TOM SWIFT LIVES!
TOM SWIFT AND HIS
This unauthorized tribute
Is based upon
the original TOM SWIFT JR. characters.
As of this printing,
The New TOM SWIFT Jr. Adventures
is owned by
SIMON & SCHUSTER
This edition privately printed by
PRINTED IN THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
TOM SWIFT AND HIS
THE MISSING CHUM
“THE FACT that he’s not sitting next to you,” said Sandra Swift, “proves that something is wrong with the universe.”
“You’ve got a point,” her brother responded with obvious reluctance. Then he added slyly, “So have you started solving the mystery yet, sis? Have you started making your list?”
“Of unsuspected suspects.”
“Oh, stop it,” retorted the year-younger sister of already-young-himself Tom Swift. “You don’t understand the logic behind my methods.”
“Mm—guess I’ll admit to that one.”
The pretty blond girl frowned, her bright blue eyes scanning the instrument panel before her as she composed a rejoinder. “It’s really so simple and obvious that even you should be able to understand it, Mister Inventing Prodigy. All mysteries produce evidence. Evidence produces suspects. The obvious suspects, the ones you suspect, are cornered and captured or cleared right away. So if the mystery is unsolved for any significant length of time—well, it must be one of the unsuspected suspects who did it!”
Tom nodded, wise beyond his years in knowing when to nod, and no less mocking. “Very logical. But I’ve never quite grasped how you go about compiling that list when the people on it are unsuspected.”
The comment bought a moment of silence in the cockpit of the majestic Sky Queen. “We’re getting off the topic,” asserted Sandy with pert reproof. “Back to Bud. I’ve noticed it ever since the two of you got back from Arizona.”
A Swift Enterprises project in the Grand Canyon had offered Bud Barclay a view of its painted majesty from a perilous vantage point—dangling from a monorail track floating high in the sky. Tom had rescued his best friend, and the operation made possible by the young inventor’s G-force inverter had been a wide-hailed success.
But since their return to industrious little Shopton, New York, the black-haired Californian, young as his pal, had seemed—different. Bud was customarily at Tom’s side, but now custom had been breached. Lately Tom’s side was Budless more often than not. Bud’s usual chair at the Swift family dinner table sat empty too many evenings. And even when it wasn’t empty—it was.
“He doesn’t talk as much,” Sandy continued. “His jokes are—”
“They were never all that funny. But now they seem half-hearted. It’s more like he’s playing Bud than being him.”
“People do change over time, you know.”
“Not Bud,” she snorted, in a refined manner.
Tom nodded, banter set to the side. “I know, San. He has something serious on his mind. Some kind of disturbing news must have been waiting for him when we got back.”
“He just brushes me off when I mention it.”
“Me too,” said Tom. “He says it’s nothing. If I push, he makes some excuse and goes off on his own. Know what’s most unsettling? Here I am in the thick of a wild new invention, and what does he have to say about it?—nothing! He hasn’t once asked me to explain how it works!”
Sandy frowned deeply. “That’s just plain abnormal. We owe it to Buddo to do some clever, subtle probing, Tom.”
The young inventor gave her a look well-shaded with skepticism. “Mm-hmm. Clever and subtle.”
“Don’t get sarcastic, crewcut-boy. I’ve solved mysteries before. Don’t forget what I came up with in London.”
“We’re not in London.”
“On The Mystery of Budworth Barclay, we’re not anywhere!”
The sibling Swifts were halfway across the country up near the ceiling of the air, supersonic-ing toward the state of Nevada and the next stage in Tom’s new project, his time-transformer. Under Tom’s and Bud’s tutelage, Sandy had become an expert pilot, working part-time as a demonstrator of the Pigeon Special mini-planes turned out by Enterprises’ Shopton affiliate, the Swift Construction Company. She had rarely had a chance at the controls of the huge three-deck Flying Lab. When Bud had backed away from the proposed trip with a half-hearted excuse, she had exercised the occult influence granted sisters and wheedled her way into the pilot’s seat. There were no other crew aboard the Sky Queen. The massively cyberfied skyship virtually flew itself.
After another unnecessary glance at the controls, Sandy turned to her brother, who occupied the copilot’s chair with lazy insouciance. “I’m sure a mere sister is no replacement for your bro-mantic buddy. But I suppose someone should ask the big question. So, hey, Tom Swift—tell me about your new invention!”
Tom grinned. “Thought you’d never ask!”
“Something about a capsule and a time-transformer. But you say it’s not a real time machine?”
“Oh, it’s a time machine all right,” replied the young inventor. “Just not the kind of time machine you mean. It doesn’t take you into the future, or back to the days of Julius Caesar.”
“I’d settle for the dawn of rock ’n roll.”
“Not even that. You don’t move through time inside the dyna-4 capsule. Time moves through you—as fast or as slow as you want it.”
“I see—age control without cosmetic surgery. What’s with ‘dyna-4’?”
“The ‘4’ refers to time, the fourth dimension—although Dr. Kupp—”
“Oh, please don’t even mention that silly Dr. Kupp!”
“He did the fundamental theoretical work, Sandy—it’s connected to his gravitation-dimension studies. I just wanted to say that he has a different idea of how dimensions ‘work’. He doesn’t think we should number them as we do. He objects to the term dyna-4.”
“Bud would probably come up with a nickname.”
Both faces darkened for a breath or two.
“Well,” continued Tom after the shadowed moment passed, “the dyna-4 capsule is the heart of the time-transformer apparatus. The occupant—or whatever is to be exposed to an accelerated or decelerated time flow—has to be suspended at the exact focal point of the time-flux lens set-up.”
“That’s the chronolens?”
“That’s what I call it. Actually there are two lenses, one above the capsule and one beneath.”
“And it works?” asked Sandy, knowing the answer but trying to imitate their absent friend.
“Sure does,” Tom nodded. “That is, the small model Arv Hanson and Linda Ming first turned out has a detectible effect on various timing instruments we’ve inserted into the critical part of the field. The effect is slight so far, but that was true of the G-force inverter as well. A truly useful time-transformer has to be plenty big.”
“Right. About the size of a football field, you said.”
“That’s the width of the whole chronolens set-up. The capsule itself is much smaller—about the size of my bedroom. There’s even a bed!”
“Stay young while you sleep?”
“Or get old in a minute. The transformer works either way. But sis, human aging isn’t the main point. It has important scientific and industrial applications; but I’m more interested in the way it can be used as an instrument to find out about the basic structure of the spacetime—”
“Tom!” Sandy interrupted forcefully. “Look! What is that—a danger?”
They were cruising at an altitude of about 270,000 feet, having risen through the stratosphere into the lower layers of the ionosphere. The sky was blue-black and star-laden, the world spread wide beneath them, a curving carpet of pale blue over brown. Now, ahead of them and at a higher altitude, was a phenomenon Tom had never seen before.
“Gosh, I—I don’t know what it is,” murmured Tom. “But according to the instruments, it doesn’t look like a problem for us.”
The phenomenon looked, at first, like a luminous smoke ring against the dark backdrop. But even as they watched, it was expanding out. In moments it was revealed to be composed of innumerable thready filaments radiating from the center and glimmering.
“It’s not solid, anyway,” Sandy pronounced. “Maybe it’s a weather effect, like a sundog.”
Tom shook his head. “No—if it’s weather, it’s space weather.”
“My goodness! You mean a meteor shower or something?”
Her brother again examined the instruments, checking both the radar bounceback and the long-range spectrometers. “What we’re seeing are ice granules made incandescent by air friction. I’d guess a drifting ice clump, probably from a comet, shattered to bits as it came shooting into the air. It might be something left over from Comet Tarski.” Tom had led an expedition to the mystery comet not long before.
“So it’s a shower of ice cubes, hmm?”
“If you call a cube something smaller than a grain of sand. Still, they’re moving at hypersonic—”
Suddenly the Sky Queen rang with a sharp clang!—and then more!
Sandy gulped. “Starting to hit us! Tom, can—can those little bits of space buckshot knock us down?”
Tom smiled. “No. Our magtritanium hull is mighty tough, and the Tomasite coating is even tougher. There’s nothing big out there.”
“I’m surprised the particles haven’t just melted away from the friction heat, if they’re hot enough to glow.”
“They’re moving so fast the external heat doesn’t have time to penetrate, not at this altitude. Remember, water—and that includes ice—is a very sluggish conductor of heat.”
“Oh, right—igloos. So no evasive action?”
They watched, fascinated, as the upper-air phenomenon spread wide, like an ink splotch on a wet tissue, as they passed beneath its center. Its outer edges slowly faded to an occasional flicker in their path. They knew that the “threads”—trails of fire with a life span of a fraction of a second—appeared to radiate from a common center due to their angle of vision. “Like looking upward at falling raindrops,” Sandy noted.
Moments later the Sky Queen shivered slightly, then began to swerve port and starboard. It wasn’t much, but Tom and Sandy could feel it in their stomachs. “As Bud would say, Good night, Tom!—we can’t skid on falling ice, can we?”
Sandy was smiling, but Tom was not. “The ice-micrometeors produced plasma flumes—wispy stuff, but it’s interacting with our aeolivanes.”
“Should I panic?”
“Mm—wait a little. I’ll tell you when.”
The swerving stopped—and a new mystery presented itself. Sandy pointed at a blinking panel on a graphic display of the ship’s layout. “That doesn’t look so good, Tomonomo.”
“Pressure falling in aft compartment 3-9.”
“You said the particles couldn’t penetrate—”
“If it’s a leak, it’s a slow one,” pronounced the young inventor. “A pinhole puncture—maybe the original ice chunk had a rocky core. I’ll go back for a look.”
Sandy was still a younger sister. “Try not to fall out of the plane this time.”
“No promises, sis.”
After determining that the inner pressure was still safe and breathable, Tom entered the small compartment, switching on the overhead lamps, and began to scan it with a detector instrument that displayed air currents and pressure differentials on a tiny screen.
Abruptly the deck heaved beneath him. He gulped with surprise, unprepared, and tried to steady himself. Then he was thrown against a bulkhead. Everything went black!
“TOM! Are you okay?” commed Sandy. “That was kind of a big one!”
“I’m okay,” came the reply. “But the overheads went black—wait! They’re flickering back on.”
After several more minutes Tom rejoined his sister in the underslung command compartment. “Mystery solved.”
“Hmmph. Without a list of unsuspected suspects?”
“I managed,” grinned Tom. “There wasn’t a pressure drop after all. As those exterior plasma puffs dispersed—like bursting bubbles—they sent out enough of an electromagnetic pulse to give the Queen’s brain—”
“The pulses couldn’t get through the Tomasite, but they got into the system through the hull sensors. The Queen gave us some false alarm readings, and the pulse that caused that last swerve also caused an emergency shutdown of one of the lighting circuits—just for a moment, thankfully.”
Sandy nodded but looked a little disappointed. “I was hoping for a little danger and excitement, big brother—and a juicy mystery. When you and Bud go off anywhere...” She halted herself midsentence. Her sympathetic look told Tom that she understood the concealed pang reflected in his face.
The huge craft’s jet lifters let the Sky Queen down easy in an open stretch of desert in the area near the southern border of Nevada known as the Nevada Test Site, owned by the United States Department of Energy. “Not exactly prime resort land,” Sandy commented wryly. “Except for the cactus, it’s flat as a pancake.”
Tom pointed through the viewpane. “Well, there’s Bunyon Butte on the horizon. And there—our welcoming committee. You’ll come out with me to meet them, won’t you?”
The pretty blond girl shrugged. “Oh, I suppose. After flying this far.”
The two young Shoptonians shook hands with the little knot of men, some in business suits, some in pocket-protectors. “Good to meet you Tom, Sandy,” said the first to offer his hand. “Jack Walkin, Governor’s Office.” He introduced the others—officials of the DOE, representatives of the private corporation managing the Nevada Test Site, and even a small physicist. “Nuclear physics,” explained the man. “Hyram Beecher. Cal Tech. I can’t tell you any more.”
Sandy smiled. “I’m sure it’s a lot to remember.”
“Those three things? Not at all. —Oh, I see. Security restrictions.”
“My father tried to explain the Subcommittee’s concerns regarding the time-transformer project,” said Tom. “But I don’t think I quite understand. The full-scale installation needs a great deal of power, and building it at the Citadel—”
“Obviously a logical first idea,” said one of the suits. “But our thinking is that your New Mexico nuclear facility is just too close to the good citizens of that beautiful state.”
“Close? But the town of Tenderly—”
“You’re forgetting the Native American reservation. And, as a matter of fact, the public highways.”
“Built by the taxpayers,” a man added darkly.
Tom nodded but objected, “Still, the government has no problems with the Citadel’s operation. There’s no danger of radiation or explosion with the dyna-4 capsule.”
“That’s a matter of dispute,” stated Hyram Beecher. “You fellows would be futzing around with the spacetime continuum right next to a nuclear reactor. Spacetime!—space and time!”
“I know what the term means, sir.”
“Oh, surely you do,” said Mr. Walkin soothingly and hastily. “You’ve been to the moon, and, uh, many places.”
“Tom did sort’ve save the world a few times,” snipped Sandy with a bland smile.
“You’re scaling up a near-microscopic effect tremendously, by a factor of billions,” Beecher declared. “Not everything scales up smoothly without effect—bird wings, for example. Your Dr. Kupp’s mathematics are somewhat hard to follow...”
Tom smiled. “So are his verbal explanations. But the model works, you know.”
One of the men said, “We’re told there might be—conceivably—the production of a quasi-singularity. Isn’t that the term, Dr. Beecher?”
The young inventor was incredulous. “A black hole?”
“Oh, let’s avoid loaded terms. ‘Black hole’ is a bit pejorative. Perhaps a localized ripple in spacetime. Let’s just call it that.”
“Asymmetries, space-tides in the continuum, could produce a breach in the reactor,” insisted Beecher. “Perhaps worse. Perhaps a runaway reaction! My equations suggest such a thing. At least a possibility. The possibility of a possibility.”
Thoughtful for a moment, Tom wiped the sun-sweat from his brow. “I see. Well...”
“Washington has given Swift Enterprises many privileges,” snapped the Friend of the Taxpayers. “You can’t expect us to fall on our swords for you. The politics of the situation—”
“We don’t demand public hara-kiri, sir,” Tom responded evenly. “So—I have my explanation. Now where exactly is the site you want us to use?”
“Look that direction, Tom,” pointed Walkin. “Those small shacks and concrete structures—see them? When we were using this site for underground testing—before the Treaty—those were blockhouses for observation.”
“So the blast cavity is below?”
“Nearby and deep down, yes. The location was selected because of the density and strength of the surrounding rock.”
“As well as the radioactive absorption capacity of the impacted sand stratum,” noted Beecher. “A surrounding layer of fulguritic glass, you know.”
“In effect you have available to you an enormous, hardened underground dome in which to locate the critical parts of your, er, time device,” finished Jack Walkin. “Frankly, this was a condition imposed by my boss, the Governor. We’re committed to keeping deadly radiation away from the citizenry.”
“That sounds like a very admirable policy,” commented Sandy dryly. “Dead people don’t vote, do they.”
“Not in this state!”
Tom invited the group aboard the Flying Lab for a boggle or two, then lifted off. He flew in a tight circle low to the ground, running several of the Sky Queen’s specialized instruments, including the ground-probing penetradar and LRGM gravity-mapper. Finally he used his telesampler to take specimens of the subsurface environs of the great hollow space deep below.
Tom provided his report as Sandy landed the Queen. “Basalt, heavy on the pyroxene; stratified granite; magnetite; carbonaceous silicate... The walls of the dome have been fuse-crystallized.”
“All as reported to your people,” said the representative of the Bureau of Land Management. “Strong stuff, you’ll agree.”
Tom smiled. “Yes. We’ll use our own technology to do a bit of carving and sculpting, of course. But the blast-dome looks fine for the main mechanism.”
“I’ll inform the Subcommittee of your cooperation,” said one of the suits. “Always appreciated. In these challenging times.”
Tom re-smiled. “Are there ever times that aren’t challenging?”
The flutter of a cellphone caused many eyes to dart about and many hands to pat their owners’ bodies. Walkin’s turned out to be the culprit. “Walkin. Yes. Oh? ...Well, I’ll see what he wants to do.” Holding the phone he turned to Tom. “Kind of a peculiar thing—someone at the nearest access gate is asking if he could speak to you before you leave.”
The youth raised an eyebrow. “Oh? I didn’t realize this meeting of ours had been publicized.”
“Oh, it wasn’t,” responded Walkin quickly. “But you know...”
“Things do get around, don’t they,” observed Sandy in a smug tone. She had little respect for suits or pocket-protectors.
Tom asked Walkin who the visitor was. “The name? Mm... the attendant says he didn’t give one, but claims you know him. We’re supposed to pass along—er—‘red-haired and ready to go.’”
“Oh!” said Sandy.
“Oh no,” said Tom Swift—but with half a smile. “All right. But rather than talk over the cell, I’ll walk over and give him some face time. Where is the gate?”
Walkin pointed through the big viewport. “That direction. About, oh, twenty-two miles.”
“We’ll go air,” Tom pronounced dryly.
The two-member flight crew landed gently in the desert only yards from the gate and the parking lot. As expected, a diminutive red-haired figure awaited them, grinning, anxious, and slightly apologetic.
Gabriel Knorff, freelance photo-journalist, had inserted himself into the life of Swift Enterprises on the fly, by means of a personal rocket backpack. Seeking originally to photograph Swift Enterprises’ fledgling rocket ship, Gabe proved a lively and resourceful individual—friendly enough to be amusing, headstrong enough to be annoying at times. And inevitably underfoot. He had joined the Enterprises expedition to the phantom satellite, Earth’s tiny second moon, and had played a role in a couple other Swiftian exploits as well. If Bud were standing here, Tom thought, he’d be grimacing. Bud Barclay’s feelings about Gabe Knorff were a wry mix. But Tom and Sandy had come to like the young go-getter.
“Hi, you two!” Gabe called out. “Surprise!—I know, not necessarily a surprise you want.”
“At least the security gate kept you out this time,” Tom said as he shook hands.
Gabe winked. “Let’s say that’s true.”
Sandy giggled. “Oh Gabe, how have you been?”
The young man shrugged. “Fortesque, Utah, is how I’ve been. Nice town. Teeny tiny town. Think Shopton, New York, without Swift Enterprises. They’re all excited about the new shopping mall—two nail salons.”
“How’d you end up there?” asked Tom.
“I hope I haven’t ended up there. Please don’t dash my hopes, Tom. I’m determined to make a name for myself even if I have to change it to something else.”
Sandy asked curiously, “How did you know Tomonomo and I would be here today?”
“Oh, you know—sources,” smiled Gabe. “But guys, I’m not here for a picture and an interview. Strange but true, I’m not here for myself at all. I’m on a mission.”
The three sat down inside the gatehouse waiting area and Knorff commenced what promised to be a story as quirky as the teller.
“I’ve been working as a photographer and layout man for a glossy mag called Peak Experience. I see blank looks. The magazine is known the world over. I mean that literally—you find it in the pouch on the back of the seat in front of you, next to the air-sickness bag.”
“I’m afraid the Queen doesn’t carry either,” Tom commented.
“Well, think about it—I get a commission. Anyway, someone noticed my name—it’s kind of distinctive—and came walking into my studio. I’d left the door up. See, my studio is also the garage of my rented house.
“So here’s this nice little lady asking if I could put her in touch with Tom Swift, Space Cadet.”
“Why didn’t she just call him at Enterprises?” Sandy inquired skeptically. “Or just send an email or even one of those white square things. What are they called? ...Letters.”
“We do get a lot of ‘incoming’,” Tom acknowledged. “It can be tough to get through.”
“To get through and get noticed,” Gabe corrected him. “She felt she needed an ‘in,’ and of course I was so flattered I was compelled to take her on.”
The young inventor nodded. “Now comes the moment where foreshadowing becomes plot. Please don’t dash my hopes.”
Gabe chuckled. “Okay. Her name is Mina Finch. Mild, soft-spoken type. She looks like somebody’s nanny, but actually she was a housekeeper for some retired science bigshot named Eckdal.”
“Joeren Eckdal?” asked Tom in surprise.
“Yup. I knew you’d know of him.”
“He was an important physicist—nuclear weaponry.”
“Mm-hmm,” said Gabe. “Not the father of the H-bomb, but a second cousin at the least. Knew his stuff, I guess.”
Sandy looked wary. “This doesn’t have something to do with nuclear weapons, does it?”
“No. This little old lady came to me unarmed. It has to do with an inheritance, a will, and a mystery box. So whataya think so far, Tom? Have I caught your interest?”
“Very!” replied Tom.
THE PROBLEM IS TIME
GABE KNORFF was pleased to have an attentive audience. “Well, you two, the story is complicated, and full of drama and pathos. I don’t entirely follow all the details, but that doesn’t matter—I’m a journalist.”
“I see,” Tom grinned. “Maybe I should arrange to meet Mina and get it from her directly.”
“You’d be willing to?”
“I’m sure I could schedule it.”
“How are your next ten minutes?” Gabe jerked a thumb toward the parking lot. “Got her in my van. Air conditioned, natch.”
“You’re what they call ‘something else,’ Gabe,” commented Sandy.
“We won’t worry about definitions.”
Gabe led the two Shoptonians to his van, where Mina Finch awaited in air conditioned comfort. She rolled down the window and offered a dainty hand. “I’m so happy, so grateful to meet you,” she said to Tom after being introduced to Sandy as well. “But I’m a bit... embarrassed. This is such a silly, personal matter.”
“We Swifts are problem-solvers,” Sandy assured her. “It’s genetic.”
“Let’s pile into the van,” Gabe suggested. “No need to squint and sweat out here.”
Inside, taking a deep breath, the gray-haired little lady began her story. “This is all about an inheritance.”
“From Dr. Eckdal, I’d guess,” nodded Tom. “Gabe told us.”
“That’s right,” she confirmed. “Where shall I start? Dr. Eck—he liked me to call him that—was well-known and controversial decades ago. I’m sure your father would know his name. He worked on hydrogen bomb development, you know, and advised the President. During the 1960’s, crowds used to shout at him and protest. Well before your time, you two...”
“But Mother and Daddy told us about it,” Sandy put in. “The Peace Movement.”
“They misunderstood Dr. Eck. He sincerely believed that a well-developed nuclear defense would promote world peace. But finally, he dropped out—out of sight. He retired to his little farm, just outside Terreton, Idaho, and worked quietly as a private consultant for many years. When he lost his wife to divorce, he hired a series of live-in housekeepers. I was the last. I worked for him forty-one years.
“We became very close. Now don’t misunderstand. It’s just that he was a lonely, aging man who sometimes wanted to talk—needed to talk.”
“I’m sure you were very important to him,” Tom commented reassuringly.
She gave a shy smile. “Yes. I was. I know it. He had no close relatives, no close friends. He was a private man; I suppose he was rather eccentric. His ex-wife hated him and his adult son Torranz, who lived with his mother, was an obnoxious, indolent wastrel—sort of a get-rich-quick schemer and swindler. Perhaps you know the type?”
Tom nodded. Gabe added: “I sure do! I’ve worked for a couple.”
“There was no love, virtually no contact, between father and son,” she continued. “Sad, isn’t it? Being isolated like that? I was to be married, once, but...
“Anyway, as time went on there was one other person in Dr. Eck’s life that he cared for and became close to—his grandson Mike, Torr’s son. He was very unlike his father. He was a sweet, honest, intelligent boy who left his home and came to live in Terreton when he turned 18.”
“That’s the age when people really start showing their stuff,” said Sandy with a glance at Tom.
“Mike was devoted to his grandfather, and visited almost every day. He did well in college. Such a bright future ahead of him.
“But Joeren’s—that is, Dr. Eck’s—health was failing. He made out a will with some odd provisions—”
“Wait’ll you hear this!” muttered Gabe Knorff.
Miss Finch, who resembled her name, paused to collect her thoughts. “This is all a bit difficult and muddled. The lawyers explained it to me, but... I’m afraid I don’t think like a lawyer.”
Sandy felt moved to say, “No one does.”
“He had apparently put together a great deal of money—really, a fortune—over his long life. Patents and consulting fees, I suppose. He chose to live simply and put most of his money somewhere or other, untouched. He told no one where, not even his attorney. I believe it’s all in an account in another country, perhaps Switzerland, or one of those little islands. Or perhaps he converted it to precious metals or art. It was his big secret, even from me.
“When he died last year, his will provided that nearly all his fortune would go to his grandson, to Mike. I see the looks on your faces. Don’t feel sorry for me. Dr. Eck planned at first to leave most of it to me. I argued with him and finally talked him out of it. Mike Eckdal had a long life ahead of him; I only wanted to spend my last years comfortably. Do you see?”
“It doesn’t seem unusual, ma’am, leaving an inheritance to one’s grandson,” said Tom.
“But—oh dear. There was something else, you see. Dr. Eck was very concerned—obsessively—that his son Torr, Mike’s father, would get his hands on it. So what he actually left was... this.”
Miss Finch opened her voluminous purse and lugged out a bulky, dark object, placing it in Tom’s hand with a little grunt of effort. It was a metal box, flat-sided with beveled edges, about the size of a small brick. It took muscle to hold it. “It’s heavy,” Tom said, handing it to Sandy to feel. “Is it made of lead?”
“Oh, I have no idea,” replied the woman apologetically. “But the important thing is this. According to the will, this little box contains the information necessary to locate and claim Dr. Eckdal’s bequest, his fortune. But the box cannot be opened!”
Sandy was on the scent of mystery. “What do you mean?” she inquired excitedly. “Does it have a curse?”
“The will gave the rules. If the box is forced open, or a hole made in it, or anything of that kind—well, the information, whatever form it is in, will be destroyed instantly by some kind of pre-set mechanism. It must be allowed to unlock itself. And this is controlled by some kind of inner timer.”
“When will it happen?” asked Tom.
“In twenty-five—now twenty-four—years! Dr. Eck assumed his son would likely be gone by then, and the money would be there for his grandson to use in the middle of his life.” Tom nodded. She went on: “But just months ago, Mike died in an auto accident. I can hardly bear to speak of it.” Sandy touched Miss Finch’s arm sympathetically.
Gabe rushed in to tell the rest. “So now, see, it’s all messed up. Under other provisions of the will, it’s clear that Eckdal wanted Mina to end up with the box if something happened to the boy while Torr was still alive. But Torr Eckdal came strutting out with a team of lawyers who say that under state law, the box goes to him. Get it?”
“There have been contradictory rulings. Torr hasn’t yet succeeded in forcing me to give up the box,” Mina Finch said with sudden ferocity. “Joeren wanted me to have his inheritance, not that worthless son of his! Now that Mike is not around to make use of the money... am I wrong to want it? I’ve lived such a colorless life, Tom, Sandy, and I’m not young.”
His brow perplexed, Tom gave a half-nod. “Then the problem now isn’t just the legalities of who’s entitled to the box and the wealth—”
“The problem is time, pure time! I’m no more likely to be around in twenty-four years than Torranz Eckdal. I must at least try to claim Dr. Eckdal’s inheritance—to keep it from Torr, as Joeren wanted, as much as to benefit by it myself.”
“Oh! Now I understand,” declared Sandy. “You read in the papers that Tom is working on an invention to change the rate time passes—”
“That’s right,” said the gray little lady. “I thought a great deal about what I read. Science is so wonderful, so many new things that I could never have dreamt about as a girl... Imagine, a machine to make a year go by like an hour, or a wedding night last a year...”
Tom gave a wry look, which settled on Gabe Knorff, journalist. “Miss Finch, the newspapers take the tiniest whisper of a possibility and turn it into an international roar. It’s true that I’m working on a time-transformer apparatus. I call it the dyna-4 capsule. It works, but it’s only been tested on a very small scale; you could speed, or stop, a wristwatch with it. We’ve done it.
“But this metal container is far too big to fit inside the focal point of the model we have up and running at Swift Enterprises. Making a big machine that really works is the next step—that’s why I’m here today—but still, it’s just a possibility to be explored. As someone pointed out to me a few minutes ago, a lot of this is uncertain.”
The woman’s face fell. “I... see. I approached Gabriel because I knew he was personally acquainted with you, and when he told me you would be here—”
“Gabe’s known for getting a little over-enthusiastic,” Tom said dryly, drawing a rueful red-haired nod. “Though it’s true that we’re here in Nevada to take the first steps to construct a big experimental unit.”
Sandy couldn’t bear to see the possibility of thrills dissipate so soon. “Now Tom, surely you could just take that little model at Enterprises and make the, the capsule part just a tiny bit bigger!”
Tom shook his head. “I’m afraid it’s not that simple. The problem isn’t the capsule, San, but the size of the gap between the twin lenses. The chronolens field doesn’t scale up in a smooth way—there are certain ‘notch-points’ that have to be used, or the energy demand is far too great. The next-larger focal point requires the sort of giant-sized unit we’ll be constructing here at the Test Site.”
“Okay. Fine. So build it already and put Mina’s brick inside,” demanded Gabe doggedly.
This forced a smile from the young inventor. “Sounds pretty simple! Well, the chances are pretty good. The basic modular elements are already being built in Shopton. We could have something up and running in a matter of weeks. Swift Enterprises is known for fast work.”
Gabe grinned. “Enterprises doesn’t waste time, they make it.”
Tom chuckled and turned back to Miss Finch. “Ma’am, I’ll do my best to help you. In fact—maybe I can help you at least a bit right now.”
“Oh really? Right now?”
“Let’s head over to my aircraft, the Flying Lab. Perhaps some of my instruments can tell us what’s inside the container even before we get it open!”
Gabe Knorff had been in the Sky Queen before, but for Mina Finch it was a temple of wonders. As Sandy gave her a wide-eyed tour of the three-decker, Tom took the box to one of the middle-deck lab cubicles and began to subject it to various probing scans and tests. When he rejoined the others in the view lounge, they found the young inventor puzzled—and smiling determinedly at the challenge. “The container is made of a material called deucalionium carbide. It’s a sort of interlaced composite, dense and almost as strong as industrial-grade diamond.”
“Isn’t it used in nuke-type stuff?” Sandy asked.
“It used to be,” confirmed the youth. “Lately it’s been pretty much sidelined by some of Enterprises’ own discoveries, such as Tomasite and Neo-Aurium. But you’re right. It’s what Dr. Eckdal would have used years ago to contain nuclear materials. He wouldn’t have had any trouble getting the box fabricated to his specifications.”
Mina looked surprised. “But it’s just a box with some sort of message inside—not some kind of atomic device.”
“Well, it’s an ultrastrong metal to make a box out of, but there’s another reason. According to the scanning instruments, a tiny needle of uranium is embedded inside, connected to some fairly simple microcircuitry. My guess is that this is your timer. The uranium decays at a fixed rate—its ‘half-life’—and acts like a perfect clock. Nothing can affect it. Not even a court decision—this is what you can call real higher law! When it reaches a certain point in its decay, twenty-four years from now, I assume it’ll actuate the unlocking mechanism.”
Sandy beamed. “But one thing can change the rate of decay—speeding up the flow of time itself!”
Miss Finch asked hopefully, “If you were able to see inside it—were you able to make out the message?”
“I’m afraid not,” Tom replied. “The material is too dense for my instruments to penetrate all the way to the center. Of course I could slice it open—with an X-raser, say—but the point is not to do that.”
The older woman nodded. “Well. You tried.”
“There may not even be anything inside, like a piece of paper or microfilm. He could have made it more difficult to read electronically,” Sandy speculated. “He could have inscribed it into the metal, or maybe painted it on.”
Tom shrugged. “But the upshot is, I guess, that it’ll take the full-sized dyna-4 capsule to settle things.”
Gabe nodded vigorously. “I may be a little headstrong, but I’m usually right—right? I knew you’d figure something out!”
“Figuring is easy, but doing—”
“Naaa, you’re a success story under a crewcut, Tom. And when you get it done, when the pie is opened—er, the box—the historic moment requires—”
“A photographer?” interjected Sandy.
“Please. A photo-journalist.”
Tom and Sandy took Mina Finch for a sky-ride, a brief one—but long enough for the supersonic Sky Queen to reach the Grand Canyon. “I’m sure you’ve read about the Monoswift, ma’am—the floating tourist monorail Enterprises put together. There it is.”
“It’s wonderful!” she gasped.
An hour later Tom and Sandy said their goodbyes at Gabe’s van. “Are you sure you don’t want to hold on to the box for me?” asked Miss Finch. “At first I kept it under the bed, but lately I’ve been keeping it in Joeren’s big safe in the basement.”
“I’d prefer not to,” Tom replied. “Actually, ma’am, I’m less concerned about the container than about your personal safety. If Torranz Eckdal is as unscrupulous as you’ve said—”
“We tend to deal with a lot of kidnappings,” Sandy observed.
“Oh, I understand,” was the response. “But you know, you can’t spend all your life worrying and fretting. The farmhouse—the whole property—has a good modern safety system. It’s all very—romantic, isn’t it? And at my age! Perhaps I should live under an assumed name. I feel like a spy!”
“Oh, it’s just the beginning, Mina,” Sandy assured her happily. “Pretty soon you’ll be having adventures full time!”
“Just living full time—that’s enough for me, dear.”
Tom and Sandy left Nevada below and behind, their thoughts—excited and mystified—flying even faster. “So what do you think, sis?” asked Tom. “Quite a story! Do we believe her? Or is she the first of your ‘suspects’?”
The pert girl sighed. “Oh, I want her to turn out to be a devious mastermind, I really do. But she seems awfully sweet and simple.”
“I agree,” nodded the young inventor. “I think it’s all as she says—as far as she knows, anyway.”
“As far as she knows? You mean there’s hope for skullduggery?”
“Wouldn’t want to disappoint you!” Tom joked. “The thing is... Mina portrayed Torr Eckdal as, basically, a crook—an aggressive stop-at-nothing type of guy. His own son is barely in the ground, and he’s already engaged in a big lawsuit.”
“One lousy human being.”
“So isn’t something missing?”
“Why hasn’t he made some kind of attempt to steal the box outright?”
Sandy thought it over. “Hmm!”
“She’s been keeping at the Eckdal farmhouse—even under the bed!—while all this legal business is going on. But she didn’t mention any break-ins, any mysterious watchers—nothing. By itself it probably doesn’t merit a thought, but—”
Sandy nodded. “But whether it merits a thought—it does make a person stop and think.”
She looked at the expression on her brother’s frank face and gave him a slight nudge with her elbow. She knew these growing mysteries were usually batted back and forth with Tom’s best pal—not his sister. The time-box mystery is second in line, she thought. “Tom,” she said, “there’s something else, isn’t there. You know better than she does how vulnerable the box is to being stolen. So why didn’t you take it with us?”
The young inventor frowned, and Sandy’s intuitions were confirmed. There was something else! “I feel guilty about my decision, sis, but I think a little bit of you is cropping up in me. I’m feeling suspicious—not of Miss Finch, but of the situation itself. Something’s not quite right in all this. What if Enterprises is being used—set up in some way? After the business with Asa Pike and his manipulations, I’d like to be able to pay attention to my current...” he began—and was interrupted.
A beep announced an incoming call to the Sky Queen on Tom’s quantum-link Private Ear Radio. “It’s the office channel,” Tom told Sandy. “Munford Trent has the counterpart unit on his desk.”
The efficient secretary to Tom and his father came on the line. “I was sure you’d want to know this right away, Tom. It’s—well, Bud Barclay—”
Sandy darted at the mike. “Has something happened?”
“A vidcap chip was just delivered to my desk, Sandy. It’s from Bud, and it’s marked: for Tom Swift—private and personal!”
HAUNTED BY THE PAST
BUD BARCLAY waved his chum a jaunty farewell, standing in front of his apartment as he watched Tom’s bronze-hued electric sport car glide silently away down a sleepy sidestreet. Tall and muscled, broad of shoulder, the black-haired youth stretched, knowing he would wince. They had just returned to Shopton from the Grand Canyon project, the levitating monorail made possible by Tom Swift’s G-force inverter.
As souvenirs of the adventure, Bud had brought back colorful bruises, cuts and scrapes, groaning muscles, and a bad sunburn. “Dangling sky-high from a monorail track does not do a body good,” he told himself wryly. “Bouncing off the Grand Canyon—worse.” The majestic canyon was streaked with color; so was his black-and-blue body.
Bud’s apartment was small—living room, kitchen, bedroom, bath. The first three somewhat ran together, distinguished mainly by their wall fixtures. The bath was mostly a shower stall. The furniture was spartan. Even Draconian. Bud’s most impressive piece of furniture was his television screen. As he stood in front of its domineering eye, looking at his reflection as his reflection looked back at him, he wearily dropped his baggage where he stood and began to strip down for the shower his body ached for.
And turned—and frowned.
“Okay, Bod Barclay, you’ve made your point,” he muttered, addressing body and brain. “I’m stopped dead in my tracks. So why?” Something was wrong. Something was out of place. An inner alarm was sounding.
It filtered up into consciousness. Something unaccounted-for lay on the cheap flimsy end-table next to the sofa, amid the pale rings of sweating soft drinks long forgotten. It was small and square and a shade of rosy-pink—a particular hue that meant something to Bud Barclay, the spear point of an insistent memory. “It can’t be,” he told himself. “It can’t be! But how the heck did it get there?” Because it hadn’t been there when he had locked up weeks before.
He approached with trepidation. It was, as he had thought and dreaded, a folded greeting card, hand made, the stiff paper expensive, embossed, textured. On the cover:
THINKING OF YOU
It couldn’t be. But it was.
Bud picked up the card, sniffed the perfume, read the familiar handwriting within. “Always. Waiting for the day. Time passes. Make it stop.” And separately, at the very bottom: “C’ya. RR”
His inner elevator was dropping fast.
When he sat in his bedroom and made the video for Tom, weeks and incidents later, Bud commenced with the backstory.
“Hi Tom—and I suppose your dad and Sandy and Bash and Harlan Ames and a whole crowd—Chow too, o’ course. Hiya, pardner! Doesn’t matter, pal, long as you’re there.
“Been wondering what’s up with me? Sure. I thought it would just go away. Then I thought I could handle it here in Shopton, after hours. Two bads for flyboy. Now I have to take action.
“Okay. I’m not the explainer you are, genius boy, but I know you’re supposed to start at the start. Here goes. Hey, for once it’s a ‘well-Tom’ explanation!
“The start of the start is back in San Francisco. Like you know already, I went to this special private high school—expensive place, but Mom and Dad were able to swing it. You start there early, in eighth grade, and then it’s five years. I went there, not because I’m so smart—pause for the jokes—but because I was pretty good—okay, really good—at things having to do with... I guess you’d say skill. Not just muscle stuff—hand-eye stuff. I already knew I wanted to fly. Dad said he expected wings to pop out of my back any day. This school kind of helps kids get their dreams started early, if you get the idea. Kids who aren’t the intellectual type, but who have what they call nerve intelligence. Body-thinkers, get it?
“It was called—don’t groan, it’s really cheesy—Personal Success Edu-cademy. PSE. The kids just called it PS-1.
“So there I am, an eighth-grader with a pile of muscles throwing balls around all the time and trying to get through science and math and junk like ‘Silas Marner.’ You can just about taste what it was like, right?
“When you start in, everybody gets assigned what they call a success-partner. Sorta like a permanent study partner who sits next to you in all the general-type classes you’re taking. You help each other, study together, do homework together. You’re kind of accountable for each other. Could be a boy, could be a girl; at PS-1 they say they don’t know the difference. Which I believe.
“Can you see where this is goin’, sports fans?
“Her name was—and still is—Rose Rebecca Truncheon. She liked to be called Rose Reb—as in rebel, see? She was kind of wiry and weird. She wanted to be a dancer; not a ballerina, but what she called jazz dancing. Think of sort’ve a semi-grunge type, short black hair, pale, dark lipstick, poetry. Loose-limbed type. Always slouching. For a while they called it the goth look. It was, like, I’m a vampire, got any blood?
“Despite which I liked her. She was fun—she hated everything. We’d hang out with the guys. It was like you and me and Sandy and Bash, junior version, with total sarcasm. And we’d study together. I owe her bigtime for keeping my grades up that year. And, you know, I think I helped her too. I’m not just a tackle dummy. Not just, pal.
“Okay, I can be dense. She was, you know, falling for me. I knew she was looking me over. But I just thought, yeah, that’s natural. We were pals. We did the sharing thing—hopes and dreams, secrets. We were kids!
“But here’s the deal. I know it now. Back then I didn’t think about it. The thing is: after the looking-over comes the trying-out. It’s sort of a rule. It was for her, anyway. Matter of fact, a law of nature, like gravity and—uh—chemistry. A lot like chemistry. Is there such a thing as a one-sided compound?
“I didn’t want it. I didn’t think of Rose Reb that way at all. Talk talk talk. Cry cry cry. Really blew the study sessions.
“Maybe I was just a little bit insensitive. Guys get that way when they’re scared. Right, Tom?
“It didn’t stop. She got unhinged. I should have seen it. She told people I was her boyf. Boyfriend and girlfriend. Said we’d done stuff we hadn’t—Skipper, we hadn’t! I was into sports and jets and that stuff. She thought we should spend intimacy face time instead of studying or hangin’ out. On and on, like she couldn’t think of anything else. Little notes stuck in my locker door on this pink paper she bought. Every morning. Is this what being married is like? It just about drove me to read ‘Silas Marner’ again.
“And man—texting. She sent pictures of herself that—you get the idea. I tossed my cellphone. Can you guys imagine being a kid in high school without a cellphone?—!
“She would find ways to take pictures of me and post them on the Net. Man, I am so glad she couldn’t get into the locker room! Wellll... Naw.
“My Bud, my boyf. It wasn’t flattering anymore—okay, maybe a little, but kind of scary. She was sucking up my oxygen. I guess that’s when I started thinking about moving away...
“Finally—a guy doesn’t like to ask for help—I talked to my counselor at school—they call ’em Success Enablers. He said he’d talk to Rose Reb’s folks.
“I guess he did, because she changed. She wouldn’t talk to me. We got new partners. Every time I saw her, she was already staring at me. Like the Mona Lisa without the smile, see?
“She must’ve spent the summer brooding. Second year she went from unhinged to unglued. The wings fell off. The hinges popped. She was out of school a lot. She did weird stuff, dangerous stuff. One time she was arrested. I’d heard she’d run somebody over.
“Jetz! What do you do? I felt guilty. Maybe I encouraged her by being too stupid to pick up on her feelings at first. I was all wrapped up in myself. But man... I was just a kid! Bein’ big doesn’t mean you’re grown up. You were grown up when you were born, Skipper, but me...
“So to make up for bein’ stupid, I did something even more stupid. I called her and asked her to meet me at a restaurant—an expensive restaurant—so we could just talk and clear things up. I can hear you rolling your eyes Sandy, Bashalli. I was just trying to be honest. I even thought I was being sensitive. Yeah.
“She came sweeping in the door like she was on her way to the Oscars, Tom. Beautiful gown, hair done up, makeup, the whole nine yards plus touchdown and victory dance. Me, I was in jeans and a sportcoat. I mean, the place wasn’t that expensive.
“We ate and talked and she cried and I told her how much I liked her, and because I liked her so much I didn’t want to mislead her, and all that stuff, stuff you say when you can’t really say the truth. She got loud and threw her tapioca at me and flew out the door like a rocket.
“She left the school. Nobody knew where she’d gone to. Somebody said her parents had put her in a hospital. I never knew, not exactly. People stopped talking about her. I guess no one really cared. By that time she didn’t have any friends—just me. And I don’t know exactly what I was.
“That wasn’t the end, though. I started getting those rose-pink cards again, by mail. They always just said ‘C ’— apostrophe — ‘Y ’— ‘A’. Get it? ‘See ya’. Over and over. As in crazy.
“One time there was a razor blade taped to the card. I got scared—for myself, for my family too. So I thought again about somethin’ I’d had on my mind since I was a little kid, the whole Swift-Newton thing, the hard feelings, the separation way back when. I wanted to be the Newton, the half-Newton, to end it. And I guess I already wanted to work for Swift Enterprises. And to fly jets. So I made up my mind and moved to Shopton. Sixteen years old. Fugitive from life, hunh.
“I thought it was all over. But.”
Here Bud paused. His video watchers—first Tom alone, then all those predicted and a few more—could see the pain on his face as he collected his thoughts and continued.
It had escalated after the first note was left in his apartment. He had come out of the local supermarket to find the windshield of his beloved red convertible, TSE TSE FLY, spiderwebbed. “Sorry, Tom, but it wasn’t a rock from an open truck, like I told you. There was a rosy note. ‘C’ya. C’ya. C’ya.’ Over and over. All over it in tiny letters. Musta been a hundred times.”
The next day, coming home from Enterprises, he found a splash of rose-pink paint slopped across his apartment door. Bud’s neighbor mentioned a dark-haired girl scurrying along the street with paint dripping from her hands. “Do you get that, genius boy? Not from a brush. She had sloshed it on with her hands!”
When Tom had asked Bud to join him on the trip to Nevada, Bud had shrugged it off distractedly. “The real reason was, I had an appointment with Rock at the Shopton PD. Secret, confidential stuff. He promised that. He said there wasn’t much he could do, not yet. He said I should see a lawyer, maybe get a restraining order.”
But Bud Barclay was never one to believe in restraint.
He had returned to his quiet apartment and had sat in a Draconian chair with distressed and hopeless cushions, sat for quite a time before a wall of opaque thought. He felt guilt, confusion, dread.
The shrilling phone gave him a jolt. He recognized the voice instantly. It was breathless, tearful, disjointed.
“She apologized. She kept saying she didn’t mean anything by it. That she was upset—like, duh! She said she knew she needed help. Talked about being on medication that sometimes made her a little crazy.
“Then she’d sort of flip, click over to a different mood—so how are you, Bud? How’s work? What was the moon like? But then when I’d mention your name, Tom, she’d get weird. She kept sayin’ stuff about time—time passing, time taking me away, we’re all prisoners of time... I tried to keep her talking. I was afraid maybe she was calling to say she was gonna kill herself.
“And then came the power drive. She said she was going to get married! She said she’d met some guy somewhere, I dunno, she didn’t go into it. But she didn’t know if she wanted to, it was all messed up, she couldn’t stop thinking of me...
“I congratulated her, but then she started crying—you know, hysterically. Maybe I shouldn’t have congratulated her. But hey, she was getting married...
“So here’s the upshot, Tom—guys. After I drop off this little video, I’m gettin’ in my poor TSE TSE to go meet her where she’s staying, in—oh man—Niagara Falls. She says we’ll meet out in the open, she’ll stay calm, she just needs to see me once more and talk face to face...
“I dunno, pal. If I don’t do it, maybe all this won’t stop. But it’s got to stop. Maybe it’s my fault. I was stupid. I have more feelings than people—
“I mean, I should have known what was happening to her. Now, I would. Then, jetz!—I was just a kid. I hadn’t even been to the moon.
“So off I go. Sorry I couldn’t tell you, Tom. You’re my pal, my best pal. But you’re a guy, so you know how it is. It’s my prob. For this once, I have to solve it on my own. No science, genius boy. That’s a please.
“No big deal. I outweigh her. But if she does get crazy, if something happens—
“No, nothing’s gonna happen. I’ll just be out of touch for a night, maybe another, and now you know why. The story. Even before my Mom and Dad.
“Well Tom. There it is.
“See you, all of you, in a day or two.”
A day or two passed.
THE TRIP to Niagara Falls from little Shopton was an easy one for TSE TSE, even with its humiliated windshield. Bud took a motel room in a little tourist hamlet with a view of the silvered cataract a couple miles distant. He waited until, as arranged, his cellphone brought Rose Reb to his ear.
“You said a public place, Reb,” Bud reminded her. “My room isn’t a public place, not even if I leave the door open.”
“I know what I said.” Her tone was neither angry nor sad, but oddly distended in an other-worldly manner. Jetz, Bud thought, she’s phoning in from the capital of Lower Schizophrenia!
He went on, “So what’s your pleasure, Reb? Dinner somewhere? Casual dress this time, hunh? No tapioca.”
She ignored the gibe. “I’ve found a good place for us to meet, just a little place, like a patio. We can walk to a restaurant.” She gave him directions to an open-air plaza next to some shops.
“Got it,” Bud said.
Before he could go on, Rose Reb interrupted in a sudden rush of obscure emotion. “Bud, I’m—I’m so sorry about—about everything. I broke into your apartment... the windshield... My meds make me kind of obsessive, really out of control—”
“Those are great meds, Reb.”
“I don’t need that!” she snapped, her mood flipping on an instant. Then it switched channels to maudlin dripping. “Oh, it’s... sad but wonderful. I’m getting married...”
“You told me.”
“I haven’t known him long. He can handle me. He’s not like you, Bud. He can... understand. He helps me make sense of things.”
The San Franciscan had an intuition. “He’s the one who pushed you to see me again. Right?”
“He thought it would be good for me. I need to put all this away. I want my life with him to be unencumbered. See? No more past. Cut time off with a knife.”
A knife. Knew I shoulda come packing a repelatron, Bud thought wryly. He wondered how hard it would be to tune Tom’s selective force-ray to “girl.”
“Reb... not to be rude. But you’re not going to make a scene or anything. Are you? We’ll both live through this? All body parts still attached?”
She giggled—another flip of channel. “No, I’ve swallowed a bomb! You’ll never grow up, spaceship kid. You’ll always be just somebody’s comical sidekick—Tom Swift’s! Time has you prisoner... frozen time. Time’s meat locker.” Click. “I’m just joking, Bud. You were always so sweet and caring. Your eyes... I still see your gray eyes. Black lashes.”
“Still have ’em. Both. See you in twenty, Rose Reb.” Bud anticipated a reply, and clicked off the cell to forestall it. This is what I did to her, his conscience asserted. Shut up, he replied.
He drove to the spot and parked nearby. Climbing out of his convertible, he paused to glance back. “I really need that old bumper sticker,” he muttered.
I’D RATHER BE FLYING
“So much ‘rather’,” he said. He wanted to be free. He wanted to own his days—had to. Why did life ladle out this indigestible gruel?—though gruel wasn’t quite the word.
The plaza was not wide, but was fairly lengthy, narrowing to a sidewalk at either end that meandered among trees and shops. It was new and concrete-flat, with concrete slabs for benches, and planters with sides that swept up in smooth curves like the waves of a nervous sea. One side gave a view of the Falls, brightly lit in defiance of the twilight of day. The other side of the plaza was fronted with silent shops, closed for the evening. As Bud stood looking about, tall lamps came on, making disks on the concrete.
It was public, all right, but the public was absent. An elderly couple crossed the plaza at a shuffling gait and disappeared down the further sidewalk. A young boy clattered through in a dash. Music played somewhere, tinnily; it took Bud a moment to find the hidden speakers. He was alone with the breeze.
He shuffled his feet uncertainly. Should he sit down? But it might be better to meet Reb on his feet...
A noise came out of the distance and grew—the rasp of skate wheels. A skater on a board popped out of the sidewalk behind Bud and glided across the plaza to the far end. He did a little jump-stunt, then whirled and proceeded on his way down the sidewalk. The sound diminished—paused—and rose again.
The skater erupted back into view—a lean tight-muscled guy in his mid-twenties, thin scraggling goatee, woven skater cap with cobwebby hair dangling down. Bud had heard such people described as drunges. He spun past Bud on the left, calling out, “Got th’ time, bud?”
“Mm, about seven forty-five.”
“Grac’, man.” The skater looped back, passing on the right. He popped up on a bench slab, took the length of it, and dropped back down, control perfect. He swerved back toward Bud and braked-up, stopping. He gave Bud a toothy grin.
“Sweet work,” said Bud distractedly. This is the public, I guess, he thought.
The skateboarder gave a nod and resumed, hopping the end of a bench, with a smooth drop-down. Then he slowed to a modest cruising speed. “Cat gotcher tongue?”
“Just sayin’—not even a little impressed, man? That I know your name?”
“You do? You recognize—”
“Said it, didn’t I? Dude, I called you Bud! Right?”
“Oh,” said the youth. “Sorry. I thought it was just, you know, like—”
The drunge did another stunt, using the upsweep of a planter as his launch pad. He casually skate-sauntered past Bud, passing near, saying: “Seven forty-five. Guess that’s when she told you to meet her, hunh, bo?”
Bud’s muscles clenched top to bottom. “Who are you?”
“Just sayin’, bo.” The drunge zipped away effortlessly, then sped back. He stopped completely and faced Bud from a distance of a few feet. “Know who I am? Who might I be? Guess it, buddy boy!”
The San Franciscan stared. “Where’s Reb?”
“Wasn’t the question. Stuck? I’m Gar Baxx.”
“Do I need to know you—‘bo’?”
The boarder’s yellow grin, with gaps, broadened. “Need to or not, you’re gonna.” He commenced skating around Bud in elliptical orbits, slow and easy and unnervingly close. “Pretty Rose Reb. Needs a friend. I’m gonna marry her—yeah, I’m the one. Time to settle down. But—
“There’s a code, Bodboy. Respect is owed. C’mon, you and Tom and the whole scringe posse know about traditional family values. When yuh’re gonna marry someone, when the hand is given, ring on th’ finger, you don’t go visit your ex-boyfriend. Not even to crack-off his car. You don’t leave love notes. You don’t yearn. Nope. Dissing ol’ Garton is a bad idea. Secret rendezvous—don’t think so.”
“Look,” snarled Bud. “She asked me to be here, in public. She thought it would help her end all this stuff from back in S’Fran. It’s not some violin-romance deal. I don’t have that kind of interest in her—”
“Hey! You puttin’ down the woman of my future?”
“She said you were the one who suggested all this, man.”
Baxx chuckled as he swerved close. “Yeah? You believe what a crazy person says?” He stopped twenty feet away and the grin suddenly dropped off his face. “You’re not walking out of here, Bud Barclay.”
Bud had been in many a fight. His fists knotted. “What did you do to her, Baxx? Where is she?”
“Aw, not so far away. As the crow flies.” Baxx held up a hand. Bud noticed for the first time that his black gloves had small copper-colored buttons on the fingertips—and that wires led along his arms and under his shirt. “Nice. Worksaver. Say, did you know ‘TASER’ means ‘Tom A. Swift Electric Rifle’? Truth. But who needs a taser when you got The Glove?” He began to roll closer, very slow and steady. He extended his right hand. “Shake, dude!”
Bud knew he should run, but hesitated. His own respect, for himself, was being challenged. This was now moose-to-moose. He didn’t like to run. But then again... he was a runner. A good one. Jetz, you can’t win a slugout with electricity! he reasoned, trying to overcome the sheer maleness of his hormones and flooding adrenaline. He threw himself backwards away from Baxx and began to pivot.
But Garton Baxx was a pro. He knew his four wheels and board. His circling had been strategic, maneuvering Bud into a vulnerable position. Now, as the Shoptonian started to tear out, he heard the board ricochet off the planter near them. The boarder clomped down a couple yards in front of Bud, palm in front of Bud’s face like a stop sign.
Bud twisted and dropped violently, darting beneath Baxx’s arm, then popping up again. The maneuver cost Bud speed. Baxx was already correcting, zooming past and blocking the way, with a laugh.
Bud was corralled in a wild spiral of passes and charges on all sides. He couldn’t break through the one-man line, and he didn’t dare charge his opponent.
He decided to wait for whatever brief moment of distraction his foe might offer. As Baxx deftly flipped around ten feet away, Bud dug out toward the sidewalk and the narrow band of shrubs lining it. Can’t skate through the tree roots, his thoughts assured him.
But first he had to reach the tree roots. And he didn’t.
He barely registered the metal rush behind him, closing fast and deadly. Then something icy cold brushed the back of his neck. Bud noted, without any particular feeling, that his legs had folded up. He was down on the concrete like a laundry sack. His muscles twitched with shock. He couldn’t rise.
The board rolled into view, stopped. A scraggly head lowered into sight.
Baxx was panting and grinning, his blond hair, greasy with sweat, stringing down beneath his cap. Half kneeling, he extended a gloved hand. “Took a bad one, huh, Bud? Here, bo, let me help you up.”
The glove came down on Bud’s bare forearm. And that was it for Bud.
BUD was surprised not to hurt. He lay on his back, on asphalt. There was sun on the other side of his eyelids, but the asphalt was cool, as if the morning were new.
His eyelids didn’t want to come up. He almost had to pry them. Then he looked, and pushed himself up on his palms to look again, turning over and raising his head.
“Okay,” he breathed, “okay. Niagara Falls, where are you?”
There was a bad disconnect between eye and ear. He was sprawled on a street, in friendly sunlight, near the line down the middle. It extended off for blocks. Cars were neatly parked along the curbs, next to sidewalks, next to storefronts. Trees spread up and over from the neat square gaps in the walk, in spaces of dirt reserved for them. Telephone lines crossed above in sagging arches, from T-poles, from rooftops. There were streetlights on fluted columns, dignified and old-fashioned, with hanging globes. At the end of the block, a stoplight changed from red to green. The sky was pale blue, cloudless but a bit fuzzy, not a morning after all but a mild and dry middle of a day.
But there was no sound. No car rumbles, no squeal of brakes, no chirping birds, no scuff of shoes against the walkways. Babies did not cry. Dogs did not bark.
Bud looked at his arm and saw a pinprick of red. “Injected me with something,” he murmured. Maybe one of Rose Reb’s psych meds, he thought. Had it made him deaf?
But no. He could hear his own voice, his fingernails against the pavement.
The problem was not him. The problem was the world.
Nothing moved but the stoplight.
He struggled onto his feet, woozily. There were no cars rolling down the street. Only parked cars. No one was getting into or out of those cars. No one was gunning an ignition. The cars were empty. The sidewalks were empty.
There were no people.
“Well,” he said aloud, “there’s me.” He added: “I hope there’s me.”
Bud Barclay wasn’t the sort of person to say, Am I dreaming? He knew he wasn’t dreaming. A drug may have knocked him out, but now he was wide awake.
How long had he been out? “Long enough for it to turn day,” he reasoned. Long enough to ship him here—to a sleepy town for late sleepers, or something like it. But how many days? More than one? Several? Had he been forced, chemically, to unremember a week’s worth of events?
He took a step. It wasn’t as difficult as he had feared. He was doing okay. Muscle boy, he thought. Then: high school athlete. That phrase led him to an unwanted memory of Rose Reb. What had her lunatic fiance done to her?
He trudged dully onto the sidewalk. Not that it mattered on that lifeless street with no traffic. “After all, I’ve been just lying in the middle of it for a while.” Maybe a long while.
He still wore the same clothes; he was dressed for a casual, if tense, dinner. They were wrinkled and stale. But not on me long enough to cross over to majorly disgusting, he thought. He felt black stubble on his chin. He checked his pocket, surprised to find that he still had his wallet, his cell, his keys, his cash, even his random change, just as he had counted it into his palm in the motel room. He absently flicked a finger against the watch on his wrist. Funny kind of mugging, he thought. But of course, it wasn’t a mugging. It was a jealous lover on a skateboard taking out a rival. “And having fun doing it.” He envisioned Gar Baxx snickering somewhere nearby, out of sight. Hilarious. Electrocute your opponent, drug him, dump him in some sleeping half-dead town out in central nowhere. Bud remembered reading of a college guy who had returned to his dorm room to find that someone had constructed a compact car inside it...
It’s like a hazing, he thought. Except—this is a frat I really don’t want to join.
He flipped open the cellphone. Nothing.
Figures, he thought. Was there still such a thing as a public pay phone?
He was standing next to a glass window. The shop was called Verna’s Today. Inside the window were mannequins modeling women’s dresses. He stood regarding their waxen expressions, their pastel-shaded outfits. Something gnawed at his mind. At last it came forth: he hadn’t seen clothing like that in a long time. A long time. Old-fashioned skirts, old-fashioned blouses. Jetz! he thought, that one’s wearing an apron! When had he last seen a young housewife in an apron—and pearl earrings?
On old TV reruns.
“At least the town isn’t in black and white,” he joked with himself.
The shop door placard said OPEN. But he decided real men didn’t enter women’s dress shops, even to ask what town—or what state—he was in.
Glancing along the row of buildings—most of them small and modest—he wandered up to the drug store next in line. It was a chain drugstore, though he recognized the chain name only vaguely. Hadn’t they gone out of business when he was a little boy? The windows were plastered with hand-scrawled signs for sunglasses and aspirin and candy bars. He read the prices twice, boggling. “Man, I’ll say it’s a sale!” Bud muttered. Was there really such a thing as nickel candy?
He stepped on the grooved rubber pad, and the doors swung open with a whoosh. Air conditioning wafted over his face. He could hear the canned shoppers’ music now. Reassuring signs. He cranked up his charm. It would be embarrassing, asking “Where in space am I?” But he could play the scene as a half-joke. And buy some candy.
A few more steps and realization. The piped music was all there was to the sounds of life in the store. He pivoted in place, scanning like radar. Rex-All was like the street. Plenty of things. No people.
“Hello?” he called out timidly. Was there a pushbell somewhere, for service? To wake up a dozing salesclerk, a checkout girl—anyone? Because so far there was no one.
There were two checkout counters. He marveled at the cash registers. They were mechanical, manual. No power cable. More to the point, no pricecode scanner. It seemed that, incredibly, the checkout clerks actually had to read the individual price tags and punch in the numbers!
“If I were a certain type of guy,” Bud said aloud, “I’d ring open the cash drawer and—” But, of course, he wasn’t. Still, that Rrrring! would bring someone running from somewhere.
“Hello!” he called out again, now more demandingly. He wanted to sound like someone capable of trouble. “Customer, guys!” He imagined everyone in a side room knotted in front of a small portable TV. And then he imagined the sort of national event that might have hastened them there...
Nothing stirred but the background music. It was lush with strings. No beat to it.
The young flier ran a finger along the counter, half expecting to scrape up a cake of dust. But his finger was clean. The floor tiles—tiles, not a carpet—were also clean, and buffed, a dull ivory color with black speckles. It reminded him of the floor of a service station restroom. He had known such floors.
He looked overhead. Long fluorescent tubes, flickering just a bit now and then. Now he could distinguish their characteristic hum behind the music. It made him feel impatient, even—he didn’t like to think it—nervous. Or worried. Or maybe—afraid.
He wandered down the rows of shelves, aisle after aisle, well stocked and utterly tidy and clean. It gave him a strange, unnamed feeling to see the items. Nothing was electronic. Everything was new, but nothing was modern. Even the muted color schemes seemed like something from the days when his father was a child, as he had seen in old snapshots. But the toys—there the colors were bright and gaudy. Jack-In-The-Boxes, plastic guns, dolls. Board games he had seen stacked in the Barclay garage since long-ago days. Baseball bats—wooden. Wooden!
The little-girl dolls were dressed in frilly garments. They can’t all be Alice in Wonderland, he thought wryly. There were no colors to the faces other than blushing white. Where were the action figures? The only thing promising action was the pull-string on a doll named Chatty Cathy. The only boy dolls were clowns.
He stared at a set of faux-China for a promised tea party, a tiny one. At something called Mister Mechano.
There was a wooden rocking horse. An inflated, round-sided figure called “Mr. Bobo” stood by himself at the end of the aisle, staring at Bud with pieplate eyes and a disarming, unnerving grin. Knock him down—he bounces right up! promised the placard. “What happens if you knock him up?” Bud wondered.
The next aisle offered model kits—ships, planes, cars. The jet planes were of the Korean War era. Likewise the model cars—classic woodies, a few sporty models, a convertible. There was a build-it-yourself log cabin, big enough for a kid to sit in, made of long cardboard tubes that stacked together in notches.
But this Rex-All had boldly entered the Space Age. There were model rockets straight from ancient TV serials, the sorts of things done live in studios and recorded on scratchy kinescope film. One rocket bore on its side Jet Jaxton Space Commando: Genuine Super-Comet. “C’mon, guys,” he said aloud. “The Star Spear, the Challenger—Tom Swift junk outsells everything these days.” But this shelf had never heard of Tom Swift, evidently. Perhaps not “these days,” even.
However, a moment made Bud reconsider, briefly. On a bottom shelf was a big box labeled Tom Swift Electric Rifle—safe for kids! Bud chuckled. That Tom was his chum’s famous great-grandfather. The item was now a collectible in the civilized world. Did obsessed collectors realize that old drug stores in timeless towns still had such a thing for sale? For—he almost gasped—$3.95? In mint condition?
Maybe he was dreaming.
He picked up a plastic ray gun, Blast-o-matic, and thumbed the trigger. The barrel whirred and flickered and spangles glinted. “Martians, beware!” he muttered.
He called out a few more times, with little hope, then made for the door. “Everybody’s out watching the big parade,” he pronounced sarcastically. “Except there’s no parade.”
He halted abruptly. Just inside the door was a magazine stand and a round swivel-rack of comic books. He stepped closer. It was as he had half-expected, but still it gave him an inner twist of disorientation. Bud had read comics growing up. He still did, now and then. These comics—
He opened one and glanced at the issue date. Captain Powerful, untattered, unyellowed, perhaps never opened by human hands or sticky fingers, was dated:
SEPT 1953 NO. 6
“Captain Powerful, Man of Jupiter,” recited Bud Barclay. “Discontinued 1965. Last issue numbered in double digits. Early issues worth several hundred bucks.” If he were a certain type of guy...
But he wasn’t.
Still, maybe he could buy out the entire rack before leaving town. Town Whatever. Smaller Ville.
The magazines were the same—fresh, crisp issues from Fall of 1953. Painstakingly reprinted, it seemed. Men’s true adventures that weren’t, of course. Covers gossiping of movies now sold as cheap DVD’s in nostalgia packages. Starlets displayed with a becoming modesty no longer seen. Actors smoking pipes clutching wives and children—probably their own. World issues long forgotten, crises that expanded, then finally contracted to nothingness. President Eisenhower and his broad grin—in memory yet green. For retirees.
Latest news of the war...
Bud saw no newspapers, though. Nothing with the real name of the town, or the exact spot on the calendar the town so carefully portrayed.
He went out onto the street. He felt dizzy. Real men do get freaked out by—this, he acknowledged ruefully.
Down the street, the stoplight changed. The hanging telephone wires twitched very slightly in a breeze too timid for Bud to feel. Nothing else moved.
He stood thinking, thinking as Tom Swift might do. What were the possibilities?
Maybe he was trapped in an isolation tank and hallucinating. Hallucinating 1953? Why? Why not grunge, punk, or even disco? What did they even listen to in 1953? Big bands? The minuet?
Maybe he had been shipped to Kranjovia and planted in a mock-up of a typical American town to drive him crazy and extract Swiftian information. But he doubted professional foreign agents didn’t know that the decadent West had become even more decadent over the last half-century.
Extraterrestrials were telepathically...
“Naw,” he snorted. Baxx was weird, but hardly a space alien.
An unused movie set. But weren’t movie sets just false fronts? Why stock an entire drug store in exquisite detail? Why print up not just the covers, but the insides, of old comic books?
“Starting to run dry,” he muttered.
Could this be one of those towns the government had built to gauge the effects of nuclear explosions? “So are they testing 1953-brand bombs or something?” he asked himself rhetorically, dismissively.
What would Tom be thinking about? A brain implant? An image produced by a 3-D telejector? Bud stomped on the solid concrete of the sidewalk. “No way!”
The possibility of a drug-induced dream was beginning to look more and more plausible. More plausible than what occurred to him next.
It couldn’t happen, could it? his mind asked. A time warp or something?
Back to 1953?
Maybe Gar Baxx was working for this mad scientist with wild frizzy hair...
“But look, pal,” he objected, “strange to say, there were people living back in 1953. People drove those cars and read those magazines. You don’t arrive in the past and find a whole town with everything except the people who lived there.”
A worse possibility struck Bud Barclay.
Much more insoluble.
As a matter of fact, something as hopelessly final as anything could be.
Maybe he was dead.
THE NUMBER OF NOWHERE
“WELL, Bud,” Bud said to himself in the comforting, calm voice of Tom Swift, “look at it logically. Do you feel dead?”
“I don’t know what dead feels like, genius boy.”
“Corpses don’t walk around. Corpses don’t walk around worrying about whether they’re dead or not.”
“But maybe they dream. How do we know? See, you die, you leave your body, go through the tunnel of light—maybe it happened while my eyes were shut—, and then, see, you’re in this, this ghost world where—”
“Ghosts of stop signals? Ghosts of comic books? Cash registers? Dress mannequins? Get serious, flyboy.”
“Does kind of give a new meaning to ‘ghost town,’ doesn’t it.”
He stopped the self-conversation, as it sounded more than a little crazy. “I don’t do crazy,” he said aloud.
Still... what if? Alone for eternity in a small backward town. “Jetz, maybe I should be glad Timeless Town doesn’t come with people!” he said wryly.
Dread was beginning to rise in his gut. His banter wasn’t enough to brush it back. Bud was, yes, becoming very afraid. Little Luna, the moon, Aurum City beneath the sea, the Black Cobra—those formidable things were merely strange. But some things, he thought, are real horrors.
He snapped himself out of it, a bit, by muscular action. He trotted to the end of the block, to the vacant intersection, where the stoplight did its pointless, ceaseless work. He looked each way before crossing, then wondered why.
The intersection seemed to be at the center of Greater Timeless Town—its downtown area. The frozen business district extended just a few blocks in all directions. Storefronts, a bank, what looked like a library, some small restaurants and diners...
No chain fast food outlets. Now that was horror.
In the distance he saw a flagpole. The Stars and Stripes dangled limply at the top. The breeze wasn’t enough to worry it.
But down the next street—Newharvest Avenue—motion! Red and white stripes corkscrewed down endlessly on a mechanized barber pole.
Bud sauntered toward it, steady but cautious. He had had his fill of disappointment. An uninhabited drugstore was eerie enough.
He stood in front of the little shop. Rudy’s Barbers. There was a bright sign in the window, a cardboard sign announcing in neat bold letters:
YES WE’RE OPEN
“Yes I sure hope so,” gulped Bud, heading into the wide-gaping door. There was a moment of hope: he heard the sound of activity.
A small electric fan whirred. Fans on the ceiling stirred the air lazily.
There were, of course, no people.
A small pre-transistor radio played something that would have underscored romance in 1953. Four barber chairs. Combs and brushes and razor strops and all that. Bottles with green stuff inside. A fishbowl of wrapped candies next to the cash register. Each station was labeled: Art, Steve, Harry, Rudy. But there were no people to match the labels.
“Hey Art Steve Harry Rudy!” Bud called out resentfully. “Shave an’ a haircut!” He knocked the “two bits” on the back of a barber chair.
Then his eye fell across something on the floor near one of the chairs. It was a little flat fuzzy cloud of brown and gray and blond and a little red—hair clippings. Humanity!
Bud knelt down a picked at a tuft with his fingers. The whole scattered pile came up off the floor along with the tuft. And so Bud realized that it wasn’t human hair at all, but rather human handicraft. It was something artificial, made of fibers meant to look like hair, as in a cheap wig. The pile hadn’t grown from the casual discards of a barber at work—in this case, Steve. It had been manufactured, and set down for effect. Because a real working barber shop of 1953 would have hair on the floor.
Just like the comic books. A prop.
Forgetting that he didn’t do crazy, he said aloud: “Jetz! Timeless Town is just one big prop.” He remembered the tiny plastic village next to the tracks of his electric train set, soon retired in deference to slot-riding race cars.
He heard Tom advise him to avoid jumping to conclusions, even if they jumped at him first.
He stood and tapped one of the big bottles, glass-sided canisters. The green stuff shuddered in response. It wasn’t plastic. It moved. If it hadn’t, he thought, I think I’d spend an hour lying on the floor next to the pseudo-hair.
He went back outside and crunched a few dead leaves under one of the trees. Real. He gouged a fingernail into the tree trunk. Real. He pinched his own arm. Real.
Then he jumped back, startled, as a human voice erupted through the barbershop door!
“And that was the Sonny Vallis Strings with this year’s big hit, ‘I Surrender.’ In the news, General MacArthur will be meeting with Secretary Dulles to clarify some remarks...”
Bud walked away rapidly. He didn’t want to hear any more. He didn’t want to listen to a human voice without a human mouth behind it.
He realized his heart was starting to pound. It was one thing to be thrown out a window by the Black Cobra, but this—this was messing with Reality!
“Let’s say no one shows, no one. I can hotwire any of these cars. I can drive out of town to—to wherever. To Shopton! It’s not like I’m fenced in,” he reasoned. But how far away was Shopton?
What if the cars were props, too?
A thought suddenly struck him. He chuckled at himself for overlooking the obvious. License plates!
He went down one side of the street, then back the other side, looking at the plates on the parked cars. It was, again, disappointingly unhelpful—so prosaically normal in some ways, so off-center in others. The plates looked authentic. But the renewal stickers all read 1953 or 1954. And as to the states—many states. A dozen different states, at least. No majority. Timeless Town seemed to be located in a generic state of the United States.
Most of the car doors were unlocked. The seats inside were worn, sometimes ripping; a few looked new, though. He looked at the steering columns and found, as he expected, flat plastic pouches strapped on several of them with registration cards inside. The cards looked new—as they would be if they were current and valid in this year of 1953. They bore names like James Hylman Heyes and Bonnie Sue Devlin and Carl Norris Winters. Very normal names.
“So where are you James, Bonnie Sue, Carl?”
And, as a matter of fact, Rose Reb?
And indeed, as a matter of fact, Bud Barclay?
“Okay. Good grief, maybe I do do crazy!”
He glanced at the shadows, then at his watch. In the press of the moment, when he had awakened, he had only verified that he still had it on his arm. He hadn’t looked at the display panel. Now he did. It read:
– – – –
The incognito time, the anonymity, was blinking. He pressed a button. There was no date, no year.
Whoever had landed Bud in Timeless Town had thoughtfully and deliberately pressed the reset button. All the young Californian could do was start the timer function. The display read:
H 00 M 00 S 01.8 PM
The seconds continued to count off, and Bud thought: At least time hasn’t stopped dead. Not for me, at least...
His panic had turned flat and dull. He had nothing to fight against. He wandered down Newharvest Avenue, turned a corner, and yelped in surprise.
Someone was standing on the sidewalk halfway down the block!
But his yell froze in his throat. He had never seen a cigar store Indian before. Did even small towns still have them? But there it stood, tobacco rolls clutched in hand like a bouquet. “Howya doin’, Chief?” Bud muttered in great disappointment.
And then he noticed, further down, something that brought him hope anew. A telephone booth! An honest-to-God Superman type, Mavis-put-me-through-to-Barney type telephone booth.
Of course it probably wasn’t real.
Then again, the comic books had been real. Enough.
He trotted up to it, entered, folded the door closed behind him as if it mattered, and looked up at the placard over the box and hanging receiver. He no longer boggled at the prices, in this case 5 cents. He studied the instructions. No area code, of course. He noted with relief that the booth’s own phone number did not start with “555”, the famous bogus exchange dummy-number.
Fishing out a nickel, he lifted the receiver.
“Dial tone!” he cried. It was as if he had said Bullseye!
And then a human voice, a woman’s. “Operator.”
“Oh, I—well, could you just—”
“S-sorry, I don’t know—”
“Listen, I’m in a phone booth and—”
Bud slammed down the receiver, violently. He had been wrong. It was once a human voice. Now it was a formerly human voice. A recording. A prop.
Still, there had been a dial tone. What if he dropped in a nickel and actually dialed a number? But it would have to be the number of something real, a Somewhere, not a Nowhere.
He looked down. The hanging phone directory had been ripped off. That was probably as realistic in 1953 as today.
Then he looked again at the placard.
POLICE DEPARTMENT GA-61734
What kind of phone number started with GA? Had phone numbers once started with letters? Was he in Georgia, maybe?
He fed the phone, dismally keeping hope in check to forestall a crash of disappointment.
The other end was ringing.
Bud held his breath.
Hadn’t someone once told him that after three unanswered rings, the odds of someone picking up diminished to—
“FV Police. This is Jesperson.”
Bud struggled to force his voice to work.
“Police,” repeated Jesperson. “Someone there?”
“I—I—you don’t know how glad I am to reach you, Mr. Jesperson!” gasped the Shoptonian.
“Chief Jesperson. So what can I do ya for?”
Bud forced himself toward calm. “I—this is really weird. I don’t even know how to say it.”
“Oh man. Yeah! I guess.”
“Cool off, son,” said Jesperson. “What’s going on?”
“Jetz, don’t ask me! I’m here at a phone booth on—on some street—it’s by a hardware store—”
“In town? Wooldridge Hardware and Plumbing?”
Bud looked through the wire-crisscrossed glass. “Uh-huh.”
“So what’s the problem? Somebody rob the place?”
“I dunno. No. It’s just... Look, Chief, I can’t find anyone—the whole place is deserted. Not a soul. Nobody anywhere!”
“Are they open? Is the door open?”
“I don’t mean just in the hardware store.”
“What do you mean? ...Okay, who is this? What’s your name?”
“Bud Barclay, sir. I’ve been here—I don’t know how I even got here—I don’t know what happened to my car—”
“You have an accident?”
“I—not exactly. I’ve been all over, up and down the street—the shops are wide open, but there aren’t any people, Chief. Nobody driving, no one on the sidewalk—”
Jesperson chuckled pleasantly. “Yeah, Friendly Village is a mighty sleepy little place.”
So Timeless Town had a name.
Bud rushed on. “And—the barber shop—the hair on the floor—it’s, like, plastic or something—”
“Listen, Bud,” interrupted Jesperson. “If this is a prank, tell me now. I’m here by myself right now. You’re tying up the line. That’s a crime. It’ll go hard on you, kid.”
Kid, Bud thought. Here I thought my voice was all grown up. “I’m not kidding, Chief. I need—” He paused, thinking strategically. “Yeah, I was in an accident. I’m okay, but—I need to come to the Station. Okay?”
“Yep, I think you do.” Now Jesperson sounded warm and concerned. “All right. Stay where you are. Sit down or something. Got it? Kintley’s out on duty. I’ll send Kintley around in the car. Stay put, all right?”
“Sure,” Bud said gratefully. “Er—about how long before he gets here, sir? A half hour, maybe?”
The Chief laughed. “Son, you can get to anyplace in town in five minutes, even if you walk! Nelson will be there in three.”
“Thanks. Er—didn’t you say his name was—”
A tiny hesitation. “The officer’s name is Nelson Kintley. Wait for him. Right there.” The line clicked.
Bud hung up the phone. He suddenly realized, with a silent laugh at himself, that he probably could have used the phone in any of the stores. Who’s to stop me? “Oh well, guess it was worth a nickel.”
He folded open the door. As he stepped forward, his head suddenly fuzzed out. He quickly sank down on the floor of the booth, propping the door open, legs outstretched onto the walk. It’s what they injected me with, he thought. Still haven’t thrown it off. Not completely.
He leaned against the side of the door.
And suddenly he was waking up from sleep. “Jetz!” he mumbled. “Where’d that come from? The cop car’ll be here any sec.”
But even before he pulled his eyes open, he knew that more than a few minutes had past. It was night. The street was still deserted. But the ornate streetlamps were on, not bright but still friendly in a yellow way. As in Friendly Village.
Bud looked up. The moon was quartered and crisp. Stars glittered everywhere. It wasn’t cold, wasn’t warm. It was just all right. Perfectly all right.
He looked down the street. Lights were on in several shops, and especially in a number of second-story windows, probably apartments. He thought he could hear a TV somewhere—laughter at a comedy—probably an ancient comedy.
Signs of living, but no signs of life.
“Gosh, did ol’ Nelse overlook me?” Bud speculated. “I mean, the Chief said to sit down—” Anywhere in five minutes...
Hadn’t it been morning? Had he really slept through the entire day and on into the night? He glanced at his watch display.
H 02 M 35 S 14.6 PM
In two and one-half hours, a beautiful bright day had become a beautiful dark night. “The times they are a-changin’,” Bud said. But the gibe didn’t lift his spirits. Night had fallen like a curtain, like the end of a play. Time in Friendly Village made no sense.
Had he just arrived?
Was his awakening, this awakening, actually his first awakening? Had he only dreamed everything else? Comic books, hair, the policeman...
Except it was he who had set his watch to function as a timer. Right?
Suddenly he emptied out his pocket into his hand. When he had left the motel, he had counted change into it. And now—
Now he was exactly one nickel short.
WHICH WAY TO REAL?
THE SHOPS on the street—apparently all of them—were still unlocked and still deserted. He discovered, to great satisfaction, that the plumbing in Friendly Village was not merely a prop.
Bud was hungry, thirsty. He was also still woozy, unsteady on his feet, exhausted.
He entered a tiny furniture store, the crowded interior greenly visible and grotesque under the perpetually lit EXIT sign over the door. There was a bed with a bare mattress. He took off his shoes and socks, unbuckled his belt, and lay back. And then it was morning.
He checked his watch.
H 08 M 49 S 54.1 AM
Of course the PM/AM meant nothing. But the amount of time passed made sense, at least. This was the morning of the day following his arrival.
He glanced out the plate glass window. The sky was thick with white and gray clouds. Day; but he couldn’t make out the sun, and the shadows were wan. A dull morning. He couldn’t quite put together, in his mind, what time it was, where the sun ought to be. The Barclay brain just didn’t want to deal with the question of time.
He went into the street, hoping that things had managed to change overnight. But no. Everything was exactly the same, including the Indian. Including the great silent vacancy that had settled over the town of Friendly Village.
In the middle of the next block Bud found a cafe. It looked like a clean, cheerful place. To call it a greasy spoon would be unfair. It was called the Happy Corner Munch-In. If only! he thought.
No one inside, and the posted prices were laughable, naturally. He went back into the kitchen, looked in a refrigerator, in a big freezer. Both were running, but the meat inside was phony. He found oversized cans of fruit, and picked out one that promised quartered apples. With some effort he found a can opener.
The apples were real, and tasty.
He found a big unopened box of cornflakes, ripped it apart, filled a big bowl, and ate it dry with peaches on top.
He turned on a very wide electric range. It worked.
“Soup later,” he promised himself.
He had thought food would have a calming effect, but it mainly fed his fears. He kept telling himself how absurd was the predicament he found himself in. He kept making up stories to explain matters plausibly.
“Some kind of sudden outbreak,” he said. “An epidemic. Germ warfare. A drum fell off a truck and broke open. Gas—toxic fumes. Everyone had to run. No warning. No time to even lock the doors.” And then Bud remembered the phony hair, the props, the dates on the magazines. Chief Jesperson would have told him if something were going on...
Assuming, of course, Chief Jesperson really existed.
Because if Chief Jesperson really existed, where was his promised patrolman Nelson Kintley?
Had they become victims of a plague, both of them?
Then it struck Bud that he didn’t really know that what he had told the Chief, about where he was, was true. Perhaps Bud had reached the real Friendly Village PD—but this place was not, in fact, the real Friendly Village. He might have placed a call from the Unreal to the Real.
A duplicate? With duplicated shops? The same names?
“A little too far into science fiction, flyboy.”
“Yeah. More like comic books, Skipper.”
He saw a black telephone in the kitchen, big and bulky. He dialed “O”—this time there was no answer at all. He dialed 9-1-1, then laughed at himself. They didn’t have 9-1-1 in 1953! Then he laughed again at how he had begun to think that this was 1953.
There was no phone book. He walked back to the booth, memorized the PD number, and dialed it inside the tobacconist’s. Five rings. The ringing stopped. There was a click. But this time no voice answered—just blank silence. Bud hung up without mental comment.
For hours Bud wandered down several streets, aimlessly, and through many shops. He found a boarding house that might give him a place to sleep for the coming night. He found many real things, many prop things, many appliances that seemed to work, and nothing newer than 1953.
All the radios played only one station on all channels. He quickly realized that it was a recording, looped. He heard the same series of songs, the same announcements, several times.
The old televisions—mostly big cabinet models with tiny screens—played black-and-white movies, ancient sitcoms, staticky dramas with actors long dead, commercials for condensed milk and odd products he had never heard of. There were some quiz shows. There were no newscasts. All recorded too, he supposed. Once genuine, now deceased, eternally rerun. “But I’ll be fair,” he told the TV screen. “Maybe it’s just me. Maybe I’m reliving the same hours over and over.” Maybe it was Bud Barclay who was trapped in reruns.
He began to make a point of leaving on, and blaring, the radios and TV’s and various big LP record players. He decided he liked the idea of giving Friendly Village some ambient noise. But out in the street there was nothing but a very slight creak as the overhead phone lines rocked gently.
One more day, he told himself. I’ll sleep tonight and get the last of those drugs out of my system. I’ll have a good meal. I’ll take a car and drive away. If I have to drive across sidewalks or open fields or little green lawns, that’s what I’ll do. If the State Police run me down on the highway, I’ll get down and kiss their boots!
He looked up. The sky over Friendly Village was still as it had been when he first looked at it that morning. Not dark, but he couldn’t make out the position of the sun. High altitude haze? Strange...
He looked at the shadows on the street, then at his watch. More than six hours had passed as he had wandered through building after building, street after street. He had had a canned, unduly healthful lunch, back in the diner. His stomach was now looking forward to supper.
Looking at the shadows, then at the sky, an inner alarm began to sound. Facts—possible and disquieting facts—were breaking through. He suddenly became convinced that during all those hours, while his mind had been elsewhere, the shadows had not moved. The hidden sun had not moved in the sky.
And this sent an electric quiver through his raw nerves. “Time doesn’t pass here in Friendly Village. People, real people, live inside of time. But here, no time. Therefore, no people. Except me.
“No, that can’t be right, Bud. No way. Time does pass. Your watch is counting it up. You can move. The stop signal changes. The music on the radio is a song, not just one note extended forever. And it changed from day to night, and now it’s day again. And clouds blew in...”
He gazed upward. Were the clouds moving? He couldn’t quite tell.
Maybe the sun is standing still, he thought. Like that thing in the Bible.
As if cued by the word, he looked down a long street, and at the end saw the church. A tall white steeple, very tall. Just what one might expect to find in Friendly Village.
That steeple was the highest spot in town.
Bud approached the church anxiously; in fact, he found himself running.
The high-arched double doors stood open and welcoming in the proper churchly manner. Inside, the wooden pews crouched varnished and empty. No one in the pulpit. Despite the slanting light through the stained-glass windows it was dim inside.
Holding himself back, out of respect, he walked up the center aisle, looking right and left for signs of life with an inner prayer but no hope. He crossed behind the pulpit and into the wings—Backstage, said his thought.
He found the narrow stairs leading up, up into the steeple. They spiraled around as the walls came close. The last ten feet were attained by a ladder of wooden rungs. Bud shoved a trap door open above his head and rose into a very small space with open sides and a double bell filling the middle. There was no room to stand, little room to sit. He finally perched his athletic form on the edge of the floor, legs dangling out into space.
From this high vantage point he could finally see the horizon, the lay of the city—or rather, the small town of contradictions and mystery, the friendly village he had learned to hate. He changed his position four times, to survey all directions, all points of the compass. But he couldn’t give the directions their names. He didn’t know where the sun rose, where it set. He was only vaguely aware of its presence above the clouds. Perhaps compass directions didn’t matter in a timeless land where the sun appeared and disappeared but did not move.
What Bud saw all around him was perfectly normal, perfectly sane. The church was at the periphery of the business district, what passed for downtown. He could see, beyond the blocks of larger buildings packed together, blocks of residences, houses, with neat green lawns. Cars were parked in many driveways. TV antennas—aerials, they had been called—occupied many a roof. The houses diminished with distance, and their density also fell. Far off he saw what looked like farmland with farm houses like tiny toys. Beyond that, flat green land, planted over; then brown and gray dirt all the way to rolling hills.
Out beyond town he made out the slate ribbons of a couple highways. He tried not to acknowledge the fact that the highways were empty, utterly. “Better to do 120 on,” he muttered fiercely. “I’ll start off at first light and hit that horizon fifteen minutes later, I swear!”
Because I’ve got to get out of Friendly Village before my Barclay brain is as empty as the streets, added his thoughts. As empty and uninhabited and secretly crazy as this whole town.
He fell into brooding.
His brooding became, unexpectedly, violent. And vocal. With flailing gestures.
He found himself yelling at the town, the silent town pierced only by his voice. The things he yelled made little sense. Sometimes they weren’t even words. Sometimes he didn’t even realize he was yelling them. But the gist of it was: “Where are you?—!”
He threw in a few common terms of emphasis, hoarse and long.
At a sudden thought he pulled out his cell.
The emptiness took him over. He threw the phone out into space in fury and despair, an upward pass into the sky, higher than the little cross atop the steeple. Upward...
The phone hit the middle of the sky, cracked, and went whirling down to earth in two pieces.
And now he knew. The sky was a ceiling.
The discovery didn’t kill Bud’s fury, but turned it cold.
He plummeted back down the stairs. When he had left the steeple it had been broad daylight. Seconds later, stumbling out of the church into the open, it was night.
“Of course it’s night,” he declared bitterly. “Of course the sun doesn’t move. Of course the days change instantly. Because there is no sun, no moon. Just big lights screwed into the sky, the big phony sky. Hey, Friendly Village, you’re a phony, a hoax, bogus, a big nothing!—you’re a prop! I’m getting out of this room! Hear that, Baxx? I’m getting out!”
He sank down on the church steps and sank his face into his hands. His long black forelock fell across the back of his hands.
Footsteps were approaching, padding softly.
Bud looked up listlessly and registered no surprise.
“Hello, Reb. New in town?”
ROSE REB stood in front of Bud on the steps. She had matured and filled-out since PS-1, since the biological experiment that was adolescence. The sullen, angry gauntness had become voluptuous, even voluminous. What remained was haunted, pale, pierced, coal-black hair hanging down on either side of her face in long crescents, as if enclosing her face in parentheses.
Yet for all the sameness, all was not the same. Somehow, paradoxically, she looked like a walking victim of time’s relentless bludgeon. Her expression told of a resigned, matter-of-fact sadness. But there was something feverish in her dark dark eyes.
“Always joking,” she murmured.
“That’s me, RR.”
“Uh-huh. And you’re always you.”
“I’m trying to quit.”
They stared at each other silently. Suddenly Bud surged to his feet and embraced her warmly. Another human being, even Rose Reb, was like a drink of water in the mind-messing desert that was Friendly Village.
“Oh,” she said almost tearfully, pulling herself—pushing herself—away. “Bud... Oh Bud. Everything, everything got so twisted.”
“What did Baxx do to you, Reb?”
They sat on the steps side by side. “I’m here. That’s what he did.”
“He didn’t hurt you?”
“This is hurt.”
“Well,” said Bud Barclay. “You wanted to talk to me in a private place.”
“I didn’t want this. Believe me.”
“I make a point of trusting Goths. Those little pins can be dangerous.”
“Goth?” she snapped back in a sudden change of mood. “Right. You wouldn’t bother to know the difference between Goth and Emo. You, you revel in your ignorance.”
“Sorry. Don’t pop your pins. So the look is, er, Emo?”
“Of course not! This is New Goth.” Click. “I’m sorry. Forgive me. You gotta forgive as you go through life, Bud. Not that people deserve it...”
Bud spoke firmly. “Can we stow the baggage? How about telling me what happened and why you and I are having ‘intimacy face time’ in Nifty-Fiftiesville?—I was there in that little shopping plaza, Reb, just as you wanted. I waited.”
“He told me,” Reb nodded. “I was so stupid, Bud. I needed, after you—but I forgive you—a grownup in my life. He told me he loved me. Seemed to understand. I thought he would take care of me...”
Bud snorted. “Jetz, that grungy skateboard jockey?”
Rose Reb frowned harshly. “Right, unlike Spaceman Junior, running off to find a playmate and fly to—” Click. “He works in a hospital.”
“Is that where you met him?” asked the San Franciscan gently—but with meaning.
“That’s... right,” she sighed. “My parents—Mr. and Mrs. Alva Truncheon—ended up warehousing me. Money’ll buy you anything.
“I believed Garton, what he said. Just words, but I had to believe. It’s part of the healing process, having a reality again. He—got me out. We planned the wedding. I was stupid...” She looked at Bud earnestly. “Really, I think maybe I was over-medicated.”
“Gar told me I’d never get on with life, with him, unless I swept you off my deck, over the edge. See what I mean? Start off with clarity. He said I should go to Shopton, confront you, work off my anger...
“But I see now that he’s not fully qualified to give that kind of professional guidance. He was just a guy in white, an attendant—a guard. And I just got worse, seeing you, following you, breaking in and leaving notes. And that paint!—though really, it felt kinda good, Bud.”
“By the way, what did you think of the Grand Canyon?”
Bud groaned inwardly. Yep, this was Rose Reb. “I found it a little overrated.”
“Let’s not talk about that. Your vacation with—Tom.” She spat the young inventor’s name. “Tom and time. I hate both of them!—hate thinking about them. This—” She flung a gesture of broad scope. “This is Time. It’s all Time. Time snatches things away. And then brings them back on the tide. Me and you...”
“Reb,” Bud interrupted, “just tell me what happened. What’s this place about? Why are we—”
“Oh, that’s right, you’re in a hurry. It’d never occur to you to stop and sniff the road not taken.
“I did lie to you, but it was for the best. The idea was for Gar to meet you first, to talk to you and calm you down.”
“I didn’t really need calming.”
“Have to get in some digs, hm. Go ahead, throw more thorns on my brow. Enjoy!” Click. “I trusted him. He’s so wise and masculine. I’m not impugning your masculinity, Bud, though I know you can cry. Seeing you crying!—that was one of the only two things I liked about PS-1. That and reading Silas Marner.
“Well... well, the plan was for me to wait for you both at the restaurant. When he showed up... Please believe me, I was really surprised, Bud, finding you lying in the back of his van.”
“Pretty much. He tied your wrists, too. That glove... I never knew. He never used it on me—I can say that about him.”
“I’m sure he had a great explanation.”
“He told me everything. See, I already knew he’d had some problems with the police. People like Gar have strong minds and principles and tend to be controversial. They don’t cookie-cut down into the social pie. I thought it was exciting, that kind of past life. But like I said, I was over-medicated. Or under-medicated.
“Anyway. While he was working there, at Belknap, a place I don’t recommend, a man came and talked to him. I never saw him, but Gar calls him a man, and I have to believe, don’t I? He calls the man Eck. He’s kind of a swindler and maybe—this is just my speculation—kind of a murderer.”
Bud smiled wryly. “Another one of those controversials.”
“So that made them kindred spirits, you know? Gar told me a lot about the whole deal on the way here, Beeb.”
“Rose Reb, I just remembered another reason why we broke up,” said “Beeb.”
“It’s all sad and crazy, and now I know Gar never loved me, never meant anything he said. I was just taken in, like a little fly. Or like washing—you take in washing, don’t you?
“I was just bait—Little Miss Bait to get Bud Barclay away from Shopton and—and his, his protector—so Gar could knock you out and take you, as Eck wanted.”
“The kidnapping bit is getting more than a little old,” Bud commented.
“And he always rescues you!” It came out as a sudden snarl, instantly dissipated. “Gar took you. He injected you with something—I dunno—you were mostly out during the trip, but now and then you could mumble and we could feed you. The trip—cross-country in the van. This is Wyoming, here. It snows here—that’s why this place is covered over.”
“I was wondering. How long did the trip take?”
“Oh, a few days. I didn’t keep track. I was in kind of a state—a snit. He had lied and manipulated me, but still, you know, I had wanted some structure in my life. He hadn’t yet told me it was over between us.”
“Jetz! Reb, just tell me what this place is! What does this Eck guy want?”
“Give me time to be myself, Beeb,” she replied. “Gar got talky on the way. I think he told me more than he shoulda, especially at night. His goatee—well, forget his goatee. He said something about a will, some kind of inheritance that Mr. Eck wants to get. Money—always. But—something about how Tom and his invention can speed up a timelock—”
“I get it,” Bud exclaimed, nonetheless quietly. “The time-transformer. I’m a hostage to get Tom’s cooperation.”
“Does everything always come back to Tom Swift?” asked Reb coldly. “But yeah, it’s true. Money and time. The idea is to keep you here for as long as it takes.”
“And just where—and what—is Here?”
“Oh, it’s ridiculous. This Eck is some kind of fanatic or hobbyist or something.” She paused to think. “He has a time obsession. Gar says this, this place, is all just like the little town where Eck was, a little boy, where he lived with his parents. Or maybe—was it—where he wished he had lived? See? Bringing it all back.”
Calm again, Bud smiled at the situation. “It wasn’t so long ago that I met another guy who lived in a cave and wanted to save the future! I happen to like the present—mm, maybe not so much at this moment.”
Rose Reb continued. “This isn’t just a hobby. It’s more than Mommy and Daddy. Gar says the guy, Eck, is kind of a promoter—isn’t that what they’re called? Crooks? He sold investors on the idea that this could be some kind of giant shopping mall, with people also living here full time. Sort of a colony for psychotic nostalgists. Maybe survivalists, too, since you can’t see the real sky. He got the money, had the place built, then went under. Bankrupt.”
“There are other places like this. I’ve read about them—underground shopping cities.”
“All secret, kept quiet, that thing about gettin’ in on the ground floor. Gar says the main investor owns all the property. I think it’s a sheep ranch. Something like that. But he died.”
“Natural causes, I hope.”
“Yeah, well, hope. I’m not so sure. Gar told me Eck’s willing to kill to get whatever kind of life he wants. That probably means he’s already done it. People think they deserve things, but really...” She looked at Bud curiously. “So you’re dating his sister?”
“We hang out.”
“We hung out. Doesn’t it make it awkward?”
“Because of you?”
“Because of him.”
Bud chuckled, with an eye-roll. “Reb, I can’t believe you! Jetz, you’re jealous of my relationship with my best pal?”
“It happens,” she declared sullenly. “You save each other’s lives, don’t you? I keep up on it. I’ve read those books.”
“Right. The fictionalizations. Look, you can’t—”
“Well, let’s just drop the subject. Since it obviously makes you uncomfortable.” Rose Reb’s attention seemed to drift away. “Sometimes I think... I’m absorbing the black. From my hair. It seeps down and fills my head. You have black hair. I thought...” The thought halted there.
At Bud’s initiative they stood up and began to stroll side by side, down a street, aimless in the ersatz night. “So,” Bud began, “I’m being held hostage. But why down here?—well, jetz, I guess it was convenient, hunh?”
“I guess so. Gar told me the doors are all sealed off. He says it’s hard to even find them. And if you had a radio or locator beacon, the signal would be blocked off.”
“So what about you? His true love?”
“Don’t ridicule another person’s vulnerability, please. Yeah, I trusted him and he stole my gem of purity by betrayal. After he dumped you off, he had me stay in a motel overnight while he went to see Eck. When he came back a couple hours ago he pulled a gun on me and held a cloth over my face—he did both! Knocked me flat. I woke up on Second Street. Lying there right on the pavement.”
“Face it, Reb,” said Bud. “You’ve been dumped.”
“Bud, I heard you, up there—yelling.”
“Guess I’m a little vulnerable too.”
“It’s nice,” she said. But then added sharply, “But you know, Beeb, it’s not what I’d call masculine. You’re not a boy.”
“What am I, Reb?”
“I never found out.”
They walked in silence for a time, Bud wondering tensely what Rose Reb was thinking—and becoming fearful of what she might do. The quaint steetlamps were on, and some of the higher-story apartments were softly lit behind drapes and half-closed blinds. Bud thought: This could almost be romantic.
“This could almost be romantic, Beeb,” she purred, taking his hand.
With someone other than Reb! his thoughts finished.
“I can understand why I’m down here,” he said. “For all I know it may be a great plan. Who am I to criticize it? But what about you?”
“The wedding’s off.”
“I’m just rendering up my feelings. Who knows how I’ll feel tomorrow? Who knows tomorrow at all? I could be dead tomorrow. Or you.”
“Is that a New Goth attitude?”
She glared at him. “Check your own attitude, chum! Flyboy! Did you ever notice that he calls you boy, not man?—in the books, anyway. If you were any kind of real man, if you didn’t have conflicted impulses—” She shut herself down for a moment. “But... you asked me a question... about something...
“Oh. Why I’m here. Well, really, I don’t know. Not for ransom. My parents, Mr. and Mrs. Alva Truncheon, wouldn’t consider anything like that. They wouldn’t pay. Oh no. It wouldn’t be worth the time to make a ransom note, cutting all those letters out of newspapers.”
“So you have no idea?”
Reb suddenly giggled, explosively. “Maybe it’s just to torture you!”
“R-Reb, I’m really not worth it. I mean it.”
“You don’t have to mean it. Enjoy life. Make peace with Time.”
“I’ll sure do my best.”
Reb seemed to tug Bud along, and the young flier did not resist. There was a veloured black purse dangling from her arm; when it bounced against her side, Bud could hear pill containers rattling like maracas. After a couple streets and a couple turns, she pointed at a modest two-story hotel, the Bateman Arms. “I woke up in the street right in front, and I know why—it’s the hotel Gar told me about, where they’d stocked food for you. Running water, everything.”
“A working phone?”
“Oh, they all work. But all you get is a recording.”
“That’s ‘working,’ all right.” A thought struck. “So how was I supposed to know about this place? Maybe dragging you down here was part of Eck’s plan from the start.”
She shook her head. “No. You haven’t checked your pockets?”
Chagrined, Bud dug deep into them, and found a slip of paper. “‘Your home here in Friendly Village is the Bateman Arms, 412 Second Street. Food in the kitchen. Relax and enjoy a vacation from this obscenity called the modern world. Let’s see how long it lasts.’”
“And now it’s ours to share,” Reb pronounced with glowing embers in her eyes. “We needed something to be ours, Bud, just ours.”
Bud looked away, his face in the shadow of lamplight. “I left a video for Tom. I told him the situation. I told him to leave it to me, to not get involved. I was pretty definite. He’ll understand. Yeah. So it’ll be days, maybe weeks even.” He unshadowed his face to show her a defiant look. “But he’ll come for me. I know he will.”
“Sure,” snapped Rose Reb bitterly. “Doesn’t he always come running?”
It felt like the insult it was intended to be. Bud rose to it almost instinctively. “You missed the point. I’m saying there’ll be a long gap of time before he comes up with some Swift gadget to pluck me out of—whatever this is. And rather than waiting, I’ll get us out on my own.”
“Oh, Beeb, please don’t feel you have to prove yourself to me.” But it sounded mocking.
“I’m not proving anything.”
“You don’t want a vacation?”
“What I want,” Bud declared quietly, “is out.”
PARADE OF PHANTOMS
THE FOOD in the small hotel kitchen was canned or frozen, but not bad. Bud smiled at the various labels. He was sure everything was an authentic replica of 1953, the products of companies that probably had gone out of business decades ago. “But the meat is fresh,” he said.
“I don’t think they’d poison us,” replied Rose Reb, eating a sandwich. “They need us—you. You’re the hostage for ransom. I don’t know what I’m supposed to be. I guess I was a witness to the plot, to what they did. I’m not so sure what they did was completely legal, you know? So Gar stuffed me down here to eliminate the problem.”
“Why didn’t he just shoot you?”
“He’s not that kind of person, Bud,” she replied. “You don’t know him. He’s caring.”
“I gather that.”
At Bud’s insistence, they slept with deadbolts between them. “It’s not that I don’t like you, RR,” said Bud.
She looked away from him with small angry eyes. “It’s just that I’m crazy.”
“I’m not armed. Do you want to frisk me?”
“Goodnight, Rose Reb.”
“I don’t think so.”
The morning did not dawn, but it arrived. Bud watched as the stars shut down as one and the sky light came on. Now that he knew what he was seeing, it was obvious that the whole vault of sky was a dome-shaped ceiling, the effects produced by some manner of rear-screen projection. Tom’s telejector would have done a more convincing job, he thought. Admittedly, though, it had been good enough to convince him.
They spent the day exploring Friendly Village, excised from the flesh of living time like something on a microscope slide. Despite the silent eeriness Bud felt involuntary admiration for the achievement. He had the impression that nearly everything they saw, every detail, every object, was in its way real. Their captor, Eck—more likely experts on his payroll—had raided second-hand stores across the nation, carefully refurbishing what they had found, polishing, painting, un-rusting, un-denting. “Man,” he said to Reb, “all those old tubes for the radios and TV’s—”
Reb was sullen. “It’s wasted on me. I hate the past.”
“Mine was okay.”
“Then I hate your past, flyboy.” Her tone shifted from anger to philosophy. “Birth. Time plops us down somewhere and leaves us there. Then we’re supposed to grow up. We’re supposed to make friends. We’re supposed to fall in what they call love. And then if you’re lucky time drops something on your plate and tells you to eat.”
“If you mean me, I don’t like the metaphor.”
“It wasn’t designed for you to like.” Click. “That’s me all right. Why do I say those things? I don’t know. The blackness comes raining in. You can forgive me, can’t you?”
“That’s a lot to expect from a ‘boy,’ Reb.”
“Maybe we’re all boys. Just little boys.”
Second Street curved and led them out of town. The few blocks of the imitation business district ended with unnatural abruptness, and suddenly they were on a residential lane with sleepy overarching trees, tall and alive. “I didn’t know trees could grow under artificial light,” Bud remarked.
“I don’t know anything about that,” Reb replied. “Gar said something about gardeners and maintenance people coming in now and then.”
“I guess not often enough for us.” Then she smiled mockingly. “You will have sprung us out by then anyway, out into the light of the real sun. Or the moon. I like the moon.”
“I’ve been there.”
“I tried to see you. You’re too small.”
The houses formed neat facing rows. 1953 was a little late for the picket fences and porch swings of old movies. There were neat rectangular lawns, pop-up sprinklers that now and then came on by themselves, walls of stucco, TV antennas—and in some houses the sound of warm televisions endlessly playing the sort of shows a kid would watch staying home from school, belly-down on a throw-rug. They entered a few houses—for in 1953 many doors were not yet habitually locked—and found quaint households complete but for anyone living in them, beds neatly made and empty. They lacked the heap of living that made a house a home. Which left them sad and sterile. But with shag carpet and window-mount air conditioners.
All along, Bud was most interested in the cars. It seemed they all had engines and were mechanically complete and anatomically correct—real cars of the era, carefully restored. “But out of gas,” he stated in frustration. “They’re not going any place. Don’t need a full tank where time stands still.”
After a single block, a narrow ring surrounding downtown, the houses abandoned any attempt at reality. Further along they were only facades, as on a movie set, with nothing inside—indeed, no insides at all, just three walls and an open back. Props for effect, Bud decided. Like the hair clippings.
And beyond there was even less than that. The “houses” were only painted models planted in the ground. To create the illusion of distance when viewed from the center of town, the houses had been made smaller. They became the size of small sheds; then just rows of cheap dollhouses and toy cars, with lawns of green felt.
“It’s creepy-wonderful,” observed Reb.
“I get the creepy part.”
“Oh, but it’s all imitation, artificial—that’s the wonderful. I feel very relaxed here. It’s Reality—so-called, Beeb—that gets under your skin. But this—this is all a big toy. I think I belong here. I love things that don’t pretend to be more than they are. This is all just fakery, real honest fakery, and I know it, and it knows I know it. It’s nice to have something to trust.” For once Bud said nothing.
The two humans trudged on. Finally their own washed-out shadows rose up in front of them, and they came to the wall of the round valley, a village covered by a lid like a tureen that was supposed to be Friendly.
Bud ran his hands along it and rose on tiptoe. “Concrete or something like it,” he told his companion. It was covered with painted detail and on its lower parts, the parts within reach, an appliquéd imitation of rough bare ground and a far horizon—and a highway. “They obviously want to keep the doors hidden. We’ll work our way along it all the way around, but I’ll bet it won’t be easy to find even a crack.”
“Well,” said Rose Reb with burdensome sarcasm, “you really should never travel without one of those Eye-Spy cameras, Beeb.”
Bud grinned. “Who says I don’t have one in my pocket?”
“I was wondering.”
They proceeded sideways for a few minutes—and suddenly were interrupted. Music!—unexpected, familiar, and bizarre!
“Good night!” Bud exclaimed, spinning around to face downtown. “Is that—?”
“A calliope!” shrilled Reb. Then she giggled like a child. “A parade! Come on, come on!” She danced away happily toward the white steeple and Main Street, Bud trotting behind, equally curious but urging her to stop.
She’s losing it completely, he thought desperately. It’s just piped-in music, not a—
But it was. A parade!
In the lead was a drum major, then a rank of four drummers, then two ranks of brass instruments. Then came a long float decked out with pretty girls and serious men with big grins, and a weightlifter in leopard skin. The float was followed by a white horse and a tiger.
The human forms, even the serious men, were all made-up as clowns. The whole parading mass moved together as one in a smooth glide, the units connected together without subtlety by metal rods and beams. Altogether about sixty feet of gaiety.
It was, of course, without life. It advanced down Main Street on thin metal tracks, which Bud had first taken for trolley tracks. The mannequins on foot did not move their arms or legs as they glided along, suspended about nine inches above the pavement, but their feet rocked forward and back on twin hinges in a poor imitation of walking. Their heads swung slightly right, slightly left, on hidden pivots, one swing to exactly four “steps,” and all in perfect unison. The sticks of the drummers angled down and up rapidly and regularly, never actually touching the drumhead, like a windup monkey-drummer doll Bud had once seen. The trombones and trumpets and tubas tilted up and down rhythmically. The upraised hands of the bathing-suited girls half-rotated as their painted teeth remained frozen. The weightlifter raised and lowered his barbell. The legs of the animals swung forward and back above the ground without point or purpose, like the livelier figures on a carousel, and their jaws opened and closed.
Bud could hear the put-put of the motor beneath the float that made it all go. He dropped flat to the street and looked beneath the skirt of the float. There was no driver, just a mechanism. Nothing was electronic, certainly not audio-animatronic; it was all a matter of gas and gearing, 1950’s style. These were not robots, just marionettes.
Bud Barclay had felt surges of fear since entering the dead timeless world of Friendly Village; now he felt something strangely close to the shapeless dread of nightmare. This mechanical marionette show, sliding along a dead eyeless street in an empty city, making its noise and swiveling its clockwork heads, this was lifelessness writ large.
Just as disturbing, as disorienting, was the music. The marching band was brass and drums; the music from the hidden speakers was that of a single calliope. It was not a re-creation of some real thing in Eck’s past, only an illustration of a theme. A few disjointed pieces of this and that, welded together and made to march. “They call it the dead past,” Bud whispered. “It should stay dead!”
He felt disgust toward Rose Reb, walking along and clapping her hands. “But Beeb, it’s a parade! It doesn’t have to have people. We’re the people! It’s all for us! It’s a music box. Put it next to the bed and enjoy it.”
“RR... you knew it was a parade before you saw it.”
“Because of the calliope.” Her gaiety suddenly dropped away. “Too spontaneous for you? Not scientific? You’re suspicious of whatever a person can feel. You always were. I hear a calliope and I think of a parade. You see the sun and think of the moon. And it’s not just the moon in the sky. It’s your next stop.” Reb stepped closer. “But you never do stop, Bud. The train station turns out to be just another train.” She was pouting. Yet Bud sensed that inside the fret was something of bitter anger and menace.
“We have to follow it,” he pronounced quietly. “It could lead out of here.”
“Yes,” she replied vaguely. “We have to follow.”
The phantoms-on-parade passed through town with a few right turns, exiting at last through the residential zone, then on into the stretch of fake, desert-like field enclosing it. Seeing a structure of wooden planks ahead, long, low, and narrow, Bud felt a spike of hope. A tunnel into the wall?
But both ends of the structure were wide open. The parade entered and fell silent. Its motor cut out. “Show over,” Bud pronounced. “Maybe on a timer.”
“Untouched by human hands,” commented Reb. “You could almost say the same thing about me, couldn’t you—flyboy? Boy fly?”
“That’s your business.”
“Business has been slow. Or it had been... then...” She looked at the expression on her companion’s face. “Not what you want to hear. Not because you’re jealous, no. Oh, I see it in your gray eyes, Bud Barclay. Indifference—an avalanche of indifference. What makes my Beeb happy isn’t down here in Friendly Village. Even a parade—”
Bud turned to her fiercely, digging something from his pocket. “Look!” He held it in front of her face and flicked it—a cigarette lighter. A flame jumped to life. “From the drugstore. Guess what I plan to do to your toy, Reb!”
She fell back. “Oh?” Then she smiled.
Bud’s eyes caught the glow of the flame. “When this place starts to burn, you can bet those doors will open!”
ONE WAY OUT
AS BUD held up his little torch—Liberty’s torch, he hoped—Rose Reb came forward and touched his wrist. “Now you’re the man from my poetry, gray eyes. Burn, burn it all down. Just for me! Where can I watch? The steeple up high?”
“Don’t be stupid.” He shoved her aside and knelt, bringing the lighter near the shrubbery touching the wooden garage. “Dry wood planks, warping. Probably demolished a barn somewhere. Nice effect. Jetz, it’ll feel like Christmas to send those clowns to—”
It began to rain.
The two looked up, Bud with satisfaction. “Sure. Sprinklers. But not automatic, RR.” The rain became a deluge. “Didn’t start when I flashed the lighter, when I made the flame. Didn’t even start when I held it up in the air.” He roughly grabbed the little New Goth purse from her arm. She made a noise as he overturned it, emptying her many plastic pill bottles onto the puddling ground.
“I need those,” she protested weakly. “Or I get weirded out.”
Bud turned the empty purse inside out, tearing the lining. He saw what he was looking for, something the size of a silver dollar attached to the bottom. “Started when I said what I was going to do. That’s why they put you down here, Reb. They knew you’d stick to my side, you and your drugstore.”
She looked at him curiously, then said without emotion: “They’ve been listening to us.”
“Sure. Gotta keep tabs on the hostage, wandering loose in Friendly Village. For all they know I might’ve absorbed a few things from hanging with—my best friend! Genius boy! Tom Swift!”
The rain stopped. Everything was dripping.
The sky spoke, bouncing off concrete walls.
“God speaking,” boomed the voice from the sky. “Knew you were a smart one, bo. Mr. Boss had to play his game, but me, I knew, I knew. Sooner or later they always get out, Swift and Barclay. ’Course, no offense, you’re just half of the great teamup—lower half, hunh? Tail without the dog, fins without the rocket.”
Bud held the black purse near his face. “Come on down, God,” he invited pleasantly. “Bring the skateboard.”
“You wanna meet God? Awesome.”
“I’d just like to shake God’s hand. We could meet at the church, Baxx.”
God chuckled, then fell silent.
Bud started to hurl the purse away, but Reb grabbed it out of his hand and swept the pill-bottles back into it. “I need the pills,” she insisted doggedly. “It doesn’t matter if Gar listens to us, not any more.”
Bud snorted. “God’s always listening.”
She stood up, counting the bottles. “Don’t call him that. His name is Garton. He’s very wise, Beeb. It could have worked, the healing. He’s a little flawed—Sorry, Gar!—but I know he would have cared for me, protected me. But you...
“Sandy Swift—Little Miss Perfect, blond-eyed, blue-haired. Is she really so sweet, BB? Is she like Tom? An easy replica? That family... Is it really all that normal a family? Isn’t it more like this? This place here? Except the Swift fakery is never mentioned. Oh no, don’t ever talk about it. It’s just always there, like the darkness inside a covered vase. But of course, darkness doesn’t lie deliberately. It just is what it is, like Friendly Village. But then you have the case of Mr. and Mrs. Alva Truncheon...
“Have you heard that saying... They say ‘forgive and forget’ but the fact is, Bud, I sometimes forget first. And then I don’t know what to forgive.”
The youth stood back from her, staring upward. “RR, I don’t have time to deal with—that seeping hair dye, or whatever you call it. Gulp down a few pills. I’m sorry, I apologize, but please fake being normal for a while, hunh?”
“He’s coming for us, Beeb,” she said quietly. “I know him. He’s nice, always so polite, but I know he’ll come down with his big gun and blow us away, both of us.”
“Nice,” said Bud.
She took his wrist. “We can’t go back to the hotel. I know where we can hide for a while. I saw it while we were walking.”
Bud allowed Rose Reb to drag him along. “Down this street!” she panted. “When we get to—”
But Bud could already hear the low roar of an engine. A jeep pulled around a corner, skidding with an artful swerve to a halt in front of them. They reared back, then froze, as Gar Baxx leapt out. As predicted, he was carrying a gun—big. He held it casually. He was not angry; his face looked like it was having a great time.
“Hey there!” he chirped. “Howya doin’, lovebirds? Wouldn’t Friendly Village make a great place to get married? And to honeymoon in—honeymoons oughta be friendly, doncha think? You don’t even have to go away anywhere. That was one of Eck’s ideas, he told me. Rent the church, see, and a honeymoon suite in the hotel. Package deal.”
“I’m a little tired of the vacation, Baxx,” declared Bud. “Time to go. Not much of a future down here in Friendly Village.”
Garton Baxx whuffed a laugh. “Y’can say that again, bo! Nothin’ but the past. Well, I gotta say, Mistah Eck, he crazy. But let me add—he knows money. Knows it, wants it. Gives a lot to me.” He held out a hand, a reaching gesture. “To us.”
Rose Reb giggled and walked past Bud, taking Baxx’s hand, folding into the side of him next to the gun. “Always so sweet, Gar. Love eternal.”
“Uh-huh, eternal and external.”
“I wondered, Reb,” stated Bud coolly. “I suspected. From the start. The way you popped up suddenly, no dirt from lying in the street on your neat black New Goth uniform. Kind of careless, RR. So you’re part of it. They sent you down here, to watch me and—transmit.”
She looked hurt and said quickly, sincerely: “No, no! It was all sincere, Beeb. I wanted to be here with you. The thing in Shopton, down here—I needed to get you off the plate. I needed to see you once more. I needed to know, once and for surely, that I was right when I started hating you back then, hate for love. It’s all part of the healing process, just like Gar says.”
Gar nodded his approval. “She’s real adaptable, my Reb. Eck found me, decided I was the One, set me up at the nuthouse, brought the two of us together, Reb and me—he knew your bud’s machine was the only thing that’d get him... aaa, some stupid thing, opening a box to get a will... something. Money! But I fell for her, sure did, my little girl.”
Reb looked at him with shining eyes, barely focused. “Ohhh, Bud, the things we go through to just plain live. Sometimes, I... I don’t think I understand what it’s all for... I felt sad, seeing you unconscious in the back of the van. But guilt—no no, I was never guilty. No.”
She paused. Silence hung. “I’m so sorry,” Bud said to her, earnestly.
“For what I did to you. You needed me to help you, Reb. Back then. Now I understand.”
“No, I don’t think so,” she faintly replied. “No, you’re very far from being an understander, BB. I understand love. You don’t. You can’t. Even when you have it, even when you feel it, you don’t understand it. Now listen—that’s very profound. It’s what Friendly Village taught me, down here, with you, our last dredge of time together. Deadbolts!—that’s Bud Barclay.”
Baxx sneered. “Rebby needs protection, bo. That’s what I can give her. You—what can you do, little flyboy?”
“I’ve faced death and made death blink,” grated Bud.
“We really shouldn’t wink at death,” said Reb vaguely. “You always make your jokes, but Death shouldn’t be made fun of. Death should be welcome at our table. The blackness is all around us, always, so we have to be all the brighter.”
“Rose Reb, please listen—”
She smiled warmly. “Oh, I’ve been listening all along. Escape! Tom Swift!—mm-hmm. You’ll always be just a little boy flying after the moon.”
Rose Reb climbed into the jeep as Baxx waved Bud back with his handgun. The gun seemed to be growing bigger and deadlier with each tick of time. “By the way, Barclay, two things,” he chuckled. “First, Mr. Eck wants you to know how much he enjoyed talkin’ to you the other day on the phone. Made him smile. Guess he forgot the office number’d been posted in the phone booth. Other thing?” Baxx swung hand and gun into position like an expert marksman. He fired. Bud felt the wake of the bullet as it tore by his neck. Behind him a sporting goods shop gained a hole and lost a plate glass window. “Real bullets in this gun. In case you wondered. Yep, a few real things in Friendly Village.”
Baxx gunned the engine, and Reb suddenly turned to search for Bud’s eyes, the expression on her face as ambiguous as always—perhaps scorn, perhaps longing. “Wait, Gar,” she said. “Just a sec.”
She jumped down and approached Bud, Baxx keeping his gun at ready. She seized Bud’s wrist, and in a moment his wristwatch was looped in her grasp. She gazed at it luminously, turning it over. “Thank you,” she whispered. “Tom gave it to you, and you—now you’ve given it to me. Thank you so much. What a wonderful thought. It means forgiveness. It moves me. I’d hoped you’d feel good about my happiness. Whenever I wear it, even when I’m sleeping, I’ll think of you, Bud, little-boy Bud.”
Her lips said something unheard, and she climbed back up next to Baxx, the watch dangling from her thin white fingers. They roared away, around the corner. By the time Bud reached the intersection, they had taken another corner and were lost to sight.
“That’s one way to get out, Rose Reb,” Bud said. “But there are others. There are always others! If it takes a day or a week or a month of Sundays, I’ll get out of here!”
But as the days passed, many days, weeks alone wandering through the vacancy of a town without time, Bud Barclay began to wonder if he could keep his promise to himself. And if sad little Friendly Village might be able to claim him in a way the moon never could.
TIME OUT OF HAND
“SAY THERE, boss—”
“Kin I talk to you? Jest fer a second?”
Tom’s pushed his wheeled chair back from his office desk. “Sure.” But something in Tom’s expression was uninviting, and Chow Winkler felt like clomping away down the hall in his cowboy boots.
But he stood in the office doorway, a wide and robust figure in a chef’s hat and shirt of many a western sunset. “Guess mebbe it’s none o’ my business... Naw, dang it, it shor is my business!” After his outburst he looked sheepish.
“It’s about Bud, isn’t it,” Tom pronounced coolly.
“It’s about you, son. This here thing—”
Tom half-sighed. “I suppose I owe you this conversation, pardner. I’ve had it with just about everybody else, one by one. Sandy’s riled up. Bashalli wants to be supportive but keeps nudging. Mom and Dad don’t know what to say. Hank Sterling doesn’t either—and says it. Know who agrees with me, Chow? Bud’s parents!”
“Th-they do?” Chow’s forehead folded upward. “What kinda blame parents is that? Didden they see that there little movie he made?”
“They did,” Tom replied. “Now tell me the Wide Open Spaces take on all this.” He immediately cut himself off with a headshake. “No—sorry. I’m... a little—”
Chow eyed a chair but didn’t ease his way toward it. “Aw, I know, son, I unnerstan’. He’s ever’body’s friend, but fer you—”
“It’s just been four days, pardner.”
“Four days is four days. Buddy Boy said he’d be back in th’ corral in—”
“I know what he said!” snapped the young inventor, shadow under his deep-set blue eyes.
Chow finally descended on the chair. “Don’t need t’ pertend with ole Chow, Tom. Yuh’re not takin’ all this any more easy than th’ rest of us.”
Tom now sighed all the way. “Just what is it people want me to admit? That I’m concerned? Sure I am.”
“That gal’s a mite loco, clear as sky. I heerd these wimmin sometimes boil people’s pet rabbits, and I don’t mean fer stew! Or mebbe she pushed him over blame Niagaree Falls!”
“If that’s what happened, Chow, it’s a little late to fret over it.” Tom’s face hardened with stubborn determination. “Maybe you’ll understand this, cowpoke. Mr. and Mrs. Barclay do, and agree.”
“Hit me with it, boss.”
“People are overlooking the most important part of the vidcap. He wants to deal with the problem on his own! He asks the rest of us to butt out! He doesn’t want to make this another Tom Swift invention adventure. He doesn’t want me to mobilize Harlan Ames or my sensitector tracker—or any of that. Don’t we all owe it to Bud to respect his request?”
Chow half-winced and scratched his head. “Wa-aal, I guess he did say please. Butcha know, sometimes—dealin’ with these here romance-brained wimmin—and you know I’ve had m’ share—even more than m’ share—”
“That’s the point!” Tom declared. “The whole thing is kind of—intimate. Bud could barely bring himself to tell us about it at all.” He fell into musing. “He jokes about it, never complains, but—what does it do to a guy, always being in somebody’s shadow? ‘The guy standing next to Tom Swift in the pictures.’ Even if he doesn’t admit it to himself, it must eat away at him. Now he finally has a chance to untangle a knot without Tom Swift and His Swift Enterprises charging in to rescue him.
“What do you think, Chow? That Bud should phone home, tell us he’s gonna be a little late?”
“Now you well know I didden say that.”
“If the, the matter took longer than expected—if it takes a week... or...” Tom was frowning, looking away. “Maybe they decided to spend some time together, take a vacation. Why not? Good grief, am I supposed to use the megascope to peek into motel rooms across New York State?—! He’s a big boy.”
“Hmm,” responded Chow, rising. “He shor is.”
“I’ve got to get back to—to the dyna-4 capsule, to the project...”
“Yep,” said the cook. “Speedin’ up time. That’d be handy right now, wudden it. Sorry t’ bother you, son. Like I said, it was about you. An’ now I know sumpin about you, and you know sumpin about me.”
He ambled away, leaving Tom to think and—to fret.
He submerged his fretting for a time by wandering over to Lab 3, on the third floor of technical labs facility, Building H. “Hi, you two,” he said listlessly to Enterprises’ talented modelmaker and miniaturizer Arvid Hanson and his assistant Linda Ming. “How’s time treating you?”
Arv answered, rather hastily, “Just fine, Skipper. The new mini-model is ready for its workout.”
“We didn’t put in a desert diorama,” joked Linda, “but it sure looks like those sketches you gave us.”
The micro-scaled time-transformer apparatus had been assembled on a sturdy worktable. Tom eyed it with as much interest and pleasure as he could summon. Unlike Arv’s initial test model, the new prototype carefully replicated the design of the full-scale device that was to be built beneath the Nevada Test Range.
The time-transformer consisted of two thick disks that slightly bulged toward one another, like a pair of convex lenses set horizontally, precisely in line above one another with a wide gap between. Inside this gap, at the precise center, was the dyna-4 capsule itself, a rounded circular housing with tapering conical extensions above and below. “Never realized how much the capsule looks like a Christmas tree ornament,” Tom remarked. “You two have done a fantastic job, as usual.”
The youth reached out to touch the capsule with his fingertip, but Arv’s hand blocked him. “You’ll cut yourself. The filaments of the support web above and below are thinner than a razor’s edge—which is why you can’t see them. And they’re mighty strong, boss.”
“Thanks. I should have remembered.”
“But they do the job perfectly,” noted Linda. “It’s just amazing how we can tweak the position and orientation of the capsule to keep it right at the chronolens focal point.”
Tom nodded, unsmiling. “It’s the rotation of the earth in the warp and woof of spacetime that causes the drift and distortion in the c-lens field. If the focus isn’t centered on the housing perfectly—if it’s off by as little as the tenth decimal place—objects in the capsule will time-slow or time-speed internally at different rates. A time differential inside a living body would be fatal.”
“Well,” said Arv, “we licked the problem. Another triumph for the Swedes and the Chinese!”
“Yes—though not necessarily in that order,” Linda added mischievously. Beneath lowered lashes she looked to see if she had made Tom smile. The absence of Bud Barclay was well known across the great invention factory, even if the details were not.
“Let’s try ’er out,” said the young inventor.
A scanning microlaser made the taut filaments visible to the eye. As an access port popped open in the side of the capsule, Tom used a narrow set of metal tongs to maneuver a miniature timing chip into a holding basket inside. As he slowly withdrew the spidery tongs, he said, “Okay, Linda, seal her up.”
There was a click. Suddenly the young inventor yelped in startled alarm as the ends of the tongs, still in the chronolens gap, flashed weird colors—and disintegrated in a burst of light like a magnesium flare!
“Tom!” cried Arv, jerking the youth backward as the remainder of the tongs were knocked from Tom’s hand.
“Th-thanks,” Tom gasped. He flexed his fingers and examined his hand. “I’m not burned—stings a little, though.” He looked up, face pale. “Thank goodness my hand was outside the field!”
Linda was almost tearful. “Oh, Tom, when you said to close the port, I didn’t think—I activated the—”
Tom nodded sympathetically. “It’s okay, Linda. Sometimes a person’s hands have a mind of their own, don’t they? But we’ll have to work out a special safety routine for handling the machine. It looks so innocent, but we’re playing with the force of time—the most irresistible force of all!”
“But what happened to the metal tongs?” asked Hanson. “Don’t tell me they aged themselves to death!”
Thoughtful, Tom rubbed his chain. “In a way, I think that’s exactly what happened. The tetramagnium alloy that the tongs are made of is doped with ferrochroma, which will rust if you leave it exposed to air long enough. And rusting—oxidation—is a super-slow form of combustion, you know, and evolves energy, though spread out over years it’s undetectable—normally. What we had here was a thousand years of rusting in a fraction of a second!”
“Gosh goodness!” murmured Linda in abashed awe. “The tongs rusted themselves to death!”
Tom came up with a smile. “Now let’s see if it was worth the millisecond wait.” Linda cut the power to the mechanism and Tom plucked out the timing chip. He compared the result to his ultra-precise electronic watch, a gift from Bud and the exact model Bud himself wore. “While we lived one hundred seconds, the chip passed through—good grief, it’s below the measurement threshold! Less than one millionth of a second!”
Linda gasped. Arv nodded slightly. “Right—I keep forgetting that the flux vector inside the capsule is opposite that of the field on the outside. Time was almost stopped in the capsule—but super-accelerated in the surrounding area.”
“The time-transformer did a great job reminding us,” declared Tom dryly, eyeing the remnant of the tongs.
After testing the converse setting, causing the chip to register the passage of years in a millisecond, the young inventor decided to explore the effects of the outer margins of the time-distortion field, which filled the space between the chronolenses and terminated on all sides beneath their circular rims.
“I don’t recommend poking it with a metal rod,” commented Linda wryly. “How about a wooden pencil?—er, are there still such things as wooden pencils?”
“Let’s take a more conservative approach,” Tom responded. He took a single straw from a vase of dried flowers near the lab door and held it gingerly with the tip of his fingers—in a hand now gloved in Tomasite. He slowly pushed it forward toward the dyna-4 capsule—and it stopped at the periphery of the exterior field, as if hitting an invisible barrier.
Tom held it up to his eyes and scrutinized the end of the straw. “As we calculated,” he said. “You can’t enter the timeflux field from outside it when it has a time-negative orientation. Even at the very edge, time is moving so slowly that an object can’t make any headway, no matter how much force is applied to the part outside the field.” But then he corrected himself. “Well, that’s an exaggeration. A guided missile or a bullet—or a laser beam—could elbow its way in. We do see light coming through, after all, though it’s downshifted toward the red. But the interface has a powerful effect. A time-barrier.”
“Now we’ll switch it to time-positive,” stated Arv. “We calculated the field would pull any intruding matter into itself, right through the interface. It should pluck the straw right from your grip.”
And indeed it did—but in a manner no one could have calculated. As the end of the straw touched the field, it was suddenly gone—and an explosive bang!, sharp as a knife, powerful as a gun blast, shattered the tense silence of the lab!
THE EXPERIMENTERS were jolted back by a whipcrack of force and a wave of heat. Supplies and equipment rattled throughout the lab, and the entire chronolens apparatus slid several inches across the tabletop in a sudden jerk.
“Everybody still alive?” asked Arv dryly. “I think maybe our advance calculations were a tad miscalculated.”
“Ya think?” snorted Linda Ming. “What happened to the straw-probe, Tom? I suppose it aged to death like the tongs.”
“It was pulled right out of my grip,” Tom replied, keen eyes surveying the machine. “The tongs started off partly inside the chronoclast lens-shadow, but the straw was entering from the outside, with forward motion. Whatever happened came just as the end touched the periphery, the ‘time barrier’.”
Linda nodded. “So what did happen to the straw?”
“It was explosive, whatever it was,” noted Arv Hanson unnecessarily.
Tom now glanced about the lab—and pointed. “I’d say the straw—whatever’s left of it—is there!” The wall of the lab, some forty feet distant, showed a fracture pattern radiating from a common center.
The three approached the wall and examined it. “The cracks all meet here,” indicated Arv. “But there’s nothing there, no mark.”
Tom examined the wall at that point with a special hand-held magnifier. “There is something there—look. It’s a tiny pit gouged into the wall like a mini crater.” He shone the magnifier’s light into the hole. “Yep. I see a little spot deep down inside. I’m sure it’s the straw.” He stood back, rubbing his chin. “It was always a possible effect, but I sure underestimated its power!”
Linda brushed back a lock of hair. “It sounds like the little straw turned into a bullet.”
“Yes,” replied the young inventor. “And time served as the gunpowder.” He haltingly explained a complicated scenario. “As the straw advanced, the molecules at the very tip penetrated into the field—and suddenly you had, in effect, a constant ‘push’ pressure applied to those molecules for a span of years. In other words, years’ worth of pressure acting, from our point of view, almost instantaneously.”
“In even more other words,” said Arv, “the energy was super concentrated.”
“Fantastically so! Remember, all mechanical motion involves momentum. The slight amount of momentum given the straw by my push was amplified, at its fore-end, by a factor of millions. So the tip shot forward into the field, pulling the rest of the straw with it.”
Linda nodded. “I see, chief. But when the straw hit the opposite side of the ‘bubble,’ the reverse should have happened, right? The straw should have been pushed back. It should have come to rest inside the field.”
“That’s good reasoning,” said Tom; “but it seems the vector geometry took an unexpected twist—literally! The momentum-spike was so intense it threw the straw right out the other side at the sort of velocity you’d see in a spacecraft reentry.”
Hanson understood immediately. “Shooting it right into the wall—I’ve heard hurricanes can cause straws to get embedded in tree trunks—while generating a shockwave and a blast of heat from the air friction.”
Tom had continued to examine the hole and the straw with his magnifier adjusted to various settings. “You’d think the straw would incinerate in midair from frictional heat. But here we’re dealing with meta-friction. The velocity was so great that the heat evolved in the air along the surface didn’t have time to penetrate into the material, or even catch up with it. In fact, the ‘Q’ coefficient—the backpressure from ramming through the air—compressed the straw along its length. Now it’s more like a pellet—and extremely dense.” He smiled. “Sandy and I dealt with metafriction just the other day, when the Sky Queen encountered some space ice entering the atmosphere at hypersonic speed.”
“I guess when the straw was squeezed out, back into normal time, the recoil made the apparatus slide,” mused Arv.
But Tom’s face was clouded with thought. “The recoil—the reaction thrust—should have been far greater. The time-transformer should have taken off like a rocket and rammed the wall behind me. Some sort of additional force was created, a more symmetrical force that balanced out most of the thrust, which was completely directed to one side...
“I just had an alarming thought, guys. The scientist-advisers were worrying about some kind of ripple effect in spacetime. I dismissed it, but...”
“But maybe we should do a little more testing,” Linda stated. “And stand back!”
At home that night, the usual discussions of the Swift family were muted and strained—the topic of Bud Barclay was carefully avoided. Instead, Tom and his father speculated, as two scientist-inventors, about the lab phenomenon.
“You’re probably right, son,” pronounced Damon Swift. “Relativity explores the effects of velocities as they approach the speed of light, and has identified phenomena involving the acceleration of large masses—such as the circular acceleration of rotating planets or stars.”
“Which creates ‘frame drag’—a distortion in spacetime,” nodded Tom. “In this case—”
“In this case you had a truly fantastic acceleration of mass, attaining multi-mach speed in the smallest fraction of a second.”
“From our external point of view, it was all but instantaneous,” Tom noted. “In other words, there was an off-the-charts jump in momentum energy concentrated initially in a very small volume of space. It must have caused some sort of ‘momentum wake’ that surged outward in all directions like a tidal wave, transferring momentum to everything it encountered.”
“Yes,” agreed Mr. Swift. “Not exactly a ‘push,’ not in the usual sense, but a direct and immediate change in the object’s state of motion due to a change in the symmetry of spacetime. This could be an epochal discovery, son, once we get a handle on how it works. But we can’t be surprised to be surprised as we probe into the underlying fabric of space and time.”
Sandy, listening, said: “You could use the ‘straw effect’ for space propulsion, couldn’t you? Spray something through the time zone, and when it comes super-speeding out the other side, that’s your reaction thrust.”
“True,” Tom replied. “But we may be making that kind of engine obsolete even before we build it! What if we tried to harness the momentum-wave effect—to drive a vehicle forward by literally moving the space around it...?”
“Tomonomo—you’re already working on your next invention!”
Hours later, as Tom prepared for bed and restless sleep, his mother knocked. “Dear, there’s a call for you on the house phone—the operator said it was routed through the Enterprises switchboard.”
“Walt’s on tonight. He wouldn’t disturb us unless it seemed important, Mom,” said the youth nervously. “I’ll pick it up in here.”
The ultimate end of the phone line proved to be Gabriel Knorff! “Tom, I know it’s late there, but—I just got a call myself. Mina Finch! She’s frantic. She just had a run-in with someone who broke into her house!”
“Good night! Is she okay?”
“Yes, but mighty shook-up. The police drove her to a neighbor’s house to stay while they keep watch on the farm.” At Tom’s urging Gabe explained that a noise had awakened Miss Finch. When she investigated her flashlight had pinned a prowler near the doorway to the basement room. “Where the safe is, Tom—and the box!”
“Did he attack her? Pull a gun?”
“No, thank God. He ran at her and pushed her aside, then escaped the same way he got in, through a window he’d forced open. The cops say he’d killed the security system some way or other. Man, those things aren’t worth the bucks people pump into ’em, you know?”
Tom breathed easier, but still was concerned. “Was anything stolen, Gabe?”
“She called me even before the police—good choice!—and said she’d checked the safe; the box was still there. Guess she caught him before he’d gone down the stairs.”
“It was the kind of attempt I’d been expecting,” Tom stated. “Eckdal must be behind it. I’ve been surprised he didn’t try it earlier. Did Mina have much of a description of the guy?”
“Only a vague one—a slender young guy in what she called a burglar cap. The officers are dusting for prints, of course.”
“It’d be a break if they found any—but I imagine the intruder was smart enough to wear gloves,” Tom noted wryly. “Wish she had more of a description.”
Tom could almost hear Gabe grin in response. “Hey, Mr. Science, the best description is a photograph! And I have a pretty good rep as far as gettin’ ’em, don’t I?”
The young inventor was amazed! “What do you mean? Don’t tell me you snapped a picture of the burglar!”
“Doubt me not!” chuckled the red-headed photo-journalist. “Or my ingenuity, at least. I was expecting a break-in too—which is why I set a photo trap! You can do a lot with these new pic-cellphones, Tom, including attach ’em to plug-in motion sensors!”
“Gabe that’s—I mean—jetz!”
“Uh-huh. Hung one up near the ceiling, watching the basement doorway—told Mina how to keep from setting it off. Light-amp lensing, by the way; I got a lot of money from my articles on my trip to Little Luna. Of course I blew it on equipment like the idiot I am...
“But anyway, the phone automatically uploaded the photo sequence to the net, to my private ‘secure stash’ on my website. Care to see it?”
“What’s your fee?” Tom joked.
“For you, nothin’. Of course, I own the copyright—and all subsidiary rights.”
Continuing to hold the phone, Tom strode over to his laptop. In seconds he was scrutinizing Gabe’s photo-capture. The image was perfectly clear, and the angle had been, by chance, a good one. This’ll sure make a great wanted poster! he thought.
The burglar was as Miss Finch had described—young, slim. His tight jeans showed muscular legs. A scraggly goatee waved from the point of his chin, and strands of long hair, looking greasy and blond, draped down from the eyebrow-level rim of his woven cloth cap. “The ‘skate’ look,” Tom muttered. “But who in space is he?”
“THE SWIFT search engine matrix is pretty spectacular, Tom,” said Harlan Ames briskly. “Ah, technology. We’re confident of what the facial-recognition software came up with, too—forty-four percent confidence isn’t bad.”
Night had passed, and most of the next morning. Tom sat in the office of Enterprises Security facing the security chief. “Lucky he was in the system.”
“Lucky—but probable,” replied the ex-Secret Service man. “Unless they’re stupid or have terrible luck, burglars ply their trade for years, with some jail time along the way. Plenty of occasion to get their mug shots circulated—sometimes from security cameras during the actual event. I expect to see ‘reality’ burglary shows in real time any day now on the net.”
“And he’s more than a burglar, you said,” Tom prompted.
“As a new hire at Waukegan Psychiatric, he had a pic taken. Also a background check—obviously a cursory one.
“So. Mr. Garton Lou Baxx of Des Moines, Iowa. Age 27. A semi-pro at the crime game. But all fairly minor stuff—local burglaries, bar fights, ripping off a cab driver. His ex-wife has a restraining order against him. His costume must be sentimental for him: he was a local skateboard champ in high school.”
Tom smiled. “Must be a help in making quick getaways. Was the psych job his most recent?”
“Far as we can tell. My sources don’t know the reason he was fired. Confidential.”
“But how would he know about the black box in the safe?” mused the young inventor. “The legal fight was in the local news, of course...”
“He may have made the logical assumption that that’s where the container would be,” Ames responded. “Logical if you’re determined to be illogical, that is. A wiser little old lady would have used a safe deposit box.”
“So you don’t think Baxx is connected to Torr Eckdal?”
“I didn’t say that, boss. Only that we can’t make that assumption right off. Even with the fences and security systems, it’s an old, isolated farmhouse. He may have picked it as easy to burgle. Maybe he wanted some practice—keep his edge. That’s what champs do.”
Tom shrugged. “I don’t know, Harlan. Did he really roam around the house randomly for a time, trying the doors one after another? Gabe’s camera caught him because he was near the door to the most valuable room in the house.”
“As if he’d headed there directly. True.” Ames shifted subjects. “As your dad said, Swift Enterprises is only peripherally involved in this business with Miss Finch and her inheritance. If you want me to provide some site security—”
“No,” Tom said. “I’m concerned about Mina’s safety, of course, but she needs to explore her own options. Clearly the box should be put elsewhere, and she herself should move to safer surroundings. In any event, Dad’s right. Enterprises isn’t in the rent-a-cop business.”
“We have some other morsels on our plate right now.”
“The dyna-4 project in Nevada.”
“Actually,” Ames said meaningfully, “I was thinking of something else.”
Tom was stone-faced and answered quietly. “If you’re asking what I want, Harlan, I haven’t changed my mind. I’m going to respect Bud’s wishes and leave it to him to handle in his own way.”
“Mm-hmm. ‘His own way’ is sometimes an impulsive way—to the point of harebrained.”
“He has good instincts.”
“For a guy who sometimes winds up hanging from a monorail track over the Grand Canyon.”
“She’s his girlfriend.”
“According to the video, she was more girl than friend. She’s a crazy stalker, Tom. Serial killers have to start somewhere. Throwing tapioca could be just the beginning!—of a real horror show.”
“Maybe,” Tom replied stubbornly. “But it’s Bud’s show.”
Between crises Tom was able to work on the model of the time-transformer apparatus and the dyna-4 capsule. The unit was moved to Tom’s lab adjacent to the huge subsurface hangar of the Sky Queen, where he was joined by his top engineer Hank Sterling, a close friend.
“You know,” Hank said with a certain awe, “there was a time when we thought of the Queen as a masterpiece of high-tech engineering. Just imagine, a three-deck Flying Lab that can hover like a VTOL! Or a hydrojet sub, or—Holy Mo, doesn’t the term ‘rocket ship’ sound like something from 1950’s TV these days?”
“And now we’re pushing around the flow of time,” nodded Tom.
“What if Father Time pushes back? We have impulse guns, but the old guy has a scythe!”
Tom coolly cut off the banter. “Let’s work on getting the chronolenses focused. We need to make sure the focal terminus matches the hull of the capsule.”
“I know, Skipper. If the reversed-vector exterior shadow crosses into the capsule, who knows what could happen?”
“We’ve already had some surprises, trying to deal with ‘mixed time’,” noted the youth ruefully. He could still feel a twinge in his hand.
It was late in the day—the fifth since Tom had viewed Bud’s video—when Tom was called up to the office he shared with Mr. Swift to examine something a courier had just delivered. “No bomb or poison—or bees!—according to our security scan,” declared Damon Swift as he handed his son the small box wrapped in plain brown paper. It was square in shape but shallow. “But something unusual, certainly.”
“I don’t suppose we have any idea who sent it?”
“No, as usual in these circumstances the sender provided the package to the courier service in a way that concealed his or her identity. Phony return address, public phone number, payment in cash.” Tom’s father did not have to vocalize the thought he shared with his son. This could have to do with Bud!
Inside the cardboard box was a folded sheet of paper and an object that made Mr. Swift smile. “My word, son, I haven’t seen one of these in years—a tape reel!”
“Kind of a primordial CD, wasn’t it?” joked Tom. “Who in the world would want to send us something on magnetic audiotape?”
“Not even a tape cassette. This is the sort of thing you’d thread onto a big, bulky tape recorder—as they called them.” His brow creased. “You know... I have no idea how we’re going to listen to this, offhand.”
Tom smiled. “Maybe I can come up with a Tom Swift invention. But let’s read the note.”
The note was peculiar as well, a faint, smudgy blur on onionskin paper, in standard typeface.
LIFE IS TOO SHORT NOT TO HAVE A LITTLE FUN.
“What are we supposed to ‘revere’?” snorted Tom. “Maybe this is just some sort of advertising gimmick.”
“Perhaps so,” his father replied. “Rather annoying. But you’ll have to investigate on your own, son. I have to have what promises to be a dull dinner with Corporate America. The hard life of a CEO, hm?”
After looking up the address, Tom drove there in his bronze sports car, a two-seater powered by a Swift solar battery. 331 Fifth Street resided in an older part of Shopton. Tom’s namesake, his great-grandfather, might have purchased his signature hat there; now it was mostly an industrial area—backroom assembly, machine shops, small warehouses.
331 turned out to be the home of The Eclectic Electric Shop. Tom entered, tape box in hand, and looked about curiously. The untidy shelves were crammed with odds and ends—radio tubes, “typing ball” typewriters, a mimeograph, something called a “dictaphone,” bulky adding machines with pull-levers, trays with computer-data “punch cards,” and many other relics of the electric age that preceded the microelectronic age. He grinned at one object that took up a great deal of space—an ancient xerographic copier machine the size of a sofa. A warning light was blinking on top, beaming the cryptic word MISPUFF.
Everything had seen better days. Including the robust woman behind the counter. Tom noticed her name badge.
Deal With It
“About to close,” she chirped in an unfriendly way. “Closure is about to happen.” Tom smiled and stepped closer. “Well! Tom Swift and His Famous Crewcut! Closure briefly postponed.”
“I know it’s late in the day, ma’am,” the youth apologized. “Shall I come back tomorrow?”
“Our first rule here: no such thing as tomorrow,” she said crisply. “Second rule: no checks accepted, cash is still legal. So what can I do for you?”
Tom showed her the tape reel. “A note came with it that gave your address.”
“If you’re thinking Eclectic Electric sent it as a come-on, no. We don’t need to advertise to find customers. Our select clientele finds us.”
“I suppose the idea was to direct us to a place that sells old-style tape recorders.”
“Oh, we have several. Various makes, some cheap, some notso.” Tom gave the proprietor the cardboard box. She tapped it, ran a calloused finger over it, and rattled it next to her ear. “Okay. I can tell you right now that you’ll be needing our most expensive model.”
“I need the money.”
Tom had hoped she would offer to play the tape for him, but his hopes were not borne out. “Um... well... it’s just for one-time use. Then you don’t think the least-expensive model—”
“Sure,” she responded. “That is to say, the least expensive model that will actually play the tape without damaging it. Let’s see now...” The woman picked up a jewelers’ eyepiece and scrutinized the tape, which had a sort of rust color. “Mm-hmm. Nice and fresh. Somebody must have an old stash of these in unopened boxes, sealed in wrappers. They turn up now and then—old back-supplies in the bottom of Grandpa’s filing cabinet.
“This tape was manufactured by the Brillian-Tone company, sometime in the later 1950’s—they went under in 1962. High quality. ‘Brillian-Tone makes it music!’ So.”
“Do you have something that can play this?” asked Tom.
“As a matter of fact, what luck!—we do,” she replied. “Oh, bad news—I’m afraid it’s our most expensive model. A Revere.”
“A Revere is just what I wanted,” commented Tom dryly.
“A classic. Easy to thread the tape. Monaural, of course. Rather heavy, but you’re a healthy young guy.”
“Cash only, I suppose. How much, ma’am?”
“A nice $334, plus tax.”
“Er—will you accept a credit card?”
“From Tom Swift, yes. Assuming you have an ID.”
The transaction was completed, and Tom eyed the squat straw-colored cube doubtfully. “This is kind of an important matter,” he muttered. “What if it doesn’t work?”
“Now that’s an easy question,” replied the woman, apparently the shop owner. “If it doesn’t work you’re out $334. Plus tax.”
As Tom moved to hoist up the machine, he suddenly noticed a slip of colored paper protruding from the seam of the lid, in the rear.
He pulled it out. It was neatly folded. And the color was pink. “What’s this?”
For some reason his heart was thudding.
“That? Dunno. Never noticed it.”
“Ma’am... would you call this ‘rose pink’?”
“Oh, I suppose.”
“And you... don’t know who might have left it?”
She looked at Tom impatiently. “I know it’s inconceivable, Tom, but on the weekends we get a nice bit of traffic through here. Our customers are very loyal, and they have friends. I wouldn’t notice everyone who comes wanderin’ through.
“I’ll tell ya this, though. I dust pretty regular. That little card wasn’t there last week.”
Tom opened it. A thumb-sized picture was glued inside. It looked like it had been cut out of a school yearbook. The face was young and cocky and very familiar. Beneath it:
BUD N. BARCLAY
SOPHOMORE MOST LIKELY TO
The rest of the caption had been torn away. But there was handwriting beneath it.
“C’ya. C’ya. C’ya.”
UNNERVING AGENT DIBS
THEY CROWDED into the office of the two Swifts, an uncomfortably large crowd, a snack dinner provided by Chow Winkler. The reels turned lazily on the Revere tape recorder.
“Hello,” said a strange voice. “Welcome to my hobby! May you have as good a time as I’m having right now, Tom.
“Yes, it’s true. I have Bud Barclay. But don’t get shook, Neato-Jet. He’s up and walking, in comfortable surroundings. Safe and healthy. If he’s smart he’ll set aside his preconceptions and enjoy his time with us.
“But of course, Neato-Jet, it’s always a worrisome distraction when a loved one is kidnapped. You’re probably thinking of doing the sensible thing and calling in the so-called authorities, the FBI and all those profiling experts. See now, that’d be unwise. Do the little favor I’m asking of you and your best friend returns with a wonderful tale to tell. Make me nervous and I’ll be less inclined to play the good host. Not that you won’t end up seeing something of Bud once again.
“Note that word ‘something’.
“I assume I have your rapt attention—you and your security staff, who would be well advised to remain seated throughout the entire performance, and after as well. I know Mina Finch has visited you, that old biddy with her red-headed young swain. You know who I am, obviously, and what I want. And you’ve surely figured out what I want you to do for me. Time flows at your command, doesn’t it, Neato-Jet? All you need to do is make a little object twenty-five years older, then, immediately, provide me with what it contains via my personal representative, who shall be present for the grand opening. I’ve worked out the details. And believe me, you won’t find me, not with all your equipment, and you won’t find Bud. Not until I want you to find him. Or at least a percentage of him.”
Tom’s face was gray. The reels spun on.
“But why be a spoilsport? It’s a scientific challenge of the sort you enjoy. To accept, post the following message on an obscure internet discussion group called HeyKids.com. You are already a member under the name Mr. Luna. See?—a tribute. The message: ‘Time is the enemy of enterprise.’ You will then have one month to complete your machine and get that box opened. The box, with whatever info Mr. Worthless Father-Knows-Best locked inside, will be placed into the hands of my personal agent, who will be allowed to leave and drive off with it unimpeded. He is to see the contents when the timelock is sprung—him alone. If he doesn’t give me the report I want, the deal’s off. Get that? Please believe that I will know if you try to substitute a fake box, or to open it in advance without my agent present.
“How will I know? Say, that’s one to think about. Seems you’ll have to trust me.
“You have five hours to post your answer, Tom, and I get to decide when the ol’ clock starts ticking. Maybe it already has.
“I’ll be in touch.”
There was nothing further on the tape. They had already listened all the way to the end, several times.
“Why’s his voice sound s’ blame funny?” asked Chow.
“He must be using some kind of electronic distortion to mask it,” Mr. Swift said thoughtfully.
Tom shook his head. “No, Dad, I think our Mr. Eckdal prefers low-tech solutions. He—or someone—read his message from a script into a tape recorder, then played the tape backwards!”
“I see,” Damon Swift responded. “He learned the sounds ‘in reverse’, then recited those sounds into the recorder, which again played it back in reverse.”
“The double-reverse made the word-order correct, but the vocal inflections are completely obscured. But it hardly matters—we know who the message is coming from. He admits it.”
“Then why do it?” mused Phil Radnor, Ames’s assistant.
“Cause he’s crazy!” Chow burst out. “Knew me a feller in Texas who collected coins. Nice normal poke most o’ the time, but when he started talkin’ about his hobby he ’as jest about foamin’ at the mouth like a rabid coyote! An’ that was jest a bunch o’ old coins!—not even enough t’ buy dinner in Tucson.”
Mr. Swift held up a hand, turning to Ames and Radnor. “What do we know?”
“Three hours in, not a great deal,” said Harlan Ames. “The ‘life is too short’ note that came with the tape reel was what is called a ‘carbon copy’—you and I remember them, Damon. In fact it was a second-carbon, on paper from the Krisp-Kleen company. As with the tape itself, the paper appears to have been in storage, sealed and kept fresh since sometime in the 1950’s.
“The note was typed on a manual typewriter within the last few days, probably a Royal from the late 1940’s, early 1950’s—that’s the best match. The machine had been freshly oiled and cleaned—”
“You have to ‘uncake’ the strike-heads periodically,” noted Damon Swift.
“The typewriter was in very good shape.”
“Sure,” said Linda Ming. “The guy’s a hobbyist—he loves that old mechanical junk.”
“As to the typist himself, not much to go on,” continued Phil Radnor. “No prints, no interesting fibers. We do know it was a man, a longterm touch-typist, and right handed.”
“Hunh? How th’ Pecos kin you tell that?” demanded Chow.
Ames smiled patiently. “By some factors that only apply to old-fashioned manual typewriters. Even with an expert typist, a man’s wide fingers have to be watched for certain near-miss mistakes, when two successive keys are next to one another—‘r’ and ‘t’, for example. There’s a tiny hesitation which shows up as a characteristic shallowing of the imprint depth for those pairs alone. It’s absorbed unconsciously, over time, by male touch-typists.
“As for right-handed, keys on the side of the dominant hand get a harder, crisper strike, which also shows up in imprint depth. First time I’ve had a chance to use these clues.”
“He figured sending the carbon would cover up any possible clues,” added Radnor; “but he was way wrong. It’s easier to differentiate strike intensities on a standard carbon, not harder.”
“Tom, Damon, this Eckdal fellow isn’t one of your criminal geniuses,” Ames noted. “He’s a shady businessman and probable swindler—also a suspect in the death of a former partner, though he was never charged. We can’t connect him to any high-tech work. Has a long string of failed business ventures. Apart from that he’s mainly known as a very aggressive collector of what you might call ‘nifty-Fifties’ items.”
“What about a photograph?” asked Tom’s father.
“No luck so far,” replied the former Secret Service agent. “Mina Finch says her employer trashed all the photos he had of his son. We haven’t found anything yet—trying to get his Drivers’ License photo, but administrative privacy rules make that a real challenge.”
Tom had a fierce look on his face. “Can you at least tell us where he might be holding Bud? Some idea?”
“He sold his house in California about six months ago. Present address—present whereabouts—well, as of this minute, nothing.”
“What about the girl?” asked Mr. Swift.
“No sign of any prior connection to Torranz Eckdal.”
“I know I asked you not to do any checking—to respect Bud’s wishes...” Tom muttered sadly.
Harlan Ames smiled and raised his eyebrows. “Boss, that was a directive to your employee Harlan Ames, not your friend Harlan Ames. You helped me find and free my daughter, remember? You must’ve known I’d look into it all ‘unofficially’—this apparent stalker threatening a part of our family here. Just as I know without ‘knowing’ that you’ve been trying to reach Bud by phone ever since he was a day late.” As Tom nodded sheepishly, Ames asked in a tone of understanding: “How many times today?”
“Eight,” Tom admitted. “It goes to voicemail.”
Hank Sterling paced the room. “But somehow this old high school girlfriend—whatever you want to call her—has gone from stalking to kidnapping!”
“Or at least working with the kidnappers,” added Tom’s father.
“Sure looks like it,” Tom stated. “What did you find out about her, Harlan?”
“That she handled the pink note, that there’s a fingerprint match to a ‘Rose Rebecca Truncheon’ who attended that school of Bud’s, that the picture comes from the school yearbook, and—
“Here’s something unexpected. Bud seems not to have known it. After she broke up with him she had several involuntary hospitalizations, arranged by her parents.”
“Yup!” snorted Chow. “Kee-razy!”
Tom asked if Rose Reb’s parents had been contacted. Ames and Radnor exchanged glances. “Mr. and Mrs. Truncheon are dead. Run down on a sidewalk by a drunk driver, in San Francisco.”
“When?” asked Tom. “Recently?”
“No. Back when Rose Truncheon was enrolled in school, at least on paper, before Bud moved to Shopton. It was kept out of the papers, somehow.”
“And no one mentioned it on campus—something actually true in the middle of all the teenage gossip,” Tom said. “She had no friends. Her real life didn’t count, did it.”
“We know where she’s been in recent weeks,” noted Mr. Swift dryly. “Where is her residence?”
“No record since San Francisco. We’re working on it, guys.” Ames added: “She may have been in a facility, or living on disability. It’s not easy to get info on people in situations like that, you know. Medical privacy issues, enforceable by law. And in this case, Miss Truncheon’s legal status is a little unclear. She was still a minor when her parents died—”
“When her parents were killed,” corrected Tom.
“There were custody and guardianship issues resolved in court, but we don’t have the docs. At any rate, she’s now an adult. For all we know she may have changed her name.”
Mr. Swift asked the two security men what they would recommend as a response to Eckdal’s demand, but Tom answered sharply before Ames and Radnor could respond. “What choice is there? If this madman has Bud—”
“But wait now,” interrupted Hank Sterling. “Do we really know that’s true? Let’s say Eckdal and the girl are working together, as it seems. Maybe she and Bud are off on some romantic interlude, and Eckdal’s using Bud’s absence to pretend he—”
“No,” stated Tom coldly. “Some innocent—interlude—wouldn’t prevent Bud from getting in touch with—with us—any time he wanted to.”
Chow spoke quietly. “Mebbe he doesn’t want to, son.”
“It’d be too risky a gimmick to depend on, even for a cheesy non-pro like Torr Eckdal,” Tom insisted doggedly. “Listen, all of you. I’m posting the reply Eckdal wants. ‘At least a percentage’—I’m not risking Bud’s life while he’s in the hands of some sort of maniac. It buys us one month.” The room was stone-silent. Tom turned to his father. “That’s what I’m going to do, Dad. I’m sorry if you don’t agree.”
“And I’m pleased to say—I do,” Damon Swift replied.
Tom posted the notice. Within hours an untraceable response appeared beneath the posting.
OFF TO A GREAT START!
STARTING LAST MIDNIGHT
The 720 hours—30 days to save Bud’s life—were already ticking away.
Tom’s nights were barely slept in, and the days seemed to run together. As the dyna-4 capsule and chronolens installation were constructed in the “time cave” beneath the Nevada test range, as overseen by Enterprises employee Art Wiltessa, Enterprises Security pushed a frantic, discreet investigation. The motel Bud had stayed in—but never slept in—had no information. Tom was now willing to employ his robot-mobile tracker, the sensitector, in an attempt to trace the movements of Bud’s missing convertible, license plate TSE TSE FLY, but too much time, and too many cars, had passed. Nor could Ames and Radnor locate the two who would know something: Torranz Eckdal and Rose Reb Truncheon. Mina Finch, now living in secure surroundings near Gabe Knorff with her metal box in safe-deposit, was kept unaware of Bud’s kidnapping. She could only wait for Tom Swift to turn years into seconds.
The Swifts decided not to alert the authorities until something further was heard from Eckdal, or Bud. “Bud’s parents want it that way,” Tom explained to Sandy. “They’re afraid of making the guy ‘nervous.’ So am I.”
There were tears in Sandy’s voice. “Tom... this isn’t like when Bud was lost in New Guinea, when his plane went down. We know he’s in the hands of a human enemy, who—who threatens—”
“I’m doing my best, San.”
“Everyone is. But how long will it go on?” Her eyes filled. “M-maybe the longer the better, because wh-when the phone rings, it might be—it could mean—”
Tom tried to comfort his sister.
Tom himself was comforted by those around him. “Thomas, you will do what must be done for Bud,” said Bashalli Prandit to her good friend. “You always do what must be done, always with coolness, always with logic. You’re the one who never loses his head. Leave the head-losing to the rest of us.”
“I don’t know if I can,” murmured the young inventor, listless. “But I have to keep working on the time-transformer project—have to. It could mean Bud’s life.”
Bleak days inched by, as if on a slow conveyor belt.
One issue placed on Tom’s plate with a thunk! was the matter of scientific personnel at the Nevada site. Tom explained to his father: “Dr. Franzenberg’s gall-bladder surgery puts him out of the picture, but I do need someone to backstop me on the theoretical physics as I test out the capsule.”
Mr. Swift looked apologetic. “As of two hours ago, that problem is solved—whether we like it or not. That edgy physicist Hyram Beecher pushed his own choice on us by way of the authorities at the Department of Energy. His name is Irvin Valetta.”
Tom frowned. “Fine. An expert in black hole abatement?”
“Perhaps more like what they call black ops. Apparently he’s been an employee of the NSA, the National Security Agency. I’m not familiar with him personally, but Beecher says he’s well-regarded in the NSA community. Secret physics, Tom, probably destined for weaponry. But some of that classified NSA work is the most advanced in the field.”
“Well... guess there’s nothing to do about it.”
One morning, as Chow was clearing away Tom’s breakfast plates, Phil Radnor brought a visitor to Tom’s office, a trim young man with a high forehead and short, slicked-back hair, who looked as if he had been cleaned and pressed at a laundry. “This is Randy Dibs, Tom,” said Radnor. “The one Harlan talked to you about.”
Tom offered his hand. “Pleased to meet you, Agent Dibs.”
The man grinned hesitantly as he shook. “Me too. I—it’s weird to hear that—Agent Dibs. I know that’s what I am now, but... you know...” He resolved the dilemma. “Call me Randy—er, if you want.”
“I’m still a little unclear—” began Tom.
“Right, right, what it’s all about, my duties.” Dibs cleared his throat nervously. “You see... well, I guess you know... I’m not FBI. I’m actually with the, the investigations enforcement arm of the Federal Accounting Office, Department of the Treasury. But no, now, I’m not an accountant, I carry a gun—as you can see—and it’s a sworn law enforcement position. I investigate security risks pertaining to financial documents and apprehend, uh—”
Tom smiled. “Bad people. Don’t worry, Randy. We know you’re a real agent. We asked the Subcommittee for this kind of support. We have a... a private situation that we need to ‘put on file’ with the Feds without—”
“Without going through the FBI or the Defense or Energy people. That’s what I understand. As I told Mr.—that is, Harlan—I have discretion to be, um—well, discreet. You know, because it involves money handling and business things.”
“Let’s be open about it,” interrupted Phil Radnor. “Dibs here won’t get in trouble with the higher-ups for not immediately reporting the matter we plan to bring to his attention. His bureaucratic slot gives him more freedom than we could expect from, say, Wes Norris. And a year from now, no one can say we concealed the situation from the Federal authorities.”
“But you can also provide us with information that ordinarily would be out of our reach,” Tom stated. “Nothing illegal, of course. But there are databases even Tom Swift Enterprises can’t access.”
Dibs nodded enthusiastically. “Oh, absolutely! I have great, great access—er, well, within reason. I admit—there are limits. See, I’m wet.”
“Behind the ears. New. I mean, really—I’m kind of... young.”
“We encourage young talent at Swift Enterprises,” grinned Tom Swift, young inventor.
“Honestly, I’m hoping this assignment will make my rep. If I don’t mess up. But, oh, I won’t, believe me!”
Dibs was introduced to Chow, whose thick handshake was more cautious than usual. As Radnor led the young agent next door to the Security office for a briefing, Tom asked the westerner his opinion. “Wa-aal,” he drawled through a billowy frown, “seems nice enough, boss. Mebbe a mite green. Seems t’ these old eyes he looks like a newborn calf who ain’t hardly been licked over yet.”
“Hm. Is that bad?” asked Tom humorously.
“Ever’body starts someplace. But if Buddy Boy’s off somewhere penned up by some loco-weed chomper—”
“At least Randy has a gun,” Tom reminded his friend.
“Yep, leastways that,” replied the cook. “Question up in my head is—kin he use it? Like t’ know.”
“Guess I would too, pardner.”
Chow’s big face took on the hint of an idea. “Then afore we turn ’im loose—let’s find out!”
THE DAY FOLLOWING Tom, Chow, and Dibs trooped over to the furthest corner of four-mile-square Swift Enterprises on the employee conveyor system, called the ridewalk. At this undeveloped spot, an open field bordered on one side by the plant’s security wall, Chow had established a modest shooting range that was used by the dozen or so employees who enjoyed recreational gunplay. They had formed a club, known inevitably as the Swift Shooters.
“Feel free to use the range whenever you need to scuff the rust off your trigger finger,” Tom said to Agent Dibs. “Nothing fancy. It’s not an interest of mine, but I’m told it relieves tension.”
Dibs nodded. “Sure, right, sudden loud noise, pretending you’ve blown somebody’s head off—I sleep better at night.”
“Yuh’ll find me out here once ’r twice a week,” declared Chow with a look of cowpoke superiority. The cook showed Dibs his near-antique sixgun. “Passed down fer 133 years, right down here t’ my hand. Got a name, too—Ole Shoot-Yer-Mouth-Off. ‘Mouthy’ to ’er pals.” His eyes narrowed playfully as he twirled the gun. “You gonna be a pal, Randy?”
Dibs gulped. “I hope so. Expect so. Definitely.”
“Chow’s joking, of course,” Tom added hastily. “Enterprises expeditions don’t use firearms ordinarily. We have our electric impulse rifles and i-guns.”
“But them things don’t give ya a kick when ya shoot ’em off,” remarked Chow. “Out here’s where a man knows he’s a man—know what I mean?”
“Sure do,” nodded the young agent. “I’ve had the standard training, of course. Did pretty well.”
“I been shootin’ more years than a dog has barks. So let’s give ’er a try, son. Show yer stuff.”
The two showed their respective stuffs immediately. Chow’s face reddened as Dibs’s target score climbed and climbed. He seemed an entirely different sort of man with a revolver in his hand—steady and cool, focused like a laser. The unexpected performance rattled the older man despite his wealth of years, but Chow began to catch up toward the end as his nerves steadied. The competition became fierce and a shade grim.
Finally, as the scores drew almost even, Tom called a halt. “I think we can rely on both of you to defend Enterprises from hoss thieves,” smiled the young inventor.
“Don’t you make fun o’ shootin’,” snorted Chow darkly. “Blame serious business.”
Randy Dibs smiled blandly. “Sure is. But I’ve never had to even draw this thing in the line of duty—never given it a name—since I started. Nice to know I can make ‘pals’ too, though.”
“Ye-ahh,” muttered Chow. As Dibs turned and walked away toward the Enterprises peripheral ridewalk, Tom clapped his friend on the back reassuringly. “Guess he’s a mite okay,” admitted the cook. “Mebbe more’n that, truth t’ tell. But blame if I don’t have me a better gun!”
“Don’t let it get under your hide, Chow,” urged the young inventor. “In a tight spot my money’s on you.”
The two caught up with Dibs and rode back to the administration building. “Of course I’ve been thinking a lot about what Harlan and Phil told me yesterday, the whole ugly ransom business,” the agent said. “I’m not looking for a shootout with the kidnappers, but I’m sure I can provide some help in finding this Eckdal crook and your friend. But I’m surprised your usual government sources haven’t given you any leads.”
“We have a nickname for the ‘sources’ you’re referring to, Randy—Collections,” replied the youth thoughtfully. “The fiction books allude to them, but obviously we don’t release details to the public.”
“They don’t have a definite name even among government agencies, but we know they exist. I’m not sure what box they occupy on the big chart. I have no idea whom they report to.”
“Maybe no one,” shrugged Tom—and he was almost serious. “They’ve been willing to help Enterprises on certain kinds of cases, but they seem to be keeping clear of this matter. They care about national security and world-sized technological threats, not...”
“Not kidnappings and ransom,” Dibs finished.
“No. This doesn’t interest them.” The young inventor’s voice was bitter. “It matters to just a few people—me and my family, Mina Finch, everyone who knows... Bud...”
“We’ll get him back, Tom,” stated Dibs.
“Depend on thet one!” Chow agreed. “An’ me an ol’ Mouthy here are ready fer it!”
“Then I’m glad you and ol’ Mouthy are coming to the Nevada site,” grinned the agent. “That was some good marksmanship, Chow.”
“Wa-aal... guess it weren’t s’ bad.” Chow’s fretful smile eased back into position. “Cain’t say more than thet. I’m from Texas. We grow up modest ’n self-erasin’, like they call it.”
Later in the day, Dibs bade Tom and his father farewell. “Off to your ‘time cave’,” he smiled. “I know it’s just a big covered-over hole, but I hear you’ve installed most of the amenities.”
“Well, it’s no Swift Enterprises,” replied Tom. “The main chamber is almost entirely filled with the chronolens setup. But we’ve carved out a row of labs and storerooms—as well as sleeping cubicles.”
“And a kitchen for Chow, I hope.”
“Well,” said Dibs with his usual abashed look, “I hope I can justify my pay by somehow helping protect you from this Eckdal wingnut. At least I was able to give you an idea of his appearance.” Dibs had used his promised network of special contacts to provide Enterprises with the most recent photo available from Torranz Eckdal’s vehicle license. It showed a heavyset, sullen-looking man with baggy eyes and thick, bushy hair.
“Have a good flight, Agent Dibs,” Mr. Swift added to a handshake. “We’re glad to have you as part of our team.”
The next morning Tom spent some time in his ultrasonic cycloplane, hovering at the edge of space with the small first model of the time-transformer in the hold. As anticipated, he noted that even a slight change of position in Earth’s “gravity well” markedly shifted the parameters of the field focus, moving it outside the sides of the dyna-4 capsule. We’ll have to reorient the capsule continuously in realtime, noted the young inventor. Arv and Linda had made a fundamental improvement, but the problem was far from licked. It would pose a serious flaw for any long-term human use of the dyna-4 capsule—whatever long-term might mean in such a time-challenging situation.
Tom landed, working the numbers in his head. As the ridewalk approached the administration building, a figure burst out the glass doors and came trotting toward them, stark emotion on his face. “Dad!” Tom called, stepping off the ridewalk. “What’s—”
Mr. Swift was panting. “Son—Tom—it’s—”
The youth’s face went white. “Bud?”
Tom’s father gripped his son’s shoulder. “Yes. They’ve found him!”
Tom Swift took a step back, for a long moment unable to ask the next question.
“Is he alive?”
“Yes!” exclaimed the older man.
Tom fought to keep himself from breaking down, but he couldn’t keep the tremble from his voice. “Oh... D-Dad... where is he?”
“Come inside. Harlan got the call.”
In the Swifts’ shared office, Ames and Radnor explained. “The police found him in the front seat of his convertible, in a parking lot in Evlin, Ohio. He was lying there unconscious—he’s in the local hospital now, awake. The doctors think he was drugged. Needle marks. But he seems to be in good shape.”
As Tom absorbed the news, Mr. Swift showed a deepening frown. “This is wonderful news, but—what kind of sense does it make? Why on Earth—”
“I couldn’t care less!” snapped Tom emotionally. “Can Bud receive calls, Harlan?”
“Give him a few hours to rest, boss,” urged the security man. “That’s what the doctors want. Incidentally, I’ve arranged for a couple armed guards to stand nearby looking tough.”
“Right,” breathed Tom. “We don’t want to lose him again.”
Receiving Tom’s call, Sandy didn’t bother to resist breaking down.
It was Bud himself who called Tom at Enterprises later in the day. After the dry-throated preliminaries were out of the way, Bud commenced his story—on speaker-phone with many listeners.
“Skipper, I don’t have much sense of time right now,” he said. “Weeks? It could have been months!” He summarized the bizarre experiences he had undergone—his kidnapping by the man who had broken into Miss Finch’s house, Baxx; his captivity in Friendly Village; Rose Reb. “Day after day—I guess they were days—I wandered around, exploring the buildings, the houses, everything. I knew Baxx and his jeep had got in somehow; and in means out too!
“I knew Baxx—or this Mr. Eck nut—must be keeping an eye on me to some extent. He wouldn’t have relied totally on Reb’s purse. There would have to be security cameras somewhere, maybe built into the ‘sky.’ Still, Friendly Village is full of roofs and all manner of nooks—even a few crannies, right? He couldn’t see me all the time. I tried to keep to the shadows.
“Looked and looked. After awhile all those props and antique junk items started to blur together. Man, I never would want to live in the 1950’s! To think I thought the 90’s were lame...!
“No point giving details that’re all the same, I guess. Finally I found something—all I could do not to yell! In fact, I pretended to walk right by. It was at the perimeter—what you might call, in Friendly Village, ‘outside.’ In the fake sunlight. Always pretty sunny back there in the 1950’s.”
“The access door?” asked Tom as Bud paused for breath.
Bud chuckled. “Naw, that’d be way too easy! It was some kind of air circulation vent, a grille in the big wall hidden by some phony bushes. Big thing—I suppose there were a bunch of ’em all over, but this was the first I’d run across.
“I won’t give you a step-by-step on basic grillework removal and shinnying through an air conduit. I had to make some vertical jogs—mighty hard stuff, but I’m mighty hard myself. The conduits were narrow enough that I could slide my way upward with my back against the side, pushing along the other side with my feet. I won’t add up all the aches and pains...
“At the top was machinery—running all the time, by the way—but also a little door for servicing that was no match for Barclay’s raging muscles. I was in some kind of shed, no one around; a few kicks and I was out in the open.”
“You say this was in Wyoming?” interrupted Phil Radnor.
“Who knows? That’s what Reb told me. It was pretty much flat land, with hills off in the distance. Didn’t see any sheep. But it was night, real cold, lots of stars.
“I could see other sheds spaced around, but no lights. Maybe the ‘command deck’ is underground. There must have been a road somewhere close by, but I never saw it. I only had a chance to lope off for about a hundred steps...”
“They recaptured you?” Tom broke in.
“I guess so, genius boy. Somebody musta come up out of the ground—Baxx, probably. I heard some noises, but before I could turn around I was down and out.”
Mr. Swift broke the brief silence. “According to the doctors, one of the puncture marks they found on you was on your back, and it looks like the result of something like a dart.’
“A tranq gun! They took you down like an animal,” grated Tom.
“Next thing I know, I’m wakin’ up in the hospital emergency room. Jetz!—I’ll be glad to get back to Shopton.”
As Bud’s voice, uncharacteristically husky and weak, dropped away, his listeners exchanged grim glances. “He can take it,” whispered Tom. “I don’t want him to get hit with it by some stranger before he gets here.”
“Yes,” nodded Mr. Swift. “Go ahead. Let him hear it from you.”
“Say, guys, what’s with the whispering?” asked Bud. “If the story made you think I’m nuts—you may be right!” He chuckled faintly. “Friendly Village would get to anybody.”
“Bud,” began Tom gently. “I need to tell you something.”
A long pause. “It’s bad news isn’t it, Tom.”
“Yes. I’m sorry. An hour ago we received a call from the Ohio State Police. They’re investigating a death. Bud...
“Rose Reb is gone.”
A SUBJECT OF INTEREST
TOM SWIFT knew, without seeing, that on the other side of the telephone silence his friend was struggling with shock, grief, and memory. The listeners let the silence wear itself out. “Did the blackness get to her, Tom? Did she kill herself?”
“They think so.”
“Apparently she jumped—or fell—from a fifth story window, a hotel on the outskirts of Cleveland. It happened sometime last week. The police didn’t call here until a couple hours ago.”
“I’m—I’m surprised they connected her to Enterprises at all,” choked Bud. “I’m glad I didn’t find out about it through the news. Did her parents tell them to try to get in touch with me?”
Mr. Swift answered. “Bud—we found out that Mr. and Mrs. Truncheon had passed away when you were still in San Francisco. Rose Rebecca was on her own.”
“Am I still unconscious?” murmured Bud, astonished and overwhelmed. “Am I still in Friendly Village? ...So why did they contact Enterprises? Because you’d linked me with Reb in running the search for me?”
Tom inhaled. “Yesterday they found your watch, the one I gave you, in a potted plant on a balcony below her room. The investigators think it ties in to her death, that it fell with her.”
“Right. She took it off me.”
“It was as if she had been grabbing at it as she went out the window. As if someone were trying to take it from her. Bud—” Tom halted. Was there any way to soften what he was about to say?
But Bud understood. “So maybe it wasn’t a suicide. So maybe Bud Barclay is a suspect. So maybe my whole story about Friendly Village is a lie!”
“You know no one here believes that, flyboy.”
“Are they charging me?”
“No, Bud,” replied Harlan Ames. “So far the death is presumed a suicide. She checked into the hotel six days ago, alone. It’s unclear whether she had visitors or guests. But your name is inscribed on the watch.”
“You’re what they call a person of interest,” said Tom. “For now they’re just requesting that you stay available in case they have any questions. They’ll be questioning you before you leave the hospital.”
“They won’t stop me returning to Shopton?”
“We’ll be flying you back tomorrow, if you’re strong enough,” promised Mr. Swift. “You and your convertible, via the Sky Queen.”
“Welcome back to the world,” added Tom grimly.
“Right,” stated Bud listlessly. “The real world. Some get back—some leave for good.”
The sequel—the dropping of the other shoe—came the next morning, hours before Bud’s arrival. It came by way of Mrs. Marlene Diakonis, owner of The Eclectic Electric.
“Called me fifteen minutes ago,” she told Tom over the phone. “Got me to promise to pass it along to you, word for word. I wrote it down, read it back. I take it this is one of those mystery plots you guys like.”
“What did he say?” demanded the young inventor impatiently.
“Here goes. Gentlemen, start your tape recorders. Not that old Revere, I hope.
“‘OK, Neato-Jet, seems we have a new program with some surprise twists. Why d’you suppose your boy-pal Bud offed his girlfriend? Lovers’ quarrel? Say, he’s got a rep as kind of—impulsive. So I hear. And I have evidence—I’m saving it for the cops, keeping it nice and secure—that he was up in that room as Miss Truncheon was making her exit by window.
‘Poor guy. He’s been through a lot, hasn’t he? Weeks on the road, trying to sort things out? I feel for him. So if you’re good, if you stick to the schedule and get that brick opened up for me—me, myself, and I, alone—well, I have some grudges against the cops. Maybe I’ll lose the evidence.
‘Of course I can’t lose anything if I get locked up. Obvious truth.
‘No need to reply. I’ll assume your continued collaboration in this science project of mine. If my trust turns out to be misplaced... you know.’
“Then he hung up. Hope he doesn’t make me his regular threat-deliverer. No offense, Tom, but I have a business to run here.”
Tom thanked her, voice shaking and furious.
Back at Enterprises Bud provided the FBI—involved because something unlawful had evidently crossed state lines—with a sworn deposition, given in the presence of the company’s attorneys. “What do you think?” Bud asked Harlan Ames after the agents had left.
Ames looked grave. “You’re asking what I think as opposed to what I believe. I think you may have some rough sledding ahead of you, Bud. I don’t doubt that any suspicions against you will fall apart when this underground faux-city is located—”
“If it even exists!” grated the young flier bitterly.
“—but what Eckdal is threatening, with his bogus ‘evidence,’ is a Grand Jury and the possibility of a protracted trial.”
Bud rubbed his eyes. “All I wanted to do was get good grades.” He looked up at Tom, listening silently. “Skipper, why do you suppose he changed his plan? First I’m being held for ransom—then they, they murder Reb. I’m sure that’s what happened!—now that you’ve told me about Eckdal.”
“The murder happened last week, while you were still being held,” Tom noted. “But consider this scenario. Rose Reb jumps to her death for whatever reasons people do things like that, threatening Eckdal and his friend Baxx with police attention. They start to panic, like the amateurs they are—redoubled when you remind them that Bud Barclay doesn’t need a Swift to make trouble for them.”
“So instead of just putting you back in your prison, they decide to use her death to hurry things along, planting the watch, maybe faking something further to hold over—us.”
Randy Dibs was also present for the discussion—though unseen—by speaker-phone hookup to the Nevada site. “May I say something? Even if Bud’s back—hi there, Bud!—and the main reason you had for bringing me in is over, I’m still on official assignment with you folks. I still have my duties. I, er, can’t go back to the office without having done something.
“So at least I can come up with a theory. Here’s what I imagine happened. This Rose Rebecca gal got into a fight with her boyfriend up in that hotel room—it doesn’t take a ‘profiler’ to know that Garton Baxx is basically a violent psychotic and narcissist, for all his macho charm. It wouldn’t take much to get him out-of-control crazy and to end up shoving her to her death. Believe me, he wouldn’t ask Eckdal for advance permission.”
“Got it,” said Bud. “It wasn’t the blackness. Not hers.”
“She may have contributed to the situation by taunting Baxx. She may have changed her mind about you, Bud. Seems she changed her mind quite a bit, hmm?”
“It bounced around.”
“Let’s say she begged him to release you.”
“It’d puncture his bloated ego.”
“It’d puncture anyone’s bloated ego. She provoked him into violence. Out she goes!
“That’s my expert mental reconstruction of the crime. At least I sound like a pro—I hope.”
Harlan Ames added: “And then it’s as Tom has suggested. Since she’s dead anyway and they’re afraid the main plan has been monkey-wrenched, they panic and try to turn things around to their advantage.”
“As quickly as possible,” Tom added.
“Because once they have that account information, they’re gone!” stated Dibs. “I’m sure they have some kind of escape route to another country all greased and ready. You won’t be able to touch them. If they get stopped, they spill the phony evidence and your best friend has a fight on his hands.”
The two friends both acknowledged the likelihood, as did Ames, listening intently. Bud said, “They’re doing pretty good for a couple low-IQ thugs.”
“We may have underestimated them,” cautioned Dibs. “These guys may not be criminal geniuses, but Baxx has obvious street-smarts.”
“And Torr Eckdal has whatever cleverness it takes to be a con man,” noted Ames grimly. “Tom, it’s almost certain that Eck has got ahold of someone who’ll be able to penetrate the Nevada site despite security, someone reporting back to Eckdal who’ll come out of the woodwork when it looks like you’re ready and able to crack open the brick.”
“They’ve got real guts,” remarked the young inventor. “They’re not only facing our Enterprises people—and you, Randy—but Federal security inside and up above, patrolling the Test Range.”
But Agent Dibs shook his head. “Not Federal security, Tom. The guys are subcontracted-out by the management company hired to run the place. Same deal as they used in the Iraq occupation.”
“Dressed-up Rent-A-Cops,” Bud said. “Jetz!—I hope they do better than the guys who used to watch the student parking lot.”
There was no thought of contacting the police or the FBI—Bud was only a person of interest, the Swifts reasoned, and the person of interest concurred. But as the time-transformer construction moved ahead in Nevada day by day under the guidance of Wiltessa and Hank Sterling, at last requiring the personal attentions of its inventor, Bud asked whether he should remain behind in Shopton. “Skipper, let’s face it—I’m a liability. Maybe it’ll look bad for you and Enterprises after the fact—maybe you’ll get dinged for harboring a suspected murderer or something.”
“Do you want to be there, pal?”
“Oh man, you know I do!”
“Then it’s a done deal,” declared Tom firmly. “I want you there, flyboy, like always. And you may be better protected at the site than here.”
Bud grinned. “I’m not so sure about that. But if it’ll help the cause of Swiftian science, I’ll risk it. Say, maybe you can make me a little older—give me a touch of distinguished gray!”
“I think we’ll both pick up a few gray hairs by the end of this operation.”
Ames and Radnor agreed that having Bud accompany Tom to Nevada was a reasonable idea. But when contacted Agent Dibs expressed worried disagreement. “I know how Bud Barclay’s a part of your life and ‘inner process’ and all that, Tom—whatever it is that makes a genius a genius. But if you’ll give me credit as, at least, a professional in the making...”
“You think he should remain in Shopton,” Tom stated into the telephone.
“Yes, I do. I know I haven’t met the guy, but this isn’t about Bud as a person. It’s about security for your dyna-4 project. Garton Baxx is a psychopath. Whatever he really felt toward Rose Rebecca, her taking a softer attitude toward Bud—even expressing a twinge of doubt toward Baxx—would make it a matter of power and control.”
“If the situation evolved as I suggested, he may blame the person who wasn’t in that hotel room—Bud—for everything that happened. Such people blame everyone but themselves. They can’t confront their own culpability, right? Make sense?”
“Yes,” Tom said. “But why would taking Bud along to Nevada—”
“You still don’t see it!” snapped the agent. “Er, sorry... it’s just, you know, my rep is on the line and...”
“I know, Randy.”
“My point is that Baxx and Eckdal are almost certainly in position somewhere near the installation. That’s where they’d want to be as things play out. Having Bud present would be a provocation—teasing the bull. Baxx— through whoever he’s planted among your work force to spy on you—might get crazy and strike out after Bud—and you—whatever the cost to the big plan.”
“That’s pretty hard to swallow,” the young inventor replied. “All that brilliant conniving put at risk in a moment of rage?”
“Which is exactly what may have happened already—in that hotel room!” urged Dibs. “Even in Shopton, Bud should probably stay in a controlled, watched environment until all this is over. Harlan and Radnor don’t seem to be taking into account the fact that bringing Bud to the time cave creates a worry for you as you complete the project—and a distraction for me as I try to protect you!”
Tom was unconvinced. He badly wanted his pal with him. “If Baxx were all that obsessed with Bud, I’d think he’d have made some attempt on him here in Shopton by now—he’s been back for almost a week. But... I’ll think over what you’ve said, Randy.”
“Thanks,” responded the agent brusquely, ending the call.
Bud’s fate wasn’t left entirely to chance and the mercies of madmen. Ames had assigned a member of the plant security force to keep a discreet eye on the young pilot, parking outside his apartment and shadowing him from a distance as he went about his daily routines.
“Dave’s out there somewhere right now,” Bud told Sandy, picking her up at the Swift home the night before Tom was to fly to Nevada. “Nice guy, but I don’t feel like my brave impulsive self with somebody always on my tail.”
“I don’t see anyone,” Sandy said as Bud’s beloved TSE TSE FLY swung out onto the public road from the Swifts’ driveway.
“Yeah, that’s the point, San.”
The friendly twosome took in a movie, then dinner, then a late drive near Lake Carlopa and the recreation pier. “Buddo...” Sandy began shyly, “I’m so sorry about—what happened. What was she really like? I mean—”
There were many emotions in Bud’s voice. “Reb was just unhappy, totally unhappy. She had this way of complaining that I thought was funny—then. But, you know, I was about the only person who’d put up with her. She couldn’t be a part of any ‘group,’ any high school clique. People snarked at her behind her back. I dunno. When you think of how nobody even knew her folks had been killed, all the—”
Suddenly the convertible waggled.
“Funny,” Bud murmured. And then the two gasped in fear as TseTse accelerated on her own with squeeling tires!
“B-Bud!” Sandy shrieked.
“I’m not doing a thing!”
The car was hurtling down the roadway toward a sharp curve—a curve it would be unable to take. Beyond, straight ahead, was the shoreline—and the waters of the lake!
THE BIG BABY
THERE was no time for shouting. TseTse was already moving too fast for sharp braking—as on a rain-slicked freeway, they would never stop in time. Bud still had control of the wheel, but the car’s screeching momentum was already too great to allow its diver to turn them aside.
Trying for calm, Bud smoothly nudged the brakes. Then, at a moment precisely calculated, he yanked the steering wheel to starboard.
They had already left the pavement and were crossing the strip of grass that edged the drop-off of several feet into Lake Carlopa. TseTse’s nose swerved aside and the car began a whirl like a spinning plate. Sandy shrieked; Bud silently joined in, eyes wide. The convertible tipped slightly as if it were about to roll.
For an instant they were nosed away from the lake, hurtling backwards on fierce momentum. Bud gunned the engine to even greater ferocity and the tires bit in, now working against their motion. Wet grass and turf splattered in all directions. They slowed—stopped—and Bud frantically killed the motor.
TseTse and its white-faced occupants gasped to a stop. The rear bumper hung over the edge into space.
“B-Bud...” Sandy panted, “r-really, you—you don’t need to impress me.”
Bud sat like a stone, clenching the wheel like a lifeline. “Somebody got into it—into TseTse. And where’s our security boy?”
The answer came in a sobering call from Harlan Ames, as Bud and Sandy waited for a tow truck. “Dave Wharton was knocked out getting into his car as you were leaving the movie—a dart in his neck. He’ll be fine—”
“Lucky him!” snarled Bud into his cell. “Good night, even if a dunking in the lake wouldn’t have killed me and Sandy, it sure shows that Baxx hasn’t put his grudge behind him!”
“Dibs is right—it’s become some sort of maniacal obsession focused on you personally,” Ames declared coolly. “He’s after you, Bud, at whatever risk to Eckdal’s plot. TseTse is all-electronic. Baxx must have cut some wires or something under the hood, or maybe inserted a remote-control mechanism that overrode your accel pedal.”
“He must have done it while TseTse was parked at the restaurant.”
“He was an expert hacker even as a kid. Apparently he altered grades on the school computer for a fee. No Tom Swift, but technologically adept enough to get under your skin.”
“Under my hood! But how the heck did this jerkface know when to push the button and—and do whatever he did to the accelerator? How’d he know we were approaching the lake?”
The response was grim. “Not so hard—given that he was following you, out of sight, in Dave Wharton’s car—with Dave unconscious in the trunk! Radnor just found it abandoned a half-mile down the road.
“Bud,” continued Ames, “I wonder if Agent Dibs isn’t right as to his recommendation. If we’re dealing with that level of determination and craziness, it might be best for all concerned if you kept clear of the dyna-4 site and stayed in Shopton. You can move into the duplex on the plant grounds. I know you don’t want to, but we have to think of the overall picture.”
Bud replied with simmering anger. “Mm-hmm. Right on all three counts, Harlan—about the overall picture, about how staying behind would be best, and—the part about not liking it!”
The security man snorted. “Now to convince someone who’ll like it even less—Tom Swift!”
The next morning Bud moved into the Enterprises guest duplex with slumping shoulders. And that afternoon the Sky Queen took to the skies and turned toward Nevada.
Tom sat at the controls next to Enterprises employee Markham Wesberg. Chow Winkler—his omission would be unthinkable—came up behind them. “Coulda plugged you both, boys, and ya never woulda known. Got ol’ Mouthy with me,” said the westerner. “Plan t’ get in some practice.” Enterprises had been able to classify Chow as “temporary adjunct security personnel,” allowing him to bear arms at the federally controlled facility. The skyship had brought along some targets for the gunslinger to practice on in the desert above the time cave.
“You won’t rest till you top Dibs, will you,” smiled Tom.
“Stuck in my craw. You’d best hope I make my mark right quick, boss. When I get tired ’n ornery, the stew gets mighty thin!” Tom didn’t respond, and the cook added quietly, “Don’t seem right, does it, son?—leavin’ Buddy Boy behind. Ask me, it’s a blame pewly-poor idee.”
“I agree,” said a voice somewhere behind Chow’s impressive breadth and shirt of frenzied colors.
The westerner spun around, eyes popping. “B-brand my saucepans! Bud!”
Bud’s grin almost exceeded his face. Tom laughed. “You snuck up on us, pardner, but we snuck one over on you, too. I overrode Harlan, and Dad agreed.”
“But I sawr with my own two eyes—”
“That was the big idea, Chow,” said Bud. “I made like I was staying put at Enterprises, so now Baxx is likely to keep hanging around Shopton instead of raising dust in Nevada with old Eck.”
“Any doubts I ever had about your acting skills, pal,” Tom chuckled, “I hereby withdraw!”
The Queen set down at the compact landing pad that had been established for it, next to several small personnel elevators and one very large freight elevator. To accommodate the craft’s several passengers—which included key technical personnel to work with Hank Sterling and Art Wiltessa, Enterprises’ assembly chief who had overseen the time-transformer’s construction—the Shopton group descended together on the larger elevator.
They debarked into a large “foyer” with rough-hewn walls. “This is actually an extension of the blast-dome,” Tom declared. “C’mon, let’s take a look at the Big Baby!”
A heavy door led into the rocky bubble itself, a huge arching vault with faceted walls that reflected the electric worklights like polished crystal. “Beautiful!” exclaimed one of the engineers. “Never say nuclear bombs aren’t good for something.”
Tom chuckled. “My eyes are on the prize!”
Tom Swift’s “Big Baby” almost filled the blast-dome, its twin chronolenses lifted halfway up from the chamber’s bowl-like floor by a circular housing. As promised, the convex disks of metal, coated with a sheathing of white ceramic, were several hundred feet broad. In the exact center of the space between them, suspended in its all-but-invisible web of filaments, floated the dyna-4 capsule. It looked more than ever like a bulbous Christmas tree ornament.
The lower chronolens was surrounded by a deep gap, like a waterless moat. Chow walked to the edge and glanced down. “Looks like it goes all th’ way to the ground. Izzat t’ keep people’s hands off ’er?”
“It’s for heat dissipation,” Tom explained. “As you can see, there’s a little ‘drawbridge’ that can be extended for access over by the control console. Another on the far side.”
Bud asked, “So how do you get into the capsule itself, Skipper?”
“There’s a hatchway that drops a ladder. You can’t see it from here—it’s a little round the bend.”
Chow snorted. “Ye-aah, that’s th’ way I feel sometimes, workin’ with this here crew.”
After extending the capsule’s ladder by means of the control console, Tom led the hike across the bridge and the lower chronolens, stopping beneath the dyna-4 capsule, which was about 30 feet in diameter. “Looks like it’s about ready to take off for outer space,” commented one of the techs.
“Except in this case it’s not a flying saucer but a timing saucer!” Bud wisecracked.
As he gazed upward, admiring the work of his own brain, Tom said: “If anybody wants to take a look inside, follow me.” He began to climb the ladder, the round hatchway above his head.
Chow looked dubious but said, “Wa-aal, guess I’ve lifted heavier loads in my time—meanin’ me.”
Six climbed the ladder after Tom, the rest deciding to classify themselves as theoretical scientists.
The capsule was roomy and well-lit, with its own restroom and accommodations for overnights stays that might last a tenth of a second—or ten years. “Of course, most of this is temporary, like the worklights,” Tom noted. “There’s a lot of testing to be done before we dare try it on human subjects. And first we’ll have to solve a big problem: stabilizing and ‘flattening’ the chronoclastic field so that time flows at a uniform rate throughout the capsule, wall to wall. The slightest differential—time flowing at different rates across the span of living tissue—could be deadly. Our tests at Enterprises show that the body’s immune system treats cells that aren’t aging ‘right’ as invaders. It’s like rejection of a transplant, with two halves of the body rejecting each other.”
Bud made a face. “I can wait, Skipper.”
Eventually the visitors dispersed to their various lab cubicles and living quarters in the underground installation. Tom spoke for a time to Hank and Art Wiltessa.
“Main construction’s done,” said Wiltessa. “Had a good team. No real problems, Tom—unless you count all those security cops constantly underfoot.” He indicated several tough-looking men in olive-green jackets.
“Contract workers employed by the site management company,” Tom nodded. “The Federal authorities were pretty insistent about our using their own people, not Harlan’s or the team from the Citadel.”
“Well, I wouldn’t want to get one of them mad at me,” joked Hank. “Which is just what you want in a cop. As for me, I’ve mainly been dealing with that outsider physicist.”
“Irvin Valetta? What do you think of him?”
The young engineer shrugged. “Quiet—keeps to himself. But he’s pretty impressive when it comes to theory and the engineering applications. I’m glad he’s here, though I miss Rafe Franzenberg. Glad to hear he’s doing well.”
“And doing it loudly,” Tom chuckled.
Tom eventually went to his quarters, which were next to Bud’s. As he started to put together his work agenda, the wall intercom buzzed. “Mr. Swift, I have an outside call from Agent Dibs.”
“Outside?” The young inventor was surprised. “Put him through, please.”
“Hi, Randy. I was wondering why I hadn’t run across you down here.”
“I came up topside yesterday. The onsite security personnel seem adequate, and—if I’m going to prove myself, I need to make some progress on the Eckdal business.” He added darkly: “Inasmuch as you’ve rejected my recommendation to leave your friend back in Shopton.”
“Let’s put that behind us,” said the young inventor with a trace of annoyance. “So what are you doing, Randy? Do you have a lead?”
“Oh, I very well might. I’m looking into the background of someone who could serve as Eckdal’s delivery agent—the spy who’ll make sure you don’t substitute a phony box or open it in secret. There’s a candidate who would have no trouble getting into position to keep an eye on your progress down there.”
“Good night! That’s great if it pans out,” Tom exclaimed. “Without tipping him off, we could trace him back to Eckdal. Do you have any idea how he plans to break into the installation?”
“He doesn’t need to,” replied Dibs. “No—because he’s already down there with you!”
TIME IN ITS FLIGHT
ALARMING news!—all the more reason for Tom to resent Dibs’s triumphant tone. “Do you have a name?”
“Sure I do,” Dibs replied. “Dr. Irvin Valetta.”
Tom was surprised at how unsurprised he was. “Someone we have no personal experience with.”
“Someone imposed on you by another outsider, Beecher, who seems to have overall doubts about the project.”
“Then you think Beecher is also working for Eckdal?”
“Think about it,” urged Dibs. “Eckdal may not be a genius, but he’s cunning enough to probe for weak spots. That’s what swindlers do, am I right? He was smart enough to dig up something from Bud Barclay’s past and trace Rose Rebecca Truncheon to her psychiatric facility.”
“Yes, and then get his crony Baxx set up there as an employee,” added the youth.
“Of course we have to credit Baxx with his personal charms—the scheme wouldn’t have worked unless Reb fell for him.”
“I’ll ‘credit’ Baxx when I get some free time,” Tom snapped back brusquely.
“I think Eckdal got to Beecher somehow, maybe some kind of blackmail, and Beecher in turn got someone in his pocket assigned to you.”
“Dr. Valetta. Then he’s—”
“It’s mostly conjecture so far,” interrupted the agent. “But doesn’t it make good sense?—planting someone whose NSA work has made him all but invisible and untraceable for years? We don’t know what he did there, or what might make him vulnerable to blackmail and manipulation. Or maybe good old bribery. People are money-buzzards, aren’t they, Tom.”
Tom considered the matter grimly. “It does make sense. He’s not limited to theoretical consultation. Dr. Valetta—if he is Dr. Valetta!—could come up with many legitimate reasons to stay close to the time-transformer and keep an eye on how far I’ve gotten with it, all the way through.”
“And then reveal himself at the crucial moment, and take the box. But I don’t quite have the evidence in hand, Tom,” Dibs cautioned. “That’s why I’m offsite. I may have a big lead that I need to follow up on, in person. Legwork! When do you expect you’ll have the machine up and running?”
“I expect my remaining work to take just a few days,” was the response. “I’m about to contact Miss Finch to have the box sent here, high-security.”
“Without being obvious, try to stretch it out to Friday. I may have news for you by then. I may not only expose Valetta and Beecher, but find the location of ‘Friendly Village’ and evidence to clear Bud. We’ve got to stymie his plot before he gets control of that account, wherever it is—and really, it just takes a phone call. But don’t put anyone on alert by confronting Valetta.”
Tom promised he would do as asked. After some thought, he apprised Harlan Ames and his father of the new developments. “It’s frustrating,” declared Ames. “The Feds are very insistent that all site security be handled by their contractees from the management company—some political angle, I guess. Otherwise I’d have someone down there keeping an eye on Valetta.”
Tom agreed with the frustration, and added: “But ultimately, blocking Valetta wouldn’t help us—for Bud’s sake we have to allow Eckdal to receive the opened ‘brick’ in whatever way won’t make him ‘nervous’. And that seems to mean we’ll have to let him escape.”
“Unless we can beat him at the game. Let’s hope Dibs uncovers something that denies Eckdal that power.”
“Yes—uncovers,” Tom said. “It’s time Friendly Village saw the light of day!”
Tom told only Bud and Hank Sterling of the suspicions regarding Irvin Valetta, but pledged them to silence and inaction. “Long as he doesn’t show up in big electric gloves,” Bud gibed.
The next day, Tom met Gabriel Knorff at the visitors’ entrance to the Nevada site. “Man-o-boy, was I on edge during the drive down!” Gabe declared as he put his invaluable package into Tom’s hands. “Sure glad you had Mr. Ames’s men following me!”
“Believe me—it was the least we could do.” His thoughts added: wish we could have done more than the least!
“I kept myself calm by assuming the guys in the car weren’t ringers. Then again, I didn’t check the trunk...”
Tom provided a sour smile. “Always great to see you, Gabe.”
“Do I get my photo op?”
“It seems you always do,” replied Tom dryly. “But as for the opening of the box, you’ll have to settle for a verbal description.”
“Aaa, words. Who needs ’em.”
Tom placed Joeren Eckdal’s mystery box—and whatever trove of information it contained—in a high-security locker next to the blast-dome. It was DNA-coded and could only be opened by Tom.
He resumed his work, attempting to further stabilize the field between the chronolenses as the earth’s motions caused it to warp and twist. At last, as the week wore away, Tom was able to quietly tell Bud that the brick could be placed in the dyna-4 capsule the day following, Friday.
“We could do it now if it weren’t for my promise to Randy Dibs. The remaining issues aren’t very significant, and Hank and I—and Valetta—are getting closer by the hour,” Tom told Bud, at his side in the time cave. “Want to see the Big Baby in operation?”
Bud watched as his chum manipulated the controls on the console, outside the lens field but near the gap that surrounded the lower lens. “I’ll teach you to run the panel, flyboy,” Tom said as he adjusted the dials. “It’s just a matter of flipping the main switch once the vector has been selected from the screen options—that is, whether the time flow is to be accelerated or retarded. You can be my ‘hands’ this afternoon while I’m working on the power feed at the far side of this big rock bubble.”
“Glad to,” said Bud. “What a feeling—Bud Barclay, commander of time!”
“Beats being called ‘Beeb,’ hmm?”
“Er—let’s get on with the lesson.”
An hour later, Tom tested Bud’s knowledge of the console. “Okay,” said the young inventor, “you’ve selected the time-acceleration option. Inside the dyna-4 capsule, days will compress into seconds when you throw the switch.”
“While out here, outside the capsule, it’s the reverse. Let’s try Barclay’s Bouncing Ball Experiment.” Bud picked up a small “super-ball” and tossed it across the gap, throwing the activation switch with his other hand while the ball was in flight. Instantly the space between the lenses was filled with a strange, multicolored shadow. The appearance and colors of the capsule, and the far walls of the chamber, changed in a way that disoriented the eye. “Is that darkness the field itself?” Bud asked his pal.
“It’s an effect of the time-slowdown produced by the exterior field,” was the response. “Light waves entering the field from outside are forced to slow tremendously, so they become compressed. Then, when they exit on our side, they’re coming out so slowly that the interval between the peaks is stretched as the waves resume normal speed one by one.”
“Like cars speeding away after they pass the cause of a traffic jam!—a very California analogy, hmm?”
“The final effect is that they drop to a much lower frequency. In fact, light in the human optical range that enters the field drops down to the lower infrared when it comes out, well below what the eye can respond to.”
“But we still see the capsule.”
“We’re seeing it by ultraviolet light that has got its waves stretched down into the optical range.” He noted that the special spotlights in the cavern had a large ultraviolet output. “But they’re aimed at the inter-space—we operators won’t get tanned to death.”
“Not a bad way to go, though.”
“Another way to think of it is that total energy is conserved between the chronolenses. Time-acceleration inside the capsule ‘counts’ as a huge energy increase for whatever’s inside, which is paid for, and balanced, by a corresponding loss of energy in the exterior part of the chronoclastic field—for example, the slowing of photons. In other words, you have to have the oppositely directed time-vector spatial volumes in order to—”
“Mm, genius boy—I think I’ll just live with the first explanation.”
Tom grinned. “It’s great to have you back, pal.”
“For both of us, pal.”
They turned their attention to the ball Bud had thrust into the field. Somewhat hard to see, it was descending very slowly, like a piece of lint caught in a shaft of sunlight. After more than a minute by “normal” time, it touched the floor, the surface of the lower chronolens. There it began to flatten and compress—and then slowly un-flatten, rising upward in an impossibly slow bounce. “Jetz!” exclaimed Bud. “Time must be movin’ slower than molasses in there!”
“Oh, that’s nothing,” Tom responded. “My next tests’ll bring time almost to a stop! But I’ll have to deactivate the system for awhile in order to do some hunting for microfractures in the lenses, by old-fashioned eyeballing. You’ll have time for a late lunch.”
Nodding, Bud said: “What would happen if I tossed a ball into the field after it’d been turned on? You said something had happened in the lab at Enterprises—”
“Well, if the outer field had an accelerated time flux, the ball would be sucked right in—and spat out the other side like a missile!” explained the young inventor. “But if a slowdown is in effect, the ball would just rebound off the time barrier. The front rank of molecules would be moving so slowly it’d be like hitting a wall.”
“But light gets through the barrier, anyway.”
“Sure. It’s just that human muscle power doesn’t pack enough punch—not even yours, flyboy. You’d need a bazooka or a shotgun to get through the barrier.”
“Yeah. Which reminds me—I sure wish I could risk goin’ up topside to watch Chow’s target practice. He was already mighty good at it. And now he’s doing some real Texas-sized bragging.”
Tom chuckled. “Something tells me Randy Dibs’s final day here will involve a little gunplay! Our big cowpoke just has to beat him.”
After briefly running the lenses at a setting that brought time almost to a full stop, Tom flipped the power switch to off. As he crossed the access gangway to commence his inspection, Bud left the chamber for a Winkleresque luncheon.
As he strode down an empty corridor, a voice from behind stopped him. “Well, Bud Barclay! At last I get to meet you in person.”
Recognizing the voice he had only heard on the phone, the young San Franciscan began to turn, smiling. “Hi, Randy. I thought you weren’t expected back until—”
Then Bud looked the young man in the face for the first time—and froze. He stared at the grinning figure with outstretched hand. He found his voice with difficulty. “Shave and a haircut. Suit and tie. You clean up pretty nice—Baxx!”
Garton Baxx—of late known as Agent Randy Dibs—put a warning finger to his lips. “Ooh, not too loud, bo. M’man Eck can’t keep this hallway off-limits for too long. Looks funny.” He pulled out a gun—a gun that Bud found very familiar. “And then there’s this.”
“Eckdal is already down here?—!”
“Dude, Eck’s been down here for weeks—as one of those special security guys in the jackets. Not all that hard to squeeze him into the posse. Had to make him look a little different in case old lady Finch came down, though. Real motivation to lose weight, hunh? But she hasn’t seen him close in years ’n a day, man.”
Bud raised his hands, eyes fierce, looking for openings to charge. “And Dibs?”
“Guy decided to retire suddenly. And for good. Happened on the drive to Shopton. Not so good for his rep, I guess. Good for the fishies in Lake Carlopa though, hey?” Baxx snarled. “By the way, be sure to talk nice and respectful about Torr Eckdal. He’s not just my boss. He’s my Dad!” He laughed at Bud’s shocked expression. “Yeah, man, straight-up true! Adopted me full legal. Part of the deal; labor demand on my part, right?—to make legal-sure ol’ Gar gets his share of the money.” The voice, no longer disguised, turned mocking. “But don’t get shook, Bud. It’s also real sentiment. Torr gets lonely since he offed his kid. See? I’m the replacement. We have a lot in common, Daddy and me. Call it a fulfilling relationship.”
“A real pair!” Bud spat out. “You’re a—”
“Sweetbuns, I don’t need to know what I am. Really don’t. Makes me mad. My little Rose Reb tried to tell me. Got her a trip out through a window and straight down, L-shape trajectory. Too bad—I think we coulda made it work, Reb and me.” Baxx’s eyes twinkled, but his voice was without mercy. “Now turn and march, Barclay. Puttin’ you in cold storage for a while. This time you don’t get out.”
Baxx marched Bud into a shielded lab cubicle with a formidable, lockable door. “Not t’ be rude, Barclay, but gotta run. Dad’s waiting. Gotta fetch the brick for him.”
“You won’t get it easy, Baxx,” snarled Bud. “The locker is keyed to Tom’s DNA.” Instantly Bud blanched—realizing that one way to make use of Tom Swift’s DNA was to remove one of his fingers!
Baxx had a different plan. “Come on!” he chuckled. “We’ve had the real brick since I broke in to the old lady’s house! Look pretty different now. Even old Mina wouldn’t know me.”
“I get it,” Bud muttered glumly. “She caught you going out, not in.”
“Easy to switch a false for a true, bo. Eck learned the combination as a kid, when Mommy and Daddy still lived together. And he’s got a great memory. Even if he’s dumb as a doorknob—sorry, guess that was disrespectful, hunh?”
“You sick hotshots won’t get away—”
Baxx laughed. “Why, cause I don’t have my board? I’ll tell you ‘won’t,’ Bud. You genius boys won’t be able to stop Ole Gar Baxx, hacker, conniver, techno-fiend, stocked with juicy energy. Strategist, too—my messin’ with your car was almost enough to get you folks to agree with Agent Dibs’s smart recommendation to leave you behind.”
“So you wouldn’t have to worry about me recognizing you—yeah.”
“But Tom couldn’t go on without his chum. Ohhh no. So I had t’ go offbase and hide my charming face for a few days. Jet to Shopton, back again. Pretty lagged, chum.
“Well, time to point a gun at a young inventor. Get that box opened up so’s Dad and I can make tracks out of the country. Oh Dad, poor Dad—I don’t think he has very long to live. Maybe just long enough to cross the border. Ya think?” Baxx snickered and slammed the door on Bud. He heard the locking mechanism click into place.
The young flier paced, trying to pump a little Tom Swift into his brain. There’s a way out of here, he insisted. Always a way. I found it in Friendly Village! But innovation was competing with desperation. Baxx was just as likely to murder Tom as to kill Torr Eckdal when it suited him!
Bud’s gray eyes scanned every corner of the cubicle, but it was almost empty, scarcely used. There were no tools, and the few scientific instruments he saw were delicate and useless against the heavy door. He looked for the intercom—and found an empty space in the wall. The Nevada site was still under construction.
What, what, what?
Bud found himself eyeing the door. He looked at the handle, called a crash-bar. When the door was unlocked, slamming the bar down would thrust the door open wide. A convenience for experimenters with full arms...
Isn’t it more than that? Bud mused. Doesn’t the law require installing things like this? Safety code? So you can get out quick if there’s a fire or something? As a matter of fact...
He didn’t dare hope. It was too fantastic. With a gulp he pushed down on the bar.
The lab door swung open!
“Good night!” he chortled. “You’re a mastermind, Gar—except you didn’t even think that the lock is only to keep people out, not in!”
Bud didn’t look for intercoms or security personnel, didn’t raise an alarm. His only thought was to reach Tom’s side and somehow protect him.
He burst into the time cave, wide eyes scanning for his friend. Tom knelt on the chronolens just across the gap from the control console, carefully examining the surface. And back near the center of the chronolens, almost beneath the dyna-4 capsule, was a distant figure in suit and tie—who froze as he saw Bud Barclay.
“Tom!” Bud cried frantically. “Behind you! He’s got a gun!”
—a gun that Baxx had snapped into position, aiming at Tom with a deadly, furious grin. Bud knew without seeing that he had murder in his eyes, knew without thinking that Garton Baxx would kill anyone who challenged his great ego, kill impulsively as he had killed Reb, whatever the effect on the plan to open the box. Striking out, striking back—that was all that mattered.
Tom rose to his feet, looking at his pal with a bland quizzical smile.
And the gun flashed.
NOW AND FOREVER
THE FLASH from the muzzle reached Bud Barclay’s eyes, but the report did not. Even as Baxx had squeezed the trigger, Bud had thrown himself at the control console and thrown the actuator switch.
Time halted in the chronolens field.
Bud’s heart felt ready to thud its way right through the walls of his chest. Inside the weird time shadow, Tom stood immobile, expression innocent and unchanged. Far distant, time had also captured Garton Baxx’s expression—snarling rage, gleeful contempt, superiority engraved on his weaselly face as he stood poised like a statue.
Bud loped around the perimeter of the time-transformer, next to the encircling gap. He found the point closest to Baxx—and saw more than he had seen at first.
The presets on the control console only slowed time. Things were not frozen in eternity, not completely. The milliseconds were oozing forward—and so was the bullet from Baxx’s gun!
The tiny speck was already yards from the muzzle, creeping in a straight and deadly line that ended, Bud could tell, at the back of Tom’s head.
“Good grief!” the youth gasped. “How do you unfire a gun? How do you stop a bullet that’s already on its way?”
He knew that switching off the field would bring Tom death in an instant. Yet with the field active, Bud could only watch utterly helpless as the bullet drifted sedately toward its unknowing target. Bud would watch Tom die with aching, horrifying slowness, crimson stretching out in streamers like growing vines, a probably fatal wounding spread over minutes like the death scene in a bad play.
Could he somehow enter the field and yank Tom aside? But as he crossed the gap on the gang-bridge, extending a screwdriver handle, he saw that it was an impossible task. The time barrier was like an invisible wall of diamond. Nothing could enter the region of braked time. Nothing could push Tom out of the line of fire, or bat the bullet aside.
And then, as Bud stared at the creep of the bullet, he remembered Tom’s words. Slow and weak things, mere human muscle and flesh, could not enter. But something could.
“Chow! Chow Winkler!” he shouted into the wall intercom. “Jetz! Answer me, Chow!”
The blustery answer came. “Aw, brand my griddle, what’s s’ all-fired impor—”
“Listen, just listen! Do you have your gun with you?”
“Wa-aal sure, I got ole Mouthy strapped to—”
“Hunh? It’d jest take a sec to—”
“Chow, come running to the big chamber with Mouthy all loaded and ready! Tom needs you! You’re the only one who can save his life!”
“Hurry, cowpoke! Don’t say anything to the security guys—don’t know who to trust right now.”
Chow Winkler could shift his bulk into overdrive when he wanted to—and he wanted to! It seemed only seconds when he gallumphed into the chamber with gun drawn, face red and white and panting. “O-okay, okay, here I am!” He glanced at Bud, then at Tom. “So what’s th’ matter, boss? This a joke er—”
Bud ran over and yanked the westerner to a precise spot along the perimeter. He babbled some sort of simple explanation, and Chow’s eyes bulged even further. “S-so—Buddy Boy—that there bullet’s gonna hit Tom—less’n—”
“You can do it, pardner,” Bud exclaimed. “Only you. Put steel in those Texas nerves and aim true—for Tom Swift!”
Something went out of Chow Winkler, and something went in. Trembling and protest fell away. His blue eyes took on fire—but a cold fire. He studied the situation, read the angles, calculated almost by instinct. He raised Mouthy straight-arm. Bang!
And now his bullet was at the very edge of the time field, past the barrier, drifting inward—on an intercept course with Garton Baxx’s bullet. Chow’s mission was to shoot down a bullet already in flight!
Baxx’s bullet was now more than halfway across the chronolens interval, halfway to its target. Chow’s bullet was plugging along just as slowly. But Chow had an advantage. Positioned as he was, the distance from muzzle to strike was only a couple score feet. He was cutting across at right-angles to the deadly path, aiming at a spot now empty which would accommodate two bullets in a matter of minutes!
“Naw,” muttered Chow, “naw. Gonna miss by two fingers. Try ’er again.” He strode a few feet further toward the control console, aimed, considered, and fired.
The two waited, Bud white and frantic, Chow calm as a cool branding iron. “Chow, it’s gonna cross too early—” sputtered Bud.
“Nope. Jest right. See it plain.”
Baxx’s bullet was about five feet from Tom’s head when it encountered Chow’s anti-bullet bullet. They drew together shyly—and met. Then Chow’s bullet was on a new upward course, and Baxx’s was tumbling away.
The two watched in awe for several long moments. “Pardner,” Bud gasped, “you—y-you—”
“Course I did. Texas honor! Couldn’t let that slick young idjit put ole Mouthy in th’ shade.”
Now Bud went to the control console, and Chow assumed a new position closer to Garton Baxx. Bud switched off the time-transformer. And now he heard, at last, the bang of the enemy gun.
To Baxx it seemed as if his gun had exploded upon firing. It leapt from his hand, whirling away. “An’ I kin shoot you down jest as easy as I took care o’ your gun,” came a gravelly voice. “Best walk nice ’n slow over to Bud. But yew stay right clear o’ Tom Swift!”
Tom was boggling. He only knew that Bud had burst in yelling—and suddenly the scene had changed! “What’s going on?” he gasped. “Bud, did you start the machine?”
“Got a lot to tell you, Skipper!”
Tom would live. And thanks to a Texas straight-shooter, Tom’s next invention would be born, his Cosmotron Express.
Baxx also had a few things to say, as Bud bound his wrists behind him with coaxial cable. “Never know, never know,” he snickered angrily. “Never know, bo, what’s gonna come outta the woodwork. Got me good. One-way lock! Always sumpthin’ slips by, hunh?”
“Now we need to hunt down Eckdal,” Tom declared brusquely, “and get ahold of the real box before he escapes.”
Baxx laughed. “You already got both of ’em, Tommy. Trust me—I’m a federal agent! Come on—‘Daddy’!” he yelled. “Come out, come out! Game’s over. Nobody’ll believe that hoked-up evidence now. Nope, now it’s all about murder.”
“He’s here in the chamber?” reacted the young inventor, startled.
“Why, sure he is. He’s waitin’ inside that dyna-4 capsule of yours.”
“Sure thing, bo,” sneered Baxx. “You had your face down lookin’ over that floor. Snuck Torr over the bridge and up the ladder, brick in hand. He was gonna set it in there, then come out and watch me make you run the time thing on it. Come on out, Eckdal, you stupid sack! Plan’s all shot now. Yeah—shot!”
But there was no movement at the hatch of the capsule.
“Aaaa, you’ll have to drag him out,” complained Baxx contemptuously.
Tom and Bud were whitefaced. “T-Tom, I—I didn’t think—”
“You had to do it, Bud,” said Tom quietly. “You had no way of knowing someone was inside. And there was no other way to save my life.”
Baxx looked back and forth between their horrified faces. “What’s up, dudes? He’s in there. So you froze him for a while, like you did with me. So what? Go drag him out.”
“Er—yeah,” chimed in Chow. “Ain’t that what we gotta do? Still got m’ gun.”
Tom stared at Garton Baxx coldly—yet the horror would not leave the youth’s face. “You don’t get it. The vectors are opposite. Out here time slowed almost to a stop. But inside the dyna-4 capsule-—!”
As Chow and Mouthy guarded Baxx, Tom and Bud walked across the time-transformer and climbed the ladder into the capsule, into darkness. Tom felt for the light switch without thinking, but all he found was a bit of cracked dry plastic that crumbled away at his touch. “I’ll use the pen flashlamp,” he told Bud in a whisper.
The disk of light revealed a devastated chamber with curving walls. The temporary worklights had been reduced to a few bit of rust and shards of glass. The floor of the dyna-4 capsule was covered with the dust of long-disintegrated interior walls and furnishings. “Centuries,” murmured Tom, “maybe a couple thousand years.”
“In minutes,” Bud said.
“He would have gone to the hatch opening, of course. He would have tried to get out of the capsule. But the barrier between time-positive and time-negative is a million times stronger than between normal and either vector. It would’ve been just a dead black wall, completely impenetrable. He would’ve yelled and screamed and pounded—until he finally collapsed from lack of water and food. In your time, milliseconds. In his time—who knows? Days, weeks.”
The light found an oblong mound on the floor, the barest suggestion of a human figure in dust and teeth and flakes of bone. Bud stared at it, knowing that, however innocently, for whatever necessary end, he had caused this.
Tom took a few steps away from Bud. “There it is, over there on the floor.”
It was Joeren Eckdal’s box. Much, much more than 25 years had passed for it. The top had popped open a crack. The young inventor picked it up and shone his light inside.
“All this for that,” said Bud, “and it’s a waste. If there was a slip of paper inside or a computer chip or something, time’s gnawed it away to nothing. Miss Finch’ll never know the account number or where the money’s at.”
But Tom Swift was shaking his head. “The box never held a number or instructions or any kind of message. Nothing like that. He converted his wealth into another form. Bud, this box held the fortune itself!”
Tom tilted it so Bud could see the gleam within, points and edges that flashed.
“Something time couldn’t touch,” said Tom. “Uncut diamonds. And diamonds—at least—are forever.”