Gureshpal among the nations, eh?
“Not so, gentlemen. I have no regard for the tiny, failed sultanate of my ancestors. Forget Gureshpal! We Boses have made our money; what need have we for a country? I have no wish to be a politician, to run things, to exercise power. To raise my fingers is sufficient exercise! As to my legs—do they yet exist?
“No, I wish only to enjoy this fat life of mine, to listen to fine music—largely Disco—to play Internet Poker and so forth. I say to the world, leave me alone!”
“All right, Mr. Zai, you’re not the next Black Cobra. But what are you after?” persisted the young inventor. “Why the attacks, the sabotage?”
“You continue to attribute to me things done by others,” muttered Zai. “Perhaps it was that Cobra fellow who committed whatever acts of sabotage you make reference to. As to the raid of the devout Qalqarami followers upon your rocket island, am I to know the will of the Mighty One? Eid-F’lqa did as he was commanded; I trust it is all to The Good. For that is faith.”
Doc spoke up. “I assume you’ll be getting to the point of all this.”
“You shall soon know much more, Doctor, Mr. Swift. Now I grow weary and shall be silent. I recommend you eat your breakfast. You have a lengthy flight before you this morning.”
“To the Apocalypso,” stated Tom.
TOM and Doc were flown across the Indian Ocean by a small but lavishly-appointed jet, with a polite stewardess in a sari who provided snacks and, for Doc Simpson, cocktails in flight. “Drinking isn’t healthy and I do it rarely,” Doc told his fellow passenger. “But this is a rare situation.”
Tom smiled. “As I said—we might as well get the most from our trip.”
“Any guesses on what we’ll find on the yacht?”
“Probably a nut with high-tech electronics,” replied the youth. “If you’re listening in, Mr. Ninth Light, no offense intended.”
“And if you’re watching, Mr. Ninth Light, don’t take offense at this!” Doc made a sharp gesture in front of Tom’s eyes, a kind of salute.
The jet was amphibious, and at long last they landed in the water near the Apocalypso. Tom had seen large yachts, but this one was a titan, virtually as big as a cruise ship! “Good night!” he gulped. “I think this yacht’s bigger than Gureshpal!”
They were taken aboard by silent stone-faced men in pale yellow nautical garb, all bearing the dangling Qalqaram charm symbols. Stone-faced—yet smiling contentedly, a disturbing effect.
After being left to themselves for a time, in a comfortable suite, they were led down a thickly carpeted hotel-like hallway to an odd sort of door. As Tom was made to stand sideways in the opening, the sides of the doorframe slid closer until they touched him lightly, and the top slowly descended, like a lackadaisical guillotine, until it brushed against his crewcut. Then Tom was guided forward, and the doorway adjusted itself for Doc.
Tom understood. “Checking us out for electronics,” he told Doc.
“We’d have to have eaten it.”
“Believe me, Doc, it’s been done.”
A short hall opened into a wide square room with a high ceiling. To Tom’s surprise, the room was filled with rows of small desks, like those in a classroom—and every desk was occupied by men and women in comfortable robes, several score. The “pupils” were all leaning back in their seats, looking ceilingward with intent expressions. Their arms, busy at some task, lay on the desktops. There was a low murmur of many voices. Simpson pointed and whispered, “Look—they’re all on IV lines.”
“We practice a meditative discipline,” said an accented voice. A tall slender man, hair tonsured like a medieval monk, approached them confidently. He shook hands with Tom and Doc, then waved the tranquil guards out of the room.
When the door was closed, the man smiled. “Yes, I am the one you seek. I am Eid-F’lqa.”
“The Predicted One,” said Doc sarcastically.
“The proper term is He Who Is To Come,” reproved the man jovially. “But why not call me the Ninth Light, Doc? Tom? As I’ve heard you do so often.”
“Who are you?” Tom asked.
“What, my real name? Interested in trivia, are you? I’m surprised Mr. Ames didn’t track me down. For most of my life, I was Francesco Orfeo, a humble man.”
Tom nodded and said wryly, “Before you became a prophet?”
“From birth—Sicily. And then I became a kind of electronics engineer, one might say. A special kind in an advanced field. And then... well. Might you have heard of Zolas bar Melchshem?”
“Of course not. He was deep in the Israeli military establishment. A genius. Very secret work, very advanced. Science.”
“Weaponry?” asked Doc.
Orfeo smiled. “What isn’t, in the end? I was his assistant for many years. When he died, I was the only man on Earth fully conversant in the details of his work.”
“Which I suppose you stole,” stated Tom, “before going into hiding.”
“Well, Tom, I had to kill Zolas first, naturally. Then I destroyed his journals and so forth. And then I went into hiding.”
The so-called Ninth Light regarded his captives with raised eyebrows, as if expecting further questions. The young inventor gestured at the others in the room. “I imagine these ‘meditators’ can’t hear your confession. Or don’t they care anymore?”
“To serve is bliss. They are far too intent upon their tasks to listen to other voices. That is, their task—it is a single task, done collectively. Vital spiritual work.”
“Yeah, I don’t doubt it,” Simpson said. “Your spy system. What are you having them do? Project their astral bodies and report back?”
Orfeo chuckled at the idea, but Tom was shaking his head. “There’s nothing spiritual or psychic about it. Obviously he’s using some technology developed by Melchshem.”
“Yes, that’s it,” admitted the Ninth Light with a degree of pride. “It’s all technology. I knew Tom Swift would be interested in the technical end. I planned to tell you about it.”
“Before you kill us,” Tom stated calmly.
“Wouldn’t do much good afterwards, hmm? Here you are, way out at sea, on a trip no one back home knows about—not even your family, not even your best friend ‘flyboy’. By trying so hard to avoid the Ninth Light’s all-seeing eye—and ear—you effectively covered your tracks.”
“Enterprises knows of our flight to Madagascar.”
“Yes, so we saw and heard. So questions will be asked frantically when you fail to return, and your airfield personnel will eventually put your associates on a trail leading to your jet in Fianarantsoa. Eventually. No doubt they will track you to Dr. Talmadge. Then, by logical assumption, to Desh Zai. And then?—but you will both be long gone without a trace. And my patron Zai is a very private person.”
Tom said, “You were going to tell me how you work it, Mr. Orfeo.”
“No reason not to,” said the man. “My friend and mentor the late Dr. Melchshem did advanced work in a new field, the study and development of nanoelectronics. To explain, for you look blank, Dr. Simpson—it involves surpassing, in smallness and speed, the etched planar microprocessor, which is running up against the physical limits of its evolution. Zolas was engaged in ‘growing’ fantastically small spikes of silicon molecules, which could be forced into various useful shapes—rather like Bonsai trees.”
“Little computers,” said Doc.
“‘Little’ is hardly the word. Imagine a million microprocessors gaily dancing on the head of a pin! And better yet, the nano-units are polynary—several natural default modes, not just ‘on’ or ‘off’ as in binary processors. Thus their capacity increases exponentially.”
“I’ll admit it’s fantastic,” Tom said with unwilling enthusiasm. “Assuming it’s true at all.”
“You should have more of that trust you lectured Bud Barclay about,” chuckled the Ninth Light. “You’ve had to deal with the result of this technology, Tom. I know you never believed God was spying on you.”
“Shall I do the exposition?” asked the young inventor dryly. “Obviously Melchshem utilized the nanoelectronic units to create some sort of implant that can ‘read’ certain patterns of nerve activation...”
“Cochlear impulses in the ear, retinal patterns in the eye.”
Tom nodded. “Not mind-reading. No device can ‘read-off’ the higher cortical functions. The implants must scan and relay sense data at the very earliest stages, when the pattern still corresponds to the external stimulus—an image, a sound.”
Simpson took up the nod. “It was the bee sting. That’s how you injected your implant into Tom. I couldn’t detect it because it was too small.”
“Far, far too small, ‘Doc’. We were able to surgically attach it to the base of the sting, which we amputated, for each of those bees. Once beneath the epidermis, the spikes—two of them, sight and sound—are designed to mechanically crawl through the nervous system undetected, using the same chemical traces that guide nerve specialization in the embryo, to reach their assigned positions. Then the sensing process commences.”
“Bees for me,” Tom declared, “because I happened to avoid your original injection technique, the method you used on Fearing Island. The raid and the damage was just a cover, wasn’t it? Those flame-beamers didn’t just shoot fire, but something like darts that inserted the nano-devices into Fearing personnel.”
“And, of course—” began the Ninth Light.
“Into Bud! He just thought he’d been singed.”
“But your ‘Buddy Boy’ was impulsive while you held back, Tom. Obviously, the incursion was timed to match your landing in your spacecraft. The bee approach may seem silly, but I wanted to try it, curious to see if it would work. And ‘it did happen,’ to use another of your phrases.”
Orfeo now gestured them to precede him in a walk around the periphery of the bizarre “classroom.” “I feel privileged, boasting of these things to what Neil Gerard calls a forward thinker. I’ve enjoyed hearing that surreal nonsense he spouts. A pop-culture charlatan who has outlived his pop. I can tell you—as you’ll never know of it otherwise—that he visited his own absurd vault of artificial stars with Bud and Chow—Chow, with his colored shirts.”
“You could even see that, hunh,” grated Doc disbelievingly.
“One might call the sense-tapping system 1984-squared,” laughed the Ninth Light. “These miracles, strategically employed, convinced that credulous lard vat Zai to hand over to me and my inspirations the management of his affairs. I have put his family’s vast fortune to work, for ends that are useful if not precisely ‘God’s work.’ Don’t think harshly of the lazy slug, gentlemen. Much flesh, little mind.”
“Your nano-units... what about power and transmission?” asked the young inventor, absorbed in fascination.
“Yes, back to topics of significance. Power drawn from local nerve processes,” Orfeo replied. “Very slight power available, of course, but it was all that was needed. Transmission? Now we get into my own singular contribution to the system. Here we have complex sensory data to be sent over great distances and through solid matter. As you mentioned to your father, even you haven’t solved that problem with respect to your space prober. But I, Tom Swift—I, Eid-F’lqa—I have solved the problem!
“Yet to be honest, my solution was not entirely original. The quantum-link approach of your megascope wouldn’t work, but you might consider your other quantum application—”
“The parallelophone!” Tom burst out, chagrin on his face. “Your sense-tappers transmit their data like our Private Ear Radios!”
“Yes, yes, and yes again!” exulted the sometime Eid-F’lqa. “Distance is eliminated; our signals pass through the Earth, through the void of space, anywhere—instantly! One only needs to reduce the basic equipment to the size of a few human cells. Which is what nanoelectronics is, after all.
“Of course, your quantum technology has been carefully guarded, Tom, but—”
“But you do have your personal source of celestial inspiration,” Tom finished bitterly.
“Wonderful, isn’t it? You’d boast too, Tom. If you had reason to. Which you do not.”
Tom ignored the jab and said, “Just seeing this room and these people helps me put a lot together. Your transmission-reach may be miraculous, but the actual content is spotty—a lot of noise for very little signal. So you distribute interspersed segments of the ‘readings’ among your followers, who—”
“They are parallel processors of vague and confusing sense-organ data,” interrupted Orfeo. “All the ‘noise’ is biological. The signal input is perfect, but tells us nothing in and of itself. You cannot cause a blind man to see by discussing with him the activation coefficients of his retina. But the human cortex is preprogrammed for interpretation if it is given the right ‘feed’.”
“In other words, these meditators are human receivers,” pronounced Tom with cool contempt.
“In a way. Look closely and you’ll see the viewing visors or earphones carrying impulses from the various quantum couplings aboard the Apocalypso. The auditory team, selected for talent in mimicry, tries to reproduce by voice what they ‘hear’ in the raw input, each one individually speaking into his own throat microphone. The computer then combines these many confused interpretations and determines a ‘best match,’ the obscured signal in the noise. Thus I hear through Tom Swift ears. Something similar for the visual team. We use sketch artists, and the computer seeks common elements with advanced pattern-recognition processing.
“We cannot monitor all our sources all the time, unfortunately. We move from one to another in a strategic manner, as needed.”
Simpson asked what source was now being tapped. “After you two arrived on the yacht,” replied Orfeo, “we switched from Tom here to, let me see, I believe it is Amos Quezada on Fearing Island.”
“No doubt you’ve tapped Talmadge and Desh Zai,” Tom snapped.
“No doubt. Talmadge is much more interesting, though, between the two. Some of his visual and auditory episodes are quite... arresting. Romantic fellow.”
Doc’s voice trembled, overcome by revulsion and outrage. “These are human beings, Orfeo! What do you and your people get out of this sick abuse?”
“My people? I am my people!” The smile of placid bliss now appeared on the face of the Ninth Light. “Must I reply to such a hostile question? Is it not enough that I have rekindled spiritual faith in Zai and his retinue, and such others as Louis Talmadge? Is it abuse to give them a useful purpose beyond their squalid routines? And my meditators here—how can you be so arrogant as to declare them abused? Are they not content with their enlarged lives?”
Tom snorted in contempt. “You’ve made them slaves.”
“I have simplified and clarified their thoughts. They have, each one, a dedicated function. Perhaps we are the slaves, eh?—dominated by the tedious distractions of daily life. They have no worries about lost loves or next meals. As to money—” The man smiled broadly. “I do their worrying for them.”
“This is all about money, isn’t it,” growled Doc Simpson.
Orfeo shrugged indifferently. “Now, alas, we pass beyond those matters I can boast about—so we stop.”
Tom looked steadily at the bogus mouthpiece of the Divine. “How long do we have?—before you kill us?”
Orfeo mockingly glanced at his wristwatch. “What time is it now?”
THE CAPTIVE PLANETOID
“EXCUSE me?” responded Tom, leaning forward and cupping a hand to his ear. “Would you mind saying that a bit louder?”
Francesco Orfeo sneered. “I am honored to be the very last to enjoy your bravado, Tom.”
“Sorry, sir, would you repeat that?” persisted the young inventor as Doc looked on with bewilderment and dawning traces of hope. “I hear you fine, but I’m not so sure about the other listeners. I don’t mean the meditators in this room. I mean a bunch of interested folks aboard our ship Sea Charger—as well as your dupe Desh Zai, who is probably boiling like lava under his skin by now.”
Orfeo backed up a step. “Your final bluff is hardly credible, my friend. The sensors in the entryway are much more than metal detectors. Your entire bodies were scanned to the bone. No hidden circuitry, no transmitters, no microphones. Obviously I checked for those televoc communicators you’ve used—even for parallelophone circuitry. Neither your people nor the cretinous Mr. Zai can possibly be listening to this boasting of mine. No one can know of your presence here now, or your absence later.”
“Your detection setup sounds amazing, Mr. He Who,” smiled the young inventor. “So I suppose it detected your own nano-units, sitting there doing their sacred duty inside my skull—didn’t it?” As Orfeo stared uncertainly, Tom continued, “But say, you know, the whole idea of those tiny things is to be hard to detect, to slip by ‘under the radar.’ If you do get a ping from something in my cranium—”
“I will shoot you with my own gun, Swift!”
“—well, your equipment operators would assume it was just your own sense-tappers. But the fact is, sir, you’re not the only one fascinated with micro-midget electronics.”
Orfeo was close to panic. His eyes shifted about the room wildly, as if contemplating escape—or murder! But he tried to shore-up his facade of skepticism. “What wit, Swift, to taunt me with my merely human inability to rule out every possible contingency. But if you knew enough of the scheme to insert your own camouflaged devices, you would have known enough to remove mine. You didn’t.”
“I guess it didn’t occur to you that I’d stay vulnerable in order to trick my way into your hands, your base of operations? To shut you down?”
“I’ll tell you what the Celestial Voice didn’t tell him, Skipper,” said Doc faintly—but happily. “He didn’t know just how far you’d go to protect Bud from—”
“From life as a waking sleeper,” Tom concluded. He nodded toward the revolver that had found its way into Orfeo’s hand. “Is there really much wisdom in committing murder in front of the ears of listeners in my Sea Charger, who’ll be boarding your ship in just a few minutes? Sounds like hard evidence to worm out of! And I don’t suppose the Bose family will overlook your dragging them into an embarrassing public proceeding.”
Orfeo suddenly made a last grab at the upper hand. “Your life depends upon your ability to convince me, Swift, and alas, I remain unconvinced. I fear the only cure for my skepticism is to see my adversaries as they board the Apocalypso. By then, you two will see nothing.”
“Hmm,” responded Tom, “that’s a reasonable point. How about if you hear instead of see? If you have a phone in this room with a direct-access number, tell me the number—say it loud and clear. If you get a call within, oh, ninety seconds—”
“Should such an improbable thing happen,” snarled their captor, “you are free. Very well, then.” He picked up a cellphone and read off the number. Then he held his wristwatch in front of his face. “If there are those who listen, let them tell me so now. I call your juvenile bluff. Stay back—far back.”
The seconds ticked, inaudibly but, in their own way, deafeningly. Doc Simpson was stark white. Was Tom bluffing? Should they try to attack Orfeo?
“Ten seconds!” muttered the Ninth Light.
“You know,” said Tom, “if the Charger crew try calling at the same moment as Desh Zai—”
“And we—uh, we have a rotary-dial phone on the ship. Takes a moment to—t-to—”
Orfeo raised and aimed his revolver.
His phone shrilled.
“Never fails, hmm?” grinned Tom with relief. “You step in the shower and—”
Tom and Doc could hear the voices, American voices, coming through the cellphone. The fast Sea Charger, just over the horizon, would meet the Apocalypso in minutes. With weapons at ready.
There was no titanic struggle aboard, no melodramatic last stand. Even the ranting and raving was concise and mild. Francesco Orfeo, Ninth Light, Ret., surrendered like a man in a daze. As he was led away in handcuffs, he muttered toward Tom, “It seems I’ll miss the dramatic account of how you saw through my genius, eh?”
“I’ll send you a copy.”
Doc Simpson lingered aboard the yacht for a time, examining some of the captive meditators—who were confused but physically healthy as they were carefully disconnected at the surgically implanted intravenous plugs in their arms. “I suspect they’ve been drugged in some way,” he told the Charger’s medical team. “Something psychoactive and probably addictive. Good lord, they took their nutrition by IV!—he wouldn’t allow them to break for meals. After they’re ‘clean,’ it’ll likely take years of therapy to return them to normal life—if they ever had it in the first place. I think the Ninth Light appealed to some very marginal types who came to him voluntarily.”
Aboard the Sea Charger, Simpson, all but in a state of normal and healthy collapse after a near-death experience, managed to ask Tom if the ship, or Enterprises, had been told to monitor them from the start of their trip. “No, Doc,” the young inventory replied, his bravado now giving way to trembling relief. “Because Big Magic Brother was listening and looking, I couldn’t tell anyone anything, not even by writing. I even had to make my notes to myself just about unreadable!
“I had to carry out the plan by myself, in my own mind—and I’m sure sorry to have had to keep it from you as much as the others. But before I inserted my nano-microphone-transmitter—you’ll get a real thrill, Doc, when I tell you what it’s like to insert something right into your head without looking!—I had found a way to cause it to emulate short-wave signals of the same frequency the Charger crew was already listening for. I activated it by scratching my head as we came aboard the Apocalypso. I knew they’d dope out that I wanted them to be ready to intervene, but—”
“But not before you gave them the ‘okay’.”
“Right, by telling Orfeo about them. I had to delay calling them in until the last possible moment; I had to do what I could to find out about the Ninth Light’s methods and how to block them. Remember, the PER-type link ignores all shielding. For all I knew, a crony could induce a seizure in Bud even after we took the mastermind off the board. We had to know enough to shut the whole thing down.”
“I know, Tom. And you’d be just as vulnerable as Bud if you hadn’t penetrated to the center of the scheme. Incidentally, do you know yet how Zai reacted to what he heard?”
The youth grinned. “Oh, that part was pure bluff. No need to distract Mr. Zai from his internet poker.”
Tom and Doc were interrupted as a crewman stuck his head through a hatchway. “Sorry, Mr. Swift, but I have a call from your father on the Swift Enterprises PER. He says it’s an emergency!”
“This thing’s not over!” Tom told Doc grimly.
Damon Swift told Tom to wait as he brought Henrik Jatczak into a conference call set up by a separate connection to the Nestria PER. “I’ve been trying to get in touch with you since yesterday, Tom,” said the astronomer excitedly. “Something inexplicable has happened—perhaps a matter of grave danger!”
“Something on Nestria, sir?” asked Tom.
“Something in space! My boy, little Petronius has disappeared!”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean the planetoid can not be located,” declared Dr. Jatczak. “In recent days I have focused my attentions on Bartonia and its shifting orbit. I presumed Petronius would proceed along its course as before. But it has either deviated from that trajectory—or been destroyed! My instruments cannot locate it!”
“Nor can the megascope, son,” put in Mr. Swift.
“As someone once said—jetz!” Tom exclaimed.
Jatczak seemed to be nodding vigorously across the void. “Indeed so! Whatever has happened to Petronius, we clearly are facing some tremendous unknown power that might well prove the very threat to our world that Bud Barclay worries over!”
“Tom,” said Mr. Swift, “the space friends—or their Planet X masters—may well be behind this.”
“It’s a possibility,” Tom pronounced. “Have you tried contacting them?”
“I tried immediately, both through our magnifying antenna and the transmitter on the space outpost,” his father replied. “As of now, no answer.”
“It may be another of their inhuman ‘experiments’,” exclaimed the young inventor angrily. “Dad, Doctor—Doc Simpson and I will be jetting to Shopton almost immediately. Please radio the jet if there are any further developments.”
There was no news of the AWOL planetoid for two days. And when news finally came from Dr. Jatczak, it was puzzled and worrisome. “Yes, I sighted it as it emerged from behind the disk of the moon. The new trajectory has nothing to do with the former one.”
“Is Petronius approaching the Earth?” Tom asked anxiously. Bud was standing nearby, fearing the answer.
“Speaking literally, yes,” said the astronomer. “It appears to have entered a figure-8 orbit around both the moon and the earth, the sort of elongated orbit used by the Apollo moonflights. I have calculated that it will come within about 11,000 miles of Earth before receding again toward the moon. No apparent danger as of now. But I was saying that with great conviction before!”
Bud touched his chum’s shoulder. “Can’t we just punt it away, like we did with the big one?”
“Perhaps so,” said Tom. “In fact, Petronius is so much smaller than Bartonia that a longterm application of the Challenger’s repelatrons would alter its orbit.”
“Both would take time, of course,” came the voice of Jatczak.
“It appears we have time,” Tom stated reassuringly. “By the time Petronius has orbited back to the neighborhood of the moon, we’ll have had a chance to study the matter and put something together, if necessary. We could easily force it down on the moon. Then again—
“You know, fellows, this news isn’t all bad. I’d been thinking of bringing Little Brother nearer the earth, to more easily mine the sapphire.” His tone was confident. Yet everyone knew the danger that lurked behind those words. What if the same uncanny power that had already altered Petronius’s course decided to act again?
And that was indeed what the fates decided upon. “Within the last hour, as it passed through its Earth perigee, it began to swerve and accelerate in violation of the laws of orbital mechanics,” Mr. Swift informed Tom and Bud as they stood in the Enterprises observatory. “The movements are completely erratic and unpredictable, but the resulting tendency is clear. The planetoid’s trajectory is evolving toward a very close, fairly circular orbit.”
“Petronius has somehow made itself a captive of the earth,” mused Tom. “Fortunately, it’s such a small object that even lowered parameters don’t pose a particular problem.”
“B-but genius boy,” choked Bud, “if it’s wandering all over the place, it—it could—!”
Tom nodded sharply. “I know. If Little Brother decides to plunge into the atmosphere—that’s it. A mass of that magnitude would pack a punch that could turn a whole city into a crater! Or if it struck the ocean, picture a tsunami with spreading waves a hundred feet high.”
“Trying to shatter it would only compound the problem,” observed Mr. Swift. “And it’s now beyond the point where a gradual series of repelatron pushes could send it back out into space. Nor can we use something like the Bartonia rock-rocket; the sapphire is too resistant to pulverization.”
Bud wiped the untamed lock of black hair from his forehead. “Do you know the cause yet? Maybe the space friends could move it away—”
“Their messages say they ‘have no information on causal factors.’ To which they add ‘insufficient present capacity to affect orbit of mass’,” replied Mr. Swift. “So that’s that.”
Tom commented, “I don’t think they’re behind it; the X-ians don’t do things in such a random, erratic manner. My theory is that this is some sort of backlash effect on the local spacetime field, surging back and forth, set off by the destruction of the staroid. Something about that huge mass of sapphire must make it unusually reactive.”
“Of course, you have a plan, right?” Bud insisted hopefully. “A Tom Swift plan? An invention?”
Tom responded by turning to his father. “Dad, the only real alternative is to go ahead with my farthest-of-far-out approach. We’ve worked out the numbers.”
“It appears feasible, son—fantastic but feasible.”
Bud looked from face to face. “Jetz, what’s the plan? What do we have to do?”
Tom pulled-up his familiar look of cool determination. “What we have to do is make Petronius our captive, Bud. Before one of its zigzags takes it into the atmosphere, we’re going to grab the planetoid and bring it down to Earth on our terms.”
“Skipper—it almost sounds like—”
“It is. We’re going to land a planetoid!”
Bud gave a sickly grin. “Ohh man! Let old futurist Gerard top that one!”
Within hours Tom was able to describe the operation to the crisis team he had assembled. “Really, it’s not as fantastic a job as it sounds at first. We already have the basic technology available on the shelf—the duratherm wing.”
“But come on,” objected space veteran Bob Jeffers. “You’re not really worried about protecting this big rock from reentry friction, are you, boss?”
Tom smiled. “No, I’m not. We won’t be extending the durathermor heat-absorption sheath around the planetoid. The D-Wing—giant sized!—will be more or less free-standing.” Tom showed the assembled group a series of sketches and digitized blueprints. Extruded and shaped by its interstitial transifoil as before, the resultant duratherm wing would spread wide above Petronius, firmly attached to the underlying sapphire mass by several columnar struts and a myriad of anchored metallumin cables. The wing would be four times the size of its captive passenger—nearly half a mile across! “It won’t take inordinate power for the D-Wing to put on the brakes at the right point in Petronius’s orbit, easing it into the atmosphere on a course we can control from the ground.”
“Where do you plan for touchdown to occur?” asked technician Felix Ming. “In the ocean?”
Tom shook his head. “There are too many unknown thermal parameters. Even at reduced speed, we’re dealing with reentry temps and retained heat in what amounts to a huge gem, something no one has studied. A steam explosion at sea could be as dangerous as an H-bomb blast!”
“We’ve found a suitable landing site,” stated Hank Sterling. “The Defense Department has approved our use of the Uintachgi Test Range in the Great Salt Lake Desert in Utah. No cities for a hundred miles.”
“It’s a patch about twenty miles long, along the descent trajectory axis,” Tom continued. “The ground characteristics are good for damping out what’ll be a big earth-shock even if we make a perfect landing. We’ll use one of their existing observation blockhouses as our control center.”
“Nicely tucked out of the way, I hope,” murmured one of the listeners.
A few days and many erratic orbits later, the errant planetoid had its first human visitors. Tom brought down the Challenger on Petronius’s dark surface, a thin crust of accumulated meteoric material hiding the fantastic treasure beneath. The young space venturer supervised a team of twenty as they used atomic earth blasters to drill three deep “postholes” for the main strut-columns. Then they maneuvered a massive cylinder off the great spaceship’s external vehicular stage. Big as a freight car, this was the container for the folded, ultracompressed duratherm wing.
The crew returned to the ship, leaving the container floating some 800 feet above gravityless Petronius. “Phase Two,” Tom murmured to Chow, standing next to him on the command deck.
“Is that the spiderwebby thing, boss?”
At the touch of a button several score micromissiles flashed downward from the D-Wing container. Accelerating in seconds to tremendous velocity, the diamond-tipped projectiles speared deeply into the planetoid’s underlying sapphire, trailing unbreakable cables of metallumin-carbon composite fiber. In thirty seconds the “spiderwebby thing” was in place.
“Now Little Bro’s really our captive!” cheered Bud, at the main control panel.
“Roped an’ hawg-tied!” exulted Chow. But Tom Swift, all energies focused, remained silent.
After the three broad support columns had been implanted and linked to the D-Wing container, Tom pronounced himself satisfied with their work. “Readings looking fine,” he announced. “Bud, let’s take the Chal directly to the Utah blockhouse. We don’t need to delay for a few more orbits of ‘Pete.’ Everything’s in place. Let’s land the darn thing!”
The action of the incredible enterprise now shifted to the Great Salt Lake Desert. Four hours later, as Tom prepared to initiate braking and descent, he received a PER call from Shopton. “I’m monitoring with the megascope, son, and it’s fortunate I am. Petronius is shifting again!”
“We can adjust.”
“The adjustment will have to be ongoing. But you won’t need to do a great deal to initiate reentry. Dr. Jatczak just PER’d that its revised trajectory slices right into the fringes of the atmosphere!”
Tom sucked in his breath. “Then one way or another, Petronius is coming down. This is it, Dad—now or never!”
As the mission control team—and Tom’s personal support struts, Bud and Chow—looked on, readout screens in front of the young inventor flashed estimates, continuously revised, of when the planetoid would strike Earth’s atmosphere. As Petronius approached, gravitexes inside the D-Wing container and the support columns made small, somewhat desperate refinements to its path, steering it as close to the desired entry point as possible. “But it looks like we’ll have to do most of the steering inside the atmosphere, using the wing’s reshaping capability,” Tom explained to no one in particular.
Chow whispered to Bud, “Don’t sound like Tom’s too happy about it.”
At last the string of numbers hit zero.
“Radar from the space outpost confirms atmospheric penetration,” announced one member of the blockhouse team.
All eyes focused on a large monitor screen, to which a picture of Petronius was being transmitted from the Enterprises space prober. For minutes no change was evident. Then, slowly, thready plumes of fire began to flicker about the surface and the wing assembly. “Temps nominal,” Tom reported. “Angle good.”
“Structural flex within limits,” called out Arvid Hanson.
In minutes the planetoid was glowing brightly as it dipped deep into the fringes of the outer atmosphere. “Can’t turn back now!” breathed Bud.
Suddenly a red light flashed on the control board. “The five-minute alert!” Tom murmured. His heart pounded as his finger poised over the key that would initiate the main landing sequence. Would his plan succeed?
Tom’s finger stabbed the button.
On the megascope monitor screen, the watchers saw long, flat white streamers shooting from what had become the stern of fiery Petronius. They fanned out in a circular pattern like the slender petals of some gigantic sky flower.
“What in tarnation are them things?” Chow gasped.
“Those form the drogue chute,” Tom told him. “Drogue—drag. They’re to give us an extra edge before we extend the D-Wing.”
“Brand my space hat, I never seen a parachute like that before! Don’t hardly seem like they could do any good at all.”
“They do, though. They’re what’s known as a ribbon chute. Actually, it’s the only kind practical for a colossal job like that.” He noted that the purpose was not to retard the plunge but to add a degree of stability. “Tumbling is the main danger at this point.”
As he spoke, Tom was intently watching his bank of instruments. The intense heat of friction bathed Petronius and its streamers in a glowing ball of air plasma, the same burning blast that Tom and Bud were all too familiar with.
“Where’s Pete now?” asked one of the watchers.
“Way up over the mid-Pacific, just where we want him,” Tom replied.
“We’ve speared it!” Hank exulted.
A radar slave computer was feeding figures on Petronius’s velocity to a readout counter. Tom’s spirits soared as he saw how the crystal planetoid’s fall was being shepherded along by the combined action of the gravitexes and the drogues.
Tense silence reigned in the bunker while all eyes followed the fireball’s descent track, relayed from various space-based radar eyes. On the monitor screen, the close-up image, transmitted from the megascope space prober, showed the ghostly outline of Petronius wrapped in a cocoon of neon-bright flame. “More colors than a Chow Winkler shirt,” gibed Bud nervously.
“Cain’t joke back atcha right now, buddy boy,” muttered Chow with dry tongue.
They could see that more and more of Petronius’s rocky crust was being burned away. Something sparkling and iridescent was starting to reveal itself.
“How soon will you deploy the wing, Skipper?” Bud asked.
“At approximately fifty miles’ altitude. Soon.”
As the minutes ticked by, Tom thought of the myriad people who must be watching the fireball with their naked eyes or through telescopes or binoculars. By now the fiery spectacle would be visible over much of the western United States and Canada.
Many of the sky watchers, Tom realized, must be praying through fear or hope. Countless millions more around the world were glued to their TV sets and radios. Despite soothing words from the world’s governments, fascination and dread gripped much of humanity. A moment-by-moment account was being broadcast from Enterprises’ observatory, along with the transmitted picture from the space prober.
“The ribbon chute’s almost gone,” Bud remarked tensely. Only frayed wisps of the streamers could be seen. The rest had been consumed in the fiery plasma.
Tom studied the instrument dials showing Petronius’s velocity, altitude, and temperature as gauged by radar and infrared sensor. “It’s time, everyone. Here goes the duratherm wing!” he announced as he pressed a triggering keyboard button.
A glittering silver-white sheath billowed out above the flame-wrapped planetoid. The group in the bunker watched breathlessly as the vast D-Wing took form, spreading, fluttering, then stabilizing.
“Great splutterin’ spooks!” Chow gulped in awe. “It’s like seein’ a’ eleephant fly!”
“But that thing’s a lot bigger than any elephant!” Bud gulped. “Bigger than a whole stampede of ’em!”
“And we’ve yet to see how much flying it’ll do,” Tom added. His pulse was racing feverishly. The most crucial part of the job lay ahead. The readout counters were clicking off trajectory figures. “For a pinpoint landing, I’ll have to veer Petronius northward by two and a half degrees and flatten its glide angle almost four degrees.”
“What happens if you overshoot?” Bud asked. “I mean, some people really like Provo!”
“The wing mounts carry small explosive charges. At worst I can always blow the wing. But it’d be choosing the better of two catastrophes, pal.” Tom’s fingers twirled the transifoil control knobs. On the monitor screen, the wing tips began to curve—one up, one down—as the nose lifted.
“She’s banking, Tom!” Bud cried out.
Slowly but surely, the planetoid was tilting and shifting course. Tom’s lips shaped the ghost of a grin. No doubt about it, he was bringing in Petronius dead on target!
As the planetoid’s plunge continued, he made two more delicate corrections, then arced the wing to act more like a parachute to radically slow the final stages of the plunge. Perspiration beaded Tom’s forehead. This was the point of greatest stress on the struts and cables, and the body of the wing itself. If the apparatus were torn free, the captive planetoid would thunder to earth with devastating effect!
“She’s holding,” stated Hank Sterling with a near-whisper.
“Little Brother’s over Nevada,” Tom noted. “We can start saying uprange now.”
A few more minutes, and Petronius had dropped beneath the stratosphere, zooming along at Mach 2 and approaching the Utah state border. Tom made a final change to the shape of the wing. “Flying like a jet. The plasma grab-fluxors are—” Suddenly his eyes flickered with dismay. “Power fluctuation!”
“Critical?” asked Hanson.
“I can compensate. Time for the wing to grow some flaps—but we’ll get serious vibration problems.”
“Like they say—I kin relate!” gasped Chow.
One side of the curving bunker bore a huge, thick observation window nearly fifty feet high, which Enterprises workers had reinforced with metallumin. Now the many watchers could see a strange, fierce light slowly rising from behind the western horizon. And then a fiery speck with a long brilliant tail rose into view against the stars of early evening. “Slowing,” whispered Tom. “Slowing...”
The young inventor’s face was almost triumphant, but his voice rang hollow with anxiety. Bud turned his gray eyes upon his friend and grasped his arm reassuringly.
There was nothing more to be done. Tom’s duratherm wing had finished its job. Only seconds remained before the streaking mass would crash to earth. The watchers in the bunker froze in suspense, hunching into crash-ready positions.
The fantastic space visitor filled the western sky and spread a multicolored daylight over the desert and its twenty-mile landing strip. “Welcome to Earth,” Tom whispered.
The impact came like an earthquake!
SOME of the mission control team were flung off their feet. Others managed to stay upright by clawing the wall or clinging to equipment. The pictures on the monitor screens wavered and dissolved into snow—but not before Tom had seen the planetoid gouge into the earth with the explosive brilliance of a thunderbolt!
The touchdown was too bright to be watched directly through the observation window, but the cameras captured it for history. The looming D-Wing ripped free of its base and seemed to billow outward in a glowing, fiery cloud as it absorbed the tremendous impact energy. In the same instant, the last traces of the shell of rock crust shattered and fragmented, exposing the huge blue core of sapphire!
“R-rolling!” exclaimed Arv Hanson.
Petronius managed to tumble over twice. But its bottom had already sunken a hundred feet into the desert surface, and its residual energy was quickly expended. Suddenly, beneath a lowering canopy of fire, all was still.
There was a long, heart-gripping interval while the earth tremor died away. The group in the bunker exchanged awed, triumphant glances. Tom raised his PER unit to his lips. “Enterprises—Dad—we have touchdown.”
“You did it, Skipper!” Hank said huskily.
Bud and Chow shakily hugged their friend. “Can we go out and take a look?” Bud asked. The view window was smeared with clingy black ash, which floated down from the night sky.
Tom shook his head, still breathless with relief and excitement. “Not yet. We’d better wait till the heat wave cools off. But I can tell you one thing. Utah still exists!”
Chow whooped. “Not t’ mention Texas!”
“I figured you’d get around to that, pardner.”
Tom continued to talk with his father. “Son, I—I hardly know what to say. You’ve performed a tremendous feat—and a tremendous service to your country! To the world!”
“And to science, I hope. Everything went so smoothly, I can hardly believe it. Has any damage been reported?”
“Nothing grave. Word of windows being shattered in Provo and Salt Lake City. I’d say you brought Petronius down to earth with surgical precision.”
For an hour Tom watched the outside-air temperature gauge. Slowly the needle sank back to normal.
“Okay. It should be safe enough out there now. The ground itself will be hot, remember.” Tom pressed a button. A steel shutter covering the door to the bunker slid open.
The eager group swarmed out into the desert air, which smelled of some pungent odor and was draped in wisps of smoke. One by one, they stopped in sheer amazement at the sight that met their eyes. Heavy-lensed floodlights, shock-mounted in the desert floor, were still blazing. In their brilliant radiance, the enormous sky sapphire seemed to glow with blue fire!
“By my ancestors! Think how that would look if it were cut and polished!” gasped Felix Ming. “An engagement ring for... Ah well, I’ll find someone worthy.”
The giant jewel was resting in a shallow crater amid a low mound of heat-fused Durafoam, all that remained of Tom’s great invention. “The flying sapphire!” Bud murmured.
The mountainous, glittering form of the Jatczak Sapphire—as it had somehow become named—invaded and occupied the news and the Net for days. And soon the world’s scientists descended upon it and began to chip away.
During the planetoid crisis, Tom had given only sketchy, partial answers to the many questions about the complex Ninth Light plot and how he had handled it. At last, several days after the touchdown of Petronius, he invited a group of friends to the Swift home for a buffet supper and an explanation.
Tom began on a sober, wistful note. “I’ve never felt more alone in my life. Even after the wind-tunnel accident I wasn’t clear on what was happening. I wondered if it was some kind of ‘psychic spying’ by members of the Qalqaram sect. How else could they be getting information that didn’t even exist outside somebody’s head?”
“Particularly the Fearing Island aquatometer access codes,” interjected Harlan Ames.
Tom nodded. “Now we know, finally.”
But Bashalli had an objection. “Thomas, didn’t you say it was the attack on the island that spread around those little brain-darts in the first place? How then did they acquire the code before the invasion?”
“That was a big missing piece,” replied Tom, “until a few days ago.”
“Dear, why not start from the real beginning?” suggested Tom’s mother. “Make a story of it.”
Tom agreed with a smile. “Okay. I’ll do my best to skip over the unimportant stuff.
“First, Orfeo. This fellow Francesco Orfeo is quite a guy. He’s really the perfect con man—cool, clever, narcissistic, and totally free of conscience. His whole life revolves around the thrill of ‘taking’ the ‘suckers’.”
“Making chumps out of the world,” remarked Bud.
“He’s a genius—his technological work proves that—but he has no human limits. He probably murdered his mentor, the Israeli scientist, just on impulse, as a challenge to himself to see how he could work it out, after the fact, to his best advantage. ‘Collections,’ the deep-secret contacts we have, who I didn’t dare get in touch with when I knew I was bugged, say he’s psychologically addicted to risk.”
“They say it’s a compulsion,” Phil Radnor said. “Gets him up in the morning.” Someone mentioned Attention Deficit Disorder.
Tom continued. “While evading capture in a string of phony identities, he ran across the story of the Bose family and Desh Zai—and their wealth.”
“That there got his attention jest fine!” Chow commented with big Texas sarcasm.
“What could be a bigger challenge to a con artist? So he took the measure of Mr. Zai, and profiled him as naive, self-centered, and basically—well, stupid. Plus very isolated from the world. That’s when he decided to use bits and pieces from the old Qalqaram sect to create the Ninth Light ruse and his Eid-F’lqa identity.”
Sandy said, “It’s hard to believe Mr. Zai believed such a silly thing.”
“Yes,” Tom nodded. “But Orfeo had an ace. He had worked out how to use the nanoelectronic technology to make his cell-sized cranial implants. An amazing design— now that it isn’t inside my head I can appreciate it! The needle ‘stings’ are so minute that they can penetrate the epidermis almost without being noticed, and he coated the filaments with anti-swelling medication. Once somewhere under the skin, they mechanically find their way to their destinations near the sense-input nerves, where they begin their continuous monitoring and transmission.”
“Please don’t stop to explain how they work,” urged Bash dryly. “I wish to hear the plot. Consider that some of us here are addicted to excitement.”
The young inventor chuckled. “Well then—Orfeo’s sense-tapping allowed him to simulate enough celestial inspiration to sell Desh Zai and a herd of others—”
“Mostly the Bose family’s camp followers from Bangladesh,” Harlan Ames footnoted.
“—on his higher-being connections and messianic role in the world. So over a few years he became Zai’s trusted adviser.”
“Thereby getting his fingers into the Bose money pot,” added Ames.
“Yup, and all that came with it—including exclusive use of Zai’s yacht as his floating base of operations. Orfeo kept in touch with the Zai compound, and with his ‘born-again’ Qalqaramis, by short wave, touting ‘true’ predictions and miraculous knowledge of secret things, including info about my test flight that he enjoyed leaking to the press, anonymously. He did it for effect. And to breed psychological dependence, I guess.”
“Ready-made faith for the faithless,” Doc Simpson interjected, “helped along by an experimental drug he had acquired from the Syrians, originally developed to treat the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease.”
“A drug that affects the will?” asked Anne Swift.
“Well, not directly,” Doc answered. “An extraordinarily small nano-dose binds to neural tissue, producing a resistance to distraction—an intense concentration on whatever you’re doing, as with obsessive-compulsive disorder.”
“They’ve begun giving the many victims an antidote,” said Tom’s father. “But the doctors have to overcome their combative resistance to being cured. Being insulated from life’s many distractions is apparently perceived as a blissful state.”
“And there you have u’umat at its ultimate extreme,” Doc pointed out. “Orfeo had implanted his sense-tapper units in his minions, naturally. When he ‘monitored’ any sign of betrayal, or got nervous about even the possibility of it—or just to make a point!—he sent a signal that caused the selected nano-unit to dissolve away, releasing a reservoir of the drug that went beyond obsessive concentration to the waking sleeper effect. In excising the units from Tom and Bud, we had to keep that danger in mind.”
“Tomonomo, this story’s going nowhere fast!” complained Sandy teasingly. “How did the Light guy get those Fearing Island codes?”
“Allow me to explain this aspect of things, if you will permit,” came a dignified voice. Streffan Mirov had returned for a brief vacation on Earth in order to report to his government and compare notes on the matter with Tom. “I also had my lonely secret, you see. My son Dimitri had come across evidence that some unknown member of the semipermanent Astra-Volkon crew, the Brungarian contingent on Nestria, had been induced to act as agent for some person or organization not authorized by my government. I was determined to uncover this person as my first order of business on Nestria.
“I need not dwell upon my investigations. We have arrested a trusted officer in the science group, a man named Gregor Kharkov, and our gentle if persistent suasions led to a detailed confession.”
“Then Kharkov was the guy who lifted Dr. Jatczak’s findings about the Bartonia planetoid?” asked Bud.
“Yes,” nodded Col. Mirov, “as well as the little one. Of course they were not treated as secrets by my friend Henrik, merely not yet announced to Earth. Acting as the tool of this Orfeo idiot, Kharkov secretly transmitted the data to Orfeo by means of a parallelophone—the PER, that is.”
“Now wait,” objected Arv Hanson. “Isn’t the base PER carefully protected? I know we made the units so that getting into the electronics fouls it up completely.”
“We all forgot something, which became the chink in our armor,” Tom replied. “Remember Kent Rockland’s Private Ear unit, the one that got fried when Base Galileo was attacked? I gave it a patch job, but we shelved it and gave Kent a new one. It never occurred to me that the repair had left the inner security seal out of whack.”
“The traitor located this disused unit and took it apart,” continued Mirov. “He subsequently provided the Ninth Light with the information required to give his monitoring units their phenomenal signaling capacity.”
Mr. Swift said, “The astronomical data was always sent by Orfeo to his acolyte Louis Talmadge for interpretation and verification; it was the sort of celestial ‘truths’ that made the Ninth Light look like a spiritual powerhouse when he told his followers about it in advance of public release. Talmadge leaked the findings to his girlfriend, no doubt unintentionally, and it made its way to Demburton. I imagine Orfeo was furious over the leak. If Talmadge weren’t especially useful, he’d surely have been u’umat-ed.”
Phil Radnor now picked up the round-robin account. “To finally answer Bashalli’s question, two of our key Fearing technicians, husband and wife, were drawn in by the Ninth Light’s ‘powers’ and promise of bliss. They smuggled in a number of the darts and—I hear quite a few employees have complained of bug bites recently. So Orfeo was able to ‘read’ the codes right off the eyes of the code guards who saw them.”
“That couple must have been the ones who sabotaged the duratherm wing capsule,” declared Bashalli. “But I thought the code for the container lock came from Enterprises?”
Sandy, smug and proud, now spoke up. “Oh Bashi, that was so easy to figure out. Obviously the spy at Enterprises was that custodian who swept up the dead bees!”
Tom chuckled. “Good work, sis. Yes, it was an employee named Dexter Torrsen, another secret born-again accomplice. He—”
“Now Tomonomo,” interrupted Sandy, “let’s not steal my girlish thunder. Let me say it. Clearly it was this man who planted the bee-case and implanted whoever he could—definitely Art Wiltessa—with the sense-tappers. So Mr. Ninth Wave ended up with the container code, and that WiFi console code for the wind tunnel.”
“Close enough, San,” Tom smiled. “Torrsen sent the tunnel control signal to get me trapped, but he’d have had no access to the console ‘handshake’ code.”
“You see, Sandra, no one was present in that room to watch Tom enter the code.” Bashalli took her turn at smugness. “It came through Tom’s own eyes.”
“I’m sorry, Dear, but you might recall that Tom wasn’t implanted until later, by the bee,” was the rejoinder.
Tom shook his head. “Not that either.”
“Since we’re doing this explanation buffet-style,” gibed Bud, “let me dish out some. It was my eyes! I was stung by the island raiders, remember? I watched Tom put in the console numbers and enter the tunnel—while somewhere nearby the custodian guy waited with his override transmitter, getting direction by way of the Apocalypso. See?”
“Brand my ole droopy brain, when they write this’n up fer one o’ them Tom Swift fiction books, they better cut th’ blame stuffin’ out of th’ explainin’ part,” groaned Chow.
“Nor can I follow it,” sniffed Mirov. “Yet it is therapeutic for the speakers, perhaps.”
“Hey, my part isn’t finished,” Bud complained jokingly. “I haven’t told you girls about Tom’s laser-camera hoax.”
“What!—?” was the double reaction.
“Of course I didn’t know it either, not until Tom told me yesterday,” Bud went on sheepishly. “He couldn’t tell me, right?—because I was bugged.”
“It’s like this,” said the young inventor. “Orfeo’s addiction to risk caused him to con himself. He just had to try that stupid bee stunt! It put me on alert. I tried and tried to figure out the why of it—and finally I realized—”
“Sorry, boss,” grumbled Chow, “mebbe I better jest go set m’self in the kitchen fer th’ rest o’ this.”
Tom looked at his friend apologetically, then strode over to a writing desk and picked up some pieces of paper. “Tell you what. Just for fun, I actually started writing that account of my ‘genius’ that I promised to send to Orfeo. I won’t really send it, but maybe I’ll just read off the bullet points.”
The young inventor cleared his throat and began to read, some distance in. “Here was my reasoning at that point, Mr. Orfeo. My logic wasn’t perfect, most of the evidence wasn’t in, a lot was speculation and guesswork—but that’s how this Tom Swift works. It seems I was pretty much right.
“One. Someone was gaining access to secret, even personal, Enterprises information by unknown means.
“Two. If the means was technological and not paranormal, it was most likely some kind of monitoring device planted undetectably on various key personnel.
“Three. The use of the Qalqaram symbol, and the short wave intercept, suggested a link to Desh Zai and his yacht.
“Four. The incidents at Enterprises indicated that even some of my top co-workers and closest friends, perhaps even family members, had somehow been tagged with the monitor devices. I had to keep my thoughts to myself.
“Five. The test tunnel business made it likely that Bud Barclay had been tapped. The device had to provide a visual feed, because it was only Bud’s seeing me that indicated exactly when I had entered the tunnel.
“Six. When I went over the Fire Eagle after the reentry sabotage, I realized that the glue that bound the sabotage material to the Durafoam had to have been based on one of the earlier Durafoam reformulations, not the final one. A perfect binding polymer, adhering to the new Durafoam completely, would have ruined the heat cells all at once, when first activated upon extension of the wing, not in a gradual way during reentry.
“Seven. Only Sterling and myself saw the notes for the final reformulation. If the enemy didn’t have that final formula, it meant we two were not yet tapped. That meant that Bud Barclay, who never saw the last formula but had glanced at the earlier one, must have been the source. I knew then that Bud carried one of the audio-visual bugging devices.
“Eight. I assumed that, later on, I had been implanted myself. It was the best explanation for the bee incident. I reasoned that my being stung could have been the way a micro-unit was inserted into me.”
The young inventor looked up from his papers at the roomful of rapt listeners. “Then I knew how alone I was,” he said quietly. “Anything Bud saw or heard went right to the enemy. Same with me. If I heard my own voice trying to get help from security or anyone—if I told you girls what was going on—if I saw my hand writing a note or watched something I was typing appear on the screen—it would tip off the Ninth Light. He would know, by tapping my eyesight, where I was traveling. No way to sneak up on him!”
He continued to read his summary account. “Nine. There was one out for me to try. I began to work up a counter-strategy based on the idea that you didn’t yet know, Mr. Orfeo, just how much I’d figured out. I couldn’t enlist my usual help and support to carry it out. I had to keep it all a secret, almost a secret from myself.
“Ten. Some time before the planned beach outing, I got in touch with an acquaintance in Shopton, Vern Sholt, who was an occasional actor. I told him that I wanted him to play a scene in front of us on the beach, which I explained would be filmed from hiding by a spy. I told Sholt that when the film was given to an enemy, he would assume his agent at Enterprises was taking action against me, on his own, which might make the larger spy operation too risky.
“Eleven. Of course, no one was filming the scene. You, Mr. Orfeo, would have taken the situation to show that I had figured out that Bud had been tagged and was attempting to throw you by the phony ‘betrayal’ you’d pick up from Bud. But because I made my arrangements with Vern Sholt openly, it also implied, logically, that I didn’t yet know that I myself had been implanted. In reality, I knew my every move had been monitored and that my enemy, you, would know in advance that my supposed ‘plot’ was just a ruse. What I wanted, Mr. Orfeo, was to absolutely convince you that I had no idea that I had to watch everything I said and did, to keep it from you. I wanted you to assume you could take at face value what I was doing, not presume it was part of some plot. Which is exactly what it was.”
“Wow!” exclaimed Doc Simpson. “To strut my creds, I see it as a sort of inoculation, Skipper. You used part of the guy’s own scheme to protect yourself against the rest of it!”
The girls were glaring sourly. “I take it the charming laser death ray that frightened us was a fake,” frowned Bashalli Prandit.
“Just a harmless simulation I threw together and couriered over to Vern—who really does run a camera shop, by the way—after my call to him.” Tom added with a wince of apology, “You can’t imagine how sorry I am for all that.”
“And because of all that, you were free to travel to Madagascar for what Orfeo would assume was an ‘innocent’ meeting with Louis Talmadge—not a sneak visit to the Zai compound,” noted Harlan Ames approvingly. “I’m neon-green with professional envy! Your only error was your assumption that Zai himself was the mastermind, and was off on his yacht with his short waves.”
“As for me, I almost blew the whole deal,” Bud declared with a shrug. “I sorta confronted Tom about letting Vern go. I guess I pretty well forced him to let me in on things, to get the big Barclay mouth shut and sealed for a while.”
“Then you did know of this after all!” exclaimed Hank Sterling in surprise. “But—how in—”
Tom essayed his own boastful look, humorously. “Naturally I dealt with the Barclay threat by sheer genius! We both understand American Sign Language, so—”
“Now hold yer horses, boss,” Chow exclaimed with wrinkled brow. “Fer all yew knew, this Oreo feller knew sign language hisself! He’d know about what you said t’ Buddy Boy, cause Bud sawr it with his own eyes—your eyes too!”
“You didn’t let me finish, pardner. I didn’t use the sign language visibly. I put my hand on Bud’s back and finger-spelled it!”
Bud explained, “I don’t remember the exact words, but it was along the lines of ‘Shut up—play along—I can’t explain aloud or in writing—we’re both bugged—go along with whatever I say.’ That sort of thing. Probably more eloquent.”
There ensued a lengthy silence. Some had followed the plot and were mentally panting. Others were just panting.
“One thing I’ve wondered, dear,” said Tom’s mother meekly. “I understand that you needed to have Bud somewhere else while you went to Madagascar, to eliminate an extra source of monitoring. And you couldn’t tell him openly that you wouldn’t be at Enterprises. But why did you let everyone else think that you had gone with him to Idaho? I don’t see the purpose of that.”
“Well, the idea there, Mom—” But Tom suddenly interrupted himself with a grin. “Hey—I’m not going to explain that one right now. Sandy, here’s your chance to get back your ‘thunder’—you look over the whole thing and come up with my reason!”
Sandy smiled at her brother sourly. “Thank you. With any luck I’ll come up with a good reason why you shouldn’t have done it!”
Bud asked Chow Winkler, “Did you follow all that, cowpoke?”
Explanations over, the many tasks of Tom Swift Enterprises went forward. Preparing the Bartonia colony according to Neil Gerard’s futurist scheme now, at last, took full priority. Even as the planetoid began to distance itself from Earth in the new orbit Tom had given it, the Challenger was freighting tools, equipment, and construction materials to the visitor from the depths of space. Just before the orbit was stabilized and Tom’s “cannon” was shut down for good, he slightly altered the thrust vectors to give Bartonia a mild rotation. Inside the great hollow that would be a permanent home for the solarnauts, down suddenly arrived—pointing upward toward the stars!
One morning, as the young inventory pored over some experimental findings—research that would lead to his G-Force Inverter—Bud arrived with the now-familiar form of Neil Gerard in tow. The great speculationist seemed uncharacteristically animated, even verging upon outright excitement.
“Mr. Gerard has some news, genius boy,” Bud announced.
“Not huge news,” said Gerard. “Huge to me, not you. Wha? Yeah. So it’s not news, because I already know it. Anyway, I’m adding a new person to the list of colonists. New to you. Not to me.”
Tom smiled. “I see,” mentally adding: I guess.
“Classified by name Cythera Duff. Physical female, complete.”
“It’s his old sweetheart, Tom,” explained Bud, “the one I mentioned.”
Mr. Gerard nodded. “Thirty years back. But what’s time? Right. See, Tom, it’s all possible futures, right? Even the Big Future—who knows? We just walk along the road, look right, look left, pick this future or that, collapse the vectors. There it is! Precipitated into reality. I do it, you do it. Landing that sapphire was a pick. You plucked out a future, Tom. Same thing with Bartonia. You did what you did and collapsed it into existence. I’m the futurist, but I couldn’t make it happen. I needed you.”
“It was my honor,” replied the young future-maker.
“Okay. Maybe. Wha? So what you did inspired me.”
“There’s that word,” muttered Bud humorously.
“So I looked for a future I could make. Made myself a new one. Looked up Cy. Boston. Unmarried, naturally. Nonstandard personality, getting a little heavy but within reasonable limits. Know what I said? No you don’t—different spelling—nuh.
“I told her I still wanted to marry her. I told her she’d had thirty years and I was running things over in my mind and her not answering wasn’t an answer to the future-minded heart.” Gerard paused. “Yeah. She said, ‘Sweetwired, I did answer. I answered before you asked me. You were too busy talking to hear.’ Get that!”
“Congratulations, sir,” Tom said, shaking his hand warmly. “Love is important to making futures. That’s true even if what you love is inventing, or traveling off into the unknown.”
“Yeah. Large truth there, Tom.” The man lowered his voice. “But that doesn’t mean you don’t get scared. The future can surprise you, friend-o. Sometimes it comes at you way too fast!”