TOM SWIFT LIVES!

TOM SWIFT AND HIS

G-FORCE INVERTER

 

 

 

 

This unauthorized tribute

Is based upon

the original TOM SWIFT JR. characters.

 

SCOTT DICKERSON, AUTHOR

 

As of this printing,

copyright to

The New TOM SWIFT Jr. Adventures

is owned by

SIMON & SCHUSTER

 

 

 

 

This edition privately printed by

 

RUNABOUT

2012

www.tomswiftlives.com

 

PRINTED IN THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

TOM SWIFT AND HIS

G-FORCE INVERTER



CHAPTER 1

 

 

 

          SERPENT QUEST

 

 

 

 

 

“MOON SERPENTS!” said Jenna Deames scornfully with a wry and skeptical shake of her head. “Tom, you’ve explained it to your best pal, your chief engineer, your key physicist, even your cook. I’m feeling a little left out. And may I remind you,” she added, “we are halfway to the moon!”

The crewcut young man half-turned in his seat and looked up, shrugging in good-natured apology. “Sorry,” said Tom Swift. He knew the chemist was joking, but his sheepishness was genuine.

“Want me to do it, Tom?” offered the young inventor’s best pal, Bud Barclay.

“Wa-aal, I’d do it,” said the young inventor’s cook, Chow Winkler. “Butcha know, the plain fact is I don’t unnerstan’ it.”

Tom grinned. “You don’t, pardner?”

“Son, I’m jest along t’ fix up the eats, not t’ think. Not about that!” replied the hefty ex-Texan.

“I’ll provide any explanation you wish, my dear, readily, skillfully, and at length,” declared the key physicist, Dr. Rafael Franzenberg. The suggestion seemed more ooze than assistance.

As to the chief engineer, Hank Sterling—a wise and smiling silence.

The crew stood on the flight deck of Tom Swift Enterprises’ majestic spaceship, the Challenger, as its bank of repulsion force-rays thrust it toward the moon with a constant 1-G acceleration. Its mission was a scientific quest—to solve a scientific mystery.

“I know I’m just a lowly chemist,” continued Jenna, smiling. “I suppose that’s like bringing the plumber along on a vacation trip. But I would like to know why I was called over to Fearing for a sudden jaunt to the moon. The moon’s been around a long time; she doesn’t have sudden needs. And serpents—didn’t they go out with the Garden of Eden?”

“That’s just what they called it in the news articles,” Tom answered. “There are no real snakes up there.”

The moment begged for a Bud Barclay quip. “Otherwise Chow would be working up a new recipe—rattlesnake stew with moon-serpent seasoning.”

“Don’t think I wouldn’t, Buddy Boy,” Chow promised—or threatened.

Jenna crossed her arms. “Loving the banter, but not getting the data, boys.”

Tom rose from his contour seat at the deck’s main instrument console. “It’s like this.” He drew an arcing serpentine curve in the empty air, like a drunken letter S. “That’s what NASA’s researchers saw when they enhanced the scanner readings from LIP-8—the latest of the Lunar Ice Probe series.”

“Right,” Jenna nodded; “searching for traces of water-ice in deep craters at the lunar poles. They detected something in the crash plume, didn’t they?”

“Jetz!” Bud called out. “Is this supposed to be a plumed serpent, genius boy?”

Chow looked startled. “Hunh? You mean like that big wall carving we saw in Yooky-tan? With th’ jim-danged funny name?”

Tom shook his head. “No, this has nothing to do with Kukulcan. The ‘plume’ is the miles-high splash of particles caused when the impactor module released by the probe crashed into the lunar crust. It’s all but invisible to the eye, but the probe’s rear-view instruments are able to analyze its composition.”

“But what exactly did the instruments detect?” asked Jenna impatiently. “The science news articles were pretty vague.”

“They didn’t detect anything unusual,” continued the youth, “at least no unexpected compounds or substances among the particulates. But when they used their computers to map out the overall shape of the plume—”

“Curved like a giant space serpent ready to pounce,” Bud finished. “You know, Jenna. Cobra in a basket.”

“I see,” said the chemist. “Not the usual mushroom cloud.”

“They detected a strong density gradient in the plume that twisted back on itself as the particles fell back to the surface at one-sixth G. That’s never been observed before. The scientists think it might be some unexplained MHD effect.”

Chow raised an eyebrow. “Now boss, yew don’t need t’ use initials in front o’ modern young ladies no more—these days they kin take salty language.” The westerner paused. “Er, no offense meant, ma’am.”

“Don’t worry, Chow, you’re absolutely right,” Jenna reassured him. “I’m modern enough to know that ‘MHD’ means magnetohydrodynamics.”

The rotund older man blushed beneath his prairie tan. “Didn’t expect her t’say it full out,” he murmured.

Tom plunged ahead. “They assume it’s an electromagnetic effect connected to solar-gamma ionization of the crustal particles. But that’s just speculation. NASA asked us to hop up there while things are still ‘hot’—it could be a transitory phenomenon.”

“It probably is,” agreed Jenna. “And I’m just being a pill, of course. I’m glad to be along, Tom.” She turned toward Chow. “And I’ll try to watch my mouth from here out, Chow.”

“Thanks kindly, ma’am. Guess I’m a mite more deli-cut than I figgered.”

Passing the midpoint of the journey of three hours, the ship flipped over and began to eat its acquired speed at a 1-G rate. As they slowed, the swelling globe of Luna was beneath their feet. Some hundred minutes later, as the curve of the half-illuminated orb became a true horizon, Tom directed Bud to lay in a course that would take them over the southern pole. “The LIP-8 impact point was a deep crater on the lunar farside called Aldeb,” Tom noted to Jenna and Chow. “There’s no direct line-of-sight to Earth. The plan is to hover and take readings, then land if anything looks interesting.”

“Things already look interesting to these penetrating eyes,” said Rafael Franzenberg. His penetrating eyes were aimed at Jenna Deames. The bluff, blustery physicist—who also held degrees in chemistry and electronics—was notorious for his appreciation of the feminine aspects of science, which the feminine aspects of science sometimes failed to appreciate in return.

The Challenger crossed the pole and Planet Earth sank below the horizon. The vessel finally cruised to a halt above a small, well-like crater, its bottom deeply shadowed since the birth of the moon. “Aldeb, Skipper,” announced Bud.

“Down to two miles and cruise ahead slow, pal. Right across the center, from one wall to the other.”

“Wilco.”

“I’ve started the full instrumental scan, Tom,” called out Hank from his assigned control panel. “No infrared hotspots.”

“LRGM?”

“Nothing unusual,” came the reply. Tom’s LRGM, the Long-Range Gravitoscopic Mapper, used minute gravitation differentials to pinpoint the presence of buried objects of higher mass-density.

Tom approached with a nod. “Okay. What’s this activity on the polyfrequency monitor?”

Hank’s eyebrows showed the young engineer’s surprise. “Just now crossed the detection threshold—and jumpin’ like a wildfire! Upper range stuff on all frequencies.” The space veteran looked up at his boss. “High gamma, Tom. We’ve got some kind of nuking going on somewhere. It’s not from the sun.”

“It has to be a nuclear reaction—natural—or not.” The thought was as ominous as it was exciting. “I think it’s growing because it’s partly blocked by the ground material and we’re cruising closer to the break where it leaks out.”

“Skipper, there’s a crack or something ahead, near the crater wall,” reported Bud. “Narrow but way deep, according to the penetradar.”

“Park right on top of it,” Tom directed his chum.

“Uh, now...” sputtered Chow quietly but definitely. “Nuclear stuff—them gammer things—ain’t that radionation? Makes yer hair fall out? Slough off yer skin like a blame snake?”

Dr. Franzenberg harrumphed. “It can also melt fat and cause mutated glowing eyes to appear in the stomach region. Only if one is susceptible, of course. Feel vulnerable?”

“Aaa, yuh’re jokin’... r-right?”

“The Chal’s Inertite coating will protect us completely, old-timer,” said Bud soothingly. He himself teased his rotund friend daily and didn’t care to have Franzenberg take the job over.

Tom was not in a mind for banter, not while on the scent of a strange scientific phenomenon. “The wave profile is extremely intense, though it’s a mishmash of frequencies. Some kind of shifting self-interference is creating a structured pattern above the fissure, extending far out into space for hundreds of miles—even thousands.”

“If it’s nuclear radiation, I’ve never seen anything like it,” commented Jenna, puzzled and intrigued. “It’s a mixture, all right, but not like random nuke output. It’s more like the coherent output of lasers or masers—but from billions, trillions of sources, all differently tuned but within certain parameters.”

“That don’t en-lighten me much,” shrugged Chow. “Not like I need to know.”

“It’s ionizing radiation,” Franzenberg added.

“Like I said.”

The ship was now hovering at a full stop above Crater Aldeb, the dark gash of the crevice below them. “Man, I don’t think even starlight could get far down in that hole,” Bud said. “Great place to search for ice.”

“That’s the idea,” rejoined Franzenberg. He pointed out and down through one of the two big cabin viewpanes. “See that splash of color over there? That’s where the LIP-8 impactor hit.”

“Pretty close. The impact ground-shock may have stirred up something in the fissure,” Tom mused. “It’s the twisted interference patterns in the wave-output that caused the plume to bend back. Something energetic is down in that crevice.”

Bud glanced over uneasily. “Something? We’ve had trouble with somethings before. Come to think of it, in that old movie it was when they found a ‘magnetic anomaly’ on the moon that all the problems started!”

“I’ll be on the lookout for black monoliths,” said the young inventor dryly. “Bud, let’s have some light.”

Bud switched on and focused the Challenger’s powerful hull searchlights, aiming them straight down into the crevice. The beams were invisible in the airless environs of Luna, but the sides of the crevice suddenly leapt into clear view.

Tom studied the video monitor. “Deep, all right, but nothing visible.”

“Nothing in the optical range,” Hank corrected him; “but the gamma is toppin’ the charts.”

“Go up the ladder, Hank,” Tom directed. “We may get an image out of the higher frequencies even below the gamma.”

Sterling fed commands into the board computer. As the hull receivers began to capture frequencies above the realm of visible light, the scene on the monitor went dark. But after a moment, a hazy image began to form. “Getting something at high ultraviolet,” breathed Hank.

The others were now clustered around the instrument command board, necks craning to see over the shoulders of Hank and Tom.

“I—I can’t believe it,” gasped Jenna Deames with what little breath was left to her.

As the others boggled, Chow gave a name to the image on the video monitor screen. “B-brand my rattlers, it’s true! True as Texas truth! Moon serpents!”

The eye of the camera disclosed a crevice full of writhing serpentine shapes of monstrous size!

Franzenberg huffed dismissively. “A nicely romantic idea. But the only snakes down there are imaginary ones, Lunar pink elephants. Those are self-reinforcing plasma motes, squirming around in the coils of their magnetic lines of force.”

“But what are they made of?” asked Jenna.

“Almost nothing,” was Hank’s cool reply. “On Earth we’d call it a vacuum.”

“A vacuum with shape, though,” Tom declared. “More like wisps of dust. Nothing much on the telespectrometers...” He straightened up. “We need a closer look. Let’s capture some of the fissure plasma in the telesampler. Bud, take us down to a couple hundred feet for a better angle.”

“I’d like some local crust samples as well,” Jenna suggested. “Some scoops from the sides and bottom, too.”

“I need the same,” muttered Rafe Franzenberg suavely, with a sidelong glance at the chemist.

“Shall I extend the transmitron antennas, Skipper?” Bud asked Tom.

The young inventor hesitated, then shook his head. “No, let’s not use the small model. I’d like some heftier samples to take back to NASA—and Enterprises. I’ll go down and roll the large model out onto the vehicular deck.”

Leaving the control cabin, Tom elevatored down to the airlock compartment adjoining the Challenger’s big vehicular hangar, where he donned one of the ship’s standard spacesuits. “Okay, flyboy,” he transiphoned. “I’m suited up. Open hangar panel two.”

Interior air pressure at zero, a high door of folding slats was rolled upward, revealing starry space and the tops of the crater-wall peaks in the farther distance. A large, bulky apparatus of rods and rings awaited the young inventor. This was the business end of his recent telesampler invention, which used invisible beams, reflected back from its target, to excise and retrieve samples of matter for electronic analysis. After his use of the telesampler in his recent probe of some intruders to our solar system, recounted in Tom Swift and The Captive Planetoid, the youth had installed a much smaller model in its own bay in the hull of the Challenger. But this larger, more powerful model remained in the hangar.

With local gravitation one-sixth of Earth’s it was an easy matter to roll the transmitron unit—the telesampler’s antenna array—out onto the spaceship’s wide “front porch.” Magnetic coils in the soles of Tom’s space-boots allowed him to grip the deck, giving him enough traction to dig-in as he shoved the equipment into place at the very edge of the vehicular landing stage. Anchoring the mechanism he then adjusted the angle, pointing the paired antenna-rods almost straight down into the fissure. “Okay,” he transiphoned. “How’re the readings on the main board, Hank?”

“Nominal, Skipper. Shall I fire her up?”

“Go ahead. Let’s see what pops up in the collector cells.”

Space seemed just as dead and empty the moment after Hank Sterling activated the telesampler as the moment before. But one thing was no longer empty. Through its transparent cover Tom could see minute specks of color appearing in the containment cells of the retrieval tank. “We’re getting something,” he mused, half to himself.

What came back over the transiphone was a cry of alarm! “Tom! Big energy spike across the board!”

But the young inventor barely heard. Movement and a flick of light had drawn his eye to the darkness below, inside the crevice. A bizarre circular form, transparent as a ghost yet glowing like neon, had risen into view. Somewhat disk-shaped, the object didn’t so much move as flow along, writhing and twisting like jelly while maintaining its basic outline, edge upward toward the ship. About ten feet across, it was small with distance at first. But it didn’t pause as it passed the lip of the fissure, emerging into the open—it continued to climb spaceward, accelerating as it drew nearer the hovering Challenger. In seconds it had risen over the horizon of the vehicular platform like the dawn of a very bad day!

Tom stood with wide eyes as the object seemed to gather itself together, looming ominously. Having turned horizontal it was now much more like a solid disk. Its outer edge surged and flickered as if in rapid rotation. A fringe of sharply angled projections were visible along the periphery. The rotation made them hard to make out as they blurred past, but the impression was all too clear. The teeth of a buzzsaw!

Bud was in Tom’s helmet ear, shouting at his pal to get back inside. But Tom Swift barely registered the familiar voice. He seemed rooted in place. And as the whirling disk of light suddenly began to approach, he discovered that his immobility wasn’t a matter of awe or fear—he couldn’t move his feet from their spot on the deck!

The edge of the advancing disk grazed one of the Challenger’s thick metal rail-rings, leaving behind a shiny streak as if the paint—or the metal beneath!—had been gouged away. In a few thudding heartbeats the whirling saw-blade would touch Tom’s spacesuit—and very likely continue right on through him!


 

 

 

 

CHAPTER 2

 

 

 

          A FRANTIC PILOT

 

 

 

 

 

TOM could still hear a babble of voices over his helmet transiphone. Chow—goood old Chow!—was shouting.

“Bud, take off! Git ’er outta here! Mebbe we can leave that thing b’hind!”

Bud took the advice. Tom suddenly was thrust down into a crouching position by the jolt of acceleration as the Challenger leapt spaceward like a cannon shot. But it was useless. The Thing barely wavered in its whirling assault.

Tom Swift’s mind worked well under pressure. His life at stake, his scientific curiosity and analytical prowess nonetheless kept pace with events and sometimes gave forth sparks of inspiration. With a gasp he struggled to stand against the upward acceleration of the ship, stretching out a gloved hand toward a set of auxilliary controls on the transmitron’s positioning stanchion. Half-falling against the control panel, he slammed a fist hard against a lighted button.

“Ohh!” he gulped. The floating buzzsaw-blade had instantly blinked out of existence!

Tom found that he could lift his feet again. Trembling, he staggered backwards into the hangar interior, and the descending cover panel suddenly blocked-out his view.

“I’m inside—I’m f-fine—” he panted into the helmet mike. “Flyboy—wh-what’s the status out on the landing deck?”

“No sign of anything, Tom. I’m slowing to full stop. We’re miles high now and away from the crater.”

“Good. I’ll be up in a minute. I’m leaving the telesampler in place for now.”

“Ye-ahh,” Tom heard Chow mutter. “Don’t much reck-o-mend goin’ right back out t’ fetch it!”

Dazedly pulling off his spacesuit Tom returned to the control compartment and the pale faces that awaited. “It was awful!” Jenna Deames gasped. “Tom, what was that thing out there?”

Rafael Franzenberg commenced a pompously authoritative response. “Obviously, what we—”

“I believe I was asking our captain,” snapped Jenna.

“I guess my answer is a shrug,” Tom replied quietly. “I have no idea what that ‘buzzsaw’ was.”

“But look, Skipper,” Bud began, “we’ve seen space disks like that before. Couldn’t it be one of those ‘light-ships’ the Space Friends use?”

Earthly astronauts had encountered many examples of unearthly technology since friendly extraterrestrials had first contacted Tom Swift by means of their mathematical symbol-language. Some of their interplanetary vehicles had solid fuselages designed in accordance with standard aerodynamic principles; but when there was to be no attempt at atmospheric penetration, the never-glimpsed beings often made use of discoid craft that seemed to be composed of pure energy—as if made of light itself.

But the young inventor gave back an impatient headshake. “No. If the SF’s had something to do with this, it was for some completely new purpose. I’m sure the object wasn’t a vehicle.”

“Aw now, it’s plain as th’ Pecos what it was!” Chow asserted. “Brand my ol’ six-gun, it’s a weapon! Them snake-people down in that hole shot off a buzzsaw t’ bring down the whole blame ship!”

“Maybe they just wanted to give Tom a buzz-cut,” was Bud’s nervous wisecrack.

“As I was about to say,” snorted Dr. Franzenberg, “all instrumental evidence confirms that this was merely another form of the same contoured plasma-motes that we detected inside the crevice. It’s child’s-play to calculate how electromagnetic entrainment could produce such a simple shape—even produce the illusion of rapid rotation. Not that such things aren’t dangerous. Ultra-concentrated high-energy plasmas can attain tremendous temperatures.”

“I think I saw an example,” Tom gulped.

“If it’s just Mother Nature in a bad mood, what caused it to zoom up to the Challenger and attack Tom?” demanded Bud of Franzenberg.

“That’s what shows that Rafe’s analysis is right on the beam,” Tom replied. “When I was trapped out there I suddenly realized how the ‘buzzsaw’ appeared, not when we arrived, but when we started probing with the telesampler. The capture beam must have fed additional energy into whatever’s going on down there, setting off a reaction that generated the mote as a form of waste-energy. It was drawn along the electromagnetic gradient of the telesampler beam right up to the transmitron. When I switched it off, the mote dissipated.”

“The recorded readings support what you’re saying, Tom,” agreed Hank Sterling. “Except for one thing. Why weren’t you able to move? You said it was as if your boots were stuck in place.”

“It was nightmarish,” Tom nodded. “The self-reinforcing magnetic field that gave the mote its shape must have caused a secondary field in the deck coils, by induction. It amplified the normal effect of the gripper-coils in my boot soles.”

“Well, boys, there’s still a scientific phenomenon to investigate and explain,” urged Jenna. “Something is generating a tremendous amount of electromagnetic energy down there and radiating it away into space, massively.”

“I agree with our provocative little lady,” sniffed Franzenberg.

Chow scratched his bald dome. “Mebbe one o’ them lodestones? I hear they’s packed with magnetism! Had a great big one in a museum in Carson City. Made my teeth feel funny.”

“You bit it?” asked Bud.

Tom smiled. “Maybe our telesampler ‘grabs’ will tell us the story. Let’s continue the probe—”

“From a nice safe height,” Bud added.

They spent several hours cruising above the fissure at an altitude of two hundred miles, retrieving thousands of microsamples that were immediately subjected to various modes of analysis. As the Challenger began to accelerate toward home, Tom reported:

“The ‘serpents’ and the ‘buzzsaw’ are covered by the Franzenberg Theory—low-density ionized plasmas clumped together by electromagnetic effects that are pretty well understood.”

“But what produced the ionizing radiation in the first place?” asked Jenna. “Even subsurface nuclear material—”

“The ionizing EM radiation is coming up from under the ground, all right, but it’s not a lode of nuclear material,” Tom pronounced. “The local atmosphere has been spiked.”

“Hunh?” Bud reacted. “What ‘atmosphere’?”

“The moon is airless, but that doesn’t mean local space is absolutely empty. The solar wind—even ordinary heating and cooling—gives rise to a barely detectable ‘atmosphere’ of dust particulates, hydrogen, helium, argon, sulphur, and so forth. Even microtraces of oxygen and water vapor. Over billions of years the stuff tends to settle inside better-protected places, such as deep craters or our crevice here.

“That’s what the plasma is made of,” he went on. “That—and a little more. According to the telesampler, the wisps inside the fissure are seeded with monoatomic molecules of an unidentified substance, which is laced all through the fissure walls and along the bottom. These atoms, whether in the ground or drifting free, are the source of the ionizing radiation—and also the shifting interference patterns behind the complex electromagnetic effects we’re seeing.”

“And that’s what caused what LIP-8 observed?” asked Hank.

“I think so. Evidently the shockwave from the impactor dislodged extra material from the crevice walls, which fed a much stronger interaction than usual. The repelatron beams from the Challenger must’ve had a similar effect.”

“A matter for physicists to ponder,” noted Franzenberg.

Jenna smiled icily. “It’s a worthy goal. We all benefit by keeping the minds of physicists occupied.”

“My mind is constantly occupied.”

“Maybe you should try occupying it yourself.”

“Er—I’ll be upstairs in cubicle five,” Tom cut in hastily.

The young inventor spent an hour concentrating intently on the various instrumental readings as the ship neared the earth. Presently he felt a hand on his shoulder. “It seems Miss Deames is immune to my many and considerable charms,” snorted Rafael Franzenberg.

Tom chuckled sympathetically. “Maybe you’re not her type.”

“Just my fool luck to encounter a chemist—a chemist!—with good taste,” grumped the physicist who was also, himself, a chemist. “Tom, this electromagnetic phenomenon... You’re not saying it outright, but you and I know what this could mean.”

The young inventor nodded. “I don’t want my eagerness to trump good science. But I’m beginning to think you’re right. Rafe, this lunar material—”

“Could well be the answer to the tech problems in my special project—our project,” finished Franzenberg. “It could bring the GDI close to completion, Tom.”

“Inverting the force of gravity!” Tom breathed in excitement.

Within the hour the Challenger had touched down on tiny Fearing Island, the Enterprises space facility off the coast of Georgia. Shortly thereafter, Tom and his friends were winging north to New York and Shopton in the three-deck Sky Queen, Tom’s supersonic Flying Lab. Jenna Deames, who lived in nearby Georgia, remained at the base to continue her study of the lunar material.

In the huge jetcraft’s spacious “wheelhouse,” Tom piloting, Bud answered a beep from his copilot’s control board. He listened to his headset, then put the incoming radio signal on the speaker with a nod at Tom. “Tom, this is Mary in Fearing Communications. A radio distress call has been relayed to us by the Coast Guard—a private plane’s in trouble over the ocean some sixteen miles off Norfolk, Virginia.”

“Not far from the Queen,” Tom noted.

“The pilot was informed you were in range. It seems the situation is pretty serious and you may be able to help.”

“Scoop him up from the water when he ditches, you mean?”

“No, Tom. He’s asking you to scoop up his whole plane—in the air!”

With a gulping glance at Bud, Tom switched channels and contacted the stricken pilot, who gave his name as Bill White. He sounded very young and very frantic! “T-Tom—look, it’s—I don’t know how to—”

“Bill, we’re heading your way and can probably help you, but try to calm yourself and explain what’s going on,” Tom urged in a soothing voice.

“I’ll try,” gasped the pilot. “Okay, it’s just—my plane’s falling apart!—disintegrating! I can see the ocean through a big crack in the floor—the, the fuselage is—”

“I get the idea,” Tom said. “You can’t take her down for a water setdown?”

“Oh—no, no way! She’d just break apart when she hit, and I might be thrown into the prop! I can’t bail, I can’t even—”

“What are you asking us to do, Bill? What have you come up with?”

From the sound of White’s voice, a crackup was indeed imminent! “When the Norfolk tower said your big jet was near... See, I know all about your landing platform that drops down, and—and I thought—”

Tom nodded crisply. “Got it. You want us to match speeds so you can land on the platform. It’s been done before.”

“I know, I read about it.”

Bud leaned over. “But when it was done before, Tom Swift was the pilot for the landing,” he whispered. “This scared kid may not be up to it!”

“Maybe I can talk him through it,” replied his pal tensely. “And I’d better be a good talker. From the sound of it, we don’t get a second chance!”


 

 

 

 

CHAPTER 3

 

 

 

          THE PICASSO

 

 

 

 

 

IN MINUTES the Sky Queen had reached the vicinity of the doomed aircraft, a faltering speck next to the looming Flying Lab.

“We’re here, Bill,” Tom radioed. “We’ll pull ahead and somewhat above, then phase down the forward jets and bring up the jet lifters—just enough to keep altitude. The underhull lifter banks are well forward of the platform. They shouldn’t affect you.”

“B-but—if I overshoot—”

“Don’t.”

Assuming position ahead of the prop plane and slowing sharply, Tom activated the landing deck’s elevator pistons and lowered it from the flat underhull of the fuselage. “Gonna be tricky, balancing on minimum lifter thrust while drifting forward,” Bud murmured. “That baby plane’s moving along at mosquito speed!”

“And going down,” Tom replied. “You can do it, flyboy.”

“Oh, I know.”

Tom gave minute instructions—and had to repeat them frequently. But with unnerving slowness and a few lunges and wavers, White’s plane closed the gap and crossed the trailing edge of the platform. At Tom’s command the pilot cut the motor and the craft thunked down hard.

Pulling the deck back into the hangar-hold, Tom switched on the heat lamps and restored full air pressure. Leaving Bud at the controls, he clomped down the interdeck stairs.

White’s plane sat neatly at one side of the wide hangar deck, next to the Flying Lab’s own baby craft, Tom’s ultrasonic cycloplane. Fortunately the wingless cycloplane had a narrow “footprint.”

The first thing Tom noted was that the little plane showed no sign of obvious damage—no rip in the fuselage, no trace of disintegration.

The second thing was that the pilot who stood next to it was not a panicked kid but a much older man, gaunt and craggy, hair edged with white.

“Well now! Tom Swift!” chuckled the man pleasantly. “Mebbe I’m not quite who you were expectin’, eyuh?”

Immensely startled, the young inventor’s mouth gaped. “Good gosh. Asa Pike!”

“Mmm, good a name as any, reckon. Nice t’ see you too, young feller.” Standing some twenty feet from Tom, the man’s expression suddenly changed completely. “Now that you recognize me, I’ll drop the crusty New England twang and lingo. Just a persona. Always was. Useful, given the circumstances.”

Tom and Bud had first encountered the man who called himself “Asa Pike” when a threat to Tom’s rocket ship project had taken the boys to Maine. It developed that the man they had met was part of a high-security government agency that Tom had come to nickname Collections. After assisting Tom against a determined enemy, he had again worked with the young inventor in recovering a high-tech spy device that had been stolen. Now it seemed that Pike’s earthy charms were a ruse—as was the entire rescue of the stricken plane!

“What is this, Asa?” demanded Tom. “That was a risky stunt, risky for the Sky Queen as much as for you.”

Pike shook his head. “No, not for me. I’m trained. Very thoroughly. Not bad at vocal theatrics too, wouldn’t you agree?”

“Right. Our tax dollars at work.” It was the catchphrase associated with Tom’s contacts with Collections.

“Forget all that!” snapped Pike. Tom suddenly realized that the agent was nervous—even fearful!

“All right, Asa, you wrote yourself an invitation to the Queen,” Tom said. “I take it you couldn’t just contact me via my computer journal as usual.”

The man approached slowly and spoke quietly. “I’m going to explain, but basically I had to meet with you unannounced and out of sight. This silly gimmick allowed us the safety and privacy of midair. No one knows I’m here with you. Even the radio messages—who’s ‘Bill White’? Nobody. But on the ground, Shopton or whatever—they would know. And that’s what can’t happen.”

‘They’,” Tom repeated. “Enemy agents?”

Pike nodded. “The deadliest kind. These opponents, no friend to the United States, have a monitoring technology every bit as sophisticated as that used by my... employer.”

“They’re after you?”

“I have something they very much want.”

“But—Collections—”

“The office can’t protect me, Tom. They can’t because—I can’t go to them.”

The young inventor was amazed! “Good night, have these enemies planted someone right inside Collections? Is that the reason?”

“No,” he responded. He pulled his words together as Tom waited. “I’m going to tell you the story briefly and, I hope to God, clearly. I’m going to tell it once, once only. When this plane sets down and I skulk away, all further communications between us will be as truncated as possible. It has to be that way.”

“I understand,” Tom said coolly. “Eventually the plane-in-distress routine gets a little old.”

“So listen. The opposition—let’s call it the Adversary and think of the devil—had made an arrangement with a drug cartel operating in Mexico. They were to work together; I won’t tell you anything about the operation, except that it would endanger a great many lives. The deal, the fee for services, involved the transfer of a certain something from the hands of the Adversary to the clutches of the drug lords.”

“What kind of something?”

“Just listen! All you need to know is that it’s something very small and easy to conceal—a masterpiece in concept and design, which we, Collections, call The Picasso. Not a painting, Tom. Much more valuable.

“The delivery was to be made in Mexico City. Collections learned the details. A team was sent to disrupt the meeting. We did so. It was my assignment to take The Picasso and convey it to those who could make good use of it. Our operation was a success. I had it in my hands, Tom! And then—I didn’t.

“I confirmed possession, verified by my fellow agents, the others of the team. I left the site of the operation as planned, by necessity on foot. I won’t go into it. And during a walk which was to take precisely four minutes and fifty-one seconds, incredibly, unbelievably, I was mugged!”

Tom grunted involuntarily but didn’t speak.

“Ironic? Fantastic? You betcha,” Pike continued. “There wasn’t even much of a fight, just some guy making a grab from the shadows, jumping and running for his car while I scambled to my feet. He wasn’t some spy or master thief. He has no connection to the drug syndicate or anything else. I know who he is—I saw his face clearly and matched it. I’ve looked over his complete record, Interpol, the Mexican authorities, everything back twenty years. He started as a kid. He’s the smallest of small-time crooks, a habitual burglar and street-thief named Rampo Ociéda. Even his name is hard to swallow, hmm?”

“You’re saying, then—”

“For various reasons, carefully planted, the Adversary—and the cartel—assume I still have possession of The Picasso. ‘Collections’ is sure of it, of course, because that’s how the op was to play out. The higher-ups don’t know anything is wrong, not yet, because a complicated route of delivery had been planned which would take a fair amount of time—weeks. We had to do it that way; it had to do with leaving false clues to protect some of our operatives.

“I’m supposed to be in Nassau right now. This morning, I was.”

Tom was taking it in with a measure of caution, even a degree of skepticism. “Asa... why don’t you just report what happened and let the agency recover this—object?”

The man shook his head vigorously. “Tacking on a serious recovery operation would inevitably draw the attention of the opposition—the Adversary and the cartel—and compromise our purpose. Too many people involved, too many contacts, too much exposure.

“But Tom, from my own point of view, there’s a better reason to keep what happened quiet. Management would have to consider that I’d decided to steal The Picasso for my own advantage, that I was rogue-ing out. After all, my possession of it was verified onsite by the others. From your own reaction, you can see how the real situation strains credibility. A top agent gets mugged by a lousy street thug during a window of opportunity lasting minutes! It’s ‘the dog ate my homework’ to the Nth degree.”

“They wouldn’t believe you.”

“They couldn’t afford to, whatever their personal instincts. Tom, I’m sure you realize this—individuals are expendable in this game. Too much is at stake.”

“Yes,” Tom said grimly. “They can’t afford even the possibility of risk, proof or no proof. If they lost confidence in you, they’d have to dismiss you.”

Pike shot Tom a look of contempt. “Dismiss me? Don’t be a fool. The unpleasantness goes well beyond employment matters! Think the worst, Tom—the worst!”

Tom flushed with many emotions. “Okay. You’ve come to me. What do you want me to do? Help you find this—Picasso?”

“No,” replied Pike. “All I want you to do—what I need you to do—is find this man Rampo Ociéda. I can’t do it, ‘young feller.’ I have to keep to the schedule, to make my contacts, in person, exactly on time according to the plan. Good lord, it was a big enough risk, sneaking out of the Bahamas for a few hours.”

“You can’t take enough time off to locate the man and cover your—tracks.”

“I made the easy inquiries. No go. Without my usual resources at hand it’ll probably take days, more likely weeks, to find Ociéda. Whatever he’s done with the thing, I’ll be able to backtrack and recover it if I start with the thief in hand. I still have that ability, using my portable techs. It won’t take long to get him to talk, believe me; I’m a desperate man. What I lack is a speedy way to find the man himself. The office—what you call Collections—could do it easily. But given the situation—”

“Yes, I see.” The young inventor stared at Pike, and thought heavily. “How much time do we have?”

“If I don’t hand in The Picasso by the twenty-eighth of next month, I’m a marked man. Plain truth.”

“Uh-huh—‘I’m a marked man.’ As they say in old movies.”

Pike glared at him. “You don’t believe me? Or do you just enjoy joking around about—”

“I know, Asa. ‘Matters of life and death.’ I’ve heard that one before too.”

The hangar intercom bleeped to life. “Skipper, everything copacetic down there?”

Tom pressed the intercom button. “We’re fine, Bud—Bill and I are just having a conversation.” He clicked off and turned again to Asa Pike. “I owe you, Asa, I know that. You saved Bud’s and my life, when we were up in the Star Spear. At least I think you did. You guys never acknowledge more than you want to.

“And frankly that’s kind’ve the issue here. I’m not a secret agent. I’m not on the government payroll. I’m an inventor—that’s what my life is about—and also an executive at a company with a pretty fair number of employees.”

Pike frowned fiercely, his face hawklike. “You think I don’t know all that?”

“Now you show up in the middle of the air with a situation that sounds more Theatre-of-the-Absurd than the usual world-saving stuff we’ve been asked to get involved in. I’m supposed to put my life at risk—which usually means the lives of friends and family—to help you find a guy with a funny name so you can take back a thing with a funny name, so that you don’t get in trouble with your employer with a funny name. Plus the usual ruthless bad guys. Two bunches of them, in fact.

“And I’m not allowed to know what The Picasso is, what its importance might be, what Collections plans to use it for...”

“I’ve taken an oath, Tom. It’s an enforcible oath. Remember, I barely exist already; no one would note the disappearance of a nameless man. And besides, this is about our country. The security needs of—”

“Or maybe your own personal needs!” snapped the youth. “I have no way of knowing if you’re even working for Collections these days! Maybe this ‘Rampo’ is one of the good guys! How do I know? How?”

Silence smoldered. “ ‘How do I know.’ But I know things about you, Tinker-Tom,” Pike said in low tones. “You’ve recently been making the case for your intuition, your personal Swiftian instincts, eh? I assumed you’d consult those instincts and come up with an impulse to trust me.”

“It might happen. It hasn’t yet.”

“So. You’re turning me down, hmm.”

“I need to think,” declared Tom Swift.

“We all have needs.” The nameless man who sometimes called himself Asa Pike backed toward his plane. “Talk it over. Consult. Get yourself convinced. Have a chat with Dad and Sis and your security boys. But if that chat requires going to the higher-ups—in government—then you might as well wash your hands now and leave me to whatever I can do alone.”

“Understood. Look, Asa, I do take all this seriously—”

“Of course you do,” he nodded brusquely. “I’m asking you to use whatever you have, scientifically, inventively, to find this man. Just find him.” Approaching again he withdrew a small disk from his pocket and handed it to Tom. A tiny sealed capsule was attached. “The disk contains all the info I’ve been able to gather. The capsule contains a scraping from his skin, for your tracking machine to use as a scent-trace.”

“How’d you manage that?”

“I fought him, of course. One punch connected. I scraped the side of his face. This trace came from under my fingernail.”

“I have to know where to start looking, Asa.”

“I’ve included the exact location of the mugging. Ociéda’s probably still in Mexico City. That’s his familar crime-scene, his comfort zone. He has contacts there. He has no idea what he has; it looks innocent enough. Nor do you—nor will you.

“I’ll give you 48 hours to decide. If you plan to assist me, place the words ‘ozone layer’ beneath the masthead of your company website, ForeSite. If I don’t see it... I’m on my own. And then, most likely, dead.”

Pike climbed back into his plane. The “meet” was over.

Tom returned to the control cabin. “So how is the guy?” Bud asked. “What was the problem with his plane? You know, Skipper, it struck me—how do we know this ‘Bill’ is who he says he is? Maybe it wouldn’t be safe to give him the run of the Queen.”

“Good points,” replied the young inventor. “Bill White won’t be coming up. He’ll stay in the hangar-hold until we drop him, and his plane, off at the airport in Norfolk.”

“Okay. But Tom, what was—”

“It turns out to be complicated.”

“Yeah, big surprise. All this and a flying buzzsaw on the moon! I don’t suppose they’re related—are they?”

Tom sighed. It was a kind of sigh, resigned and frustrated, that Bud hated to hear from his close friend. “Related? I don’t know what’s ‘related.’ Good night, flyboy, all I wanted to do was be an inventor! Sometimes nothing makes sense.”

“I know,” Bud nodded sympathetically as the Sky Queen accelerated. “Like they say, I have the feeling it takes your whole life for things to really start making sense.”

“Don’t forget the rest of the saying,” added Tom grimly. “‘And then you die!’


 

 

 

 

CHAPTER 4

 

 

 

          A TIP FROM A RIVAL

 

 

 

 

“BILL WHITE” was left behind in Norfolk, his further destination unsaid and unknown. The Sky Queen proceeded north, and Tom told Bud the story.

The black-haired San Franciscan was at a momentary loss for words. “Tom, it’s—I don’t know what to make of all this. I’m sure you can find this mugger guy with your sensitector tracker or some other great Swiftian gizmo, but the question—”

“The question is whether I should,” finished Tom. “You know, pal... we’ve never actually confirmed that it was Asa who saved our lives by getting in touch with the Odysseus yacht. All we really know is that he served us homemade lobster stew! Even if more than one guy has been our internet contact, the Taxman—do we really know, for sure, that ‘Asa Pike’ was ever one of them?”

“But the government had him involved in the Eyeballer recovery.”

Tom nodded, as if it were a reluctant concession. “That’s true enough. But...” Tom was suddenly shaken by a surge of resentment! “I’m bone tired of ‘existential crises’ and questioning motives and whether I’m a real scientist or just a dabbler—all that! And another thing I’m sick of is being manipulated into doing things because high-placed others want me to do them!”

Bud nodded, with the full understanding of a close friend of the closest kind. “Yeah.”

Tom gave an abbreviated account to Franzenberg, Hank, and Chow, leaving out the angst and anger. “That feller agin!” said the cook. “Never met ’im, so no offense to the poke, but I never did take to them pinch-faced New Englanders.”

“He’s not a New Englander, I guess.”

“Where’s he from?”

“He didn’t say.”

“Wa-aal, I don’t much like that place either, less it turns out to be Texas.”

Rafe Franzenberg declared: “This nonscientific matter doesn’t involve me, I’m pleased to say.”

“Seems to me, Rafe, you’re involved in ‘nonscientific matters’ frequently,” needled Hank.

“This one looks unrewarding at any level.”

Finally back at Swift Enterprises and down on the ground, Tom called a meeting in the Enterprises security office with his father and Harlan Ames, the plant’s chief of security. “Seems you’re already doing just as Pike recommended,” smiled the lean-faced former Secret Service agent.

“Perhaps we should say predicted,” Mr. Swift added pointedly. “These people have such advanced spy technology at their disposal that it seems as if they can see the future.”

“I haven’t invented a counterweapon for tea leaf reading,” smiled Tom half-heartedly. “Dad, Harlan—I know you both understand why this has me tied in knots.”

“Yes, son,” nodded Damon Swift. “He could be using your prior trust in him to trick you into helping him take something that he has no right to possess.”

“Matter of fact, ‘Rampo Ociéda’ sounds even more like a super-spy’s cover name than ‘Asa Pike’,” Ames noted with a low chuckle. “He’s set up the situation brilliantly if the idea is to put you in a bind, Tom. You can’t check up on him with anyone who knows anything without defeating the whole purpose and blowing his cover.”

“And endangering his life,” added the young inventor. “Other lives too—he says.”

“And to apply more pressure, he’s put in a ‘ticking clock’,” Tom’s father noted. “Ames can do his usual discreet checking-around, and I can give my ‘wise fatherly advice.’ But Tom—”

The youth crinkled his nodding forehead. “I know, Dad. It looks like, at the end, it’ll be a decision made between my brain and my mind—between me and me.”

It was his habit to think in action and wait for ideas to “fall out.” He went alone to one of his labs, working into the evening on the instrumental readings and samples he had acquired on the moon trip. “Gosh, this stuff is fantastic,” Tom muttered. “It really turns the physics of solid matter inside out and upside down!” And then he thought wryly: about time, too!

A phone call, routed from outside the plant walls, eventually drew him from his thoughts. “Hey there, Swiftage! Don’t need to ask if I’m interrupting anything.”

“Hi, Pete. It’s okay—I’m ready for a break.”

“I know whatcha mean. Give the brain a chance to catch its breath, right?”

Peter Langley, called the other young inventor by the gossip-happy news media, was the head of Wickliffe Laboratories in Thessaly, across the county line. Perhaps fueled by gossip and the inevitable ego of youth, the two were respectful rivals and wary friends. But the moods shifted like the weather. “So what’s new, Pete?” Tom asked. He wasn’t entirely sure he wanted to know.

“Believe it ’r don’t, I’m being a pal,” chuckled Langley. “I’m passing along a tip—a nice big science project that we can’t tackle over here, but I’m betting Swiftworld can.”

“Too tough for Pete Langley? I don’t know how much of a favor you’re doing me. I do have a few things on the table right now.”

“Sure. When don’t we? But wake up an’ smell the circuitry, buddy. Big challenges are like caffeine, right? Brain food!”

Tom had to nod. “True. So what is it?”

“Sightseeing!”

“Hunh?”

“You heard it here first. The U.S. Department of the Interior—or maybe some kind of office underneath them but still on top of the taxpayers—is circulating a request for proposals from techy-engineer types on how to give people a better view of—ready?—the Grand Canyon!”

“Good night! You mean a movie, or—”

“A movie?” gibed Langley. “Movies are Old Millennium—you know, Tom Swift and His Wizard Camera. Naw, naw, we’re talkin’ on-the-spot sightseeing, full disability access, loungechair-lazy access, bring-the-kids access. Safe, comfortable, no environmental impact.”

“I see,” Tom said. “Maybe a robot mule train?”

“What-like-ever. Up to you, young inventor with a crewcut. Sounds like fun, dunnit? But not a good moment for Wicko here. Not this month. Too busy solving the secrets of the universe before you do.”

“Having any luck?”

“Let me put it like this: ever cost-out making a commuter car out of tofu?”

“Thanks for the tip, Pete.”

“Pleas’-pleas’, man! I’ll give your regards to Amy.”

Amelia Foger, now Peter Langley’s romantic consort, was an attorney formerly employed by Tom Swift Enterprises—a brief employment terminated under disgruntling circumstances. “Right,” Tom said sourly. “Give it to her.”

“Let’s see now,” the youth mused to himself as he clicked off. “Saving a man’s life—or not. Controlling the G-force—maybe. Helping tourists scope out the Grand Canyon—now there’s a science challenge!”

Yet the young inventor’s dismissive attitude didn’t last. As he worked, some tiny circuit in his prodigal brain was also at work, nudging Tom to think again. Finally he slapped down his design-screen stylus and leaned back in his chair.

“Okay, Tom,” he said aloud. “Maybe there’s something there. In fact—” He suddenly plucked up his notebook, home to so many ideas a-borning. “Maybe it could have something important to do with Swiftworld after all. Maybe there’s an invention hiding inside all this—a real eye-popper!”


 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER 5

 

 

          TWISTED DIMENSIONS

 

 

 

 

NEXT MORNING Tom joined Rafael Franzenberg in Enterprises’ big high-energy lab. “I’m not sure if I should thank you for emailing me the instrumental data, as it kept me awake for hours,” said the physicist with mock annoyance. “Good reading, though.”

Tom grinned. “Isn’t it! I’ve decided to call the moon stuff—”

Rafe interrupted. “Let me guess. Serpentilium? Serptilium? Along those lines? Or even worse?”

“How’s Galilectrum grab you?”

“Not bad! Reasonably pronouncible,” the man nodded. “First part in honor of Galileo, obviously—for his scientific study of gravity way back ‘in the day’. But the rest of it sounds like a reference to electricity.”

“It is,” Tom confirmed. “Partly because of the electromagnetic MHD effect that we saw on the moon. But there’s something else, too,” he continued. “I think you were right. I’m convinced the theory you and Dr. Kupp came up with, the entrained electropolar reversal—”

“Ha! Something to it, looks like. We caught the scent at first glance, didn’t we, chief? Existing in nature—but who would have dared dream it would exist so close to us, eh? On the moon! We thought we’d be fantastically lucky to detect it in intergalactic space.”

Tom Swift was clearly thrilled and energized by what Nature had so unexpectedly provided. “We’re running across more and more examples of this new physics we talk about. It seems to be connected with solid matter under super-high pressures, deep underground.

“First we found veranium, a new stable fissile material underground in the mountains of Verano. Then the traces of deep-earth fusion that the earth blaster came across. And of course—”

“Yes,” Franzenberg anticipated, “the Mount Goaba antiproton phenomenon. What did you end up calling that stuff? Oh yes—Diracinium. Nice tribute to Paul Dirac, mister antiproton himself.”

Tom’s eyes, luminously blue, were flung wide. “Now this! I think it shows that Luna has its own mysteries way down deep, like Earth. You know, seismic studies show the moon has a dense core just as we do.”

“My core grows denser by the hour,” pronounced Franzenberg dryly. “But you’re surely right, kid. Galilectrum defies the orthodoxies of my field, physics. Indeterminacy in electropolarity! We’ll have to completely rethink conservation of charge parity and baryon number. And that’s something that was a law for all my scientific life.”

“But you predicted it, Rafe.”

“Yes I did. One of my priceless hallucinatory episodes.”

They walked over to the apparatus that stood like a monument in the middle of the lab’s shielded test chamber. Long planned, finally constructed, this was the GDI—the Gravitation-Dimension Invertegrator that made Enterprises scientists dream of controlling mankind’s great eternal nemesis, the force of gravity.

The dream had seemed a hopeless fantasy until Tom had discovered a device on Earth’s second moon, the tiny phantom satellite Nestria, that used the technology of the space friends to distort the local gravitational field. The extraterrestrials provided no account of the impenetrable “gravity cube” and its workings, but instrumental studies of the forces it generated had led Tom to his own gravity concentrator, called the gravitex.

But to distort or amplify gravitation fell short of neutralizing or controlling it. In theory the GDI could lead to the envisioned breakthrough—but there were technical snags that had seemed insoluable. “Now we may be able to pull it off,” breathed Tom. “Galilectrum looks like it has the necessary properties to use in the rotation forcers.”

“I can see the vector diagram in my impressively large head,” Franzenberg enthused, dreamily. “We spike the disks with the tiniest salting of Galilectrum—surely no more than .0000001 by mass—switch her on, and stand back. Hyperlocalized MHD torque like a year of Sundays, Tom! Instant dimensional rotation vortex! And we don’t even have to convert our entire planet to energy to produce it.”

“We ought to have enough Galilectrum in the telesampler cells for the first tests, at least,” noted the young inventor. “And of course—we can always pry more out of Crater Aldeb. Only three hours away!”

“Life is wonderful.”

“And then you—” But Tom stopped himself. “Yes—it is.”

The GDI test device, a pair of very thick disk-shaped caissons positioned above one another with a slight gap between, was already virtually complete. “All we really need to do is pull the helix rotors and refabricate them with the Galilectrum additive,” Tom stated. “We should know right away whether we’re making progress.”

Hours of intent, strenuous work were broken by a late lunch, served by Chow with mother-hen-ish cluck-clucking. “Not so worried about you, Franzenberg,” grumbled the cook. “Got a fair side on ya a’ready. But Tom here’s still growin’.”

“Thanks for keeping an eye on me, Chow,” Tom grinned.

“Yes,” said Rafe. “A nice case of in loco parentis.”

Chow looked at the physicist suspiciously. “Call it loco if you want, but it right sure gits th’ job done.” He turned to Tom. “Say now, son—what’d you decide t’do about that Asa feller? Gonna take up with him like he wants?—him’n his blame lobster stew!”

“My mind’s churning over it,” replied Tom soberly. “What do you think, pardner? You haven’t met him, but you’re pretty intuitive.”

Chow beamed at his young boss. “Thanks kindly! Not ever’body wants t’ reckernize that ole Chow has a few uses b’sides sloppin’ out th’ beans ’n bacon.” His broad and vertically unending forehead puckered with thought. “So he wants you t’ find the sneak who stole th’ thing he jest then stole himself, right?”

“That’s what it amounts to.”

“But fer all you know, he might jest be out t’steal it plain—fer himself, not fer Uncle Sam like he says. That so?” Tom nodded. Chow continued his summary. “And yew cain’t jest ask somebody, cause if he is a good poke, it’d put him at the wrong end of a shotgun.”

“You might say that.”

 Chow’s concentration had now proceeded to the point of his removing his cowboy hat and scatching his generously bald dome. “Wa-aal then... howzabout this? Hand ’im a Nope—turn ’im down flat—but then go find that Picasser thing yerself, on your own. See? If you turn it over to th’ Collections folks, you’ll know it got to th’ right place. That’s what ol’ Asa says he wants to do anyway. Mebbe they won’t blame him s’bad, long as they got their hands on it.”

Tom ate his sandwich quietly for a moment. “Chow—it’s a great idea. It means that we’re in control of the situation, not Asa Pike. If he still thinks Collections will do... something to penalize him, he can probably figure out a way to just drop out of sight.”

“In fact,” added Franzenberg, “if you did do as he asks and help him locate the thief, he’d be smart to take The Picasso and run, rather than turn it in and be forced to explain any deviations from plan that might come out. In other words, doing as our culinary strategist suggests may be the only logical way to bring this life-or-death situation to a good end.”

“Yup!” Chow enthused.

Tom nodded. “It makes sense. We’ll have the verdict on the GDI today or tomorrow, and the demonstration project can advance here at Enterprises for a few weeks without my being present.”

Franzenberg’s thick eyebrows rose. “Demonstration project? Have we already passed from the pure atmosphere of physics to mere engineering matters?”

“There’ll still be plenty of physics to play in, Rafe,” Tom chuckled. He patted the notebook in his shirt pocket. “I got wind of an opportunity to solve an engineering problem that the government is interested in. Last night I looked up the details on the Net. It seems to me we can meet that challenge while putting the GDI to a test in the practical world, right out in front of the public eye.”

“Yew don’t say!” muttered Chow.

Franzenberg was frowning but briefly silent. “I’m sure Dilling would be ecstatic,” he snorted. George Dilling was the head of Enterprises’ office of Communications and Public Interest, in plain language the company publicist and news-relations chief. “Now please tell me the relevance of such PR stunts to science.”

“It wouldn’t just be a PR stunt, Rafe,” Tom retorted. “It’d be a practical test of how to incorporate ingravitized matter, from the GDI, into real-world engineering applications.” He described the call for environmentally-safe approaches to sightseeing accessibility in the Grand Canyon.

“Then that omnipresently notable notebook of yours contains ideas for some sort of weightless observation vehicle?” asked Franzenberg in his customary long-winded manner.

“And, er, now—whaterya mean weightless?” Chow put in, patting his middle width.

“I have all manner of ideas floating around,” was Tom’s reply to Rafe. “Maybe something very different from what I think you have in mind.” The young inventor turned to Chow. “Right now we’re working on a machine that could, in principle, cause materials to react invertedly to the earth’s G-force—gravity, in other words. They’d fall upwards!”

“That so? Hunh. Couldja make a belt outta it?”

“We’ll see, pard.” Tom smiled affectionately. Scientific miracles were lost on Chow Winkler—at least the science part.

Tom and Franzenberg returned to their tasks. The refabricated rotor units—a simple matter for Enterprises technology—were installed in the caissons and given a low-power test. “All numbers are right on the money,” said Tom, scanning a bank of meters and monitors as they stood outside the sealed test chamber.

“Fantastic erg levels from the helixes,” noted Franzenberg. “Chief, there’s no reason to delay a test rotation along the i-axis. Just a minute amount of mass, of course.”

The young inventor gave a nod of sheer pleasure. “We can use the air in the gap between the forcers,” he stated. “Let’s see how a clump of molecules take to being rotated through the G-dimension!”

Tom set the controls and a computer countdown commenced. Though both knew that there would be nothing to see, the couldn’t help keeping their eyes on the GDI apparatus, intent gazes piercing the thick viewpane of ultra-strong metallumin, coated with layers of radiation-proof Inertite.

The countdown ended with a beep. Meter needles suddenly twitched. “It’s happening, Tom,” breathed Rafe. “We’re twisting molecules through another spacetime angle, right across—”

“Wait!” interrupted Tom. “Something’s going on in there! Look at the stress readouts on the helix forcers!”

Lights began to flash red. Tom’s hand darted for the cutoff switch—and then was pulled away violently as if gripped by something invisible! He was yanked sideways, then shoved backwards. To his astonishment, he felt his body being twisted—pulled into a spin on the slick lab tiles.

Rafe Franzenberg was staggering, trying to resist his own rotation with all his considerable strength. But even as he planted his two big feet on the floor, they skidded helplessly.

Every loose object in the lab had begun spinning on its own axis!

“C-come on!” Tom gasped, trying desperately to fight the unseen force. “We’ve got to get—to g-get—”

But then the breath was knocked out of him as invisible hands grabbed him by the shoulders, whirling him around violently and tumbling him to the floor!


 

 

 

 

CHAPTER 6

 

 

 

          EMPTY BOXES

 

 

 

 

THE HIGH-ENERGY lab had descended into a whirligig chaos. Tom and Franzenberg—floored—tumbled and spun like human tops as chairs, tables, and loose items pirouetted and crashed about them.

Strong arms gripped the young inventor and encircled him. Slipping and twisting as he shoved the sides of his shoe soles against the smooth floor, Franzenberg was nonetheless making headway toward the door, dragging Tom behind him. The physicist’s face showed the strain and his muscles corded. Tom added his own strength to the effort as best he could.

They scrambled along like crabs—and suddenly the lab door, open and jerking back and forth wildly, was before them. “Nngh!” groaned Rafe as he swung Tom around to the front and charged out through the door like a bull!

Tom managed to grab the door handle and yank himself to his feet, jerking the door closed at the same time. The latch caught and an automatic locking mechanism came into play.

But there was no respite. The invisible force seemed to surge right through the walls! “We’ve—we’ve got to cut power to the lab—” Tom choked as he struggled against the spin effect. Yet even if he managed to hold his cellphone and press the buttons that would connect him to the plant power station—what then? What if the phenomenon extended throughout the four-mile-square grounds of Swift Enterprises? All workers could be completely incapacitated!

A weird sound—a scree-eech!—drew such attention has Tom could gather as he stumbled and spun. The locked lab door seemed to be vibrating. Next instant it was torn from its hinges and came whirling through the air! It barely missed Franzenberg, slamming into the corridor wall next to him.

And suddenly it was over. As the door tumbled to the hallway floor, the pressures against Tom and Rafe ceased, leaving them limp and prone—and bruised.

“And now, chief,” panted Rafe. “I suggest we terminate the test!”

“It’s already over,” Tom said weakly as he staggered to his feet. “I can see the board from here. Red lights! I think the GDI twisted itself to death!”

The scientist-inventor was right. Inside the test chamber, the apparatus had been reduced to tortured ruin, its metal rotor caissons lying in long, twisted strips on all sides of the chamber. “Idiot thing!” snarled Franzenberg, wiping a streak of blood from his face. “The dimensional rotation opened a window to something terrifying—namely confusing test results!”

“What do you make of it?” asked Tom.

“Oh, well... nothing we can’t deal with,” was the more controlled reply. “It always was a possibility, you know—induced gravitational ‘eddies’ forming at the margins of the vortex. Fanned out horizonally at the level of the gap. We’re dealing with the bizarritude of force vectors with components along the i-axis.”

Tom nodded, his face still pale where it wasn’t livid with bruises. “A propagating force that produces torque in free masses, not simple attraction or repulsion.”

“Like a mad Tilt-A-Whirl at the carnival. I suppose we can’t complain though, chief. After all, we’re dealing with a branch of mathematics that permits negative numbers to have square roots. My high school math teacher would grab at his heart and collapse.”

“This whole room has collapsed,” groaned the young inventor. But he reflected that he had destroyed more than one laboratory in his quest for invention.

With ready help from other departments, the lab was restored to something like order by the end of the day. There was even a new door! “Really, it won’t take long for Arv Hanson to recreate a working GDI from the final plans,” noted Tom hopefully.

“Let’s generously allow him to forego any preliminary testing,” pronounced Franzenberg sourly. “I’m going home to my lonely, yet seductively well-appointed, bachelor apartment. And there I shall brood over the unfaithful mistress known as physics.”

Before leaving, Tom did one thing more. Accessing the Enterprises online site ForeSite, he inserted a blank rectangular box beneath the masthead-logo. “Sorry, Asa, or whoever you are,” he murmured. “I’m doing things my way.” He stared at the empty box on the screen for a moment. Then he logged out and went home.

For once the family avoided discussing the family business at the dinner table, a regimen Tom’s mother enforced with sweet glances of doom. But afterwards, relaxing in the big living room with dessert, Tom’s pert sister Sandra pertly brought up the GDI project. “Since Buddo isn’t here to pry a simplified account out of you, I’ll ask you how this antigravity machine is supposed to work,” she said. “I mean—despite what sci-fi writers like to think, I know gravity isn’t just some kind of ‘radiation’ that you can shield and block. Dad taught us that it’s a basic force of nature. Did it change?”

“Well, heat was once thought to be a fluid called ‘caloric’,” noted Mr. Swift. “Same with electricity. Even the basics sometimes get re-understood.”

“And each time is the absolute last time,” joked Tom; “until the next time.”

“Why do you call it a ‘GDI’?” asked Tom’s mother.

“It stands for Gravitation-Dimension Invertegrator. Don’t blame me—Dr. Franzenberg came up with that one. I’d just as soon call it a G-Force Inverter.”

“Maybe you can whisper it in private settings,” Mr. Swift chuckled.

Sandy nodded wisely, as if grasping the concept to the end. “So it’s a machine that inverts the force of gravity—turns it upside down. Nice.”

Tom raised a cautioning palm. “That’s the way so-called antigravity devices are usually portrayed, San, but what the GDI really does is invert the reaction of matter to the G-force, not the force itself.”

“So things ‘fall upward,’ is that it?” When both Tom and Damon Swift nodded, Sandy continued: “But how is that possible—inverting the fall but not the force that makes it fall?”

“We call gravity a force of attraction, but it’s not like some kind of invisible rubber band stretching between objects,” Tom explained. “The General Theory of Relativity—now that’s really ‘nice’!—describes distortions or bends in the underlying fabric of spacetime surrounding all gravitating masses.”

“I remember. Something about geometry in four dimensions, three of space and one of time.”

“That’s it.”

Mr. Swift broke the brief silence. “Imagine yourself looking down on a stretched rubber sheet from directly above. Place a cannonball on the sheet and it creates a circular depression that spreads out in all directions, becoming shallower as it goes. It sits there in the middle of the ‘dimple’ it’s made without moving.

“But now place a second cannonball on the sheet some little distance away. It creates its own depression, and the two depressions cross one another between them. They pool-together, one might say. Where they intersect, the dimple is double-deep; and since it always lies between the cannonballs, when they each roll down the slope into it—”

“They clunk! together,” Sandy finished.

Tom continued the example. “Since you’re looking straight down on all this, you can see the two-dimensional spread of the sheet, but you don’t actually see the third dimension of the depressions. All you know is that the cannonballs accelerate toward one another if they start off close enough. As if some unknown force were pulling them together.”

Sandy nodded vigorously. “Gravity! But with gravity the bend is one dimension higher, in the fourth dimension, time.”

“And you can only observe the effects in the dimensions that you can see—three-dimensional space,” concluded Mr. Swift. “You can’t ‘see’ the real cause.”

Mrs. Swift said tentatively, “But if the cause of gravitation is a bend in the space and time outside the object that moves, how could you get at it? What does your machine grab onto?”

Tom winced slightly. “Now comes the hard part. Dr. Kupp developed the mathematics of a theory that had been floating around...”

“Dr. Kupp himself floats around,” inserted Sandy dryly, in the best Swift tradition. The man was best described as obscure.

Tom chuckled. “I know! Anyway, the idea is that most of the work of gravity is done, not in the four neighboring dimensions at all, but in a higher space-like dimension. Rather than assigning it a number—how do you count up dimensions, anyway?—we just call it the G-dimension.”

“Okay, Tomonomo, but how do you—”

“I’m getting there, sis. Remember how, in Dad’s story, the depressions from the two gravitating objects pool together? Both objects make a contribution to the effect. Dr. Kupp calculated that if an object with mass were to be inverted, turned over, along the G-dimension axis, its inverted warp would interact with the normally-shaped warp of nonrotated objects with a reverse effect.

“So there it is! Rotate a normal object through the G-dimension, and its ingravitized version falls upward in Earth’s gravitational field.”

Sandy gave a smile. “I’m going to love telling all this to Bashi.” Bashalli Prandit, Tom’s usual dating comrade, was also Sandy’s closest friend.

“But dear, you haven’t really said just how your G-force inverter—inverts,” admonished Anne Swift.

“Aw, who care about that technical stuff!” joked Tom. “Basically, we have two units, facing one another and rotating internally at tremendous speed, that generate an MHD ‘vortex’ in the gap between them. Just as iron filings rotate on their own axes near a magnet, any object inside the vortex is forced to rotate 360 degrees through the G-dimension. You see no change in its visible dimensions, but it has become ingravitized—as we call it.”

“You must mean 180 degrees,” declared Sandy. “360 is a full circle—you just come back to where you start.”

“Not when you move along the i-axis,” retorted her father. “You’re dealing in a geometry described by ‘imaginary’ numbers. They really are numbers; but they have unexpected properties. 360 degrees is equivalent to a half-rotation. You have to go around twice, so to speak, to return to your original orientation. It’s only by these bizarre mathematical monstrosities that you can add two valleys together and make a mountain!”

“I see,” said Sandy, “why they call them imaginary.”

The amusement was interrupted by an odd sound, a high wavering tone. The four exchanged glances of curiosity inching toward alarm.

“What in the world is that, Damon?” asked Mrs. Swift nervously. “It’s not the telephone or the magnetic field alarm.”

Tom stood abruptly. “I know what it is. It hasn’t been used before. It’s an override alert telling me that something coded ‘urgent’ has been received as an email on my computer upstairs!”

The young inventor dashed up the stairs to his bedroom and checked his computer, killing the alarm tone. Then he scanned his email registry, opening the tagged message that had just arrived.

It appeared to have come from Enterprises, and had the urgency code attached, a code known to only a few key personnel. But as the young inventor scrutinized the underlying coding he could tell that the original message had only been routed through the plant, acquiring the code by some unknown method.

The message had no words. A blank square appeared on the monitor screen as the body of the email.

“An empty box,” Tom murmured. “Asa Pike got the message, and I don’t think he’s happy about it.”

In fact, the terse response gave Tom the feeling he was being threatened—being warned bluntly to reverse course and fill in the box with his acceptance of Pike’s demand. Or face the unstated consequences!


 

 

 

 

CHAPTER 7

 

 

 

          TWO NAIVE TOURISTS

 

 

 

 

“BUT you’re not going to give in to him,” stated—not asked—Harlan Ames.

Tom grimly shook his head. “No. I don’t know whether to trust Pike or not, but I definitely don’t trust the setup. I’m not going to lead him to this Rampo Ociéda fellow so he can beat the truth out of him—or whatever he’s been trained to do.”

Ames’s stocky assistant, Phil Radnor, spoke up. “What if Rampo really is a thief? What if this fabled ‘Picasso’ is cataclysmic in the wrong hands? What if Asa Pike is America’s best friend—who got a little unlucky? Not that I have any answers to these rhetorical questions, Tom. Just keeping you on your toes.”

It was the day following the phantom message. Tom sat in the security office—seeking a feeling of security. “What if. Lots of those, but not a lot of choice, Rad,” replied Tom seriously. “The ‘Winkler approach’ still seems best to me. I don’t know if Pike or Rampo Ociéda or neither or both are The Good Guys. So instead of leading Pike to Rampo and letting him worry about recovering The Picasso—”

“You’ll conduct your own search and recovery by the proven Swiftian methods,” finished Ames. “Radnor and I have gone over that data disk Pike slipped you. We’ve also plied such contacts as we have in Mexico’s police and criminal justice agencies. I do ‘discreet’ well, boss, but it’s a little exasperating.”

Tom nodded. “I’ll bet. But we have to avoid setting off any governmental ‘tripwires’ that would give away the game to Collections.”

“Or any of the other shady types.”

The young inventor went on, “I had a long converation this morning with Veracíta Jualéngro—remember her, the Chief of Police in Las Mambritas? She had a few useful tips on dealing with the bureaucracy. Or rather, not dealing with them.”

“Well, we’ve verified everything we’re in a position to verify. There really is a smalltime crook named Rampo Ociéda—basically a pickpocket, grab artist, and burglar—operating in Mexico City. He’s done some jail time, been identified as a suspect fairly often. Never anything ‘armed’, far as we can tell. Friends, relatives—unknown.”

“What about a connection to drugs or that cartel?” asked Tom.

“Nothing in the records. Certainly no connection to any foreign group or espionage activity.”

“Asa didn’t tell me anything about this group he called the Adversary,” Tom mused. “Rampo could have some relationship to them, whether Pike thinks so or not.”

“Whether he says he thinks so or not,” corrected Radnor bluntly. “Maybe Rampo Ociéda was hired by the Adversary as some kind of backstop if the trade went bad.”

“Or by Pike himself—part of a scheme to keep The Picasso to sell, or ransom, or pass along to someone else,” declared the youth, frustration in his voice and clearly resenting the fact.

“A scheme betrayed.” Ames’s lean fingers tapped his desk. “Or—perhaps it’s all working as planned. Or would have—”

“If I had fallen in,” Tom said. “Fellows, I’ve talked it over with Dad. He said, basically—going down to Mexico after Rampo and The Picasso is dangerous—”

“True,” noted Ames.

“—but no more dangerous than almost everything I do.”

“Even truer,” noted Radnor.

“When do you and Bud leave?” asked Ames. “Got the Queen gassed-up and ready?”

Already halfway to his goal, mentally, Tom smiled with determination. “No ‘Tom,’ no ‘Bud,’ and no Sky Queen,” he said. “Just two naive tourists named Don Sturdy and Rick Cantwell, leaving from Shopton Airport this afternoon. With baggage!”

AeroMexico whisked the incognito pair south.

Wearing faux eyeglasses and other touches of disguise, “Don” and “Rick” conversed—in absolute silence. “Too bad we had to stop using your televocs in whatever’s left of our normal daily lives,” Bud “said,” lips remaining closed. “Man! A mini-cellphone for your throat muscles!” At a loud sound, a real one, he winced. “Maybe we should provide them for babies.”

Tom chuckled aloud, then replied by silent movements of his larynx and tongue, transmitted and transformed electronically into the sound of his voice, heard internally by the recipient. “They’ve always worked great, ‘Rick’ old chum. But that’s the problem. Imagine how spies or terrorists would make use of them! Good thing we keep ’em locked away.”

“Except when we do our spy thing.”

“We’re lucky airport security didn’t detect them,” Tom continued. “George Dilling wouldn’t like the headlines.”

“They say jail’s a good place to make long-term friends. Genius boy, I know Rover Boy’s too big to sneak past the authorities, but how in the world do you plan to find this Rampo guy without the sensitector?” Tom’s sensitector was a remarkable tracking device of recent invention which made use of the molecular scent-trail left on the ground by nearly anything that moves. “You said you had some tricks up your sleeve?”

“In the luggage, actually. Remember how I came up with ‘plastic circuitry’ for the Video Viking probes?”

“Sure. You couldn’t use any metal in them.”

Tom nodded; an observer would wonder why. “It was an elaboration on that conductive powder used in the giant robots. It didn’t take Arv Hanson and Linda Ming more than a few hours this morning to put together some modularized, snap-together gizmos that look fairly dull to the eyes of airport security—but’ll give us something of an edge in Mexico City. But still, you’re right. It’s nothing like Rover Boy.”

They landed at Mexico City’s modern international airport and slowly wormed their way through customs. “Don” felt guilty at their fakeries. “Rick” seemed to be enjoying himself! “I like this role a lot better than that foreign dude you had me be when we snuck in to the Black Cobra’s base,” Bud televoc’d.

Tom grinned. “I don’t think my Australian drawl was very convincing.”

“No, it wasn’t. But at least we lived through it.”

“Eventually.”

Their hotel was a big, modern, glassy tourist trap near the Zocálo, Ciudad de México’s great central square and civic hub. In their room, Tom began to assemble his helpful spyware, laying the parts out on the bed cover. Hairdryers, cellphones, a mini-laptop, a CD player, as well as a few odds and ends concealed in the suitcase linings—even inside the handles—eventually became a compact flashlight-sized device, plus debris.

The young inventor held it up to Bud. “Not bad! Tom Swift and His Spy-O-Tron!”

Bud eyed it. “A tracker?”

“A poor excuse for one,” Tom nodded. He held it up in front of his pal and indicated the light and reflector. “Believe it or not, it’s a sort of stripped-down version of the telesampler! It generates a very short-range ‘capture beam’ to sweep up surface atoms wherever it’s pointed—up to twenty feet or so.”

His friend boggled. “Jetz! I’d never believe you’d be able to shrink a big contraption like the telesampler into something so small!”

Tom set the device on the bed, shaking his head. “It’s not possible, as least as far as the transmitron unit is concerned; the wavelength imposes a lower limit on size. This ‘spytron’ is just a very crude and puny adaptation, using a little solar battery.” The young inventor explained that the spytron would sweep-up microsamples and analyze them for evidence of a trackable trail. “But there’s no repelascan baseline or elaborate readout. We won’t even be able to tell what direction the person was heading along his personal route. We’ll just know where he’s been, that’s all.”

“That’s a lot,” grinned Bud. “But genius boy—I wouldn’t wave it around too much. Even naive American tourists might look a little suspicious using a flashlight in broad daylight.”

“Or one without a light beam at night.”

After a nap and a fast meal, Tom and Bud headed for an industrial section at the distant edge of Mexico City—the largest city in the world. On a narrow shadowed street lined with warehouses, the windows of old office buildings gazing down blindly, Tom shined the invisible spytron beam back and forth on the sidewalk and the street, as “Rick Cantwell” leaned nonchalantly against the side of a building.

“Scooping up anything nice?” asked Bud by televoc.

“Not sure I’d call pieces of Rampo nice—but there’s a clear scent-match.” Tom nodded toward the end of the street. “The trail runs along that way,” he stated. Then he turned and indicated the opposite direction. “And that way too. If Pike hadn’t told us the direction Rampo ran off in, we wouldn’t know which way to go.”

At the end of the street, the trail continued around a corner, down a long block, then into an alley choked with reeking trash. “I hope your spytron isn’t too sensitive,” Bud commented, nose wrinkling.

“It isn’t—unfortunately.”

The scent-trail came to an abrupt end. “What we expected,” declared Tom. “A car.”

“Can you track it?”

Tom made the attempt, but ended up shaking his head. “The spytron just isn’t powerful enough to separate the car’s trace-profile from all the others. It’s too old and faded.”

Pike’s information made clear that Rampo Ociéda, small and wiry, 34 years old, specialized in tourist pickpocketry. Tom’s plan was to visit as many of the city’s tourist sites as possible—which were many indeed. “A pickpocket likes big crowds,” noted the Shoptonian. “I’d guess his mugging of Pike was just a ‘crime of opportunity’.”

“Maybe he was casing the area.”

“Maybe. He might’ve been planning to burglarize one of the offices or warehouses.”

“Which goes to show, ‘Don,’ that you never know when opportunities are gonna show their heads.”

“I know that, flyboy. I’m an inventor.”

“No. A tourist.”

They dutifully visited the city’s many tourist draws, driving the main thoroughfare, the Paseo de la Reforma, wincing at the choking waves of smog and avoiding mention of Bud’s native state, California. They explored Chapultepec Park, welcoming its green beauty and the crowds at its several big museums. Alameda Park, near their hotel, dated back almost to the conquest of the Aztec empire and the days of Montezuma. “Says it was an Aztec market,” noted Bud, guidebook in front of his gray eyes. “Also executions, burnings, and hangings.” He glanced at his pal. “No mention of human sacrifice, though.”

“It’s early,” responded Tom dryly.

The boys took several organized tours of the colonias—the city’s historic neighborhoods, quaint and crowded. The walked the winding cobblestone streets of the San Angel district, rich with bougainvillea and the adobe’d walls of Old Mexico; and Calle Francisco Sosa, a narrow alley called the oldest street in Mexico.

“I know this is all life-or-death spy work,” Bud televoc’d. “But I’m ashamed to say that I’m having fun. It’s like a vacation.” Tom nodded back, but with only half a smile. As the days passed, the spytron had occasionally vibrated in Tom’s hand, indicating detection of a trace of their quarry. But the traces never added up to a trail.

On their first Sunday they visited the museums of the Coyoacán district, including the Anahucacalli Museum, famous for its collection of pre-Hispanic art. Afterwards they floated through the dense crowds of the bazaar in the main plaza, a sea of elbowing locals and tourists. Suddenly Tom jabbed Bud in the ribs. “Ahead, over to the right, in front of that stall with the stone calendar replicas!” he televoc’d—breathlessly, of course. “I’m sure that’s him!”

“He won’t get away this time!” Bud replied, heedlessly out loud. “Let’s take him!”


 

 

 

 

CHAPTER 8

 

 

 

          A CUNNING QUARRY

 

 

 

 

TOM’S quick hand held his impulsive friend back. “Keep it casual, pal. He’s not running. He’s looking for opportunities. I can almost see his fingers twitching.”

The figure, intermittently visible through the wandering clumps of crowd, closely resembled the several mug shots that Asa Pike had included on his data disk. Rampo Ociéda was a weaselly little man. His features were lighter than many Mexicans, his neatly trimmed hair streaked with auburn. He had a small mouth beneath a small mustache.

“Do you think he’s seen us, Skipper?” Bud asked.

“Seen us? Probably,” Tom nodded. “Professional pickpockets are always scanning the crowd for watching eyeballs. But what he’s seen are two American tourists in dark glasses, casually looking at the sights.”

They began to edge closer to Ociéda, taking a meandering route. The man seemed oblivious.

Tom was about to tell Bud to split off and corner Ociéda between them—when a sharp voice cut the air.

“Ah! Tom—Tom Swift! And Bud Barclay, eh?”

“Aw jetz!” grumbled Bud by televoc.

The tall man approaching them wore a khaki uniform, a uniform Tom and Bud had first encountered in Yucatan during their exploit with Tom’s electronic retroscope camera. Gruff and impatient at first meeting, fe Luis Rodriguez of the Policía Especiálidad Federáles had proven himself a thorough professional with a somewhat dry sense of humor that hinted at a friendly attitude toward the famous young inventor from El Norté.

“Are we still Don and Rick?” televoc’d Bud.

“He’s ‘made’ us. Let’s just try to contain the damage,” returned Tom. He then went vocal. “Hello, Chief Rodriguez! What a surprise!”

“Ah, no doubt. Perhaps even a pleasant one this time.” He shook hands heartily with the two. “I almost didn’t recognize you two. Even a little time can bring many changes. I grow grayer. But perhaps you two are in disguise, eh?” The man chuckled. “Should I apologize for—what is it to say?—for the blowing of your covers?”

Tom smiled. “We’re tourists these days.”

“Surely you have been to the City before?”

“Just briefly. Ri—er, Bud—came through a while back.”

“Company business,” Bud rushed in. “Now I’m seeing the sights I didn’t have time to see before.”

“Yes, Castillez mentioned you had visited. And you, Tom, my friend—perhaps you are testing some new invention of yours?”

Tom tried not to look down at the device in his hand. If Rodriguez asked, how could he explain carrying a flashlight? “Not right now, sir. But we’ve got something cooking back at Swift Enterprises.”

“As always, I would say. But now, before my own goose is cooking, I should hurry back to my wife. We too are enjoying a vacation.” The fe shook hands again and hustled away.

“Good night!” Bud grumped televocally. “The law is against us, Skipper.”

“I worked myself into position to keep an eye on Rampo,” reponded his chum. “He moved off in the crowd, but I still see him.”

“Tom—maybe we should just run and grab ’im. Ya think?”

“How about a very swift slither?”

They closed in on two sides, moving as quickly as possible in a pincers movement that they hoped wouldn’t draw stares—for as two tall Americans, they were easy to see.

Yet it was in vain. Rampo’s sense of danger, on constant alert, evidently provided the Distant Early Warning that the thief depended on. Suddenly he ducked down behind a clump of tourists next to a kiosk, as if to tie his shoe. He never came up.

“We’ve lost him!” groaned Bud aloud as he and Tom came together.

“Fan out—fast!” Tom told the muscular youth. “Maybe we can still net him.”

It didn’t work. After an hour of frantic effort, it was clear that Rampo Ociéda had declined to make himself available. “I still wouldn’t think he’d know who we are, even if he did notice us,” declared Tom. “He probably just got nervous.”

Bud nodded. “If he’s smart, he noticed khaki guy Rodriguez and was suddenly struck by the thought we might be undercover agents looking to protect the tourist trade.” Then the San Franciscan flashed a grin. “But he doesn’t realize the situation is worse than that—way undercover agents Swift and Barclay are hot on the trail!”

Tom grinned back, though wanly. “And the trail he’s left is a fresh one. I’ve already scooped up a few new scent-profiles. Look, flyboy, let’s come back in the evening when the crowds have thinned out. Then we can really do the bloodhound routine.”

Waiting impatiently in their hotel room, Tom made one of his twice-daily calls back to Shopton by means of the Private Ear Radio—which the eyes of airport security had seen as an innocent if bulky walkie-talkie. “No explosions or kidnappings so far, Tom,” reported Mr. Swift with a smile in his voice. “No threats, subtle or unsubtle, from Asa Pike.”

“How about the GDI project?”

“Rafael tells me he’s making real progress with the rebuilt—what are you calling it now?—G-force inverter. He says to tell you he’s been successful in refocusing the rotation forcers and suppressing those secondary vortexes. A matter of keeping things carefully tuned. He’s certain he rotated some air molecules through.”

“History’s first ingravitized matter!” Tom exulted, thrilled. “I should go away more often!”

“No, son,” retorted Mr. Swift soberly. “We need you here and safe.”

Killing time as the hours passed, Tom told Bud of his plan to use the Grand Canyon project to demonstrate to the public the uses of ingravitized matter in construction and engineering. “I don’t get that, genius boy,” said the young pilot. “Isn’t it obvious that antigravity is the biggest of big deals?”

Tom shrugged. “You’d think so, but not everyone thinks in terms of possibilities. This isn’t the sort of thing most people envision as sci-fi ‘antigravity.’ It’s not some sort of magic beam that makes you take off for Jupiter when it falls on you.”

“Hey—could you ingravitize a human body?”

“Depends on whether you want the body alive or dead,” was the wry response. “Though the basic structure and properties remain unchanged through the i-axis rotation—chemical reactions go on as before—normal gravitation plays more of a role in our life processes than people realize. Dr. Kupp thinks ingravitization might affect ion-exchange at the nerve synapse, for a start—”

“And a finish!” interrupted Bud hastily. “So how about a car? Can we make TSE TSE FLY really fly?” This was Bud’s beloved, much abused scarlet convertible.

“Not without some further breakthroughs, chum. We’re pretty near the theoretical limit of the field capacity—it can’t be made much bigger without an exponential increase in power. And the exponent is four!”

“Er—four, huh.” Bud didn’t entirely catch the significance of Tom’s statement. “So you’re limited to a few molecules at a time? That’s not much of a demonstration project, Tom.”

The young inventor chuckled. “No, it isn’t. But the situation isn’t quite that bad. When the inverter is fully functioning, we plan to send small metal pellets through the vortex in a steady stream, enough to create substantial weights—if you can call it ‘weight’ when the force is upward. In other words, anti-ballast.”

Bud nodded as he looked at Tom’s sketches in his notebook. “It’ll take a lot of upside-down weight to lift this ‘sky train’ of yours.”

The young inventor’s sketches pictured a sleek, passenger-carrying monorail train suspended high over the vast gulf of the Grand Canyon. Its single track would float in the air without any support structure to obscure the view. “For this purpose, this ‘Monoswift’—let’s say it honors the family, not me personally!—is better than something along the lines of the repelatron skyway,” Tom went on. “No repelatron towers on the ground, no visible roadway to block the line of sight or deface the beautiful blue sky; and the government people are very explicit about not allowing private vehicles inside the borders of the Monument. Even in the air above it! They plan to ban completely overflights by private helicopters and planes.”

“Even flying atomicars?”

“Hey, I didn’t write the law.”

“They’re pretty ugly, anyhow.” —which brought a retort in the form of a thrown pillow. But Tom knew very well that his Silent Streak was graceful technologically but not visually. It had become something of a joke, which Tom took with good-natured rue.

Late in the evening—a typically boistrous evening in the vicinity of the Zocálo—the boys rode their rented scooters back to Coyoacán and the market plaza. The tourists were gone; only some strolling locals and maintenance workers remained. “But there’s a cop,” Bud televoc’d.

“Don’t act suspicious, flyboy.”

“Tom, acting suspicious is easy, but I have no training in acting unsuspicious!”

They reached the spot where they had last seen Ociéda. Tom held the spytron in his right hand, pressed against the handlebar and grasping both. With a subtle movement he angled the transmitter downwards toward the pavement. The device immediately gave its silent vibratory alert—trace acquisition! “Got him!” exulted Tom. “Or at least—sniffed him.”

“And we know he was heading in this direction,” Bud replied.

They rode along very slowly. The vibration signal occasionally wavered and faded, but then returned with renewed vigor. They passed from the market plaza onto a bordering street, then down a twisting alley to a neighboring street, a small one. “Okay—stop!” commanded Tom suddenly.

“Lost the trail?” asked Bud aloud.

“Ends right here at the curb. He must have got into a car. I’ll start running through our ‘library’ of car-trace profiles.” In just a moment Tom hissed: “Match and lock-on!”

“Can we track it this time?”

“I’m sure we can! It’s fresh and well-‘signatured.’ Follow me!”

A long winding trek began, several hours of dizzying twists and turns. “Jetz, what was Rampo doing?” complained Bud as midnight passed.

“Probably looking for crowds and opportunities. Maybe casing storefronts for future burglarizing. Can’t make a living without hard work.”

“Yeah, good for him. I’m getting a little saddle-sore, genius boy.”

Winding northward they had crossed the borders of the Ciudad, though there had been no change in the dense urban scenery. Fortunately their quarry had chosen to avoid the larger boulevards and highways. Tom knew his humble spytron would have become confused by heavy traffic.

Even before they began to see signs, in Spanish and English, they knew where they were heading by the domes and peaks poking high above the neighborhood roofs ahead.

“This is the Tepeyac district,” Tom pronounced. “I recognize it from photos.”

“Tepeyac? What are those buldings up ahead? A sports arena?”

“Looks like Rampo decided to ply his trade at the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe, chum—one of the most famous historic sites in the Western Hemisphere!”

“Jetz!” Bud gulped. “Nice place to visit!”


 

 

 

 

CHAPTER 9

 

 

 

          MURDER IN THE CATHEDRAL

 

 

 

 

THEY arrived at the edge of the great plaza, near the hill where, in 1531, a native peasant had reported meeting the Virgin Mary and receiving her image on his cloak, or tilma, woven of rough cactus fiber.

“The image of the Virgin of Guadalupe,” breathed Bud. “You see it everywhere in Latino communities.”

Tom pointed. “It’s displayed above the altar in the new basilica, the domed cathedral. But this one here is the original basilica, dating back to the 16th Century. It was deemed unsafe due to its age, but I’ve read it’s been partially refurbished and reinforced, and some parts are open to touring.”

“Think that’s where he went?”

“Let’s see.”

The trail stopped at a rusty old pickup, nondescript. The spytron indicated that Ociéda had parked, then continued onto the plaza on foot. Tom carefully noted down the license plate number.

The plaza was open and had the occasional night stroller and security guards. Tom and Bud parked their scooters and strode across the ancient stones like casual tourists walking off a night of touristy drinking. “Very strong trace profile,” Tom televoc’d.

“He sure made a beeline,” commented Bud. “Didn’t wander around at all. Must have seen an easy mark.”

“My guess is his ‘work’ hours were over. He wasn’t here to pick pockets, flyboy. He had some business to take care of at the Old Basilica. He may have arranged to meet someone at a certain spot.”

“We’ll probably pick up his trail leading back, then.”

Tom disagreed. “His pickup’s still parked in place. He may have gone off with whoever he met—”

“Or he may still be here!” Bud declared excitedly. “Tom—we’re mighty exposed out here on the plaza.”

“No choice. All we can do is follow the trail. Even if we don’t get our hands on the guy, we could come across a clue as to where he hangs out.”

“When he’s not on duty.”

The trail took them into the moon-shadows of the ancient, looming structure. They proceeded cautiously, thinking that their presence might be challenged at any moment. But most security seemed to be focused on the modern basilica, where the image was housed.

They came across, and slipped through, chainlink fences with signs: Zona Construción. “Rampo did it just like we are,” Bud whispered. “No one stopped him.”

“Within the last hour, too. The traces are very strong and clear, layered over the trails of the zillions of tourist visitors. Bud—I think he went inside the cathedral.”

“Sure. He’s a crook. Maybe he decided to make confession! But how are Swift and Barclay going to get inside?”

“Well, how about the same way Rampo did?” The trail led directly to a service door cut in a temporary plywood barrier. If there had ever been a padlock, there wasn’t one now!

They entered into darkness, but pulling open another plywood door they found themselves in a long corridor braced by two-by-four beams, a dim electric bulb burning at the far end. There were no sounds but their own footsteps crunching on the sawdust and shards of stonework and plaster. Bud asked by televoc, “Know the floorplan—I don’t suppose?”

“What counts is that Rampo did.” The scent-trail was clear and confident.

They passed into the main body of the ancient cathedral—huge ornate rooms, long hallways, high windows of stained glass. Most of the furnishings had been removed from this portion of the old basilica, evidently in the middle of a decades-long restoration.

Bud pointed to some discarded styrofoam cups. “I hope they drank their ‘big gulp’ with reverence.”

More doors, an arching portico—and suddenly they were in a vast and awesome space lit by slanting beams of moonlight. The floor was covered by row after row of pews. “The nave. This is where they used to display the tilma, I think,” Tom murmured into his pal’s auditory nerve. “Looks refurbished, as best I can make out.”

“Right. Safe for the tours. But not necessarily safe for us!” Bud added nervously, “Don’t you think some lights should be on in here? They must have security guards walking through, even after midnight.”

“I agree,” Tom pronounced grimly. “Someone killed the lights—and maybe took care of the guard as well.”

“Man, I wish I had one of your impulse guns!”

“I’d settle for the sensitector.”

They made their way up one of the side aisles as stealthily as possible. There was no sound—and then Bud gave a sudden, stifled grunt! “Tom!” he televoc’d. “Look down here!”

Lying between the pew benches was a limp body!

They approached the unmoving form cautiously. It was a man, lying crumpled face-up. Though his face was hard to make out in the dimness, he didn’t appear to be Mexican and had a short goatee.

Tom felt for a pulse. “Dead. I feel blood—I think he’s been shot.”

“It’s not Ociéda,” Bud murmured. “No uniform—I don’t think it’s a guard.”

Tom stood and fished out a cellphone. “Even if we sneak away, we’ve got to alert the police.” In the heat of the moment he spoke aloud—and his voice was heard!

“Drop it!” came a sharp command from the dark. “Throw the cell as far as you can! If I don’t hear it hit the wall, I’ll take you down where you stand!”

Tom handed the cellphone to Bud, whose muscular arms pitched it across the dark. It clattered against the wall.

“Look,” Tom called out, “if you’re the basilica guard, we had nothing to do with whatever happened down here.”

“Oh, I know that.”

“You shot him?”

“No. But I saw the muzzle-flash and heard the running steps—up on the other balcony across from where I am. Gone away now—since he hasn’t shot at you two.”

“T—er, Don—it’s Ociéda,” said Bud bluntly.

“I saw you two before,” said the man in shadows. “Seems to me you want badly to say hello.”

“If your name is Rampo Ociéda,” Tom said loudly, “we just want to talk to you. We have nothing to do with the law. We... we have a deal to offer.”

“Oh? But I already thought I had a deal, amigo. The man I came here to meet is surely dead. Maybe someone thought he was me. Makes me nervous, eh?”

“But look, Mr. Ociéda—”

“I’m looking, my friend. No pistólos drawn as you poke around. I think you’re unarmed. But safe? Even here in the sight of God and the Holy Virgin, no safety for me, it seems. Still—I’m used to it, señors. My life, eh?”

“So who is this dead guy, anyway?” yelled Bud.

“Should I tell you, if you don’t already know? Like a smart man with a romantic rendezvous, I look over my evening’s date from hiding before showing myself. I saw him enter, but before I could make out his face—bang bang. Shot while I was up here, before even a buenas nóches. I assumed it was Tezler who entered, the man I was to meet. But now... perhaps Tezler was dead first, somewhere, and now this man who shot him is the same. Too much for me, friends.”

“Please listen to us, sir,” pleaded Tom. “You picked up something by accident that—it’s already putting your life in danger! Look, it won’t do you any good. It’s unique—it would be impossible to fence it.”

“To ‘fence’? Well! A fellow professional, I take it! But am I likely to take the word of a stranger?”

“If you—” began Tom—interrupted by the crack! of a gun!—not from Rampo Ociéda in the balcony, but from the shadowed altar at the front.

“Down!” Bud commanded, yanking his chum to the floor. There were two more flashes from the front, but no answering gunfire from above, only the sharp sound of splintering wood and plaster.

“You okay?” Tom televoc’d.

“Yeah. Let’s worm our way out of here, Skipper. Think we dare cross the plaza?”

“I doubt they’d risk shooting us in the open like that,” Tom replied. “Anyway, it seems they’re more interested in Ociéda right now.”

After a hidden wait of ten minutes he boys returned to their scooters without incident and sped back to the hotel, stopping en route to make an anonymous telephone call to the polícia.

As they parked the scooters at the hotel and dismounted, Bud suddenly hissed out. “Hey, look at this!” He had noticed a slip of paper tightly wrapped around a wire strut at the back of the scooter seat. “This wasn’t here before, Tom.”

Tom plucked it off and cautiously unfolded it. The message was crudely scrawled in pen.

 

PERHAPS, SEÑORS, WE SHALL SPEAK AGAIN—R.O.

 

“Well,” Tom said dryly, “I guess we’ve established diplomatic relations.”

“Want to try tracking him further?”

Tom shook his head. “He’s going to run, if he’s smart—and I think he is. We can’t trail him halfway across Mexico.”

“What, then? Leave it in Asa Pike’s hands?”

The young inventor stared musingly at the note in his hand. “Bud... for all we know, the other gunman was Asa Pike! You know how much I don’t like giving up, flyboy, but whatever The Picasso might be—I’m not willing to set the GDI project aside to stumble around in this rat’s-maze!”

Bud winced with regret but said, “Guess I agree. Shall we fly back right away? It’s already tomorrow!”

“One thing to do before we leave,” pronounced the crewcut youth. As daybreak became morning, he placed an advertisement in the capital’s newspaper, in English and Spanish, to run for a week.

 

R.O. SO NICE TO MEET YOU. CONTINUE OUR DISCUSSION BY CALLING ME IN U.S. — ASK TO SPEAK TO DON STURDY. MUST GET YOUR REPLY IMMEDIATELY OR NO DEAL.

 

“What’s the phone number you gave?” Bud asked. “That’s not a Shopton area code.”

“It’s Graham Kaye’s number at the Key West station,” was the reply. “I’ll alert him to be ready to relay the call to me directly, to my cellphone.” He added wryly: “My new cellphone.”

They were back in Shopton that evening, for dinner and a good night’s sleep. In the morning, after reporting to his father and to Ames and Radnor, Tom placed another notice—this time in a box beneath the masthead of ForeSite.

 

THE OZONE LAYER WAS THICK IN MEXICO CITY. INTERACTION BUT NO SOLUTION. NEWSPAPER REPORTS DAMAGE TO OLD BASILICA FROM OZONE CONTACT. NO FURTHER DATA. BASIC SITUATION UNCHANGED.

 

Guess I owe Asa at least that much of a lead, Tom thought. Yet, strangely, he found himself half-hoping that Rampo Ociéda would elude him.

Walking down the hall to the repaired high-energy lab, a familiar gravel-toned voice hailed Tom. “Hey there, boss! Back from yer spy trip, hunh?”

“Hi, Chow!” greeted Tom with a broad grin. “I’ll tell you all about it. I’m afraid Bud and I didn’t accomplish our secret mission. But it was the right idea, pardner.”

“All ya kin do is try, son.”

The rotund ex-Texan walked along with his beloved boss to the lab, where Rafael Franzenberg awaited them.

“One scientific savant, one representative of the masses!” he semi-boomed. “Appropriate for this historic moment.”

“More o’ that there history, hunh?” said Chow doubtfully. “Seems plain t’ me that history mostly means somebody gets in trouble.”

“Don’t be a prairie cynic, friend Winkler. This is fun.” Franzenberg held out his two meaty hands, a small metal ball, like a marble, in each one. “Weights. Here, Tom, take this one—keep a good grip on it.”

Tom took the weight and hefted it. “Heavy. Is it lead?”

“It is.”

“Okay, so what’s th’ other one?” asked Chow suspiciously.

“Also lead. Here, see for yourself.”

Franzenberg shoved the metal ball into Chow’s waiting hand, not letting loose until the cook’s fingers closed about it.

Instantly Chow squawked—in Texas-wide-eyed alarm!


 

 

 

 

CHAPTER 10

 

 

 

          HEADLINE AMBUSH

 

 

 

 

“WHAT is it, Chow?” exclaimed Tom.

“Th—this thing—it’s wrist-wrasslin’ with me!” gulped the westerner. “Tryin’ t’ snake its way out o’ my blame fingers!”

“Don’t be alarmed,” soothed Rafe Franzenberg in a smug tone. “It’s only science.”

Calming himself, Chow cautiously held out his hand, palm downward, and opened his fingers. The ball remained suspended beneath his hand, pressing upward against his skin. “Like a balloon,” breathed the former chuck-wagon cook. “But brand my helium!—I sure never ran across a balloon so small that pushed up so strong!”

Tom turned his stare from Chow’s metal weight to Dr. Franzenberg’s smile. “Rafe—is it—it can’t be!”

“History sneaks in on little cat feet, chief,” replied the physicist. “Even I didn’t anticipate a breakthrough at such an early stage.”

“But we assumed—”

“Indeed we did. Molecule by molecule, mere milligrams per hour. And so it was at first. But when I verifed that the air pressure at the top of the columnar collection tube was beginning to exceed that at the bottom—unprecedented!—I knew my initial rotation of air molecules through the G-dimension had been a complete success. I then proceeded with a rather daring reconfiguration of the field and learned the secret to efficiently rotating appreciable masses. Tiny lead pellets, actually, which I melted together to form Chow’s weight—that is, his anti-weight!”

“That’s just—”

“Aw now, jest hang on,” groused Chow. “What’re yew two talkin’ about?”

Tom was grinning excitedly. “Pardner, that little ball is made of ingravitized lead! It’s the world’s first sample of solid matter that falls upward!”

“With the precise same degree of upward push that Tom’s conformist bit of lead has in the customary downward direction,” added Rafe. “The two are identical lead weights—but for one small detail, eh?”

“H-here. Take it back,” Chow said nervously. “Don’t seem right natural.”

“It’s the first sample I made,” continued Franzenberg, “but not the only one. I now have a small collection of ingravitized weights inside the observatory dome.”

“Why there?” Tom asked.

“Because of the high roof. I’ve been running tests on their upward acceleration. So far the results are exactly as predicted—1-G, vertically. No deviation. For these wondrous little slugs, Earth’s force of gravitation has been perfectly inverted. The tyranny of G has been overturned!”

With these ringing words Chow returned to his duties suffused by a sense of wonder and a twinge of worried awe. Dr. Franzenberg showed Tom the modified G-force inverter, demonstrating his method of using a microrepelatron to “spray” minute metal globules through the crux of the rotation field, capturing them as they exited. “Of course the actual rotation is more or less instantaneous. Like turning your shirt inside-out as you whip it off.”

“Good night, what a fantastic step forward!” Tom exulted with gratitude. “We’ll have to announce this result to the public immediately—and to the world scientific community, of course. And it also means we can move forward on formally submitting the Monoswift demonstration project to the Department of the Interior.”

Rafe nodded. “Mmm yes, your ‘flying locomotive.’ Rather a banal use for the reversal of a fundamental force of nature, one of the Top Four. But these are banal times, I suppose.”

Under George Dilling, the company’s office of Communications and Public Interest performed with its usual efficiency. A brief media release was flung before an astounded world, and a technical account appeared on ForeSite.

For a time the affairs of Asa Pike and a Mexican crook named Rampo were forgotten.

The project proposal by Tom Swift Enterprises was quickly lodged among several others on the list of government grantees. Mr. Swift told Tom: “They’ve given the green light to several first-phase demonstration projects—small-scale, low-commitment projects to make an initial determination of feasibility. It’ll all play out over several years, of course.”

“They call it ‘beta-testing’ these days,” observed Tom happily. “Enterprises is probably the only proposor ready to head for the Grand Canyon.”

“Well, son, there is one other,” said Damon Swift. “Background chatter tells me that Technautics, that engineering firm over in Indianapolis, has something ready to go.”

“That’s the outfit run by Cosmo Kincaid,” Tom noted with disgust. “Why would anyone want to deal with that snake?”

His father shrugged wryly. “In the world of technology and invention he’s—well—you might call him the anti-Swift!” The man was well known for ruthless, barely ethical business practices, and had often been charged with patent piracy and shady business dealings. “But remember, son, nothing has ever been proven against him.”

Tom acknowledged the fact reluctantly. “He has the right to compete with us, I guess. But I’ll sure be amazed if Technautics comes up with an approach that beats the Monoswift!”

“Agreed. Cosmo may be the anti-Swift, but we have the original!”

The Original continued his planning and testing as the prototype Monoswift took shape in the big assembly hangar, the Barn. As they worked late one evening, an outside telephone call was routed to the two Swifts’ shared executive office. “Dan Perkins here,” said the familiar voice of the editor of the Shopton Evening Bulletin. “As our fair burg’s premier professional newsman, I have some news for you boys.”

“What is it, Dan?” asked Mr. Swift politely. Perkins and his newspaper had sometimes posed problems for Enterprises.

“I’m here too, Dan,” Tom put in.

“Good. At this moment I’m looking at a screen with the pasteup of a headline for tomorrow’s late edition. Call it a prophecy. What I see is large, black, and foreboding. Ready? ‘Swift Enterprises Near Bankruptcy’. How’s it sound to you?”

“Wha—what?—! That’s complete and absolute rubbish!” exploded Damon Swift. “Perkins, if you print that—”

“I don’t intend to print it,” replied Perkins calmly. “Switching slouch hats from newsman to newspaper editor, I gave you a glimpse of a sensational headline. No point printing the news if the reader isn’t motivated to read it, you know.

“But I also have ethics. Can you believe it? The Bulletin doesn’t publicize unverified leaks. That’s why God made the internet. I’m calling to let you know that someone’s out there shopping this junk around.”

“Do you know who?” asked Tom.

“It was passed along to us by a neutral source whom we’ve used before. Naturally his identity is confidential.”

Mr. Swift sighed. “Yes. Of course. Is there anything you can tell us? Some detail in the information your source was given?”

“Only this,” was the reply. “Amid the fertilizer is financial information about Tom Swift Enterprises and the Swift Construction Company that I have been able to verify. Seems to me it could only have originated with your man at Liberty Finance Inter-Corporation in Albany.”

“Harrison Cruikshank,” muttered Mr. Swift. “We’ve not been satisfied with his work recently.”

“Perhaps he’s not been satisfied with you, Damon.”

After the phonecall was ended, Tom spoke up heatedly. “Dad, Cruikshank came here from Indianapolis—he worked with Cosmo Kincaid closely, for years!”

“Yes son,” nodded the Enterprises CEO. “And it’d certainly be to Kincaid’s advantage to spread doubt about the ability of Enterprises to fulfill the government project if it were awarded the full grant.”

“We’re not—we’re not really having any financial problems, are we?”

“Put that out of your mind. Income from the Swift Solar Batteries, the commuter air fleet line, Tomasite—even products going all the way back to your great-grandfather Tom—is in great shape, absolutely solid.”

“Guess you won’t need to cut my salary, then,” Tom joked.

The lying headline was killed, but the matter still rankled the two Swifts. Next morning they flew to Indianapolis in the Sky Queen, with Tom’s bronze electric sports car aboard in the hangar hold.

Fifteen minutes after landing Tom’s car slid to a halt in a lot outside the heavily guarded gates of Technautics. It was a grim collection of buildings in a deserted area on the industrial outskirts of the city.

The Swifts were escorted through a series of barred doors that clanged shut behind them.

Tom whispered, “It’s like a prison!”

“Which is where Kincaid belongs!” Mr. Swift replied almost inaudibly, for they were about to enter the office of the man they had come to see.

Cosmo Kincaid was a heavyset man in his middle forties, who looked much older than his years—worn down to a fleshy fox-faced nub. He had never made any attempt to hide the fact he had fought his way up through the ranks to success. His eyes were as coal black as his hair and they bored into the Swifts’ pupils.

His manner was brusque, totally without polish. “All right. What do you want?” He did not even offer chairs to his visitors.

“It seems our companies are in competition for the Grand Canyon project, Cosmo,” said Damon Swift, voice controlled.

“Yeah, so it seems. And?”

“I want to say to you, face to face, that we intend to keep this business rivalry within bounds.”

“Okay. You’ve said it.”

“Mr. Kincaid,” Tom blurted angrily, “spreading dirty information about Enterprises doesn’t do anybody any good!”

Kincaid’s eyebrows raised. “Oh? What makes you say that? Works pretty well sometimes.”

“You admit it?” challenged Mr. Swift.

“I admit that business competition isn’t for sissies. You don’t like the way I play, tell the playground monitor.” He smiled cynically. “But of course, my friends, I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Then somebody in your organization must.” Tom’s tone was respectful but firm.

“No one here would ever do anything unethical,” he declared. “If so, it was an accident. Management didn’t know about it. I had nothing to do with it. We’ll root out the perpetrator. So, thank you, goodbye!” Kincaid studied a document on the desk in front of him, as though dismissing the Swifts.

As the Shoptonians tried to control their anger at Kincaid’s attitude, the door to an adjoining office opened slowly, almost hesitantly. Kincaid looked up and said impatiently, “Yes, Ritt, what is it? Don’t hover!”

Ritter Kincaid was a slim eighteen-year-old, totally different from his father in every feature. The youth had a sensitive face with hazel eyes and brown wavy hair.

“I had an idea about the skyview—” Ritt started to say when he noticed the Swifts, still standing at the other end of the office. “Sorry. I didn't know you had guests, Father.”

“I don’t.” Kincaid went back to his papers. “Show the Swifts out, Ritt. Keep them away from the snack machines.”

As the youth closed the office door behind him, he said pleasantly, “So you’re our famous rivals! Father and son...” There was a note of envy in Ritt's voice—envy and sadness.

“Guess we are kind of competitors,” Tom chuckled. “At least in this Grand Canyon business.”

“Don't worry. We’ll beat the pants off you!” Ritt was not as shy as he had appeared at first! Grinning, he added as they walked along, “Maybe it’s not gosh-darn antigravity, but we’ve got some new wrinkles I’ll bet even you never thought of!”

A short, fat, round-faced man had been strolling behind them down the hall. As he suddenly spoke, Tom felt certain he had been assigned to follow them. “That's enough, Ritt!” the man commanded. “Get these gentlemen off the premises and go back to your work.”

“Sure will, Mr. Turley,” said Ritt. He added sarcastically: “Be sure to tell my father.”

Turley walked away scowling, and Ritt said quietly: “Father doesn’t trust anyone. He has me followed. He says I’m too ‘nice’.”

“Are you?” asked Tom.

“Maybe so.”

The three walked in silence to Tom’s car. As the young inventor opened the door, Ritt said abruptly. “You know, I’m thinking of leaving Technautics...”

Mr. Swift reacted with quiet surprise. “Oh really?”

“Here, it isn’t the way they say it is with you two,” Ritt continued, glancing about for listeners. “Father treats everybody as an enemy, me included. He does what he can to keep me under control, to keep me from having friends or dating or—anything. I’m not allowed to have any sort of life of my own. He thinks I’ll leak a company secret or something.” Suddenly the words came out in a rush. “But I—I won’t put up with it any more! I’m going to leak something right now!”

“Ritt, we don’t need you to—” Mr. Swift began.

But the youth plunged forward with furious—and obviously nervous—anger.

“No—I want to tell you!—and I will! Our demonstration project, the skyview tram—Technautics is building it, all right, and taking the credit and the money, but we didn’t invent it. The basic technology came from ‘the other young inventor.’

“You two Swifts know who I mean. Peter Langley—your rival!”

 


 

 

 

 

CHAPTER 11

 

 

THE UPFALL OF CHOW WINKLER

 

 

 

TOM and Damon Swift exchanged looks of amazement and dismay. “Pete Langley!” exclaimed Tom. “But he’s the one who tipped us off in the first place! He said Wickliffe Laboratories didn’t have any interest in working on the project!”

“Whatever the guy may have told you, I know the basic figures and work-ups came directly from him and his team,” Ritt insisted. “Could be we purchased Langley’s work outright—but I guarantee you Father will make sure he never gets one word of credit. That’s his way—control the message!” The youth glanced around in furtive disgust. “Somebody’s probably got me on camera and microphone right now. I don’t care!”

The Swifts were as much taken aback by Ritt Kincaid’s unexpected outburst of emotion as by the disclosure of Peter Langley’s involvement. “We’ll have a chat with Langley,” Tom said quietly. “But Ritt, don’t jeopardize your job here—or your relationship with your father—on our account.”

“The job, I don’t care about,” came the bitter reply. “As to the relationship—it doesn’t exist!”

On the flight home, Tom and his father discussed the matter soberly. Damon Swift said, “We’re entitled to assume Kincaid is behind that phony ‘leak,’ even if Harry Cruikshank did the dirty work. Kincaid probably knows something that gives him leverage over Cruikshank.”

“Some ‘skeleton’ from their past business dealings,” nodded Tom. “Seems to be the way Old Man Kincaid works.”

“Science and the world of business—not an easy fit, son.”

“I know,” Tom replied. “Dad, I want to hash this out with Pete Langley, and there’s no reason to wait until we land!”

Tom immediately called Langley’s office at Wickliffe Laboratories. “Listen Tom—news flash!—I wasn’t jivin’ you before. Wicko has no interest in going after the Grand Canyon money. I never said we hadn’t done any work on it.”

“For Cosmo Kincaid?”

“No, for ourselves. We’re R & D here, remember? We developed the notion of a floating observation vehicle with the idea it could be used for police sky-watch patrols, in place of those clattery helicopters they use. Get it? We talked it up here and there, and Kincaid approached us. We declined to work for him—can you b’lieve that jerk?—but we negotiated the rights to what we’d come up with.

“And now here’s a question back-atcha. Why am I telling you all this private business stuff?”

“I’m... sorry, Pete,” Tom said, embarassed. “You didn’t do anything wrong, and it’s generous of you to explain. Guess I was just caught offguard.”

“Well, chumbo, I hope you guys know enough to keep on guard when you’re competing with Cosmo Kincaid.”

Tom clicked off his cellphone. “Good advice,” said his father. “Son, I have no objection to Technautics coming up with an alternative approach. It might even be superior to ours. But I can’t forgive the bankruptcy rumor.”

As the chiefs of Swift Enterprises winged their luxurious way home, an imposing figure in a cowboy hat and shrieking-loud shirt was poking around under the high dome of the Enterprises observatory building. Chow was wafting along his daily snack route, delivering fortifications to the regular observatory staffer, Mike Halmer. But Mike was away from his post at the Mighty Eye, Tom’s megascope space prober.

“Wish they’d teach me how t’ use that telly-scope TV,” mused Chow as he gazed up at the huge antenna, a column of gleaming golden rings. “Nice t’ check up on my old pals back at th’ Horton spread, now ’n then...”

Pushing his cart aside, the cook ambled up to a heavy work table near the megascope console. Hmm! he thought. Looky that!

Attached to the workbench, by Tomasite cords, were a dozen or so of Franzenberg’s “anti-weights.” They strained upwards, linked to their thin anchor cords by metal clasp-hooks. “Say, that’s right,” the ex-Texan muttered. “He said sumpin’ about doin’ tests in here.”

Chow had heard the maxim about leaving well enough alone, but found it too abstract. An idea had taken root. After a few milliseconds of lightning debate, he began to carefully unhook the bars of ingravitized metal from their cords and fasten them, one by one, to the belt-loops of his mansized jeans. The result, not entirely comfortable, gave him the strange feeling of being light on his feet. I c’d be one o’ them jumpin’ ballee dancers in this get-up! he thought with a chuckle. He tilted up on tiptoe—or as close as he could manage in his big boots. A tentative hop carried him up a foot into the air. Drifting back down gently, he decided it was time to ignore another maxim, this one about “all things in moderation.” He hooked on another slug of anti-ballast—then another.

The inevitable happened. Chow Winkler began to rise into the air like the world’s gaudiest, and loudest, free balloon!

“Aaaak!” he squawked. This became, as he neared the curve of the dome, a bellow. “Ee-yaaa!” And then: “Heee-elp!” He repeated it a few times for emphasis.

He bumped along the underside of the dome, clonking against it with his own bald dome and squashing, and finally losing, his hat. “Great thumpin’ pollywogs, I’m gonna bounce right out into th’ blame sky!” He was approaching the slotted opening that split the dome!

A lesser man might have thought to set loose one or two of the ingravitized weights. But Chow Winkler had not been a lesser man since he started eating in earnest decades ago. Making a desperate and futile grab at one of the megascope antenna rings, he toppled over the lip of the opening and slipped blue-skyward!

In the airfield control tower, on the opposite side of the four-mile-square science station, controller Nick Doplo rubbed his eyes and nudged the young man seated next to him. “Now look at that,” he grumbled. “How do they expect us to do our job when they send stuff up into the air without tellin’ us?”

“What th’ hey is it, Nick? Looks funny.”

Nick studied the peculiar teardrop-shaped object, small with distance and mounting rapidly into the sky. “Weather balloon, I guess. Look, got some little instrument box hangin’ down there at the bottom.”

“Wigglin’ all around. Think it’s supposed to do that?”

“Am I supposed to know, Sammy? Anyhoo, it’s driftin’ out towards the lake.”

Low over glittering Lake Carlopa, one of Enterprises’ commercial miniplanes, a Pigeon Special, was heading back to port at the Swift Construction Company, the Enterprises affiliate at the opposite side of town. Tom’s sister Sandy was piloting. Employed as a demonstrator of the Specials, she was returning from a meeting with a potential puchaser in nearby Walderburg.

“Oh, now what’s that?” she asked herself. “Looks weird enough to be one of Tomonomo’s inventions.”

“That” was Charles Ollaho Winkler, now flying upside-down—for his personal center of gravity was well head-ward of his cinched beltline, and he had flipped over upon taking to the sky. He couldn’t see—his elastic rounded prow had slid downward like a distended water balloon, slapping against his face. But he had no trouble with sputtering and yelping.

His bluejeans had quickly proven themselves false friends. When Chow had somersaulted, the beltline of his mansized pants, yanked by the anti-weights, had made a dash for freedom, sliding upward past the approximate location of his hips. Then, turning the jeans inside out, past his knobby knees—then his ankles. Now his pants were stretched skyward above him, linked to the big cowpoke by his boots—and nothing else!

He grunted, twisting his feet to keep the boots from popping off. Aww, now, Winkler, what kinda blame stupid stunt did you pull this time! he berated himself. Shootin’ stars, these here belt loops were gettin’ thread-frayed a’ready! What if the loops—or his jeans—gave up the ghost? He had a long fall ahead of him!

Sandy’s curiosity had drawn here nearer. Suddenly her blue eyes made sense of the image and she gasped in astonishment! “It’s Chow!” she choked. “Wh-what in the world is he doing? What’s he hanging from?”

She quickly determined that this was no ordinary experiment. This was a panicked cowboy in full stampede!

Chow was over the lake, but his upward fall was accelerating. “If he falls from this height, it’ll kill him!” thought Sandy desperately; “not to mention causing a tsunami!”

She circled in a slow upward spiral, an easy task for the tiny, deft Special. What could she do? But her father’s lessons in the principles of flight, and her expert pilot’s training from Tom and Bud, had not been wasted. She began a series of passes, not dangerously close but close enough to catch Chow in her backwash. The effect was to shove the human balloon downward—a series of shoves. Each time, he began to arc upwards again; but on the whole he was descending.

“Dang if I know what’s goin’ on!” he burbled despairingly. “Izzat a’ airplane?” Wriggling his neck, he managed to glimpse the lake water beneath him. “Okee then, not s’ high up now. Say now, mebbe—didn’t start t’ head up till I hooked that last one on...”

Reaching up to his belt loops was far beyond the acrobatic skills of the grizzled westerner. All he could do was wait and pray and cuss.

And then, altitude forty feet and varying, one of the weary belt-loops gave up. A single slug ripped loose and flew away.

Instantly he began to descend on his own. It was a smooth and slow descent—for about ten seconds. Then his stressed jeans decided to split at the knees and leave him forlorn and friendless. He flopped down into Lake Carlopa, raising a mushroom cloud of water. His shredded bluejeans took to the sky and ultimately to the depths of interstellar, then inter-galactic, space. Accelerating endlessly into the outer darkness, they were never seen again—by human eyes.

Sandy radioed for a rescue team. It wasn’t long before the unfeathered flyer, wet, chastened, and aching, was fished out of the lake and delivered to Doc Simpson.

Later in the day, after the Sky Queen’s return, Tom asked Bud why Chow seemed to be limping and wincing. “Beats me,” said Bud. “And I don’t know what happened to his hat, either.”

After some private moments of thunder, Rafael Franzenberg decided to let the incident pass. Science had been served enough. As for Sandy, she determined that, for now, it would be more satisfying to keep it as a deep secret—to tell Bashalli.

And the rest was silence.

In his bedroom that night, a call on his cellphone interrupted Tom’s thoughts. “Sorry to bother you, Tom. This is Kaye in Key West. That call you were expecting—”

“He’s on the line? Rampo Whatsisname?”

“Well, he said to just say he’s an old friend from Mexico City with an urge to chat.”

“Thanks—put him on.”

The voice was an unexpected one, however, and the tone was chilling. “Young feller, you decided to turn me over to the wolves, and that hurts my feelings. Bad, bad thinking on your part.”

“What do you want, Asa?” Tom demanded. Was he about to be threatened?


 

 

 

 

CHAPTER 12

 

 

          HARD-EDGED THREAT

 

 

 

 

THE MAN who was sometimes Asa Pike was unnervingly calm, his voice quiet and unemphatic. “By the end of this week my time is up. There will be concern at the top. They’ll come after me—and stay after me. That’s the kind of life you’re handing me, Tom. Did it ever occur to you that I might have a family?”

“What about my family? Asa, if you could give me a clearer reason to—”

“I can’t!” he snapped. “Just making this piddly telephone call—you have no concept of the risk.”

“You saw the ad, obviously. And I sent you what I thought was a good lead.”

“That?” Pike was scornful. “I already knew he was working Mexico City. I wanted you to find him and alert me immediately by a method I’d work out. I didn’t want you to make contact and tip him off. Much less get the Mexican authorities involved!”

“Bud and I didn’t shoot anybody, Asa,” Tom stated bluntly.

“It doesn’t matter. You boys were there. What did you say to him? Did he tell you what he’s done with The Picasso?”

“No. I thought I—”

“You thought you’d act on your own. And now—

“But let’s set it aside. Are you willing to work with me, Tom? Will you at least make the attempt to use your equipment to track him down?”

Tom’s heart thumped at the gravity of the decision! “Asa—I don’t—you’re asking me to pursue an armed criminal on the basis of your word. Can you really expect me to do that?” There was a silence. “Asa?”

“Then I’m sorry, Tom,” the voice said faintly. “I have to do what I have to do. I’ve given you and your people a little taste of it already, a real-time demonstration of what I can do. The information provided Perkins’s back-alley source came from me! I know a lot about Swift Enterprises, the Swift family, your friends—and your new project. Read all about it. I did.”

“What are you saying?” Tom demanded.

“I’m saying that what you fear if you help me may come to you if you don’t! When the deadline passes you can consider me officially retired from ‘Collections.’ I’ll be on the run wherever I am—and I’ll need money.”

“Which The Picasso could bring you!”

“I’ll go after our friend Rampo hammer and tongs, Swift. And until you decide to assist me, it goes for you too. All of you!”

A click. Silence.

Angry and worried, Tom and his father conferred at length with Ames and Radnor the next morning. “I was afraid Pike would start using threats as a crowbar when his deadline got close,” Harlan Ames stated grimly. “So the bankruptcy rumor came from him, not Cruikshank or Kincaid.”

“He’s escalating,” said Damon Swift. “Obviously, the question is—what will he do next to apply pressure to Tom?”

“After all,” noted the youth, “he’s a trained agent working—for now—for an organization with access to all kinds of secrets and ‘methods of persuasion’. He still has his contacts.”

“Even if he can’t approach his bosses openly, he has the capacity to open his own bag of tricks,” Radnor noted. “Damon, let’s heighten security here at the plant—at your house, too. Also at Swift Construction, of course.”

“And then what?” mused Tom bitterly. “Bashalli Pranditt’s coffee house in Shopton? Fearing Island? The hydrodome? How about up at the space outpost? Good gosh, we already take extensive security precautions! How can we do what we’re here to do if we’re walled in?”

“Which is exactly the nature of the threat he’s making,” his father said quietly. “Help him now—or he’ll ruin our company and our lives.”

Looking at Tom, Ames began tentatively: “Boss, if you took your sensitector to Mexico for a few days and made a good-faith attempt—”

The young inventor’s deep-set blue eyes flashed with anger. “No! I won’t allow myself to be put in a moral bind by someone’s secret agenda!”

Mr. Swift nodded. “I agree, son. We have no reason, not one, to accept Pike’s story. It’s all been carefully thought out, engineered to produce this very dilemma. Leading him to Rampo Ociéda could well mean the man’s death, and we don’t know even now the consequences of helping Pike recover the... whatever it is.”

“And yet—also—his story may be completely true,” Tom pointed out in a frustrated tone. “I don’t want to contact Collections or the government and turn Pike in—not now, not yet.”

“Then all we can do is what we will do,” pronounced Harlan Ames. “Namely, our best—to keep everyone alive.”

So Tom Swift returned to work—on the GDI, on the Monoswift. The next couple of days found the young inventor working round the clock in his lab. It got the job done—and it felt safe. Bud often joined his pal, to assist in whatever way he was able, sometimes just by making Tom smile.

Chow was constantly fussing over his young boss, professing worry about proper “gullet-stuffin’,” but worried just as much about his friend’s general wellbeing. Once when he came in, he said to the boys, “Long as you two kin work, I kin cook. All th’ blame night if I hafta!” He was carrying two large sizzling skillets.

“You ought to go home,” Tom urged.

“No siree!” insisted the cook. “Clompin’ down the hall t’ my room ain’t gonna do good t’ anybody! I'm ridin’ herd on that galley till you finish whatever you’re doin’. Someb’dy’s got to see that you’re eatin’ properly.”

“Well, pard, there’s always my mother.”

“Ye-aah, but she don’t live with ya like I do!”

“What did you rustle up for us this time?” Bud queried. “Sure smells good.”

“Ham an’ eggs Western style, as only I kin make ’em,” Chow said proudly.

Tom rubbed his eyes. “Is this breakfast, lunch, or supper? I've lost track.”

“You might call it an early-mornin’ midnight supper,” the cook replied. “Say now, boss, I been meaning t’ ask you... What’d happen if you put food through that upside-downer thingamabob?”

Tom smiled affectionately. “What kind of food?”

“Wa-aal, fer example, fixin’s like flour ’r milk ’r butter. Ya see?”

Bud yawned. “Sounds like you’re planning on rustling up some flapjacks.”

The stout Texan nodded his head vigorously. “That’s th’ idee, buddy boy. See now, I figger if you mix it up jest right, you could make flapjacks that’d flip themselves. Now that, Tom Swift, is an invention!”

Tom laughed and Bud wisecracked: “That’s one way to make ’em lighter than air! But say, old-timer—isn’t that a new hat you’re wearing?”

The cook reddened slightly. “Er, yeah. Old one got a little mashed-up.”

“Sat on it, huh.”

“Never yew mind.” Suddenly something on Tom’s workbench seized his attention. “What in tarnation is that, boss?”

“It’s a model of the Monoswift,” Tom told him. “Arv Hanson put it together for me.”

Chow gazed at the model curiously. It was resting on top of a single rail about twelve inches above the bench. The body of the Monoswift was cylindrical in shape and somewhat flattened on top. On either side was a row of windows that bowed out at the tops, giving the panes a downward slant. The railcar had a snub nose at front and a rounded hollow at the aft end.

“Looks kinda like a big flashlight. What you goin’ to use it for?” the cook asked.

“To carry passengers,” Tom replied. “It’s the Grand Canyon transit car we’ve got Art Wiltessa’s team working on—the prototype we’ll be testing.”

“Oh yeah, that flyin’ train o’ yours.” Chow tentatively picked up the model and studied it, turning it over. A long groove cut through the underside from front to back, open at each end. He scratched his head. “Okay, but—how’re you plannin’ to make it move? This here train car ain’t got wheels!” he exclaimed.

Bud chuckled. “Wheels? C’mon, Chow. Wheels are way old-millennium!”

“I working on a special kind of monorail track,” Tom explained. “Except it isn’t exactly a track at all. I call it a beam-rail. If I can work out a few remaining probs with the fieldstat unit over there, I’ll be playing with the model any day now, like a kid with a model electric train.”

“You were into the fieldstat when I took a gym break, Skipper,” Bud said. “Does the thing work at all?”

Tom smiled mischievously. “Oh, I’ve made a little progress. Let me switch it on.”

Sitting on a workbench, Tom’s invention consisted of three thick, flat-sided tubes—like long rectangular cartons—joined together in the form of an equilateral triangle. It stood on its base, point toward the ceiling, and was about two feet across. Just above the vertex Tom had suspended a small plastic tray on a swing-arm. A screwdriver rested on the tray.

“Well, she’s quiet,” Chow remarked. “But what’s s’posed t’ happen?”

Tom looked puzzled. “Seems not to be—oh, I see. That screwdriver I set down is shorting out the field. Bud, could you take it away?”

“Sure.” The black-haired pilot strode across the lab and gripped the tool, lifting it off the tray. But as he started to walk back to his friends, he grunted in surprise as the screwdriver was pulled right out of his hand! It floated in midair about a foot above the point of the triangle, rocking back and forth as it drifted aimlessly.

“Stop fooling around, flyboy,” Tom said. “Just bring me the screwdriver, please.”

Frowning, Bud reached over and plucked it out of the air. But again it slid from his grasp as he tried to pull it away.

Tom winked at Chow, and Chow smiled. “See, Buddy Boy, thet’s whut happens when you don’t eat reg’lar. Your muscles are givin’ out!”

Bud’s frown deepened. “I think Tom’s invention is doing a number on me.” He made more efforts to remove the floating, bobbing screwdriver. He could easily enclose it in his hand and move it aside, but at a certain point in the empty air it seemed to get stuck. He applied both hands like a vise. His muscles bulged and his tennis shoes skidded on the tile floor. Finally, with a mighty heave, he yanked the screwdriver away from the machine—and stumbled backwards onto the floor.

“Ohhh-kay,” he said. “I got it! Ego intact! Now that you’ve had your fun, genius boy—just what is this thing? I thought it had to do with the rail for the train.”

 Tom grinned. “What it is,” he said, “is magic—magnetic magic!”


 

 

 

 

CHAPTER 13

 

 

          DESPERATE LENGTHS

 

 

 

 

“MAGIC!” repeated Chow. “Tom Swift, you makin’ fun o’ me? Ain’t more o’ that voodoo stuff, is it?”

“Neither!—just being a little hyperbolic,” Tom chuckled.

“Ye-aah, well, jest calm down. Causes heart attacks.”

“It sure felt magnetic,” Bud remarked wryly. “But Skipper, that screwdriver wasn’t being pulled toward that gizmo, or repelled away from it. It just floated around, like what those electromagnets do to stuff in your zero-G chamber. And then when I tried to take it with me, it was like running into a wall—except my hand passed right through it, but the screwdriver didn’t!”

“Uh-hunh, explain that one!” demanded Chow of his young boss.

Stepping over to the fieldstat, Tom proceeded to do so. “Remember the magnetaser? The magnetic deflector we used to punch our way through Li Ching’s antimatter cloud in space?”

“Yeah, that’s right,” the cook recalled. “When those aster-noid pirates got us corraled up on Little Luna.”

“I remember you saying something about how it made a ‘virtual monopole’ out in space,” put in Bud.

Tom nodded. “The fieldstat takes the idea to the next level. Those three flat-sided generator prisms are doped with particles of Galilectrum—that’s the material we discovered in Aldeb Crater on the moon, Chow.”

“Uh-huh. Dangerous stuff!”

“But pretty handy. Pump in a small trickle of energy and it gives off coherent electromagnetic waves of hyper-frequency which produce an unbelievably intense magnetic flux.”

Chow nodded warily. “So there’s yer magnet.”

“Ye-aah, pardner. The fieldstat pushes the field out into the space above the vertex in a spherical form. Think of a soap bubble just touching the end of a bubble-pipe.”

“Got the picture,” said Bud. “A magnetic bubble!”

Tom nodded, pleased. “Exactly. Magneto-reactive materials develop corresponding microfields, by induction, and the magnetic forces exactly counterbalance any downward motion—so the screwdriver was able to defy gravity even without antigravity!”

“Is that why I couldn’t pull it out?” speculated Bud.

“The ‘bubble’ has a sort’ve ‘skin’ all around—where the field jams-up against itself, you might say. Outside the skin, the magnetic force is undetectable. But if you try to pull something metallic through it from inside, the energy density is so great that even Barclay’s mighty muscles get a real workout.”

“Okay, boss,” Chow said. “Thet’s all right nice. But what in Sam ’n Sadie does it have to do with railroad tracks?”

Tom didn’t answer. He plucked up a small metal disk, about the size of a silver dollar, from a table. Standing on tiptoe, he stretched his hand to a point several feet above the machine’s vertex. “There—I can feel the metal responding to the magnetic shell. Watch.” He let loose the disk. Instead of falling or bouncing away, it moved downward in a curve, as if following the curvature of the invisible sphere of force. It ended up at the low point, almost touching the vertex.

“Looks like it was slipping along on something lubricated,” observed Bud. “Except... why doesn’t it just fall off when it gets to the underside?”

Tom smiled. “Nice question, flyboy.”

“I ’as about t’ ask that one m’self,” said Chow with quick pride.

“The answer is that the metal disk is coated with a synthetic composite material called obduraton,” explained the young inventor. “It’s just a very thin layer, painted on. It’s meta-diamagnetic; in a magnetic region with very dense flux-lines, it acts like a magnetic mirror—it ‘turns back’ the field interaction. In other words, the magnetism of the shell squeezes it back out, and it ends up floating on the field gradient, frictionlessly. But at the same time it’s stuck to the ‘skin’—it slides along but can’t pull loose.”

Chow gave a vigorous, jowly nod. “Now yer talkin’, son! Paint that stuff on th’ bottom of yer train an it jest slides on those magnetic dealies—butcha cain’t de-rail ’er ’cause she’s stuck right tight.”

Tom chuckled. “Perfect, pard. And it’ll be the safest, cleanest, quietest ride you ever had. Wait till you see the full demonstration—soon!”

The cook looked pleased with himself. To savor the feeling, he escaped to his galley.

Bud glanced out the window. “Sun’s coming up,” he commented wearily. “What do you say we get a little shut-eye?”

Tom was reluctant to leave the lab. “But—I still—” But after some persuasion, he agreed that a few hours’ sleep would help him tackle his remaining problems with a fresh mind.

When evening came, Tom was still preoccupied and fascinated with the strange new world of gravity and magnetism he had begun to explore. But there was a social event to attend in town, and Bud’s persuasion extended to compelling Tom to shower and change.

His thoughts, however, were still on words like Galilectrum and obduraton—and Rampo—when Bud’s convertible drew up at the Shopton Yacht Club with two couples. Tom jumped out and galantly assisted first Bashalli Pranditt, then Sandy. “At least one of you two knows the social graces,” smiled Tom’s sister sweetly.

Bud huffed. “I never pretended to be graceful.”

As the four entered the club, Tom was pursuing a subtle point with Bashalli, his raven-haired companion. “Of course, Bash,” said Tom “we have to be able to control the orthogonal values to move along the G-dimensional axis—”

“And start things gravitating?” The pretty, independent-minded girl from Pakistan liked to tease the scientific stuffiness out of Tom.

Tom tended toward obliviousness when he was pursuing a quarry of the mind. Bashalli and Tom sat down and she listened patiently to his theorizing. Finally Sandy and Bud stopped at their bench by the dance floor. Sandy sniffed, “Are you two going to sit there all night, or would you like to dance?”

“Yes,” Bud added. “That lunar snake gas is becoming—”

“A bore constrictor?” suggested Bash.

“I don’t do puns.”

The two couples hastened hand in hand onto the dance floor—and Tom suddenly skidded to a halt in surprise. Standing in the doorway was Ritt Kincaid!

“Ritt! Hi there!” Tom called. “I'd like you to meet my sister Sandy and Bashalli Pranditt. Ladies, this is Ritt Kincaid—Dad and I met him the other day.”

“Oh,” said Sandy. “That one.”

“Er, no. The obnoxious one was his father. ....Ritt, this is Bud Barclay.” All acknowledged the introductions. Ritt was smiling and game, and well-dressed, but in his suave way obviously uncomfortable.

Sandy turned to Bud innocently and whispered, “A little young. But cute.”

Bud smiled smugly. “I’ve been told the same.”

With a reproving look Sandy turned back to Ritt. The country-western band began a four-square waltz. “May I have the pleasure of this dance?” Ritt asked Sandy with a little bow.

Before Bud could object, Sandy said, “Yes.”

“Sorry old chap. Better luck next time,” chirped Ritt. He doffed an imaginary hat at Sandy’s date-presumptive.

Bud shrugged. “Oh, it’s okay. I know San prefers ’em young and cute.” Sandy glared.

Yet Tom’s sister was intrigued by Ritt’s courtly, almost old-fashioned manner. Not a bit like impulsive Bud! she thought as Ritt’s arm went around her.

Tom and Bash also danced off together, leaving Bud alone and slightly forlorn. Sandy soon took pity on him. Good old Bud! Maybe he was a bit rough and ready, but she would not have him any different for the world. But how could she go back to him without offending Ritt? To dump a dance partner politely was a real challenge to Swift inventiveness!

Just then Sandy caught sight of Dodie Ames. Here was her opportunity! “Hello, stranger,” she greeted the titian-haired daughter of the Swifts’ security chief. Always called Dodie, her real name was Dorothy. “Haven't seen you in ages! How’s boarding school this term?”

“Oh, Sandy, it’s great for education but lousy for a social life. The boys are all into the ‘grunge’ look. And not on purpose. Terrible.” Dodie’s pert nose, which was as pert as Sandy’s entire head, turned up another notch.

“You can make up for it now. Meet Ritt Kincaid. He’s visiting from Indianapolis.”

Invisible sparks were almost visible. The two faces and four eyes became strangely luminous, the radioactivity of shared emotion. A moment later the two were dancing closely together as Sandy returned to Bud. “Not young enough or not cute enough?” he teased.

Sandy looked away—and frowned slightly. “Bud... who’s that over by the door?” A striking figure was standing as if at attention, eyes intently focused on the dance floor. The Californian shrugged.

“Uh oh.” Ritt was dismayed as he glanced over Dodie’s shoulder. “There’s Martabat, my keeper!”

“What do you mean?” asked Dodie.

“Father calls him my bodyguard, but he’s paid to follow me everywhere and keep me out of trouble—even if it’s trouble I want to get into.”

“Trouble like me?” the girl joked—but it meant more than a joke.

“He reports to a stooge named Turley, our security chief at Technautics. And he reports to Father, in detail. I hate that life!”

Exotically foreign, Martabat was tall, handsome, and dignified enough to be a maharaja. His olive-skinned features were darkly inscrutable, yet startlingly his unyeilding eyes were a piercing blue. Seeing that Ritt had stopped dancing, he approached. “Good evening, madame, and do pardon the intrusion. Come, Master Ritter. Your father has called and wishes to speak to you. In a private setting, if you please.”

“I’m not ready to go, Martabat. I flew to Shopton to have a little freedom, and I just got here!” Ritt protested. “How did you track me down? Did Turley plant a locator beacon on me?”

“Your destination was registered, of course. As to the other question, you might ask Mr. Turley.” He suddenly grasped Ritt at the elbow. “Now do come, Master Ritt. Do not make my job difficult.”

Though the music continued, others had stopped dancing and were watching.

“It’s all right,” said Dodie quietly.

Ritt looked mournful. “Dodie... come along with me.”

“Your father insists on privacy,” snapped Martabat. “He waits on the telephone. I said, ‘Come!’ ” Lithe and powerful as a panther, Martabat tried to lead the objecting youth forcibly from the dance floor.

Ritt tried to push the hulking figure away, but Martabat had clapped his powerful hands on the boy’s shoulder. Living up to his impulsive reputation, Bud rushed to the rescue and gleefully tripped the tall, imposing bodyguard! Martabat was sent sprawling to the floor.

“Quick! This way!” Bud pushed the youth through a side door and onto the starlit patio, pulling Sandy after him.

“Th-thanks,” Ritt stammered weakly. “But why did you help me?”

“I just don’t like seeing anyone get pushed around!” Bud scowled.

Ritt exulted, “First time I ever got the better of Martabat!” But beneath his words, Bud and Sandy could sense fear. “I’ll have to deal with Turley and Father when I get back tomorrow. Now—I want to get back to the dance.”

“And to your partner, I hope.” Dodie had followed them out.

Ritt nodded warmly. Then he pointed toward the club driveway. “There goes Martabat’s car. I can imagine what he said over the phone—and what Big Cosmo Kincaid said back.”

“Must you leave tomorrow, Ritt?” asked Dodie.

“Tomorrow is tomorrow.” The quiet reply seemed to satisfy both parties.

Sandy elbowed Bud. “Bud, please don’t say anything idiotic.”

“Not me. Let’s go back inside. Gotta talk to genius boy about, er, fluxtronium.”

The evening finally ended. The many couples—a few of whom had become singles during the course of things—drifted away. “May I drive you home, Dodie?” asked Ritt.

“Oh, I drove myself here. My... my car is in the lot.”

“I see. Then—may I drive your car?”

“Drive my car?”

“With you in it—of course.”

Before Dodie could reply, the club ballroom shook with a booming crash and the sound of shattering glass!

 

 


 

 

 

CHAPTER 14

 

 

 

          BULLET TRAIN

 

 

 

 

TOM SWIFT was first out the door, Bud at his heels. In the parking lot a crowd was gaping at the flaming, smoking hulk of a car, its window glass scattered in all directions. “We were standing across the lot,” a girl was saying with quivering fright in her voice. “It just—there was a big—”

“Did you see anyone near the car?” Tom demanded forcefully. “Does anyone know—was someone—is someone inside?”

Bud hadn’t waited to ask the question. He had dashed close and was circling the flaming car, trying to peer within through the shattered windows. “I don’t see anyone inside,” he called. “Most of the fire and stuff is underneath.”

Tom approached and knelt down on the asphalt. “Some kind of incendiary device was tossed under the car,” he pronounced. “From the way the window glass scattered, it must have gone off near the front, away from the gas tank.”

“Thank goodness,”murmured Bashalli.

“But still—if someone had been inside, it might’ve hurt or killed them,” Bud insisted.

Ritt Kincaid had run out and joined the crowd. “No,” he said with gritting anger. “It wasn’t meant to kill. It was a spanking! That was my rental car.”

Tom looked at the youth. “You think it was Martabat?”

“Sure I do,” shrugged Ritt. “Or at least someone working for Turley—or someone hired by my Father. Who else would know to look for the one rental car in the lot?”

“It would have been even easier,” Tom stated. “Your Technautics people obviously knew you’d flown to Shopton, but they’d have no idea you’d end up here unless they had someone follow you from the airport.”

“I’m never out of Daddy’s loving grasp,” snarled Ritt bitterly.

“I think he just underlined the point!” Bud gulped.

Despite the damage done—to eardrums as much as the car—the fire had burned itself out before the fire department and police arrived. What remained of the explosive device was collected for whatever clues it might yield—which turned out to be none.

“But I’ve been thinking all night of some other possibilities,” Tom told Ames and Radnor the next day. “The fingers are all pointing to Kincaid’s cronies, but—”

“We know,” Phil Radnor nodded. “Asa Pike also has a point to make. And he mentioned your friends.”

Tom snorted. “A point aimed right at my crewcut head! Even if he’s still ‘sticking to schedule,’ an agent of Collections wouldn’t have any trouble contacting someone to plant a firebomb.”

“Yup,” Radnor went on. “But if we’re treating Pike as ‘innocent-until-proven,’ remember the other groups involved in recovering The Picasso—the group he called the Adversary, as well as that drug cartel. Both have reasons to scare you into helping them find Rampo to recover the thing for themselves.”

“Or just prevent anyone else from doing it first.”

Both Tom and Phil glanced at Harlan Ames. He seemed unusually subdued, as if preoccupied. “We’ll look into all this,” he said vaguely.

Tom asked quietly, “Harlan, is everying okay?”

The lean former Secret Service agent smiled wanly. He rarely spoke about himself. “I’m concerned about my daughter. We had a nice talk when she finally got home—rather late, I thought. Dodie’s quite taken with Ritt Kincaid.”

Tom smiled, understanding. “I gather Dad doesn’t approve.”

“I have nothing against the boy. I don’t know him well enough to disapprove of him. Yet.”

“In fact, chief, you’ve never met him,” noted Radnor.

“Thanks for pointing out the obvious, Rad,” snapped the security chief. “Perhaps I am a bit overprotective of Dodie, especially since we lost her mother. She would have known what to say to Dodie. I don’t... but I do know that Ritt Kincaid is turning out to be a dangerous choice for a boyfriend!”

“Well,” said Tom dryly, “maybe he’ll have a chance to redeem himself in the second twenty-four hours of the relationship.”

The young inventor plunged back into his work on the GDI demonstration project, the Monoswift observation car and its remarkable sky track. He checked with Franzenberg, who reported that he had made further improvements to the mechanical process of feeding materials through the focus of the G-force inverter. “I must have piled up twenty pounds of ingravitized lead,” he reported preeningly. “On the ceiling, of course.”

Later Bud found his pal in his lab—playing with an electric train! “Just like you promised, genius boy,” laughed the black-haired San Franciscan. “A kid on Christmas morning!”

With the help of Enterprises modelmaker Arvid Hanson, Tom had assembled a looping track composed of a chain of miniaturized fieldstat units, all joined together at their bases, their triangle-points upward. The “beam-rail” monotrack ran along the floor next to the walls, but in some instances angled upwards over various obstructions. “C’mon, play with me!” Tom grinned, motioning Bud over. “I’ve applied the coating of obduraton to the inner wall of that slot on the underside of the car model—let’s see what she can do!”

Tom lay the little model down on the track between two steadying struts, resting it uneasily atop the series of narrow jagged-peaked units. “Ouch!” joked Bud. “Doesn’t look like an easy ride so far.”

The young inventor picked up one of his all-purpose remote-control boxes, called a Spektor. He switched on the flow of power through the beam-rail. Instantly the railcar jumped upward a couple inches, its longitudinal slot poised above the line of vertices but not touching them. “The series of magnetic bubbles merge together along the run of the track,” Tom explained, “forming something like a continuous tube of force that the Monoswift floats on.”

“That’s what I figured, naturally. But how do you get the car to move forward?”

Tom thumbed the Spektor and the model railcar abruptly accelerated along the invisible beam-rail. “As I’m sure you’re anxious to know—basically, I’m sending a pulsed microwave ‘current’ through the linked bases of the fieldstats,” explained the scientist-inventor excitedly. “The passing charge of extra energy distorts the field in the direction of the forward-facing ‘slat,’ making the field-force asymmetical—unbalanced. There’s a delay built into the system, and the succession of charges, one fieldstat after another, proceeds down the line at our desired cruising speed, which won’t be any faster than 30 MPH. In other words, the Monoswift gets wafted along by a series of little shoves.”

“Thirty miles per hour? Pretty slow,” Bud observed.

“That’s the idea if want to see the sights, chum,” smiled Tom.

While Tom had been providing one of his customary expositions, the model railcar had been accelerating, absolutely silent. Now it was circling the lab in a matter of seconds—and going faster all the time. As Bud turned his gray eyes to have a look, all he could make out was a bulleting blur.

“Um... Skipper, just how fast are you planning to run this thing?”

“Oh, no more than freeway speed this test—55 or so.”

Bud gulped—then flinched back with a yipe as a section of the monotrack that surmounted a chair jumped and fell back as the car whizzed over it. “Tom! The thing’s gonna jump the track!”

“Don’t mean to spook you, pal,” needled Tom. “But remember, the car is more strongly stuck inside the beam-rail field than the whole fieldstat line is stuck down to the floor. The car won’t pull free—that’s the main point of the experiment. But when it goes around a tight curve, vertical or horizontal, centifugal force gets transmitted to the monotrack structure.”

“R-right,” Bud replied. But a moment later the young inventor showed mercy and slowed the car, very rapidly, to a stop. “I hope you didn’t put on the brakes on my account, Tom,” Bud said apologetically.

“Not at all,” grinned his chum. “In fact, I was anxious to test the braking system.”

“Do you reverse the current?”

“No. It’d be safer to make the mechanism part of the car module, not the whole line.” He explained that the sides of the underhull slot covered a grid of high-conduction material. “Think of it as a flattened-out electromagnetic coil of very high capacity. As a semiconductor interruptor-switch is slowly damped down, current is produced in the grid elements, by induction, as the hull slot passes along the magnetic bubbles. The induced forces resist the forward magnetic vector and drag the car to a stop.”

“Without a screech, hm?”

 “But with a blast of heat—not a problem, though.” Tom noted that each car would be equipped with an adaptation of the repelatron anticrash setup used in his triphibian atomicar, which would ease the effects of even a sudden stop on the passengers. “Oh—and speaking of the atomicar... how’d you like to go for a spin in my ugly little baby?”

Bud laughed. “Aw, she’s not so bad! Where are we going?”

“Not so far. How far is it to Arizona?”

“Jetz!” exclaimed the young pilot. “The Grand Canyon?”

Tom nodded excitedly. “We’ve been given official permission to do some scouting work—from the air! We have to do it before we can start ‘laying track.’ And I have a new invention to help us!”

“Ye-aah,” drawled Bud. “As usual. But Skipper—let’s just hope those guys who are gunning for you haven’t taken up surface-to-air missiles!”


 

 

 

CHAPTER 15

 

 

 

          SKY SCOPING

 

 

 

 

BUD piloted Tom to a landing in a big empty field near Flagstaff, Arizona, the atomicar nested inside the Flying Lab’s hangar-hold. Within minutes they had taken to the sky in the small bubble-domed craft, the Silent Streak.

After a brief northward flight, the youths were hovering effortlessly a mile above the painted grandeur of the mighty Grand Canyon. “For all the times I’ve seen it—man, it always knocks me flat!” breathed Bud.

“And just a few million years in the making,” Tom murmured with shared feeling. “You can really see why just being able to look at this—just look!—is important to Americans—to everyone!”

“Which is where the Monoswift comes in,” Bud commented. “We sure are hitting the big tourist sights these days, Tom.”

“I’m hoping this one doesn’t come with dead bodies. Take ’er down, captain!”

Bud, in the driver’s seat, complied gleefully. As they passed below the rim and the canyon encompassed them, Tom switched on the Streak’s cybertron guidance computer—and then his new invention, which he had come up with before their sudden summons to the moon.

An extension strut-arm came into view from beneath the nose of the atomicar. As it stretched to full length, Bud eyed the object at the end of the strut with curiosity. It resembled a colossal cut diamond, though composed of some dark, opaque material. Elliptical in overall form, it was covered over with a great many flat facets, all identical. “Genius boy, you never repeat the same shape twice,” joked Bud. “You say this is some kind of camera?”

“Mm-hmm,” responded Tom distractedly, studying the readouts on his Spektor. “It feeds data into the cybertron’s topographic emulator.”

“What sort of data?”

“Oh, distance and texture—as well as a super-detailed visual image, in 3-D.”

Bud looked reasonably impressed. “So—really great snapshots of our trip to the Grand Canyon.”

Tom chuckled as he looked over at his friend. “The circumscoper is a bit more sophisticated than those throw-away cardboard cameras you can buy at tourist stands. Even better than a mini-digicam—though you can’t carry it in your pants pocket.”

Bud felt out the name with his tongue. “Hmm. Circumscoper,” he repeated. “Yep—it’s a Tom Swift gizmo, all right. It’s going to help you map-out where the Monoswift track will, er, float?”

“Right. A big help!” As he made adjustments with his remote-controller, the young inventor described how the circumscoper made use of the basic technology he had developed for the holoceivers that supplied his 3-D telejector with lightwave data, which the telejector turned into an image in three dimensions. “But the scoper ‘sees’ on all sides at once, 360 degrees—or maybe I should say 360 squared, because it also sees upward and downward.”

“The guy’s a little wall-eyed!”

Tom explained that by analyzing wavefront interference patterns and propagation vectors, the circumscoper would capture exact positional data, detailed almost down to the inch. “By outputting it through a telejector, we’ll be able to create a perfect replica, in light, of the entire Grand Canyon to examine back at Enterprises—an electronic replica we can turn to whenever we’re making choices about where to run the Monoswift beam-rail.”

Bud nodded but asked, “Couldn’t you get the same thing from high-def photos? Maybe from orbit?”

“No. Think of the angles. Viewing from above distorts the appearance of the vertical canyon walls. Even with computer correction and enhancement, data is always lost. But the circumscoper captures just about everything!”

“Jetz!” enthused Bud. “Hey, why even bother taking folks through the real thing? They can sit at home with the 3-D simulation.”

“Sure. You could do the same with any place—San Francisco, for example.” Tom’s sly comment led the San Franciscan to change the subject.

They spent hours guiding the Silent Streak through the in’s and out’s of the Grand Canyon National Monument, occasionally waving to excited hikers and sightseers on cliff-rims. Helicopters sputtered across the sky almost continuously. “Don’t know if it does any real harm,” Bud shrugged. “But it doesn’t feel right, having big metal birds blundering around over all this beauty.”

Tom nodded. “And making a racket. The Monoswift would make a better impression.”

“With just a little line across the sky—the floating track.”

“Even less than that,” said the young inventor. “I think I can add a sort’ve camouflage element—maybe chameleon is a better word!—to the fieldstats, to make the track virtually invisible from the ground.”

“I’m anxious to see it.” Then Bud thought a second. “I mean—not see it!”

At last, sun touching the horizon, Bud piloted the atomicar back to the parked Sky Queen.

 Guards supplied by the county sheriff’s office had been keeping watch. One of the guards approached Tom as he climbed out of the Silent Streak. “Mr. Swift, maybe I should tell you...”

“Problems?” asked Tom.

“No, but—we thought we saw someone approaching your plane, ducking through the scrub. We tooled over there right away and didn’t find anyone, but... you know.”

“I sure do,” responded the Shoptonian ruefully. “Could just be a kid getting curious. But there’s no way he could defeat the Queen’s security system.”

Still, they entered the Flying Lab warily, electronically checking its various decks for anything moving—or with the warmth of a human body. “Better check the hull sensors too,” Bud urged. “I believe I recall a little problem about bombs getting stuck to our silver-white skin.”

Tom grinned. “Yes—it’s happened!”

Nothing was detected. Finally Bud, at the main controls, raised the Sky Queen high by extended its landing props to full stretch, then elevatored-down the hangar-hold deck to the ground so Tom could drive the atomicar aboard.

As the deck rose back into place with a click, Tom exited the car—and discovered he was not alone!

“Say there, hello, my friend,” said the weaselly face floating above a pointing gun.

Tom didn’t raise his hands, but looked the intruder in the eye. “Buenas días, Rampo.”

“Have I impressed you, sneaking aboard like this?”

“Very much,” Tom replied calmly. “Not everyone could figure out a way in—waiting till Bud and I hurried inside to check for ‘burglars,’ then hugging the atomicar’s tailfin, out of sight, while I drove you right into the ship. Where did you hide while the police were scouting around?”

Ociéda gave a toothy grin. “The airplane’s wheel-well is more than big enough for little Rampo. I’m a self-taught contortionist and acrobat, Tom. Been a big help in my line of work.”

“Right. How did you know we’d be here today, anyway?”

The pickpocket snorted and lowered the pointing gun. “Fah! Might as well ask how I managed to sneak across the border—me and a thousand others every day. There are ways, señor. I knew of your Grand Canyon project, of course, so I took a motel room in the area and waited like a quiet mouse. This morning the papers tell me you’ll be visiting. Easy enough to listen to the police radio to find your parking place.”

“What do you want?” asked Tom. “You never responded to the advertisement I placed.”

“Why would I? You didn’t bother to sign it, eh? Took me a bit of effort, finding the connection of that phone number to the company of the so-much-famed Tom Swift. Also, muchácho, I prefer to follow my own agenda, young Tom. Safer, usually. And you know,” he went on, “I did respond. Being here, now—this is my response.”

“Just as you said in the note you left us—we’re ‘speaking again’.”

Ociéda winked in a chummy way. “Only polite—have you not heard of honor among thieves?” Tom half-chuckled, and Rampo smiled back. “You like me, Tom, I can tell. I don’t need this gun.”

“You still haven’t told me what you want.”

The man turned serious. “It seems my innocent little encounter on a dirty little street has offended some nasty people. The Four Brothers Cartel—vengeful narrow-minded fat men. And it seems there are others too, foreigners, maybe spies or something. Ah me! They are making my life difficult and stoop-shouldered.”

“It’s as I told you,” declared Tom. “What you stole that night is important to bunches of people on all sides.”

“And the old man I took it from, that night—him too?”

“Rampo, he might be the worst of all.”

“A hard life,” Rampo muttered. “Yet if I hand what I took to you, Tom—am I being fair? To myself? To my many years of striving and perfecting my talents? Shall I deprive myself of decent compensation, merely because certain persons are prideful and obsessive about some little nothing? No. If the fool thing is so much desired—well, have I not served as a delivery boy? Shall I not be paid for my services?”

“Where is it?”

“Am I such an idióte as to tell you?” The man laughed. “Ah! It is in the safest place possible. And no, I didn’t swallow it, if you are thinking of searching me too thoroughly with the deepest insult.”

“I wasn’t planning to,” smiled the youth. “I don’t know if you’ll believe me, but I don’t even know what the object is. I gather it’s pretty small and innocuous looking. The man you took it from calls it The Picasso.”

“Very cultured. He has hired you?”

“No. I refused to work for him, but after hearing his story my friend and I came to Mexico on our own. I’d like to give The Picasso to its rightful owners, Rampo, but I’m also trying to protect you from this man, Asa Pike. He’ll do what it takes to force you to tell him where it is.”

“Even if, at the end, I am dead. This Asa is no different from all the others. And you, Tom? One wonders.” He frowned stonily. “But if I am to be dead, first I will have money and a good time. I will give my possession to the highest bidder.”

“Okay, but why are—”

“Here it is,” he said, “here is that ‘deal’ you wanted. I come to you for protection, Tom. Lock me up somewhere, wherever you like—well, not a jail, of course; a private setting, a few amenities. Keep these wolves from getting at me. And then, to clear it all up and get it all over with, be my messenger. Do you see? My representative. We will make it so everyone talks through you. I see no one. Finally, I decide, and convey this silly Picasso to the winner, and I disappear. With my fair compensation.”

“To resume picking pockets and mugging tourists?”

“To have fun with the rest of my life, which you have saved. I will be in your debt. I will even give you some money—after it is over, of course.”

“You’re quite a guy, señor Ociéda,” pronounced Tom. “But you’re also a crook, and for all I know, a murderer.”

The man nodded. “Que? You’re thinking of what happened in the cathedral? Reasonable enough. I can only tell the truth to you.

“I came there in the ordinary course of business, that night. The poor dead man I was to meet, Tezler—a minor person at an embassy in the city. A naughty person, subject to blackmail, I fear. Don’t feel sorry for him, Tom, for he was stupid and careless. To prick his conscience it amused me to come to that holy place, to collect my modest fee for conveying to him a crude snapshot which he had come to value much.”

“I get the picture,” nodded the youth.

“But Tezler did not, for someone found out and killed him, so the newspapers tell us. This someone—who knows which group employed him?—comes onto the floor of the old basilica, where I have comfortably tied up the two guards and put them in a confessional; for who is without sin? And then Tezler’s impersonator is himself killed, no doubt by a rival group; and I am made a target, then you two intruders, then all of us. A busy night for the Virgin of Guadalupe, but Ociéda killed no one. I say with shame that I was not quick enough to do so. And it was dark. And of course murder is against my moral principles, don’t forget.”

“Shall I believe the words of a stranger?” As the Shoptonian spoke his irony, his brain was working fiercely. It told him: If I back the wrong side, something terrible could happen—but it could also happen if I don’t choose at all! Tom told his brain to shut up so he could think.

“Here,” said Rampo, abruptly kneeling down. He slid his gun across the deck to Tom. “There. I have put myself in your care. The world knows you for a smart kid, Tom Swift. You will work it all out. Money or no, I can’t have nothing if I get dead.”

Shaking his head in frustration, the youth raised his arm to gesture behind him. The door panel on an inner bulkhead slid aside. “Guess you figured I’d be watching through the porthole, Skipper,” said Bud.

“I knew you’d wonder what was going on when I didn’t come right up.”

“As for me, I knew you were there as soon as you sneaked a peek,” Rampo remarked smugly. “But I swear your presence had nothing to do with my giving up my gun.”

Bud snorted. “Good grief, this hangar-hold is turning into a visitors center. We should put in a concession stand for the T-shirts.”

“What will you do with poor Ociéda, young Tom?” asked the thief. “What do you decide?”

“To postpone the decision.” Tom half-turned to Bud. “Follow behind us, flyboy. I’m escorting our guest up to the top deck, to the infirmary.”

“I’ll carry the gun,” stated Bud.

In the infirmary Tom had Rampo sit on a stool. The Mexican watched with growing concern as Tom looked through the cabinet of medications. “What do you intend, señor? To knock me out? Truth serum? Please consider: surely you are not licensed to administer medications!”

“Look toward the door, please,” ordered the young inventor. Rampo felt a cotton swab against the back of his neck, then the sting of a blade and a Chuk! sound.

“Wh-what have you done?” demanded the thief.

“Made you a comfortable guest,” replied Tom. “For us, that is. A while back I learned how to insert a tiny device under the skin. It transmits a signal that allows me to see what you see and hear what you hear. More importantly, it allows me to locate your exact position.

“So here’s what I’m going to do, señor. I’m locking you in one of the Sky Queen’s cabins for the flight back. I’m sure a talented guy like you could easily break out—but we’ll know it instantly up in the cockpit and let out the air in your part of the ship. Get the idea?”

“The idea is got!”

As they flew toward New York, Tom and Bud discussed the matter heatedly. “Look, Tom, you’re putting all your eggs in—in a smalltime pickpocket!” Bud observed. “Why buy his line? How do you know the guy even has The Picasso? Maybe the whole thing is some crazy plot cooked up by Asa Pike and the Collections people!”

“I know, flyboy. They’ve all succeeded in putting me in a bind, a real logic trap,” was the thoughtful response. “Yup. I don’t have the luxury of staying out. I have to take sides—unless I—”

The bleep of the control board’s PER unit, bearing the Swift Enterprises quantum cartridge, interrupted him. “Tom?—this is Ames. Something has happened here, here in Shopton. I—

“It’s my daughter Dodie—she’s been taken!”

 

 

 


 

 

 

CHAPTER 16

 

 

 

          THE RESCUE RAID

 

 

 

 

FRANTIC with concern at Ames’s account, the boys mach-ed the skyship toward Shopton and Enterprises. In the two Swifts’ executive office, the security chief repeated the story in full detail.

“I apologize if I’ve been a little sketchy,” said Ames, clearly shaken. “Dodie always goes jogging before breakfast, down along Lakeside Park. It was frosty this morning. She started her car to let the heater run, then came back inside for a few minutes. She said goodbye.

“I waited for her to come back for our breakfast together. She seemed to be taking an unusually long time—or maybe I was just nervous after what had happened in that parking lot. I went outside...

“Her car was still idling. The door was popped open. She was...” His voice caught. “Nowhere. I examined the car, then the ground. There were signs of a scuffle, marks on top of her footprints from earlier, when she’d started the car. Two people, men, one heavy, one lighter—perhaps slightly built...”

“Like Ritt Kincaid,” said Tom quietly.

“Yes. And now—”

“I take it there’s been no contact?” asked Mr. Swift.

“No immediate contact,” was the reply. “I came here in case they might choose to reach me at the plant. My home phone is forwarded.

“Damon... Tom... I haven’t notified the police. I don’t want amateurs blundering around and compromising evidence. Or risking...

“You two Swifts, Rad, Bud—I know I can turn to you to help me get Dodie back!”

“We’re with you,” said Bud simply. The others nodded.

Mr. Swift arranged for the Enterprises switchboard to have access to a PER unit quantum-linked to one in Harlan Ames’s hand. Then the five drove out to Ames’s lakeside condo in a TSE van bearing Tom’s remarkable robotic tracking device, the sensitector, adult version.

They parked a block away and unloaded the SenTec. Tom placed a hand on the arm of Dodie’s father. “Don’t worry, Uncle Harl. Rover Boy shouldn’t have any trouble finding Dodie.”

“If anyone can,” added Ames crisply and bitterly. Harlan Ames had already lost one loved one.

With the watchers standing well back, Tom activated the sensitector with his Spektor control. The compact metal machine reared up on its single monowheel. Tom guided it to Dodie’s car and let it make a few circuits about it as it sought distinctive molecular traces. “Rover’s got a good scent profile for Dodie,” Tom reported. “Also signatures for two others—recent traces.”

Ames nodded curtly. “But the frost on the pavement is interfering, isn’t it, Tom.”

“I’m afraid so,” Tom acknowledged reluctantly. “But let’s give it a try. One good sign—there’s nothing associated with guns.”

“How about chloroform, or something of that sort?” asked Phil Radnor.

“Maybe. Some unusual chemicals.”

“Distinctive enough to help us,” Mr. Swift noted. “That’s the way it works.”

But the five knew that, ultimately, Dodie’s rescue would depend upon being able to follow whatever vehicle had been used to carry her away. Here lay disappointment. After a matter of yards, Rover Boy paused. “The three signatures have faded out,” reported Tom.

Bud demanded: “So what about their car?”

The young inventor studied the SenTec’s readout. “It’s strange. I don’t see the usual signs of carbon monoxide or other fuel traces.”

“Obviously they used a non-exhaust vehicle, fuel-cell or electric,” pronounced Mr. Swift impatiently. “Is there something we can check for that? Something to trace?”

“Wait a sec!” Tom said abruptly. He worked the SenTec controls. “I was right! The vehicle was powered by a Swift solar battery!”

Bud was incredulous. “You mean—those super sci-fi batteries give off some kind of exhaust?”

“The batteries don’t. But the paint does—our TSE ‘hat guy’ logo. Molecular traces from the polymer compound!”

“Thank you hat guy!” Bud chortled. He then gave Ames an apologetic look. Ames winked reassuringly at his always-impulsive young friend.

Rover Boy had caught the scent! In a minute they were following the freewheeling robot-mobile through the streets at the suburban edge of Shopton, then on to the main highway that encircled Lake Carlopa. Houses were soon supplanted by the trees and underbrush of rural upstate New York. “We’re having to do a lot of enhancement, because of the frost,” reported Tom. “But Rover’s pretty confident.”

“He looks it,” said Radnor cheerily. But Ames only fingered the small weapon under his coat, a Swift Enterprises electric i-gun. All five had undertaken the mission armed.

Presently they exited the highway for a road that meandered through the low hills. Another turnoff, another road, narrower. Then came an intersection like a spiderweb. Within a span of thiry feet, four roads, some of them unpaved, branched off in all directions.

Rover Boy had stopped, moving in a circle and beeping uncertainly. “The signatures are very faint,” Tom told his companions. “We’ll have to send Rover a ways down each of the routes and see whether we can pick up the trace again.”

“No,” Ames commanded. “Wait here.” He climbed out and examined the intersection with care. When he returned, he pointed towrad one of the unpaved roads. “That way!”

“Jetz! How did—” began Bud.

“It’d have to be a large-ish vehicle, wouldn’t it?—to better keep a prisoner out of view. Something that wouldn’t attract any interest on the streets, or while parked as they—as they lay in wait for Dodie. A soccer-mom type SUV would be a smart choice. And there are tracks of the right kind of weight, and tire-width and tread, heading down that dirt road. They’re the only ones to crack through the new frost-layer since sunrise. Easy to tell.”

“You can see why he’s the chief,” declared Radnor admiringly.

Tom directed the sensitector down the deserted rural road, Mr. Swift driving the van near the left shoulder to avoid mashing over the trail left by the other vehicle. Soon Ames’s conclusion proved correct—the sensitector once again began to pick up traces from the battery.

As they surmounted a rise, Mr. Swift suddenly slowed to a crawl. “Get Rover Boy into the bushes, Tom,” he directed, nodding toward the right. “What do you think, Harlan?”

“Yes,” said Ames, as if by instinct.

Ahead the road swerved near a small woodframe house with an attached shed with a roof of corrugated metal—and a big garage that appeared newly built. “You can see it even from here,” noted the security man. “Deep car tracks in the mud in the yard.”

“Tracks with almost no frost in ’em,” Phil Radnor added.

“Man! I’m feeling left out around you big boys,” remarked Bud wryly. “Tom, are you going to let Rover Boy do some sniffing?”

“Not in the yard,” replied the young inventor. “But for confirmation I think we can sniff-out the turnout to the driveway without giving the game away.”

Now Tom Swift took command of the situation. His father pulled the van over onto the right shoulder and Tom had him proceed slowly but at a deliberate pace. “If they’re watching, they won’t see clearly that we’re somewhat off the road as we pass. Rover can scope out any molecular traces while keeping to the other side of us, out of sight.”

They rumbled past the turnoff, and Tom hissed: “That’s it! Good strong signatures up to the turnoff—then nothing.”

Ames spoke quietly. “Damon, I see a water tank up on that hill. There must be some sort of road or path to it. Let’s get up there.”

Some distance ahead they found a narrow dirt roadway leading up onto the further side of the hill, blocked from the sight of the house. They parked behind the tank and waited for a plan of attack.

“Your call, Harl,” said Radnor softly. No one suggested calling in the police.

After a moment of tense thought, Ames issued his orders. “Damon, you’re our watcher. Stay up here with the van. If it looks like things have gone south, use the PER. You could be my daughter’s last hope.” Tom’s father nodded his acceptance. “Tom, we need a sense of things. When we get close let’s use Rover to draw fire and distract them—fake ’em out.”

“Football strategy,” murmured Bud with a grin.

Ames went over the rest of the rescue plan.

The four men began a rapid climb-down amid the brush, along a part of the hill that overlooked a windowless corner of the house where the blank wall of the shed further obstructed the line of sight. Reaching the bottom, after a final reconnoiter, Tom unleashed the SenTec, sending the nimble, gyrostabilized robot bounding down the hillside, in full view, toward the house. It began to circle and zigzag in the wide front yard, like a collie herding sheep with an electronic “bark.”

All else lay silent. “No shots,” whispered Radnor. “Not at Rover—not at us.”

“I noticed!” Bud whispered back.

“Guns ready,” Tom reminded them. “Remember, the impulse bolts can go right through the walls, if we get close enough.” But of course close enough would be more than enough to place them in danger of old-fashioned gunfire!

Fanning out, they first peeped through the several windows at the rear of the structure. Suddenly Bud’s frantic waving caught their attention. He mouthed a welcome word: Dodie!

As they gathered together at a crouch, Ames risked a glance through Bud’s window. There in front of him, in a small bedroom, was his daughter. She appeared tied to a chair and was facing away from the window. But she shifted position—she was concious.

Ames crouched back down amid the huddle. “What did you see?” Tom asked.

“Everything. No one else visible in the room. One door, closed. She’s tied to a heavy wooden chair, many loops of reinforced duct tape. Fairly good job, though not professional. She was gagged but she’s worked it loose. She’s moving her head sluggishly—trying to clear it from the drug.”

Radnor nodded; the picture was clear. “Front, back, or both?”

“Back. Three cover, one in. This window slides.”

Tom examined the lower corner of the frame of the moveable pane. “A cheap screwlock.” He held up his i-gun. “Not for long!” Bringing the emitter-element up to the frame, from which the end of the screw protruded, Tom fingered the trigger-control. A bead of intense light silently turned the screw-end red, then white. In a moment, he poked at the screw with a rock and it fell free on the inside.

Dodie, slowly recovering her wits, heard the slight clink of the screw as it fell. She jerked her head around as far back as she could—and saw her rescuers! “Dad!” she burst out involuntarily—but in a hoarse whisper.

Ames motioned for her to be silent, indicating by gestures his plan to slide open the window and slip through to her. In response she shook her head violently!

“What’s wrong?” hissed Rad. “Is there someone in the room?”

“We’d know it by now,” Ames responded, puzzled.

Tom had pressed his cheek against the window pane and was looking upward. “Here’s what’s wrong,” he whispered, pointing to one corner. A tangle of wires could be seen, bunched around something just out of sight on the wall above.

“Jetz!” murmured Bud. “An alarm!”

Ames took a close look, then shook his head grimly. “No. I see the edge of something big. It’s a bomb!”


 

 

 

CHAPTER 17

 

 

 

          POINT MADE

 

 

 

 

THE MEN drew back in shock. “Not bad,” hissed Radnor bitterly. “Free the lady and everyone gets shredded.”

Ames stole another, longer look into the room. “Missed it the first time,” he admitted in self-reproach. “Wiring on the bottom corner of the bedroom door. Another bomb, for anyone taking the direct approach.”

“It may be worse than that,” Tom said. “For all we know, they could have a timer to set them off anyway—or maybe by signal. I’m sorry, Uncle Harl, but I know this isn’t anything that hasn’t occurred to you.”

Ames, beyond emotion, gave a brusque nod of concurrence. “Tom—can you take out the wiring with your gun?”

“No. The impulse beam goes through glass easily, but not the emitter hotspot.”

“And just burning a hole in the glass could set off the bomb. All right. We don’t slide the window open. We break right through the other pane, drag her over and lift her out, chair and all—it’ll fit if we tilt her. If we’re lucky we’ll have ten seconds from the break before the men rush in; I added five for their having to deactivate the bomb on the door. We lug her aside out of sight—gun sight—against the wall. I have a pocket knife. We cut her loose and carry her up the hill the way we came; harder to see us from inside. They’ll run out and around. We’ll be vulnerable, showing our backs, but... Damon will see us and have the motor revving. Forget the SenTec.”

Tom nodded with the others, but had an additional thought. “Bud can flip that mattress right off the bed and jam it against the door.” For everyone knew that athletic, muscular Bud would have to be the man through the window.

“Okay,” Bud said like a command. “I’m your battering ram. Feet first.”

Bud leaned back and stiffened as the other three lifted him and swung him up horizontal, level with the second pane of the broad window fixture. Tom gave his chum a slight squeeze that Bud understood. They swung him back, then thrust him forward with desperate force.

The thick rubber soles of his athletic shoes exploded the glass inward. His trajectory carried him on in, over jagged pikes of glass that ripped his bluejeans and shirt and the flesh beneath. He groaned—sound didn’t matter now.

It was all done in one smooth motion. Bud flipped the mattress, yanked Dodie in her chair to the window, tilted the chair back—and turned away from the window, crouching like Atlas to take the weight on his broad back. He heaved. He winced and grunted. His muscles bunched and knotted. The chair rose, and other hands grabbed hold from outside. The chair scraped through, bottom first.

It was done. As Ames cut away the ties, Tom and Radnor helped Bud scramble back out.

They charged up the hillside in desperate flight, Dodie half-carried along, waiting for shouted commands or the sound and sting of gunshots. But there was nothing.

As they reached the water tank and stumbled panting into the rumbling van, Tom risked a look back. “Good gosh,” he muttered aloud. “They didn’t come out—I don’t think they even ran into the bedroom.”

Dodie was crying and shaking from the exertion. As the van tore down the hillside path, Ames held her and said: “Honey, it’s okay. You’re safe.”

“I—I don’t know—I can’t remember what happened,” she sobbed. “I went out to the car, and—something over my face—I woke up tied to that chair, in that room. Was it hours? Dad...”

“Can you describe the kidnappers at all?” asked Phil Radnor, gently.

“I never saw anyone. I never heard anyone. But when I first started twisting around to see where I was, I saw that, that thing above the window and the wires. Was it—I thought it was—”

“You probably saved our lives,” murmured her father. “I’m proud of you.”

The van had now reached the country road below. Tending to Bud’s wounds, Tom said, “Know what? I think the kidnappers put Dodie in place—and left.” No one said aloud the obvious implication. Dodie had been kidnapped to use as bait for the bomb!

But Tom had been reflecting on his words even as he spoke them. “But...no, that doesn’t hold water. If they—”

“Hold it!” interrupted Radnor. The road had brought them into view of the house and its front yard. A small car sat parked in the yard!

Tom’s eyesight was keen. “Decals. It’s a rental car.”

Dodie gasped. “Oh—it’s Ritt! I just—know it is!”

“I see him on the porch, at the door,” Mr. Swift reported.

Tom’s eyes suddenly bulged in startled horror! “Dad! Stop the car! Honk! Ritt can’t open the door—it may be wired to explode!”

They made a cacophony of frantic yelling and honking. Mr. Swift swerved and sped up the drive into the yard. Dodie shrieked. Even as Ritt glanced back at them in alarm, his hand was on the door—and pushing.

It swung open. Nothing.

Ames held his daughter as all emotion flooded free.

Tom and Bud were first out of the van as it stopped. “Ritt! Don’t go in!” cried the young inventor. “The whole house may be trip-wired for bombs!”

“Wha—what? Bombs?—!” The boy staggered away from the door. “Tom, what are—” Then he saw another face. “Dodie!”

Harlan Ames stared at him coldly. “Ritt Kincaid.”

“Yes sir.”

“I’m Dodie’s father. You’re going to tell me, right now, clearly and in detail, what you’re doing here.”

Kincaid, already white of face, gulped. “Y-yes sir. I didn’t fly back, I—” His eyes were fixed on Dodie’s. “I couldn’t. I just rented another car...”

“Get to now!” snapped Ames.

“Someone texted me. I don’t know who. Probably Martabat or Turley. I was told Dodie was being held. It gave directions to this place.”

“Nothing else?”

“No. I guess they—”

“You guess they wanted you to come rescue her,” pronounced Ames. “That’s your story. I have another. My story is: you were in on the plot. Your meeting and—wooing Dodie was part of the plan. You yourself were one of the kidnappers. You knew Tom’s sensitector would lead him here.

“It was all about taking out Tom Swift. Or if the bomb wasn’t lethal, at least warning Enterprises not to go up against the great Kincaid operation!”

Ritt backed away, fearful of Ames’s cold fury. “But—no, I—”

Dodie read something terrible in Ritt’s face. “Ritt?”

He looked at her. Both sets of eyes held tears. “Okay. My going to the dance and meeting you wasn’t an accident. Father ordered me, through Turley, to try to get an ‘in’ with the Swifts by getting close to the daughter of the Enterprises security chief. They wanted me to try to get information on the Monoswift project—that’s what they said.

“But Dodie, that’s where it ended. I met you and we danced...”

“So you changed sides,” Ames suggested with skeptical disgust.

“I’m sorry, sir; sorry for her sake, because I’m in love with your daughter. She feels the same—I know she does, even after this. I had no idea of any kidnapping plot. But you’re right about one thing—sir. Father was behind it. Maybe he thought he could push things along by making me Dodie’s rescuer. In all my life it’s never occurred to my father that I might be competent to accomplish something myself, on my own.

“Now I won’t have any more to do with Turley and Martabat and Cosmo Kincaid and Technautics. Let ’em fire me—no, I quit!”

Ames stared at Ritt. “I believe you. Whattaya know. It’s all too ridiculous not to be true.”

Tom had waited his turn, but now spoke up. “I think Ritt’s being truthful, but there has to be a lot more to the story. Those SUV tracks led into the yard, but not out. Unless they drove right up the side of one of the hills, the car is still here—probably in the garage.”

“Tom’s right, Harl,” agreed Radnor. “If they meant to leave after putting Dodie and the bomb in place, why not take the car?”

“Yet if they’re here,” observed Damon Swift, “where are they?”

Tom smiled suddenly. “Maybe they decided to have a leisurely brunch inside. Let’s take a look.”

Bud, wincing in pain from his cuts, was aghast. “Skipper, are you nuts? Even if the front door wasn’t rigged, who knows where they—”

Tom held up a hand. “Let’s take a look—through Rover Boy’s eyes!”

Eyes fixed to the small monitor panel on his Spektor, Tom had the SenTec roll into the house. Enhancing the feed from its electronic sensor-cameras, Tom guided the machine from room to room, with upward glances of its 3-D radar to check for bombs on the ceiling. “No one yet, and no explosives,” he muttered. “Let’s find the door to that bedroom.”

A look at the bedroom door disclosed a big sheet of paper bearing large letters.

 

HAVE I MADE MY POINT, YOUNG FELLER?

 

“I don’t understand,” declared Tom’s father. “Is Asa Pike somehow involved with the Kincaid people?”

Ritt said, “I’ve never heard that name.”

Tom rubbed his head wearily. “I get it now. It’s past Pike’s ‘drop dead date’ with Collections. He’s free and on the run—and here. He’s been following me, or at least someone close to me; maybe Sandy or Bashalli. He’s looked for opportunities to turn up the heat, to rattle me. Unless I hand Rampo Ociéda over to him—”

“He’s showing he can get to anyone, anywhere,” snarled Bud.

Harlan Ames nodded. “He was probably behind the parking lot bomb, too—not Cosmo Kincaid. The police may find a note among the wreckage they’re going over.”

“Maybe he just happened to be keeping watch on your condo, Harlan, and saw Dodie’s kidnapping by Cosmo’s thugs,” Tom suggested. “He followed behind, let them proceed with tying Dodie to the chair—then took them out and installed the two bombs.”

“But Tom, if he’s warning you in order to get your help, why would he risk killing you?” Bud objected.

“Good ‘why.’ Which is why we’ll probably find that those bombs are just fizzles,” declared Ames. “To make a point.”

Mr. Swift was grim-faced and angry. “I’d say the point has been made.”

Investigation later in the day—this time by State Troopers—confirmed the theory. The bombs were only dummy smoke-makers. The original two kidnappers, who were found trussed up and helpless in the shed, spoke of a gaunt gray-haired figure who came from nowhere and commanded them at gunpoint. They admitted having been hired, but refused to name their employer, describing their actions as a “prank.” Which didn’t prevent their arrest.

Busy days rolled along. Dodie Ames commenced to spending a great deal of time with Ritt Kincaid, newly unemployed. “He’s a nice kid after all,” her father admitted to Tom. “Gooey in love. But that’s part of being 18. Isn’t it?”

“If I run across any 18-year-olds, I’ll be sure to ask,” joked the youth.

On the evening after Dodie’s rescue, Tom placed a small, defiant notice in a box beneath the ForeSite masthead.

 

REGARDING OZONE LAYER,

DEFINITE AND FINAL NEGATIVE RESULT.

ADVISE YOU PURSUE EFFORTS IN MONGOLIA.

 

“But even if I get Rampo to turn The Picasso over to me—what then?” Tom asked himself. Who was its rightful owner? Was anyone? What if the whole matter were a typical ploy, a hoax from beginning to end serving some deep-cover agenda? “All I can do,” he concluded ruefully, “is keep thinking!”

And try his best to keep everyone alive while he did it!


 

 

 

CHAPTER 18

 

 

 

          RUNAWAY ROLLER-COASTER

 

 

 

 

THE Monoswift project, and Rafael Franzenberg’s explorations of the G-force inverter, continued energetically. One day, as Chow came by Tom’s main lab with an afternoon snack, Tom stood on the far side of the room with a sly grin on his face. “Pardner, I’ve decided I don’t really need my left hand—just gets in the way.”

“That so?”

“So I chopped it off.”

“Uh-huh.” But Chow’s eyes widened as Tom held straight-sideways his left arm—which came to a sharp end at the wrist! “Aw, boss, don’t even pertend about sumpin’ like that! What’re yew up to, anyway?”

Tom laughed, pulling back his arm to reveal his hand well and whole. “Guess I’m not as good as Bud at pulling a gag on you, Chow. Just thought you might like to, mm, experience my invisibility glass.”

Chow waddled closer. “Ye-ahh, I kin see y’got somethin’ set up on th’ counter. Yew say it’s glass that makes yer hand go away?”

“I call it periplex,” Tom nodded. “It can’t produce total invisibility. Like that ‘chameleon suit’ I made, it has its limits—in this case due to edge refraction.” Tom again waved his hand behind the near-invisible upright pane.

“Yep, now I see a little somethin’,” Chow reported. “C’dn’t hardly see it at all from across the room.”

“It’s most effective in wide, flat sheets. It’s built-up of microlayers of my transparent metallumin metal, with a special plastic film sandwiched between them. It’s computer-fabricated, with contoured gradients—long ‘edges’ bordering different densities—running all through it, which bend the light passing through. In a way, it’s like a window pane made up of microsized periscopes that pick up and overlap visual elements and colors from the more distant background, inserting them in front of the images of nearby objects.”

“Hunh, like them perry-scopes on submarines.” The cook nodded. “Guess that’s why y’ call it a perry-plex.”

“Right.” Tom explained that the many thousands of connected fieldstat units would have outer casings made of periplex, which could be manufactured in big sheets that were easy to cut.

“Easy? Gotta find ’em first, boss.”

The young inventor laughed. “Anyway, viewed from the ground the periplex will make the whole beam-rail blend into the sky and clouds.”

“That there loky-motive rail—thet’s th’ one yuh plan t’ make fly in the air?”

“That’s the one,” Tom grinned. “Rafe and I are working up a way to send the periplex compounds through the GDI in a continuous stream. Chow, the entire length of the rail will be so light and buoyant it’ll just float in midair, like a bar of soap in a bathtub!”

“Welllp, gotta see it with my own two prairie eyes—if I kin figger out how!”

As matters progressed, Swift Enterprises gained Federal permission to set up a temporary manufacturing operation and construction site just outside the borders of the Grand Canyon National Monument. Jake Aturian, who ran Swift Construction Company, took charge of this aspect of the project. The GDI machine—which had grown larger and more sophisticated over time—was freighted there with its nursemaid Dr. Franzenberg. And eventually so were Tom and Bud.

As Tom’s ultrasonic cycloplane drew near the Arizona site, Bud was astounded at all the progress that had been made. “Good night, good grief, or maybe just jetz! This place looks like a baby Swift Enterprises!”

“Nothing close to that, flyboy,” chuckled Tom. “All those buildings are temporary, prefab Tomasite structure set up by Uncle Jake’s construction crews. But we do have a lot of stuff. Even our own onsite power plant.”

“For the inverter machine?”

“More than that. We have heavy equipment stamping out the fieldstat units one after another, running day and night.” Tom noted that much of the beam-rail had already been completed, floating high and invisibly above the Grand Canyon, a few miles distant from the work camp.

“Great,” enthused Bud. But then his face darkened. “Skipper, what about all the bad guys—Asa Pike, Cosmo Kincaid—”

“Right—et cetera! No action from any of them since Dodie’s kidnapping.”

“What about The Picasso? Has Collections contacted you asking questions?”

Tom shook his head, but with little conviction. “I wondered if they might—but no. Hard to believe, but they may not know that I got roped into the matter. But when our pal Rampo finally gets bored with the game and gives it up...”

“What then, Tom?”

“Then—I have no idea,” Tom admitted.

Landing, Tom introduced his pal to many of the workers and team leaders, which included many familiar faces. “Let’s see. Arvid Hanson, Hank Sterling—those names ring a bell,” joked the black-haired pilot.

“Art Wiltessa’s here too.” Tom didn’t need to add something Bud already knew—the presence of a full Enterprises security force, Phil Radnor providing onsite direction. Harlan Ames had decided to stay in Shopton, with Dodie.

Later in the day, Tom took the atomicar and gave Bud a tour of the sky-high Monoswift track. “Hard to see, but the view is worth it!” Bud exclaimed, eyeing the Canyon.

“I’m just glad we’re not ruining that view,” Tom said with pride.

As they neared the end of the uncompleted beam-rail, Bud exclaimed in surprise: “Jetz, what’re those? A flock of condors on the attack?”

“See any wings, joker?” The flock consisted of busy project workers, bobbing and weaving in midair. The strange sight was made possible by another Tom Swift invention, which he had named the liftsuit. The suits consisted of box-shaped backpacks attached to harnesses, with long straps below that linked to the wearer’s boots to provide better and more comfortable support—a useful approach suggested, surprisingly, by Chow Winkler. The backpacks contained “antiballast,” bars of ingravitized lead whose uptending weight counteracted the weight of the wearer.

“Okay, so those are the flying work duds you told me about,” Bud conceded with a grin. “But what about those things sticking out from the back?”

As the atomicar floated nearer, the objects were revealed to be pairs of slender metal swing-arms, attached to the backpacks and extending several feet to the rear. Each one was tipped by a small parabolic dish. “Repelatron radiator antennas, if you haven’t guessed,” explained the young inventor.

“The antigravity backpacks aren’t enough?”

“The ingravitized antiballast neutralizes the overall weight, more or less, but it’s on the low side for safety reasons—we don’t want dieting workers going into orbit! So the suit uses a mini-gravitex to pull the suit downward if needed, and the two repelatrons for some extra upward oomph. The trons are also used for maneuvering. Those skinny rods extending forward over the shoulders have hand controls attached.”

“I thought your repelatrons couldn’t work so close to the ground.”

“The re-tuneable super-repelatrons are unstable, but these are the single-substance models. In fact, they’re tuned to atmospheric air—just like the ones we’re sitting on in the atomicar, chum.”

“Hmm, yeah. I gladly leave the thinking to you, genius boy.”

“One more thing I thought of—there’s a ripcord in case you need to dump some antiballast if you find yourself heading skyward out of control. In other words, you make yourself heavier by reducing!”

At last came a day of celebration—the sky-track was completed! Mr. Swift, Jake Aturian, and Tom himself addressed the assembled workers, warmly thanking them for their great efforts. Then a great many of them motored to the Monument, to the temporary terminal station at the very edge of the mighty canyon. The audience could barely make out the beam-rail of fieldstats, a faint silhouette against the color-streaked walls of the Canyon or, from beneath, the bright sky.

But the Monoswift car was itself a gleaming sight. Some thirty feet in length, the sleek contoured shell glinted of gold from its hull of ultra-lightweight Neo-Aurium. Oblivious to gravity, it hovered in carefree quiet above the jagged fieldstat rail, steady in a brisk wind.

One of the watchers was, inevitably, Chow Winkler. “Say, boss—are these old eyes o’ mine givin’ out, or does that there train car have a little bend to it?”

“Your prairie eyes are sharp as ever, cowpoke,” Tom replied. “As you can see, the beam-rail track has a slight curve at this point—so we’ve curved the car to match it!”

“Ye-ahh, okay, but—I mean t’ say, when she hits th’ straightaway—”

“It’s one of Tom’s gimmicks, Chow,” Bud put in. “The metal hull has a little ‘give’ at the seams, and genius boy’s made the inner frame out of that stuff that flexes when you put electricity through it.”

Tom continued. “In other words, we can actually give a smooth bend to the entire body of the car, which keeps the obduraton slot beneath positioned smack over the rail—‘in the groove’ for the full length of the car.” He noted that the car had an inner shell which would shift position but not curve, keeping the passengers comfortable.

“Brand my flyin’ stagecoach!” exclaimed the cook in awe. “Plumb wonderful! Kin I go fer a ride?”

“Sure!” laughed Tom. “But later, pard. Bud and I get to make a final test run before all you dignitaries take the tour. That’s what we’re calling the maiden voyage.”

The two friends climbed aboard easily enough—the entire side of the car swung upward like a garage door, so that passengers could board at any row of seats. Stepping inside, Bud was surprised to find that the passenger cabin ran the full length of the car. “Er—isn’t there a control cockpit? Where do you put the guy in the striped cap?”

“He can watch from a recliner seat with everyone else—and enjoy the ride,” Tom grinned. “Each car has its own cybertron and sensor system, reporting back to the station. No need for a driver. But for this test run, I’ll be keeping an eye on the readouts through my Spektor here.”

“And if—er—we see a few eagles on the track up ahead—”

“I can brake ’er with the push of a button. Anyway, don’t worry about birds, pal. Those two little pods you saw on the nose give out focused ultrasonic pulses. Not exactly a cow-catcher, but—”

“You can call it a negative bird caller!”

Taking seats near the middle, seats which could be swiveled to face the windows and could even be slightly elevated, Tom and Bud waited for the station crew to send the Monoswift on its journey. Before Bud could ask why it was taking so long—they were off! The acceleration was absolutely silent, and smooth as a mathematical curve.

“Like flying,” Bud breathed.

“We are flying,” Tom retorted happily. “We’re in the air and not touching a thing. But still, I guess we’re captive birds.”

Their cruising speed was very moderate, and the sides of the canyon slowly drifted by like clouds. But Tom wanted a fuller test. “Flyboy, I can hear you thinking ‘Let’s open ’er up!’. So—let’s!”

Tom manipulated the Spektor controls, overriding the station. Instantly the Monoswift commenced a rapid acceleration that pushed them back in their seats. “Wow!” exclaimed Bud. Then: “Er, Tom—that’s kind of a sharp curve up ahead—”

“Well, it worked fine in the lab. Remember?”

“Yeah, but now I’m part of the experiement!”

The speeding car took the curve like a pro, though the boys’ stomachs didn’t fully share in the triumph. Bud grinningly conceded that the thrilling moment was worth the ride in itself. “And look up ahead—a downward swoop comin’ up. Man, sightseeing by roller-coaster!”

But Tom didn’t respond, frowning at the Spektor readouts. “I signaled the cybertron to maintain speed, but we’re still accelerating.” He sent the command several more times. The Monoswift didn’t respond.

He lifted his PER communicator. “Station, there’s some problem with my Spektor override. Take back control and slow us down—quick!”

“We’re trying, Skipper,” came back Hank Sterling’s frantic voice. “But we can’t override. The cybertron won’t switch over!”

The Monoswift accelerated sharply—frighteningly! In seconds it rounded the vertical bend, plunging down the slope of the track at a speed that made the boys gasp in fear. Then, sweeping through the bottom curve and coming level again, the forces smashed them into their seats.

Bud didn’t have to urge Tom to work the problem—or to comment at all. As the Monoswift continued its headlong acceleration, the young inventor strove frantically to connect to the cybertron and regain control. No use!

They swerved, dizzyingly, onto another stretch with an upward incline. Reaching the top, the beam-rail curved off to the right—but the Monoswift didn’t. Its speed overpowering the beam-rail, it lunged straight ahead like a golden javelin, jumping the fieldstat track and hurtling into the empty sky with its two helpless passengers captive aboard!


 

 

 

CHAPTER 19

 

 

 

          STOP AT NOTHING!

 

 

 

 

TOM moaned in frustration as he fought to regain control of the runaway sky train. They were mounting higher under the thrall of their negative weight—and the upfall, like any fall, was accelerating!

“Can’t you—dump some ballast—or something?” gasped Bud.

“The Monoswift isn’t rigged up to do that,” Tom gritted. “And we’re not getting any downward pull at all. The gravitexes are malfunctioning.”

As if to underline Tom’s words, the Monoswift car began to turn about its long axis like a screwdriver, tumbling the boys against the walls—then the ceiling. “Jetz!—like I’m not banged-up enough already!” choked Bud.

“If—if I—can just reach the access panel—I m-might be able to reset the cybertron manually,” Tom sputtered. The rolling cabin made a mountain of the goal.

The boys didn’t need to remind one another of the real danger of their runaway sky-flight. The Monoswift cabin was not sealed and didn’t have its own separate air supply. As the car shot higher and penetrated the stratosphere, air pressure in the cabin would fall away and they would suffocate!

Bud Barclay was a footballer, but Tom Swift had trained, at home, in gymnastics. He now put his skills to use, monkeying his way forward seat by seat, sometimes swinging along as the seats passed above his head. Reaching the cabin’s forward bulkhead, he spread his legs wide like support struts and braced himself, thumbing open the access panel and grabbing for the auxilliary hand-controls used by maintenance workers.

“Yes! It’s—”

The Monoswift abruptly stopping rolling, floor overhead. Then it slowly righted itself. As Bud collapsed gratefully into the nearest seat, he could feel that the car had begun to descend. The gravitexes had reasserted control.

“Tom,” he panted, “what was it? What went wrong?”

“Something in the main processor of the cybertron,” replied the grimfaced scientist-inventor. “I’m sure we’ll find that something was inserted into the remote-command circuitry, blocking signals from both the terminal and my Spektor but giving access to some external source.”

“Sabotage! Another memo from Asa Pike?”

“Maybe.”

The Monoswift finally touched down near the small town of Tusayan, where Tom was met by one of Enterprises’ veteran pilots, Slim Davis, in the cycloplane. “We’ll get you back to Camp Mono in about one minute, guys. How’re you feeling?”

Bud answered: “Beat!”

The Monoswift car itself was flown back to the camp the same way it had been placed on the beam-rail, by one of Enterprises’ twin-blade Workchoppers. But before it had arrived, Tom received an urgent call on his cellphone.

“Tom, this is Ritt Kincaid—”

“Ritt! What—”

“Listen Tom, please listen—you’ve got to postpone the test run of the Monoswift that you’ve got planned for today!”

“Er—”

“Listen! My father just called me. Martabat told him that our security chief, Turley, was behind Dodie’s kidnapping. He’s been trying to cause ‘incidents’ that would be blamed on father and on Technautics. He planned to blackmail him—shake him down. Martabat found the evidence, and it turned out he was more loyal to Father than to Turley.

“Turley’s in custody, but Martabat thinks he had a bribed confederate on the Construction Company work crew plant something in the train car that would allow him to make it run wild by remote control! You and Bud could be killed!”

Tom smiled at the irony. “You don’t think you might be overreacting a bit?”

“Please, Tom, you and Bud are like family now! Postpone the test!”

“Okay, Ritt, we’ll keep it off the tracks until tomorrow. Thanks for the warning.”

“I’m just thankful I could reach you in time. Whew!”

Tom, assisted by Arv and Hank, spent the day and much of the evening checking over the Monoswift. No further problems were uncovered.

Phil Radnor informed Tom that Turley’s agent had confessed. “He had no idea it would endanger your lives,” Radnor noted. “Your dad plans to go easy on him. He’s anxious to testify against Turley.”

Tom nodded, but his face was cautious and weary. “One down. But I doubt Asa Pike is ready to fade away.”

Radnor agreed. “Boss—I have a suggestion.”

“What?”

“I know you and Bud plan to make one round of the sky track before your father and the other people give it its public inaugural run. Let Hanson and Sterling do it in your place. They know it as well as you do.”

Tom’s forehead creased. “Rad, I invented it. If there’s still some flaw—”

“At this point Pike probably wants to take on you and Bud directly, don’t you think? He’s desperate. You’ll both be safer here, out of the public eye. Even if we weren’t allowed to use the drone-patrol setup, the camp still has a fence around it, and a good trained security force.”

With a sigh, Tom finally agreed. He would spend the coming day working on the G-force inverter with Franzenberg, who had disdained the invitation to ride in the Monoswift.

Midday following, Tom was reassured, by PER, that the final test run had concluded without a hitch. But the official debut was delayed for hours, waiting for the guests to arrive. “We have quite a crowd on board now,” the station operator told him. “Your Dad—and there’s the Governor! The people from Interior... And all these Enterprises workers...”

“Good thing we hooked-on a second car.” Each Monoswift car was identical—there was no engine car, no caboose. The cars simply nosed into a recessed space at the back of the one in front of them, magnetically locked in place but able to swivel. Hatch doors were made to connect directly to the car ahead. allowing passengers to roam the length of the train. Wish I were there, Tom thought as he set down the PER unit. I’m missing all the excitement.

Bud concurred with the feeling and had wound up in a sulky mood. He didn’t join with Tom and Franzenberg, staying outside and walking about restlessly as the sun drooped.

Tom had scarcely resumed work when one of the security guards came rushing into the high-ceilinged GDI room. “Tom, something’s happening—a helicopter—”

Tom rushed out into bright day. A very small chopper had set down in an open part of the installation. Its blades were still whirling. As security forces with electric pulse-weapons converged on it the blades quickened and the midget craft leapt into the air.

“I see you, young feller,” came the voice of Asa Pike through an external loudspeaker. “You’ll want to think through these next minutes very carefully. I just snatched up your friend Bud at gunpoint. Got him shackeled on the floor. Any comment, Tom? Got a good set of ears on this baby.”

Tom shouted at the top of his lungs. “Pike, I’ll talk to you about Ociéda! Set Bud down and take me in his place! Bud can’t help you!”

“He’s already helping me,” came the reverberating retort from above. “So you’re ready to talk? I don’t care to waste words in haggling, Tom. I don’t have the time. I’m not quite convinced the seriousness of all this has sunk in.

“But all right, young feller, I’ll let your buddy go. But only into your hands. No one else comes near—keep ’em all grounded.”

Tom was puzzled by the last word, but yelled his agreement and had Radnor order the security forces away. “Please, Rad, let’s just play along with him. He doesn’t need to kill anyone. He just wants that friggin’ Picasso!”

As the guards fell back, Pike thundered: “Good. I feel more relaxed now. But I’m not quite so foolish as to land. Tom, here’s what you’re going to do. Strip off that flying work suit from one of those men over there. Put it on. Take to the air, my friend, and follow me.”

Tom followed Pike’s orders, trembling with anger and fear for Bud. In minutes his antiballast had lifted him high into the air. Pike waved tauntingly through the dome of the helicopter, then began to move off slowly, staying at a low altitude. Adjusting his mini-repelatrons for an air-push, Tom followed.

It took only a minute for the young inventor to realize where they were heading. “Good gosh,” he muttered, “the Canyon! He must be heading for the Monoswift track!”

In another minute Tom could make out the shadowy trace of the beam-rail. The copter drew near it and began to descend as if to land atop it. But then it stopped, hovering. A hatch cracked open and a figure appeared, leaning out, then swinging his legs out and sitting on the edge.

“Bud!” Tom cried.

“You know, young feller, I don’t think it’s all that safe, your coming over near these chopper blades to scoop up your friend,” came Pike’s mocking voice. “Nope. Well now—here’s an idea to make things easier.”

Tom glimpsed a gun behind Bud. To his horror he saw the youth shove himself forward—then slide right out the craft, feet stretching to touch one of the fieldstat vertices. Bud tried to steady himself, but a sudden push thrust him forward. His feet slid, but he managed to twist his body, wrapping his strong arms around the flat panels of periplex.

The chopper abruptly rose several score feet. “There ye go, Tom. Go get ’im!” boomed Pike.

“Bud, I’m coming!” Even as he shouted he was calculating weight ratios. Bud’s weight would more than overweigh the liftsuit’s antiballast. They would begin to fall—a nightmarish fall to the distant Canyon floor! Their only hope was that the twin repelatrons might have enough force to slow them like a parachute.

“Oop! Looks like he’s slippin’,” taunted Pike. “You know, if things go bad, I could probably scoop him back up. Maybe. So what do y’ think, boy? Shall we have our conversation right now? Where is Rampo Ociéda?—!” The last words were a maniacal screech!

Tom was more than ready to answer. But he had no time to form words. Movement in the distance—a gold glint in the setting sun—caught his eye. The Monoswift! Bearing two cars full of guests, it was speeding along on its celebratory debut trip!

The car was already too near for braking to stop it. In a matter of seconds it would be on top of Bud and zoom right over him!

“Seems I’ll stop at nothin’, eh?” said Pike. “Y’might say.”


 

 

 

CHAPTER 20

 

 

 

          LITTLE BIG LIES

 

 

 

 

“BUD! Grab hold!” Tom pleaded, awkwardly darting near his friend, now dangling beneath the monotrack with arms and legs entwined about it. “I’ve got you, flyboy. Turn toward me—grab hold of my harness straps.” His face like chalk, Bud twisted his body at Tom’s touch, facing him and letting loose with his legs.

Suddenly Bud’s face contorted. He drew up his legs and rammed his feet against Tom’s chest with catapult force!

The dumfounded young inventor was thrust yards away and downward below the level of the fieldstat series. And then a shadow fell across them both and Tom understood. The Monoswift!

Riding its tube of magnetic force, Tom’s invention whooshed over the two of them, drawing with it a tide of displaced air that sent Tom bobbing and spinning helplessly. Sick at heart, he stabilized the liftsuit and turned to face the track.

“Thank God!” Hanging by his arms, Bud had somehow resisted being dragged off by the windy blast and suction effect.

He cried weakly, “T-Tom... I—I can’t hold on...”

Again the young inventor closed the distance. To put Bud in a more stable position for the transfer, he hoisted the youth upward, until he was sitting precariously in the valley between two adjacent triangles, arms looped about them and leaning forward. “Okay,” panted Tom. “Now as I—”

The whup! of chopper blades cut him off. Pike was buzzing them! He came close, sending the downwash into their faces, then backed off and again darted near like a dragonfly. “No, boy, not that easy! Your friend goes! You stay! We have business to conduct!”

“He’s completely lost it!” Bud choked. “He’ll ram us both! G-get out of here, Skipper! I can hang on a little longer.”

No you can’t! Tom’s thoughts retorted. Snarling upward at Pike, the young inventor backed away, rising up and up until he was several hundreds of feet from Bud and the monotrack.

He had bet with himself how the crazed agent would respond. The mini-chopper veered, turned, drifted above Tom, and began to inch downward as if to crush him. As the chopper blotted out the sky, Tom readied his right hand to activate an evasive lunge—and his left hand tugged a ripcord.

The top of his backpack flipped open and a slug of antiballast, like a big brick, began to fall upward, accelerating under the force of gravity that it was defying. It glanced off the pilot dome like a slow cannon-shell, making a spiderweb crack, and angled upward into the hazy disk of the spinning rotors. With an explosive Bang! the helicopter wavered and drunkenly slid sideways. The sound of the blades became a stutter.

Tom didn’t stay to listen. Pumping power into the repelatrons to compensate for his decreased lift, he zoomed back to Bud. In seconds they were chest to chest—and falling!

As Bud gripped him tightly, Tom worked the suit controls. “We’ll make it, flyboy,” he murmured. But he knew that with Bud’s added weight, they were falling freely—almost freely, for Tom still had use of the two repelatrons to slow them. Yet more important was the gravitex. The device could be re-aimed to pull them, not downward, but sideways.

Before they had fallen more than a few yards, their downward course had shifted to the side at a sharp angle. “Get ready. This’ll be bad,” whispered Tom.

They rammed into the wall of the canyon—soft clay and sandstone, fortunately, but with enough bone-wrenching force to knock them away from one another. They tumbled and slid, scraping across boulders.

And then they came to rest, near each other on a ledge. After a long bout of panting and precarious scrambling, Bud husked: “Wh-where is he?”

“Gone,” was Tom’s reply. “I wounded him. He won’t get far.”

“Tom, you should’ve left, but—I knew you wouldn’t.”

Tom grinned woozily at his best friend, who now looked like one big bruise. “Ever think about moving back to San Francisco?”

“Naw. I’d have to get a real job.”

Their wait in the deep shadows—it was now twilight and cold—was brief. The electronic headlights of the Silent Streak suddenly descended from somewhere among the stars. “Room for both of you if you don’t mind a tight fit!” called Hank Sterling.

Tom asked as they weakly clambered aboard, “H-how on Earth did you find us so fast?”

“Oh, not so hard—given that we were watching the whole thing start to finish! Or at least someone was. Phil Radnor called Mike Halmer at Enterprises and had him watch the action with your megascope! He narrated the main events by radio, like a prizefight.”

“Do we know where Pike went?” asked Bud.

“I’m afraid we were distracted watching a pair of showoff aerialists.” He added that the Monoswift passengers hadn’t been able to see Bud on the track, though the cybertron had detected him and had begun braking the car, though it was too late.

Bud snorted. “I’m just glad those anti-bird beams didn’t send me flying!”

The youths were checked over in the camp infirmary. Tom was classified a hopeless case and set loose; Bud was kept, grumbling, in a cot.

After a small, barely-touched supper, Tom dragged himself back into the big GDI lab-hangar. He stood for a time gazing up at the G-force inverter, now up near the high ceiling atop a chassis of material-feed equipment, monitors, and controls. “What can I say, kid?” he murmured at his invention. “You were tough to get straightened out, but it’s always us humans that make the real headaches.”

In a way he was barely surprised to hear a voice answer him, from above on a railed catwalk near the ceiling. “My headache isn’t over, Tom,” rasped Asa Pike, gun drawn and pointing. “But I’m a bit calmer. Flying doesn’t agree with me. Got a bit out of control up there. Control!—gotta keep it if you want to finish the job alive. Enough juice left in me to worm my way in here, eh?

“By the way, don’t move, don’t take a step.”

“Look, Asa,” Tom said quietly. “I don’t have The Picasso. I don’t know where it is. Know something? I couldn’t care less about it! Waving a gun at me, shooting me—why bother? It won’t help you get what you want.”

“What I want, young feller, is Rampo Ociéda. I know he crossed the border. I know he came to you. Where is he?”

Tom shrugged.

“Tell me where he is,” barked Pike, “or I’ll destroy that fancy machine of yours!”

Tom gave a weary chuckle, surprising even himself. “So? Go ahead! Doesn’t it ever occur to you guys that we can just build another? Good night, Asa, it’s just a bunch of wires and metal!”

“I see.” The man was calm now, his face almost sorrowful. “Collections is already after me, Tom. They’ll never let it rest. They can’t afford to. All I can do to protect myself is hold The Picasso hostage. All I can do.

“So I guess, well, I’ve had a breakdown. I didn’t deal with stress like a pro. Maybe I’m too old. But that’s why you can’t depend on my being logical or reasonable. I’m not the kindly old character you met up in Maine. No lobster stew on the stove. I’m a man who will kill for spite if I don’t get my way.

“Now tell me, Tom, if you would. Where is Rampo Ociéda?”

Tom sighed and shook his head. “All right. You can have him. I’ll fetch him.”

“From where?”

“From, oh, twenty feet away. No, don’t give me that look, Asa, I mean it. Watch.” Tom fished some coins out of his pocket and tossed them through the air toward the back wall. They clinked against an unseen barrier and fell to the floor. “It’s called periplex. Things behind it are more or less invisible. It works pretty well in big flat sheets, don’t you think?

“We made Rampo a comfortable little mobile trailer out of the stuff. We decided to keep him close to us. He liked the idea.” Tom smiled. “Get it? His own invisible ‘house on wheels’.”

“Bring him out!” snapped Pike.

Tom strode across the floor and halted next to the GDI chassis. He fished a small control device from his pants pocket, about the size of a cigarette lighter, and manipulated it with his thumb.

A door-sized rectangle of empty air became oddly distorted and blurred. Light streamed forth, then a shadow, then a man. “What’s up, señor?” yawned Ociéda. “I was in the middle of—”

Tom pointed over his shoulder and upward. “Sorry, Rampo. That man with the gun, Asa Pike, insists on talking to you. But say hello quick, because—”

Because had already begun! Pike shrieked as the gun was ripped from his hand and sent spinning through the air—spinning on its own axis like a top. Then he himself was grabbed, twisted, whirled, and bounced over the catwalk rail to the cement floor.

Tom reached over to the controls on the GDI base unit. “Guess I must’ve bumped it,” he said dryly. “It’s embarrassing, Asa, but the invertegrator has a little flaw. If you don’t keep it carefully ‘in tune,’ it sends out this force deal that makes things spin. Up there level with the flux gap you were right in the way. My apologies.”

Pike was sitting up on the floor, holding his shoulder. “All right,” he said. “All right. Now come the federal authorities, big men in uniform to take me away. But there’ll be no trial for Asa Pike—whoever that might be. No prison. Never heard from again. Maybe I can make a deal. Maybe.

“They might want to know who the leak was, my contacts in Mexico. I was always planning to run, Tom. I went rogue inside a long time ago. The Picasso would have been my ticket to—

“But where is it, Ociéda? Where did you stash it?”

Rampo grinned. “A very safe place indeed, just as Tom stashed me.”

“Someplace in Mexico City? In a bank? Safe deposit box? Buried under cement? Just curious.”

“Even better.” The pickpocket reached into his own back pocket and pulled out a battered leather wallet. “You want this stupid thing? Aaa, here, take it! More trouble than it’s worth.” He tossed it across the floor.

Tom, who had quickly recovered Pike’s gun, was as astonsihed as Pike. “Good night, you had it on you the whole time?”

“But surely. Why not? It’s just a wallet! Some odds and ends, some money. Not even a drivers license or credit card! Now that, muchacho, that would have been something worthwhile. Wallets?—I have them by the pound.”

Crawling over, Pike picked up the wallet and looked through it, hands shaking. “But—but where is it? Where is The Picasso?”

“Didn’t see nothin’ that looked like a Picasso, señor,” shrugged Ociéda.

“A five-hundred peso note!” barked Asa.

“Oh, that?” Rampo chuckled. “What, they don’t pay you so well? I spent it, naturally. Matter of fact, it got me across the border.”

“Mind satisfying my curiosity?” Tom asked Pike.

“Why not?” Pike said disconsolately. “All nonsense, isn’t it? The Picasso is a diagram of a certain building, an underground complex, printed on a real Mexican bank note in a way that blends in with the background.”

“A building?”

“Think of a country on this Earth that threatens its adversaries with the possibility of building a nuclear arsenal, in secret. Think of how they must protect it from detection, in deep underground complexes, highly secure. To take them out from above requires a floorplan. You see, ‘young feller’? That was it, the big ‘macguffin,’ as they call it. Everyone wanted it, everyone killed for it. Including me, by the way. I was the one in the cathedral that night. I shot that man—he worked for the Adversary—as he waited for you, Rampo. No one gets to you but me, eh?

“Of course I knew you and Bud were down there, Tom. I counted on it. Thought you’d lead me right to Ociéda. And you did, sonny. But things got complicated. I didn’t expect the cartel to barge in and start shooting. What a life.”

“Ah, sí, señor,” agreed Rampo. “And who of us asks to be born?”

Tom glared at Asa Pike with the coldness of steel. “Murders and terror. All for a little slip of paper. That’s the game, right? Little big things. Little big lies. Incidentally...” Tom’s face lost its steel. “That lobster stew of yours? I’ve had better.”

The man called Asa Pike managed a very slight smile.

Radnor’s men took Asa away. As Tom watched, his fertile mind was already elsewhere. He was free to think. And he knew his G-force inverter was only the first step to taming the forces of nature. He would next tackle a force much more mysterious, far more formidable—time itself! That was a challenge for a day soon coming—and for Tom Swift and His Dyna-4 Capsule.

Rampo interrupted Tom’s reverie. “I suppose I should go back in my box, eh? Don’t feel bad for me. I’m ready to go back to prison. I want to see all my old friends—to catch up, you know? ‘So how’s the wife?’, that sort of thing. Oh, by the way.”

Rampo pulled a bill from his pocket. It was a 500 peso bank note! “Sí, that’s the one. As I gave over the wallet, I thought, Well, I do deserve at least some compensation. Ah, a pickpocket’s hands—oh so quick!”

“So I see,” said Tom dryly; “or don’t see!”

“But take it. It brings too much trouble.” Rampo started to turn back, but then paused. “Señor—if you don’t mind—could you soon remove that little snitch from the back of my neck? Makes me nervous. Besides, young ears should not hear the kind of language I use.”

Tom grinned. “I’m afraid I lied to you. I didn’t implant anything, just nicked your neck. But it made you behave, didn’t it?”

The man chuckled. “I see. You are not above a wise lie, young Tom. Confess now—deep down inside, are you not a little bit of a crook, like me?”

“No,” said Tom. “An inventor.”