TOM SWIFT LIVES!

TOM SWIFT AND HIS

COSMOTRON EXPRESS

 

 

 

This unauthorized tribute

Is based upon

the original TOM SWIFT JR. characters.

 

SCOTT DICKERSON, AUTHOR

 

As of this printing,

copyright to

The New TOM SWIFT Jr. Adventures

is owned by

SIMON & SCHUSTER

 

 

This edition privately printed by

 

RUNABOUT

2011

www.tomswiftlives.com

 

PRINTED IN THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

TOM SWIFT AND HIS

COSMOTRON EXPRESS

 



 

CHAPTER 1

 

 

RAIN BENEATH THE SEA

 

 

 

 

“A SPACE trip starting down under the sea,” remarked Bud Barclay with his usual humorous skepticism. Brushing the curl of a dark lock off his forehead, he gave his pal Tom Swift a sidelong glance. “Offhand it doesn’t seem quite right, Skipper.”

Tom grinned. “A space ship, not a space trip. The trip comes later.”

“Not too much later, I hope.”

Tom knew how much his best friend thrilled at the thought of once again boldly going on a trek in the starlit void. “You know how quickly we manage to make history around here, flyboy. Give us a few weeks to turn this big bubble into one big dream of a spaceship.”

“An express,” nodded the dark-haired Californian. “An express to the stars—or at least a few planets in our own measly solar system.”

The two stood with a handful of Swift Enterprises technicians and engineers on the seafloor near tiny Fearing Island, Enterprises’ leased sea- and spaceport off the coast of Georgia. They were dry amid the greenish gloom of shallow waters and curious fish, surrounded and protected by a domelike bubble that held back the sea, a bubble of air sustained by one of Tom’s greatest inventions, his matter-repelling repelatron.

The repelatron had become commonplace in the young prodigy’s fantastic projects ever since he had invented it to make possible his deep-sea hydrodome. In a repelatron-driven spaceship, the Challenger, he had traveled to the moon and to Venus. Now he was engaged in constructing a new mammoth vessel that made use of an entirely different form of propulsion. His Cosmotron Express, named the Starward, already had its maiden flight in view—an historic grand tour of the outer planets of the solar system!

Standing next to his friends, chief engineer Hank Sterling shared his young boss’s grin. “Big deal!—starting off for space from inside a bubble. Didn’t somebody say that a journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step?”

“A pretty moist step,” was Bud’s quick rejoinder.

But Bud well understood the importance of the present step. The repelatron bubble, which was presently truncated by the seafloor but would eventually rise upward into full spherical form, provided a mold for the casting of the enormous globe that would constitute the encompassing shell of the body of the ship. Tom had explained—via his customary well-Bud explanation—how a new invention would make use of the bubble’s curving water-walls to shape and stabilize the transparent sphere that would encapsulate the Starward. “The matter-caster is something like a combination 3-D telejector and the device on the sprectromarine selector that uses a spacewave ‘bounceback’ to convey loose molecules into the spectrosel’s processing apparatus. Remember?”

“Absolutely. It saved my skin—literally!”

“But in this case it works in the opposite direction. We’re propelling a molecular spray of our chosen material—metallumin, in this case—along a controllable scanning beam that allows us to ‘sculpt’ it at the point of reflection, the wall of the bubble. The natural spherical form of the repelatron bubble makes the operation especially easy.”

“Like spray-on house insulation,” Bud had said.

“C’mon, flyboy, that makes it sound kind of prosaic.”

“Sorry. Didn’t mean to burst your bubble.”

The unburst bubble in which they stood was like the top quarter of a sphere. In the exact center a metal pylon rose from the seabed on a broad base, topped with a cluster of gunlike tubes. This emitter apparatus was in rapid rotation as it projected its molecular spray at the topmost part of the sea-bubble, working its way down gradually. “We’d better get out of range,” remarked Bud, “before the sprayer starts aiming at the ground-level wall.”

“You don’t care to be coated in metallumin?” joked Hank. “It’s transparent, you know.”

Tom added, “Don’t worry. Rather than lower the emitter-head, we raise the rest of the bubble up out of the ground. By the time it’s a complete sphere, we’ll be back in the Deepwing.” The young inventor was referring to the big submersible that had delivered the work team and the equipment to the underwater site, a plus-size version of his diving seacopter called a mantacopter.

Tom’s comment caused Bud to glance idly toward the Deepwing, parked on the seafloor just beyond the airspace. “Hey,” he said mildly, “what’s with Slattery?” Dirk Slattery, the manta’s co-pilot, was waving broadly and frantically through the curving viewpane.

One of the engineers, Jack McManus, waved back at his friend. “Guess Dirk had too much coffee back on the island.”

But Tom felt an instant zing of alarm. “He’s not just high-spirited, guys. He wants us to make for the ship. Something’s wrong!”

As the group stood uncertainly, Dirk vanished from the viewport, reappearing a moment later at the open personnel hatch, which protruded a few feet into the airspace. “Get in here! Run! I just got a call—”

A loud thud, a forceful slap against the still-soggy earth, made the group flinch as one. “What in the seven seas—?” began Hank, startled.

“Something’s fallen through the bubble wall,” said Bud, pointing at a small object lying on the wet, squishy ground twenty paces distant. A cloud of steam was rising fiercely on all sides. It glowed and sputtered with intense heat!

Tom looked up. “Good night, more of ’em!” he gasped. Small rounded objects, about the size of baseballs, were raining down from above! “The Inertite filament-barrier can’t hold them back, whatever they are. Run for the ship!”

“Skipper, they’ll wreck the matter-caster!” exclaimed Bud. The objects were already clanging against the pylon and the emitter mechanism.

“We can’t stop them by standing here!—Go!”

The group ran for the hatchway, Tom shepherding them from the rear. As he bolted into the Deepwing, Slattery swung down the hatch and activated its sealing mechanism. “We’re all inside,” he declared breathlessly. “The hull is taking some hits—you can hear it—but nothing’s getting through.”

“It’d take quite a weapon to get through this hull,” responded Tom. “She can handle the pressure of three miles of stacked ocean.”

“You said... weapon,” noted veteran submariner Zimby Cox. “I guess there’s no doubt. It couldn’t be a natural phenomenon.”

Bud asked, “Could it be wreckage from something on the surface? Jetz, maybe a plane exploded!”

Tom shook his head. “Those things aren’t fragments. They’re all identical.”

“At least they’re not exploding.”

“Not yet!”

As the group hastened toward the control compartment, Slattery explained that he had received an urgent aquarad call from Fearing Island only minutes before. “Their radar showed some kind of something zooming way low over the waves at supersonic speed! From outta nowhere, Tom. Before they could scramble the defense system, it was already over the horizon—but they could tell that it had dropped something—a lotta somethings!—right over the worksite.”

“Shall we surface?” asked Zimby.

“No,” said Tom, voice tense. “Forcing us to surface may be the whole idea. Back us away about one hundred feet, Zim. The water’ll keep us safe from anything happening in the bubble, and we’ll still be in range for the Eye-Spy camera.”

As the Deepwing maneuvered away, Jack McManus reported that the bizarre “rain” appeared to have exhausted itself. “Nothing more on sonar. Unless they come back with another load, I guess we’re in the clear.”

From what he hoped was a safe distance, Tom trained his penetrating electronic camera on the interior of the bubble, zooming in and focusing on one of the objects. A dark, rounded shape appeared on the monitor. “Turn on the look-through function,” urged Bud excitedly. “Let’s eye-spy what’s inside it!”

“That’s exactly what we are seeing, pal,” was the response. “They’re completely solid all the way through.” Tom activated a panoply of sensor instruments. “Good grief, they’re basically slugs of spent uranium! No wonder they fell through the water so fast—and made a real thud!”

“Spent uranium,” repeated Hank. “As is used in super-cannons. But these things weren’t fired from a cannon.”

“No,” said Bud wryly, “just dropped on our heads!”

“Hold steady, Zimby,” Tom ordered quietly. “I’m going out in a Fat Man to retrieve one of the slugs that fell outside the dome. Let’s see what we’re dealing with.”

Using the ion diverjets built into the egg-shaped Fat Man, Tom soared away from the manta, landing nearby in a cloud of seafloor particles that whirled and glittered in the Deepwing’s aqualamps. The powerful mechanical muscles of Enterprises’ one-man sub-suit had no difficulty handling the dense, heavy metal slugs. “But I’ll have to walk back,” sonophoned the young inventor. “Gosh, just one is so heavy the Fat Man’s feet are sinking down into the sand.”

Back aboard, in bright light, the purpose of the slug became obvious. “Covered with writing,” muttered Hank. “I’ll bet all the slugs say the same thing.”

Bud snorted. “Heck of a way to send a message.”

Zimby seconded the snort. “Sure got our attention, though.”

“It’s not English,” commented Dirk. “What language is it in?”

“That’s Cyrillic writing,” Tom replied thoughtfully. “Let’s plug into the Net and see if we can get a quick translation.”

Surfacing and connecting to the internet, Tom scanned the lettering into a powerful Optical Character Recognition application and accessed a comprehensive translation website. In moments he had an answer. “It’s Brungarian,” he said. “I thought as much.”

He read the message aloud.

 

TOM SWIFT, YOU HAVE NO RIGHT TO INTERFERE IN THE INTERNAL AFFAIRS OF BRUNGARIA. YOU ARE A PUPPET OF THE TRAITOR GOVERNMENT AND WE WILL DEFEAT YOU WITHOUT FAIL. DO NOT THINK YOU HAVE MADE US WEAK. RETURN ALL YOU HAVE STOLEN OR THE PENALTY WILL BE UNBEARABLE!

 

“Brungaria,” Tom said, as if the word were ominous. He added dryly, “Nowadays they’re supposed to be our friends.”

“Some friends!” retorted Bud. “Just a quick drop-by to deliver a death threat!”

 


 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER 2

 

 

FIRE FURY

 

 

 

 

“THE WORKSITE is secure,” Dirk reported presently. “We’ve got landing-forcer drones circling above.”

“But I have to wonder—would our drones have any effect on that weird craft of theirs?” Tom mused. “Sounds like it has performance capabilities beyond anything we have. Even the cycloplane!” As an afterthought, Tom aquaradded Island Security to provide an Enterprises jetmarine to keep watch over the repelatron bubble, and for a seacopter work team to remove the remaining uranium slugs and assess the damage to the matter-caster. “If they were only delivering their ‘message’, they may not intend to wreck the construction project. They may not even know what we’re doing down there.”

“Rrrrrright,” replied Bud with oozing skepticism. “I’m sleeping better already.” History justified the youth’s wry attitude. Since becoming Tom Swift’s closest friend, Bud’s life had been put on the line time and again by the strange adversaries Tom and his inventions seemed to attract, as if by static cling. Most recently, as Tom was perfecting his dyna-4 capsule apparatus in Nevada, it was Bud who had staved off death from a bullet aimed at the young inventor. What kind of dangers were they doomed to face in Tom’s Cosmotron Express? Enemies on Earth—or in space?

The mantacopter skimmed the waves on its cushion of air, settling down at the Fearing submersibles dock in less than a minute. Tom, Bud, and Hank hastened to the Security office to hear whatever details Mace Vendiablo, the security chief, might have pried from the incident.

“Okay,” said Vendiablo in his usual gruff voice, reading from scribbled notes. “A little after two, radar from our overlook satellite picked up a target crossing into U.S. territorial waters at Mach 3.5. It had a north-northwest heading but was on a curve; we can’t reliably backtrack to a point of origin. Imaging shows something flat and relatively small, practically breaking the waves. No surprise that Federal early-warning missed it, that small and close to the surface.”

“Some sort of cruise missile?” Tom speculated.

“Not like any we’ve seen. We have no idea whether it was manned or remoted. The high-phase-diffraction radar captured an image, and the seabed sonar net picked up dozens of small objects falling toward the work dome. Before anyone could even pick up a microphone to warn you about them it was long gone, out of range.”

“Maybe it took a dive into the ocean,” suggested Bud excitedly.

“At better than three times the speed of sound? I don’t think Brungarian technology could handle something like that,” was Tom’s response. “Still, they’ve obviously made some sort of breakthrough with this ‘flying fury’ of theirs. Let’s see a hardcopy of that image, Mace.”

The image was surprising for how little it revealed. The mysterious superplane had the form of a featureless flat rectangle, very shallow, with only a trace of a tailfin and a low bulge at the middle that might be a cockpit. The image hinted that it had a slight wedge-shape in sideview. “Looks like it was designed to function as a stealth bomber,” commented Hank.

“They got the stealth part right,” gibed Bud. “The thing looks like a flying barn door. How big is it?”

“Small,” Tom said, checking the radar data. “Not much bigger than one of our Pigeon Specials. No wings—the underhull must function as a lift-surface.”

“An aero-surfboard!”

“But what really intrigues me,” Tom continued, “is what makes it go. You can see something of an exhaust wake streaming out from the entire aft edge of the hull, but...”

“What?” asked Vendiablo tensely. He was almost always tense.

Hank continued Tom’s thought. “But it doesn’t have ordinary jet-trail characteristics. It’s more like a long, flat ribbon. Look—the heat shimmer goes on and on along its path for miles, bouncing light in all directions. And look here.” The engineer pointed at the lower part of the captured image.

“Right,” said Bud. “The water’s all frothy and stirred up. Must be some wake.”

“It’s not just getting whipped up by the passage of the plane,” Tom pronounced. “Steam! All the way back for miles, the sea water is boiling where the plane skimmed over it. Whatever’s coming out as exhaust is burning hotter than a rocket!”

“Not just a flying fury,” said the young pilot. “A fire fury!”

“I’m in touch with D.C.—with Defense. Put in a call right away. Doing my job, you know,” Vendiablo reported—defensively.

“Good,” nodded the young inventor. He knew the security chief was personally very insecure.

“Remember, you didn’t ask us to extend the island security perimeter out to the worksite.”

Tom ignored the comment and said: “Now I’m going back to the site in the aquatomic tracker.”

“And on our way to the SnooperSub—note the word our!—you can amaze me by telling me why we’re using an underwater tracker to trail something that never even touched the water.” Bud knew Tom’s invention, and the midget submersible that carried it, relied upon waterborne chemical traces to perform its tracking function.

Tom smiled. “I’ll tell you right now, flyboy—the level of suspense doesn’t need any further goosing. I’m going to use the tracker to check out a hunch of mine. I think that exhaust trail, the hot tail on the Fire Fury, left a load of particulates in the water underneath it.”

“You mean fuel droplets?”

“Not the kind of fuel you mean. Metal!”

“Metal fuel?” repeated Hank Sterling in surprise.

“Let me save that explanation until I find out if my hunch has anything to it.”

Tom and Bud jeeped to the submersibles pier and were soon out to sea in the compact, tadpole-shaped SnooperSub. “Much as I love ol’ Snoop, she’s mighty pokey,” Bud complained. “Aren’t you worried that the atom trail will have dispersed by the time we get there?”

“Not especially,” Tom answered. “In this case I’m not concerned about tracking anything. I just want to use the apparatus to collect and study whatever might be floating around in the seawater near the surface.”

As they neared the site Tom submerged, but the waters barely wet the top of the hull. The young inventor activated the aquatomic analysis system and studied the screen output intently. “Uranium?” asked Bud. “We already knew that.”

“Metallic flakes, very minute,” Tom pronounced. “Some hit the water in molten form and recrystallized. Aluminum, magnesium, sodium, chromium—typical seawater stuff, though in unusual concentrations. Probably due to the boiling. But also...” He looked away from the readout screen, thought in his eyes. “Amphoteric compounds.”

“You’re itching to tell me what that means, Skipper.”

Tom grinned. “It means the compound can act as both an acid and a nonacidic base. The metal element is classed as a metalloid.”

“Important?”

“Unusual, and obviously connected to the Fire Fury’s means of propulsion. I’m detecting boron, germanium, tellurium, arsenic...”

“Does it support your theory, chum? Metal fuel? I mean—how do you push a jet along on metal fuel?”

“How? Very ingeniously.” The youth again bent his spiky crewcut over the monitor panel. “And here’s something not just interesting but a little alarming. Some of those metallic flakes include Neo-Aurium!”

Though unsure why the find might be alarming, Bud gulped. Neo-Aurium—a substance related to gold mined only in one place on Earth: the Atlantic seafloor near the sunken ruins of Aurum City, thought to be remains of the fabled land of Atlantis! “Well—okay—I suppose it’d be a natural choice to make a high-tech multi-mach plane out of. Lightweight, friction resistant...”

“What we’re seeing didn’t peel off the fuselage, or get blasted off the thrust chamber walls,” Tom declared. “It has the same conformation as the other flecks.”

“So it’s being used as fuel?”

Tom shrugged. “Maybe ‘fuel’ isn’t exactly the right word, Bud. I remember reading—it’s been years—something about a proposed hypersonic aircraft that was to be propelled by igniting a sort’ve cloud of metallic dust in the air behind the fuselage to create a shockwave that would shove the vehicle forward. A tremendous amount of heat, a real blast, was evolved in the process.”

“Did they ever build it?”

“As I recall, it was just speculative. There were real engineering problems. But some of the technology was used in those nonnuclear super-bombs called ‘bunker busters.’ A few of those babies can level a whole town!”

“Jetz!—What about the Neo-Aurium?”

“A mystery,” stated the young inventor. “Of course it’s out on the market, though very expensive. It’s not especially hard to acquire. I’ve never studied the possibility that it might be used for this sort of purpose.”

“Somebody beat you to it!”

“Apparently somebody Brungarian,” mused Tom.

They subbed back to Fearing Island, Tom immersed deeply in thought. After conferring by Enterprises videophone with Federal authorities and his father in Shopton, he boarded the jet that had carried them south from New York the day previous—Tom, Bud, and Hank Sterling.

Over Pennsylvania, Hank remarked, “As a future-minded engineer, that Fire Fury engine fascinates me—but what about the incident itself? What are you supposed to have ‘stolen’ from these guys, Tom?”

“And I’ll toss in a pointed Barclay query,” Bud said. “What’s with the weird delivery system? Brungarian writing on uranium slugs!—that’s the sort of thing they put in boys’ adventure books.”

Tom chuckled. “Well, they try for plausibility in the ‘Tom Swift’ fictionalizations. Maybe they’ll come up with something a little easier to swallow.

“But as to the question... We have to identify what happened, or at least what was supposed to happen, as a consequence of the way they chose to do this. Why this way?”

“Any ideas?” asked Hank.

“Not a one!”

When they flashed across Lake Carlopa and set down on the Swift Enterprises airfield, the sun was riding low. Hank headed off to his family, and Tom asked Bud if he planned to join the Swifts for supper, as he often did.

“Mmm, not this time,” replied the muscular youth. “I think I’ll work out some aching muscles at the gym, then negate it all with junk food.”

“See you tomorrow, flyboy.”

Tom drove the short distance home, turning over the events in his mind. What did the warning mean—and the accusation inside it?

The outcome is the reason...

He parked his electric two-seater next to his sister’s car, trying to leave his thoughtful frown behind. Some ideas were stirring, but they were unformed and speculative. No sense dragging Mom and Dad and Sis into this nonsense, he told himself. Not until after dinner!

Opening the front door, he found his father standing in the entranceway. “Hi, Dad,” Tom said absently. “Any new developments since I phoned?”

“A few,” Damon Swift responded quietly.

Tom didn’t like the frozen expression on his father’s face. “Like what, Dad? Is everything—”

Mr. Swift interrupted by giving a slight nod in the direction of the living room. Tom turned and saw his mother sitting silently, her hands folded, her face sober and tense.

“Mom?”

“Come in, dear. We have a, a guest who wants to meet you.”

Tom entered the big living room, puzzled. Now he could see a man sitting comfortably in a big chair across from his mother. The man was massively built, casually dressed, and mostly flesh from the eyebrows up. He smiled at Tom pleasantly, but somehow showing an edge—the knife-edge hint of a threat.

“Do come in, Tom,” he said softly in a throaty voice heavily accented. “Come in, you and your father, come and sit down. For it seems we must have a calm, quiet conversation.”

Tom looked around the room, and ice shot through him. “Where’s Sandy?”

“Your sister is upstairs, in her room,” said the man. “And she is not alone. And that, young friend, that is why our conversation will remain very calm and very, very quiet.”

 


 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER 3

 

 

FARSIDE DISAPPEARANCE

 

 

 

 

TOM’S eyes darted toward his father. Both faces were pale. “He assures us Sandy won’t be harmed,” said Damon Swift.

Tom turned toward the man with fury. “Assurance from somebody we don’t even know!”

“Nor does Miss Swift have a prior acquaintance with Ury Vrysoff, who holds a gun on her as she lies back comfortably on her bed,” he declared. “Yet she must trust this man, as you must trust me. Or pretend to, eh?—fake it, that is what Americans say. Fake it till you make it.”

The man gestured roughly, and Tom sank down on the sofa with his father. “Who are you?”

“I opened the door to let Sandy in, and he was there behind her with his associate and a gun,” murmured Mrs. Swift.

“Two guns,” corrected the man. “And beside our armament, some nice ways to slip through your lovely home’s security system. A magnetic alarm field!—surely it would be more sensible to station a few armed guards here and there. Love of technology can blind one.

“My name? Today, this evening, it is Bielo Ikyoris—good enough. Ikyoris—call me that. And forgive, won’t you, any deficiencies in my English.”

Tom stared at him. “You’re Brungarian, I take it.”

Ikyoris chuckled. “Ah, do I wear it on my skin? Yes, Brungarian. Of course you make that guess because of the message you received, underwater delivery. ‘When it must absolutely positively get there fast,’ eh?”

“Which you are now following up on in person,” stated Mr. Swift. “He hasn’t told us anything so far, Tom.”

“Exposition should be given only as necessary, and only once,” said Ikyoris mildly. “We have merely sat and waited, a little family of strangers.”

Tom snapped up the initiative, almost interrupting the period at the end of Ikyoris’s sentence. “Then let’s not waste time. You and your crony are going to be off our property in seven minutes! And to save time I’ll tell you what I already know—what I figured out on my way home.”

“Mm?” Ikyoris smiled. “Then proceed.”

“You used uranium slugs as your notepaper to prove you could get ahold of contraband in quantities enough to waste. You dropped it on the underwater site to demonstrate how well you’re tracking the activities of Swift Enterprises, in real time. Obviously, you made the delivery by your super-jet to announce that you have it and are willing to risk using it—probably more an announcement to the U.S. government than to us.”

“Correct,” nodded Ikyoris. “And why did we communicate in Brungarian, not English?”

“That really puzzled me,” Tom responded, “until just now. Because the message was urgent, and in a foreign language, we accessed a translation website, one of the few scan-in automatic systems that handle Brungarian. You wanted us to do that, for some reason.”

“Yes, true,” said Ikyoris. “Ah! You see, lad, your marvelous company is protected by antiviral software of the highest grade, some invented by you, some provided by the government, your frequent client and the owners of your rocket island. But when you reach out, when you carelessly connect to a prepared site in a rush—”

Ikyoris paused, and Mr. Swift filled the gap. “You’ve planted something in our cyber network.”

“Indeed yes, a strange and clever thing, something that multiplies and spreads voraciously. But please, you needn’t become unduly alarmed. We know you will find it and neutralize it eventually. And in fact, you two Swifts, it does no harm. Nothing will blow up. No rockets will crash down on your heads.”

“Then what does it do?” demanded Tom.

“Something that advances our end, in a modest way. Shall I tell you the details? But no, why should I make it easy for you, my adversaries?”

Tom’s expression darkened, almost to a sneer. “And of course it may be nothing at all. Just a distracting bluff.”

“Made credible by the circumstances we engineered for you. You can not know that it exists, no. But you do know, now, that we are clever enough to seek out chinks in your armor.” Ikyoris checked his wristwatch. “Ah. Perhaps I may stay a bit longer, to complete our business? But I do not expect tea, Mrs. Swift.”

“The Brungarian government is a friend of the United States,” declared the youth. “They wouldn’t authorize this sort of thing. I presume you’re part of the Sentimentalists.”

The fall of totalitarianism in the former iron curtain country of Brungaria had not met with universal plaudits within its borders. A faction known as i-Szentimentlya, the Sentimentalists, still worked in secret to bring down the new order and restore the Party dictatorship. They had faced-off against Enterprises on other occasions, and had very briefly overthrown the elected government in a coup. “Yes, the Sentimentalists, as you call us, as we call ourselves,” confirmed Ikyoris. “Our great and driving sentiment is to uphold the dignity of the workers and the honor of the Party, to keep our beloved country out of the clutches of the West. But enough of sentiment.”

“Your uranium message made no sense to me,” Tom stated. “Was that another part of your bluff?”

Ikyoris stared at him coldly. “No bluff—unless it is yours. What you have stolen from us is of value to our cause. As you surely know, we have entered into talks, out of public view, with several governments, your own included. The Brungarian puppet regime does not approve—tough toenails for them. We are willing to trade our hypervelocity craft, the U-X, for what you have stolen.

“You do their bidding like good little pets, but how well do they keep you in the loop, Tom, Damon? Do you know the details of our offer? Our U-X, she is a difficult beast. The engine, so wonderfully advanced, yet so hard to tame. I am told—I am no scientist—that there are inherent instabilities. With every use, a risk. The numbers will surely catch up to us one day. Most unlikely that there shall ever be an armada of such warplanes. A mere curiosity.

“But of course, even in a very brief and doomed career, she can be our sword, our spear. There she is, flying down city streets faster than sound, almost touching the tops of cars, dropping whatever she will—do you dare doubt that this is possible? Or at least, not utterly impossible? For have we not demonstrated this?

“And what cargo might she carry? We have shown that we have spent uranium—might we not have the unspent kind? Especially dirty? We have shown her capabilities now. Is she not a danger? Would it not be worth a great deal for the West to have possession of her? Before we turn to desperate measures, we fanatics?”

“We know nothing of these negotiations,” declared Tom’s father. “We have no role to play in this.”

“No role? Mr. Swift, you are at the very heart of the negotiations. It is you, you and your talented son, who hide man and machine. The negotiations falter, the secret negotiations that are nonetheless official contacts with the governments. So? Perhaps we negotiate a trade directly, with those who have what is wanted. You are philosophical men, independent thinkers. You will not let the bureaucracy, the politicians, play safe, pass the buck, dither until we have no choice but terror. There is a higher patriotism, Swifts. You will work with us to save lives, even when your government will not.”

“What is this ‘man and machine,’ Ikyoris?” Tom demanded. “Pretend we don’t already know. Humor us. Fake it.”

The Brungarian smiled. “If you wish. I’m your guest, am I not? I refer to our spacecraft the Dyaune and its crew—most particularly Nattan Volj, whose services and leadership our movement requires for ever so many reasons. The others are replaceable. Volj is not.”

“The Dyaune,” said Tom’s mother, faintly, her thoughts in a far-distant room upstairs. “That’s their moon rocket, isn’t it?”

Tom and his father shared a tense nod. Named for the goddess of the moon, the advanced spacecraft had used its nuclear-ion propulsion system to race Tom’s Challenger to the moon—and to a Space Ark of diseased extraterrestrial animals. After a wary negotiation, the leader of the unauthorized Brungarian expedition, Professor Nattan Volj, had been allowed to enter the alien craft with Tom and his colleagues. “Your fearless leader Volj broke his agreement with us and attacked the Enterprises spaceship,” Tom said to Ikyoris. “Of course, you know that.”

“War does not pause to observe niceties. The only honor lies in victory.”

“We repelled his attack, literally, and pushed the Dyaune off into space. That’s the last we saw of it.”

Ikyoris’s expression turned fierce. “We are still faking it? You and the West know well that she returned safely to Earth, not to traitor-occupied Brungaria, but to a... welcoming place in the Atlas Mountains of North Africa, a country willing to shield us. There, in that place, she awaited her orders, as she was repaired and made better—for we learned from the battle with you, Tom.”

“We knew she had returned,” responded the youth, “because Volj was one of the leaders of the subsequent coup. He escaped when it fell apart.”

“Escaped to the base, to the Dyaune. And six weeks ago, the ship returned to space. She rounded the moon, many orbits, and suddenly was no more.”

“Just what do you mean?” demanded Mr. Swift.

“Ah, Damon, we mean a mysterious disappearance in orbit, a failure to reappear after rounding the lunar farside. Our ship, our leader—gone. Having intercepted transmissions from the satellites of those several nations who now have instruments circling the moon, we are sure there was no explosion, no crash. The Dyaune was seized, stolen—is not the word shanghaied? And who could accomplish such a thing? Only the Swifts, masters of space.”

“We haven’t been anywhere near the moon during that period of time,” Tom declared. “Those transmissions you’ve eavesdropped on must confirm that.”

“Your wonderful spaceship is immune to such instruments of detection. Some sort of coating, I believe.”

“But we have no spacecraft that could—”

“Let us not waste time on these protective fictions,” interrupted the Brungarian coldly. “You are Tom Swift, the great inventor. What you do not already have, you invent. And outer space is your playing field, as the world knows. Even now you work to create a new vessel for such efforts! Somehow, somewhere, you hold the Dyaune and its crew captive. For what? Ransom? Some plot against us by your government and the Brungarian traitors? We choose not to wait while you settle upon your demands.”

“Your time is up, Mr. Ikyoris,” stated Tom bluntly. “Get out of this house!”

“You demand a good deal of a man who is armed,” Ikyoris replied. He took a small cellphone from his shirt pocket. “My friend upstairs—on speed-dial. One ring and he imposes a penalty upon young Sandra, the first in a series. Let us hope his wife does not call, eh?”

“What do you want us to do?” asked Tom’s mother, frightened.

Ikyoris stood up suddenly. “To do? We ask you to think, merely think. Think of what we might do with our U-X. Think of how comfortable it would make you if we were to turn it over to your government, as we pledge to do. Think outside the box, color outside the lines, push the envelope—that is the way of you Swifts. And then return to us what you have taken.” The Swifts gasped as Ikyoris pushed a button on his cellphone. “Oh, do relax. This ringtone is the nice one.”

The other man, Ury, clomped down the stairs. “Mir-kyimsa, Sandara Sweeft,” he said with a leer. “Ah!—mir-kyimsa.”

“He says your daughter is very sweet,” said Ikyoris. “And now, goodbye, with thanks for your hospitality. We will contact you. In one manner or another, eh?”

The two left. The door clacked. By the time Tom had reached the window, two long-legged steps, there was nothing to see. All they could do was to race upstairs, to confirm with relief that Sandy was unharmed.

The blond girl, one year Tom’s junior, tried to show Swiftian strength, but her blue eyes betrayed her with a sudden rush of tears. “Oh M-Mom, Dad—I—he was just there all of a sudden, behind me on the step—the, the man stood there l-looking at me—next to the bed—the gun, his eyes—!”

Her mother held her. “They’re gone now, dear.”

Tom was furious. “I can take a lot, but not this! Maybe we should station an army around this place!”

Mr. Swift put a hand on his son’s shoulder, and said nothing. “I’m going to contact Collections,” Tom declared, bolting from the bedroom toward his own.

What “Collections” was, precisely, was largely unknown to Tom and Swift Enterprises. It appeared to be a special group organized at the highest levels of the Federal government to confront high-technology threats against the nation—or sometimes, the world. One agent, nicknamed the Taxman, seemed to be assigned to work with Tom directly, communicating with the youth over the secured server that Tom used for his daily scientific journal. For nothing was secure against Collections.

Problems had cropped up in the relationship. Tom had briefly shielded one of their agents, a man named Asa Pike, when his professional misbehavior became entangled in Enterprises’ G-force inverter project. Though the matter had been resolved with Pike’s eventual arrest, the Taxman had been unresponsive when Tom recently had asked for help from Collections in trying to find Bud, who had been abducted and held captive.

Nevertheless Tom thought it urgent to try. He accessed his journal page and typed: “It’s tax time. I need to know what to do about the Brungarian craft that attacked our construction site.” Tom knew Collections would already be aware of the alarming breach of national security.

There was no response.

“Are you aware of the disappearance of the Sentimentalists’ spacecraft?”

The cursor cursed, but no message appeared.

“Two men invaded our home and spoke of negotiations with the government. My family is threatened. I need to know what to do.”

And then two words appeared.

 

CHECK BACK

 

“When shall I check back?”

 

NOT A WHEN

A WHERE

CHECK BACK

 

“What do you mean?” But there was no further response.

Tom vexed his agile mind for an answer. Check back. Not a when, but a where...

“Good night!” he muttered to himself disgustedly. “Lives are at stake! What’s the point of this idiotic game-playing?” He looked at the monitor screen, half-expecting an answer. For sometimes, with the Taxman, it did answer.

A where... and the simple answer came to him. “Check back” meant he was to check backwards to an earlier point in his journal file! He scrolled the screen, toward his entry of the day previous. And just after that entry was something Tom hadn’t written, evidently inserted only minutes before!

 

WE ARE AWARE OF YOUR VISITORS

AND HAVE A FULL TRANSCRIPT

WHAT THEY SAY IS FALSE

THERE ARE NO SUCH ONGOING NEGOTIATIONS

DISAPPEARANCE OF SHIP MAY BE RUSE

MASTERMINDED BY VOLJ

FOR HIS OWN PURPOSES,

PERHAPS PLOT TO OUTWIT RIVALS

WITHIN THE GROUP

THEY WOULD NEVER TURN OVER

THEIR HYPERJET AS A TRADE

 

TOM TOM

YOU COMPROMISED MY ABILITY TO HELP YOU

BY YOUR HANDLING OF PIKE

YOU’RE ON YOUR OWN FOR NOW

THERE ARE PROBLEMS AT OUR END

WE ARE INVESTIGATING A POSSIBLE BREACH

DO NOT REPORT VISIT BY IKYORIS

TO YOUR USUAL GOVERNMENT CONTACTS

TRUST THAT WE HAVE FORWARDED

ALL INFORMATION TO NECESSARY AUTHORITIES

PROCEED WITH COSMOTRON EXPRESS PROJECT FOR NOW

 

I’M OVER PIKE’S PIQUE TOM

BUT PRESSURE IS ON HERE AT THE OFFICE

YOU NEED TO MINIMIZE CONTACT

WITH COLLECTIONS FOR A TIME

BUT WE MAY BE MEETING FACE TO FACE

BEFORE LONG

 

YOU NEED A HAIRCUT

 

That was all. The fact that the message had been entered during the span of mere minutes since the Brungarians had left gave Tom, as usual, a feeling of awe—and discomfort. If the government had such fantastic power to monitor ongoing events, to the extent of having an instantaneous transcript of a conversation held in the Swifts’ living room, how could the Sentimentalists—or anyone—stand against them? I’m just glad Collections is on our side, he thought.

And then he wondered what would happen if some rogue element in the agency decided to peddle the information elsewhere. Was the Taxman hinting that the threat had already materialized?

“Fine. I’ll leave Collections—and the rest of the government—to their own devices,” he said to himself bitterly as he switched off the computer—for all the good it might do. “But the Cosmotron Express project is bound for space. And if we just happen to find out what became of that lost spaceship and its crew—well, it’s a phenomenon of scientific interest.”

And Tom Swift was, after all, a scientist-inventor.


 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER 4

 

 

STRETCHED MOMENTUM

 

 

 

 

“ALL RIGHT, boss,” said Phil Radnor to Tom. “We take as our Gospel Reading of the Day that we don’t rush to contact John Thurston or Wes Norris or the other good folks we trust every day to keep us from being blown up.”

“What the Swifts are saying is reasonable,” Harlan Ames declared across his desk in the direction of his stocky assistant. “Or at least we can make a case for it. Thurston and others have confirmed that this ‘Collections’ group is part of the national security apparatus. If your ‘Taxman’ tells us to hang fire for awhile, Tom, we have to take it seriously.”

“It only involves the specifics of the contact with Ikyoris and his goon, at least,” responded Radnor. “The Feds know all about the Fire Fury flyover and the uranium threat message. Obviously they’ve figured the connection to the Brungarian faction. No reason not to rely on Collections to forward the transcript and their analysis—in their own time, in their own way.”

“It seems Collections is conducting some sort of investigation,” nodded the young inventor. “It may involve something Asa Pike revealed to them.” Ames, security chief for Tom Swift Enterprises, noted that the Taxman’s words implied the possibility of a high-level breach. “That’s the point, Harlan,” Tom went on. “We don’t have the facts behind this visit by Ikyoris and his crony. The Taxman says Ikyoris’s story is phony, at least in part. So what was the purpose, the idea? It wouldn’t be the first time we’ve been used.”

“I see what you mean, Tom,” nodded Radnor with raised eyebrows. “Ikyoris’s bunch may be trying to force us to pass disinformation along to the government—or maybe to some ‘mole’ inside the government.”

Tom’s face showed his frustration. “But why? What kind of sense does it make to—”

“Listen, Tom,” Ames interrupted. He was a father, and sounded it. “You’re a thinker. You figure things out. It’s your nature. We know about your motto, ‘the outcome is the reason.’ It’s led us to the truth more often than not. But when things pass a certain point of complexity—when a lot of people are involved with all sorts of personal motives and agendas—logic can be a delusion. And spending time and effort looking for logic can be a trap.”

“All right,” Tom conceded. “We don’t try to figure it all out this time.”

Radnor said, “Some things just can’t be figured out. Takes a while to learn that, believe me.”

“We don’t need to work the problem at this point,” urged Ames. “Whatever might have happened to the Dyaune has nothing to do with us—or at least we have no reason to assume so.”

Radnor cleared his throat. “Mm, well—it did happen up in space. And Tom’s working on—”

“A space project.” Tom’s nod was grim. “But at this point there’s nothing obvious to be done, I guess. I just came from the observatory—I spent an hour with the megascope poking around on the lunar farside. Nothing big to be seen... which doesn’t mean much, I suppose. Tens of thousands of square miles...” He shrugged. “In fact, it was a waste of time. But I came in early and had to do something. I mean—” He looked away from the two, but they sensed the feeling behind his eyes. “They broke into our home and... threatened Sandy.”

“I know,” said Ames gently.

“Yes,” said Tom. “I know you do.” Ames’s daughter Dodie had recently survived a heart-stopping experience that had tested all her father’s skills as a veteran security man—and as a father.

It was the morning following the menacing visit and the sleepless night that came after. Tom had avoided using the telephone to brief Bud on what had occurred, but had arranged to meet him for breakfast in the employee cafeteria after his meeting with Security. Tom’s chum took the news of the home invasion stonily. “Sandy,” he said, and paused. “When they do something like that—”

“They’re toying with us, our emotions,” Tom said listlessly. “Ikyoris mentioned proving they could exploit ‘chinks in our armor.’ Pal, Sandy and Bashalli have always been points of vulnerability, pressure points.” Bashalli Prandit was a close friend of the Swifts and of Bud. Tom and Bash, with Bud and Sandy, were a familiar pair of pairs about Shopton. “We say it over and over, we talk about taking special measures to protect them—but somehow it never happens.”

“Because they won’t have it, pal. They argue it. Sandy wants to prove she’s as brave as any Swift, and Bash—face it, she wants to prove the same thing. You know as well as I do that she thinks of herself as a Swift in the making.”

“Yes. I know.” Tom had no energy to show any embarrassment. “Harlan has suggested keeping watch on them out of sight—even without telling them. Bud, I won’t do that,” he went on with vehemence and a degree of sorrow. “It doesn’t feel right, secrecy and trickery, even to protect the people we love. Still... maybe...”

Tom could feels Bud’s support, though the black-haired youth was silent for a time, nibbling breakfast. At last he said: “Well. Let’s change gears. What’s the agenda? Weren’t you planning on running some more tests on your space machine today?”

The gears shifted and caught. “Right. The cosmotron spacedriver. Of course we know it does the job,” Tom said. “It works. This series of tests... mainly just getting some more numbers to crunch as to the field deformation vectors...” His voice trailed off. “Bud—none of this is necessary. Others could do it. Maybe I should suspend my work for awhile... maybe I...”

Gray eyes met blue. “No, Skipper. Keep moving forward. What if distracting you, immobilizing you, is exactly what the Sentimentalists are after? Maybe Volj is trying to keep you earthbound until he can launch a new rocket, or something.” Tom didn’t respond. “Look—invite Sandy and Bash to join us here at Enterprises. They can watch your tests along with me. Then if you feel like knocking off early, we can head for the lake or something.”

Tom gave his chum a wry look. “With bodyguards?”

“What do you think I am?” Grinning, Bud held up a fist. “Armed!”

The girls were willing, available, even flattered. “I compelled Sandra, under threat of torture, to tell me what happened last night,” said Bashalli over the phone. “She was most reticent, given security concerns.”

“How many seconds did it take?” asked Tom dryly.

“It did not attain ‘seconds’, plural. And do not dare to criticize, you who have not recently been born female. We are best friends. And best friends must share. No doubt you agree.” The young Pakistani added sarcastically: “Consider this Sandra’s ‘well, Bashi’ moment.”

Tom surrendered. “See you two at eleven.”

“We will bring a basket lunch, Thomas. If you do not eat it, I will hit you over the head with it.”

Tom was in mid-test when Bud walked Sandy and Bashalli into The Barn, Enterprises big assembly building. “Tom’s been bent over that go-cart all morning,” Bud joked.

The young inventor had bolted a small test prototype of his new invention to a low sled-like platform that rode on frictionless casters, linked to a guide rail that ran the length of the concrete floor. The test version of the cosmotron spacedriver was surprisingly compact. Within a gimbal-mount framework, it consisted of two dull-black cylinders penetrating one another at right angles, like a “+” symbol lying horizontally. A third cylinder penetrated the junction vertically. The whole mechanism was attached, by arm-thick flexible cables, to what the group recognized as one of Enterprises’ neutronamo power generators. “It seems the solar batteries are already obsolete,” remarked Bash.

“Space-bending takes a lot of muscle,” Tom grinned. “And this is just our tiny, low-power test setup.”

The girls walked around the cart. “All that power and effort—to make a little cart move along a rail,” said Bashalli. “How does—”

“Let me do the lecture,” Bud rushed in.

Sandy rushed faster. “No, Buddo—me. I do have a scientific education, you know.” Bud grandly nodded his acquiescence. “Now then, my dear Miss Prandit. What is space?”

Bashalli waved her hand around in the air. “This.”

“In other words, the spacetime continuum.”

“One might so describe it, Sandra.”

“It’s distance, basically—distance you can move through. And moving things—such as your dainty and ringless hand—have momentum. Mathematically, momentum is the product of the mass of the moving object multiplied by its speed.”

Bashalli smiled. “Of course you mean speed in a given direction; that is, velocity. A vector coefficient.”

“I was dumbing it down to the level of my audience,” Sandy sniffed with twinkling eyes. “As Tomonomo customarily does with Bud.”

“Hey!” protested Bud humorously.

Sandy resumed. “One may think of ‘space’ as being, not merely a blank thing that objects move through, but as a kind of ‘momentum framework.’ The laws of momentum don’t just work themselves out in space—they define space.”

“In other words, perhaps, space is rather like frozen momentum,” said Bash thoughtfully. “Something set loose by objects as they move.”

Tom made a brief and cautious foray. “It’s enough to say that the spacetime continuum—that is, taking time as well as distance into account—is like a sea of momentum in potential form, equal and balanced in all directions like pressure underwater. The law of conservation of momentum—”

“Is basic,” pronounced Sandy.

“Talk about the billiard balls, San,” Bud urged.

Bashalli smiled. “Yes, do.”

“I was about to. A fast billiard ball comes in at an angle and hits a slow one. They bounce away at new angles and new speeds. But if you add up all the momentum in all directions on the tabletop—360 degrees—you find that the total momentum before the collision and after the collision is exactly the same. It’s just differently parceled out between the moving objects. The speed ratios and directions change, but the total for both of them together is always conserved.”

“It’s like cutting pieces out of a pie,” Tom added. “You can cut them any size or shape that you want, but when you add all of them back together, you still have the entire pie.”

Bud nodded. “In mutilated form. But still edible.”

“Very well,” said Bashalli. “I am quite convinced. Total momentum is conserved. In three dimensions as well as two, I would suppose.”

“Yup, and in four dimensions as well as three,” Tom explained. “The time dimension also counts.” The young inventor went on to say that wherever precise measurement of objects moving in space showed that total momentum had been conserved, spacetime was considered, by definition, “flat.” “I know you’ve heard people talk about curved space, Bash. Ultimately, what they’re measuring is the conservation of momentum within the bit of the spacetime continuum that they’re looking at.”

“But is it not always conserved?”

“It sure is. But in curved space, it doesn’t add up as conserved until you take higher dimensions into account. Space around a massive object, like the earth or the sun, has curvature of that kind. If you only look at things moving in three-dimensional space, they seem to be gaining or losing momentum, as if there were a slight imbalance with a little momentum left over, positive or negative. The cosmic account books only come out right if you take into account the part of the trajectory that angles off into the time dimension. That’s Einstein.”

“Allow me to note for the record that I was about to say all of that,” pronounced Sandy.

“This business about curvature and spatial time and angles—you have mentioned this before,” Bashalli noted. “In your G-force inverter, is there not something about rotating things through higher dimensions?”

Tom mimed hearty applause. “Exactly! We’ve learned how to force objects into a kind of new ‘slant’ in the multi-dimensional framework, so that the components that lie across what we call the gravitation dimension have an inverse orientation. And in the dyna-4 capsule, we do something like the same thing with regard to the fourth dimension, so that the time coefficients of objects in the vector field are distorted relative to our time-rate.”

“And so when simple peasants such as I roll their eyes and say ‘what next?’,” said the girl, “the answer is—this.” She gestured at the mechanism.

Tom glanced at Sandy. “Er—is the lecture over, sis?”

“Yes. Let us move on to the practical demonstration.” She giggled. “I’m not sure I understood all those words I said.”

“Me neither,” Bud concurred. “The words are tough. I just try for the sentences.” He turned to his pal. “Okay, genius boy. Warp factor one!”

“More like warp factor .00001.” Tom held up his Spektor remote-controller for all to see, and paused theatrically. “Keep your eyes on the test sled. You might not believe them!” A button clicked—

—and the wheeled cart whizzed across the Barn like a pitched fastball! There was no visible acceleration; it seemed to attain its motion instantly. And then it was suddenly sitting motionless near the far wall, as if a DVD player had been put on Pause.

“My goodness!” gasped Bash. “It isn’t even breathing hard!”

Sandy looked at her brother with a smile of family admiration that overrode sibling rivalry. “Tom, even with repelatrons—I mean, how do you go from zero to sixty without speeding up? It looked like it was just there!”

“Instant top speed!” grinned Bud.

“The cart did change location. It did pass through the intervening space,” Tom stated. “But was it ever actually in motion? People could argue over the definition. If the momentum-field defines space, then the cart didn’t so much move through space as space moved through it!”

Sandy was nodding. “I remember you said something like that about your time-transformer, the dyna-4 capsule. That was about time, but I think I understand.”

“We’re using much the same technology as we’ve already developed, based on Dr. Kupp’s dimensional equations—now now, no faces, Sandy, Bud! The Galilectrum coils inside the perpendicular cylinders create a sort of vortex that grabs momentum-space and pulls it right through the machine. The space in front is stretched out, attenuated—there’s a momentum-energy deficiency.”

“But round the backside, it’s all piled up,” Bud put in. “A surplus!”

“Mm-hmm,” the young inventor confirmed. “And because the ‘books’ have to wind up balanced, a compensating surge of momentum takes place in the space between, driving the cosmotron—and whatever else occupies that space—forward. Dr. Kupp describes the effect as purely kinematic non-inertial translation.”

“He would,” commented Sandy wryly.

Bashalli studied the waiting machine with a thoughtful expression. “Then it is, perhaps, like what they call teleportation.”

“Not just yet,” chuckled Tom. “We’re working on that one! But it should carry the Starward from here to Pluto without mussing a hair.”

“Easy for you to say,” Sandy declared, eyeing her big brother’s ragged crewcut.

After a few more tests, the girls emphatically reminded the boys that a picnic lunch awaited them. Tom nodded, but looked at the cosmotron. Then he brightened. “Say, why not give our afternoon break a scientific justification?” he grinned. “The test machine looks awkward, but really it’s very light in weight, like the neutronamo. We could take it along with us to the lake!”

“Sure,” Bud agreed. “Er—why? Planning to push around a few ducks?”

“We could bolt it down on the Mary Nestor, flyboy, and do some high-tech sailing!” The Mary Nestor was the Swift family’s sleek sailboat. “We’ll call it a study of the practical applications of purely kinematic non-inertial—”

“I’ll fetch the basket,” interrupted Sandy with a certain look.

They freighted the cosmotron spacedriver to the lease pier on Lake Carlopa in a big Swift Enterprises delivery van. Using special brackets, Tom and Bud bolted the prototype device to the boat’s low gunwales. The four excited passengers clambered aboard, and Tom thumbed the controller. They yelped with delight as the Mary Nestor was suddenly, instantly, in motion!

“It’s wonderful,” exclaimed Bashalli. “I don’t feel the motion at all!—just the air against my face.”

“Whatever mode of propulsion we use, we still have to deal with friction,” Tom pointed out. “That’s why the Cosmotron Express will be stationed in space full time.”

The boat was scudding along at moderate speed, about as fast as sailboating on an average breezy day. In the middle of the crescent-shape lake, Tom switched off the machine. Instantly the Mary Nestor was dead in the water, bobbing vigorously as its wake caught up with it. Bud half-stood—and the wake caught up with him! He stumbled against Tom, whose hand held the Spektor unit.

The sailboat took off like a shot! Wind and spray rammed against four wincing faces—and then came the worst. A humped column of water rose up out of the lake in front of them like a thick-necked sea serpent and lunged at them. It struck them like a piledriver!


 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER 5

 

 

STARWARD DREAMING

 

 

 

 

THE MASS of charging lakewater batted the four toward the stern of the Mary Nestor. Amid the shrieks was Bashalli’s—as she tumbled overboard!

The Spektor control unit had been dashed from Tom’s hand. He slipped and struggled across the flooded deck planks to reach the cosmotron. He hooked an arm around the neutronamo and decoupled it from the cosmotron with a convulsive yank. Instantly the tentacle of water dissolved into rain and loudly sloshed back into the lake.

“T-Tom!” Sandy cried. “Bashi—!”

The sailboat was now motionless, but the few seconds of its arrowing flight had carried it a great distance across the calm lake. They could see the young Pakistani splashing about well behind them, a small raven-haired figure.

Tom was caught in frantic hesitation. Where had the controller fallen? Did he dare reconnect the neutronamo to power the boat back to Bash? Did he have time to hoist the sail?

But as Tom’s brain spun its wheels furiously, Bud was already in motion. Kicking off his deck shoes, he flung himself into the water and began charging toward Bashalli with strokes of muscle.

Tom spied the Spektor and gave the cosmotron a reset command. He recoupled the neutronamo, and the boat assumed a crisp speed. With Sandy on the rudder, the Mary Nestor put about.

Two swimming figures met the boat halfway. Bashalli rolled over the gunwales almost gracefully. Then the three dragged Bud aboard as the boat listed and rocked violently.

“Mmph!” he sputtered. “G-guess I shouldn’t try shouting encouragement while I’m swimming.”

“Not only that,” said Bash calmly, “but you managed to ram your hard head into mine. At least it shook the water from my ears.” Kneeling, she leaned over and kissed him on his wet cheek. “But I thank you—all of you—for your heroic rescue.”

“I, er—guess we forgot that you’re a pretty good swimmer,” Sandy said apologetically.

“And that I habitually keep a cool head. Though it rings when struck.”

Bud sighed, male ego damp and deflated. “Tom—just what happened? It looked like your cosmotron was funneling the water right out of the lake.”

Tom wiped water from his deep-set blue eyes. “That’s pretty much it. At higher power the ‘space stretch’ in front of us was carrying air and water along with it, creating a siphon effect due to surface tension.”

“A horizontal waterspout! Sorry for bumping you, Skipper. Guess I ruined the test.”

Tom grinned. “No, pal—just made it exciting. I’d say the cosmotron spacedriver really proved its stuff—all things considered.”

“And without mussing a hair,” added Sandy sourly, wringing out her long golden waterlogged locks.

The afternoon’s relaxation concluded, Tom returned to Enterprises and his test routine, with a change of clothes in the small apartment adjoining one of his labs. Revivified by a fresh blue-striped T-shirt, he paused for reflection in the office he shared with his father, who was presently at the Swift Construction Company, owned by Enterprises, on the other side of town.

Staring at his desktop, he acknowledged that he felt—uneasy. The home invasion, the assault on his family’s safety, still rankled and worried him. Was he doing the right thing in cooperating with the Taxman? It’s someone I’m not sure I’ve even met, he reminded himself. Once he had thought Asa Pike was the Taxman, the agent of Collections who kept in contact with him. He had met a hulk of a man named Miza Ranooq, who claimed the title, mockingly and evasively. Who was the Taxman? What was “Collections”? Were they part of the United States security apparatus, as it appeared? Or—

Was he being maneuvered into doing the work of fantastically sophisticated plotters who had somehow infiltrated the government of his country?

Tom stared at the phone on his desk. On impulse, he lifted the receiver—then set it down again. I may know the truth, he told himself, but I don’t know that I know it—not yet!

The young inventor worked the rest of the long day in The Barn, joined by Hank Sterling and, near the end of the day, by assembly chief Art Wiltessa.

“Any changes to the specs?” asked Art, a laconic engineer.

“A few,” Tom replied, shutting down the prototype. “But nothing requiring any changes to what you’ve already put together for the big Starward engine—if we should even be calling it an ‘engine’!”

“Cosmotronic power for our starward express!” smiled Hank. “Tom, could the spacedriver really take us to the stars?”

Tom’s face assumed a thoughtful look, the look of a dreamer with a dream in mind. “Not this version. For all its magic, the cosmotron doesn’t warp us out of space—it uses the stretchable fabric of the spacetime continuum, and the ultimate rules still apply. Although some of the relativistic effects take on a different form, the speed of light is still the limit. It’d take years to reach the nearest star.”

Hank was undaunted. “But someday you’ll come up with a Super-Cosmotron Express. I know you will. I’m betting before your next birthday!”

“I hope you win that bet, Hank,” laughed Tom.

“Back to Earth,” Art said bluntly. “Dreams are for afterhours. Will this Brungarian business set back the construction schedule?”

“I won’t let it,” the young inventor declared with a hint of defiance. “We’re continuing to blow our big bubbles at the seafloor work site, and by week’s end they’ll be starting the interior construction on Fearing. So far there’s no reason to think the Starward won’t set off on its Grand Tour just as we calendared.”

Sterling shook his head, grinning. “Holy Mo, it seems like just yesterday we were building your rocket engines for the Star Spear—that dinky little space canoe!”

“No, Hank, not yesterday—a week from last Tuesday.” Even Wiltessa joined in the laughter. But it was true enough: things moved swiftly at Swift Enterprises.

That evening at home, as he readied for bed and, with luck, sleep, Tom received an unexpected phone call from an ambiguous friend. “Howyadoin’, Tom? Time for pillow to meet crewcut?”

“Hi, Pete,” Tom replied. His voice was friendly but not enthusiastic. Peter Langley, publicized as America’s Other Young Inventor, was something of a kindred spirit. The guy was decent enough and had the native intelligence to grasp obcure technical details and blue-sky inventiveness, whether from his own brain or from Tom Swift’s. As the head and genius-in-residence at Wickliffe Laboratories in Thessaly, Langley and Tom had worked to set aside any feelings of rivalry between them. The two young men shared a kind of language unknown to lesser mortals, and—occasionally and inevitably—gave birth to similar scientific visions.

“Notice that I called you Tom?”

“No, but thanks for pointing it out.”

“No more Tomarama, Swiftaneous—that effervescent way of speaking that makes me such a delight. Nope, no more. My signoth doesn’t like it when I do.”

“Signoth?” repeated Tom quizzically.

“Significant other. Comrade, companion, romantic life-sharer. Can’t say girlfriend. She’s not a ‘girl’. And she’s more than a friend.” Whatever classification she fell under, Amelia Foger had been briefly an employee of Swift Enterprises, a disgruntling situation leading to her relocation to Thessaly and the arms of Peter Langley, nominally her boss.

“How is she?”

“Don’t get personal.” Pete chuckled. “Anyway, she’s great. We’re great.”

“Thanks for the update, Pete,” Tom said dryly. “Keep me posted. Bye.”

“I called for another reason, Tom.”

“I was hoping so,” the original young inventor replied, eyeing his pillow. It was too late to hope that Langley would not call in the first place.

“Is that dripping sound I hear sarcasm? Come on, didn’t I help you get that monorail grant?”

“Is there something new in the pipeline?”

“There is on my end.” Langley’s voice lost most of its irritating exuberance. “Tom, I can’t discuss it over the phone. Can we get together?”

“My bed’s pretty narrow, Pete.”

“Funny. How about tomorrow morning? Breakfast?”

Tom tried not to sigh. Pete was, after all, a friend. Though in no way more than a friend. “Okay. Where?”

“Er—how about Enterprises? Maybe good ol’ Chow Winkler could whip somethin’ up?”

“Good ol’ Chow Winkler is somewhere in Indiana right about now,” responded Tom; “probably in full snore.”

A close friend since they had met in New Mexico, Chow was Swift Enterprises’ executive chef, his waistline exceeded only by his fondness for startlingly patterned, arrestingly hued western-style shirts. After playing the role of cowboy-hero when Tom was endangered while developing his dyna-4 capsule in Nevada, the Texan-by-birth had been granted—over protests—a vacation of several weeks to visit old friends and family in the southwest.

But it developed that Chow’s friends and family had a migratory urge. They now ranged freely from Arizona to the wilds of darkest Sheboygan. The Swifts had flown the older man’s battered pickup to Nevada, and Chow had spent the ensuing weeks wending his way back to Shopton on a lazy cross-country drive. He was due back any day.

“Okay,” said Langley, “no Chow.”

“Look, Pete, come to the plant around seven-thirty. I’ll have Chow’s assistant come up with something.”

“Something normal and American, please,” urged Pete. “I know the guy’s Russian. No breakfast caviar. Keep the eggs big.”

They met the next morning as planned, dining in Tom’s little lab apartment. Langley took a sip of coffee and surprised Tom by asking, “Is your security guy Ames in this early?”

“No, not usually.”

“How about the other one, the chunky guy? Radnor?”

Tom frowned. “What’s this all about?”

“Doesn’t take rocket science to guess that it’s a security issue, Tom-tron—er, Tom.”

The young inventor, the crewcut one, leaned back in his chair. “A problem here? At Enterprises?”

“I should be so lucky,” grumbled Langley in reply. “It’s at my end. Serious stuff, guy—way serious. It could be a danger to the whole country, Tom. And it involves you!”


 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER 6

 

 

VIPER SPIRIT

 

 

 

 

“SURE,” said Tom blandly after a bite of toast. “Everything involves me, right?”

Langley grinned. “There are no ‘Peter Langley Invention Adventures,’ kid. Nobody’d bother with fictionalizations of my life. Well—maybe fans of romance novels. Hmm?”

“You said serious. So let’s get serious,” Tom urged impatiently. “What’s going on?”

Langley glanced around the room, as if looking for secret listeners, then pulled a sheet of paper from within his zippered jacket and slapped it down on the table. “Look familiar?”

Tom stifled a gasp. The detailed drawing showed a squared-off wedge-shaped craft obviously similar to the Brungarian Fire Fury!

“What is it?” the young scientist-inventor asked with faint voice and feigned ignorance.

“You can forget that, friend!” snapped Langley. “One thing neither of us bright boys can play is dumb!”

“Okay. What are you after, Pete?”

“Cards on the table.” The young man tapped the sheet. “This is what the news-web calls the ‘unauthorized overflight of American coastal waters.’ Nice protective government-ese to keep quiet about a supermach jetcraft buzzing the water near your spaceport.”

“What makes you—”

“Record and delete, Tom. Don’t waste breath—it’s expensive these days.” Langley stared into Tom’s eyes. “You have your spy sources at Enterprises. Even the lousy book series alludes to it. Great plot device. But don’t deny it’s real. Somebody in government—hey, maybe above the government!—feeds you information in the usual cloak-and-daggery way. Deny it if it’ll make you feel good.” Tom remained tight-lipped. “Okay.

“A long while back—around when you were doing the hydrolung thing—I started getting weird messages on my private voicemail. When I say private, I mean it: it’s hooked to a number only I use or know about. I use it to leave myself notes and comments about ongoing stuff.”

“In other words,” Tom interrupted, “your personal journal.”

“Yeah, an audio journal—writing makes me nervous. Anyway, this voice, a man’s, seemed to know a lot about what we were working on at Wicko, and what I was working on, even... what I was doing at that exact moment, behind closed doors. Spooky!”

Tom nodded, edging away from all pretense. “Sure is. Our security team can’t figure out how it’s done. They—he—gets into my personal journal on a secure server that’s isolated from the Net.”

“Maybe it’s the same guy,” nodded Langley. “I call him Answerman—Antsy. I call this office he works for ‘Information’. Like over the phone. Get it?

“Antsy tells me about stuff, gives warnings. Of course we’re just grunt workers at Wickliffe compared to Shopton’s great big adventure factory. We just do work, not exploits. But now and then, when somethin’ major is going down—Black Cobra on the loose or whatever—Antsy has something to say to me.”

Tom was trying to hide his astonishment. For all the many times he had been in touch with Collections and the Taxman, it had never occurred to him that others might also be receiving warnings and advice! Pete seemed to read the look behind Tom’s face. “You didn’t know. Not a clue. He comes across like a personal friend; looks like he has more than one buddy.”

“Whoever he really is.”

“Yeah.”

“He sent you this drawing?”

“Ohhh no.” He took out another sheet and plopped it down. “He sent us this. Now this one ought to look really familiar.”

Tom was silent for a moment. “This is the image captured by the Fearing radar system.”

“No, this is the image captured by Information from the Fearing radar system. Doesn’t seem to be anything they can’t get into.”

Tom studied it keenly. “But it’s much more detailed, almost like a real optical photo. They must have tapped into the raw feed—pulled out more data and enhanced the result.”

“Uh-huh. Now, retro-boy—nngh, Tom—compare this ripped-from-reality image to the other one, the drawing. Note all the little details, the fin-vanes along the side edge, these indentations on the front. Identical! Your Fire Fury is the realization of this drawing.

“We made this drawing, Tom! It’s a product of Wickliffe Labs!”

Shopton’s young inventor studied the pair. “Yes. I see that. Are you saying your source sent you the enhanced radar image to let you know—”

Langley gave a fierce nod. “We’ve been messed with!

“Let me bend the law a little and give you the backstory. Wickliffe is something like the third-level subcontractor on a project that originated somewhere up high—Defense Department by way of the Air Force by way of a major contractor—on down to us. They called it part of their long-term ASP development program.”

“ASP,” Tom repeated. “AeroSpacePlane.”

“Which us grownups know is all about ultrahigh-mach bombers—stealth hyperjets that can duck in and out of orbit. Or ideally, tech at its highest, superspeed down in the air, at treetop level.”

“They wanted you to produce a prototype?”

Pete shook his head. “Nope, way short of that. They parceled out the project all over the place—a security thing, I guess. Enterprises probably worked on some part of it without knowing what it was for.”

“Maybe.”

“We were supposed to develop the basic aeroform shape, the design of the fuselage. Munson Wickliffe handed it over to our aerospace division, Faber. This drawing—this is the final rendering of what they came up with. Nothing was ever constructed. All on paper—pixels, actually. Windtunnel testing by computer. You know.

“When Wickliffe died, things got a little chaotic for awhile. Before we could pursue the project further, the whole thing was cancelled. We were paid off and sworn to secrecy. But our work wasn’t destroyed, just locked away under tight security. A load of info about Viper Spirit still exists at Wicko.”

“Viper Spirit,” Tom murmured. “We called it the Fire Fury because of the tremendous heat output from its propulsion.”

“We had nothing to do with the propulsion component of the project,” Langley declared. “In fact, we couldn’t figure out how any engine could actually fly the thing according to the specs we were given. They wanted it small—tiny! Our design was beautiful. Give it a beautiful engine and she’d do beautiful things...” His voice became dreamy. “Oh man, almost no radar profile, nimble as a bee at Mach 6... the shape is self-stabilizing for high-velocity water landings; no airstrip could handle her, and water’d dissipate some very sobering friction heat.”

“But your design wound up in the hands of the dissident Brungarian faction,” Tom concluded. “Then they developed—or stole—the necessary engine.”

“And flew it. Answerman says the design breach was at Wickliffe, not upstairs. They haven’t been able to backtrack it.”

Tom understood the unspoken issue. “You’re the prime suspect, aren’t you, Pete.”

“Let’s say I’m up in the Top Ten. More likely the Fab Four. I’m the CEO, and I have a rep as bein’ a little—let’s say I’ve got my quirks. Us genius boys do, right?”

Tom had to grin. “We sure do!”

“Does writing make you nervous too? All those little bitty hand motions—”

“Pete, how can I help? Enterprises can’t track down the Bad Brungarians for you. We’re heading into the outer solar system.”

“Yeah, I know, that new spaceship of yours.” Langley tried and failed to kill a sigh. “Buddy, your security guys are the best—the best. You’ve had a lot of experience dealing with spies in the workforce, foreign agents—”

“The fictionalizations—”

“Sure, gotta sell the books. Still, what I say is true. Tom, my friend... I’m asking you to lend me Harlan Ames.”

Tom’s disbelief brought a grin. “Wh-what?”

“Or the other one, the little guy, Radnor, if you’re drivin’ a hard bargain. I’ll pay, they’ll be covered completely, full benefits, no liability to them or you—Amy worked up a contract—and I’m not worried about ‘proprietary secrets’ and all that. I’ll sign off on it.” Langley looked sober and pleading. “We—I mean, I—can’t sleep. If I’m gonna have to face down the Feds, I need facts, evidence on my side. Let’s base Ames over at Wickliffe for a while, maybe just a few weeks. He can nose around, follow leads, whatever he does. A gun!—he can carry a gun.”

The Swiftian inventor was silent for a long moment. “If Harlan’s willing, I’m sure Dad and I can accommodate you. I’ve been in a situation like yours myself. I know it’s absolute heck.” He half-smiled. “The fictionalization will have to substitute something softer for that last word.”

“Can I count on you to get something going right away?”

“Yes.”

“Like by this afternoon?”

“I... sure, Pete.”

“We’ll get the paperwork going. I’ll put you in touch with Amy directly. Mm, that wouldn’t bother you, would it, Tom?”

“Why would it bother me?”

“Yeah, that’s the ol’ Swift spirit. The past is dead!”

Ames was reluctant but willing. With the approval of Tom’s father and the plant’s legal department, the matter moved forward. By sunset Ames was touring his new office at Wickliffe Laboratories—and noting how small it was.

“Is there a men’s room?” asked Tom jokingly over the phone.

“No, but there’s a gas station just across the street.”

He promised the Swifts to maintain close contact with Phil Radnor on the matter of the threat by Ikyoris. “I guess I’ll regard it as an afterhours hobby,” he told Tom with grim irony. “But Rad’s fully capable. We’ll maintain armed security around your family property until this is resolved.”

“I’m glad Mom and Sandy agreed to having some of your guys as bodyguards,” replied the youth. “They appreciate that they’ll stay a distance back and keep themselves unnoticeable.”

“I’m just glad they finally gave in. A load off my mind.”

“Mine too.” But then, as he clicked off, Tom thought about Bashalli and many other innocent civilians. And his mind was reloaded.

There was no further contact with the Sentimentalists during the tense days that followed, nor did the Fire Fury—Pete Langley’s Viper Spirit—come darting out of its refuge like a striking snake. Enterprises’ CIA contact, John Thurston, reported to the Swifts that the host government in North Africa was feigning ignorance—and refusing international investigation. “We’ve been combing the region with the megascope as you asked, John,” noted Damon Swift. “But the scope isn’t a tracking device, it’s a moving viewpoint. The region is huge, and the base may be well-camouflaged among the mountains.”

“Yes, I understand,” Thurston responded. “Our own overflight abilities are limited in that part of the world by various ‘understandings’ that we feel constrained to honor. Satellite coverage misses a lot among the peaks and valleys and ravines—and most of the installation is underground, doubtless.

“One more thing, Damon,” continued Thurston. “After you and I are done, I’ll be talking to your security people about a visitor from Brungaria. He’s fully backgrounded and approved, all the way up to—you know.”

“From Brungaria?”

“His name is Andor Emda. The Brungarian government has asked that he be allowed to work directly with you on this hyperjet business, as it appears to be tied to the Sentimentalists faction—and it looks like Enterprises may be their chosen ‘demonstration’ target. He’s part of their security establishment and something of an expert on the Sentimentalists and Nattan Volj. He’ll stay out of the way.”

“Perhaps he’ll be useful. I’ll look forward to meeting him.”

As days became weeks, Tom remotely supervised the construction of the Cosmotron Express on Fearing Island. The several transparent spheres of metallumin—an enormous central sphere and three smaller ones—now sported hatchways, all but invisible when closed flush with the curving shell. A second, opaque shell was constructed within each of them, pressed firm against the metallumin like paint on glass. Then the work proceeded within—a geodesic support structure, with decks and compartments of various size and shape suspended from its network of sturdy beams.

The Starward was not a secret. In a much-requested webcast interview with the local newspaper, the Shopton Evening Bulletin, Tom described the craft to editor Dan Perkins. “As you can see from this model—let me give credit to our ace modelmaker Arvid Hanson—the Express looks like nothing anyone’s ever put into space.”

“Looks to me like a big bowl of fruit,” gibed Perkins. “A honeydew melon and three oranges.”

“The main body alone, the central sphere, is twice as large as the entire Challenger all the way out to its greatest diameter, the repelatron rail-rings. Even a bit broader—a full 200 feet.”

“Which makes the interior crew section much more spacious.”

“Very much more. She’ll have her own hangar for visiting craft, an entire lab deck, big personnel cabins—”

“A nice kitchen for Chow Winkler?”

“Big and luxurious—I’m looking forward to giving him the tour after he gets back from his trip.”

Perkins pointed to the model, half-turning to face the camera. “And what about these smaller spheres?” The three globes, each perhaps a quarter of the diameter of the main hull, were attached equidistantly to it, two on opposite sides at the “equator” and the third on top.

“Those are our three excursion modules—and even though they look like midgets next to the central sphere, they’re really quite large. Space yachts! Each one can detach from the Starward’s hull and fly independently.”

“Between the planets?”

“No. The mods are for landings and short-range work. They use repelatron power, not the cosmotron spacedriver system.”

“In other words, shuttles,” nodded Perkins. “Will you be landing the mother ship on any of these planets you’ll be visiting?”

Tom shook his head. “No, Dan. Once she leaves her special ‘drydock’ on Fearing Island, she’ll spend all her time in weightless space. There’s no need to expose her big body to unnecessary structural stresses.”

“Ah. So your crew will ‘beam’ up and down?”

“Er... this is reality, Dan, not TV. They’ll use the mods.”

“Got it. I suppose you’ll be decommissioning your famous Challenger spaceship. Will she end up in the Swift Museum?”

“The Challenger will remain active and ready for flight. For various technical reasons, the Starward will only use its repelatron auxiliaries within the Earth-Moon system, not her special engines, so she’ll just be a sister craft to the Chal near the Earth. But the Grand Tour will show what she can do on the interplanetary scale. That’s the next frontier Enterprises will be opening up.”

“And what happens when you run out of frontiers, Tom?”

“Um—” The question was unexpected. Which was as Dan Perkins intended.

On that note the interview concluded.

Tom drove back to Enterprises, his brow flexed over Perkins’s question. “What happens when you run out of frontiers, Tom?”

A cellphone bleep interrupted his musings. He switched on the car’s sophisticated hands-free system.

“Hey there, boss!”

“Chow!” Tom exclaimed happily. “How’s the trip going?”

“Almost over—pullin’ into town tonight. An’ then I’m gonna sleep like a prairie winter! But Tom—” The cook’s Texas twang went dark. “First thing in th’ AM, I gotta talk to you about somethin’.”

“Sounds important,” Tom said. But what he thought it sounded like was trouble.

“Mebbe so, mebbe no. But it’s sure got me spooked! I think I’ve been follered—right spang across three states!”


 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER 7

 

 

ANDOR EMDA

 

 

 

 

CHOW expounded on the events of his vacation over his kitchen range the next morning, as Tom sat nearby mostly looking at the vast prairie of his old friend’s rearward territory.

“Wa-aal now,” said the westerner. “All these blame relatives and old pals all over the country—even a few up north. And son, they all got somethin’ to say!—er think they do. And they want me to cook fer ’em. That there’s what comes o’ havin’ a national rep-yoo-tation.”

“I know, pard,” said Tom with a smile. “I’ve got one too.”

“Mm-hmm. But nobody asks you to invent somethin’ when you go visitin’. Me, allus got t’ be on the stove.”

The young inventor chuckled. “Really stretched out your trip, I’d guess.”

Chow snorted. “Shoulda been back two weeks ago. My old rust-bucket Nelly Belle’s jest about worn down t’ spurs an’ saddle.”

“Chow... what was it that happened that ‘spooked’ you?”

The cook plunked down his spatula and turned to face his beloved boss. “I know you got troubles back here, Tom. Don’t even hafta ask. Always do—spies and the like.”

“We’ve got a situation—that’s true.”

“Uh-huh. A sitchee-ation. So I’m thinkin’ mebbe this ties in.”

“You said you were followed?” prompted the youth.

“Yup, in my pickup acrosst three states, Ohio an’ West Virginia an’ Pennslyvania.”

Chow described what had happened in colorful terms. Driving north from Chillicothe, he had noticed a late-model car, big and slate-gray, on Route 23, then again on Highway 70.

“What made you notice it?” Tom asked.

“Wa-aal, she looked a mite foreign, know what I mean? An’ that gray color, like when it’s gonna thunder ’n rain a gullywasher—not what I’d call a friendly color.”

“I see.”

Chow nodded billowingly and continued. “An’ the winders were all reflectorized-up, so’s you couldn’t see inside. Anyway, sometimes he’d be right b’hind, sometimes he’d pull around and get ahead. License plate—wrote it down somewhere—wa-aal, it was one o’ them temperary ones—unofficial. Piece o’ paper.

“Like that mile after mile. All acrosst West Virginia. Finally he pulls away ahead an’ I figger he’s gone fer good. But then I stop at this diner by the highway jest outside Claysville. Jest as I finish up eatin’ I look out th’ winder an’ whoa!, there’s that car again!”

“As if he were following you out of sight.” Tom paused and said carefully, “But pardner, that route you took is pretty standard and well-traveled. Maybe he was just heading up to New York like you were.”

Chow’s face narrowed into prairie indignation. “I saw him, son. Got out o’ the car like he ’as checkin’ a roadmap—now yew tell me, why’d somebody in a big new car be usin’ a roadmap? They got them computer thingies.”

“You’re sure it was a roadmap?”

“Boss, I didden say it was a roadmap, I said it looked like one. An’ then th’ poke looks up at me through the winder—stares at me, like he ’as tryin’ to mesmerize my face! Now why’d a honest feller do that? Stare at me so hard?”

“Were you wearing your cowboy hat?”

“Always do. Whazzat got to do with it?”

“Sorry.”

“This man, got him a funny foreign look—one o’ them little pencil mustaches, thick eyeglasses, an’ a hat, nice tweedy-type hat. I ask you, Tom, what sorta man goes around wearin’ a dang hat nowadays?”

Tom carefully hid a smile. “Does sound a little suspicious. What happened then?”

“Then I pay an’ go out an’ try t’ get some miles on me afore he gets himself started. But sure enough, round about th’ state line, there he is agin! Finally got shed o’ him up around Bradford.”

Tom stood and gave the older man a friendly hug. “Chow, you’ve proven yourself a pretty good detective more than once—and a good shooter, too. When you’re done here, come with me to Security—I’d like Phil Radnor to hear your story.”

The Texan lit up. “I kin give this here a rest right now, boss. Let’s go!”

As Chow and Tom walked together, Tom gave his friend a summary outline of his current danger plot, the Fire Fury, the warning, the apparent disappearance of Nattan Volj and the Brungarian spaceship. “Yep, I sure do r’member thet one,” said Chow. “Sneakin’ space sidewinders! We shoulda let ’em crash right down on the blame moon!”

“For all we know, that might be what happened.” Then Tom provided his trusted friend with an account of the home invasion. Chow was almost as outraged as Tom. His wild western shirt of many colors seemed to turn a shade redder.

Approaching the security office, next to the office shared by Tom and his father, the two rounded a corner. “There’s Rad,” said Tom quietly. Two figures stood in the reception area. As both turned and greeted Tom with smiles, Chow’s hand suddenly clapped down on his boss’s forearm like a vise!

‘B-Boss!” he choked in a whisper. “It’s him! That’s the feller from the car!”

“What!—? Are you sure?”

“He’s got the jim-dang hat in his hand!”

“I was just welcoming our visitor, Tom,” said Phil Radnor. “Tom Swift, Andor Emda.”

As Tom met the visitor’s hand, there was audible gulping from behind him. “Hello, sir. I, er—suppose you just flew in?”

“Naw,” replied Emda, his voice casual, with no trace of an accent. He did indeed match Chow’s description, down to the thin mustache and thick glasses. “Drove to Shopton in my long-term rental. Gave me some time to think—driving has its uses. Even if you sometimes get stuck for miles behind a farmer in an old rusty pickup.” Tom snuck a glance behind him, noting that Chow was now hiding his big hat behind his bigger bulk. Emda continued, “Did they imply I was coming from Brungaria? I was born in Brungaria, but Mom and Dad emigrated to the U.S. after the revolution. I grew up here, right outside Houston.”

“T-Texas?” came a weak voice. Tom introduced Chow, and observed a plump and nervous handshake.

“I think of myself as a citizen of two countries,” declared Emda. “A few years ago my career took me back to the old Motherland, and I’ve been living there, but I was on a visit to my folks in Houston when I got my new assignment from the boss back in Volkonis.”

Tom invited the group into his office, where they sat and talked, joined by Tom’s father. Chow’s hat ended up under his chair and immersed in his personal shadow. “I should probably explain further,” Emda said. “I have advanced degrees in astrophysics and engineering, from the University of Texas, and I worked much of my adult life for NASA.”

“The Houston Space Center?” asked Damon Swift.

“Yes, and for various contractors. But eight years ago I was made a good offer and traveled back to Brungaria to work for their equivalent to NASA, COSMOSA. My technical work was perfectly genuine—but it developed that I was in a good position to undertake a very different assignment at the request of the Brungarian government. I became something of a spy.”

“Uh-huh!” broke in Chow with a degree of self-satisfaction.

“That’s right,” grinned Emda. “A spy—or maybe I should say a planted informant. As you know, many remnants of the old regime continue to work in COSMOSA while secretly supporting the dissident faction called the Sentimentalists. They developed what was virtually their own space program, using the abandoned Dyaune project—”

Tom uttered a faint gasp. “I recognize you!”

“I reck’nized him first!” snorted Chow.

The Brungarian American nodded. “I wondered if you would. Yes, I was a member of the Dyaune’s crew on the moon flight. I was one of the ones who went aboard the animal saucer with Nattan Volj. Didn’t have the mustache back then, and I was in one of our bulky spacesuits.” As Tom’s eyes shifted to Radnor quizzically, Emda went on: “Mr. Thurston should have let you know about my heroic past. I had wormed my way into Volj’s employ as part of my informant job, gaining his trust over the years.

“I was sickened by what happened, gentlemen—Volj’s attempt to destroy you and seize the alien life forms for his own purposes. I celebrated inside when you used your repelling machines to kick us out into space.”

“We never knew what happened to the Dyaune thereafter,” commented Mr. Swift.

“We limped back to Earth with our nuclear-ion tail between our legs,” the man replied. “In the ship, Volj remained in seclusion—the crew wondered if he’d had a breakdown. We landed, under our anti-radar cloak, in her permanent base in North Africa.”

“I gather you don’t know its location,” Radnor put in. “I know you’ve been pretty extensively debriefed.”

“Yes, by both my governments. But no, once we arrived at the airport in Algiers on our frequent trips they always put us in a chopper with blacked-out windows, coming and going. We’re set up in a little box canyon—pretty sure it’s in the Ahaggar Mountains. That’s about all I know.

“The Sentimentalists made sure I retained my ‘official’ position in COSMOSA, and sent me back to Brungaria regularly. The last time, after the Dyaune’s return from the moon, I ran away for good, into government protection. After making my reports, I was out of the spy business—just another consulting engineer with an astrophysics background working in a ‘cleansed’ division of COSMOSA. As you know, we’re restarting our space program with a new vehicle based in part on the perfected technology of the Dyaune. I do know something about that.”

Tom decided to take a risk. He spoke carefully, with a glance at his father. “Andor—”

“Naw, gimme a break. Andy—please.”

“There are rumors in scientific circles about the Dyaune and Professor Volj. Have you... heard anything?”

Emda nodded. “I think you mean this deal about the ship having disappeared up in space.”

“Then you know,” Tom confirmed.

“I’ve heard the rumors, and I presume both of ‘my’ governments know a lot more, a lot more than they’re willing to tell humble helpers like me. It’s thought that a rival faction may have seized the craft, or perhaps that it exploded. I’ve also heard the notion that it’s a hoax from beginning to end, that the Brungarian security boys are trying to lure the Sentimentalist leadership into the open by capturing the ship—maybe with Swift technology, some say.”

“Absolutely untrue,” huffed Mr. Swift.

“Of course. But there’s one thing I can confirm,” he went on. “Lunar satellite data indicates that something was in orbit around the moon—and then it wasn’t.”

“Andy,” said Tom after a pause, “I don’t mean to be blunt—”

“Aw, c’mon, think of me as a fellow American! Be as rude as you like.”

“Why are you here, exactly? What is your assignment?”

Andy Emda leaned back in his chair, drawing together a careful answer. “Obviously, many governments are very... concerned... about what seems to be the ownership, by i-Szentimentlya, of an incredibly advanced and dangerous multi-mach jetcraft. I’m told the security high-ups know where the technology was developed—but, as they say, that’s above my pay grade.

“There’s a possibility—no confirmation—that it’s all tied to Volj and the Dyaune base in North Africa. As Mr. Radnor knows, the Brungarian government has ‘recalled’ me to service on an unofficial basis, at the request of Washington, and with the approval of NATO.”

“In other words,” Chow declared grimly, “you’re s’posed t’ spy on us!”

Emda looked at the food-wrangler in surprise. “No, not at all. Despite the paranoid rumors, Swift Enterprises is not suspected of anything—it was your worksite that was the target of the jetcraft’s ‘demonstration’ and the threatening demand. In Brungarian no less! I’m here to work with you in formulating a strategy in response.”

“Maybe we should just cut through it all,” said Radnor sharply. “I had a nice talk with John Thurston an hour ago. They want Enterprises to investigate the space business, the possible disappearance of the Dyaune. They think Emda, with his scientific training and general familiarity with the ship and with Volj—they think he might provide valuable support in developing the mission. They’re pressing us to get up there as quickly as possible.”

“Up there?” repeated Tom—knowing the answer.

“Yes, up there,” confirmed Andor Emda. “To the moon. And then after that—who knows where?”


 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER 8

 

 

MYSTERIES IN SPACE

 

 

 

 

TOM’S immediate response was a thoughtful frown that wanted to be a grimace. “Space sleuthing. Andy, Dad and I talked about a survey trip to the moon as soon as we heard the... rumors. But right now—”

Emda interrupted with a nod. “Obviously, you’re in the middle of your latest project, your Cosmotron Express spacecraft and the trip to the outer planets. But two presidents agree that Enterprises will give its usual cooperation, now that the Viper Spirit has emerged as a threat.”

“Viper Spirit,” Tom repeated. He said dryly, “It seems you’ve been well-briefed on the American role in developing the Fire Fury.”

“Would you expect otherwise?” asked Emda with a smile. “And now you’ve confirmed that you’ve talked the matter over with Mr. Langley, whom I gather is a subject of investigation. Yep, we know the hyperjet is based upon the designs developed under contract by Wickliffe Laboratories. But the engine!—where’d it come from? I would have known if Volj’s engineers had cracked that problem. I still have a few contacts.”

“As we told our government, it seems to be based on a high-thrust, high-temperature proposal from some years back,” noted Damon Swift.

“Yes, an idea by a speculative science writer; but no one knew what to do with it. But I’m being a little rhetorical—”

“A-ha!” muttered Chow under his breath.

“We think we know where the engine design originated—an engineering group in Sumatra. But still, it’s a big deal. How do you make a nimble, workable little war-worthy vehicle if it’d have to be the size of a city block to lift itself? A full-scale nuclear powerplant would be required. The metalloid fuel itself—are you familiar with that term?—would be tremendously heavy.”

“And then a metal was discovered that is tremendously light for something of such great tensile strength,” Tom said. “Neo-Aurium.”

“So now we get to the nittiest of the gritty, gentlemen,” pronounced the Brungari-American. “Neo-Aurium. Mined beneath the sea by Tom Swift Enterprises, used widely in the projects of Tom Swift Enterprises. Including the new spaceship.”

“So we are under suspicion,” stated Tom’s father coolly.

Emda waggled a hand dismissively. “No, not you, not the company. But one reason I’m here is to use an outsider’s eye to see if, somehow, the Sentimentalists have done to you what I did to them.”

Tom was stonefaced. “A plant among the workforce.”

“It seems to have happened at Wickliffe, eh?”

“So the higher-ups think—”

“Aw, come on. Who ever knows what—or if—the world’s high-ups think?” The man chuckled pleasantly. “My friend, it’s all a big game. I’m just one little piece that’s being shoved around from square to square.”

“I don’t think of it that way,” stated Tom with blunt indignation. “I don’t take it lightly. I’m sure you know that we had a murderer running around Enterprises just recently.”

“Yeah,” nodded Emda, “that Garton Baxx fellow. Well, check me out. I come with complete registered biometrics. Take samples. My DNA is on file. Or shall we just get on with it?”

“We’ll do both,” Mr. Swift said with a hard smile. “You still haven’t quite managed to tell us what you’ll be doing here.”

“I’ll be working with your own security people—Phil here, and Mr. Ames—on recognizing any typically Sentimentalist elements in this plant-espionage matter. Remember, I’m a good resource—I’ve been there.

“Also, I hope you’ll allow me some direct involvement in your moon-scouting mission. The tech of the Dyaune has changed somewhat; I’ll leave the inventing to you, but perhaps I can assist you in fine-tuning your instruments to detect it. The engine-signature method you used before is now outdated.”

“That would help,” Tom agreed.

“Gotta say somethin’,” Chow piped up. “No offense, mister, but if you or your hat come pokin’ around my kitchen—!”

Emda grinned. “I’ll stay off the range, Chow. I’ve read about you. But if your pots and pans start talking to you—”

“Jest happened th’ one time,” Chow growled defensively.

“By the way, nice hat.”

“Hunh?—oh... yeah.” The cook was suddenly deflated. “That kinda hat’s really catchin’ on all over.”

“With farmers, hmm?”

“Er—let’s get to work,” said Tom. “Andy, prepare to have your brain picked. And by the way—”

“Hmm?”

“The Challenger lifts off for the moon tonight.”

Emda laughed in surprise. “Man! You were already planning the trip?”

“We are now,” declared Tom.

After a morning of hurried consultations and arrangements, Bud lifted Tom’s three-decker Flying Lab into the skies above Enterprises at 2 PM, turning her nose southward. “Back to Fearing,” the young pilot said jauntily to the others in the cockpit—Tom, Chow, and Andy Emda. “I think the Sky Queen knows the way by heart.”

“We can go up to the viewlounge in a while, Andy,” Tom told the Brungari-American. “I’ll introduce you to Bob Jeffers and Sue Fresnell, who’ll be with us in space. But I thought you’d like to watch takeoff through our underslung viewports.”

“Pretty dramatic,” Emda declared. “Still, our blastoff into space aboard the Dyaune was more exciting yet—that old buggy produces G-forces that slam you back in your seat, just like in the primitive days of space travel.”

“Yeah, pre-repelatron,” remarked Bud.

“But your repelatrons are hard to get. I suppose just about every government on Earth is competing for a deal with Swift Enterprises.”

“Our own government plays a role, too, as I’m sure you know,” responded the young inventor. “There are big security and defense issues, and the trons are watched and tracked almost as tightly as nuclear materials. But as of now they can’t be bootlegged or mass-produced—not as long as the field antennas have to be made of Lunite.”

“Right. Lunite from our little-bitty new moon up there.” Emda paused musingly. “But of course—Neo-Aurium is also rare and difficult to obtain.”

“But somebody did it,” Chow pronounced. “Sure did—right outta th’ soggy ground next to the city o’ gold. Right under our noses!”

Tom knew that the westerner felt very sure that Andor Emda was in league with that Somebody. And Chow has good instincts about people, Tom thought. The youth felt inclined to trust the well-vetted visitor. But not all the way. Not with their lives. Tom didn’t need Chow Winkler to put him on the alert.

After the usual quick flight and smooth-as-silk landing, the small group elevatored up into the Challenger’s cubelike cabin module, suspended amid the encircling rings that held the repelatron force radiators. “This thing’s huge—quite a sight!” enthused Andy. “Just compare this to the old Mercury capsule in the Smithsonian.”

“Yeah,” said Bud, “it’s about the size of a dining room chair. Even the base of the Apollo capsule isn’t much bigger than my kitchen table!”

Sue Fresnell chimed in with wide eyes. “Progress in the Space Age has been fantastic, hasn’t it? And now we have Tom’s Cosmotron Express to look forward to.”

“Is the Starward construction keeping to schedule?” Emda asked Tom.

The young inventor answered wryly, seating himself before the command deck’s main control panel. “Is there really a schedule? What we usually have is a target date and a lot of scrambling! But we’re looking OK for the Grand Tour mission.”

Emda nodded his understanding. “The Dyaune was stalled for years, you know. It was Nattan Volj and his coterie of engineers who got the job done. That’s one reason for his followers’ worshipful attitude.”

“The Starward was originally designed to be a repelatron vehicle all the way, with scores of our new-style repelatrons built right into the hull,” Tom explained. “Design began right after we completed the Pacific mission in the subocean geotron.

“But when we were experimenting with my time-transformer apparatus—for the dyna-4 capsule—we detected an unexpected effect, a kind of ‘momentum backlash’ that showed how we were grabbing and stretching the fabric of spacetime. That led to the cosmotron spacedriver and a whole new approach to the ship.”

Bud grinned. “Now our marvelous magical trons have been demoted to standby equipment.”

“It’s more than that, though,” declared Tom. “We have to use the repelatrons in the vicinity of large, massive bodies because the asymmetrical distortion of the spacetime gradient—they call it the curve of the ‘gravity well’—prevents the spacedriver effect from spreading evenly across the volume of the ship.”

“In other words,” said Emda, “the momentum tide isn’t flat enough.”

“Exactly—and we’ve dealt with a similar problem in the dyna-4 capsule as well. The unevenness would impose a shearing stress on the Starward, as if the forces were trying to turn it inside out.”

Bud chuckled with his own personal wryness. “Believe me, genius boy and I got enough of that on our first space flight, when we had a little encounter with a mini black hole.”

“More than enough, I’d guess,” said young Bob Jeffers, already a veteran of space.

“And that’s why we’ll be heading for the outer solar system on the shakedown cruise,” Tom concluded, “out in the flatter part of the sun’s gravity well.”

Tom’s and Bud’s hands knew their jobs well, and it took only minutes for the Challenger to rise through Earth’s veil of air and plunge into the stark blackness of space. Tom said, “As we get away from Earth—we’re not in freefall and we still have most of our weight—we’ll accelerate up to 1 G, then hold constant to the midpoint.”

Andy Emda flashed a broad grin. “Comfort and luxury all the way to the moon! We didn’t have either in the Dyaune back when we were in a race against this very ship. I never dreamed I’d see things from the reverse angle!—or even return to space at all.”

Susan Fresnell, an attractive red-haired young woman, stood nearby in the much-muted glare of the sun, gazing over the shoulders of Tom and Bud through the twin “picture windows” of the control compartment. “I’ve only been up in space a couple times so far,” she said. “Such beauty! I’m glad the higher-ups—Tom’s friends Hank Sterling and Arv Hanson—are engrossed in the engineering of the Express.”

“And we’re glad we could bring a fine technician along on this half-day jaunt,” Tom responded. “We’ll need your assistance when it comes time to fine-tune the sensor instruments.”

Sue smiled appreciatively. “My husband the insurance agent worries about these little Enterprises adventures in science and space, but I don’t. As the motto puts it, I’m ‘in good hands,’ about the best hands there are!”

“Haven’t lost a Swift yet,” Bud remarked. “Not permanently, at least.”

The trip to Luna took three hours, giving the Challenger’s young captain time to discuss another matter—and another invention—with the visitor to Shopton and space. Down in the ship’s hangar, Tom showed Andy a small unit bracketed to the bulkhead. It was a framework of lengthy rods, joined at right angles as if along the edges of an open-faced cube. “Before anything else, what’s it called?” asked Emda with a smile.

Tom smiled back. “No clever name for this one. It’s my G-wave propagation analyzer. I know your astrophysics background taught you about gravity waves.”

“Yes indeed. Spacetime ripples spun off into the cosmos by accelerating or collapsing masses.”

“And very hard to detect, even in theory, because of their enormous wavelengths and very slight energy content,” Tom noted.

“Mm, a challenge for Swift ingenuity!”

“Actually, this is more my father’s project than mine. An informal international group of astronomers, the StarWhisper Consortium, wants to see if Enterprises can solve a space mystery, one they’ve been gathering data on since last year.”

“Two space mysteries at one time!”

“Right. Typical for us,” chuckled the youth. “The mystery is called Emma—a nickname for Emission Anomaly Deneb Algedi. That last is a star in the constellation Capricorn.”

“A source of gravity waves?”

Tom shook his head. “The star isn’t, no. But the astronomers have been picking up G-wave emissions originating somewhere along the line-of-sight between Earth and Den-Al. It’s a convenient designation.”

“I see,” said Emda. “Somewhere deep in space?”

“Well, even with a baseline as wide as the earth’s orbit around the sun, gravity waves are so diffuse that it’s all but impossible to triangulate on a source,” replied Tom. “But there’s reason to think that Emma is very close to our solar system, even within the Oort cloud that surrounds our sun in extra-planetary space. The blurred readings that have been accumulated so far put the source level with the plane of the ecliptic, the ‘playing field’ our local planets roll around on. That would be quite a coincidence if the source were out in interstellar space, unrelated to our system.”

“Yes, obviously,” mused the astrophysicist. “Perhaps we’re dealing with a new, distant planet orbiting the sun way way out. But it would have to be extraordinarily dense and in rapid rotation—somewhat like the staroid fragment that came along with your ‘mystery comet,’ Tarski.”

Tom shrugged. “But that’s part of the mystery, Andy. From what the StarWhisper people can make out, Emma isn’t rotating at all, whatever it is. There’s no sign of that sort of wave profile. It seems to be generating gravity waves in some unexpected manner, from a nonrotating, non-collapsing, non-accelerating source.”

“The crudity of the detection instruments can only reveal so much. Hence your new invention, eh?”

“Mm-hmm—hence. Like other such detection devices, it uses rods made of sapphire, in this case ultra-pure sapphire from the Petronius microplanetoid we ‘landed’ in Utah. The real innovation, though, is the way we use a system of extremely fine laser beams to detect and measure any twists or bends in the structure that signify a passing G-wave.”

“Lasers are used in all of them, aren’t they?” objected Emda mildly.

“This approach is new. We don’t measure simple bounceback or beam interruption, but use a phenomenon called photon convection to get three-dimensional information from all along the surfaces of the rods at one time, analyzing the resulting inputs with phase interferometry.” Tom explained how fringe photons were serially refracted at the sapphire surfaces, following the curves like a thin coating of oil. “The goal isn’t just to detect the gravity waves, but to determine a precise propagation vector. With that sort of data, even as small a baseline as our Earth-Moon trip should be enough to determine the location of Emma—within a few hundred million miles, at least; which would be a very big improvement on what StarWhisper has come up with so far.”

“As I said, Swift ingenuity, famed the world over,” pronounced Andor Emda. “When do you begin taking readings?”

Tom chuckled. “When? Three weeks ago! The detector has been running continuously, digitally recording the raw data for computer enhancement and analysis.”

Bud’s intercommed voice interrupted the scientific conclave. “Skipper, we’re starting farside traverse.”

“Come on,” said Tom to his companion. “Let’s go solve our number one space mystery!


 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER 9

 

 

DEAD-ENDED

 

 

 

 

THE Challenger, now in lunar orbit, had commenced its passage over the side of the moon never seen directly from the surface of the earth. In the control compartment the team of astronauts watched their blue planet sink below the lunar horizon.

“Useta think the other side o’ the moon was dark all the time,” remarked Chow. “But there’s the ol’ sun right up in the sky—if y’ wanna call it sky—and as much sunshine as Texas.”

“The farside’s only dark to Earth-shine, pardner,” Bud noted.

At the secondary science station, separated from the main control board, Tom began to extend and adjust the various instrumental antennas, including the telespectrometers built into the repelatron dishes. “We’ve used this sort of space-tracking method before,” commented the young inventor quietly. “But by now the solar wind has thoroughly dispersed any loose atoms from the Dyaune or its propulsion tail.”

After scanning local space for a half-hour, Tom concluded that his pessimism was justified. “Nothing definite,” he reported. “Let’s switch to the duo-phased X-raser sweep you came up with, Andy.”

Emda nodded tensely. “You should be able to pick up chains of entrained exhaust ions if the ship left orbit for deep space.”

“Wouldn’t X-rays just go right through them?” objected Sue.

“Not in this case, my dear,” was Emda’s reply. “The particles will become energized and ‘phone home’.”

But after several minutes Bud said, “Great in theory, Andy, but our phone isn’t ringing.”

The Brungarian-American’s brow creased. “And so the mystery deepens. Did they get gobbled by space termites?”

“Mebbe they wudden out there in the first place,” said Chow suspiciously. “I mean—we’re just up here b’cause of what somebody said, am I right?”

“Sounds like you don’t much trust my ancestral homeland,” said Emda smoothly. “Of course, they do talk a little funny, Chow. Do I? But hey, I’m from Texas.”

“Sure,” conceded the cook. “We’re s’posed to talk a little funny.”

“Let’s remember that this has all been confirmed by our own government as well,” Tom said firmly. “The Dyaune—or something that looked a lot like her—was in orbit about the moon. Something happened, and it wasn’t termites.”

“Well,” Bud put in humorously, “let’s not jump to conclusions.”

Tom smiled. “Let’s start surveying the surface. I’m afraid the most likely scenario is that the Dyaune has crashed.”

“They might have landed intentionally and established a base,” said Andy.

“If they did,” Tom responded, “Volj may be acting on his own.”

“Right. Both governments have reason to think the main Sentimentalist leadership is as baffled as the rest of us.”

Tom and Bud exchanged hidden glances as Emda spoke. Tom’s visit from Ikyoris and Vrysoff seemed to confirm the state of the Sentimentalists’ knowledge. But how much had Emda been told?

They now truncated their orbit, the Challenger holding position at a great altitude, suspended on its repelatron beams. After making some adjustments and recalibrations with Susan Fresnell’s help, Tom scanned the surface below with his instruments, horizon to horizon.

“Don’t see a blame thing down there,” stated Chow, standing at one of the big viewports and leaning over. “If the rocket blew up, you’d think there’d be a big char mark fer miles around—a big black brand.”

“We scanned the surface along the presumed orbital path back at Enterprises, with the megascope,” Tom noted. “But that was only a quick visual survey with the viewpoint terminus at high altitude. The Dyaune may have taken a different trajectory while it was out of sight. Or it may have landed safely—no char mark.” He turned away from his readout panel, toward Bud. “Flyboy, I’m not detecting anything below. Take us on to our next survey point.”

“Roger.”

Hours passed as the ship crawled along in space. Finally Tom rose to his feet and stretched. “We’re not getting anywhere. I knew it wasn’t very likely—the moon’s a big place!—but I was hoping we’d pick up some kind of diffuse molecular trail or a remnant of a usable energy signature. Something.”

“You did your best, Tom,” said Sue. “But I’m frustrated too. My little bit of expertise didn’t amount to much, I’m afraid.”

“We all did a noble job,” Emda declared. “Including you, Chow—great snack support.”

“Er—right nice t’ hear,” responded Chow, suspicion at war with vanity.

Bud asked what came next. Tom shrugged. “I guess we report failure and cruise back to Fearing. But first—I’d like to take some G-wave readings from this position, with both Earth and Moon ‘behind’ us.”

“Good idea, Skipper,” nodded Bud, adding: “Not that I’d know a good idea from a bad one when it comes to space G-waves!”

The Challenger hung immobilely in the sun-stark blackness for another half hour as Tom’s device recorded its data. Presently Bud guided the ship around the lunar edge and the homeward trek commenced.

“How about you, Andy?” inquired Susan. “Will you be leaving Enterprises right away?”

Emda shook his head. “Nope. I’ve been asked to provide some security support at the plant—dang nasty spies may be hanging around. My knowledge of the Sentimentalists and their habits—and faces!—may be useful. Maybe. Somehow. At least that’s what I’ve been asked to do.”

Susan Fresnell’s face had clouded. “Spies? You mean people connected with the Dyaune’s disappearance may be on the grounds of Enterprises?”

“I wish I had an invention for every time we’ve had to deal with a turncoat inside our nice big walls,” said Tom ruefully. “Good night, all the work Harlan and Phil put into it!—and nothing seems to stop these plotters.”

“They’d have to have one of the workforce amulets to sneak around undetected,” mused Susan. The group knew the plant grounds were protected by a sophisticated radar system, called the patrolscope, that registered any moving target not carrying the wristwatch-sized authorized-personnel transponder. “Tom, what if it’s not an outsider? What if it’s someone already authorized to carry one of the amulets?”

“We’ve taken precautions, by means of special individualized signal coding, to prevent bootlegging of the amulets,” Tom replied. “So a ‘turned’ employee may well be the most likely alternative, Sue. We know agents from some group—they’re at least pretending to be part of Volj’s Sentimentalists—got hold of the Wickliffe Viper Spirit plans and came up with the Fire Fury. And Wickliffe Laboratories has its own protective technology.” He kept quiet some further thoughts: And they were able to get access to the neutralizer coils allowing them to approach our house without tripping the magnetic field alarm system!

“The Sentimentalists have become experts in making inroads and bribing—or threatening—otherwise loyal employees,” said Emda. “I’ve watched them do it.”

“Not everyone is corruptible,” declared Bud quietly.

“Jest takes one bad apple, Buddy Boy, t’ give home to a worm,” Chow reminded his friend.

Andor Emda was frowning thoughtfully. He glanced up with an apologetic glance, half amused at himself. “I have no love for Nattan Volj or his henchmen,” he said. “They’re murderers and potential terrorists, willing to do whatever it takes to reestablish the Party and their former positions of power. Yet... there’s something about being an astronaut, being part of a team here in space. A part of me wants them rescued. And all of me wants to know what happened.”

“I’ll give a big hey-yo t’ that,” Chow put in. “All o’ me wants to know it too.”

“And that’s a pretty big all,” gibed Bud.

Earth expanded ahead of them, then beneath them, by the hour. As they passed the 10,000 mile mark, the communicator indicated an incoming message. “From the Fearing Island cartridge,” Bud noted. He handed the mike to the Private Ear Radio system to his pal, who accessed the cartridge with the matched quantum matrix.

“Challenger. This is Tom.”

“It’s Quezeda, Tom,” came the familiar voice of Fearing’s controller of space missions. “Got some disturbing news to pass on to you.”

Tom exchanged alarmed glances with his friends. “What is it?”

“It’s about your friend, Violet Wohl.” Hearing the name, Tom’s heart sank. Violet Wohl-Jatczak, recently wed, was chief physician and key medical researcher for the American settlement on Nestria, Earth’s tiny companion moonlet. Amos Quezeda continued, “As you know, Dr. Wohl was in vacation turnaround, returning earthside for three weeks. She was en route to the space outpost in one of the little transit-crafts...”

Bud’s face said: I know what’s coming!

“During final orbit maneuvers the shuttle capsule went silent, and we couldn’t pick her up on radar, neither Fearing nor the outpost. No debris, no sign of a problem—nothing, Tom!”

“Who else was aboard?”

“A couple of the internationals: a Greek chemist and, I think, one of the Russians. Her husband, Dr. Jatczak—”

“I know,” Tom interrupted impatiently. “He has to remain on Nestria because of his heart condition. Have you informed him?”

“Yes, boss, right after talking to your father. He’s—”

“I can imagine, Amos. It’s awful... Look, we’ll delay our landing and do some scouting around in the Chal.”

“That was the main purpose of my call. I’ll transmit coordinates and other info to you immediately.”

For hours the great spaceship retraced the path of Doc Vi’s shuttle capsule, spending much time at the calculated point of disappearance. The detectors scanned and strained to the limit.

“But there’s nothing out there to detect,” Tom stated bitterly. “Nothing! Two dead-ends for us—and they’re striking a lot closer to home!”


 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER 10

 

 

INTIMATE BETRAYAL

 

 

 

 

STANDING behind Tom, Andor Emda put a hand on the young astronaut’s shoulder. “Tom, I have something to say that I very much don’t want to say.”

Tom turned. “I’ve probably already thought of it, Andy.”

“It wasn’t so long ago that you were dealing with the problem of the antimatter barrier around Nestria,” Emda said quietly. “I have no idea how much of the Asteroid Pirates fictionalization was based upon truth—but we folks in the world of secrets all know that there really is an international dealer and terrorist, call him the Black Cobra or what you will, who was able to mine anti-Diracinium from the African mountain. He surely retained some small reservoir of the material.”

Tom nodded.

“The Sentimentalists had contact with the man and his organization, though I wasn’t part of that business. I know he offered his—services—at some insane price, which Volj and the others rejected. It’s my understanding that the man, genius though he may be, is a delusional psychotic.”

“It’s his day job,” Bud commented.

“He’s known to avenge himself against those who offend his imperial dignity by turning down his offers. What if he used his methods to destroy Volj and the Dyaune, utterly destroy them with antimatter—and then take revenge against you and Enterprises by—”

“You don’t need to go on,” Tom interrupted.

“There’s a big problem with your theory,” declared Bob Jeffers. “Namely the fact that the man who calls himself the Black Cobra is dead—confirmed dead.”

“An’ that’s mighty dead,” added Chow. “Don’t come back from thet one, not when they got hold o’ your teeth.”

Bud spoke up, all humor gone from his face. “He may be dead, but he had a pretty big organization. And they have spaceflight capabilities.”

“But wait,” protested Sue. “Antimatter!—that kind of destructive reaction would cause a massive burst of energy.”

Emda shrugged. “It might apply to the Dyaune event, though. If it happened on the farside—”

“It would leave radioactive byproducts for thousands of miles around, including on the lunar surface,” she persisted. “We detected nothing of that.”

“You’re right,” Tom pronounced. “And that’s why I’ve dismissed that alternative. But there’s another possibility. The man created the antimatter barrier around Nestria with the ultimate goal of studying the Space Friends’ technology and getting his hands on an even greater destructive force.”

“Right, Skipper,” said Bud. “You call it the deatomization effect.”

“Complete nonthermal, nonradioactive disintegration of atoms—a flash of light and nothing’s left. Not a trace! We don’t understand how it works. Look,” Tom continued tensely, “the effect is mediated in some way by Lunite metal, product of Nestria. We know that, somehow or other, the gang flying around in the Fire Fury got ahold of another rare material, Neo-Aurium. It may be that the remnants of the Cobra’s organization were the original suppliers of Neo-Aurium to the Sentimentalists—that could have been part of the deal that went bad. So now they’re using a second contraband material that they’ve acquired, Lunite, to terrorize both the Sentimentalists and Swift Enterprises.”

“Doesn’t he always leave a calling card?” asked Jeffers.

“His henchmen might’ve abandoned that courtesy.”

Andy suddenly shook his head. “I’m sorry I raised the possibility, guys. It doesn’t really make sense, now that I think it over. Those messages on the slugs, the flyover—why would they—”

He stopped as Tom suddenly leaned forward, wiping a hand across his eyes. “Collateral damage,” he murmured. “Everyone’s a target of—madness. I’ve got to... think.”

“Sure, Tom,” said Bud. “It’s what you do best.”

Tom looked up at his pal. “It’s the only thing I do. Maybe it’s the only thing I can do.”

What happens when you run out of frontiers, Tom?

They landed on Fearing, desperate and dejected. Tom teleconferenced with his father. “Dad... I wonder if I should go up to Little Luna, to talk to Dr. Jatczak.”

“I’ve talked to him,” replied Mr. Swift. “I gave what comfort I could. He asks us—very politely, in his usual mild way—to leave him alone for now. He has his own private way to deal with his emotions. ‘Perhaps to grieve,’ he said.”

“We don’t know what happened to Violet or the others,” Tom insisted forcefully. “As far as I’m concerned, this is kidnapping, not murder—until I know otherwise.”

“Yes,” said Damon Swift. “Until we know otherwise.”

As Bud flew the Sky Queen northward, he let his pal sit in quiet thought. He’s suffering, Bud knew. There was nothing the young San Franciscan could say to lighten the burden. And he had learned that it was usually best to allow his friend to process things in his own unique manner, without interruption. Tom could explain many things, but not the workings of his mind.

But when Tom spoke, it was as if they had been talking all along. “So why hasn’t Ikyoris followed up with us—with me? As far as I know, the offer still stands. If I turn over Volj and his ship, the Sentimentalists turn over the Viper Spirit hyperjet to the West. If that’s what they still call the U.S. and the European governments.”

“Skipper, maybe the Cobra organization picked them off after they confronted you. As in, they’re dead.”

“All of them? The gang in North Africa? The hyperjet pilots?”

“Why not?” Bud insisted. “The snakeman probably installed backup cronies who are as nuts as he was—and he was always a great one for making a point perfectly clear.”

“Maybe,” Tom replied. “And maybe it’s all just a hoax anyway, start to finish! Collections is in some kind of crisis mode, and John Thurston’s office can get it wrong—it’s happened more than once. They’re just people.”

“Then what’s the point of it all?”

“How often do we ever know ‘the point of it all’?” snorted the young inventor. He rapped a knuckle on the curving bulkhead. “Even before this baby took to the air—my first real ‘invention,’ Bud—we were dealing with spies and plotters. I grew up thinking that sort of thing went out with my great-grandfather. But I take the stage, the new Tom Swift, and instead of pushing the boundaries of human knowledge, instead of making things to improve mankind’s stay on Earth or wherever we want to go, I end up fighting for my life—”

“For all our lives, Tom.”

“And there it is—the point,” said the youth disconsolately. “While I’m running around hunting spies and mad scientists, what happens to the rest of you? To you, Bud? To my family? I hardly deposit my first paycheck as an employee of Tom Swift Enterprises and Sandy is being threatened by a gunman dropping down on her in a helicopter. First thing!”

Bud held up a hand. “No. The first thing was dodging a missile from outer space—contact with an extraterrestrial civilization! Jetz, you know I love Sandy as much as you do, but isn’t it worth it, danger, pumping up the adrenaline level? To lead us out into—whatever’s waiting for us? Out there? Not like it’s going to go away if we ignore it, genius boy.”

“So making everyone around me risk death is okay? The science justifies it?”

“No, Tom Swift,” replied Bud. “The future justifies it.”

Tom had no answer.

Back at Enterprises, Tom called Harlan Ames at Wickliffe Laboratories and briefed the man who was still, even at long distance, the chief of Enterprises security. “Your Dad called me first thing, boss, but thanks for the details,” he replied crisply. “There’s nothing I can do up in space. That’s your department. What I can do is find this end of the pipeline, the planted agent or corrupted employee who passed the Fire Fury plans along to the Sentimentalists. And then, Tom, we follow that pipeline at laser speed, to whoever built the metal-fuel engine, to whoever got ahold of an unregistered load of Neo-Aurium. And then to the truth about Violet Wohl and Nattan Volj.”

“Any luck there, Harlan?—at Wickliffe?”

Ames’s voice took on a scornful tone. “This place is like a midget clone of Enterprises—and a pretty sickly one at that. I can’t see this Langley kid flying off to the jungle to rescue his employees the way you did, Tom. Did you know the act of writing on paper makes him nervous? And yet the trail keeps running back to him, to his office, his personal files.”

“Then—you think Pete himself is the turncoat after all? That he betrayed the U.S.?” The young inventor found himself reluctant to believe this of someone who was, in his peculiar way, so much like himself.

Ames drew in a breath. “No. I don’t.”

“Then—”

“Amelia Foger.”

Tom gasped at that one. The great-niece of an adversary and rival of the first Tom Swift, a tough and sophisticated woman with a grudge against the plant and the Swift family—and with the most intimate of connections to the CEO of Wickliffe Labs! “Harlan... Amy Foger’s attitude, her big load of bitterness, got in the way of her relations with me and Dad. But I never saw any sign of dishonesty. It’s hard to believe she’d betray her signoth and her country, setting him up for Federal charges and selling out American security to the Sentimentalists.”

“I didn’t use the word ‘believe’,” noted the former Secret Service agent. “You take the chain and look for the weak link. She’s it. Take it as a scientific theory—a conjecture—at this point.”

Like the center of a passing storm, all mysteries and terrors were suspended for the next few days. Andy Emda moved quietly and carefully among the plant employees, striking up friendships, seeking the signs of betrayal, past or future. Chow, distrustful, kept an eye on him—and kept his cowboy hat in the closet. His bald head felt naked.

Tom continued working on the Cosmotron Express operation, wondering when, or if, he would hear from Bielo Ikyoris. And whether, despite heightened security, the man would somehow turn up in the Swift home.

The void of space spoke nothing of Nattan Volj or Violet Wohl.

Tom spent an afternoon with Arv Hanson and his assistant Linda Ming, discussing a miniature version of the cosmotron spacedriver he had requisitioned. The model that resulted was smaller than the one that had thrown Lake Carlopa at the youth and his friends. “But it’ll still produce that ‘headwind effect’,” Arv remarked. “It can’t be avoided. When you latch onto the momentum-space ahead of the ship and stretch it toward you, whatever’s floating around in that space is going to be accelerated your way.”

“But it looks like you’ve planned the Starward with a nice big windshield,” joked Linda.

Tom smiled. “The whole outer hull is a ‘windshield,’ and a strong one—the metallumin globe covers every square inch of the ship. Still, even a headwind of space dust could mess with the stability of the Express. The new field configuration should mitigate the problem.”

“But you can’t test it out fully here in the lab,” Arv declared. “So—up elevator!”

“To space,” Tom agreed. “We’ll set off tomorrow morning in the Space Kite.”

Linda sighed. “Don’t suppose I’m invited.”

“Do you really want to spend a few hours squeezed between an inventor and an engineer in a cramped space capsule?” asked Tom with a grin.

“Let’s make it next time, please—on the Starward!”

Tom worked late, breezing through one of Chow’s suppers in a distracted manner. Running up against a technical problem, he talked it over with Susan Fresnel, also working late, in the electronics building, and eventually called Hank Sterling at home.

A few minutes of discussion—the kind of discussion incomprehensible to most of the human race—and Tom declared the problem solved. “It never would have occurred to me to re-angle the Galilectrum ring,” Tom said gratefully. “Thanks for pointing out what was right in front of my face, Hank.”

Tom implemented the change and was pleased with the result. “Not even nine o’clock,” he muttered, checking his wristwatch. “Good night, for once it’s an early late evening.”

It was time to bring the day to a close. Heavy with thought, Tom hopped in his electric two-seater, powered by a Swift solar battery, in the executive parking lot and headed out the gate, onto the short stretch of curving road that led off the property.

A movement caught the corner of his eye—and suddenly Tom’s car was no longer on the road, but skidding upward into the air! The lightweight vehicle did a kind of somersault, tail over hood, and smashed down on the pavement. And as for Tom, he was no longer in condition to complain, or wonder—or anything else.

 


 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER 11

 

 

TRACTION ZERO

 

 

 

 

TOM awoke to darkness, and when he opened his eyes the darkness was still there. He was lying on his back, on something hard and flat, looking up into vacant nothingness. His muscles ached. He hurt all over.

He had had an accident, in his car, on the way home. The car had flipped...

“H-hello?” he quavered. “Can anybody—”

Someone could. “Awake now, are you?” The voice came from no particular location. It was big, and sounded like someone was talking from the bottom of a rain barrel. “Yes, I know—‘where am I’ is next, is it not?”

Tom decided to frustrate the man’s smugness. “Who are you?”

“Mm, that was the next one.”

“Mr. Ikyoris.”

“I cannot quite lose the accent, can I. How do you feel, young man?”

“Where am I?”

“Too late, Tom. We have proceeded to another question. Bones all right? The doctor thought so. But doctors sometimes miss the simplest things, don’t they?” Tom was silent in response. “No answer? Then I shall assume you’re either well and whole, or dead.”

“Let’s knock off the preliminaries, Mr. Ikyoris, even the threats and the ranting. What do you have to say to me?” Tom asked—yelled, as he was sure Bielo Ikyoris was some distance away. The voice had the taint of a loudspeaker.

“Ah! It seems we can eliminate ‘dead’. Sit up, my friend—won’t you?”

Tom put his palms to the cool floor and tried to push himself up, then yelped as they slid sideways, plopping him back down on his back and redoubling the ache. “Good night!” he muttered. “The floor is covered with oil!”

“I can hear you muttering, Tom. Finding it a bit hard to sit up? Perhaps you should take it slowly. Consider the matter in a scientific way. Undertake a few modest experiments.”

The Shopton youth tried to roll sideways, tried to get his feet under him. Neither hands nor feet nor the rest of him could get a grip on anything. He merely scuttled and slid around in one spot, making no progress.

Lying back, heart pounding with the effort, he sniffed his hands, rubbed them against his cheek. They were clean—nothing on them. No trace of oil...

“Well now,” said Ikyoris with a calm and modest boom. “It seems we’ve placed you in a predicament—rather an original one among the multitudes of inescapable traps one might employ. You find yourself in the center of a flat surface that is quite large and, of greater interest, utterly smooth. No polish, no lubricant—not even a repelatron. It all comes naturally, you see, a surface with no variation, no slightest speck of roughness, almost down to the molecular level. Imagine how smooth such a thing must be, how frictionless—but wait! You need not imagine, Tom, for you are experiencing it directly. Ice, oil, silicate powder, nothing is as slick as what you rest upon. You will find no traction. Zero. Your space engine makes use of momentum; here you find the ideal place to perform demonstrations, for nothing resists you. Start moving, and you will slide expeditiously to the edge of the floor.

“Except... well, without traction, it’s something of a problem to get started. Hm.”

“Tell me what you want, Mr. Ikyoris,” Tom demanded of the vaulted dark.

“Our interests have not changed since our last meeting, young man.”

“I don’t know anything about Nattan Volj and his ship. They may have been completely destroyed, in space.”

“You must have just recently started taking seriously that discomfiting possibility. We know you traveled up to the moon the other day. Were you after a lingering memory?—no, I rather think you visited his place of captivity.”

“Why don’t you ask your spy at Enterprises? Or was he taking a sick day?”

Ikyoris laughed pleasantly. “It’s mean-spirited of me to toy with you, I suppose. Yes, I know you went through an elaborate charade to demonstrate your innocence—even to the extent of faking the disappearance of one of your own. So it was reported. A failed mission, a desperate inventor.

“Shall we believe it? You and your governments, many governments, surely hope we shall.”

“And just why would we do that, Ikyoris?”

“Ah, reasons. Surely reasons are overrated. Are we poor humans not led by the irrational? Our urges, our fears? We need not insist that you Swifts are behind all this, not absolutely, not dogmatically. Indeed, we have no commitment to the rest of it, even—who knows if the Western governments, or the Brungarian usurpers, are involved?

“But from our point of view there is a logical possibility, a tiny splinter. We must take it seriously. For we experiment as well, Tom. And why not? Perhaps we shall learn something of use. Perhaps we shall impress those who need to be impressed.”

Tom filled his chest, wanting to be loud but not shrill and quavering. “The Black Cobra deserves your suspicions more than we do.”

“Mm, Comrade-General Li Ching. A troublesome mental case, wisely deceased—but yes, he has left a legacy to mankind in the form of a leaderless but vengeful organization. Sounds rather familiar, come to think of it...

“Yes, a nice hypothesis. But who is to say we are not pursuing it with equal vigor? We can—I love this expression—walk and chew gum at the same time.

“It doesn’t concern you, my boy. Think only of what we want. And where you are.”

Tom did not respond.

“Now please, Tom, don’t sulk. It’s not like you. Did our uninvited stay at your home upset you so much?”

“What more can I say?” growled the young inventor. “Holding me captive in the middle of this slick floor gets you nothing. It’s ridiculous.”

“Oh, I surely agree. But no more ridiculous than much of what one reads in those juvenile fictionalizations of yours, hacked out by some anonymous committee in what is evidently a darkened room.

“Here are the terms of your captivity. Quite simple. Look.” The blackness was lifted, very slightly and grudgingly, by a tiny red light, a distant speck. “That light is next to a door. The door is unlocked. Pass through it and you are free to go. No one will hinder you—in fact my colleagues and I will be long gone, far away.”

“I doubt it’s all that ‘simple’,” declared the young inventor dryly.

“I’m being absolutely truthful. Indeed, I’d be happier to see you go than to stay. But I would be happiest of all if your dejected, tortured soul were to cry out the beginnings of a deal leading to the release of Professor Volj and the Dyaune—or, if not that, some definite proof of their fate. We remain willing to give your people the hyperjet, to us something of a white elephant, to you a dangerous sort of thing that you wish to examine and—contain.

“Admittedly, you are in desperate straits, Tom Swift. I can’t imagine, offhand, how you will manage to reach that light. The laws of momentum and inertia are gathered against you. You will go hungry, grow weak as your own young body betrays and disgraces you. We will discover, in several senses, what you are made of.”

“You can’t really believe that our Enterprises technology won’t find me!” Tom shouted.

“I am not paid to believe. I would point out, as a footnote, that this technology of yours was unable to find your special friend Bud when he recently went missing...

“Bud, Sandy, your parents, the many treasured and fragile people in your brief life—if we could take you, surely we could take them. You can’t freight them all into outer space. How do you think they’d fare in a situation like this? Something to contemplate.

“And now I leave you to exercise your ingenuity. If you need me, just scream.”

There was no mocking laughter, just the silence of a flipped switch. Tom preferred to think of it as the silence of absence, true or not.

He had managed, with great trembling effort and many failures, to shift his center of gravity, planting it over his feet. With a few slips he was finally able to work himself upright.

He stood dead center in darkness, the tiny red speck gazing at him like an eye. By holding his hand up to his face, steadying it against his nose and looking between his fingers, he determined that the light was drifting sideways—his body was engaged in an ever-so-slow rotation, a trace of angular momentum left over from his deposit on the floor. Couldn’t have been something I did, he told himself bitterly. Without traction, nothing he could do would affect his state of motion. He was like an astronaut in free fall, floating in space.

He kept his hand to his face, gently swaying his upper body from side to side. The position of the light between his fingers made no detectable change as he did so. No parallax effect—which told him that the light, and the door, were a fair distance, perhaps hundreds of feet.

Hundreds of feet of something slicker than the slickest ice.

He thought of Sandy, of Bashalli and all the rest. What would it do to them if it were one of them who was trapped, helpless? What would they do? “Right. What would Tom Swift do?” he muttered aloud, trying to sharpen his thoughts.

What Tom Swift did was think.

He took some coins from his pocket—they seemed to have left him with everything but his cellphone and his wristwatch—and threw them upward as hard as he could. They struck a ceiling and clattered down around him. In the faint light he could see some of them, perfectly retaining their motions, gliding away in all directions. But now he knew a bit more of the vertical lay of the land. The huge chamber had a ceiling that was about 20 feet above his head. No possibility of jumping high and grabbing ahold of something, a light fixture, an air-conditioning duct.

In fact, merely jumping would be difficult. He could only flex his knees and dart up to their limit like a jack-in-the-box. He could hardly propel his fingertips beyond the reach of his upstretched hand.

He experimented for a time trying to gouge the edge of his shoe heel against the surface, to somehow shove or pull himself along, to give him at least a drib of motion. Nothing resulted but a new ache in the muscles of his legs. He could find no resistance to react against.

What he needed was... “Thrust,” he murmured. “Reaction thrust. The laws of momentum can be used.”

He again considered his shoes. He crouched down, then sat down with a painful plop, letting his feet splay out from under him. He pulled off his shoes and pulled out the two pair of laces, then re-tied the shoes together as a bundle on the end of the longish cord the laces made for him. Okay, he said inwardly. Let’s start up the engine. He didn’t care if he were being watched. No doubt his captors had placed bets.

He began to swing the shoe-bundle like a pendulum from his extended arm, then raised the arc of the swing as he slowly lifted his arm above him, clamping his other arm into place as a support, making a V like a crane boom.

He began to gently twirl the bundle around him, at about the level of his head. As the rate increased, centrifugal force lifted the arc of the bundle away from him.

He noted, the observant scientist, that as the bundle described a wide circle, he own seated body made a smaller one in reaction. In fact, both were circling not the center of Tom’s body, but a displaced point somewhere between, apportioned to their relative masses. He had converted the muscle power that was spinning the bundle into angular momentum that both shared, the bundle of shoes and the bundle of flesh known as Tom Swift.

The whirl of the strange apparatus became faster, faster. The shoelace line was taut. Tom’s arm muscles were bulging. His wrists hurt. The shoelace line gouged into the edge of his hand, scraping back and forth. And he was getting dizzy.

Then, with a carefully timed final snap, as if cracking a whip, he released the line. The bundle soared away into darkness. And Tom knew, more than saw or felt, that he was sliding in the opposite direction—toward the light.

Very, very slowly.

He was still rotating, and feeling sick from it. Considering his extremities, his course across the floor was curlicue, a flattened spiral of sorts. The red light was like a little comet seemingly in orbit about him. He traveled not by moments but by minutes, the slowest of slides.

He became certain, though, by inches, that the distance between him and the light was steadily decreasing. He had timed the release of his thrust bundle, his fuel, perfectly. Action, reaction, equal and opposite. His path was dead-on.

Before he expected it, it suddenly seemed to him that the light was rising. The angle of his view was from below; the light loomed up as he approached—as he approached near!

He thought he could make out the wall plate the light was set in—and the side of his unshod right foot stubbed against an obstruction. It was like a low curb, and seemed to have a slight give. A cushioned bumper, he thought happily. I’ve reached the edge!

And then, suddenly, he was scrambling with desperate energy. He had struck the bumper like the world’s laziest billiard ball—and caromed off it. He was rebounding away!

He clenched his stomach muscles and stretched out his arms, swinging them downwards, trying to fall over flat. The tips of his fingers touched the rubber. He desperately clawed down with his fingernails. They scratched along a few inches. Then they held. The slide was over.

As if doing a horizontal chinup, Tom pulled himself across the curb and onto a walkway than ran along the edge of the surface. He regained his breath and his dizziness ebbed. At last he was able to stumble toward his friend the light, and the big door in the wall, next to it as promised.

As he felt for the door handle, the back of his hand brushed against something barely seen. He knew it by feel. They had left his wristwatch dangling from the handle.

Nice gesture, he thought dryly. He slipped it on his aching wrist and felt somewhat comforted.

He stumbled through the unlocked door, through a small room lit by, incredibly, an EXIT sign, and through another door.

The breath of night hit him. The stars were still bright all around.

He saw distant lights. And silhouetted against those lights were running figures, charging him with guns drawn and leveled!


 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER 12

 

 

KITES AND MARBLES

 

 

 

 

“WE call it the Rink,” said Pete Langley. His voice was thick and uneven, disheveled to match his hair. “We use it for certain kinds of propulsion tests. Also, it’s a prototype—Old Man Wickliffe thought it could be patented and marketed, kind of an ice-skating rink without ice or skates. You just shalom around—no, that’s not the word—on your regular street shoes. Even tennis shoes.”

“Uh-huh,” muttered Tom, in a chair and feeling his bruises. “Cruising along at ant velocity I had plenty of time to get to know that surface. I tried to figure out what it was made of. Defractized Durastress? Under an Inertite coating?”

The third figure in the Wickliffe Laboratories office stirred to life under her own tousled mop of hair. “Durastress—a Tom Swift Enterprises patent, I do believe,” said Amelia Foger, attorney. “Off-limits to us, of course. So we came up with ZeroTrac. Many obvious uses.”

Tom smiled. “Who invented it?” he asked mischievously.

And Amy smiled back, in the steely manner of a serpent of the law. “Let’s not discuss proprietary secrets right now, Tom.”

“Of course,” nodded the young inventor. “Sorry to have awakened you—you two,” he added dryly.

There was a fourth voice in the well-appointed office. “I’ll tell you what surprises me,” said Harlan Ames. “Someone decides to kidnap Tom. Where do they take him? Here! A big research and construction facility that is supposed to meet Federal contractee security standards.

“Tom is carried onto the property, somehow—no alarms. He’s stowed in this ‘rink’ of yours—no one notices. In fact, it isn’t until he actually frees himself and comes stumbling out that a troop of overweight guards manages to take interest.”

“Not fair, Ames,” snapped Langley.

“It almost sounds as if you’ve decided to join the case against Peter,” noted Amy icily. “Against America’s Other Young Inventor—who happens to be paying you to clear him.”

“Maybe it’s slipped your mind, Ames, how recent it’s been since Dr. Wickliffe died,” Langley continued. “New management, trying to hold it together. And there was the little matter of the Thessaly earthquake and all the damage—”

“All right,” interjected Tom. “What matters now is this—was this the work of outsiders, or the same disloyal person, or persons, who passed along the Viper Spirit designs? Someone with access, maybe an employee?”

Amy Foger’s eyes sparked with something sharply undefined. “Someone with access—top access. Why, you know, that ‘someone’ could be me!”

Tom and Ames exchanged glances, as if asking the other, Did you tell her?

She saw, the confirmation she had expected. “My goodness, I’m right!” she exclaimed sarcastically. “I’m a suspect. But of course, I’m a Foger. Something genetic.”

“Are you ever going to let go of that baggage?” asked Tom. “We’ve never held you responsible for what Andy Foger did all those decades ago.”

“I see. Heredity is thought to apply only to the Swift family.”

“Let’s not waste time!” commanded Ames with the force of a quiet sledgehammer. “I presume you two can verify one another’s location during the crucial time period. We don’t need to explore that option right now—reasonable or not. The sun’s coming up and we’re no closer to a solution.”

“You said you went over the area before coming here to the office,” Langley declared. “What did you detect? Whoever these guys are, they got onto the Wicko grounds somehow.”

“The voice over the speaker was someone I encountered before,” stated Tom with a troubled frown. He involuntarily exchanged another glance with Ames. How much should he say? Where would his words end up? Whose ear? “We... think it’s an agent of the Brungarian dissident faction, stationed in America.”

“What can you tell us about him?” inquired Amy Foger. And Tom noted very pointedly whom it was that was inquiring.

“Not much at all,” replied the youth. “But he and his cronies have threatened me and my family.”

“We only know what we’re told,” Ames said carefully. “It’s clearly connected to the penetration of U.S. airspace by the hyperjet. I’m sure the Feds have told you the same things they’ve told us. The official Feds—and the others.”

Amy smiled in the direction of her signoth. “Bend over, Peter. This is called smoke-blowing. Enterprises knows more than it cares to tell little old us.”

Harlan Ames stood abruptly. “I suggest we all find beds to sleep in for whatever time remains until breakfast. I’ll drive Tom home, then head back here to continue my investigation. I still have a job to do for you, Langley.

“Oh, incidentally, did you know that that nice big double fence of yours has an employee access gate right next to the Rink?”

“Oh, it—it does?” Langley haltingly responded.

“Mm-hmm. Don’t blame you for forgetting about it. Welded shut. But now it’s got itself unwelded, somehow.”

“I see.”

“I’d suggest giving it some securi-cam coverage. And a new welding job.”

As Tom and Ames left, Amy said, “Always a pleasure, Tom.”

“Save it for Pete, Amy.”

On the highway, the sun rising at their backs, Ames told Tom: “I was at the site of the car crash when I got Langley’s call. Our night security team was there in minutes, Radnor too.”

“I don’t remember much about it,” Tom stated. “I think the car must’ve flipped over...”

“Over completely and back upright—it’s on all fours. They positioned the ploy away from the big trees, thank goodness. After you smashed down you slid off the pavement. You flattened some bushes.”

Tom rubbed his forehead. “You know, I have an interior anticrash repelatron system in my car. I shouldn’t have been knocked out—and as a matter of fact, I’m sore and bruised up, but not in bad shape.”

“I don’t think the crash knocked you out, Tom—though it knocked your car for a loop,” Ames said. “When I got there Rad pointed out a stain on the driver headrest, and there was a funny smell inside. They must have sprayed something in your face when you were lying there stunned.”

Tom snorted. “My poor car! But the Tomasite outer shell is mighty tough.”

“In this case, the fact that your car is so light in weight added to the problem. They anchored an unbreakable cable on either side of the road and raised it taut, probably when they saw you coming. I can tell that it caught the car just below bumper level.”

“And over I went—on my own electric steam! Mom and Dad sounded pretty frantic when I called from Pete’s office.”

“We had already launched a major search operation. And note this, boss—whoever set the trap and carted you off must’ve carried a patrolscope transponder. The radar net covers the grounds all the way out to the main highway, but these guys didn’t show up.”

“Another big clue that we’re dealing with people with an ‘in’ at Enterprises; Wickliffe Labs as well.” Tom’s troubled frown was voiced in a sigh. “Trusted people, Harlan.”

“I’m afraid you’re right.”

 The cosmotron project went forward—and upward. The following afternoon found Tom hurtling through the fringes of Earth’s air into starry space. “Good we postponed liftoff for half a day,” remarked Arvid Hanson. “It’d make me nervous if my driver were half asleep!”

“I feel a lot better,” Tom said. “I hope we’ll both being feeling good after the test.”

The cosmic ray propulsion of Tom’s Space Kite, a midget domed craft no larger than a compact car, produced a steady acceleration. Within an hour the two astronauts had settled into an orbit 130,000 miles from their shrinking blue world.

The sun slipped behind the huge round horizon of Earth. “Good a spot as any,” Tom announced, adjusting the gravitex that gave the Kite its “string.” “I wanted to get into the ‘shadow’ of the solar wind a bit.”

“Right. I understand why,” replied Arv. “You want our marbles to float around evenly without being blown around.”

Tom now ejected a plastic packet from restraining clamps at the bottom of the hull. The packet glided away into the bright blackness until, miles distant, it could no longer be seen.

Tom checked the radarscope. “In position.” He touched a button, sending a signal, and the screen showed the packet blooming with a haze of tiny specks—pellets of lead, like birdshot. The cloud expanded slowly until it formed a hazy sphere on the radarscope, several thousand feet in diameter.

“Marbles deployed,” grinned Arv. “Let the game begin!”

Tom now launched a second package in the direction of the cloud—the spacedriver test model Arv and Linda had designed. The cosmotron device reached the center of the mass of pellets, and Tom remotely directed its inbuilt ion thrusters to slow it to a stop relative to the cloud. He glanced at his companion excitedly, then shifted his attention to the machine’s actuator, one of his Spektor remote-control units clamped to the Space Kite’s control board. “We’ll start slow.”

Radar showed an instant result. The bright green dot representing the cosmotron abruptly slid off the screen! “Wow!” chuckled Arv. “I can’t get used to the lack of acceleration! How fast is she going?”

“300 feet per second.”

They both scrutinized the pellet-cloud for ripples—any obvious sign that the distortion of momentum-space had surged beyond its desired bounds. “Nothing,” declared Tom in triumph. “We’ve contained the field, at least at minimum power.”

“Let’s up it a little, Skipper.”

The young inventor “gunned the engine” and the green dot abruptly flicked off the edge of the screen, leaving the cloud of test-marbles behind. “The pellets are still floating steady,” Tom announced. “No swirl or backwash. Arv, I think we’ve got ’er licked!”

Hanson chuckled. “But of course. Don’t make me pretend to be surprised, boss! By the way,” added the big Swede, “where’s ‘cosmo’ got to?”

“Let’s see.” Tom expanded the radar sweep one, two, three orders of magnitude. “There she is.”

“Really scooting along!”

“Pretty nice scooting. The unit is surfing through space at, oh, four thousand miles per second!”

The modelmaker’s mouth dropped open, then clomped shut. “I—I can hardly believe it!”

“Let’s really open her up!”

Tom sent the signal, and again the radarscope required adjustment. “Look at those Doppler figures, Arv—the spacedriver unit is travelling at point-zero-five C—five percent of the speed of light!”

Awe radiated from the older man’s face. “Nine-thousand miles per second! No manmade machine has ever moved that fast, Skipper!”

Tom’s own face became thoughtful. “No earthman-made machine, anyway.” Arv understood immediately. The Space Friends, the never-seen extraterrestrials who had established radio contact with the Swifts, had also made contact another way, by fantastic vehicles that seemed able to defy the laws of nature—including the speed-of-light limit to motion.

Arv said, “I wonder if the Space Friends are monitoring all this.”

“Probably. We’ve barely heard from them since the Pacific mission. They haven’t replied to our inquiries about the space disappearances—which could mean they’re afraid those space enemies of theirs are monitoring their communications.”

As the Space Kite moved serenely along its elongated orbit, Tom directed the spacedriver model in other feats of speed and maneuvering, finally sending it in the direction of the sun. But only seconds after leaving the earth’s orbit for the inner solar system, Hanson reported that its velocity was wavering. “As expected,” nodded Tom as they left Earth’s shadow and the rays of the sun suddenly flooded the dome. “Additional structural stress, too. The gravity gradient nearer the sun changes too acutely for the field to remain flat. Until we engineer-out that instability, the Starward will have to stick to the outer solar system.”

“Shall we reel the spacedriver back in, Tom?”

The young inventor nodded. “Go ahead. I’ll stabilize us in position.” But he had barely transmitted the commands to the drone when a peculiar sound erupted inside the Space Kite cockpit. “What’s that?” Arv asked nervously. “An alarm?”

Tom checked the instruments. “No. I have no idea what’s—” His reply broke off as the sound redoubled—a shrill buzzing that throbbed in an irregular rhythm. On a hunch Tom half-rose from his seat and stretched has gauntleted hand toward the surface of the viewdome.

He yelped and drew back his hand. “It’s vibrating! Good night, what’s going on?”

“Some effect from the cosmotron?” suggested Arv.

Tom adjusted the controls, but the vibrations continued—and seemed to be increasing. The entire Space Kite was beginning to swing back and forth, as if struggling in the grip of something unseen!

“It’s not the cosmotron,” Tom declared. His deep-set blue eyes met Arv’s as both astronauts shared the same ominous thought.

Could this be the same space phenomenon that had attacked the Dyaune and the Nestria capsule? Was the Space Kite about to disappear?

Or disintegrate?

 


 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER 13

 

 

SKY TRAIL TO SUMATRA

 

 

 

 

“I CAN’T tell where it’s coming from,” said Tom breathlessly, fighting the board for control. “It’s not a problem with the subtrino ‘wind’—the cosmic reactor is producing a steady thrust.”

“Something from out there,” gulped Arv. “Maybe from a ‘cloaked’ spacecraft—the Dyaune!”

“Or the Fanshen, the Cobra group’s ship. Whatever it is, it seems to be fumbling, like it can’t quite get a grip on the Kite.” The young spaceman threw a fierce look at his friend. “That means we have a chance to fight it!”

To Hanson’s surprise, Tom suddenly yanked the mechanical lever that dis-aligned the shutters on the grille-like cosmic reactor that formed the rear face of the hull. The G-force of acceleration dropped away instantly, and as it did, Tom reoriented the gravitex directional cone and threw it into its highest power. “Focusing on the moon’s grav field,” he murmured tensely.

The two were thrown forward against the safety restraints of their seats as the gravitex effect took hold. The gravity-amplifying device was now “falling” moonward, yanking the entire Space Kite, facing backward, along with it.

“I—I get the plan,” said Arv.

“If we’re caught in some kind of beam, or focused field, it may be interacting with our reactor drive cells. Using the gravitex alone could give us more muscle to break free!”

The craft accelerated toward Luna at several times the normal acceleration of Earth’s gravity, 9.8 meters per second squared. They felt every squared second, travelling aft-forward. “Yolff yeerie!” grunted the full-blooded Swede. “S-Skipper, the straps are biting into my—”

“I can’t tell if we’ve broken free,” gasped Tom. “The acceleration is masking the effect. I’ll... have to risk...”

Then, suddenly, their acceleration ceased. Tom had switched off the gravitex. They arrowed along serenely on their accumulated velocity, as if suspended motionless in the vault of stars. “Whatever was trying to grab us has given up,” panted the youth. “Or maybe the earth, or the moon, got in the way of the beam as the angles changed.”

“Do we dare put about and head for home?”

“I intend to try, Arv—in a little while!”

“Right. Let’s just drift. Very relaxing.”

But the worrisome journey encountered no further challenges. Reactivating the cosmic reactor and gravitex, Tom was able to rendezvous with the cosmotron model and bring it back aboard. “If they plotted all this in order to steal the machine, they’re out of luck.”

Hanson grinned. “I’d say they were out of luck the moment they decided to take on Tom Swift!” He added nervously. “Whoever they might be.”

Foreseeing the possibility that something might yet interfere with the Space Kite, Tom contacted his father via the craft’s Private Ear Radio and provided a summary report. “I’ll keep an eye on you with the megascope, son,” Mr. Swift promised. “And I’ll alert Fearing to have the Challenger ready in case a rescue is necessary.”

After the long, slow atmospheric descent, the craft landed at Swift Enterprises. While Arv carted away the cosmotron unit, Tom met up with Bud. “Another space adventure!” exclaimed the black-haired pilot. “Maybe we should just stay on the ground.”

“Coming from you, flyboy, I know that’s not a serious suggestion!” joked Tom. “As you said—we’ve got to find out what’s out there.”

“Right. Before it finds us!”

The two pals elevatored up to the office Tom shared with his father. “He’s waiting for you,” announced Munford Trent from his desk in the reception lobby. “And Mr. Thurston will be calling around seven.”

“Thanks, Trent. Ask Chow to bring over some supper, will you?”

Inside, as Bud lounged in a chair listening, Tom discussed the space phenomenon with his father. “Worrisome,” said the elder Swift. “It reminds me of the repelatron interference effect caused by the neutron star fragment.”

“But Dad, this effect didn’t involve repelatrons at all,” his son reminded him. “The Space Kite uses an entirely unrelated propulsion principle, the transit capsule was just coasting along on a transfer orbit, and I’m sure the Dyaune was using some kind of souped-up version of its original nuclear-ion system.”

“But you really don’t know that what just happened has anything to do with the disappearances,” Bud pointed out, half-eyeing the door for Chow and food. His muscular body could be demanding.

“You’re right,” said Tom. “I’ve wondered...”

Damon Swift smiled. “I think we’re both wondering the same thing, son. This may not involve a neutron star, but it could nonetheless be a natural phenomenon—and we do have a possible culprit out there.”

“Emma,” declared Tom with a nod.

“Emma?” asked Bud. “Who’s she?”

“The anomalous G-wave source I’ve mentioned. The readings from the propagation analyzer have confirmed that it—whatever the heck it is—er, sorry—is in the outer fringes of the Kuiper Belt,” explained the young inventor.

“Jetz!—way beyond the ‘former planet’ known as Pluto.”

“I intend to try finding Emma on the Grand Tour flight,” Tom noted. “But Dad, Bud... whatever this ‘space rumble’ was, it’s not a gravitational phenomenon. It has no relation to the anomalous G-waves Emma produces. The instruments on the Kite showed that.”

“Then what?” asked Bud.

“Well, here’s an unpleasant possibility,” Mr. Swift put in. “As you know, we’ve been asking the space friends about the Emma object for quite some time, as well as the Dyaune disappearance, and now the disappearance of the capsule from Nestria.”

“But Tom says they haven’t responded,” noted Bud.

“We’ve had very little contact with them since the business of the ‘memory crypt’ that you two visited in the geotron,” Damon Swift said. “Just perfunctory responses. Nothing at all for months, in fact.”

Tom added: “Remember, chum, they downloaded some info from the beacons that were left behind on Earth. They haven’t yet shared with us whatever they discovered.”

“Then—you think the SF’s might be involved in what’s been happening in space?”

“Well... not necessarily the space friends,” replied Tom ominously. “Li Ching was in contact with the separate extraterrestrial group we called the Others, who our space friends regard as dangerous. What if these ‘Others’ are somehow involved in these events?—including the disappearances. It may even be some sort of arranged payment to Li Ching’s remaining organization.”

“Sure,” said Bud. “‘For services rendered!’

“As for their superiors on ‘Planet X’ out there—it’s true that they have the technology to pull off a space-snatch, as they did with the outpost. But what could they possibly want with the Sentimentalists’ ship and the Nestria capsule—just those two?”

Bud pointed out that it appeared the Space Kite has also been targeted. Tom continued: “To my way of thinking, that makes it even less likely the X-ians are directly involved. The ‘tentacle-force’ was obviously fumbling around. When the space beings do something, they get it done!”

The three continued talking and speculating after Chow arrived with a light supper, joining them at Tom’s request. The big westerner had just made his chair squeal in pain when the wall-mounted videophone screen announced that John Thurston had arrived, electronically.

“We appreciate Ames’s reports on his work at Wickliffe Laboratories,” said the sober-faced CIA executive. “As of yet, he hasn’t quite provided what we need—”

“In other words, evidence clearing or condemning Peter Langley,” Tom interrupted brusquely.

“We have to look at all the angles, Tom. Even Miss Foger’s. At any rate, Bernt Ahlgren has reported some ‘traffic’ that may provide an important lead.”

“To uncovering the spy at Enterprises?” asked Tom. His tone was simmering with demand.

“We’re sorry about your momentary abduction, Tom. But remember, the first concern of the government and its allies has to be the Viper Spirit vehicle. We need to find out where it’s based—and who constructed it. And part of the chain of clues is to identify where that metal-fuel super-engine was put together. Do you understand?”

“Of course we do, John,” snapped Mr. Swift. “You say there’s a lead?”

“Indeed so,” Thurston continued. “Ahlgren’s intercepts point, as we had suspected, to Sumatra—to a small group of Asian engineers known to have had prior contact with the Sentimentalists.”

“Good night! Have you found their base?” Bud burst out excitedly.

“Is that you, Bud? To answer—no. We don’t think it’s flying out of the North African installation. One of the Central Asian countries is a good possibility. What we may have in Sumatra is the place the engine was built and tested, before it was shipped elsewhere to be mated to the fuselage.”

“I assume your agents have investigated,” remarked Mr. Swift.

“Not yet. We have been advised—by certain high-level people you’re all familiar with—that sending in our usual agents, or the Sumatran authorities, might... let’s say it might ‘tip our hand’ at a point in time where—”

“Where hands should stay untipped,” Tom interjected. Evidently the Collections crisis had not yet been resolved.

“Tom, we’d like you—you and Bud, of course—to be our eyes in Sumatra for a day or so.” Thurston paused for reaction, but there was only silence. “Ahlgren is certain the facility has been abandoned. Danger is minimal. But as you know from the Pakistan headlines, it’s all about connecting the dots. What we need onsite is a scientist who can recognize the signs of advanced engineering technology at work.”

“In other words, my son,” stated Mr. Swift. “John, please don’t insult our intelligence by pretending this ‘mission’ will be danger free!”

“It never is, Damon, is it?” Thurston smiled, abruptly and disturbingly. “But I don’t think a little danger will scare off Tom Swift, conqueror of space.”

“You’re right,” stated the aforesaid Tom Swift.

“Fell right in,” grumbled Chow with a wince. “Right spang-dang in th’ soup, jest like always! Boss, when’re you gonna learn t’ say no?”

Tom didn’t answer his friend, but said to the videophone screen, “Please send us all the info, sir. We’ll leave for Sumatra tomorrow morning, after recharging our batteries with a night’s sleep.”

“Not likely,” Bud muttered—but he grinned.

The next morning, preparations finished, the two young adventurers rounded the globe on a multimach Swift Construction Company jet, setting down at the international airport in the huge city of Jakarta, Indonesia. From there they took a small prop plane across the strait of Selat Sundit, Bud piloting them northwest to the great Sumatra Peninsula that divided the Java Sea from the Indian Ocean. “Look over starboard, Tom,” said Bud. “This time I get to explain something to you!”

“All I see is water, flyboy.”

“At the horizon—those little specks?”

“I see ’em.”

“That’s all that’s left of Krakatau—they usually call it Krakatoa.”

“That’s the island that blew up?”

“Yup. 1883. Volcano got steamed up and blew its top!”

They flew on across jagged mountain ridges, volcanic peaks, and skirts of lush forest. Arriving at the west coast, they followed it north past the small city of Krui, then angled inland. At last Bud set them down at a poor excuse of an airfield some fifteen miles from the coast, where they hangared the plane and hired a taxi.

“We’re heading out to a place called Bendautok,” Tom told the English-speaking driver, a middle-aged man whose half-smile appeared tattooed in place. “Do you know it?”

The man shrugged. “What’s to know?”

“Can you get us there?”

“If there’s a road.”

“You don’t know if there’s a road?” asked Bud in surprise.

“I don’t know if there’s a road to Bendautok,” the man replied. “But say, boys, if you feel daring, we could drive the road that runs from Bendautok. I’ve known people to do it. Many are still alive.”

“I think he’s joking, Bud,” Tom observed wryly.

As they set off, the driver introduced himself. “My name is Moonbase Alpha.”

“Now that’s got to be a joke,” Bud snorted.

“No, it is a nickname, taken from English-language television reruns, which I watch as language practice. As an airport driver, I have a multinational clientele, a different nickname for each of the six most common languages. You may call me Moonba.”

Tom chuckled. “Please to meet you, Moonba. We’re—”

The man interrupted. “I do not need to know your names, boys. I am a professional. I do not desire an intimate relationship with my passengers. For that, try Thailand.”

“Well, I just—”

“I am not a gabby cabdriver. That is a stereotype. Should you wish to pass the journey in reflective silence, I will be content.”

“Will you permit a question?” Tom asked with a grin.

“For the extra amount you will be tipping me for the answer, I will be delighted.”

Bud laughed. “This is my kinda guy.”

“My friend and I are—” Tom began.

“You need not disclose. I make no assumptions.”

“Moonba, I’m in the... construction business,” persisted the young inventor. “My colleague and I are checking out rumors that a rival company is planning to set up a manufacturing plant in the area.”

“What! Near Bendautok? What do they plan to do for workers, import Koreans? The B’naui are all fishermen and bartenders. Simple villagers.”

“You haven’t heard anything?” asked Bud, leaning forward from the back seat.

Moonbase Alpha grinned a mottled grin. “Have I heard anything? No. But if you chose to ask whether the B’naui have heard anything, I might mention the grotto of Koong-Na—and the screaming in the night!”


 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER 14

 

 

KOONG-NA

 

 

 

 

“YOU KNOW,” said Tom, “we just might be interested in that.”

“I thought so. I must be a prophet,” replied Moonba. “Koong-Na is—well, I will not insult the dictionary by calling it an island. Just a pile of rock with a frosting of sand. On the best maps you can cover it with a fingernail clipping, and you probably should. But it has steep sides—all those tiny dots do. Big cliffs, way up and flat on top. They call these pretend-islands ‘the tree stumps.’ A handful of them, some four klicks—that means kilometers, but call it miles, who cares?—to the south of Bendautok. Koong-Na is the biggest one, I think, if a small thing can be a biggest.”

“So what’s this about a scream?” interjected Bud.

“Like a tortured elephant, but ten times louder. At intervals, usually lasting, oh, twenty seconds. That’s some long-winded elephant, eh? The fishermen have heard it, many nights, late.”

“What do they think it is?” Bud queried anxiously. “A sea demon? Ancestral ghosts?”

“I said they were simple villagers, not stupid villagers,” the man noted with scorn. “They thought it sounded like a rocket engine. They texted me about it.”

Tom and Bud shared a glance. “Sounds like our rivals, all right,” Tom declared. “You say it came from a grotto?”

“No, they say it came from a grotto. Isn’t that the English word? Like a cave in the water? A low boat can get through the entrance, but you have to lie down flat. Very snug and dark in there. I am told many children have the grotto of Koong-Na to thank for their existence.”

“It the sound still happening, Moonba?” asked Tom.

“No, not for months. All quiet now. I’ll tell you this, for weeks last year I drove men in suits out to Bendautok, important-looking men, very stuffy, Malays, Chinese, worse. I hear there were also deliveries by boat, no one knows what. Big freight. Unload at night. Floated in.

“So, couple months. Then I drove many of the same men back to the airport, and the boats came and went again. Then nothing since. Whatever was being tested must be gone. All over.”

“This helps us a lot,” said Tom gratefully.

“I do things gladly for mankind, given the money. Go to a bar in town, English bar, called Chic ’n Savage. The bartender knows about all this, and can give directions to Koong-Na—‘all this and more!’ ”

“What’s the guy’s name?” Bud asked.

“Season Cliffhanger.”

“Uh-huh. What’s his nickname in, oh, French?”

“Mise en Scéne.”

Arriving without death in Bendautok, the taxi stopped in front of the small hotel. As the two Americans pressed a generous reward into his waiting hand, Moonba wished them well. As they turned away, the driver called, “Good adventure, Tom!”

The young inventor spun around, startled but half-amused. “How did you—?”

“It is the B’naui who are simple. I am not a B’naui. So bye-bye. And to you too—Scotty!”

As the taxi sped away, Bud grumbled, “Everybody wants to be a stand-up comedian.”

Tom chuckled. “In a town this small there isn’t room to stand up!”

The two spent the rest of the day in their room. As a blue evening fell, they made their way to the small but neat bar-cafe called Chic ’n Savage. “Yes, lads, I am indeed Season Cliffhanger,” said the fat bartender, who was also the proprietor, cook, and waiter—on occasion, late-night performer. “What shall you have? If alcoholic, you two so young men, you must meet the rules for drinking. Sumatra is a conservative society. I shall have to see your wallets.”

“To check our ID’s?” asked Bud.

“To see if you have money to pay. As I say, rules.”

Tom grinned. “Fruit juice, please.”

“May I see your wallet?” smiled Season Cliffhangar.

Over their juices, the Shoptonians asked the man about the grotto and the reports of strange doings. “Yes, yes,” he said, “Koong-Na. Noises and foreigners. Perhaps spies from somewhere. But we here talk only to one another, not to the officials. Not wise—punishment is severe. Yet it is fairly apportioned. Political murder, your head is cut off. To smash windows, half a head. That is apportionment, hm? Theft of intellectual property by illegal downloading of movies from the Internet, a finger.” He held up his left hand. Two fingers were missing. “A DVD or two for the evening? A wide assortment, many languages.”

Bud snorted. “Anything from Thailand?”

“Maybe next time,” Tom said dryly. “What we’d like to do, Season—”

“Do call me Sease.”

“We’d like to look over that grotto without being noticed.”

“Ah! I can draw you a map, tell you where to get a little boat... I will mark down where the secret back entrances are, too, so you won’t even have to duck down to get in the sea opening.”

Tom thanked the man warmly. “It’s lucky we found someone who knows the grotto so well.”

“Yes, well, I have nineteen children, by my reckoning.”

“Good grief!” exclaimed Bud. “We’ll be tripping over people in the dark!”

“No, not now. It is off-season. Still, I suggest flashlights.”

It was two AM when the boys’ boat scuffed to a stop on the narrow beach of the cliffsided islet. They were dressed all in black, with woven hood-caps pulled down over their faces. “Jetz, forget Koong-Na,” urged Bud. “We should head over to L.A. and mug someone!”

Sease’s map was crude, but they were able to find the split in the cliff that allowed them to work their way upward. Tom, in the lead, stopped suddenly. “Here’s the opening—the back door to the grotto. Gosh, we’ll barely squeeze through!”

“Suck it in, Skipper, and lead on.”

Donning goggles and brandishing a special high-definition infrared flashlamp, they wormed along through the cragged passage, tending downward, sometimes at an angle so steep they had to slide along. But Tom was ever-listening through his sono-amplifier earbud, and there was nothing to hear but their own grunts and scuffles, and what sounded like waves and wind in the grotto somewhere ahead. “Nobody’s home,” he whispered to Bud.

“Yeah, but they may be back for breakfast!”

The crack through the cliff ended on a narrow ledge near the ceiling of a high-vaulted open space. Tom played his infra-lamp side to side, its glow visible only through the boys’ goggles. The cave was the size of an auditorium, the floor wave-eroded rock between lumped blankets of sand. Half the floor was covered by the shifting waters of the sea beyond, which came rolling in through a long, low gash on the far side.

“Nothin’,” stated Bud in disgust, peering through his goggles.

“Let’s climb down to the floor. They must’ve left some trace of the tests.”

They made their way down with difficulty; there were no steps, no pathway, only jagged rock. When they finally clumped down on the sand, Tom began to examine it closely, kneeling down. “Traces of oil, flyboy,” he told his comrade. “And look at this wall.”

“That’s a wall, all right.”

“The rocks have been fused by intense heat.” Tom took a small container from his pocket and scraped it over the rock to collect samples for analysis. “There’s a spatter of metal—metal globules. And I can tell they were in a state of incandescence, liquefied, maybe even vaporized! They must have positioned the metalloid-thrust engine right—” He broke off abruptly and knelt. When he rose he held something tiny in his hand. “Bud, I’m sure this is Neo-Aurium!”

“Wish we had a normal flashlight,” grumbled the San Franciscan. “It’d look gold, but in the infra it’s just more black-on-green.”

They suddenly shouted in surprise as a light beam—a normal one—flashed across them! They fell back, shielding their eyes. Their goggles were momentarily greened-out by the unexpected glare.

A man’s voice barked something in guttural tones, repeating it in what sounded like Chinese—then again in English, heavily accented. “What you are doing here? Who you are? I shoot!”

“You shoot, we shoot you,” returned Bud suavely, pulling off his goggles, as did Tom next to him. “And there’s two of us.”

The man was clearly visible in the backscatter from his lamp. Barechested, he had evidently swum in through the sea opening. He stood glistening among the low waves, water dripping from the lamp lashed to his left forearm, but not from the revolver in his right hand. Tom and Bud noticed a waterproof holster attached to his waist by a strap.

The man, who appeared European in the fragmented back-light, either leered or sneered—it was hard to see—in response to Bud’s threat. “Shoot me? Eh, with what? Those little things in your hands? Little blow-dryers, for tourists!”

“Well, sir, your hair does look a bit damp,” said Tom, slightly shifting the barrel of his Enterprises i-gun to one side and thumbing the trigger-switch. Its electric pulse was invisible, but a spot on the sand in front of the man flashed blue-white sparks. “Now, how about dangling that revolver over the water and gently letting go? Barrel downward, please.”

The man glared. Bud added, “Speaking of styling work, these gadgets would do a great job at turning your blond chest-hair black. In other words, yee-ouch!”

The man’s gun splashed into the water, and he stood facing them, sullen and defiant. “Ohh-kay. So you are what, Tom Swift and his friend?”

“Call me Scotty,” said Bud.

“I do nothing for you.”

“I’ll say!” Bud stated.

“What went on in here?” demanded Tom with little hope of an answer. “Is this where you built the metal-fuel engine for the Viper Spirit? Were you one of the ones who tested it? Can’t hurt you to boast a little, not now.”

The man stared intently at the young inventor. “Boast? Yes, I deserve to boast, do I not? I am Dr. Stang, Mr. Swift. My role was small, but together the group of us—a miracle, miracle in metal! Such power!”

“And such heat,” noted Tom.

“Heat, yes, poor Corder, two Chinese—nothing but smoke and black bones left. You see their skulls in the sand.” He gestured, and Tom’s and Bud’s reflexes betrayed them. As their eyes shifted, the man who called himself Stang hurled himself backwards into the water, at the same time pitching his flashlamp at them with a powerful whip of the arm. It struck Bud on the cheek. He gasped in pain. “T-Tom, don’t let him—”

Too late. A few splashes in the dark, a shadow at the opening to the outside—and nothingness resumed.

“Jetz!” Bud sputtered in anger. “We had him, Skipper!”

“Past tense,” replied the scientist-inventor laconically. “But he’ll alert his cronies. Let’s clear out. We found out what Thurston wanted us to.”

The two ached and scraped their way back through the back-passage. In an hour they were asleep, whether they wanted to be or not. And that morning—hours later in what was already that morning—they were driven back to the little airfield by a nameless woman cabby who spoke little but was eloquent in looks of suspicion.

Finally, in some senses “the next day,” Tom and Bud were back at Enterprises, reporting to a small crowd—Damon Swift, Phil Radnor, Andor Emda, Harlan Ames by speaker-phone, and John Thurston by videophone. “And we’ve just confirmed that the samples are indeed Neo-Aurium,” Tom was concluding. “The leptoscope shows that the globules from the walls were completely decomposed by ultra-intense heat—and for Neo-Aurium, that would be a temp close to that of the surface of the sun!”

“Then there’s no doubt that our informants were correct,” declared Thurston. “The engine must’ve been constructed by the team of Asian engineers in Sumatra who are known in unsavory circles as ‘for hire.’ Now we have a card to play in negotiating with the Sumatran security apparatus for further information. Nations don’t easily give up secrets that embarrass the people supposedly in control.”

“So I’ve heard,” Tom remarked dryly. “The man who confronted us, though, wasn’t Asian.”

“I’ve met him and worked with him,” stated Andy. “Reggnar Stang. He’s a Norwegian chemist recruited by the Sentimentalists to run the Dyaune fuel team during the redesign. Bright young guy. Athletic type—swimmer.”

“I know the type,” grinned Bud.

“But what was he doing there?” mused Mr. Swift. “The machinery was gone. There was no technical work to be done, surely.”

“Well, I have a theory about that,” Tom said. “If I’m right, we’ll get confirming news shortly.”

And Tom was right. Within the hour an internet summary of the international news, nation by nation, was reporting the investigation of an explosion in Sumatra.

‘A blast on a small islet off the western coast has drawn authorities to Koong-Na, near Bendautok. The grotto therein may have shielded terrorist activities.’ ” Tom grimly nodded Bud’s way. “Yes, I think maybe it did.”

“So that’s why they sent a chemist,” Bud snorted. “To set up and set off a bomb!”

“Probably bringing down the roof of the cave—and burying any evidence left behind. But we got there first!”

“People are gonna lose their heads over this.”

“No,” grinned Tom, “they’re running a special this month—half-off!”

It was now only days before the scheduled first space test of the completed Cosmotron Express, and those days blurred by at cosmotronic speed. It was Sunday when Bud piloted the Flying Lab southward, Fearing Island once again their destination. “This route’s losing its charm. Ever think of moving Swift Enterprises to Fearing?” Bud asked Tom jauntily.

“No. But I have thought of moving Shopton to New Mexico—or maybe Nestria!”

The passengers aboard the mammoth jetcraft included those who would be joining Tom and Bud on the brief spaceflight, including Bob Jeffers, veteran astro-pilot Hannah Morgensteiff, Hank Sterling, Arvid Hanson, the always-welcome Chow—and one other.

“Brand my rattlers, I shor cain’t make out why he’s goin’ along,” grumped Chow in what passed, for him, as a lowered voice. “Andy’s not s’ bad as a person, I’ll say that much, an’ he’s right fine at poker...”

“But you still don’t trust him,” finished Tom. “Even though he hasn’t been wearing the hat lately—not you either, pardner.”

“Naw,” replied Chow. “Don’t wanna blow my cover by havin’ him reckernize me as th’ feller in th’ truck. But jest fergit hats for a sec, boss. He keeps pokin’ around, lookin’ things over, askin’ trick questions—wanted to know about my chili sauce!—an he’s still a Brungarian, ya know.”

“Yes—he still is.”

“Don’t trust him no-how.”

“I think you’ve got an itchy trigger-finger, Chow.”

“Naw. An itchy trigger brain! My prairie instincts ’r on fire. Don’t jest blow me off, son.”

Tom reached up and around to find and squeeze his friend’s shoulder. “I’m taking you seriously. I respect intuition—it’s how I invent. But for better or worse we need to have him on this test jaunt—and on the Grand Tour flight as well.”

“Naw, don’t tell me that! Why?”

The young inventor shrugged. “It may be important to have him along in space, in case we run across some clue as to what’s going on up there—or even, hopefully, the Nestria capsule and the Dyaune. His familiarity with the Sentimentalists and their ship could help us in negotiation, if it came to that. And also, he’s a physicist. With Franzenberg still out, it’d be convenient to have him with us. We’re dealing with some heady physics with the spacedriver, pard.”

“Wa-aal, guess I kin see that. But—”

“Chow... The government has asked us to include him. They know the Fire Fury business has some connection to the Dyaune disappearance, somehow, and they want Andy up there as part of his investigation assignment. Dad thinks we should cooperate. The Starward uses the antiproton power source I developed for my space solartron, and it was hard enough to get certification to fly it up through the atmosphere at all, even for this test flight. They could make things real difficult for us if we got on somebody’s bad side.”

Chow raised his hands. “Okay, okay, I give up. Jest fer now, though.”

“Keep your eye on Andy, Chow.”

“Aaa, I’ll keep three eyes on ’im!”

Setting down on Fearing, the crew trooped over to the towering spherical form that utterly dwarfed the mighty Challenger, rings and all. “A flying skyscraper!” exulted Hannah. “This must be the biggest thing to ever leave the ground!”

“Five stories high through the center!” Bud chortled. “But according to genius boy here, it doesn’t weigh much more than a soap bubble!”

“My press agent here is exaggerating,” was Tom’s smiling reply, “but it’s true that the Cosmotron Express weighs a lot less than you might expect. We’ve incorporated ingravitized osmium, produced by the G-force inverter, into its inner support structure. It’s the heaviest nonradioactive substance known—and its upward-falling version gives the Starward quite a lift.”

An elevator capsule slid smoothly down from the upsweep of the main hull, and in a minute Tom was showing the astronauts about the ship like a proud tour guide. Most of them already knew the basics from training in Enterprises’ 3-D simulators. But seeing it in person seemed to have an extra impact.

“The mind reels,” murmured Andy Emda.

“An’ if it’s a Texas reel, that’s a lot,” added Chow.

“Look at this picture window!” exclaimed Hank Sterling. “I thought the ones on the Chal were big!” The sweeping, bowed viewport covered almost half of one side of the main sphere, giving a shared view to three deck levels.

“Now that’s a lotta glass!” joked Bob Jeffers.

“Not glass,” corrected Tom proudly. “Metallumin. It’s just the outer transparent globe, covering a gap we cut in the inner opaque hull. If we’re going to tour the solar system, we’ll want an unimpeded view!”

“Hunh!” snorted Chow. “I’d call it a blame stampeded view, boss!”

“Er... not to be a party-pooper,” Hannah spoke up. “But Tom, just how confident are you that we won’t be attacked on this test flight by—whatever it is?”

Tom gave her an understanding look, but there was less than a full freight of reassurance in his answering voice. “We can’t be sure we’ll be safe. We don’t really know what the phenomenon is, whether it’s a weapon or something natural, or even whether the two disappearances and the effect on the Space Kite had the same cause.”

“Other words, we’re sittin’ ducks,” huffed Chow, feeling for his absent hat.

“I won’t minimize the danger we’ll be in,” the youth agreed. “But remember, so far it’s been smaller-sized vehicles that have been targeted. The Nestria capsule and the Space Kite are dinky little things, and even the Dyaune was—is!—only a mid-size. Nothing happened to the Challenger when we went around the moon, and the Starward is bigger still.”

Arv Hanson noted, “And even with the Space Kite, I had the feeling our attacker was having a hard time getting a grip on us.”

“Getting a firm grip could mean you disappear,” muttered Bob.

“Yes. It could.” Tom looked into the faces of his friends and colleagues. “It’s always been this way, hasn’t it? There’s always a something out there. I’ll tell you what I think. Where would science and mankind be without risk and—courage? Without daredevils and fools like us?

“But is it really much better for those left behind on the ground? Who knows when and where terrorists could strike? That’s why we call them terrorists! Buildings fall, and people still go to work, parents still drive their kids to school, and somehow or other the crazy human race goes on. Let me tell you something my great-grandfather Tom once said. ‘Yes, we might fall. But at least we’ll fall forward.’

“I don’t think I can ever express all the gratitude I feel for your courage—and for being risk-taking idiots helping us make sense of this idiotic world of ours.”

“That’s the best compliment I’ve ever gotten,” said Bud Barclay. And he was serious.

The control deck—the lowest deck with a window view—now became busy. “Guess we’re ready, Skipper,” said Bud, co-piloting with his chum. “Are we ‘go’ for repelatron liftoff?”

Tom hesitated for the briefest moment. They were about to head up into space, a weird, lonely realm haunted by an unknown danger!

“Let’s go,” he said.


 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER 15

 

 

ROGUE INTERCEPT

 

 

 

 

THERE WAS only the slightest twitch of techno muscle as the myriad of repelatrons came into play. The Cosmotron Express rose from its construction pad like an elegant ghost—or a huge white moon invading the sunlit sky.

“Where do you hide those repelling machines of yours?” asked Andor Emda. “On the Challenger they were all over those circular rails.”

“We’re taking a new approach with the Starward,” replied Tom, somewhat breathless with excitement. “We formerly used just a handful of the big super-repelatrons to push us along, and we had to keep reorienting the radiator dishes in order to focus the linear fields on their repulsion targets.

“But on this baby we’ve further developed a technique we first used on the subocean geotron, our underground vehicle. We have several hundred micro-repelatrons—a kind that can be tightly focused—embedded in the hull support frame, just beneath the composite shell, out of sight.”

“Beneath the outer hull,” repeated Bob Jeffers. “I guess the repelatron rays go right through, hm?”

“The spacewave fields only interact with the materials they’ve been tuned for,” nodded the young inventor. “Though each tron can be swiveled a bit in its socket, we’ll mainly maneuver by activating the bank of trons that are on the side facing the desired repulsion vector. And we no longer need external telespectrometers either. The repelascan method I developed for the aquatomic tracker gives us our materials readings with much greater accuracy.”

Hannah remarked, “It seems you’ve conquered the low-altitude instability problem—the repelatron lag effect that messes up your small repelatrons.”

“No, the problem is still there. It’s just that we can spread-out the lag—‘dilute’ it, you might say—among a much greater number of force-emitters, giving us a steady thrust.” Tom added that the repelatron bank system would be used by the smaller excursion modules as well.

“I know you have to use the trons near the earth,” said Bob. “When do you wring-out the spacedriver?”

“It’s not absolutely precise,” responded Tom. “About 200,000 miles or so out along a solar radius, where Earth’s gravity gradient gets a bit flatter. Incidentally, we’re dealing with the sun’s gravity-well too. On the tour, we’ll get our best speeds after we cross the orbit of Jupiter.”

“Holy Macaroons!” breathed Hank. “The orbit of Jupiter!—like it’s just a little trip around the block!”

“That there’s what they call progress,” Chow declared.

Tom made no comment, thinking: And what happens when you run out of frontiers?

In contrast to the languid ascent of the Space Kite, the Starward crossed the ceiling of the air in minutes, its outer bubble immune to friction heat and pressure. As the sky turned starry black, Tom and Bud briefly settled into a near-Earth orbit to run a check on the systems. Then the young captain announced their next goal. “Let’s drop in on Sky Haven!”

“What’s that?” Andy Emda asked Av Hanson.

“The pet name for Enterprises’ outpost in space.”

“Right.” Emda nodded wryly. “The Dyaune’s moon flight was timed to avoid it by half an orbit.”

The ship didn’t bother with freefall, but thrust itself forward on the brute strength of the repelatrons. Soon the glittering skywheel, first a distant glimmer, became the unparalleled symbol of human trailblazing that was known the world over. “I love the sight,” murmured Bob Jeffers. “Never get tired of it. It’s like a Christmas ornament.”

“With a truckload of Christmas stars,” added Bud.

Tom exchanged greetings with outpost commander Ken Horton. “We’re givin’ you the once-over,” Horton said. “Man alive, it looks like a planet has come to us—along with three moons!”

Tom chuckled, then asked, “Ken, what’s the latest with Dr. Goldstone’s project? Does it look like the mobies will be ready for the Grand Tour?”

“You could haul ’em aboard right now, Skipper, if you wanted to.”

“We’ll keep to schedule—but please thank him.”

As Tom broke contact, Bud glanced at his pal curiously. “Mobies?”

“That’s what we call the little robotic excursion labs Dad and Dr. Goldstone developed, the ones we’ll be scattering around on the big trip. Mobile Labs—mobies. They’re a little ungainly in shape, so we had them built in a zero-G environment, as we did with the Video Vikings.”

“Yeah, the mini-drones with your 3-D telejector cameras.”

“Brand my dictionary, th’ pee-culiar names you folks like t’ hang on things!” remarked Charles Ollaho “Chow” Winkler.

Speeding away from the outpost—and away from blue Earth—Tom sent the Cosmotron Express arrowing out into the void. “The spacedriver test is next, everybody. I’ve picked a startup position at the ‘antipodes’ of the moon’s orbit—in other words, the moon will be on the far side of the earth.”

“Yes, for a flatter G gradient,” declared Andy. “See? I’ve learned the lingo.”

“We just want a level playing field,” Hank Sterling grinned, “to keep the game honest.”

Making position, the Starward came to a full halt, relative to Earth. “Alright,” said Tom quietly. “Here we go.”

“Let’s burn rubber!” chortled Bud. “So what’s the command, Skipper? ‘Energize?’ ”

“How about ‘switch it on’?”

Bud did so, and the assembled team gasped as one as the Earth shrank abruptly like a punctured balloon! “Ten seconds—90,000 miles!” Tom reported. “Open her up, flyboy!”

There was no jolt, no feeling of motion, no acceleration. The world of their birth became a brilliant blue star, and then just another fleck in the crowded heavens. “We’re travelling at better than 20,000 miles per second,” Tom announced breathlessly.

“Jetz!” gasped Bud. “We could buzz Bartonia before dinner!” A planetoid bearing an Earth science colony, Bartonia was now of the far side of the sun in its elongated orbit.

“Reminds me,” muttered Chow. “How’s all this speedin’ gonna affect my galley?”

“It shouldn’t have any effect at all,” replied Hannah with a wide smile. “For all our speed, it’s as if we were stopped.”

“Uh-huh. Stopped an’ waitin’ fer something,” Chow pronounced quietly, sneaking a glance of suspicion in the direction of Andor Emda.

Tom spent an hour putting the Cosmotron Express through its paces. The Starward flung itself far from the earth, then back again. “No sense scooping ourselves by starting the Grand Tour early,” joked the young inventor. “Let’s make for Fearing. They’ll have some long-range data for us to look over.”

Hank gave a thump to his boss’s arm. “But chief, we already know your invention is a complete success. The spacedriver may not take us to the stars, but it’s a mighty fine first step.” The others cheered, and Tom gave a slight bow. In this circumstance modesty would be un-historical.

But the cheers were choked off suddenly. “What’s that?” asked Emda. “That sound?”

“We shouldn’t be hearing anything out here in space,” Arv noted. “Bud, you switched off—”

Bud nodded. “The spacedriver is off, just as the Skipper ordered. Making my U-turn to head back.”

A deep buzzing, throbbing sound filled the common airspace where the several decks cut across the huge viewport. “It has nothing to do with the cosmotron,” grated Tom. “It’s what Arv and I heard in the Space Kite!”

Bob Jeffers had elevatored up to deck two. Leaning over the rail of the balcony that crossed the huge viewport space, he yelled down: “It’s the metallumin shell! The whole outer shell is vibrating! Ringing like a bell!”

As if nodding in confirmation, the Starward suddenly veered one way, then another. “Holy Mack!” exclaimed Hank Sterling. “The space phenomenon—” His words were cut off as the ship gave another jolt, much more powerful!

Hannah Morgensteiff scanned the instrument board. “I’m showing all-green on the repelatrons. No thrust fluctuation.”

No thrust fluctuation—but the Cosmotron Express was definitely fluctuating! “What do you want to do, Tom?” asked Bud quietly. “We’ll be getting some atmosphere in sixty seconds.”

“How’s the deceleration profile?” interjected Hank.

“Spotty,” Tom replied. “Listen up, everybody. We’re putting the Star into low orbit. I’m cutting all non-vital systems—we’ll just keep the gravitexes on, for maneuvering; nothing else. Find stable positions. Brace yourselves.”

“Tom—the Space Kite was able to power its way out of the grip of this thing,” said Arv Hanson.

Tom shook his head. “This is a different situation and a very different ship. I need to get a baseline on the effect.”

“Fine time fer a blame expeeri-ment!” grumped Chow.

The cabin went dark and the simulated gravity cut off. “Repelatrons out,” announced Bud in an involuntary whisper. “We’re in freefall.”

But freefall wasn’t free. Instantly the Cosmotron Express jolted out of orbit at an angle, swerving wildly. “Not a very useful baseline,” Tom noted disgustedly. “Okay, power up. Bud, put us on a course to Fearing while I try to make sense out of these readings. But postpone re-entry penetration as long as possible. We need to regain some degree of control.”

But control had fled. “Skipper, it’s fighting over every inch!” Bud called out. “Every time I counteract a pull, it switches to pushing! The tron banks just aren’t powerful enough. The gravitexes don’t have enough tug to steer us.” The Cosmotron Express was careening wildly, a mad dance at the edge of space!

“We can’t land her safely,” stated Arv Hanson, trying to brace himself. “And it’s not letting us stay in orbit. We’re going down uncontrolled—total ballistic.”

 Hannah called out, “Tom, what about using the spacedriver—maybe just a small burst to get us out of here?”

Tom thrashed his head negatively. “This deep in Earth’s gravity field she’d twist herself to death—and us with her.” He stared at the wavering dials for a long, sad moment, bracing himself against the violent rocking of the deck. His companions awaited his words in wincing silence.

“All right, everyone,” he said dully. “Abandon ship! Head for the escapods in two’s—you all know the drill.” He cut off the protests with a brusque chopping motion of his hand. “That’s my decision. The automatics will try to set her down in the water, but I won’t risk lives to see if the system can handle it.”

“It will surely find it easier to grab a handful of those little space lifeboat-capsules than the entire Starward,” Andor Emda pointed out. “Your ‘life caps’ could start disappearing just like the Nestria capsule did.”

“I’m betting the atmosphere will block the effect—and that’s the only bet I’m willing to make!” snapped the young spaceman. “Get going!”

The mammoth Starward was the first Enterprises spacecraft to carry a freight of dedicated escape vehicles, called escapods. They were midget craft, narrow and pointed with flattened bottoms, somewhat resembling overturned canoes. Backswept fins extended from each side, and they were equipped with one of Tom’s emergency reentry systems. Each pod was designed to hold two—in a pinch, three—passengers.

Each escapod, standing upright in its sealed bay like a waiting elevator, was embedded within the outmost hull layer that contained the structural support beams and the repelatrons. Holding back until the others had sealed themselves in, Tom and Bud threw themselves into their pod, pressing flat, chest forward, against the cushion and grabbing handgrips as the hatch clicked into place behind them. Tom grasped a Spektor com-control unit inset into the cushion and detached it. He thumbed a button. “Okay, everyone, command routine EJ-30—now!”

Even as Tom barked out his order, the Starward lurched violently into a rolling movement, endangering the ejection maneuver. Thrust out magnetically, the pods slid downward into space through their open hull panels, then rotated automatically. The cushion, contouring itself to each body and virtually enclosing the occupants, was now “down” toward Earth. They would ride on their stomachs, as if on a toboggan.

Control was almost entirely automatic. Tom and Bud endured several minutes of crushing G-forces as the escapod’s tiny gravitex unit put on the brakes and dragged them from orbit. Tom’s duratherm wing apparatus popped open and expanded almost instantly in a powerful surge, providing a streamlined, flexible wing beneath each pod to steer them down to a safe landing while shielding them against the fierce heat of reentry.

The curving viewpane that wrapped around the prow of the escapod was covered over by the wing material, but Tom was able to use the screen on the Spektor to track not only the three other pods, but the Cosmotron Express itself, now miles distant. “She’s wobbling into the atmosphere, but slowing,” he reported to Bud. “I think the trons are taking hold, but she’s sure to hit with more force than us fragile biologicals could have survived.”

“Will she break up, Tom?” Bud asked.

“I don’t know. She can withstand quite a bit.”

“Like you, genius boy.”

As they reached the lower, denser air, slowed constantly by both a parachute effect and an electromagnetic system that “gripped” the passing airstream, a section of the wing was allowed to burn away, giving them a dizzying view through the forward pane. They could see, just above the distant horizon, the fiery comet that was the Starward. “She’s slowed down a great deal,” Tom declared. “But she’s not designed for aerodynamic flight. The computers have managed only a limited degree of control.”

The fleet of escapods fled space for the blanket of the ionosphere, then the lower stratosphere. Passing into the troposphere that rests upon the Earth directly, the last sections of the wings were ejected and allowed to disintegrate safely in mid-fall. Now air-cushion repelatrons, like those on Tom’s flying atomicar, took over. The pods could now be directed and “flown” to some extent, but the thrust was not sufficient for re-ascending. Even relatively level flight was in reality a continuation of descent.

Tom kept the fleet of four close together, working their way toward a view of the fate of the Express. They were over the Atlantic, about 300 miles southeast of Fearing Island, which had been notified of the crisis by Private Ear Radio. A mantacopter was on its way.

Finally reaching position, the flotilla from space circled the scene of the catastrophic touchdown of the Cosmotron Express. Tom watched, white-faced and tight-lipped, as the Starward, his dream ship, plunged into the gray Atlantic. Hitting at a slight rearward tilt, she raised a gargantuan splash like a crater-wall of water.

“We’ll get her back,” he murmured to Bud. “I’m not beaten yet.”

“She’s still in one piece,” Bud replied. “And the crew is safe. Your decision was the right one—Skipper.”

Suddenly the PER unit came alive. “This is Fearing, Tom. I’m patching through a call from the mantacopter.”

“Roger.”

“Tom, Zimby Cox on the Supermanta. Transradar is picking up an intruder on an intercept course—Mach 4!”

“What heading?” Tom demanded.

Cox read off the numbers. The rogue intruder was leaping the miles by the hundreds, closing in on the Express crash site!

Bud gave voice to what the two of them already knew. “It’s the Fire Fury! They’re trying to highjack the Cosmotron Express!”

“Highjack—or destroy!” was Tom’s grim rejoinder.


 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER 16

 

 

THE BLACK WINDOW

 

 

 

 

TOM ordered the other three escapods to flee the scene in all directions for safety. “But we’re staying put, aren’t we, Skipper?” Bud urged. “We have to see what those multi-Mach weasels are up to!”

Tom glanced at his pal with his own fire fury. “Absolutely!”

The tiny Viper Spirit was now visible to the eye, hurdling the horizon like a bolt of lightning. In scant seconds it had buzzed the bobbing Cosmotron Express, missing it by yards, then commencing to circle, an attacking swarm of one!

The hyperjet trailed a ribbon of sunlike fire. “They’re gonna blister the paint right off the Starward!” Bud exclaimed.

Forcing calm, Tom scanned his Spektor dials. “Incoming signal,” he told Bud grimly, adjusting the reception.

“We can see you in that little window, Tom!” crackled the familiar voice of Bielo Ikyoris, avuncular, lazy, almost friendly. “And next to you—Bud Barclay, no doubt. The two of you immersed in danger up to your contrasting hairlines! Ah. What else is new, eh?”

“Make your demands, Ikyoris,” Tom snarled into the Spektor.

The response faded in and out as the Fire Fury looped around the area, sometimes scores of miles away, sometimes virtually in their faces. “Another case of ‘what else is new,’ I fear. We have brought down your wonderful spaceship, your Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria rolled into one. Like proper rats, you and your crew fled the ship, and now it floats about empty, ours for the taking—ours to bombard with our weapons!”

“You’ll blow yourselves up before you can destroy the Express!”

“Did I say destroy? You must listen, my boy. We will administer some small puncture wounds, and when she sinks, our waiting submersibles will drag her away for our own use. We will leave no trail, no trace—we have learned how to defeat your aquatomic tracker. And then we will have our own ship with which to search the heavens for our leader, Nattan Volj.

“Mm, but what is this?—another idea!” continued Ikyoris mockingly. “Tell us what you know, Tom Swift. Tell us where your government holds Volj and the Dyaune prisoner. Tell us with convincing sincerity, and we will fly away, leaving you to do what you will with this poor hulk. What do you say?—alas, I fear your usual brave bluster is bubbling up as an answer. But think, young inventor, think!”

“I’m always thinking,” Tom replied. “You say you brought down the Starward; I say you’re a liar. You don’t have the ability to reach out into space—you told me so yourself, remember? You had to steal the plans for that hyperjet you’re buzzing around in. And you’re desperate to get the Dyaune back because you don’t have the resources to build another one.”

Bud had a comment. “Yeah!”

“We are not here by coincidence, Swift!” blustered Ikyoris.

“You’re here because you knew we’d be returning to Fearing Island after our flight. You’ve been tracking us—I’ll give you that. And that’s all I plan to give you, Mr. Ikyoris!”

The Brungarian made no reply. The snarl was unvoiced. The fantastic craft made one more loop about the stricken Starward, then abruptly broke away, leaping the horizon in a single bound. “Scared him away!” cheered Bud.

Tom made no comment. He contacted the other escapods, then the Supermanta. “Nothing on sonar,” said Zimby Cox in answer to Tom’s inquiry. “What Ikky said about submersibles was just a bluff. How’s the Express?”

“The ship’s floating,” he told Zimby. “Give her the once-over before you pick us up, will you?”

“Aye-aye, Tom!” Cox answered. “Happy splashing—to all four of you flyin’ canoes!”

The escapods and been drifting downward, very gently, throughout the course of the drama. With a final burst of repelatron power, and a sharp rearwards yank from the gravitex, the pod bearing Tom and Bud set down, gently, in the low waves.

They were only a thousand yards from the mountainous Express, nodding placidly, half-submerged. Bud exclaimed happily, “Good night, she floats like a life preserver! I figured she’d at least bump the bottom.”

“Well after all,” winked the young inventor, “she is as light as a soap bubble—I’ve heard.”

Tom and Bud and the other space passengers were flown back to Shopton as a small fleet of Enterprises oceanic vehicles towed the Starward to Fearing Island for reconditioning. Two days later, the news of the inspection of the ship was jubilant. “She’s almost undamaged!” reported Amos Quezada. “You made her mighty tough, boss!”

“We’re leaving on the space tour as scheduled,” Tom pronounced in reply. “I’m not letting anything stop us!”

But at the crowded review meeting that afternoon, in the Swifts’ office, the mood was subdued and apprehensive. “It’s wonderful that the ship made it through unscathed,” said Hank Sterling. “But... I can’t help saying it... I have a wife and children. Now that we know the cosmic phenomenon can even affect the Starward—”

“There’s no shame in it, Hank,” Mr. Swift said warmly. “We’d think the less of you if you didn’t consider those around you. Tom and I know what we put our family through.”

“Damon, I intend to be on that ship. I just want to hear someone’s estimate of the danger.”

“There’s as much danger for us on the Grand Tour as there was for any of our pioneering space missions,” Tom declared quietly. “It’s what Bud and I faced in the Star Spear, what we all faced on the Nestria expedition and the moon trip.”

“We do it because we want to. We’re all volunteers, genius boy,” Bud put in.

“Did our families volunteer?” asked Tom. His young face bore a troubled expression.

“Now lissen!” piped up Chow Winkler, standing near the door. “Nobody in this here life volunteers fer nothin’, near as I kin tell. Nobody says I wanna be born. Nobody volunteers fer a flat tire, or a hit on th’ head, or a train wreck. It all jest happens, son. And if it didn’t happen on account o’ people we love—brand my fat ole belly, somebody else’d horn in, somebody we don’t love s’much at all! Jest go on ahead up th’ trail, chew yer chaw, and make th’ best o’ what comes.”

“Would you risk your pots and pans on that?” asked Phil Radnor.

“Shor would!”

“I’ll tell you what I think,” Tom said after a moment. “I’ve been studying the incidents, when and where they happened—and when and where they didn’t.”

“You came up with a theory?” asked Arv Hanson.

“I think this effect—natural or manmade—draws energy from the gravitational field, the same stress-tension we tap with the cosmotron spacedriver.”

“But gravitation is everywhere in space, Tom,” his father objected.

“I know, Dad. But when I listed the incidents and thought about the timing, it turned out that every one took place while we were using a gravitex!”

“Those cone things? inquired Chow. “What you use as a kite string on that Space Kite?”

“We use gravitexes a lot these days, pard.”

“I think I understand, fellow Texan,” said Andor Emda. “Somehow the space stresses produced by the gravity concentrator enable the ‘grabber’ phenomenon to work. Hitches a ride.”

“Exactly,” came the reply. “In each case, the effect began to occur after the gravitex had been switched on—remember, Arv?—and ended instantly when we switched it off. And that’s why we had no problem during the Challenger moon survey. We had no occasion during the flight to use the gravitexes.”

“I know Doc Vi’s capsule was in its final maneuvering, so they’d have been using their gravitex,” mused Bud. “And I’d switched on the Cosmo’s gravitexes to hone in on reentry trajectory.”

“But what about the Dyaune disappearance?” objected Hank.

Tom nodded toward Emda. “How about it, Andy?”

“You’re right,” acknowledged the Brungari-American. “Before I left, Stang and the others were working on their own version of a Swift gravitex, trying to find a way to make it work without the Lunite components. The Dyaune probably used something along those lines to break lunar orbit.”

“Bad choice,” grinned the young spaceman. “The phenomenon then had enough power to drag the ship away into space, evidently with such velocity it was lost to radar tracking.

“Our own encounters don’t suggest any kind of destructive effect, thank goodness,” Tom concluded. “It’s still possible it’s some kind of natural phenomenon, maybe generated by the Emma object in some way. But I’ll admit, it sure sounds, to me, like a weapon—a deliberate intervention in our space efforts for some unknown reason!”

“Right—space efforts,” repeated Bud grimly. “Skipper, it sounds to me like our enemy is that alien faction we dealt with before—the Others.”

“Maybe. But don’t forget, the Cobra group made contact with them. They may have received some technology back in exchange for their services.”

Arv asked if there were a counterweapon. “No,” admitted the youth. “But we can take advantage of the effect’s natural limitations by simply avoiding the use of the Starward’s gravitexes as much as possible. It’s do-able—we can get by with using the repelatrons alone. I just ran the numbers.”

“You Swifts have to do what you have to do,” said Harlan Ames, taking a few hours leave from his Wickliffe posting. “But bear in mind that what I’m investigating—the spies and the Fire Fury matter—could be a more immediate threat than hungry spacewarps. Or whatever they are.”

“But surely we’ll be safe from those connivers out in deep space hundreds of millions—” began Mr. Swift.

“I don’t make that assumption, Damon,” sharply replied the former Secret Service agent. “Someone was here with a nullifier amulet the night Tom was taken. The problem isn’t limited to the Wickliffe Labs installation. Ikyoris could have cronies planted all over the place. And that includes Fearing Island!”

“You think they might try to sabotage the Cosmotron Express?” asked Bud.

“It’s happened before,” noted Hank.

“It’s happened a lot,” added Tom ruefully. “The selected crew for the Grand Tour mission are above suspicion, but who knows who might’ve wormed their way into the tech team on the ground?”

Radnor snorted. “Mace Vendiablo is a good guy—but I’m not always real impressed by his judgment. He gets defensive and over-excited way too easily.”

“Not cool cucumbers like you two!” smiled Andy Emda.

Mr. Swift asked Ames how far the Wickliffe investigation had progressed. “I’m not close to naming any names,” stated the man bluntly. “Amelia Foger is still on my list, but I may have some other leads—or rather, some ideas on how to get some leads.”

“And if you find any clues at Wickliffe, it will help you identify any plants at other locations,” pronounced Damon Swift. “The case could break before the Starward lifts off.”

“Over the next few days?” mused Tom. “But if anyone can do it, you can, Harlan.” The young inventor avoided looking Chow’s way, knowing that his friend was staring a hole in the back of Andy Emda’s head. And what if he’s right? thought Tom dispiritedly. What if we’re taking a saboteur right along with us?

The night before departure, Sandy and Bashalli engaged in what had become a sort of tradition—a going-away party, this time the biggest ever. Briefly displacing the Flying Lab from its home, the block-square hangar beneath the Swift Enterprises airfield became a vast cavern of balloons, streamers, and thunderous sound, with surreal images floating overhead courtesy of Tom’s 3-D telejector. Delivered by rented buses and discreetly looked-over by penetrating sensors, much of Shopton was in attendance, young and old and undeclared. Though Chow set the refreshments menu, its preparation was a virtual industry in itself. “Oh, but it’s so wonderful!” enthused Tom’s friend Liz Greenup to Chow. “Even my Dad looks like he’s enjoying it. And it takes a lot to get that face to unfreeze.”

“Jest doin’ my job,” beamed the cowpoke, gaudily garbed but topped with a white chef’s hat, not his ten-galloner. “Worked bigger spreads than this one in my time.”

Amid a sea of bobbing heads and flailing arms, Tom close-danced with Bashalli. “Now Thomas—Tom—” she said with sudden earnestness, “this trip... you’ll be so far away. Even the sun will be just another star in the sky. When I think of—of what happened to poor Violet Wohl—”

Tom suddenly stopped dancing. He rested his hands on her shoulders and looked into her auburn-at-midnight eyes—then pulled her close and kissed her lightly. “Bash, I wouldn’t go if I weren’t sure I’d get back.”

“Back to us... to me.”

“I’m sure Doc Vi is out there somewhere alive. I—just feel it, Bash. The way I can feel all my inventions inside me, waiting to pop out, before my brain knows about it.”

“Then please, Tom. Invent a safe return.”

By the end of the morning after, Tom and his chosen crew were back on Fearing Island and making final preparations for the historic lift-off into the great unknown. To the original test-flight team he had added space veteran Neil MacColter, Susan Fresnell, and his father. “It’s high time I participated in my son’s great space ventures,” Mr. Swift said to Sue Fresnell. “I don’t want anyone to call me The Old Man! But I’ll earn my ticket by overseeing the mobies project.”

“You’ll never be obsolete, Mr. Swift,” Sue reassured him. “I’m thrilled Tom included me in this—I’m afraid I was persistent, but my tech skills buy me my ticket.”

“There’s surely plenty of room in this luxury space hotel.”

There were the usual final details to take care of. An hour before scheduled departure, Tom, working in the mission control complex, received a patched-through call—from outer space!

“It’s so good to hear your voice, Dr. Jatczak,” said Tom with warmth. “They told me you preferred not to be disturbed.”

“I have contemplated grief and mastered it,” said the older man across the 50,000 miles to Nestria. “I haven’t surrendered hope that my dearest is still alive. The air tanks in that little capsule are long since depleted, I know. Her life depends upon the possibility—not unlikely—that some enemy has taken her and is keeping her a prisoner.”

“Yes, sir. More and more, I think that’s what we’re dealing with.”

There was a pause that sounded like a distant nod. “Yes. Well. You’ll pursue whatever you come across, no doubt. But I find solace in work. In that regard, I have put together certain oddities that you may wish to investigate.”

“Oddities? You mean something in space?”

“Indeed so,” replied the astronomer. “We have all been trying to pinpoint Emma, and your gravitation-wave data has narrowed the search. Tom, you know I possess a device... what is it you call it?—a frequencifier. You’re familiar?”

“Yes,” Tom said. “A quantum-frequency interferometric resolver. An invention I didn’t invent! It’s a sort of laser in reverse—a ‘contralaser’.”

“Indeed, one might call it that. Rather than emitting coherent electromagnetic radiation, it receives and absorbs external electromagnetic radiation with extraordinary selectivity, allowing precise locating of the source—as if one used the contrary process and bounced a laser beam off the source object.”

“But Emma doesn’t seem to produce any kind of emission other than the G-waves,” Tom noted.

“The key word is ‘seem!’ And thus one must look into the matter. By using a special analysis protocol of my own, I’ve found—it is most odd. I have termed it the Black Window.”

Tom was immediately intrigued. “And it’s connected to Emma?”

“My boy, it may well be Emma,” responded Jatczak. “I have carefully, patiently scanned the region of space indicated by your propagation data. The frequencifier registered everything expected, stellar emissions, thermal radiance from dust clouds, the usual interstitial monoatomic hydrogen scatter—and then, at one precise point in the starry sky—nothing!”

“I don’t quite understand, sir.”

“Ah, for there is ‘nothing’ to understand. No radiation passes through this little point, not the cosmological microwave background, not any degree of reflection from our sun—nothing at all. It is as if an utterly perfect universal absorber is floating in the further Kuiper belt. Nothing gets by it, nothing reflects back; yet despite this apparent absorption of energy, it generates no heat. It has no detectable mass. As if it is a window allowing energy to cross its threshold to somewhere else, somewhere utterly dark. It seems nothing comes back out. I might be describing a black hole, yet adjacent spacetime remains undisturbed—except for these most peculiar gravity-waves. And, of course, it is very very small.”

“A real oddity!” Tom agreed. “And it can’t be just a coincidence, right there in the Emma region.”

“I shall continue my studies,” said Dr. Jatczak. “But Tom, I urge you most emphatically to investigate the Black Window on your Grand Tour. For the science, and... whatever else may be there to discover.”

“I certainly will!” promised the scientist-inventor. And as he broke contact, he was left to wonder if the Black Window had something to do with the space disappearances and unexplained hazards he had encountered. “Such a distant object could hardly be the work of the Cobra group or the Sentimentalists,” he reasoned. “But it could still be a weapon.” The alien Others might be playing hired gun for Tom’s earthly foes!

One hour later, with its freight of unanswered questions, the Cosmotron Express soared into the heavens, silent and serene. The Grand Tour had begun!


 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER 17

 

 

OUTWARD BOUND

 

 

 

 

ABOVE the air, still on repelatron power, Tom and Bud guided the mammoth ship to the space outpost. “Time to load your babies on board,” Tom told his father, whose blue eyes gleamed with the excitement of discoveries to come.

The mobies folded-up nicely into compact bundles about the size of a large suitcase, but when fully unfolded they were many times broader, outfitted with jointed multiple legs and powerful gripper-like claws. Tom showed Bud a sketch. “Beware the Spider Crabs!” Bud gibed. “How many are they loading aboard, chum?”

“Eight this trip,” replied Tom.

“We’ll be testing them in a wide variety of environments, Bud,” Mr. Swift added. “I suppose Tom has told you all about them?”

“A little, sir.”

“Well, let’s leave Tom to his control board and head down to the big hold. I’ll tell you about them as I oversee the battening-down procedures. I want each Spider Crab to feel snug and comfortable.”

As they elevatored down one deck to the very bottom of the huge sphere, Bud said, “I know the mobies have a lot in common with Enterprises’ giant robots.”

“Yes,” nodded Mr. Swift, “though we’ve come a ways since then. We’ve made some advances in artificial intelligence, and the mobies have a fair capacity for responding to situations without remote operation—much like Tom’s sensitector robot-mobile, Rover Boy.”

The elevator door slid aside—and Bud started backwards in panic! “M-Mr. Swift!—the hangar doors are open—the air—!”

Damon Swift smiled with eyes twinkling. “Still breathing, Bud? Don’t worry. The exterior hatchways are covered-over by a barrier of Inertite nano-filaments, the same principle used by the atmosphere-making machines on Nestria. Large objects pass through unimpeded, but air molecules are held back.”

“Th-that’s great,” gulped Bud. “Who needs airlocks?”

Stepping out onto the broad deck, Mr. Swift continued his description. “The mobies have various intakes for chemical and mineral analysis, a repelascan system, LRGM gravity mappers, and the usual instruments for measuring radiation and the like. As you can tell, they’re designed to crawl all over the surface, continually on the move. Those claws can crush rock, scoop up surface samples, even drill down a ways. For deeper probing, each mobie has a small telesampler.”

“Say, the telesampler’s X-raser could come in handy if the Little Green Men start attacking!” Bud joked. The laserlike energy beam produced by Tom’s X-raser invention was a virtual science-fiction disintegrator ray, penetrating nearly any form of matter with ease. It was used in conjunction with the telesampler to retrieve deeply buried samples.

Mr. Swift chuckled but said, “Well, they’d have to be Very Little Green Men. The beam generated by these models is only a few molecules wide.”

“At least we could care our initials on ’em—or maybe Earth was here!”

The loading of the mobies was soon completed, and the Starward bid farewell to the space outpost and Ken Horton. Attaining the desired distance from the Earth-Moon system, Tom announced that the Cosmotron Express had attained position to safely engage the spacedriver system. “Should we hold on?” asked Neil MacColter half-nervously.

“Naw,” replied Chow. “Nothin’ much happens. Didn’t even make th’ soup slosh.”

The Earth shrunk away. “Everything’s nominal,” Bob Jeffers called out from the monitor board. “Velocity 0.01 C.”

“We’ll go up by stages, just to play it safe,” commented Tom. “But eventually the Starward will be jumping directly to its safe cruising speed for the space gradient it’s passing through.”

“Tell me, Mr. Swift,” asked Sue of Tom’s father, “why aren’t we starting with the next planet out, Mars?”

“We’re taking them as they come, and Mars is on the far side of the sun,” was the reply. “When we loop back, after our visit to the Emma object, we’ll pick up Pluto, Uranus, and Mars. Also one of the asteroids, Pallas.”

Hours passed breathlessly as Tom upped the ship’s velocity in stairstep fashion. The Starward’s first port of call, about six hours in, was a solar world never touched by man or machine. “Ceres!” said Andy Emda. “One of the ‘big four’ asteroids discovered right at the start of the 19th century.”

“Space navigation and astronomy don’t come into my humble life as a modelmaker,” Arv commented. “Where are we, exactly?”

“Roughly 400 million miles from the sun, and most of that figure is the distance we’ve traveled from Earth,” Tom said. “Incidentally, it’s now classified as a ‘dwarf planet,’ not an asteroid. Good reason, too—she’s several times bigger than anything else in the asteroid belt.”

“No wonder she needs a belt!” joked Chow, patting his own.

Ceres was fat, but also dim and dark. Nevertheless, as the Express slowly circled the compact globe, about a quarter the diameter of Earth’s moon, the team could discern white patches and splashes of unexpected color here and there, including a pale pinkish shade. “Holy Mack, we’ve already learned a lot in just ten minutes!” enthused Hank Sterling. “The Cerean atmosphere—maybe we should just call it ‘vacuum with a smidge of atoms’—definitely contains hydroxile ions.”

“In other words, dissociated water vapor,” commented Emda.

“But also trace methane, ammonia, and nitrogen.”

“We’ll start learning her inner secrets as soon as Mobi-Cer is set down,” declared Mr. Swift. “Tom, let’s make our pass over the Piazzi feature.”

“Will do, Dad.” Tom and Bud guided the Starward to a hovering stop some thirty miles above a dark oval named after the discoverer of the mini-planet. Tom activated the automatic ejection conveyor in the hold, and in seconds the weird “Spider Crab” glided into view from beneath the viewport, angling downward.

Abruptly Hannah yelped out, “Tom—the radar! Something’s closing in on the mobie!”

“Coming from behind us!” Tom exclaimed with a glance at the monitor. There was no time to act. A dark silhouette flashed by them at high speed. Its trajectory clearly imperiled Mobi-Cer!

But the mobie’s robotic intelligence proved adequate to the challenge. The lander-craft suddenly slowed as if applying the brakes and swerved away on a tangent. The intruding object missed by a good hundred feet.

As the sun glinted off it, Bud said, “Whew!—just a meteor. I thought we were under attack!”

“We were under attack, flyboy—by Mother Nature,” grinned Tom, relieved. “By the way, it’s not a meteor. According to the instruments, it’s a moon! Ceres has her own bitty satellite, all of thirty feet across, with what looks like a very elongated orbit.”

“Say, do we get to name her?” asked Neil.

“Mm now, I know this here ‘Ceres’ is the old Roman goddess o’ cereal,” Chow piped up. “I vote we call th’ little thing Cornflake!”

“We’ll, er, pass your suggestion along to the Astronomical Union.” Mr. Swift shot an amused glance toward his son.

Chow nodded but grumbled under his breath. “Brand my sagebrush, they got themselves a blame union?”

As the mobie made a gentle landing, Sue asked Tom what sort of propulsion it used. “It has some microrepelatrons and gravitexes for any ground maneuvers beyond the capability of the spider-legs,” replied the young inventor. “But for space-to-ground decelerations we use argon-gas thrusters, pushed along by focused trons. That way we get around the surface-interference effects.”

The mobie, designated Mobi-Cer, crawled about the tumbled, cratered surface for a time, the Starward viewing its progress from mere yards above. “All systems are working perfectly,” pronounced Mr. Swift happily. “The holoceiver ‘eyes’ are providing a rich feed for your telejector, Tom. The transmitron is sending a steady stream of data back to the outpost. And the onboard telesampler already confirmed something very significant—Ceres has a layer of liquid water down beneath the surface, a real ocean!”

“Which makes this a great place to establish a colony some day,” Hank said. “There you go, boss—your marching orders!”

Tom laughed. “Let’s finish the tour first!”

The Cosmotron Express repelatroned away from Ceres, then almost immediately jumped to spacedriver mode. In seconds distance had demoted Ceres from dwarf planet to mere asteroid to a speck of space dust. “Fifteen percent of the speed of light!” Tom exclaimed. “We’re traveling at almost thirty thousand miles per second!”

“But still,” added Hannah with a smile, “we won’t be anywhere near Jupiter until some time tomorrow—which means at least dinner and breakfast, Chow.”

“Then I’d best git t’ work!”

Analysis of the Ceres data occupied much of the time before their next stop, as did eating, sleeping, and the simple enjoyment of the stellar view. Pointing forward through the sweeping viewport, Bud commented to Tom, “Skipper, is it my eyes? I’m seeing rings of color out there!” The ship seemed to be passing through an endless series of rainbow-colored halos, very faint, as if hurtling down an interminable corridor in the void.

“It’s real, Bud,” Tom responded. “As we creep our way closer to the speed of light, relativistic frequency shifts in the ambient radiation out there become visible to the eye. But it’s more than that,” he went on. “The ‘space squeeze’ itself produces a prismatic effect. What they call the geodesic of space is bent around the ship.”

“What I think about,” said Neil MacColter, “is our velocity relative to space dust and micro-meteors out there—even hydrogen atoms from the sun. At these fantastic velocities, the things must be hitting us so fast it’s like we’re flying head-on into a particle accelerator!”

Tom nodded. “It was a worry, all right. But remember, we’re not just charging along like a bull—we’re bending space itself. The distortion in the momentum vectors affects everything it touches. To some extent all those particles are swept aside and around the Express. In fact, look over there, at the edges of those halos.”

“Something glittery,” said Bud. “Sparkling.”

“The momentum-space field ‘warps’ floating particles around us, but it has a few sharper kinks in it where the particles are forced together, so much so that thermonuclear fusion can take place. Those sparkles are atom-sized H-bombs going off!”

“Good gosh!” sputtered the Californian.

Tom grinned. “As to raw radiation, don’t forget that the metallumin shell is coated with Inertite. That ‘non-matter matter’ blocks almost anything—even an X-raser beam would really have to work at it to get through.”

“But it doesn’t stop that ‘tentacle force’,” Bud murmured. The conversation veered away from the unwelcome reminder.

The astronauts slept in shifts, a pair of team members always on duty in the control compartment. All had received basic training in the operation of the Cosmotron Express—and all included Andor Emda. “Hmmph!” grumped Chow to his boss and friend, “think I’ll stay up t’ see th’ sights durin’ that shift!”

But at last the Starward pulled into orbit about Jupiter, king of the planets, larger than all the others put together! His Planetary Majesty was wrapped in fantastic robes of many colors—silver and blue, pink, saffron, many shades of brown and orange, and even a hint of royal purple here and there. “It’s the fantastic rate of rotation that causes the clouds to divide up in bands,” said Andy. “Massive and gigantic compared to Earth, but the Jovian day is only ten hours long!”

“Quite a whirl,” remarked Bob Jeffers. “The atmosphere’s mostly methane, isn’t it?”

Tom elaborated. “Methane, ammonia, hydrogen. And deep down under those clouds, Jupiter’s almost as hot as a midget sun! It’s the energy of gravitational contraction. Billions of years old, but still settling in.”

“I know there’s no solid surface,” said Hannah. “Will the mobie just float around like a balloon?”

Damon Swift shook his head. “No, we decided to set it down on Ganymede, the largest of the moons in the solar system. It’s an odd place, big as a planet but lacking any significant atmosphere.”

“Father Jupiter must’ve taken it away,” Bud observed. “Bad boy—no dessert!”

As the Starward drew close to Ganymede, its bright tan color began to reveal dark patches. “That big dark region is named after Galileo,” Tom noted.

“But what’s with all them white spots all over?” asked Chow. “Looks like she’s got leopard fever!”

“It’s an upwelling of lighter materials from beneath the crust, caused by meteor or asteroid impacts,” Andy said. “By the way, Chow, Ganymede is definitely a boy, not a ‘she’.”

“That so? Wa-aal, when he grows up he’ll likely be a handful fer his old man.”

“And wet behind the ears,” joked Hank. “Ganymede’s another space body suspected of having a layer of liquid water down below.”

“ ‘Water, water everywhere!’ ” Mr. Swift said. “Let’s get Mobi-Gan launched.”

They watched the Ganymede mobie set down and commence its baby-crawl. Presently Bud gave his pal a nudge. “C’mon Skipper. Isn’t it time?”

“Time for what?” asked Arv Hanson.

“Time to make ourselves First Men on the Moon!—of Jupiter.”

“We do need to test the excursion modules’ landing routine,” Tom grinned. “We’ll be dealing with some real gravity here—much more than on Earth’s moon. But let’s stick to the schedule and make a little moon of Saturn, Mimas, our first touchdown. I’d like to land in the Herschel crater—a major landmark in our solar system.”

“I can hardly wait for my first naked-eye view of Saturn’s rings,” breathed Sue. “I’ve just—”

Bob Jeffers interrupted. “Tom, I’m getting a PER call.”

“From Fearing?”

“Nestria!”

The parallelophone call had been patched-through from Henrik Jatczak. “Tom, I have amazing news, wonderful news! I shall have to engage in real effort to pull myself together. I have received a message from my Dearest, my Violet! Tom, she’s alive!”

Tom Swift was at a loss for words! “Th—that’s—!”

“Yes, Tom, yes it is!”

“You actually spoke with her?”

“No, alas,” replied Dr. Jatczak. “You see—I must stay calm and provide the sequence of events like a good scientist—I have pursued my studies of the Black Window region by means of the frequencifier. The results have been, strictly speaking, indeterminate. I can only repeat that a very minute region of space has been, shall we say, blotted out.

“But within the hour, the instrument registered some 90 seconds of modulated transmission from a certain point well within the area. It was extraordinarily weak; I dare say no standard earthly receiver would be able to isolate the signal from the random noise of the cosmos. Yet I determined the nature of the signal—a common transmission of the sort used in space communications!

“In other words, the very sort of radiocommunications that would be utilized by the Nestria transit capsule!”

“Could you make out the message, sir?”

Jatczak drew an incoming sigh. “No. It was surely enough of an accomplishment to merely analyze the frequency. The modulation envelope suggested vocal characteristics, of that I am certain. But what else could it be, my boy?”

What else? The Dyaune! Tom thought. But he said reassuringly, “It’s a wonderful development, Dr. Jatczak.”

“Tom...” said the astronomer haltingly. “I am an old man. I have learned late in life that scientific knowledge isn’t the sum total of what life has to offer. I am willing to beg. You know... what I ask of you.”

“Of course.”

“The Black Window is in the ‘scatter belt,’ the outer portion of the Kuiper Belt, somewhat within the orbit of the dwarf planet Eris. You had planned a visit to Eris as the outmost point of your voyage—and as I recall, that leg of your journey would have taken more than a week, even at the greatest capacity of your, what is it?—your cosmotron spacedriver.”

“Yes sir, that’s true. A distance of some fifty billion miles.”

“How Violet was able to extend her air supply to this point, I cannot imagine. But I am allowed to hope. Perhaps she is linked to that other spacecraft, the Brungarian ship that was also—taken. In any event...” His voice trailed off in a plea.

Tom’s decision was hardly a decision at all. “Dr. Jatczak—Henrik—the Grand Tour just ended. The Starward is heading straight for the Black Window at whatever speed we can manage!”

 

 


 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER 18

 

 

WHERE THE SUN IS A STAR

 

 

 

 

THERE were no dissenting voices among the space team—not that it would have made a difference. “We must attempt a rescue, obviously,” gravely pronounced Tom’s father. “The outer planets will remain in their orbits for a visit later on.”

“If only—“ began Bud in a halting voice. “Wasn’t it going to take a couple weeks to get way out there? Can we really get to Doc Vi in time, Skipper?”

“Who knows?” Tom said. “She’s survived this long, somehow—that’s a plus point. It must mean that whoever seized the capsule—I’m certain it was deliberate—is keeping her alive, wherever she’s being held.”

“Yet it seems they’ve given her access to the transit capsule, to the space radio,” mused Hannah. “It doesn’t sound like the sort of thing kidnappers would do.”

Arv Hanson spoke up. “What do you think, Tom? Damon? Is Volj behind this? The disappearance of the Dyaune may have just been a test of their own version of a ‘spacedriver,’ which they then used to capture Doc Vi and drag the capsule across the solar system!”

“For what possible reason?” objected Andor Emda. “Ransom? They could have held her captive on the moon!”

“The whole thing sounds t’ these ears like a blame hoax!” grumbled Chow.

Tom’s thoughtful voice took command. “I can’t believe we’re dealing with any Earthly technology. There’s some connection to the Emma object, the thing Jatczak calls the Black Window. It’s more likely the adversarial extraterrestrial group, the ‘Others’, are behind it.”

“But why target—” began Neil.

Tom cut him off. “Everyone... we have to investigate and do what we can, whatever’s out there. It’s not an armchair exercise. Dad and I have settled on a plan, a very risky plan, to get us there faster than the Starward can travel.”

“I can guess, genius boy,” said Bud quietly. “You’re going to switch on the gravitexes deliberately—so the tentacle force can grab the Express.”

“And take us directly to the Window,” Tom finished. “Directly and—I’m guessing—at a far greater speed than anything we could do. A guess and a hope.”

“Holy—!” Sterling breathed.

Tom looked at his friend with sympathy and shared feeling. He knew Hank was thinking of his family. “We may be sacrificing everything. All of us. And we can’t take a vote, or run anyone back home first. This is the mission.”

Chow suddenly saluted. As did all the others, each in his or her own way.

“Onward Enterprises!” cheered Bud.

“Yes,” said Tom, his voice low and hollow, chastened by the Fates. “Onward Enterprises.”

The Swifts directed Bud to continue toward Saturn as planned, pushing the Starward to the highest velocity yet attempted—thirty percent of the speed of light! “We’ll know soon enough if the gradient isn’t flat enough!” Tom declared. “Meanwhile I’ll be PER-ing Fearing and Enterprises about the plan. And... one other thing.”

“What other thing?” asked Hank.

“I’m going to make one last attempt to contact the space friends, using the transmitron, which is much more powerful than our standard deep-space transmitter.”

“But it also has a tight beam,” Hannah objected. “Where do you plan to point it? You don’t know where their base is, do you?”

Tom agreed but explained, “Dad and I have concluded that they’re operating out of Mars’ smaller moon, Deimos. I’ll try that—also the other moon, Phobos. I’ve got to make the attempt. The SF’s have warned us before of dangers in space.”

“Yeah,” said Bob Jeffers wryly. “We could use a good warning about now.”

Tom composed his message in the space-symbol language and sent it into the void. But when he returned to the command deck hours later, pale Saturn already in view, he was shaking his head. “Nothing. No response.”

“Tom,” said Andy Emda, “isn’t it possible that—the other extraterrestrials have attacked and wiped out your space friends?”

Tom didn’t try to answer the unanswerable. He took a glance at his father, who nodded. “All right,” said the young inventor quietly. “We know what we have to do. Bud, shut down the cosmotron drive.” His copilot did so, and the huge ship halted instantly. “Now, activate all gravitexes, using the ambient solar gravitational field. No need to aim them, I think. On default setting they’ll balance out.”

The crew felt no change. They waited tensely—reacting with a start at the sound of a beep! “H-has it started?” gulped Chow. “Did we get grabbed?”

“Incoming message,” said Neil MacColter. “Not the PER—the main antenna. Source indeterminate.”

The two Swifts studied the monitors. “I’m sure it’s a communication in the imaging-oscilloscope mode used by the Space Friends,” pronounced Mr. Swift. “Let’s put it on the screen, and feed it through the Space Dictionary translation protocol.”

Strange symbols began to appear, some of them familiar, some requiring electronic approximation as the tentative translation appeared beneath.

 

TOM SWIFT. ATTENTION. YOUR GRAVITATION DEVICES ALLOW US TO MAKE COMMUNICATIONS CONTACT DESPITE DISRUPTIVE FACTOR CAUSED BY RIFT-NODE [translation approximate] IN OUTER SYSTEM. DO NOT DISENGAGE ENERGY ENHANCEMENT DEVICES.

 

Tom immediately composed a reply, using the Space Dictionary translation files to assist him. “I’m transmitting through the regular antenna,” he murmured.

 

THIS IS TOM SWIFT. WE ARE AWARE OF SPACE OBJECT AS SOURCE OF ANOMALOUS GRAVITATION WAVES. IS THIS WHAT HAS IMPAIRED YOUR COMMUNICATIONS?

 

The instant response:

 

RIFT-NODE EMANATIONS IMPEDE ALL OUR MODES OF SPATIAL MODIFICATION [translation approximate] INCLUDING COMMUNICATION AND TRANSPORT METHODS. PREVIOUS ATTEMPTS AT NECESSITATED RELOCATION [translation approximate] INEFFECTIVE.

 

“Now the big question,” Tom stated.

 

OCCUPIED EARTH VEHICLES HAVE DISAPPEARED FROM SPACE NEAR OUR PLANET. HAS THE RIFT-NODE CAUSED THESE EFFECTS?

 

And the question was answered!

 

STATEMENT CONFIRMED. TWO EARTH VEHICLES AT VICINITY OF RIFT-NODE. WE HAVE BEEN ATTEMPTING TO MOVE YOU TO THEIR LOCATION, TOM SWIFT. ATTEMPTS INEFFECTIVE. NOW CAPABLE DUE TO YOUR ENERGY ENHANCEMENT. REMAIN STATUS.

 

“In other words, don’t do anything and keep the gravitexes on,” said Arv.

Tom nodded tensely and sent another message.

 

WE WILL COMPLY. WHAT IS THE NATURE OF THE SPACE PHENOMENON? IS IT INTELLIGENTLY DIRECTED? ARE YOUR ADVERSARIES ATTEMPTING AN ATTACK ON YOU OR ON EARTH?

 

The response was unenlightening.

 

REMAIN STATUS.

 

The Starward astronauts exchanged glances—and there was no time to follow up with words. Space suddenly turned white! And then, in a blink, the black sea of stars returned.

“I’ve been through it before,” stated Damon Swift, awestruck. “When they moved the space outpost to the Venus orbit. The trip is instantaneous.”

“Jetz, all that power—just what do the space friends want us to do?” Bud asked in a fearful voice.

“Not the space friends,” corrected Tom; “there was no ‘we are friends’ opening. It’s their superiors, the authorities on what we call Planet X, somewhere in deep space. As to the purpose,” Tom went on, “there’s a big clue, everybody.”

There was no need to point. What the Starward was facing was a great, deep blackness—as if a page had been torn from space itself! “Th-that there’s a black winder, all right!” sputtered Chow faintly.

Susan Fresnell pointed off to the side, where the perfectly straight edges of the blackness came to a point. Just beyond the vertex, among the stars, was a particular bright point of light surrounded by a faint, hazy glow, a disklike corona. “What is that, Tom? Have we—we haven’t been moved all the way to another solar system, have we?”

The young inventor shook his head. “No, I’m sure we’re parked at the Emma object in our own solar system. That ‘star’ is the sun!—our sun. We call the space in the inner solar system a vacuum, but from this distance you can see the glare of the solar wind and space dust against the interstellar background. Human eyes have never seen it!”

“Pardon me, Captain, but maybe we should postpone the star-gazing,” urged Bob. “Call her Emma or the Black Window or whatever—she gives me the willies. Blackness—pure absolute blackness!”

“Son, let’s pull back a ways and reconnoiter,” urged Mr. Swift. “We need to get some idea of the size and layout of the thing.” The borders of the Black Window extended far beyond the scope of the viewport on one side.

“You’re right, Dad.” Tom worked the controls, but a problem immediately cropped up. “Good night, the repelatrons can’t find anything to push against! Emma just shows up as nothingness!”

“Then it’s just as Dr. Jatczak said,” noted Arv Hanson. “A massless slice of space reflecting nothing and letting nothing pass through from the other side.”

“A perfect absorber, as he told Tom,” Emda muttered. “Can we use the spacedriver to move back?”

Tom half-shrugged—but half-nodded. “I don’t see why not. We’ll create a micro-distortion and give ourselves just a touch of motion, 50 MPH or so, aft vector.”

The Cosmotron Express backed away. Tom verified its motion, but noted that it seemed to make no difference with respect to the visual size of the Black Window. “Distance and perspective is hard to estimate, so close to such a huge object. It’s like when I was in Pete Langley’s ‘rink.’”

“It’s obviously enormous,” said his father. “Perhaps miles in length.”

But very slowly, more and more of the featureless gash came into view. And then something that caused the crew to shout, and Tom to instantly shut down the spacedriver. A streamlined, spearlike object, half in darkness, protruded from the Black Window into the dim light of the far-distant sun!

“A spaceship!” gasped Hannah. “The Planet X people?”

“No,” stated Andy bluntly. “I recognize it from the early plans. It’s the redesigned Dyaune!”

“No sign of the Nestria capsule,” Tom said. “But Dr. Wohl must be aboard this ship... if—if she’s—”

“She’s aboard,” interrupted Mr. Swift forcefully. “And the signals Henrik picked up were probably from the Dyaune, not the capsule.”

As if in answer, the space radio crackled with a message, somewhat weak and oddly distorted. “Tom? Enterprises vehicle? Is that—is that you, Tom?”

Tom grabbed up the microphone. “Doc Vi!”

“It’s me, Tom. That’s your new spaceship, isn’t it? Oh, Tom... we kept sending out signals hoping someone, somehow could pick them up...”

“It was Henrik, Doc Vi,” Tom declared happily. “He’s the one who detected the signal.”

“Henrik!... oh, he must be... but...

“Tom, this is Prof. Volj’s ship, the Dyaune. They’ve been out here for weeks. When we arrived in the N-4 capsule—”

“Did something haul you here, Vi? Another spacecraft?”

“I don’t know, exactly. We were just... here! Prof. Volj says we’re out at the edge of the solar system, according to his instruments. Prof. Volj and his crew have been generous to us, Tom. They allowed us to dock with them and come over—our air supply wouldn’t have lasted more than a couple days.”

Another voice cut in, harsh and thickly accented. “Do you hear her, Tom Swift? We have been cooperative. We have shared air and food. We awaited your arrival—do you not always come to the rescue? Now we presume you will take us home.”

Tom smiled. “Home to Brungaria, Prof. Volj?”

“Bah! What does it matter? Earth, air—that is enough.”

“Do you know why you’re here, sir? Has anyone communicated with you?” Tom wondered if the Others might have explained their purpose.

“We have seen nothing, heard nothing! We float here at the edge of blackness, unable to leave. But now—who else do I see through that nice big window of yours?”

“Hello, Nattan,” said Andor Emda into the mike. “Long time, no spy.”

“Traitor!”

“Maybe, great leader. But guess what, I’m over here, and you—aren’t!” Emda added a few words in Brungarian, which seemed to reduce Volj to rage, then silence.

Tom took back the microphone. “Prof. Volj, you said you were unable to leave. What do you mean?”

“Even in your English, I speak clearly, Swift!” snapped the man. “Something holds us here. Neither the Swift capsule nor the Dyaune could move more than a few meters before being pulled backwards. We experimented, attempting to free the capsule from the region. When we undocked it and sent it forward, at the highest power by remote control, it barely reached the sunlight—then it snapped backwards in an elastic manner and vanished into the darkness. It could not be seen, not even by radar. The black is like a fog that nothing can penetrate—and yet it is entirely immaterial, without mass.” Then Volj’s voice had lost its bravado. “What is this place that holds us, Swift?” The man was afraid.

“We’re trying to find out, sir. We intend to take all of you back to Earth, but remember, we’re as much at risk as you are. It may be that my space contacts, the X-ians, can free us, now that we’re able to provide them an additional source of energy. It’s the Planet X people who brought us here.” Tom added sarcastically, “But they’re your friends too, Prof. Volj. Have you spoken to them lately?”

“They do not answer,” he replied sullenly. “No doubt your ‘Exman’ visitor turned them against us upon his return. Mere prejudice and misunderstanding.”

“No doubt,” Tom said with an ironic glance at Bud and Mr. Swift. “I’m signing off for the moment. I’ll contact them right now and see what the next move is.”

Tom now accessed the deep-space communications antenna by means of which he had communicated with the aliens minutes before. But Hank Sterling suddenly held up a hand. “Skipper... maybe you’d better switch over to the transmitron feed.”

The youth studied the board. “I didn’t bother to de-orient it when I gave up my attempt before. The computer automatically relocated Deimos and aimed the antenna at it when we arrived... here.”

“Then it must be the Space Friends—the ones we usually talk to—who are trying to contact us,” Hank said. “It’s a radio signal. How they get it across more than a couple light-days of distance in less than an hour, I can’t imagine.”

Tom corrected him. “We don’t really know how long the trip here took in ‘exterior time.’ Hours, days...”

“Or years—or centuries, Tom!” the engineer added pointedly.

Not replying, Tom accessed the incoming space signal and sent it through the translating computer.

 

TO TOM SWIFT. WE ARE FRIENDS. WE HAVE BEEN PREVENTED FROM CONTACTING YOU BY SPACE CONDITIONS AND BY THOSE WHO HAVE POWER OVER US. THIS FOCUSED TRANSMISSION METHOD YOU HAVE INITIATED MAKES IT POSSIBLE TO DO SO WITHOUT DETECTION.

 

IT IS THE MASTERS THEMSELVES WHO CREATED THE RIFT-NODE TO GAIN ACCESS TO A DIFFERENT LOCUS [translation approximate] OF THE PHYSICAL CONTINUUM. THEY DID NOT ANTICIPATE ITS DISRUPTIVE EFFECTS AND HAVE BEEN UNABLE TO PROCEED WITH THEIR STUDIES. IT IS THEY WHO HAVE TAKEN YOUR FELLOW BEINGS TO YOUR PRESENT LOCATION WITHOUT CONSENT. YOU ARE TO BE UTILIZED TO PENETRATE THE RIFT-NODE AND REGISTER CHANGES TO YOUR BIO-FORM PATTERNS THAT CAN NOT BE STUDIED BY OTHER MEANS. YOU WILL BE COMPELLED TO SERVE THIS PURPOSE. ONCE TRAVERSE HAS TAKEN PLACE IT IS NOT PROBABLE THAT YOU WILL BE ABLE TO PASS A SECOND TIME THROUGH THE RIFT-NODE TO FREE YOURSELVES.

 

WE SPACE FRIENDS DO NOT APPROVE OF THE CONDUCT OF OUR MASTERS BUT CAN DO NOTHING BUT WARN YOU.

 

There was nothing further. Tom Swift carefully switched off the console and turned to his friends, bunched together behind him and reading the message with fear and anger. “Then that’s it,” Tom said. “The X-ians were behind it, all of it. An experiment that went wrong. Unforeseen consequences. And they plan to use us, human beings, as living test probes—scientific instruments. At whatever cost to us!”


 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER 19

 

 

THE SHADOWVERSE

 

 

 

 

THE AIR simmered. It was Andor Emda who spoke first. “Chow, amigo, would you like to ‘brand’ something?”

“Shor would!” spat out the ex-Texan. “Their ding-blang green scaly feathered Planet-X space hides!”

“I’m afraid I—I don’t understand all this,” quavered Susan Fresnell. “Are these, these aliens... D-do they plan to sacrifice us for some kind of experimental purpose?”

Tom’s voice was edged with bitterness. “Oh, I’m sure they have good, scientifically valid reasons for what they plan to do!

“They’ve always had their reasons, ever since the meteor-missile. It seems they want to ‘understand’ us. That’s what we’re supposed to assume. But they—I mean the ones on Planet X—have minds that work according to very different rules. They’ve never explained why they established a base in our solar system, the Deimos installation. But it’s pretty clear they attach more importance to ‘intelligence’—pure knowledge—than to intelligent life!”

“Yet they’re far ahead of us in acquiring that knowledge,” noted Mr. Swift. “And they apply it to a technology well beyond our mortal comprehension. What they choose to do may seem indifferent—unconscionable!—to us, but are we really equipped to judge them? They know many, many things we don’t know.”

“But maybe vice-versa, too!” his son insisted. “I don’t agree with you, Dad, not this time. Whatever the X-ians are trying to achieve—”

“Er—excuse me!” Bud broke in. “How about we philosophize back in Shopton?—Shopton, USA, Earth!”

The two Swifts nodded, sheepishly. “You’re right, Bud,” said Damon Swift. “Even they can’t expect us to cooperate in an experiment without consent or explanation. They should know enough about humans by now to understand that!”

“Mebbe you should jest ask ’em what the Rio Grande they’re after,” suggested Chow, forcing himself to be calm and reasonably reasonable.

Tom moved to the communications panel and composed a blunt message.

 

TOM SWIFT TO SPACE BEINGS. WE HAVE DETERMINED THAT YOUR SEIZURE OF EARTH SPACECRAFT WAS DELIBERATE. WE CAN NOT COOPERATE WITH YOUR EFFORT UNLESS WE KNOW ITS PURPOSE AND WHAT YOU WISH US TO DO. IT IS A NECESSARY CHARACTERISTIC OF LIFE FORMS OF OUR KIND THAT WE WILL DESTROY OURSELVES RATHER THAN SUBMIT TO IMPOSED CONTROL.

 

“That might be putting it just a tad forcefully, Skipper,” gulped Bob Jeffers. “But—go ahead.”

Tom transmitted the message, sending it through the main antenna. He received a response almost immediately.

 

LIKE YOU, TOM SWIFT, WE SEEK KNOWLEDGE OF WHAT IS AND WHAT IS NOT. WE CREATED THE RIFT-NODE FOR STUDY BY OUR [term untranslatable] ESTABLISHED IN YOUR PLANETARY SYSTEM. THIS APPROACH WAS WITHOUT RESULT. YOUR BIOLOGICAL PATTERN-FORMS [translation approximate] HAVE PREVIOUSLY BEEN REGISTERED AND INTERPRETED. AS YOU PENETRATE THE RIFT-NODE WE WILL MONITOR CHANGES IN BIOLOGICAL FUNCTION OUTPUT AT MICRO-ORGANIC LEVEL TO DETERMINE INFLUENCE PARAMETERS OF LOCUS-PLANE [translation approximate] TO UNDERSTAND THE POSSIBILITY OF USE.

 

There was a pause. “We can get the details later,” muttered Tom, composing a response.

 

WHAT ARE YOUR INSTRUCTIONS TO US? WE WILL NOT CONSENT TO ANY EXPERIMENT THAT WILL IMPEDE OUR LIFE FUNCTIONS.

 

The message back had a mocking tone.

 

YOU ARE NOT CONSISTENT AS TO THE IMPORTANCE OF YOUR SURVIVAL.

 

There was nothing further. After a futile reply and a minute’s wait, Tom turned away from the board. “Guess they called my bluff.”

“Looks like they plan to remotely monitor our cellular functions—maybe our neural systems and cortical processes,” Hank suggested. “Nice sophisticated test probes made of meat.”

“But why exactly did they start by kidnapping Volj’s people and the transit capsule?” wondered Hannah. “To lure us here?”

Frowning, Tom began a list. “Nattan Volj. Violet Wohl. Arv Hanson. Hank Sterling. Chow Winkler. Bud Barclay. Tom Swift. And you, Andy. What do these people have in common? When was the last time we were all together in one place?”

“Good grief—on the Space Ark!” Bud exclaimed.

“Yes, of course!” Emda burst out. “We constitute almost all the people who went aboard the animal saucer!”

“Lacking Glennon and Faber, maybe a couple of the Brungarians. But that’s right,” nodded the young inventor. “They must have ‘scanned’ our cellular structure at one point—maybe when they transported us through the hull—and now they can use that recorded data as a baseline to track any effects of going into the Black Window.

“It’s easy enough to put together what must have happened. They had planned to have the local Space Friends probe the object they had created, but the unexpected effects of the G-waves caused some sort of problem—maybe it affects their life functions directly as well as interfering with the basis of their technology. So they began to collect us Space Ark veterans, haphazardly, when they could catch us away from Earth.”

“We know that some unidentified factor impedes their operations near Earth’s surface,” interjected Mr. Swift.

“It was catch-as-catch-can,” Tom went on. “They took what they could manage to snag with that sputtering ‘tentacle-force’ of theirs, whenever local energy conditions—the gravitex field—provided extra power. What they caught they transported here, the site of the experiment.”

“And then comes the Starward mission, a pretty full barrel of the fish they were after,” MacColter observed. “Even an unexpected bonus—Andy!”

“Great plot,” gibed Bud without enthusiasm. “What thrills and chills come next?”

“The first thing to do is get the people on the Dyaune over here,” Tom responded. “They can’t pull free of the zone, but their air and supplies must be near exhaustion.”

“We must avoid entering the Window with the Express as long as possible,” declared Tom’s father. “Fortunately, we can send one of the excursion modules over by remote control.”

Chow scratched his head. “Mebbe we kin keep them Brungarians locked up when they get here.”

“Those sneaky, conniving Brungarians,” commented Andy coolly. “Right, Tex?”

“Came outta your mouth, Andy, not mine!”

Tom informed the Dyaune of the plan and made preparations. Then, just as he was about to detach Mod Two, at the summit of the Cosmotron Express, cries of fear and amazement turned his face toward the great viewport and the black gulf. “Ohhh man,” whispered Bud. “Explain that one, Swifts!”

Beyond the half-immersed Dyaune, wholly within the ebon shadow of the Black Window, floated something dimly lit and grotesque in appearance—yet impossibly familiar. “It’s the Starward!” gasped Tom. “The Cosmotron Express!”

“Another one!” Arv Hanson exclaimed in wonder.

Precise in every visible detail, the second ship seemed an exact replica of their own, the original. Yet the visual aspect was nonetheless disconcerting, somehow wrong. “Something about the lighting, the colors...” said Mr. Swift slowly. “I can’t quite specify what seems ‘off.’ I recognize the ship... but at the same time, somehow, I don’t.”

“As if the mind is rejecting it,” Sue murmured.

“I—I know what’s up with that thing!” burbled Chow. “Saw it on TV! Over there, on th’ other side, that’s a mirror world—jest like ours, exceptin’ all the good folks here are bad folks there! People like Tom have goatees, and me—I’m prob’ly slim as a shotgun!”

Barely listening, Tom was busy experimenting, with results that were weird and disturbing. “Keep looking right at that ship, everyone—and close your eyes!”

“Oh great grief!” gasped Arv Hanson, one gasp among many. “I can see it with my eyes closed!”

“We’re not seeing it by light,” Tom pronounced, studying the monitor dials. “Nothing, no radiation, is coming out of the Window further back than the stern of the Dyaune—nothing we can detect, anyway. But our retinas, maybe our visual centers directly, are being affected to produce an image. And yet... an image with perspective and other optical properties, too. If you turn away, the image slides out of view. ”

“Some sort of hallucination,” suggested Neil. “Tom, Mr. Swift—it could be an induced hallucination generated by whatever lives on the other side of that window. To scare us off—”

“Or lure us in!” added Bud.

“Or merely to communicate.” Mr. Swift rubbed his eyes. “We must avoid premature theorizing. There are many possibilities. We might be seeing ourselves, our own ship, through some sort of twist in the fabric of spacetime. The matter requires careful study.”

“Yeah,” snorted Bud. “Looks like we’ll have a lot of time to do it, too, if the X-ians have their way!”

“I know the idea of ‘parallel universes’ is standard in science fiction,” Tom said. “But... think of all the details, back to the Big Bang, that would have to go exactly the same way to bring an alternate-history version of the Cosmotron Express up to their side of the Window, at the same instant! It’s not just something similar—it seems to be an exact duplicate!”

“True,” nodded Hank. “On the other hand, maybe the most similar universes are—”

“I thought we were gonna save the philosophizing,” interjected Bob.

Hannah, her dread, spoke softly. “I don’t know if I should say this. There are some possibilities that are hard to even think about, but... what if what we’re seeing is, literally, a ghost ship! Couldn’t we be seeing, like a premonition, what will happen to us, after—after we cross—”

“Juronda,” murmured Andy Emda.

“Hunh?” challenged Chow. “What’s that word mean?”

“Juronda. The land of the dead! From the old tales of Brungaria, the sagas of the ancient Brungar tribes.” Emda continued with a quote. “ ‘No eyes, for all is shadow. No ears, for who can speak? No hands, for who can weigh a shadow? No hope—for we are here.’

“And we are here!” snapped Tom impatiently. “Whatever else is true of that place, it’s beyond the light of the sun. It’s full of shadow—maybe that Cosmotron II is some kind of shadow, a shadow of us! It’s a shadowverse as far as I’m concerned, and I don’t intend to let a shadow scare me off. Now let’s get to work!”

Tom proceeded to send Mod Two across to the Dyaune. The docking bay of the Brungarian craft was on the side away from their view, but camera eyes on the Mod allowed Tom to guide and orient the sphere. As the Mod station-kept, Volj used explosive bolts to tear off the unnecessary docking panels so as to allow a firm seal with the Mod’s larger hatchway. The cameras watched the panels drift a short distance—then suddenly accelerate as if captured by some unknown power. In an instant they had been engulfed in the further darkness and were lost to sight.

“That’s what will happen to us,” declared Sue. “The only thing keeping the Dyaune from being drawn in is that it’s still protruding into our universe, halfway.”

After the crew of the Dyaune—eight of the Brungarians and the three travelers from Nestria—boarded the Mod, it was guided back to the Starward without interference. Nattan Volj was the first to descend in the elevator into the Express’s top-deck antechamber.

Tom and Arv Hanson met him with i-guns drawn. “Sorry, Professor Volj. I’m afraid you and your crew will have to remain aboard the Mod for the rest of the trip. The accommodations will be comfortable. I’ve locked down the propulsion system and outgoing communications.”

“Yes, Swift. Of course,” said Volj coldly. “You are not a fool. It is what I would do.” He went back up, and in a moment Violet Wohl came down to a joyous reunion, followed by the two others from the transit capsule.

After seeing them to their cabins for rest and food, Tom returned to the command deck. “What now, pal?” asked Bud.

“Let’s send one of the Spider Crabs into the shadowverse,” directed Tom’s father. “Perhaps it will collect enough data to satisfy the extraterrestrials.”

The mobie was propelled from the hangar-hold. It spread its spidery arms and readied its claws.

“Good camera feed,” Tom reported. “Entering the Window.” On the monitor the crowded watchers viewed the passing hull of the abandoned Dyaune, its aft end almost too dim to be seen.

Tom switched the camera view toward the phantom Cosmotron II, immobile and ominous in the distance. The screen remained dead black. “Nothing,” said Tom. “It’s not there, according to the instruments.”

“Ya cain’t see a ghost with a TV camera!” insisted Chow in a nervous whisper.

Suddenly all screens went blank. All readout dials fell to zero. “The mobie’s gone,” stated Mr. Swift. “Just like the transit capsule.”

“Dead,” Andy muttered, bringing a retort from Bud:

“You’re a real fearful little earful, Andy.”

Emda shrugged. “My apologies.”

But there was much worse to be faced than discouraging words. “Skipper!” sang out Hank from the main control board. “The Starward is moving from position!”

“Externalities?”

“Nothing on the board,” replied the engineer. “No G, no EM. But we’re on the move!”

“The X-ians!” exclaimed Bud. “They’re pushing us right through the Window!”


 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER 20

 

 

EARTH IS A DANGEROUS

PLACE

 

 

 

 

SIDE BY SIDE as always, Tom and Bud desperately worked the controls. “Our options are pretty limited with the repelatrons unusable,” Tom grated.

“What about killing the gravitexes?” urged Arv. “Won’t that cut-off the X-ians’ grab-force?”

“I did kill the gravs,” Tom retorted, “right after the last communication.”

“Then how—”

It was Mr. Swift who replied for his son. “There’s already plenty of gravitational stress-energy here in the Emma region. Tom’s detector shows that the anomalous G-waves emanate, not from the Window itself, but from the space immediately outside it, along its perimeter—its frame! The presence of the object crams the spacetime continuum aside, and the Planet X beings must be able to tap the resultant energy.”

“If they can, so can we!” exclaimed Tom. “The stresses are gravitational in nature—so let’s use our gravitexes to yank us away into space!”

As Tom reactivated the bank of gravitexes, the risk of his plan hung over the cabin. The devices might be able to pull the Starward away from the rift-node—but their activation would also feed additional power to the X-ians’ manipulation force.

As the gravitexes took hold, the Cosmotron Express jolted slightly and seemed to hesitate in its forward crawl—but only for a moment. “Not strong enough,” stated Tom, shutting them down hastily.

“Then it’s time for the Big Stick approach!” Bud declared. “The spacedriver worked before, Skipper.”

“Ye-ahhh, bull by th’ horns!” agreed Chow with cowpoke enthusiasm.

Tom oriented the cosmotron field and fed it a burst of power from the antiproton energine. The response was instantaneous! “Yeeee-ha!” cheered Chow, badly missing a hat to wave.

The Starward was breaking free! The nearby vertex of the triangular black region, the floating Dyaune, the more distant spectre of the Cosmotron II—all suddenly fell away and shrank. “Distance 200,” called out Bob Jeffers. “250—300—400—!”

Then his voice faltered, and Hannah whispered, “Oh no...”

“Slowing down,” Jeffers reported dully.

In seconds the ship had come to a full stop relative to the Black Window. “No go,” said Bud. “We’re starting to accelerate back! Tom—”

The young inventor moved with studied efficiency, working the controls, giving new orders to the computers. The cabin lights dimmed. “Diverting excess power to the drive unit,” he narrated.

“Not sufficient,” stated Mr. Swift bluntly. “Their force is matching us.”

“Overwhelming us,” said Andy. “We can’t escape. We’re about to enter Juronda, the place no one can leave.”

“Aa shuddup!” barked Chow. “Ain’t nothin’ Tom Swift can’t figger a way out of!”

But Tom sat motionless as the ship accelerated and the stark blackness expanded. “Tom?” asked Bud. “Another trick up your sleeve?”

Tom glanced at his best pal. “Maybe my blue-stripe T-shirt sleeves are too short this time.” But his last word ran into the first word of hope! “—Wait! We do have another card to play!”

He began to adjust the control settings. His father, looking over his shoulder, said quietly, “The repelatrons? But there’s nothing for them to push against.”

“Oh yes there is, Dad!” Tom gasped. “The Dyaune!”

The invisible surface of the Black Window, evidently perfectly flat, was very close and the hulk of the Brungarian ship loomed large before them. “We’re going to ram it!” murmured Neil fearfully.

“Oh no we’re not!” insisted Bud with a brave grin.

Suddenly a powerful shock nearly jolted the space travelers off their feet. Ahead, through the viewpane, they could see the Dyaune react to a similar shock, jumping away from them as the Express’s repelatrons took hold. The abandoned craft, a midget next to the mammoth Express, began to tumble as it accelerated away into the further darkness behind it. “Hold on!” Tom cried. “One big blast—!”

Tom hurled the Starward’s full energies through the repelatron beams. Suddenly the Dyaune was hurtling away, lost in shadow—and the Cosmotron Express was eeking out a frustrating amble in the reverse direction. “We’re moving,” said Neil MacColter, “but mighty slow.”

“I haven’t put her in gear yet!” Tom grinned. “Full-power switchover to the spacedriver—now!”

The crew glimpsed, for the merest instant, the shadowverse double of the Starward abruptly accelerating away, out of view, as if seeking a safe port. As it disappeared, the Window suddenly shrank with distance—tremendous distance in a split second! “Forty thousand miles!” Bob sang out. “One hundred thousand!—This is more like it!”

For the first time they could see the entire shape of the Black Window—a narrow triangle with a sharp point, miles long, showing as utter blackness against the dense glittering lawn of stars. As it shrank away in distance, it seemed to be changing in another way. “The thing’s curling up,” said Bud wonderingly. “Folding in on itself.” It was like a scrap of paper burning in a fireplace.

“The space beings have given up on their experiment and shut it down,” stated Hannah. “The guinea pigs were too darn uncooperative!”

The object diminished to a barely-visible line—and then it was gone. “We may not know the science of it,” Mr. Swift mused, “but the nature of it is clear. The X-ians created a rift in the continuum, a kind of tear opening a portal to—”

“To somewhere else,” finished Andor Emda. “But what sort of somewhere?”

“We’re at 0.37 C,” Tom reported, eyes on the board.

“Damon, we learned essentially nothing from this encounter,” Hank Sterling said. “What was that other version of the Starward? Some kind of spacetime mirage? The image of a possibility that didn’t happen? Was the ‘shadowverse’ really another separate universe, with its own history and inhabitants? Or did the X-ians actually create it—when they thought they were only opening a window to it? What a thought that is!”

“We did learn something, guys,” insisted Bud with a grin of enthusiasm. He turned toward Tom, who grinned back, the grin of understanding between two close friends. “You know what I mean, don’t you, genius boy?”

Tom nodded. “Remember what I once told you, Bud? ‘Not all questions have answers’? The reverse is also true. Not all answers have questions! What we saw and experienced was a great big floating answer to a question we didn’t know how to ask.”

“It’s the things we can’t figure out that give what we do—science—its savor,” declared Damon Swift with a proud look at his son. “The Planet X beings are right to want to find out ‘what is and what is not.’ But I wonder if our puny species doesn’t know something entirely beyond their reach. The Unknown is unending. And that fact is not a problem to be solved, but a truth to build a life around.”

“A frontier that never closes,” Tom breathed.

“Yep,” agreed Chow. “Not even at night!”

With the disappearance of the Emma object the anomalous G-wave phenomenon had also ceased. The Starward crew wondered, nervously, if the X-ians would use the end of the interference problem to apply the full measure of their capture technology to the ship—or punish them for their disobedience. But the ensuing days—many days at the upper limit of the spacedriver’s power—passed without comment from either the Planet X authorities or the Space Friends on Deimos.

But the long homeward voyage was not lacking in commentary. Nattan Volj did not enjoy being cooped-up. And made his views known.

They decided not to make any further planetary stops along the way. “Let’s just get home,” urged Violet Wohl. “The stars’ll wait for us.”

The two Swifts agreed. “We’ll land directly on Earth, at Fearing—the whole ship,” Tom explained. “We need to check over the Starward. And to check over all you captives, too. You’ve been out here quite a while.”

“A cursory check will do for me, thanks,” said Violet. “Then back to Nestria—home! I’ve had enough vacation. And there’s someone waiting.”

During the long return Tom checked daily with Harlan Ames via the Private Ear Radio. As they finally neared the Earth-Moon system, their final day in space, Tom told the crew that Ames had ended his assignment at Wickliffe Laboratories and had returned to Enterprises. “But what about the informant?” asked Sue Fresnell. “Did it turn out to be that Foger woman?”

Tom shrugged. “The investigation is continuing, but at Enterprises. Harlan’s a fast worker—he may have news for us by the time we set down.” He smiled at Sue.

“I hope so,” said Bud. “Because the Fire Fury is still buzzin’ around out there.” Suddenly he chuckled at himself. “Man!—shoulda called it the Fire Wasp!”

The youth’s words became an omen. As the Express cleaved the air over the Atlantic, descending toward Fearing Island under repelatron power, Bud exclaimed: “Something coming at us—jetz, Mach 8!”

“We can’t outrace it, not on tron power,” Tom stated coolly. “Let’s take her back up into space. I don’t know what Ikyoris wants, but the Viper Spirit can’t reach us up in orbit.”

But even as Tom began the deceleration that would precede a vertical putting-about, he gasped as new figures crossed the monitor. “The Fury—sudden acceleration! It’ll—”

The Starward jolted and rocked. “Buzzed us! Right over our heads!” cried Bud.

“Cloverleaf—and coming back at us...” warned Neil. Again the weird craft shot by at super-bullet speed, a streak of white fire.

“He’s not letting us ascend!” Tom grated. He grabbed the microphone. “Starward to Viper Spirit. What is it you’re after, Ikyoris?”

The Brungarian answered after another lightning near-miss. “Don’t worry, Tom. You need do nothing. Relax! ‘There is nothing wrong with your TV set.’ We have taken control. We control the vertical, the horizontal. The U-X is the master here.”

“What do you want of us?” demanded the Shoptonian.

“Our main concern is what it always was, Swift—the fate of Professor Nattan Volj!”

“He’s aboard and safe,” retorted Tom. “You must know that by now. We’ve rescued him.”

“Rescued him? I wouldn’t use quite those words, Tom. I fear we haven’t been, as they say, ‘straight’ with you.”

“Aw no,” muttered Bud.

The Fire Fury flashed by again, and the mighty Starward rocked helplessly, its gravitex stabilizers too slow to counteract the unpredictable thrusts. “We don’t ask you to trouble yourself putting our leader in our hands. No need for that little charade, not now. We’ll be more than happy to see his incinerated body drop into the depths of the ocean—along with the rest of you!

“Ah, Nattan, troublesome boy—a failure, an embarrassment. His remaining loyalists were mostly among his space crew. And now i-Szentimentlya has decided, in a most democratic way, on a bold new direction, with new leadership, an end to the impediments of the past.”

“In other words, he’s been fired,” Tom stated. “I suppose you’re the new Big Cheese?”

“Don’t worry your little blond head about it, boy,” snarled Ikyoris. “We intend to destroy your ship—no, not merely by singeing it with our exhaust. We will slice you to pieces with your own invention. We have an X-raser! But ours, Tom, is a cannon, not a popgun!”

The attacking beam was invisible against the glare of sea and sky, but Hanson exclaimed: “Puncture, hull sector 11-9!”

“The Inertite—” began Emda.

Mr. Swift interrupted him. “Even Inertite can’t stop that kind of concentrated power. A weapon-magnitude X-raser could easily cut the modules from the main hull, slice right through the metallumin shell!”

Another pass underlined the point. A hissing sound burst forth. “The main cabin’s been breached!” Bud warned. “We’ve got to go lower!”

“Listen, everyone!” Tom shouted as he manipulated the controls. “Leave the main deck!—everyone except Emda—I may need some emergency help, Andy, the defocus routine we talked about. All the rest of you head for the central compartments, the ones near the spacedriver installation. The raser won’t be able to penetrate to that depth right away.”

As the others stumbled toward the elevators, some protesting, Mr. Swift lay a hand on Tom’s shoulder. “Son, we might try—”

“Go with the others, Dad.”

“But I—”

“That’s an order!... Dad.”

Damon Swift smiled. “Wilco, Captain.”

Mr. Swift left, but others defied orders. “Don’t even think that I’m leaving you, ‘Captain’,” said Bud with the quiet of steel.

“Me neither!” said Chow. “An’ don’t try t’ push me around, son—I outweigh the three o’ you put t’gether!”

Tom nodded his gratitude as the ship rocked from another pass. “Thanks, guys.”

“What do you plan to do?” asked Emda. “Can’t you use the repelatrons to force them down—or away?”

Tom shook his head. “Moving way too fast—these embedded trons can’t remain focused long enough.” He looked at the others. “I’m going to have to try using the cosmotron, and it’s almost as dangerous as Ikyoris’s X-raser this deep in the gravitational field.”

“Inside-out,” gulped Chow faintly. “Ain’t that so?”

Reaching for one of the controls, Tom half-rose. “I’m not turning tail and running. There’s a way to use the spacedriver as a defensive weapon—Andy, remember what we worked out just—”

The young inventor’s words were cut short as the Starward jolted again—the most violent yet! With a shout Tom tumbled off-balance and slammed into the deck. He lay there unmoving!

“Tom!” cried Bud, still strapped in place. “Andy—”

“I’ll see to him.” Emda knelt down, trying to brace himself. “Pulse OK. Just stunned, I think.” He stood and stepped toward Tom’s control board. “I know what he had in mind. I can work the—”

“Stay right there, dad blame it!” came a gravelly bellow. Chow was aiming an i-gun at Emda! “You jest keep your Brungarian paws off them buttons!”

“Chow!” Emda exclaimed. “I’m the only one who can do this—Tom explained it to me. We don’t have time to—”

The ship rocked again as the fire-bolt shot by the viewpane!

“I know’d all along you were jest lookin’ fer a chance,” grated the cook. “Let Buddy Boy take over.”

“Barclay!” pled the Brungarian. “Talk him down!” Andor Emda shifted his gaze again to Chow. “I know you’ve never trusted me, Winkler. But Tom did!—remember that. Whatever his doubts, he decided to trust me!”

The shot was well-placed. Chow’s puffy hand wavered. He half-glanced toward Bud. “Wh-what do you say, Bud?”

Bud shook his head. “I trust you, pardner. The decision is yours.”

“Okay.” The ex-Texan lowered the i-gun. “Go to it.”

Emda flew at the board. “Tom told me about your experiment out on the lake,” he narrated. “The effects of a bad field focus—a momentum slosh-over entangling nearby matter. Water—and air!”

Suddenly the great craft vibrated, as if charging into a powerful head wind. But this was nothing to what was happening to the Fire Fury! Through the viewpane the four saw the firebrand twist and waver against the blue sky and the turquoise ocean below.

“Yes—y-yes! Follow after them!” Tom Swift had regained his feet.

“Roger!” chortled Bud. “Aye-aye! Yup!”

The enemy hyperjet was clearly out of control, battered by the anomalous ever-shifting blasts of air caused by the spacedriver’s distended momentum-field. The Express pursued it across the horizon on repelatron power, slowly drawing near. As Tom engineered an especially forceful blast, the Viper Spirit abruptly ducked down and nicked the top of  a wave. “Whattaya aim t’ do, boss?” asked Chow cheerily. “Don’t much matter. Them rats sure do deserve to drown!”

“The field is sucking away their lift,” replied the adventurer. “But they won’t go under. The craft is designed to self-right in a highspeed water landing.”

A plume of water, a frothy boiling wake miles long—and the chase was over. As was the deadly career of a little thing nicknamed Fire Fury.

As United States naval craft sped toward the stricken hyperjet, the Starward made its way to Fearing, settling down on its special drydock pad. “Nice spirited end to our Grand Tour,” commented Tom’s father wryly. He could see Mrs. Swift and Sandy waiting on the airfield nearby, along with Hank Sterling’s family, and Bashalli Prandit, who seemed to be rubbing her eyes with a handkerchief.

There was one more bit of business. Harlan Ames stood outside the door of the ship’s access elevator as it opened. He held an i-gun and Mace Vendiablo, next to him, held handcuffs.

“Hey!” gulped Bud. “What’s going on? Is that for Volj and his gang?”

“No, not Volj,” said Tom, stepping out and aside. “I’ve known since this morning—Harlan told me on the PER. He cracked the case, just as Pete and I knew he would.”

“Oh well. I knew it couldn’t just go on and on.” Susan Fresnell held out her wrists with a cynical smile. “I suppose Robert confessed?”

“Yes,” said Ames. “Your own ‘signoth’.” The security chief turned to Bud and the other bogglers, a crowd. “She never had an ‘insurance salesman husband.’ Her partner, Robert Jannivie, worked Wickliffe, just as she worked the Enterprises beat. Both on the Ikyoris payroll. And it was they who approached him.”

“I take it Robert was the one who originally passed along the Viper Spirit data,” stated Mr. Swift.

“We both did,” snapped Sue. “We shared everything, everything! And what a pleasure, what a delight to plant little clues, to paint a target on that snide, pretty Amelia Foger—and then to fly away into space, more danger, more wonder, right there with all of you, undetected! Nothing against you personally, Tom, or any of the others of you. Or even America. No, no. It was... existential!”

“Big words!” Chow was red-faced. “Never understand you people, never! Great jobs, good money—”

“Yes,” said Sue, to all of them. “You never will understand. Money? We didn’t do it for money. Do you guys think you’re the only people on Earth who want to live a thrilling life? Every minute was a chapter cliffhanger! Danger, excitement, risk—Robert and I had to see if we could do it. Had to! To hold lives in your hands, to share a look into the abyss— Oh, Tom, that night after I pulled you from your car, after I rolled up the cable and took it home, home to Robert—

“None of you will ever know that kind of passion, passion that fuses two people together like fire!”

“Oh, I dunno,” smiled Tom. “Even the slow and easy life of science can get the blood stirring now and then.”

The thought led him to other thoughts, to thoughts of his Quantum Telesphere project and the possibility of another fantastic trek into the heart of Nature, to flashes in memory of many challenges, many moments of peril, many unexpected triumphs marking his young life since the dawn of his Flying Lab.

And his thoughts led him to one young lady waiting on the airfield with a handkerchief in her hand.

“Well, Tom Swift, you came back,” she said.

“Sure, Bash,” grinned Tom Swift. “I always come back!”