TOM SWIFT LIVES!
TOM SWIFT AND HIS
This unauthorized tribute
Is based upon
the original TOM SWIFT JR. characters.
SCOTT DICKERSON, AUTHOR
As of this printing,
The New TOM SWIFT Jr. Adventures
is owned by
SIMON & SCHUSTER
This edition privately printed by
PRINTED IN THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
TOM SWIFT AND HIS
“LET’S read minds!” Arvid Hanson jokingly urged his friend and employer, Tom Swift. The voice of the Swift Enterprises technical modelmaker was sharp with excitement, but his big Swedish form was little more than a shadow in the semi-darkness.
“Aw, come on, Arv,” said Tom in feigned annoyance. “I’ve told you time and again― ”
“Yeah sure, I know, I know, Skipper. Your telesphere is not a matter-beamer, and your thoughtograph machine is not a mind reader. Just a miracle!”
Tom and Arv were huddled together inside the back compartment of an enclosed truck the size of a small moving van, an unmarked vehicle driven by young Bob Jeffers in the front cab. They were slowly staggering through the streets of traffic-choked Manhattan, a good three-hour drive from Shopton, New York, where Tom and his famous invention factory made its home.
In the circle of dimmed light thrown by a single hooded lamp, Tom sat at an electronic control board decked out in meter and oscilloscope. At the middle of the panel was a small rectangular video screen. As Arv looked over his shoulder, the young inventor’s index finger hovered over the button that would institute the final stage of the imaging procedure he was field-testing.
“Who’s first?” Tom asked Hanson. “Your choice.”
“Bud,” declared Arv. “He’s your best pal. You have a right to know what’s on his mind!”
Three sets of sidewalk-strollers were helping Tom test his new invention. Bud Barclay, his closest friend, was on Madison Avenue. Big, colorful Chow Winkler had been assigned to Fifth Avenue. Tom’s sister Sandra, with family friend Bashalli Prandit, was taking in Park Avenue. As the thoughtograph imager was designed to pick up mental impressions of the visual kind, Tom had directed them to three of Manhattan’s tony shopping areas. The street scenery there would be varied and interesting to Tom’s pedestrian subjects.
The crewcut young man spoke into a small microphone clipped to his shirt collar. “Swift to Barclay! You ready, flyboy? You’re my first victim.”
“As per usual!” was the joking reply. “Fire away!”
Making use of the continuous signal provided by Bud’s micro-cellphone, Tom rotated the multipronged telextenna that sat upon its gimbaled base on the floor of the van. Its tiny motor assembly whirred in response. When it had locked on to Bud, who was a good ten blocks distant, the young scientist-inventor activated the antenna array. In his mind Tom could imagine an invisible beam darting at light speed across the intervening space, passing like a ghost through all obstructions, and focusing in on Bud’s skull and the electrochemical patterns skittering across the brain within it.
Instantly the image monitor began to show a writhing, shifting chaos of light and color. As Tom worked the dials, sharpening and enhancing the “thoughtograph” he was acquiring, the eerie shadows took on definite shapes.
“Something triangular,” murmured Arv, indicating the bottom of the screen. “Slanted way over to the side.”
Tom nodded happily. “I’m sure it’s the sidewalk, appearing narrower as it goes off into the distance. And these oval blobs are other people—look how they’re moving along.”
Tom’s machine did not function like a television or movie camera. Each thoughtograph was a still image, the instantaneous photograph of a single living thought. But they succeeded one another at a rate of about three per second, giving the screen a jerky, interrupted illusion of movement. “You’d better invent some kind of image-smoother, Tom,” Arv commented. “That jerkiness is a little hard on the eyes.”
“I know. But it’s not just the rate of images that’s at fault, Arv. Some of the image elements we’re seeing are purely imaginary, subliminal parts of Bud’s brain process that he probably never notices. They pop into existence, flit around, and disappear too quickly and randomly to register on his consciousness—but they’re captured in the thoughtograph, and we see it on the screen. Sort of like the way an ultra-highspeed camera can freeze motion.”
Hanson gave Tom’s shoulder a squeeze as he leaned closer to the monitor screen. “Chief, I wonder how many times I’ve called one of your brainstorms unbelievable. But just imagine—we’re actually seeing the world through someone’s mind’s eye, exactly as he experiences it himself in his own mind!”
Tom modestly looked down at the controls. “Well, we don’t have anything very close to the exact mental image. Just a sort of impression.”
“Yeah. But just wait!” Hanson snorted.
The two studied the screen as Bud continued to stroll along. This was not merely a record of the literal “feed” from the young pilot’s eyes, but an actual picture of his visual imagination, a mixture of the real and the imaginary. Images and colors that piqued Bud’s interest or attention—from the outer or inner world—appeared bright and sharp on the monitor. But the background elements that he cared little about, or that his walking body responded to in an automatic way, were indistinct. Barely registering on his consciousness, they barely registered on the screen.
“What’s that?” asked Arv. “It looks like a pile of cantaloupes, but it’s moving.”
Tom chuckled. “It’s muscles, Arv—some buffed-out gym guy walking along. And I predict that the next thing we’ll see—yep, there it is!”
A familiar outline appeared on the screen. Though some segments were washed out, the face, and parts of the arms and chest, were vividly displayed.
Hanson nodded. “It’s Bud, all right. What’s he doing?”
“I’d guess he’s checking out his reflection in a storefront window, comparing that engineered athletic physique of his to the other guy’s.” Before their eyes, Bud’s image began to alter itself by fits and starts, the T-shirt melting away, the shoulders broadening, the arm muscles bloating. “Vanity, vanity,” Tom continued in teasing disgust. “And it’s all in his mind!—mostly.” He touched his microphone pin. “Okay, Barclay, stop admiring yourself and get moving!”
“Sorry, guys. You know I find myself irresistible!”
Presently Tom reset the controls, and the telextenna shifted to a new focus. “Let’s see what our partner from the prairies is into.”
Chow Winkler’s mind’s-eye had an all-too-predictable bent. The Texas-born former chuck-wagon cook was Tom’s personal chef and a good and loyal friend, but he had a peculiar attraction to western wear of the gaudy variety, shirts in particular. For this, he took a good deal of affectionate ribbing, and took it good-naturedly. However improbably, it was clear that Fifth Avenue boasted some sort of western clothing shop, and the display window had caught Chow’s eye. Foggy images suggesting shirts drifted about, appearing and disappearing. Suddenly one jumped to the foreground, its pattern a brilliant if eccentric entanglement of silver and rose-red.
“Oh no, cowpoke, not that one!” gulped Arv. “Tom, he’s gonna kill our appetites if he wears that thing when he brings his lunchcart around.”
“But look what’s happening,” Tom replied.
“Hunh!—it’s fading out.”
“Because it was mostly just imagination, Chow’s notion of what a shirt ought to look like. See? There’s the real one, a big dim blur. Way too conservative for him.” Tom again turned his attention to the controls. “Now for Sandy and Bash.”
Sandra Swift’s series of thoughtographs presented an odd jumble of many different things in front of a vague and shifting background. Sharply etched faces of men and women seemed to float into view, then disappear again. There were many images of clothing—usually just parts of clothing—and unusually distinct patches of pure color, always appearing side by side. “I think she’s comparing colors,” Tom commented; “probably on clothes.”
“Look at that!” The modelmaker broke into a grin. “Ever see an ear go by without a body?”
“It’s the earring that she’s most interested in,” declared Sandy’s brother. He radioed to her: “So you like that earring, huh, San?”
“Don’t be a stereotypist, Tom!” came the reply. “It just happened to catch my eye. You—you’re really seeing my thoughts on your TV screen?”
“Sure am. Think good thoughts, sis.”
A new voice cut in, marked by a slight accent. “Thomas, I have a few good thoughts. Do tune into my brain, won’t you?”
“Will do, Bashalli.” Knowing the young Pakistani’s puckish sense of humor, Tom glanced Arv’s way, and he returned a wary look.
Tom switched the settings again to focus on Bash. The images came in with strong definition and realistic color.
“Not a surprise,” murmured the young inventor approvingly. “She’s an artist—good visual imagination and a real eye for detail.”
Hanson looked bemused as the next series of thoughtographs began to flash on the screen, gaining detail with each successive “frame.” “What is it, a man standing on the street?”
Tom made some small adjustments to the monitor settings. “The color must be off. It’s like he isn’t wearing… any…” He cut himself off in midsentence, reddening. “Bash!” he choked out.
“Quite a nice imagination I have, is it not so? And with an eye for detail.”
“Quite an eye!”
“I doubt it is the eye that impresses you. Oh please, don’t be quaintly embarrassed, Thomas. It was good enough for Adam and Eve. Why not us? And I omitted the fig leaf, though, you know, I do like figs.” She giggled and whispered something to Sandy. Tom could hear his sister joining in the merriment.
“Very funny,” Tom said as the image began to blur and fade. “I’m just glad you didn’t give him my face.”
“Believe me, Tom, nothing could be further from my mind!” answered Bashalli in a tone that made Tom wonder what she was getting at. “In fact—I—oh my, I― ”
Suddenly the monitor pictures began to change radically. Images of distorted buildings took over, then what resembled the static snow of bad TV reception.
“Bashalli!” Tom cried. “What’s happening?” Receiving no answer, he switched to Sandy’s channel. “Sandy, what’s― ”
“Oh Tom!” came the shrieking interruption. “Come quick! It’s Bashi—she’s collapsed on the sidewalk!”
Tom turned white with fear!
“IT’ll TAKE a half hour to get there in this traffic!” Tom declared. He spoke into his microphone: “Hold on, Sandy. I’m taking the zoomcycle.”
The back compartment of the van carried one of Tom’s zoomcycles, firmly anchored to the wall by brackets. This invention was a silent electric motorcycle, gyrostabilized and designed to fold down into a compact parcel. Tom pulled the folded-up assemblage from its brackets—it was light enough to be held up in one hand—and in the same smooth motion threw the lever that would open a panel at the rear of the truck and lower a ramp to street level. Whipping open the cycle to its rideable form and grabbing a helmet, Tom whirred away, jetting from the truck so feverishly that his wheels barely touched the ramp!
Using the miniaturized equipment built into his helmet, Tom homed in on Sandy’s phone signal. He zigzagged through the streets at a frantic pace, taking sharp corners with barely a diminution of speed. Within a half-minute the inbuilt gravitex stabilizer had reined the cycle to an abrupt but gentle stop at the curb.
Sandy kneeled next to Bashalli, who lay crumpled on the sidewalk completely unconscious. Tom thrust his way roughly through the growing circle of onlookers and sank down at his friend’s side, taking her wrist.
“Pulse steady,” he murmured in relief. Making a quick scrutiny, he satisfied himself that there were no obvious signs of concussion, no puncture marks indicating any injection via a dart or needle—a mode of enemy attack he had encountered before. “Maybe she’s just fainted, San.”
“I don’t think so,” she replied. “Why would she? It’s not hot today—she’s never done it before.”
“You didn’t notice anything unusual before she collapsed?”
Trembling, Sandy collected her thoughts. “No, nothing really. She was talking to you, and then her eyes went sort of glassy, you know? All of a sudden. Then down she went!”
“She may have had a heart attack,” said Tom worriedly. But another thought crossed his analytical mind. What if her condition had been triggered, somehow, by his test of the thoughtograph imager?
Even as he called an ambulance, he heard its siren cry in the distance. But it seemed a maddeningly long time before the vehicle had arrived and Bashalli had been lifted on board, Tom and Sandy climbing in with her.
“What about your cycle?” asked Sandy distractedly.
He replied, “It can’t be moved while the gravitex is on. Arv and Bob will pick it up and head for the hospital with Bud and Chow.”
Bashalli was examined in the nearest emergency room. The doctor’s report was bemused. “Miss Prandit is not in any danger, and has regained consciousness. Pending a full MRI, I see no sign of myocardial infarction—that is, a heart attack—or stroke. Her fluids are normal, blood pressure good.”
“So much for what you don’t find!” Sandy blurted out impatiently. “What’s wrong with her?”
“I have no diagnosis at present, Miss Swift.”
“But she’s all right now, doctor?” inquired Tom with urgency in his voice.
The medic frowned. “To be frank, she seems a bit confused. Did you say she is a native of Pakistan?”
“Then I believe she is speaking to us in Pakistani, with some English mixed in. She’s agitated, which is understandable; you may be able to calm her.”
The two hurried to Bashalli’s bed in the emergency room, finding her sitting upright, calm but very pale. “Oh, Bashi, how do you feel?” asked Sandy, taking her hand.
Bash stared at Sandy and pulled her hand away. “English—you are speaking English. And so am I. But how? I have only started to learn it.” As Sandy gazed at her in amazement, the young Pakistani continued, “I know you. I feel I know you. And you also,” she added, turning to Tom and studying his face. “I have seen you both somewhere—haven’t I?”
“Bashalli, we’re good friends of yours, in Shopton,” Tom said gently. “I’m Tom, and this is Sandy.”
The girl shook her head. “Just names. What is Shopton? A store? For foreigners?”
“Don’t you remember anything?” Sandy asked tearfully.
Bashalli slitted her eyes and was silent for a moment. “The doctor has already inquired. Many things. My family, our store, the school. My teacher is Mrs. Hassunas. My name is Bashalli Prandit.”
Tom and Sandy pulled chairs close to her and sat down. Tom leaned over and looked into her eyes earnestly. “Bashalli, where do you live? Do you remember?”
“Yes, of course. At the end of the mercantile lane, the new Tumoash Road, in the two-story house with blue trim and the gate of iron. You must know it.”
“But in what city?” Tom persisted.
She surprised the young inventor by laughing. “As if we would live in the city! The village is Dijari. Where is this hospital I am in?”
Sandy answered. “New York City.”
Bashalli stared but did not respond.
“Listen,” said Tom. “You haven’t lived in Pakistan for years now. You moved to the United States, to the town of Shopton. You live there with your brother, Moshan, and his family. You work at his coffee house, The Glass Cat, and you’re a student at the DuBrey Art Institute.”
“And how can I do these things, young sir?” Bashalli objected unsteadily. “I am not old enough, surely. At my last birthday, I was twelve.”
As Sandy broke down, Tom tried to speak reassuringly. “You had an accident just now, while walking on the sidewalk in Manhattan with Sandy. It’s affected your memory.”
“Ah!” respond ed the girl. “Amnesia! How very exotic! Somehow I don’t remember even what I have learnt, or how I have learnt it. But to learn English… to know it this well…” She seemed suddenly afraid. “Years have passed. Tell me!”
Tom nodded. “A number of years. I’m a year older than Sandy here, my sister, and you’re older still.”
She smiled nervously. “Now I know this is a hoax. I would never tell a man my age! That doctor—he was also speaking English, wasn’t he? Yet, so very strange, I could not understand him at first. I was thinking in Urdu. Now, I remember what he said as if I understood all along.”
“You must be getting better,” said Tom. “I’m sure you’ll be just fine.”
“I like optimism, sir—Tom is your name? Yes, now I am sure we’ve met.” Suddenly tears came to her eyes. Her hand darted out and grasped Tom’s arm. “My father, my mother… I’m so frightened. But I can’t go home. Are they—?”
Tom gave her hand a gentle squeeze. “They’re fine, all of them. They phone you every week. Do your best not to be upset. You’ll have those years back in a day or two, Bash.”
“Bash,” Bashalli repeated thoughtfully. “I like that. And this is America? My, my.” She settled back on her pillow and allowed her eyes to drift shut.
Arv, Bud, and the others had arrived meanwhile and were anxiously waiting in the lobby. Sandy filled them in while Tom stood apart, making calls on his cellphone.
Bud was aghast. “S-she didn’t know who you were? Doesn’t know any of us, San?”
“Wa-aal, they’s no way she coulda fergot ol’ Chow,” insisted Chow Winkler. “Me with my western ways an’ colorful shirts an’ all.”
“You have a point,” agreed Bob Jeffers. “Maybe we should send you in to see her next!”
“Not a good idea,” Bud cautioned. “It’s a little soon to be talking about shock treatment!”
After a few minutes Tom rejoined them. “I talked to Dad, then Moshan, then Doc.” Doc Simpson was the youthful staff physician for Swift Enterprises. When Arv asked what Simpson had said, Tom continued: “He’s never heard of something like this happening so suddenly without signs of a stroke or something similar. But he made a recommendation, which Moshan agreed to. We’re moving Bashalli over to Fiske-Hergan on Long Island, not too far from the Enterprises jetmarine pier.”
“Some kind o’ hospital?” asked Chow.
“A small private hospital specializing in neurological disorders,” Tom confirmed. “Both Doc and Dad have met Dr. Fiske, and have high regard for him. Naturally, Enterprises will pick up the bill—Bash was working for us when this thing happened.”
“You’d do it anyway, Tom,” Bud noted with a slight smile.
Arvid Hanson now spoke quietly. “Tom, is it possible that the thoughtograph process could have brought this about in some way? After all, your device works by probing the human mind.”
Tom paused before responding, but found he could only manage a shrug. “It showed no negative effects in the earlier tests at the plant. I tried it on myself, you know—many times. It didn’t affect you others today.”
“Well, what about this?” interjected Sandy. “What if there were a power surge, or something? Couldn’t some sort of shock travel along the antenna beam into― ”
Tom did not let her finish. “That doesn’t make sense! Look, the telextenna beam is the same sort of chopped-off wave-field as we use with the megascope. A kind of invisible sensor-point is created next to the person being ‘scanned’ that can detect changes in the visual cortex and the other parts of the central nervous system that encode and process the experience of seeing—information in visual form, whether fed in from the eye or from other parts of the brain. It’s just a receiving antenna, completely passive. It picks up certain signals given off by neural tissue, and doesn’t even penetrate the skull.” The young inventor sounded as if he were trying desperately to convince himself.
“I know all that, Tom,” said Arv gravely. “But I have to say, I’m skeptical of coincidences like this. We may need to take a deeper look at the situation.”
Tom agreed, and was miserable doing it. “Yes. You’re right, Arv.”
After further muted discussion, it was decided that Bob would drive Bud, Chow, and Arv back to Shopton in the van. Tom would have an Enterprises jetrocopter from the jetmarine pier pick up himself and Sandy at the Fiske-Hergan Institute to fly them home after Bashalli had settled in and Tom had spoken with the doctor.
Standing off to the side, Bud caught Tom’s eye and began discreetly signing to him with ASL—American Sign Language—which he and Tom had learned together. “Wouldn’t it be better to have San start off right away, with us? She seems mighty upset, genius boy.”
Tom nodded and signed back. “That’s why I’d like to have her go with Bash to the hospital. I think seeing Bash comfortable, and taking a look at the facility, will reassure her.” Bud indicated that he understood.
A brief ambulance ride conveyed Bashalli and her friends to the modern-styled Institute. The young Pakistani was fully conscious, calm and lucid, heroically holding down her despair at having several years of her life stolen from her. Her private room was cheerful and homelike.
As she lay back in bed, she gestured at the wall-mounted television. “At least the programs will be new to me,” she joked—unconvincingly. “Even the reruns!”
While Sandy remained at her friend’s side, Tom spoke at length to the chief doctor, Isaac Fiske, who took careful notes. “We’ll learn something interesting from this case,” he told Tom. “Quite unusual, obviously. We’ll be doing a neurochemistry workup to start with. I have a suspicion this is a serotonin-reuptake issue, perhaps due to an allergic reaction.”
“Bash does have some rare allergies,” Tom noted.
Presently Tom was informed that the jetrocopter he had arranged for had landed on the hospital’s roof helipad. Bidding Bashalli a warm and optimistic goodbye, he led his sister up to the helipad. The helmeted pilot greeted them.
“Hope you two don’t mind the back seat,” he said apologetically. “This was the only chopper available, and we didn’t have time to stow away this junk up here.”
Sandy gave a listless response. “I don’t care where I ride. I just want to get home.”
The jet-assisted helicraft lifted off smoothly and rose through a lazy turn, eventually adopting a southerly direction.
Tom leaned forward. “Shopton’s northwest, you know.”
The pilot gave a nod. “New regulations for city overflights. Since 9-11.”
As Tom settled back in his seat, Sandy’s face darkened. “Excuse me, but I’m a pilot too. I’ve never heard of any regulations that would make you start off heading south from Long Island.”
There was a short silence, and Tom and Sandy exchanged glances. Then the pilot replied. “You’re right, Miss Swift. We’re heading south because that’s where we’re going. I’m not taking you to Swift Enterprises!”
TOM’s lean muscles tensed for action. Without exchanging a word or even a look, he knew that Sandy was ready to back him up. Could the two of them take the pilot? Was he armed?
“Rebuckle those seat belts, you two!” the man chuckled. “I’m one of the good guys! Don’t you recognize me, Tom?”
“Well, I was wearing a helmet then, and I’m wearing one now—I thought you might see a resemblance! Lt. Chic Deever, U.S. Navy!” Unable to reach all the way back for a handshake, he waggled a gloved hand in the air.
Sandy glanced at Tom with slitted eyes, suspicious of a prank. “Do you really know him, Tom?”
“I’m not sure,” he murmured thoughtfully. “Maybe my memory is going.”
“Hey, c’mon!” laughed Deever. “It hasn’t been all that long since I dropped in on you—Hurricane Edna, remember? As you can see, I’ve made it into the regular ranks.”
Tom snapped his fingers. “Sure! Sandy, this is that Naval Reserve pilot I rescued in the cycloplane after he had to eject during the storm.”
“Oh. That one.” Sandy spoke uncertainly. “So are you returning the favor now, or what?”
“Official government business,” Deever replied. “I was ordered not to identify myself or explain until we were airborne. When we found out what was going on, we contacted the head of your jetmarine installation and arranged this little trick—which, sorry, I kind of enjoyed! Tip-top security. As soon as you arrive, we’ll contact your folks in Shopton and let them know what’s become of you.”
“Nice of you,” Tom commented dryly. “And what has become of us, Lieutenant?”
The man laughed again. “Oh, you’re just being kidnapped, but it’s in a good cause. At least I assume it is. Not like they’d brief me before you!”
“We’re heading for D.C.?”
“Nope. Close, though. Arlington, Virginia.” Deever now put on the jet speed, pushing his passengers against their cushioned seatbacks. “So relax. Any more questions?”
“I have one,” said Sandy. “What kind of a name is Chic?”
“It’s what you call yourself when you have parents who name you Chichesterfield!”
They traveled south in awkward silence, the whine of jets and the drone of whipped air in the background. Presently they swooped down for a landing in what appeared to be a modern business park. “Welcome to the colorful little village of Point Oh-Eight,” grinned Deever as he helped Tom and Sandy from the chopper. “These nice chauffeurs in Navy whites have come to take you to the party in their antique jalopy. See you later, guys.”
“Later,” Sandy called back. She added sarcastically: “‘Chichesterfield’!”
They rode two blocks past blankfaced buildings, the two Navymen polite but silent. Then the car headed into a concrete tunnel, stopping next to a sliding glass door which slid aside automatically. On the other side stood a man in civilian garb, hand extended. Tom’s face lit up immediately. “Dr. Kutan!”
He gave the short, rather heavyset man a warm handshake. The man then turned and offered his hand to Sandy, giving a little bow in the continental manner. “Teodor Kutan,” he said, Polish accent firmly in place. “So nice to meet you, Miss Swift.”
Like any reader of the daily news, Sandy knew the name Teodor Kutan. He was a renowned and skillful diplomat who had served more than one President as his personal representative in delicate, intricate foreign negotiations.
“You were on the Nestria expedition, weren’t you, sir?” asked Sandy with wide eyes.
He nodded. “Indeed so. I have that privilege. It makes quite a nice entry in my resume!”
When friendly extraterrestrials had given Earth her tiny, asteroid-sized new moon, it was Tom Swift to whom the government assigned the responsibility of leading the expedition to establish an American claim to the phantom satellite. Teodor Kutan had represented the government on the mission. Tom had found him likeable, insightful, and very skillful at his job.
“I don’t suppose you’ll tell us what’s going on, will you?” asked Tom.
“I am able to, but not authorized to; therefore, I won’t,” the man replied, eyes twinkling. “But surely the famous inventing genius can manage a few minutes of patience!” He turned and led Tom and Sandy down a long hallway and into a large, well-appointed lounge area. “With apology, I must ask you to remain here, Miss Swift,” he said.
“Sandy goes wherever I go, Dr. Kutan,” Tom began to object.
But Sandy touched her brother gently. “No, Tomonomo, it’s all right. I don’t mind.” She eyed the large television screen at the end of the room. “I can watch Wheel of Cheese.”
Uneasy but relenting, Tom followed Dr. Kutan into the next room, a long half-darkened conference room dominated by an oval table at which a number of men sat waiting, some in uniform, some not.
Tom recognized one of the men immediately, seated at the far end of the table. “Of course you’re already acquainted with Yuri,” commented Kutan as Tom nodded a surprised greeting.
“Yes. Well, actually, I guess we’ve never met,” responded Tom. “That is, we’ve only spoken to one another in a teleconference, over a video link.”
“Of course,” Kutan said. “Then we shall do our introductions properly. Tom Swift, may I present Dr. Yuri Nemastov, Chief Minister of Applied Sciences and Technology of the Russian Federation, and Special Consultative Officer to His Excellency the President.”
“Piffash!” muttered Nemastov. “Diplomatic long-windedness, Kutan. Sit the boy down and let us get started.”
Tom sat next to Dr. Kutan, and the others introduced themselves. They represented many parts of the security establishment of the United States—the State Department, the Defense Department, the CIA, and the National Security Agency. Also present were representatives of the United Nations, NATO, and the European Union.
Good grief! thought Tom. Whatever this is, it’s about as big as anything can get!
The meeting was chaired by the newly-appointed Undersecretary of State, Richard Trane. “I trust you’re duly impressed by this group, Tom? I’m sure it’s obvious that what we’re dealing with is an extremely serious matter.”
“Yes sir, I have that impression.”
“Then we’re starting off on the same page. What you are about to hear is classified at the highest level. We’ve gone to you directly for help, because—well, let us do this in order. Go ahead, Yuri.”
Nemastov rose to his feet, his ample midsection squeezing past the polished wooden tabletop. “I have no preface to soften what I am about to relate. This is a nuclear situation, Tom. In a way it is an internal matter for Russia. Yet, like an odor, it has spread. I would say that the West—ah, I forget: we are now ‘the West’—we all have reason for concern. Tom, what do you happen to know of a little eensy-teensy country by the name of Respublika Zirghozyi? That is, the Zirghoz Republic?”
Tom gave a slight shrug. “About as much as most people, I guess. It’s in central Asia, isn’t it?”
“Indeed so.” Nemastov smiled. “One of those. Formerly a possession of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Now, free as a hedgehog. Naturally, she chose to exercise her first moments of freedom by turning to a thuggish dictator to keep her people in line. His name is Yongjiss Ubar. He has an impressive title: Popular Democratic First-Citizen of the Motherland.”
“Very well, then. Now, I give a little lecture on history, leavened with science. My deceased country, the U.S.S.R., was eternally fearful of encirclement and attack by her innumerable enemies; that is, the rest of the earth. She acquired nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them, and planted them throughout the conquered buffer countries that surrounded her—what we call in our language the Near-Abroad. The Zirghoz Soviet Federated Socialist Republic had a handful of these missiles and warheads.”
Undersecretary Trane broke in with a comment. “The U.S. and Russia have negotiated the destruction of those weapons, of course.”
“Some of them,” added Nemastov. “The acknowledged ones. Embarrassingly enough, some remain in circulation.”
Tom’s voice was grave. “Then, are you saying—this dictator, Ubar, has an H-bomb and delivery system?”
“Just so, young man,” confirmed Dr. Nemastov. “Does it make you nervous? Not so nervous as it makes us, for we share a border with his poor nation. The First-Citizen denies that he has access to this majestic weapon; that is, the technical ability to control it for use. We are not convinced, particularly when he makes veiled threats against us.”
“In other words, sir—you do know of it and where it is.” Tom’s voice was crisp. He was in no mood for the customary pretenses of government and diplomacy.
Teodor Kutan spoke up hastily. “That is unimportant. Ubar demands that Russia support a redrawing of borders and the forcible relocation of tens of thousands of people of Russian descent, whom he rightly fears would oppose his rule.”
“No one wants this but Ubar,” Nemastov continued, eyes somewhat narrowed in Tom’s direction. He poured a glass of water and sipped it. “Now then. Leaving out certain details known by some, not all, in this room, the situation is as follows. We are very sure Ubar’s people have taken possession of the bomb, as of last Monday, and warn us through silent channels that there will be an ‘accident’ just across the Zirghozyi-Russian border unless we accommodate him. A deadline date has been intimated. In other words, he will either get the territory and depopulate it, or leave for us an irradiated landscape depopulated in a different way. Do you understand this, young Tom?”
“I do, sir,” replied the young inventor. “It’s horrible!”
“At least that. Is there worse than horrible? —for that is what I would say, my friend. But there is an interesting way to change the odds.” The Russian seemed to look straight into Tom’s eyes, raising his eyebrows. “And that, Tom Swift, is precisely where you come in!”
A STARTLING SOLUTION
EVEN AS Dr. Nemastov made his declaration, Tom’s fertile mind was already alive to the possibilities. “Yes, Doctor—and I have an idea of what to do. If you’ll provide the precise composition of the missile’s shell, we could use my repelatron machines to bounce the missile away, maybe even swat it out into space!” The reference was to Tom’s revolutionary force-ray matter repeller.
But Nemastov immediately doused the idea in cold water. “No, no. It was our first thought as well, but it would not work. Your repulsion machines could hardly protect the entire border region, nor do we know either the precise target or the launch site.”
Tom concurred reluctantly. “And I guess there’s a further problem. We’re assuming that he’ll use the Soviet missile left behind. But that’s just an assumption, isn’t it? He could smuggle the warhead in, by truck for instance, or find a way to conceal it aboard an aircraft flying in from some third country.”
“We have considered all those possibilities, Tom.” Nemastov sipped the water again. Tom noted with concern that the man’s hand was slightly trembling. “In fact, some of us believe the warhead may already be in place, planted somewhere within the disputed territory.”
Tom was silent, waiting.
Nemastov broke into a strained smile. “Ah, but there is hope, there is hope! The Swift inventive genius may yet save the day.”
“Let’s cut the theatrics,” muttered the tall man from the CIA.
“America!—instant this, instant that. But you are my hosts.” The Russian tapped his stubby fingers on the tabletop as he gathered his thoughts. “We in the U.S.S.R. trusted no one, most especially our allies. To forestall this very dilemma, the capture and use of our own weapons against us, our scientists did something that seemed to them very clever. Each nuclear device included a mechanism, itty-bitty, intricately inserted into its microelectronic circuitry. We call it by a little name which means, in English, ‘the second edge.’ A two-edged sword, do you see?—as such, it cannot be grasped. This little cluster of chips and associated components cannot be extracted from the warhead without activating its function, rendering the warhead unusable, its fissile materials degraded by acid, utterly irrecoverable.”
Tom asked how the Second-Edge device worked in the case of an attack.
“It is most basic,” was the response. “If we are in fear of a certain warhead, we need merely transmit an encrypted signal to a special sort of antenna deep inside the mechanism, which cannot be blocked or disconnected. The signal, very penetrating, awakens the Second-Edge, and the warhead is immediately neutralized.”
“I see,” said Tom. “But—if I understand, all you have to do to take care of this bomb is transmit that signal, maybe over a wide area. Right?”
The Russian chuckled. “If only it were so, and we had no need for this meeting! But let us do some thinking, shall we? We had to worry that the code might become known, which would allow the signal to be effectively jammed. And so our Comrades-in-brilliance, chosen technicians and mathematicians, designed the Second-Edge to allow a new code to be input directly—not by remote signal, you see, but by making a connection at the site itself. And so this wonderful code would be frequently changed, the old one ineffective.
“The routine was like this,” Dr. Nemastov continued. “A small cadre of technicians, rendered absolutely loyal and trustworthy by the rather extreme measures perfected by the Soviets, visit the various warheads at varying intervals, usually a few months, to physically plug into a circuit port and download into it the replacement code, a long string of numbers with certain ‘validation sequences’ inserted within. The technician carries with him a tiny portable computer, nicknamed in Russian the Shoebox, which generates the new code on the spot, based on random, unpredictable factors—subatomic states, you know; quantum stuff. Having input the code, the technician then returns to Moscow with the new code recorded in the Shoebox. The code is visible on a digital readout as it is going in, but we do not permit the technician to write it down, obviously.”
“But you can’t carry out your procedure with this warhead, because you don’t have access to it now,” said Tom.
Nemastov slapped the tabletop humorously. “Correct! A big prize to Tom Swift! But the good news is, we are not concerned with inputting a new code. What we wish to know is: What code is presently in effect for that warhead?”
Tom looked puzzled. “You don’t have a record of the last code?”
The Russian did not shake his head, but assumed a dour look that expressed his response perfectly. “The last assigned technician, Rassim Iskovich, was found dead in a nice hotel room in Zirghozyia, a victim of foul play. The Shoebox was missing. He was to have visited the site—the last site known to us—the day before, and from evidence of his travels we are fairly sure he generated and downloaded the new code. But we do not know what it is.”
“This was a few months ago,” put in Undersecretary Trane. “Shortly thereafter, Ubar began making his threats.”
“Are you with us so far?” the man from the U.N. asked Tom. “A complicated affair, is it not?”
“It sure is,” he replied wryly. “But I understand it. At least I think I do.”
“Good!” declared Nemastov. “Now I fear I must introduce you to one of those terrible Russian names of ours: Andriej Burkeshyanov. Call him Andri—he is just a boy, fifteen years old, a Chechen orphan informally adopted by our poor Mr. Iskovich. Iskovich took the boy everywhere with him, for he could not be left alone, not even for an hour. He had permission—yes, foolish!—to take Andri with him even to the warhead site. Do you know of the condition called autism, Tom?”
The young inventor nodded. “A neurological disorder. No one knows what causes it.”
“A disorder of social learning, so to speak. Autistics can be brilliant in their own way, but they fail to ‘connect’ with the outside world as others do. Their behavior can be peculiar, self-centered, unrestrained. They can become obsessed with certain things, upset by others, and have great difficulty communicating, or understanding, even commonplace ideas. Yet sometimes they are able to do incredible things—feats of calculation, extraordinary memory for detail, powers of perception that seem almost beyond human capability. Such a person is Andri. His memory is uncanny, phenomenal.”
Tom asked if the boy had witnessed his father’s murder and might know what had happened to the stolen Shoebox device.
Dr. Nemastov’s face became almost sunny. “He was found in the hotel by our investigating agents, hiding in a backstairs linen closet and perfectly calm. He may well have seen these things. But you see, he cannot tell us what he saw. Too fragmented, that mind of his. Nevertheless, young man, we in this room believe he is the solution to our dilemma, the key. Or rather, he is a locked box, and you, Tom, will provide the key.”
Tom sat back in his chair, pulse pounding. “I think I know what you want, Doctor. Your solution is to have me use my new invention, my thoughtograph imager, on Andri. You want me to read his mind!”
There was a stir around the table, a sharing of glances and a few smiles. Tom knew he had hit the mark!
“We do know a little about your project, Tom,” noted the man from the Defense Department, eyebrows raised apologetically. “You and your father are always very cooperative when you’re working on something with national security implications.”
“You knew I was testing it today in New York,” Tom declared flatly. “You knew about what happened to Bashalli, and where we took her.”
The man nodded. “Obviously. You can hardly blame us in times like these. We have made some slight incursions into your privacy. But let’s keep to the topic. You have a device which can somehow, incredibly, photograph human thought. Could it extract visual memories from this autistic boy? Could you find out if he knows what became of the Shoebox or, more to the point, if he saw and miraculously retained the new code itself?”
“I’m afraid a great deal hangs upon this, Tom,” added Dr. Kutan. “You have never been put to so great a test, with such vast consequences.”
“Can you do it, Tom?” asked Undersecretary Trane.
All eyes turned to Tom Swift!
THOUGHTS ABOUT THOUGHTS
"HOW DID you answer?” Damon Swift asked his son.
“I tried to put them off a little, Dad,” replied Tom. “And I wasn’t being difficult. I don’t know if I can develop the imager to the point where I can, somehow, selectively run through a person’s visual memories. It may not even be possible.”
The elder Swift smiled indulgently and a bit teasingly. “Something tells me you’re ready and anxious to make the impossible possible!”
Tom grinned. “I do like a challenge!”
A science and invention prodigy since childhood, Tom had never yet bowed to an obstacle, whether of a scientific or technical nature, or a matter of personal danger. It had been only a few weeks since he and Bud had used Tom’s racing aquadisk invention to overcome a crazed enemy bent on the destruction not only of Tom himself, but of his family and friends.
“I basically committed myself to looking the problem over while working full throttle to perfect the machine,” Tom went on. “I suppose I—er—left them with a fairly optimistic assessment. I just hope we can deliver, Dad.”
Upon the adjournment of the meeting, Tom and Sandy had been flown back to Swift Enterprises by Chic Deever. After meeting up with Bud and the others who had returned by truck, Tom had sought out his father in the guest-duplex on the plant grounds where the family was residing while their Shopton home, damaged in an explosion, was being rebuilt. As Damon Swift relaxed in a lounge on the bungalow patio, Tom told his father of the strange and disturbing events of the day, their private conversation protected from long-range electronic eavesdroppers by the invisible barrier of Tom’s sound-killing silentenna. After providing Mr. Swift with a fully detailed account of the desperate, remarkable situation, Tom concluded: “But we’ll have to be pretty careful what we tell the others here at Enterprises. This can’t be allowed to leak out to the public—or to any agents of that dictator Ubar who might be hanging around!”
Mr. Swift asked, “Have you gone over this with Harlan and Phil yet?” Harlan Ames, a former Secret Service man, was the dedicated head of plant security. Phil Radnor was his assistant.
Tom shook his head. “They’ve gone home for the day. We’ll get together first thing tomorrow morning when I― ” The young inventor broke off with a yip of wry laughter. “I almost said, When I come in. But I won’t be coming in, Dad. I’ll already be here!”
Tom’s father didn’t join in the laughter. “That may be for the best, Tom. We’re all pretty well protected here on the grounds.”
Tom fully trusted those closest to him, and was unwilling to completely conceal the situation from them. When Bud joined Tom and his family for dinner in the bungalow, prepared and served by Chow, he explained the matter again with only a few details left out.
“Hoppin’ horned hogbellies!” sputtered Chow Winkler. “You mean we’re gonna have some kind o’ ay-tomic war unless that brain-TV o’ yours kin take a picture of th’ inside of some kid’s head?”
“I don’t think anyone is talking about a war, Chow,” observed Tom’s mother. “But even a single little nuclear explosion is more than adequate.”
“Good night, wouldn’t that unhinge the world!” Bud exclaimed. “But are there any probs left to wring out in the imager, genius boy?”
Before Tom could answer Sandy put in, “There is that little problem of scanning people’s minds without scrambling them.” There were tears in her voice, much as she tried to hide them, and Bud regretted his choice of words. Bashalli Prandit was not only Tom’s frequent date, but had become Sandy’s closest friend.
Tom, already feeling guilt and concern over Bash’s condition, nodded grimly at his pretty, blond-haired sister.
“I can’t let my machine do to the boy what it did—what it may have done—to Bashalli,” declared the crewcut youth with determination.
“Of course not,” Mr. Swift said. “Nor can we allow a madman to hold the world hostage to nuclear blackmail.”
“Brand my nooklee-trons, we sure cain’t!” agreed Chow emphatically. “But you’ll lick ’er, son.”
“I hope so. No—I will!”
Dawn the next morning found Tom already up and working in his personal lab in the electronics technologies building. The sensor-node transmitter antenna and the main imager console had been removed from the truck the previous afternoon and delivered to the lab for Tom to work on. He had two goals that he had desperately to meet if his “brain-TV” was to be used to defuse the Russian crisis. The main scientific challenge was to develop a technique that would allow the device to selectively sort among the individual image-impressions stored as complex patterns in the subject’s cortex. This was daunting enough; but to Tom the more vital task was to make certain that the thoughtograph camera was completely safe for use.
Unless I know the imager had nothing to do with Bashalli’s attack of amnesia, I won’t allow it to be used, he told himself. Yet he couldn’t help wondering—and he felt ashamed to even think it—whether the world’s military and security forces might not seize the device and use it in desperation without its creator’s permission.
Chow Winkler, who lived in a comfortable apartment on the Enterprises grounds near his beloved custom kitchen, knew that Tom had risen early. At seven AM he came knocking at the lab door, a steaming breakfast ready and waiting on his cart.
“You cain’t give up eatin’, boss, er somethin’ bad’s gonna happen to your brain too,” he declared as he entered. “B’sides, bet it’s time fer a break, doncha think?”
“Guess so, pardner,” Tom replied. “But I still have a lot to get through before I go meet with Harlan and Rad at nine.”
“Why’n’t you tell me all about it over the bacon an’ eggs?” Chow offered. “I don’t much imagine I’ll understand it, but mebbe it’ll spruce up your mind some.”
Sipping an orange juice, the young inventor gave a half-nod. “It just might at that. Well, Chow, right now I’m trying to adjust the telextenna input analyzer to sort out the― ”
“Whoa, now, hold on there!” interrupted the ex-Texan. “How ’bout mebbe you start at the beginnin’ and tell me how you kin go about in the first place makin’ a machine that can read your mind!”
Tom sighed inwardly. The possibility of completing any work before his meeting had suddenly become bleak! But he was unwilling to hurt the older man’s feelings. “Sure—sorry. The first thing to know is, my thoughtograph imager is not a mind reader!”
“It ain’t ?” The cook pushed back his customary western hat and scratched his head.
“Nope. I’ve called it that as a joke, but really, I don’t have any idea how to go about actually coming up with a device for detecting and recording another person’s ordinary thoughts, the ones you sort of ‘hear’ in your mind when you think.”
“Wa-aal, I dunno, boss,” Chow objected. “I took a doctorin’ test one time back in Texas, an’ they had this here little thing that made a wavy line on a roll o’ paper. The young feller said it was my brain waves. Couldn’t you jest feed ’em into a computer er somethin’?”
“I’ll... have to give that a try sometime,” Tom replied carefully. “But those weren’t recordings of your thoughts, Chow, just the general electrical rhythms of your brain. You see, what we call thoughts are extremely complicated patterns of electrical and chemical changes that take place all through the cerebral cortex—that’s the thinking part of your brain, pardner. As far as we know so far, the structure of the human cortex is the most intricately detailed thing in the universe! You know those Indian blankets you like, the ones with the elaborate patterns woven into them? Well, imagine completely covering a blanket with patterns like that, super-detailed and so close together they overlap.”
“It’d take a good year’s worth o’ weavin’, I’d guess.”
“Uh-huh. Now imagine if the blanket was as big as the whole solar system!”
Chow’s eyes widened. “Brand my parsec salad!”
Tom grinned in response. Explaining his inventions to Chow Winkler was time consuming, but he had to admit that it was also good fun! “That gives you just a slight idea of the complexity of a human thought!—and I was only talking about one single thought, lasting a fraction of a second. And it gets even worse!”
“Even though one human brain looks about the same as another, each one is highly customized. At the microscopic level, the small structures of the cortex are differently configured from person to person, no two exactly alike.”
Chow brightened. “Sure—jest like they say about snowflakes!”
“That’s right. The apparent similarities between corresponding organs are really general and superficial, like when you identify a person as tall or—well, as tall. But it’s all those infinitesimal details that make the difference between your thought of, mm, armadillo soup, and Bud’s thought of catching a football pass. Not even a super-computer could sort it all out and translate it into anything another person could understand. You might say we don’t have the key to each other’s customized codes. We only manage to understand one another because each brain does its own translating, into very general terms based on the day-to-day experiences we all share.”
Chow gulped. “Okay then, boss, I get th’ message. Guess I won’t haveta go around watchin’ what I think.”
Tom paused as a dreamy, philosophical light came into his eyes. “But to tell the truth, we shouldn’t be so sure we know what a thought is, really. We have to assume it has something to do with brain structure and function, but who’ s to say? Maybe the brain is like the antenna on a TV set, special-designed to receive something that originates elsewhere.”
Chow seemed a bit uncomfortable with the discussion’s philosophical turn. “Wa-aal, if it’s all so blame complexified, what in th’ name o’ Sam and Sadie Hill does that camera o’ yours do?”
Tom took a few bites of his rapidly cooling breakfast before answering. “What saves the day for science, pardner, is the fact that we’ve been able to identify one special part of the brain with a dedicated function that we can understand. By electrically stimulating a very tiny section of nerve tissue during surgery, medical scientists have discovered that it encodes and ‘records’ visual-type images which can be played back.”
“Sorta like one o’ them videotapes you kin rent?” asked the cook. “Is that th’ idee?”
“In a way,” was the reply. “The cortex may use it as a sort of master reference to guide the neural processing cycle that ends up producing the mental ‘picture’ that we actually see. The recording is in the form of a pattern of electro-chemical activation that remains isomorphic to― ”
Smiling, Tom apologized again. “What I mean is, the shape of the nerve pattern actually copies the shape of the original image—it isn’t just an unreadable code, as other mental processes are. The strongest and clearest patterns represent images coming in from the eye, but this specialized area handles mental imagery of all sorts, including memories, dreams, and pure imagination. Any kind of image. Even hallucinations—those pink elephants people see when they have a few drinks too many.”
“Seen m’ share of ’em, back when I was a wild young sprout.” Chow nodded soberly several times, brow wrinkled. Tom was pleased to detect what looked like a gleam of understanding in his eyes. “So it’s like takin’ a photy-graph of a movie screen, ceptin’ th’ screen’s inside yer head.”
“I guess you could say that,” agreed Tom. “At least that’s why I call it a ‘thoughtograph’.”
“Say, boss,” interrupted the older man, “I know ya like t’ talk, but you’d best get t’ eatin’ afore your breakfast gets cold.”
The young inventor nodded and plunged in hungrily. Chow watched him in silent approval for a minute. “That’s better. Butcha know, you never did get around to tellin’ me the problem yuh’re workin’ on.”
Taking a gulp of coffee, Tom was about to answer when the nearby desk telephone shrilled its alert. “This is Tom.”
Tom recognized the strained, excited voice on the other end. The caller was George Dilling of the plant’s communications office. “Tom, I just took a call—it’s Bud Barclay! He’s been in an auto accident!”
TOM forced himself to remain cool, though the dismaying news about his pal set his heart racing. “Tell me what happened, George,” he demanded quietly. “Who called you?”
“The police—it was a squad car call routed directly through our switchboard,” responded Dilling. “Bud was hit in that convertible of his.”
“Intersection of Bluffside Way and Third Street.”
Tom’s voice was grim. “That’s along the route Bud always takes to Enterprises.” Hearing Bud’s name, Chow, startled, looked up at Tom in alarm.
Tom asked Dilling if he had been given any more information. “No, sorry Tom—the officer at the scene had to sign off before I could ask any questions. I thought I ought to call you before I did anything else.”
“Make the calls. But I’ll be at the scene before you’re able reach anyone with information,” the youth declared with grim determination. Hanging up, he gave Chow the gist of the call, then dashed out the lab to the ridewalk, a moving walkway that allowed Tom to combine its modest speed with his own frantic trot.
In less than eight minutes Tom’s bronze-hued electric sportscar had screeched to a stop only a few car-lengths from the site of the accident. A Shopton PD squad car blocked his view, but only for an instant as he leapt into the street and scrambled around the obstruction.
Even before he caught sight of Bud, he was relieved to hear the sound of his pal’s voice. “Look, officer, I’m fine, really fine!” the young pilot was insisting, his unruly black hair flopping across his forehead in all directions, plastered down by a wispy, intermittent drizzle. “I don’t need an ambulance, just a tow truck for my poor convertible!”
As Tom came rushing up, Bud winced in apologetic embarrassment. “Hey there, Skipper!—should’ve known they’d call you.”
“Mr. Barclay says he’s all right,” said the frowning officer to Tom. “I’ll release him to you, since he refuses medical attention. I’ve taken a statement and called a tow.”
“Thanks a lot, officer. Don’t worry—Bud’s as tough as a tree stump.”
“And about as stubborn, I’d say,” commented the officer sourly.
Under his breath Bud muttered “Wise guy!” as the officer returned to his squad car. Then he faced Tom a bit sheepishly. “I suppose you’d like to know what happened. First of all, it wasn’t my fault!”
Smiling as he looked Bud over, Tom conceded the point immediately. “I figured that, flyboy. You’re a pretty careful driver. Well—a pretty skillful one, anyway.”
“This time I was being especially careful, Tom, because I knew the streets’d be wet and slick from this drizzle,” Bud said. “That’s why I put the top up. Here’s what happened. I left my apartment on the way to Enterprises just like always. After a couple blocks I noticed I was being followed a ways behind—a woman on a motorcycle. She wore a helmet and jacket; couldn’t see her face.”
“What made you think she was following you?” asked Tom.
“Mostly a hunch at first. I guess I noticed the way she hung back, keeping her distance even though there weren’t any cars between us. So I went around the block at Payman Street—floored it, too. Sure enough, she does the same thing.”
Tom gave his friend a teasing look. “Maybe she wanted an autograph. You can be pretty charming, I hear—from you.”
Bud ignored the friendly gibe. “Anyway, I had to stop at the light over there.” He bobbed his head toward the stoplight suspended over the intersection. “I assumed the woman would keep her distance. But she didn’t! All of a sudden she comes roaring ahead at top speed, like she’s going to ram me from behind. Just then the light was starting to change, so I tore out into the intersection. But Madame Moto-Cross was already going mighty fast—I think I heard her clip me on the passenger side as she went tooling by. And then—well, I was distracted and the street was slick― ”
“So you skidded right into the streetlight pole,” Tom concluded. “How bad’s the damage?”
“Oh, not too bad. Not like the last time or two. Or three.” The youth ran a hand through his hair. “Did a number on my right headlight and bumper, though. Oh man, what I put ol’ TseTse through.” This was Bud’s affectionate nickname for his convertible, which bore the license plate TSE TSE FLY, a characteristic Barclay pun on the initials of Tom Swift Enterprises—and his occupation there.
Tom looked at Bud thoughtfully. “Did you see what happened to the cyclist?”
“Not really. I was devoting myself to skidding and crashing.”
“She couldn’t have known you’d skid,” Tom observed. “So causing the accident wasn’t the point. But if she was following you—why? The route to the plant isn’t a secret.”
Sharing the young inventor’s puzzlement, Bud shook his head. “Dunno, genius boy. In my mirror I saw her reach into her jacket; I thought she was pulling a gun on me. That’s why I took off like I did.”
Tom didn’t reply for a moment, frowning deeply. “You said... she passed you on the right hand side?”
“And you had the top up.”
“So think about it a sec, Bud,” replied Tom, squinting into the wet gray distance as if he were visualizing the scene in his mind’s eye. “You had the top up, so passing on the passenger side would make it hard to draw a bead on you from the motorcycle. The angle’s wrong—the edge of the top gets in the way. She wouldn’t be able to see you to aim the gun.”
Bud looked surprised, then admiring. “Good grief, no wonder they call you Swift! Sure—she’d want to pass next to me on my side if she planned to gun me.”
“And so, maybe she didn’t have a gun. She was reaching for—what?” Bud’s disabled convertible had been pushed to the curb, out of the way of traffic. Tom now walked up to it and circled around to the passenger side. Suddenly he looked up at Bud and motioned him over excitedly.
“What’s up?” Bud called as he came trotting over.
Tom pointed to the side of the convertible. “What’s this?”
Bud whistled. “Beats me, pal. But it sure doesn’t come standard.” Standing out against the brilliant scarlet of TseTse’s paint job was a flat, square object the color of dull metal, no more than three inches broad. The plate seemed to be stuck in place on the side of the car.
Bud reached for it curiously, but Tom grabbed his wrist. “Don’t !”
The young pilot gulped. “You mean—you think—it might be a bomb or something?”
“There’s a safer way to find out, flyboy,” the young inventor declared. “I’m packing a TeleTec in my car.”
Tom hastened back to his car and in a moment returned with a small electronic device in hand, about the size and shape of an old-style home movie camera. The TeleTec was the latest elaboration of the television detector invented by the first Tom Swift, Tom’s celebrated great-grandfather, in 1933. The useful invention allowed the operator to take video-like pictures through solid obstructions from a distance of several yards, without the use of X-rays. The unit in Tom’s hands was a new ultra-miniaturized model.
Standing a few feet back, Tom aimed the TeleTec’s lens tube at the square of metal and adjusted the focus.
“Doesn’t look like there’s anything inside it,” murmured Bud, looking at the TeleTec’s tiny viewscreen panel over his friend’s shoulder.
“It seems to be just a piece of solid metal. But let me change the focus a little.”
“Wait!” cried Bud excitedly. “I see something!” Superimposed against the square outline were several lines of minute, irregular figures. “It looks like writing—but what kind of writing? Do you suppose they’re space symbols?”
For quite a time now Swift Enterprises had been in communication with mysterious extraterrestrial beings, Tom’s space friends. These alien scientists expressed themselves to earthly humans by means of symbolic figures representing mathematical and logical concepts.
Bud was taken aback when Tom came out with a bark of laughter. “Not this time. You’re just seeing the writing in reverse, mirror-style, because it’s on the reverse side of the metal plate.” He switched off the TeleTec, adding, “I think it’s safe to take a look.”
Bud touched a corner of the object and cautiously pulled on it. It came away from the car body with a slight resistance.
“It’s magnetized,” Bud remarked. “You know what, Skipper? I think this is just a refrigerator magnet, the kind people use to hold notes on the fridge door, stuff that they want to be free to forget about. Motor Mama just pried off the enameled cover.”
Careful to hold the piece of metal by its edges only, Bud turned it over. Both boys could now read the writing on the reverse side, which appeared to have been crudely scratched into the metal with a sharp object.
NO TO TRUST
ONE EYE OPEN
“Good night, what is it? Some kind of threat?” exclaimed Bud.
“Not a threat,” stated Tom. “A warning. But what does it mean?”
TOM and his pal looked at one another and at the tiny square of metal, baffled and uneasy.
“We need to find out where that cyclist was coming from,” Tom pronounced, “and where she was headed. It might be some sort of prank...”
“Uh-huh. And I might be Nancy Drew.” Bud was more than a little skeptical.
Tom whipped out his cellphone and made a call to George Dilling. “George, there’s something important I need you to do for me.”
“Go over to the Sky Queen hangar and get Rover Boy. Someone needs to drive him out to me. I’m at the scene of Bud’s accident in town.”
“I’ll do it myself. How is he?”
“He’s fine—let Chow know, will you?”
Presently Dilling arrived, his broad face more flushed than usual. He unloaded Rover Boy—Tom’s compact robotic tracking device, officially called a sensitector—from the trunk of the big company car. The futuristic machine had a low, squat body of lightweight materials, gyro-balanced on a single ring-wheel that looped about it above and below.
“What’re we tracking?” asked Dilling excitedly. “Should I be taping this for, er, public interest?”
“I doubt the public would find this very ‘interesting’,” muttered the young inventor as he checked-out the machine with the remote controller. “But we sure will.” Tom had the sensitector electronically “sniff” the magnet and the small section of the car where it had been attached; and then the intersection, where TseTse’s skidmarks still showed beneath the sheen of the drizzle.
“Okay,” he reported. “Several good trace-profiles—the cycle, her gloves, even a little perfume and hair shampoo. Looks like there’s a better trail in the forward direction, though—the drizzle has blurred out anything we could use to backtrack where she came from.”
“Let ’er rip!” urged Bud.
With a slight electric whir, Rover Boy began to move. The robot-mobile made three circles around Bud’s car, effortlessly hopping the street curb, and then emitted the beep! that indicated confirmation of a faint, invisible molecular trail on the pavement. While George Dilling stayed behind with Bud’s convertible, Tom’s car sped off in pursuit of the sensitector with the two youths alert to clues and sudden danger.
Rover took several corners, sharply. “She must’ve thought she was being followed,” Bud remarked.
Tom said, “Sure, by you. She didn’t know your car had been put out of action. And she sure didn’t stick around to find out.”
Downtown Shopton was quickly left behind. Heading in the direction opposite that of Enterprises, Tom and Bud passed the turnoff leading to the Swift Construction Company site, then onward along the scenic route that skirted Lake Carlopa. The inland side became more rugged and wooded as the low hills began to close in.
Suddenly Bud thwacked Tom’s shoulder and pointed. “Off to the right!”
“Smoke!” Tom exclaimed. “And that’s where Rover wants to go.” Applying its small measure of computerized judgment, the machine had paused at the edge of the road, awaiting permission to plunge off into the brush.
The boys parked and got out. “We’ll follow on foot,” said Tom grimly. Rover was slowed but undaunted, skittering deftly between trees and bushes toward what was now, obviously, a fire.
At last the robot-mobile stopped at the edge of a gully whose sides were too soft and steep for it to handle. Darting on ahead, Bud called out:
“There she is!”
It appeared the motorcycle had been ditched and set afire. The fire was small and almost out, but it had already reduced the cycle to bent, blackened hulk. “We won’t get many clues out of that mess,” Tom declared disgustedly.
“Probably stolen anyway.”
They attempted to use Rover Boy to trail the woman herself, but the sensitector moaned a low wailing tone that told its inventor that it was unable to lock on to a track. “She went off in the direction where the breeze carried the smoke and particulates from the fire,” Tom said. “You can see the broken branches for a ways, but there’s nothing distinctive enough for Rover to sort through.”
“Man! Some cycle hoods have all the luck.”
Hours later Tom sat in the Plant Security office in the main administration building of Swift Enterprises. He faced Enterprises head of security Harlan Ames across a desk, as Ames’s second-in-command Phil Radnor sat nearby. The lean, middle-aged man was examining the message-bearing square of metal, holding it between his fingers. “No harm touching it now,” he murmured, “now that we know it’s been wiped clean of fingerprints.”
“Not even a partial?” asked Radnor.
“Nothing, Rad,” was the reply. “A whole lot of nothing.”
“You two are the experts,” Tom stated, “but I’ll risk a guess that the person who wrote the message wasn’t a native speaker of English.”
Not taking his eyes off the inscription, Ames gave a slight nod. “Looks that way. The words are pretty cockeyed. Still—some people are more or less illiterate, even here in the U.S.”
Radnor added, “‘Betraytor’! Suppose that’s a combination of betray and traitor?”
“Could be,” said Tom. “But I don’t think he, or she, is just uneducated, or making mistakes out of haste. Look at those ‘R’s.”
“I noticed that right off,” Ames remarked. “They’re written backwards.”
An intrigued smile on his face, Tom shook his head. “They’re not backwards. They’re written properly—in Cyrillic!”
This brought an unbelieving snort from Phil Radnor. “That’s Russian writing, isn’t it?”
“Also some other European and Asian countries in the region. For example― ” The young scientist-inventor paused dramatically. “Zirghozyia!”
Ames’s expression became stony as granite. “I suppose we might’ve known. This has something to do with the nuclear crisis.”
After driving back to Enterprises with Bud, Tom had kept his postponed meeting with Harlan and Phil. While the square of metal was being run for fingerprints by a technician, Tom had given the two an account of the previous day’s unexpected conference and the nature of the grave situation on the southern border of Russia. “They use Cyrillic lettering in the Zirghoz Republic,” continued the young inventor. “I did some reading about the country last night.”
“All right then, we have a good working theory,” Ames declared; “which is a little better than the nothing we had before.”
“But that message could mean almost anything,” Radnor put in. “Let’s say we have someone who barely speaks English who’ s trying to compose a message using something like a translating dictionary—Zirghoz-to-English, if you like. No to trust, one eye open. Does it mean Tom’s to trust no one and keep an eye open for danger? What if it means, We’re keeping an eye on you because we don’t trust you!”
Reluctantly, Tom concurred. “In that case, ‘betraytor’ could mean that the writer is accusing me of betraying someone.”
“There are plenty of secure ways to get a confidential message to Tom Swift, whether it’s a threat, a warning, or something else entirely,” noted Ames. “Why use such a weird, convoluted method of delivery?”
Tom responded with a theory. “Maybe the woman was being watched in some way. Or—better—maybe she made a hasty decision on the spur of the moment, just before she was to leave the area, or just before some other factor would prevent her from contacting me.”
“Or maybe,” commented Radnor, “she’s just another paranoid nutcase.”
“We’ve had our share of those,” Ames agreed. “I’ve lost count!”
On this inconclusive note, the meeting ended. Tom strode into the adjacent office, the large modern office he shared with his father. He had decided to make some entries in his computerized journal before lunchtime.
Presently Munford Trent, the Swifts’secretary, rapped on the door and entered. “Tom, while you were meeting with Mr. Ames I took a call from someone who left his number. He said it’s a private, secure number. A Mr. Zirghoz. He said you’d know what it’s about.”
“Thanks a lot, M—er, Trent.” Zirghoz! Tom dialed the number immediately, recognizing a Washington D.C. area code and familiar exchange prefix.
“Good morning, Tom,” answered a voice that Tom recognized as belonging to Undersecretary Trane. “Mind if I call you on your PER?”
“Please do, sir,” was the reply. “I gave you the setting for my office unit.”
The Private Ear Radio was an invention of Tom’s that permitted communication with absolute privacy and security; the laws of quantum physics prevented even the possibility of eavesdropping. Hanging up the phone, the young inventor snatched up the walky-talky sized PER from its nearby cradle. In a moment it bleeped softly with an incoming call.
“Now we can talk without my feeling quivery in the pit of my stomach,” said Trane. “Have you made any progress on your end of the operation?”
Tom smiled. “I’m flattered that you think I might have made a breakthrough in a single morning, Mr. Undersecretary! I’m working through a few preliminary ideas, though.”
“Yes, well, I don’t mean to rush you. Of course, thousands, if not millions, of lives are at stake. But take your time.” The official harrumphed politely. “However, the purpose of my call is to lay out for you the plan the committee has developed to get you close to Iskovich’s ward, Andriej Burkeshyanov.”
“He’s in custody of the Russian Government, isn’t he?”
“He is,” Trane confirmed. “But so far they feel his existence, not to mention the probability that he saw the code numbers, is unknown to Yongjiss Ubar’s people. They prefer not to risk drawing attention to his presence on Russian soil. We’ve argued with them. We could surely slip you and your machine into Moscow. But they are quite adamant—proud people, God knows why—and have expressed their views through Dr. Nemastov. His hands, our hands, all our hands are tied.”
Tom indicated that he understood the situation.
“Good,” said Trane brusquely. “Here’s what we’re going to do. The boy and a Russian overseer will take an inconspicuous trip to a city outside the Russian Federation, where you’ll meet up with them and use your imager on him. No one will be the wiser.”
“What city?” asked Tom.
A feeling of surprise and alarm wormed its way down Tom’s spine. Brungaria, formerly a totalitarian country and a dedicated foe of the United States and the interests of the West, was now a friendly democratic state, Volkonis its urbane capital. Yet on more than one occasion agents of a dissident faction had threatened Tom and his scientific projects.
“Now look, I know what’s on your mind,” Trane commented with haste. “We will have the thorough cooperation of not only Brungaria’s security apparatus, but some of the best operatives in the western world. There’s no chance of that idiotic rogue group, the Sentimentalists, getting in on the ploy.”
“If you say so,” Tom said doubtfully. “But frankly I’ve found it difficult to travel without attracting attention. Enterprises is always being watched in some way or other. Even if there’s no public announcement, my heading off for Brungaria will― ”
The undersecretary interrupted. “We’ve considered all that, obviously. What we’re going to do is provide a plausible cover story. As a matter of fact, bring along your usual crew—your technical people, your friends, even your family. Make a vacation out of it; they probably need one. As for you, we’ll let it get around that you’re visiting as a guest of the government to explore the feasibility of constructing one of your skyways.”
Another surprise! Tom’s repelatron skyway, a “flying” thoroughfare for automotive traffic, had been built to address the needs of a developing Africa nation, Ngombia. Despite discussion here and there, no contracts for further skyway projects had developed as of yet. “Well,” he said, “I suppose that’ll justify my bringing along a tech team and a certain amount of equipment.”
“Our thinking precisely. We’ll spread the story that you’ve been asked to link Volkonis with the city of Taicrola on the Vass River, right over the tops of the Hargmiz mountain range. That’s not impossible, is it?”
Tom conceded that such a project was possible in theory. “I guess it’s a pretty good ploy, sir.”
“It should be. That’s the business we’re in.” Before signing off, Undersecretary Trane advised the young scientist-inventor that he was sending an experienced CIA agent to Shopton to accompany Tom. “He’ll ride herd on the operation. Name of Quimby Narz. Highly professional, very knowledgeable on subjects related to Brungaria and southeastern Europe in general. He’ll make the tough calls on our behalf.”
After the PER call had ended, Tom found himself frowning at Trane’s officious, peremptory style. Yet he understood the stakes.
Tom made a call to the Fiske-Hergan Institute to check on Bashalli’s condition, and was disappointed to learn that there had been no definite change. Then he joined his father for lunch, bringing the elder scientist up to speed on the latest developments.
The remainder of the day, and most of the day following, was devoted to solving the thoughtograph’s problems. Tom and his chief engineer, Hank Sterling, worked tirelessly hour after hour, sharing ideas and criticisms like the longtime friends they were.
By four in the afternoon, Tom was able to declare triumphantly, “This is wonderful! We’ve managed to put both problems to bed!”
Hank grinned a weary grin. “We? As I recall, the brainstorms were mostly yours, Tom. I was just along for the ride.”
“Nope. You’re the one who figured out the field leakage, pal,” retorted Tom appreciatively.
At that moment, the head of a cautious Bud Barclay made its appearance around the doorjamb. “I knew we should have kept the lab door shut!” gibed Hank.
“Aw c’mon!” was the response. “I haven’t seen genius boy since my accident, and he’s due to give me one of his ‘Bud explanations.’ Besides, I’ve come with a cowpoke bearing treats.”
“And they’re mighty tasty,” said Chow, entering behind Bud with a tray.
Tom grinned a bit wryly. “More of those, er, buffalo cookies?”
“Now you leave the fun-makin’ to this hombre here,” chided the westerner, indicating Bud. “These are good ol’ plain strawberry cupcakes, nothin’ fancy about ’em. Even brought milk.”
The three young men sampled the cupcakes and agreed that they hit the spot perfectly. As Chow beamed beneath his cowboy hat, Bud inquired about Tom’s and Hank’s progress on the thoughtograph imager.
“Looks like we’ve solved it,” Tom replied.
“What a shock!—Tom Swift solves a scientific hangup!” joked Bud. “But how’d you do it?”
Hank answered for his boss, whose mouth was full of cupcake. “The memory-selection problem was pretty tough, Bud. You know how, when you’re listening to a song you know well, you can anticipate not only what’s coming right up, but can sort of run through the whole song to the end—as if your brain was on fast-forward?”
“Say, I’ve done that m’self,” Chow put in. “Mostly country-western songs. Always wondered how I happened t’ have sech a good memory when they’s music on.”
“It’s not really what we call memory, Chow,” Tom said. “Not in the usual sense. It turns out that the human brain is especially good at storing certain kinds of sequences—series of things in a fixed order, as opposed to the particular episodes memory replays for us.”
Bud nodded. “Got it. So you use the sequencer business to find the right memories?”
“That’s it, flyboy. We can run through fragments of imagery in reverse order, like a sort of visual index, and can estimate, very roughly, how long ago the image became fixed in the neural center.”
“Man!” cried Bud delightedly. “It really is a lot like a video player!” Then a sober look crossed his face. “But what about the thing that happened to Bash?”
Tom became solemn, and Bud knew instantly that his pal was dealing with considerable guilt and remorse. “We confirmed that the device itself doesn’t give off any harmful radiation. But—the wave-field at the sensor point does. You might say it leaks. It’s extremely weak, but as the operator tunes it in, it becomes locked-in to the natural electrical rhythms of the synapse processes in the subject’s cortex. I’m sure that’s what happened to Bashalli.”
“And I’m sure yuh’re right, boss,” Chow remarked, trying to be encouraging. “But brand my sign-lapses, why’d it jest happen t’her and not the rest of us?”
“That’s the missing piece of the puzzle,” admitted Tom. “We’ve had thoughtographs from more than a dozen people along the way, and Bashalli is the only one who reacted to the wave leakage. It could be something like a shock-effect that blocks memory retrieval. She must have some sort of organic susceptibility to it.”
“Reckon that’s it,” said Chow doubtfully. “Fixed it now, have you?”
Hank explained that he and Tom had worked out a way to make the excess emissions self-canceling. “Not a trace of ’em now.”
“That’s right fine,” the cook declared. “And if y’ need someone to test ’er, yew got yerself a subject right here!” He slapped Bud’s back.
Tom grinned. “How about it, daredevil? Matter of fact, there’s something locked up in that brain of yours that I’d like to pry out.”
“I’ll give it a try,” said the dark-haired young pilot. He pulled a stool over in front of the telextenna array and sat down. Tom actuated the imager, and in a moment the viewscreen began to blossom with vague, tumbling forms.
“We’re tuned in,” Tom announced. “How do you feel?”
There was a pause. Bud stared at Tom, his brows knitted. “How do I feel? What do you mean?” The athletic youth ran his fingers through his unruly dark hair, eyes darting about in perplexity. “Say, mister, where am I anyway? San Francisco General?”
“Great gobs o’ gravy!” sputtered Chow in alarm. “That dang machine o’ yours has erased Buddy Boy’s memory too!”
STRANGE SPECIAL AGENT
"IT CAn’t be!” gasped Hank in sheer horror. “Nothing at all could be coming from the imager field now—we’ve tested it thoroughly!”
“Whatever, dude,” muttered Bud Barclay. “But I sure don’t remember how I got here. Have you called my folks? We live over on Gough.” Bud seemed to believe he was still in San Francisco, where he had been raised!
Tom was silent, his deep-set blue eyes boring into Bud’s sentimental-gray ones. “Boss, you gotta do something!” urged Chow. “M-m-mebbe we oughta call Doc Simpson!”
“Let’s skip Doc,” Tom replied. “See those power cables over there? I think we’d better apply electroshock immediately.”
Chow’s jaw dropped. “Yew think so? Ain’t that jest a mite risky?”
Hank suddenly caught on. “Forget the shock treatment, guys. Chow, maybe you could go put on that gold and pink number you were wearing last Monday. That’ll bring this numbskull back to his senses if anything will.”
Bud burst out laughing. “Okay, sorry—just a joke. I’m fine. Er, Chow… you’re not gonna get mad at me, are you? It might send me into a relapse!”
The rotund cook’s brow was darker than a prairie thunderstorm. “T’think I ’as all worked up over your worthless hide!”
“A little too much fun, Bud,” Tom chided. But he gave a slight smile to soften his words. He knew Bud wouldn’t be Bud without his pranks and quips.
“Sorry Tom, Chow, Hank.” He sat up straight on his stool. “I’ll play nice from here on. Go ahead.”
Tom snorted and returned to the control board. “Okay. You said you didn’t see enough of that cyclist’s face to be able to guide a police sketch artist.”
“Right,” Bud nodded. “I had to keep my eyes on the road, and she was wearing a helmet and goggles.”
“Still, if you’d had time to really look at her, you might have been able to retain a few details,” Tom pointed out. “Maybe we can take a few thoughtographs to help us—pictures of memories you don’t even know you have.”
“They say the brain never really loses anything,” observed Hank as Tom worked the dials. “I read about the case of a woman who was able, under hypnosis, to write out the lyrics to a song in an obscure language she’d never learned. Nobody could explain it, until they found a library book that she had used as a schoolgirl, with her name on the checkout card. The lyrics were printed on a page that she couldn’t have more than glanced at—maybe just once!”
“That’s plumb ree-markable!” Chow exclaimed. “Sorta scary, too, and that’s a fact. They’s more’n a few things I’ve done in my long life that I’d jest as soon fergit!”
Tom grinned. “Don’t start worrying yet, pard. We don’t even know if the system will work.” He continued to adjust the controls, describing for Bud’s benefit the fleeting images he could see on the mini-monitor as Hank and Chow looked on excitedly.
“Wa-aal say, that there’s you, Tom—an’ Hank here—an’ me!” muttered the big Texan. “Leastwise I guess it’s supposed t’ be me. Don’t think I look that way all s’much. Do I?”
“Guess that’s the way you look to Bud, anyhow,” Tom laughed. “Don’t forget, all our perceptions and memories are colored by imagination.”
Chow harrumphed. “Reckon this’n’s imagination is more partial t’ the looks o’ you two than t’ me. I’d say he’s fixed you up right nice, but he’s got me lookin’ like that there big blimp, the one that crashed ’n burned up.”
“The Hindenburg,” said Hank as Bud reddened—it wasn’t a comfortable thing to have one’s brain picked!
“These are his most recent memory-images,” Tom explained. “You can see that it’s the whole episode that just took place, right here. Now let’s try the reverse-sequencing method.”
A powerful computer charged into silent action, and sketchy vague thoughtographs, skimpy of detail, began to flash by at unnerving speed. “Brand my buttons, slow the thing down, boss,” Chow mumbled. “Cain’t make out one from t’other!”
Tom complied with the touch of a button, and the screen freeze-framed. “What’s that we’re seeing?” asked Hank.
“Bud,” Tom called out, “you had burgers night before last—right?”
Bud laughed. “Easy guess! But yes, you’re right, Skipper.”
Now Tom began to move the stored images forward again in their normal time sequence. “Big white teeth—what Bud has in his mind while he’s brushing them.” The screen grayed out briefly as the young pilot drifted off to sleep. Then came a succession of eerie scenes that melted into one another in a logic the onlookers could not follow.
“Dreams!” whispered Hank in awe.
“You can skip forward, guys, if you don’t mind,” urged Bud. He added in sign language directed Tom’s way: “Quickly, please.”
“Okay, next morning,” said Tom. “Getting dressed… raising the top on TseTse… there!”
The screen showed a jumbled, impressionistic image of a woman on a motorcycle, as glimpsed in a rearview mirror!
“Wa-aal, not s’much use in that,” Chow complained. “Still can’t hardly see more’n on a foggy day.”
“This is just what you might call the ‘surface image’, Chow. But now that we’ve located the neural time-frame for the images we want, we can probe more deeply and sharpen up the picture.” Tom manipulated the controls with expert delicacy, and a more vivid series of clear thoughtographic images began to flash upon the monitor in staccato rhythm, now showing a continuous sequence of action. At one point Tom paused the process. “This one is as she’s roaring up close from behind. Bud glanced back over his shoulder and paid extra attention. Probably the best we can get.”
The results, impressive as they were scientifically, were less useful in a practical sense. As Bud had said, the woman was well-wrapped in her riding jacket and helmet. “We can at least get her approximate height and weight, the look of her lower face, the make of her cycle,” Tom remarked, somewhat disappointed.
“Looks like we got some good closeups on her eyes,” Chow said. “Right pretty eyes, too.”
Tom shook his head. “Yes, but they’re pretty mainly because flyboy’s imagination is filling in the details in a way his subconscious happens to like. Notice how they’re a little different each frame. And oversized.”
“She was wearing biker goggles,” Bud reminded them sheepishly. “I guess I improvised a little.”
“But here’s something significant,” noted Hank, pointing. “You can see the corner of what she’s taking out from inside her jacket.”
“You sure can. And it looks a lot like that magnetic plate,” agreed the young inventor happily. “I just wish the imager could scan her mind.” The run of images had been recorded on a chip, and Tom printed out the one useful frame on paper for future reference. “I’ll send Security a copy right away.”
Left alone, Tom continued working through dinner, trying to improve his invention and make it easier to transport. At seven Bud arrived with an extra sandwich, quietly sitting while his pal intermittently munched and concentrated, a process the young pilot had watched with fascination many times over.
Tom’s concentration was interrupted by a call from the main airfield tower. A small jet had touched down. Special Agent Quimby Narz had arrived at Enterprises.
The agent was escorted to Tom’s lab. He entered without knock or hesitation, hand extended, silently shaking Tom’s hand, then Bud’s. If his face held a polite smile, it wasn’t obvious.
The boys exchanged veiled glances. Quimby Narz was very different from what they had expected!
“Not much like the movies, am I?” were Narz’s first words. No one would disagree with the comment. Agent Narz was moderately tall, gaunt as a flagpole, and slightly stooped. His face had the saggy-baggy look of a retired basset hound, and his hair was thinning and more salt than pepper. He could hardly be younger than sixty years of age!
“Well,” said Tom awkwardly, “you’re here for your expertise.”
“Not for hand-to-hand combat,” continued Narz. “I’ve been doing this work for forty-one years, boys, first as a student of language and culture, then as a special select employee of the Department of State. Dick Trane is just a toussle-headed kid as far as I’m concerned. So pull all four of your eyes back in your heads and let’s get to work.”
After a brief dispute on whether Bud Barclay should be allowed to remain—settled firmly and finally by Tom—the three had a preliminary discussion of the Volkonis ploy for about an hour. Then Tom showed the man to his quarters in the administration building. “Sorry we can’t offer you a better space,” Tom apologized, “but my family is― ”
“Yes, I know, I know. Good night.” With that, agent Narz shut the door on Tom and Bud.
As the two ridewalked to Bud’s rental car in the executive parking lot, Tom said, “The man knows his stuff, pal. But…”
Bud nodded. “Yeah. I felt the same But.”
“What is it, though? It’s like a warning twinge in my tailbone. What is there about him that seems strange?—off?” Tom was perplexed. “His manner is brusque, but that’s not it. Not his age, either. His CIA credentials check out.”
The two were wrapped in silence as they approached Bud’s car. Suddenly Bud paused, gasped, and grabbed Tom’s elbow. “Skipper!—I just realized what it is! Good night, no wonder we couldn’t put our finger on it! It’s the sort of thing a person wouldn’t even think to think about!”
Tom stood with crossed arms. “Okay, Bud. What’s the idea?”
Bud looked down at the asphalt, as if thinking aloud. “What did that message say? One eye open?” He looked up in excitement. “Tom, Quimby Narz’s right eye—it never blinks! That means― ”
“I know,” breathed Tom. “He’s always got one eye open!”
THE LOPSIDED FLIGHT
A SERIES of calls led to the next day’s report by Harlan Ames, which supplied new details but did nothing to allay Tom’s concerns.
“My contacts in Washington had a few things to say about Mr. Narz,” said the former Secret Service agent. “It seems he’s led a more active life than he cares to disclose. Some years ago he took a bullet wound to the head which caused nerve trauma. His right eye won’t blink by itself. When he wants to sleep, he has to push the eyelid shut with his finger. To keep the eye from drying out or becoming infected, he wears a special permanent contact lens that covers the white of the eye as well as the pupil. Uses medicated drops and eyewash twice daily. Must be quite a hassle.”
“That explains why he has ‘one eye open’,” Tom declared. “But not whose side he’s really on, or whether we can trust him. Did you speak to Mr. Trane?”
“I thought the better of it, Tom. Trane’s people have already vouched for Narz. Naturally, we gave them full info about that cyclist’s message right away. Knowing politicians and the bureaucracy, they won’t be receptive to reopening the issue, as they never make mistakes—obviously. Besides,” Ames added, “there may turn out to be some value in leaving Narz free to try to make his move while he’s around in plain sight. But of course, you’ll have to keep an, er, eye on him.”
Tom grinned. “Bud and I will do just that. I think it’d be best not to let this Narz business get around to the rest of the team, though, except Dad.”
“Fewer mouths to accidentally spring a leak,” nodded Ames approvingly. “And we already know that Chow talks in his sleep.”
As the discussion continued, the security chief asked Tom if he had been in touch with the young scientist-inventor’s own special contact in the world of international intrigue, a shadowy government group, nicknamed Collections, that had assisted Enterprises on several occasions. “I sure tried,” Tom replied, “and right away, too. No response. But they’ve had a lot to deal with lately—our normal channels might not be open just yet.”
Over the ensuing few days Swift Enterprises mobilized to prepare for the faux expedition to Brungaria and for its hidden purpose. Tom’s famous three-decker skyship, the Flying Lab, was efficiently loaded and stocked for the operation, which was expected to last eight days. In keeping with the plan, Sandy and Tom’s parents would accompany the flight, as if the trip were a family vacation as well as an Enterprises business venture.
Tom and other key players met frequently with Quimby Narz, Tom and Bud trading glances of suspicion now and then. For the moment, the suspicions led nowhere. More annoying were the daily calls from Undersecretary Trane, who seemed to find it advantageous to be constantly at Tom’s elbow, jarring it.
“If that guy had a black eyepatch, he’d be at the top of my danger list,” grumped Bud to his friend.
Tom laughed. “Absolutely! But as far as I know, he’s all-seeing—or at least he thinks he is.”
The Swift family, and Bud, maintained close contact with Dr. Fiske, soliciting reports on Bashalli’s condition and visiting her frequently. She enjoyed their visits, but there was as yet no sign that she was recovering her lost years. Dr. Fiske continued his tests, but he was baffled.
It was a Friday when the silvery Sky Queen finally jet-lifted from its special landing platform, soaring vertically into the blue Shopton skies and lazily turning its blunt nose eastward. Aboard were Tom and his family, Bud, agent Narz, a small tech crew that included Arvid Hanson and Hank Sterling—and Chow Winkler as chef, a near necessity.
As Bud worked the controls in the underslung command compartment, Tom stood behind with his mother and sister.
“Wouldn’t you two prefer to be up in the lounge, with the big windows?” Tom asked.
“Really, I think the view here is more exciting,” Mrs. Swift replied. “Here under the nose you can see the ground more easily, and that’s what gives me a thrill. Sky, clouds—we can get those at home!”
As Tom chuckled affectionately, Sandy added, “And besides, I get to watch Bud at the controls. I just might pick up a few pointers. Not very likely, but who knows?”
Bud snorted. “Don’t bug me, girl. You’re not strapped in—I could run into turbulence any time. Voluntarily!”
It took only minutes for the elegant supersonic craft to leave New York, and the continent, behind. Less than an hour later they were well out over the sparkling Atlantic.
Mr. Swift had joined Tom and Bud in the room-sized cockpit, Mrs. Swift and Sandy having left for a moment. “I was reviewing our skyway documentation up in my cabin,” he said. “I continue to be surprised that this system of ours hasn’t provoked more interest from other countries—cities, even. Our leasing fees are very modest.”
“Remember, Mr. Swift, the skyway stuff is just a cover story,” Bud remarked over his shoulder.
“Oh, I know, Bud. Has to be credible, though. I wonder if we should have arranged for one of the workchoppers to accompany― ”
“Hold it!” called Bud suddenly. “Tom, take a look at this.”
“What?” The young inventor took a long-legged step toward the forward control board.
“Oh my, are we in for some drama?” asked a feminine voice sarcastically. Sandy had returned to the compartment, her mother following her through the hatchway. Anne Swift’s step was awkwardly interrupted as the deck made an abrupt, startling tilt to starboard!
“Ohh!” cried Tom’s mother, losing her balance.
“Got you, Dear,” Mr. Swift murmured.
“Bud Barclay!” Sandy burst out in reproving tones. “Your joke is going too far!”
“No joke, sis,” said Tom distractedly. “We’ve got a malfunction. One group of jet lifters has come on line. They all run along portside, and the whole ship is tilting starboard.”
Damon Swift tried to hold his concern in check, but he understood the implications of his son’s words. “Jet lifters at full-throttle speed? Tom, you’ve got to cut the forward engines.”
“I’ve already done it, Mr. Swift,” Bud reported tensely. “We’re slowing. But I can’t choke off the lifters!”
Tom glanced back at his family. “And we can’t switch on the others.”
“Then we’ll flip over sideways!” gasped Sandy with wide eyes. “Won’t we?”
“The supergyros are helping, but if I increase the power to them any further, the disks will start to fracture.” Tom’s nimble fingers played about the delicate controls. As the Queen’s forward momentum ebbed away the skyship began to shudder. “The aeolivanes can’t maintain lift pressure at this speed,” Tom murmured to Bud, who nodded.
Sandy, unprompted, took to the ship intercom, directing all crew to strap in for safety. Then she and her mother and father did the same.
Tom had to rein-in the gyros to prevent them from failing completely, and the quivering Flying Lab began immediately to tilt further on its side. “Your call, Skipper,” said Bud quietly. “What shall we do?”
Staring intensely at the readouts before him, an idea broke upon Tom. “We can throttle-up again, keeping us aloft. Then we can play-off the starboard-side aeolivane against the lifters to keep us level.”
Not looking at his pal, Bud shook his head skeptically. “What about the turbulence at higher speeds, the vibrations? The Queen’ll wag herself to death!”
“I don’t think so!” Tom countered. “If we raise the angle of the forward axis at the same time, we shift the airstream constants.”
“Son, that’s right!” exclaimed Mr. Swift. “We found an alternate window of stability in the windtunnel tests! But,” he added, “it’s a narrow one. You’ll have to hit it right down the middle.”
The junior Swift put his desperate plan into action. As he brought in the forward engines again, the craft shimmied and shook with increasing teeth-rattling violence. At the same time, Tom began to force her nose upward slowly against the forces of the pounding airflow, seemingly one aching inch at a time. There came a last shock, like a slap in the face—and suddenly the Sky Queen was gliding along smoothly once again.
“Tom, you’re giving me quite a ride,” breathed Tom’s mother in relief. “I really don’t need all that much excitement, thank you.”
“Sorry, Mom,” Tom grinned back, perspiration dripping down his forehead.
“Magnificent piloting, son,” declared Mr. Swift proudly.
Bud silently thumped his pal on the back.
The intercom bleeped. “Wh-what th’—brand my ― ”
“It’s over, Chow,” Tom said into the microphone. “Technical problems. Any casualties in the galley?”
“I’d call it tragedy, boss! My cake fell!”
“We won’t mind a cake that’s a little flat, pard,” responded Tom reassuringly.
“Not that kind o’ fall—she fell t’the floor! Not s’much flat as smashed t’smithers!”
“We’ll just call it a crumb cake,” Bud whispered.
There were no further incidents as the Flying Lab continued its now somewhat lopsided flight, forced to struggle on restlessly below the speed of sound. They crossed the northern tip of Spain, the great Bay of Biscay, green France, and the white-draped Alps. Tom was hard at work during those hours, trying to diagnose the jet lifter problem. It would be impossible to land safely under the present jerry-rigged arrangement.
As the skyship finally crossed over into Brungarian airspace, most of her passengers had assembled in the lounge at the prow of the upper deck, where great viewports lined the walls from floor to ceiling. “What a beautiful country!” Sandy exclaimed. “But just think of all those years they hated us.”
“Politics, all politics,” declared Damon Swift. “I don’t like it. The family never has. Scientists cooperate and share their discoveries and efforts. Why can’t the rest of mankind?”
“There are such things as industrial secrets, Damon,” needled Hank Sterling, whose late father had been one of the elder Swift’s closest friends.
Mr. Swift smiled. “Yes. And your father mentioned that fact often enough. I don’t have to like it, though.”
“Lotsa things a person’ll tolerate without likin’ it,” Chow said. He added quickly: “No smart remarks about my cooking!”
The Sky Queen passed over the Vass River that spilt Brungaria in two down the middle, and the travelers saw the small industrial city of Taicrola, which was to be the terminus of the mythical Swift skyway. After a high hop over the Hargmiz Mountains, Bud announced from the control room that they were beginning their descent to Volkonis.
“By the way,” intercommed the young pilot, “our local genius has fixed the problem with the lifters, so you can all relax. Seems it was a little pile of glitches from the fire that wasn’t caught during the checkover.” Bud was referring to recent events, a massive explosion and fire in the ship’s underground hangar.
Mr. Swift wondered if anyone else had caught Bud’s emphasis on the word seems. But, he reasoned, no one but he knew what—who!— lay behind it.
Quimby Narz sat in silence on one of the overstuffed lounge chairs. His face was stone-still, which meant that its craggy landscape bore a slight scowl that was more than slightly offputting. When Bud sent the craft on a slow, lazy spin around the city, Narz surprised the others by speaking up. “Nice city, Volkonis. Not big, but bustling. I’d compare it to Pittsburgh. Or maybe Chicago. Windy, all the time.”
“Have you been here before, Mr. Narz?” asked Sandy.
“Twelve times. And by the way, Miss Swift, please call me Quim.”
“That’s a unique name.”
“I’m a unique man.”
Arv Hanson interrupted the exchange. “Look on the side of the mountain over there. Is that a castle?”
“The castle of the Archduke of the old Duchy of Brungary, built in 1381,” responded agent Narz. “Abandoned for a nice new palace in 1740 when the Archduke was made a king and the country became the Kingdom of Brungaria. 1877, constitutional monarchy with a parliament, another palace. The Party moved into something grander and uglier during the totalitarian era. Nowadays the President of Brungaria lives in a modern residence suitable for a republic. Biggest one of all, matter of fact. I hope you all have a chance to take a tour of the city.”
“Goodness me, it seems Brungaria has quite a history!” commented Mrs. Swift.
“It surely does. Goes back to Roman times—ruins of a garrison fort and a temple just outside the city. Matter of fact,” Narz continued, “it was the Romans who gave the city its name, after Vulcan, the old god of metalworking and the forge. Called it Vulcanistum. Even back then, the Brungars— ‘brunga’ means ‘dirty fingernails’—were known for their expert metalworking. Most of that red you see in the mountains is what’s left of Volkonitan iron. World famous back when the world was smaller.”
“Ever’ time I go on one of these here trips, I get a history lesson, want it ’r not,” Chow remarked.
At the controls, Tom and Bud guided the Sky Queen toward its reserved landing space—almost the size of a small airfield—at the edge of Volkonis International Airport. By contrast to those in the lounge, their mood was grim.
“The lifter problem wasn’t easy to solve,” Tom muttered to his pal. “I feel like I’ve missed two nights sleep.”
“So what do you really think, Skipper?” Bud asked. “Was it a problem left over from the fire?”
“It could have been,” replied the young inventor thoughtfully. “But if so it was one of those oddball malfunctions that you wouldn’t expect to happen more than once in a hundred years. That’s why the hangar crew didn’t look for it.”
“If it was even there. You know and I know that Old Man Narz was out of sight for quite a while after we lifted off. Could he have done something to sabotage the lifter ‘brain’?”
Tom conceded that it would be possible for a person with inside information on the technical specs of the Flying Lab to cause the damage at one of the interior inspection points. “But if Narz has been turned—if he’s working for that dictator Ubar—he’s not just trying to stall my use of the thoughtograph machine for a while.”
“I’ll say,” Bud Barclay gritted. “He’s willing to risk his life. But hey, whatever, that’s no big deal, Tom. What worries me is that he’s willing to put all our lives on the chopping block too!”
AS THE travelers debarked from the Flying Lab by means of the extensible stairway from the lower-deck side hatch, Tom gave Sandy a keen look. A reflected gleam told the scientist-inventor that his sister had tears in her eyes.
He stepped up next to Sandy and threw an arm around her. “Thinking about Bashalli?”
“She would have enjoyed this trip so,” the girl replied with a sobby sigh. “It’s unfair.”
“Let’s have faith that she’ll get well quickly,” Tom urged. “Maybe she’ll be up and waiting for us when we get back to Shopton.”
Sandy brushed away a tear and forced a smile. “That’s a mental image you can thoughtograph and hang on the wall.”
Two limousines awaited the Shoptonians, courtesy of the President of Brungaria. A nervous-looking little man with plastered-down hair and pleated pants also awaited them. “I am Svoont, your guide to Volkonis. I am a professional, but there is no charge for my services. Or rather, the fee has already been taken care of by His Most High Excellency President Radichyofski. Not from the public treasury, but on his own.”
“We certainly appreciate it,” said Damon Swift as he shook the man’s hand.
“Ah! But it is no problem.”
Their luggage sent on ahead, and two of the Enterprises technical crew remaining behind on the Sky Queen to discreetly watch over the imager, the group divided up and entered the limos. As Quimby Narz joined Tom and Bud, he nodded toward Svoont in the other limo. “Your official minder,” he said quietly to the youths. “He’ll politely accompany you folks as often as possible when you leave the hotel. Keeping an official eye on us. Distrust of foreigners, especially Americans, remains the custom here.”
Sandy looked disgusted. “How stupid! Just to be ornery, I’m going to avoid that little man as much as possible. I’m glad you asked me to take this car, Quim.” Narz gave her an unsmiling nod.
A short ride took them to the high, modern hotel named, in translation, The Presidency Regal. The visitors were shown to their several adjacent suites, agent Narz having his own room next to the elevator. Bud had been given a suite with Arv and Hank, but Mr. Swift invited the athletic youth to share the family’s quarters.
“Plenty of room and an extra bed,” added Tom’s mother.
“Besides, flyboy, you won’t have to walk so far to crash breakfast with us,” gibed Tom.
Bud laughed. “Sold!”
“And I shall be in my own room, very convenient, across the hallway,” declared Mr. Svoont. “Very small, one room, but we must not overindulge at the expense of our President. It is not a problem.”
“I’m glad,” said Tom dryly. He imagined Svoont keeping an eye on the visitors through the peephole in his door.
The day was mostly gone. After settling in, the entire cadre of visitors met to dine together at an elegant old restaurant next to the hotel.
“Not bad,” said Chow as he sipped the aperatif cautiously. “Don’t know what it is, but it’s sure no worse than some o’ that greeny Russian stuff Boris pours out. When I’m not lookin’.”
“It is clodjwine, the national drink,” noted Mr. Svoont. “Most visitors to Brungaria find it quite acceptable.”
“It’s delicious,” Anne Swift offered quickly.
“May I have a sip, mother?” asked Sandy.
Agent Narz had explained that Mr. Svoont was in on the trip’s cover story, but not the fact that it was just a cover story. Only the trusted group from Shopton knew of the crisis in central Asia. Except for officials at the highest levels, Brungaria had bought the story, not knowing of the imager equipment carefully stowed away in the ship’s hangar-hold. Narz had warned them all against any mention of the real project outside a secure confidential setting.
The dinner’s main course included moofta, the spicy Brungarian national dish, which Tom and several of the others had tried previously. “Be sure your water tumblers are full, everyone,” Tom urged with a grin. Spicy meant tongue-burning spicy.
Added Bud: “That red color isn’t iron, and it’s mighty― ”
“Piquant,” inserted Svoont, clearly a patriot.
The next morning the Enterprises group divided. Tom and his father had a scheduled meeting with the President and his various advisors, while Hank and Arv were to return to the Sky Queen to begin unpacking and assembling the imager, which required extensive calibration before use.
Quimby Narz invited the others—Sandy and Anne Swift, Chow, and Bud—to take an informal tour of the city’s hereabouts with himself the guide. “That is,” he said to Bud, “unless you feel you should be with your friend.”
“Oh, I wouldn’t want to miss this,” was the bland response. Bud had other thoughts that he kept to himself. Good thing Narz doesn’t have a thoughtograph camera of his own! he chuckled inside wryly.
“And I shall be with you as well,” announced Mr. Svoont, who had materialized in the hotel hallway almost at daybreak. “I am your official guide, and must account for my time.”
“How very thoughtful,” commented Sandy with a frown.
“It is no problem,” the little man replied. “I shall call for the limousine.”
“No,” Narz declared. “We’ll walk.”
The hotel was located in an old and colorful section of the city, offering buildings that had been in continuous use since before the American Revolution. The narrow streets were crowded with cars of two kinds, the decrepitly old and the expensively new. Agent Narz provided a crisp, intermittent narration, which Mr. Svoont sometimes found reason to politely dispute. “Perhaps you will not mind my small corrections,” he said with minimal apology. “I am paid to do this, you see. Of course, I do not mind. It is no problem.”
“Mr. Svoont,” Bud remarked, “do you realize you say ‘it is no problem’ almost every time you talk?”
“But of course, young man.” The guide pointed at a political poster plastered to a nearby wall. “If you could read those words, you would see that the slogan of our President’s Popular Progress Party is, in fact, ‘It is no problem’.”
“I’d say you folks ’r learnin’ dee-mocracy right well so far,” muttered Chow. Mrs. Swift hid a smile.
Where two broad boulevards crossed was a traffic circle, or roundabout. In the middle was a small paved plaza with a great decorative fountain and a monument to the Brungarian heroes of World War Two.
“They fought on our side,” Narz commented. “As it happens.” The remark was answered by a glare from Mr. Svoont.
Dodging traffic they crossed to the deserted plaza, where they stood alone looking up at the statues that encircled the fountain. “Just look at this guy,” Bud exclaimed with a grin, leaning back to study the face of a fierce-looking soldier with a long nose like an eagle’s, twelve feet of polished marble altogether. “I sure wouldn’t want to run into him in a dark― ”
Suddenly a thumb-sized fragment bounced off Bud’s head. Chow squawked:
“Oww! The end of his dang nose fell off! That blame statue’s fallin’ apart!”
“Inconceivable!” sputtered Svoont.
“It’s a trap,” said Narz in a voice eerily calm and firm. “We’re being shot at.”
Sandy shrieked—a chip of the plaza, next to her feet, had taken to the air!
“Do something, Narz!” growled Bud. “You led us into this. Get us out!”
QUIMBY NARZ was already in motion. He herded the tourists to the far side of the fountain, almost throwing Sandy before him. At the rear, Chow and Mr. Svoont, in the throes of amazement, looked at each other and hesitated.
“After you, sir,” piped Svoont.
“Ya better b’lieve it!”
As they crouched behind the fountain, more chips of marble and pavement were sent whirling on all sides. “Where are they?” Bud demanded. “I don’t hear any shots.”
“Silencers. The grown-up kind.” Narz’s slitted, slouching eyes scanned the tall buildings across the boulevard. “The angles tell it. Over there. Three stories up.” The agent gestured with his chin.
“They don’t seem to be very good shots,” whispered Mrs. Swift.
“Count yer blessin’s fer that!” gulped Chow, who was finding it difficult to conceal all the regions of his personal territory at the same time.
“Bad line of sight,” responded Narz tersely. “Which tells us a little more. Plastic tarps on that apartment building—refurbishing work. Third floor, righthand side.”
“I can almost see him,” said Bud. “Look, Narz, I’m not planning to be pinned down here all morning.”
“The Volkonis Police Force will be here within moments, surely,” quavered Mr. Svoont, pale as vanilla ice cream. “They are most efficient.”
“Well, I don’t hear them yet,” Sandy retorted.
Bud persisted. “We’ve got to try to corner the guy. It may be the only way to find out who our real enemies are.” The span of a silent moment allowed the youth to wonder whether Quimby Narz had sensed the insinuation in Bud’s voice.
“All right. Takes two of us,” the special agent pronounced. “I know you and Tom have had some experience in this.”
“A few dozen inventions worth of experience!” declared Bud.
“Bud, you can’t!” protested Sandy, echoed by her mother.
“Aw now, sure he can,” Chow said. “But brand my bulletproof soup kettle, I’ll go along too!”
Narz curtly dismissed the ex-Texan with: “Too wide a target. All right, Barclay. He’s rethinking the angles. Follow my lead.”
The traffic on the boulevard knew nothing of the silent attack, and this proved a help to Narz and Bud as they zigzagged between the honking autos, scambling at a crouch. As the two thudded up against the wall of the apartment building, to the annoyed looks of passing pedestrians, Narz said quietly: “Through this tarp. Into the main foyer. Elevator’s probably working, but he won’t use it. You take the main stairs. I’ve got the back stairs. Third floor, keep yourself covered. You copy?”
Bud had to grin. “Roger. Wilco. Over!” He yanked aside the plastic tarp, cleared the glassless window sill, and sprinted through a bare room cluttered with ladders and paint cans.
Untwisting a deadbolt knob, Bud slipped into the tiled foyer, startling a woman who was retrieving her mail. “Sorry, ma’am!” Bud muttered as he made for the stairs next to the elevator doors. He could hear Narz padding behind him, then fading away to the left.
Bud took the carpeted steps two at a time, one flight, two flights, three flights. He halted at the third-floor landing, which was open to the hallway running right and left. He caught a few seconds-worth of breath, half expecting a gunman to whirl around the corner any instant.
Finally, hearing nothing, he sunk down and bellied to the floor, easing an eye around the corner.
Agent Narz stood at the far end of the corridor, looking square at him. Wizened fingers motioned Bud forward as Narz nodded toward the apartment door on his left.
“I undid the door while I was waiting,” whispered the agent, barely audible. “I’ll flush him out. Stand here and take him.” He touched his side unconsciously, and it suddenly occurred to Bud that Quimby Narz was armed.
Bud flattened against the wall by the door, heart racing, glad to be alive, as Narz touched the door handle delicately, paused, made springs of his leg muscles, then rushed forward like lightning. Silence followed, no gunshots; and then the young athlete tensed to move as the doorway filled with shadow.
“Just me, Barclay,” said Narz in conversational tones. “Come on.”
Bud entered and gaped. A burly man lay collapsed on the floor next to the plastic tarp that covered the whole out-facing wall, which had been reduced to open support beams and empty window frames. Near one flung-out hand lay a rifle with a telescopic sight.
“Good gosh!” Bud gasped. “What did you do to him? Is he dead?”
“Not yet. Take a look.”
Bud approached and Narz pointed. “Five wounds, very long range, two different angles wide apart.”
“On his front,” noted Bud. “The bullets came from― ” He nodded toward the tarp.
“Right. Out there.” Narz approached the tarp and poked a finger through a small rip, then through another. He gazed out across the broad valley of the boulevards. “Couple prime spots across the way, up high.”
“But who did it?”
“Oh, I’d say Russian agents,” Narz replied in a mild tone. “Better than ninety percent chance.”
“Surprised? They cover their foreign operations just as we do. Never announce it, never get permission. But they do it, and they’re mighty good.” Narz turned, crouched, and began running his hands through the man’s pockets. “Spotted a few as we walked around, which means there were three times as many that I didn’t spot. They scramble from building to building, alley to alley—and they have their cars on the street. Though not a hulking big van like you boys used in your Manhattan operation.” He glanced up at Bud and almost looked amused. “Big van, sharp turns, a route that doesn’t lead anywhere: not what we in the business would call subtle.”
Bud forced a retort back down his throat. “So these Russian guys are here in Volkonis already, before the boy gets here? Watching us?”
The agent nodded. “Advance work. They saw the chips flying, spotted the gunman with infra-penetra, took him down. By the way,” he added, “don’t assume Andri isn’t here in the city yet. I’m assuming he is.”
Still breathing hard, Bud knelt down beside the unconscious, bloody shooter and touched his wrist. “I don’t think he’ll last long.”
“No, not long at all. We won’t be getting anything out of him. Still, I’ll use my cell to call an ambulance. It’ll probably get here before Svoont’s efficient police.”
As Bud used rips of rag to stanch what bleeding he could, he asked if Narz had found any evidence disclosing the shooter’s bosses. “Nothing on him,” was the reply. “But that gunsight was tooled in the Zirghoz Republic. This man works for—worked for—Yongjiss Ubar.”
Across Volkonis, in the new presidential mansion, Tom and his father were concluding their meeting with Oggan Radichyofski, President of Brungaria, and a small group of his trusted advisors and ministry officials. “Your covering story, this skyway business, has been most effective,” said the youthful president by means of an interpreter. “Our journalists have raised no question.”
“My father and I have a distaste for misleading the press—or anyone,” said Tom soberly. “We’re doing it now because so much is at stake.”
“I do understand,” responded Radichyofski. “But it will all come out after the matter is resolved. I shall write of it in my memoirs.”
As the meeting ended Tom responded to a call on his cellphone, which had vibrated a silent alert four times in the ten minutes preceding. “What’s up, Bud? Problem?”
“Just a little life-and-death stuff!” Tom’s pal replied. To Tom’s skyrocketing alarm and amazement, Bud recounted the incident in summary form, concluding with: “The ambulance just took the guy away. He was still alive. Narz rode with him.”
“Even with squads of spies watching over us, we’re still sitting ducks here in Volkonis,” stated Tom. “Not just you and me, but all of us.”
“I know. And frankly, I’m still not so sure old Quim isn’t involved. He could have hired the guy himself, and tipped him off to where he’d be taking us! Man, I sure wish the gunner would last long enough for us to get something out of him.”
Tom was silent and thoughtful for such a long moment that Bud asked if he were still there. “Still here. Listen flyboy, let Mr. Svoont get everyone back to the hotel right away, by taxi. I need you to do something for me.”
“Contact Narz at the hospital as soon as you can. He should tell them to spare no expense keeping the gunman alive, even if he doesn’t regain consciousness.”
“Okay,” said Bud. “And I know what you’re thinking, genius boy.”
“And you’re right. I’m going to use the thoughtograph on him. We just might be able to extract some important information from his mental record.”
Bud was skeptical. “But Tom—you really think you can mind-read someone in a coma?”
“Why not? We picked up your dreams, and sleep is one form of unconsciousness. No reason why we can’t pry out something from his memory store.”
“I just hope he doesn’t check out before you have a chance to try!” Bud said in discouragement, signing off.
Tom briefed his father and the other officials, all of them expressing alarm and dismay. “I am outraged that the Russian Federation has taken these liberties here in our capital, right over our noses!” fumed one man in uniform. “What right have these armed men to operate here without our permission?”
“I’m afraid I don’t care about the protocol in this case, General,” retorted Damon Swift heatedly. “My wife, my daughter, those closest to us—it might well be they in the hospital, if not for those Russians.”
The President arranged, by his executive authority, all the required clearances for Tom to act with a free hand. The young inventor then called the hospital phone number Bud had supplied, ultimately speaking to a surgeon who was fluent in English. “I will see to this myself, as our President has decreed,” the man declared. “This thug, he will be transported to your airplane immediately with all his life-sustaining apparatus.”
“And if you don’t mind, please tell Mr. Narz that I’d like him to go back to our hotel and make sure the others in my party are safe.” I don’t want him present when I use the thoughtograph was Tom’s thought.
“I will tell him this. And I will accompany the ambulance, along with several—a moment, please.” There was a break in the conversation, and the muffled sounds of a brief exchange. The surgeon came back on the line. “I am sorry, alas, Mr. Swift. The man has just expired from his injuries.”
Tom let out his breath in disappointment—then sucked it back in as a fantastic idea struck his agile brain! “Sir, that’s not going to stop us. Do what you can to arrest deterioration, and bring his body to the Sky Queen as we just agreed.”
“I see. You plan to observe his autopsy, then?”
Tom glanced toward his father, and thought of all the many thousands of lives at stake. “A mental autopsy. I’m going to make that dead man talk!”
THE TALES DEAD MEN TELL
“INCREDIBLE!” choked Hank Sterling. “If it were anyone else but you, Skipper, I’d say it was crazy!”
“This whole situation is enough to make anybody crazy,” observed Arvid Hanson, no less astounded than his friend.
The two had joined Tom and Mr. Swift in the broad hangar-hold of the Sky Queen, where the thoughtograph imager had been set up. Bud Barclay was also present, having just arrived by taxi. “Tom,” he said with wide eyes, “a coma is one thing, but this guy isn’t just a little out of it—he’s dead! What are you planning to do, interrogate his ghost?”
Bud’s remark did not raise a smile. “Brain cells can remain viable for twenty minutes after oxygen deprivation,” Tom said to all of them. “Even longer if preservative measures are taken. He may not be thinking, but the image-patterns should still be there, inscribed on his cortical tissues.”
“I agree, son,” said Damon Swift. “Even if some degeneration has taken place, it is surely possible that the thoughtograph series might reveal something usable—possible. You’ll have little time, though.”
“I’m well aware of that, Dad,” Tom muttered, eyes on his work as he made adjustments to the telextenna array.
Bud and the others stepped back, not wanting to distract Tom from his efforts. “It’s pretty weird,” Bud said quietly.
“The word is ghoulish,” Arv agreed, running a big hand through his blond Swedish hair. “But it’s in a good cause, just about the best cause there could be.”
Damon Swift commented, “I will admit to being uneasy with the notion. It seems a violation, somehow, compelling information from a dead man. Yet the alternative may be many more deaths. And of course, the procedure isn’t invasive. All Tom’s device does is pick up signals the brain is transmitting into the air.”
“Crime scene investigators on TV do worse things to corpses,” added Bud. “It’s part of the standard routine. I just hope it works.”
“We all do, Bud,” Hank said.
The shooter’s remains arrived at the Flying Lab in an unmarked vehicle, packed in dry ice. Two medical technicians rolled the casket-like insulated container into the hold, the surgeon Tom had spoken to, Dr. Murslev, walking briskly alongside. They had all been sworn to strict silence regarding what they were about to observe, and anything they might glean from the conversation of Tom and the others.
“Put him in front of the antenna and open up the container,” Tom directed. “Clear away the ice from his cranium, too, please.”
Using cardio-resuscitation paddles, the medical team sent a series of electric shocks through the body, not to restart the heart but to momentarily stimulate the cortex into generating the signals used by the machine. “We’re receiving!” Tom announced excitedly. “I’ll focus in.”
The others bunched behind, trying to see the monitor screen over Tom’s shoulder.
“G-good night!” Bud breathed, and Hank Sterling, awestruck, cried: “You’re getting something!”
Faint images, fragmented and oddly distorted, danced across the screen! “Recent memories,” Tom pronounced tensely. “They’re always the easiest to pick up, because they’re stored with a lot of redundancy—multiple versions. But we don’t need to see him aiming his rifle. Let’s try backing up an hour.”
A sequence of blurred thoughtographs followed. Then the screen blanked out in a chaotic swirl of half-glimpsed forms.
“No go,” Hank said dejectedly.
“Deterioration is setting in. How far back did you get, son?” inquired Mr. Swift.
“According to the readout, about twelve minutes,” was the reply. “Still… let’s enhance the digital prints and see what we can see.” The image prints slid out of the main console, and Tom passed them around.
“Look at these!” Bud exclaimed. “They must be the earliest ones—they’re getting staticky. But there’s a face in them!”
Tom studied the vague image. Despite much enhancement, the facial features could be barely discerned. “Bet this is the guy who gave the gunman his final instructions, just before he entered the apartment.”
“If only we could see his face clearly enough to identify him,” Damon Swift said. “Even the colors are smudged and washed out.”
“Still, it’s not such a bad job for a corpse!” Bud pointed out with a grin.
Tom’s lean forefinger moved to the edge of the image. “Here’s one thing that’s fairly sharp. Looks like a double mole on the neck, just under the left ear. The gunman must have thought it was interesting. It may be that there’s something in a police database somewhere that shows or mentions it.”
“I suggest you pass copies of these remarkable pictures on to our government,” Dr. Murslev urged, scarcely able to speak. He and the other Brungarians seemed to have got past shock, into near catalepsy!
“I will,” Tom promised. “Now, doctor, I think you can take our friend off to the morgue, or your forensic medical examiner. And please thank everyone involved in this experiment.”
“Even you, jerkface!” Bud said in the direction of the casket. “Thanks loads!”
At the hotel that evening, Tom placed a call to the Fiske-Hergan Institute on Long Island, where it was early in the day. “There is no obvious improvement, I’m sorry to say,” Dr. Fiske told the young scientist-inventor. “At least Bashalli is comfortable. Her parents have flown in from Pakistan, and seeing them helped a good deal. I’m glad you called, though,” added the doctor. “I was about to try getting in touch with you.”
“Well, I’ve asked a question of Bashalli, but I’m not sure we can rely on her memories of early life, even though she seems to have retained them. Her parents and brother don’t quite recall the critical details either.”
“I see,” said Tom. “What’s the question?”
“Has she ever mentioned anything to you about being very sick as a young child, something that caused temporary muscular weakness? Anything of that nature?”
Tom pondered the question for a long moment. “No, I don’t think so. She doesn’t really talk much about her life back in Pakistan. Do you think an illness might have something to do with her problem?”
“It’s possible, Tom,” replied Fiske. “I don’t suppose you’ve ever heard of something called acute myoleptic fever—have you?”
“No. My mother might’ve.” Mrs. Swift held a degree in molecular biochemistry, and kept up with developments in the field.
“Well, it’s a very rare contagion that’s almost been eliminated. Somewhat debilitating but not too serious if treated early,” the doctor explained. “It’s mostly been found in Southeast Asia; but there was an epidemic in Pakistan a few years back, when Bashalli would have been a toddler.”
“Now that you mention it, I believe I read something about that epidemic in a book,” Tom said.
“I happened to make the connection, thinking about the fact that Bashalli comes from that part of the world. So I ran some tests.”
“It checked out?”
Tom could imagine the doctor nodding vigorously. “She shows positive for AMF antigens, though the test isn’t absolutely conclusive. Mild exposure, without full-blown infection, can also produce those traces.” Dr. Fiske went on to explain that the disease had been known to affect the brain’s basic chemistry. “There have even been some reports of impaired memory, as a matter of fact.”
“Then that could be the answer!” Tom exclaimed excitedly. “The lingering effects might have made her neural system especially vulnerable to the radiation leakage from my brain-scanning invention!”
“Indeed yes,” Fiske confirmed. “In a way, a sort of allergic reaction in the brain tissues. It gives me a lead on some treatment options to try, approaches that normally wouldn’t have occurred to me.” Tom warmly thanked Dr. Fiske for his efforts, knowing he was speaking on behalf of Bashalli’s family as well as his own.
Next morning, the Swift family breakfast—the Swift-Barclay family breakfast—was interrupted by a sharp triple-knock on the door, which Bud answered. Quimby Narz pushed by Bud with a nod, approaching the table.
“News?” asked Mr. Swift.
“I just got the word,” Narz responded. “Sorry to interrupt your breakfast. Better eat that muffin, Sandy, before the jelly runs off.”
Sandy took a big bite. Was Quim trying to be cordial?
“What word did you get?” Bud asked with narrowed eyes.
“About the boy, Andri. He’s now ‘officially’ here in Volkonis at an undisclosed location. I’m bringing his handler by later this morning—Russian woman. High-level government employee, total access to classified info. Her name is Ikrina Gumboll.” Noting the expression on Bud’s face, he spelled the woman’s last name. “She and her security boys came by train, direct from Moscow. Better for security.”
Tom exchanged glances with his father. “Now it gets exciting!” Tom declared.
“It’s been exciting, Dear,” Tom’s mother corrected him. “Now it becomes dangerous.”
PHANTOMS IN THE RUINS
TOM and Damon Swift met Ikrina Gumboll in a small conference room in the Brungarian Ministry of Defense. As Quimby Narz escorted her in, the two Swifts were struck by her appearance. She proved to be tall, youthful, and exotically attractive, with wide blue eyes and light auburn hair that swept down and framed her face.
“I’m so pleased to meet you two famous world-celebrities,” she said in perfect English as she shook hands.
“The pleasure is ours, Miss Gumboll,” responded Mr. Swift.
“If it matters, it is Mrs. Gumboll,” the Russian noted. “There is a Mister Gumboll—somewhere or other. I will divorce him if I find the time.”
“Gumboll is in on all aspects of this operation,” stated Narz. “Talk freely.”
Tom offered that the main order of business was to determine precisely when and where Andriej Burkeshyanov would be put before Tom’s thoughtograph imager.
“Time is of the essence, obviously,” responded Mrs. Gumboll with a calm smile. “Ubar has now given my government a clear ultimatum. Nine days from now is the deadline.”
“The clock is ticking,” Tom’s father pronounced grimly.
“It is the bomb that is ticking, I would say,” Gumboll retorted. “That wonderful device of yours! When I think of what the old KGB might have done with such a machine…” Seeing Tom’s brow furrow, she concluded her sentence hastily: “—it would have been horrible!”
“Where is the boy right now?” asked Mr. Swift.
“Very safe and secure, and out of sight. We have made a little home for him in Gomisdal, a rural district just outside the city borders. It’s been fixed up to be comfortable. It is best to put him in a pleasant environment, one that calms and soothes, in view of his mental state. Andri is very dear, but rarely chooses to speak. His world is all his own.”
“When he does open his mouth, it doesn’t make sense,” Narz declared. His voice bore no trace of any softening sentiment. “Repeated single words, odd phrases. Has no idea what’s going on.”
“According to what I’ve read about autism, he may know a lot more than you realize,” remarked Tom.
“Ah! Perceive, yes indeed. But know?—well, one cannot tell. But to proceed, the place is an abandoned power substation. Three of my associates, trained security men, keep watch on us, and we have control over entry onto the property as well.”
Tom asked when Mrs. Gumboll wanted to go ahead with the thoughtography session, adding: “I know it has to be soon, but—if we have time for it, I’d like a chance to meet Andri first.” Despite his improvements to his invention, Tom continued to feel a sense of concern for the boy’s wellbeing.
Ikrina Gumboll smiled. “You wish to document a ‘before-and-after,’ I think. Very well, then. Andri seems at his best in the early mornings. Let us plan to visit him tomorrow. I will spend the night here in the city, then ride out with you. I will contact the others; they will keep him fed and safe.”
Tom and his father agreed to the plan, and Quimby Narz stated that he would arrange a suite in the hotel next to the American party.
As the dinner hour approached, Tom invited Mrs. Gumboll to dine with his family in a nearby restaurant, Bud joining them; as well as Mr. Svoont at his own nervous insistence. Narz would keep a watchful eye on them from another table.
Sandy, however, begged off, explaining that she was weary from an afternoon of touring the highlights of Volkonis—the standard public tours, presumed to be safe, overpopulated with Brungaria’s aggressive photo-journalists as well as the fretful Mr. Svoont. Covering a yawn, she told her mother, “I’ll read a little, then turn in.”
“Your father says we’ll be out rather late,” said Anne Swift. “Some government dignitaries will be joining us after dinner, so it’s no wonder. There’s no need to wait up for us.”
But immediately after the others had left, Tom’s independent-minded sister seemed to find new reserves of energy. Knowing that Chow Winkler had a habit of visiting the snack machine at the end of the hallway, she listened for his door, then slipped into the hall and called him over in a low voice. “Hello,” she said to him. “Let me introduce myself. My name is Sandra Swift.”
The big westerner gave back a puzzled grin. “Pleased t’ meetcha. Brand my spare tire, don’t tell me your brain is goin’ haywire too!”
“Maybe just a little,” she replied mischievously. “Since you seem to know me, you also know that I usually get my way—one way or another. I can be very persistent. I have what they call feminine cunning, don’t you think?”
“Wa-aal sure, Sandy, if’n that’s whatcha want t’ call it.”
“Mm-hmm. And if I don’t get my way, why, I’m liable to go off and do it by myself. Even if it’s a little risky.” She suddenly adopted a look of humorous pleading. “You wouldn’t want me to put myself in harm’s way all alone, would you, Chow?”
Getting the point, Chow gulped. “Mebbe I’m not so pleased t’meet you after all! Wh-what is it you want me t’do?”
Having made the sale, Sandy smiled prettily. “Oh, it’s not all that risky. I’m tired of being watched over by Mr. Narz—and especially by that creepy Svoont. I was reading in a pamphlet about those old Roman ruins, and I really want to take a look at them without all those eyes watching me. We can take a taxi.”
“W-we?” Chow repeated. “Mebbe Arv or Hank― ”
“No, they’re both at the Sky Queen tonight.”
The last word made the cowpoke turn a bit pale. “Jest when ’r you wantin’ to take this here tour?”
“But it’s dark out!”
“The ruins are lighted at night, the pamphlet says. It even says that young people go out there late at night. It’s kind of a local custom.”
“I kin jest imagine,” responded Chow dryly. “You really think it’s safe? We been shot at, y’know.”
“But that awful man is in cold storage,” she replied. “No one will expect us to be out after dark. Besides, I’ll have extra protection.”
“Ya will? What kind o’ pertection?”
She smiled again, blithely. “Why you, of course—Sixgun Chow Winkler!”
Sixgun Chow Winkler knew when to surrender.
Fifty minutes found the two trudging slowly through marble blocks and broken columns at the edge of the city. The dark night was broken by brilliant splashes of electric light, giving a strange, beautiful ambience to the millennia-old ruins. The lights of Volkonis now seemed very distant.
“Sure do wish them snack stands were open,” murmured Chow with a nod of his head.
“Oh, I thought you said you’d had dinner,” responded Sandy.
“Yep, sure did. Jest wish there was a few more live people out here with us—not jest a bunch o’ Roman ghosts!”
“If Bashalli were here, Charles Winkler, she’d say: Ghosts? So very unscientific!” Sandy pointed out.
“Wa-aal, if she ’as here with us, I wouldn’t be so dang nervous!” Chow retorted.
The old site was no Rome. Not much remained of the original structures, reduced to bare rubble by time and the construction needs of Volkonis. Yet there was an abundance of deep shadow.
“The stars are pretty, anyway,” Sandy commented in tones that faded at the end. She was finding Chow’s nervousness contagious. Maybe this wasn’t such a great idea, she said to herself. But of course you’re much too stubborn to admit it, Sandra Swift!
Suddenly she gave a slight gasp, causing Chow to vent a bigger one. “Wh-wh-what’s wrong?” he demanded.
“I think—I’m sure I saw someone over there, next to that floodlight!”
Chow gulped three times. “If’n you’re sure, I’m sure sure! Mebbe you oughta call a taxi.”
Sandy began to fish through her traveling-purse for her cellphone—then looked up with a start. “Chow!” she breathed. “Did you hear that?”
“Y’mean that crunchin’ sound? Like someone stepped on some ruins up ahead?” The cook’s voice was unsteady. “I shor hope I didn’t!”
“Let’s head back to the taxi stop!” Sandy urged.
They turned about and began to walk—which became a trot as faint sounds came floating out of the shadows. “I s’pose it could be some o’ them teenagers,” Chow noted breathlessly.
Sandy answered, “Let’s give them their privacy!”
The trot became a modest—then less modest—panting run. Scuffing sounds came from all sides. The low ruins ahead now seemed to have grown into obstacles!
They both felt a rush of belief as the paved taxi stop came into view between a pair of broad decapitated columns. Then they shuddered to a halt as a big, muscular figure, backlighted, face in shadow, stepped smoothly out from behind one of them!
“Miss Swift. Mr. Winkler. A bit late to be out on your own, don’t you think?” said a low, gruff voice. He touched a slight bulge on the side of his jacket.
“And I think, perhaps, a little bit foolish.”
THE MAN was as still and unmoving as an ancient statue. Chow summoned his courage and stepped forward. “Now look, we’re Americans and yuh’d best jest leave us be. If you wanna shoot, you’ll hafta get through me first. And that won’t be so easy!”
The big shadow seemed to nod. “I suppose it wouldn’t be,” he said in tones heavily accented. “But you have jumped to a malformed conclusion, you two. This weapon in my pocket will not be aimed your way.”
“Chow,” Sandy said, “I think this man is one of those men from Russia, the men Quim told us about.”
“Ah, Quim—Quimby Narz, an old friend. Please do tell him Igg sends him good wishes.”
“We’re s’posed t’ believe your name is Igg?” demanded Chow. “We’re Americans, not blame ign’r-amoses!”
The man chuckled. “It is what he calls me, my nickname. Now, you will perhaps allow me to escort you two adventurers to the taxi-park ahead. We have taken the liberty to call one for you. But you will have to pay the fare.”
Chow’s wide face assumed a sour expression. “Won’t be the first time I got stuck payin’ fer a taxi ride.”
“You said ‘we’,” Sandy observed. “Just how many are you?”
“Here tonight? Just a few, those assigned to tail any of your party who go off on their own, placing themselves in danger—and thus, may I say, endangering a most important mission.”
Sandy nodded wryly. “You can skip the lecture. My mother and Dad will cover all the major points.”
“Yes,” replied the man soberly. “Perhaps this time you will listen.”
“Now wait,” Chow suddenly broke in. “We saw someone jest a few minutes back. That one o’ yours?”
The man waved a hand contemptuously. “Had it been one of ours, you surely would not have seen him. Perhaps a local?—Ah, perhaps one of the Zirghoz people assigned to watch you, just as we are. Obviously they know you are here in Volkonis—for they shoot at you, and then we shoot them! Perhaps they know of the thought-machine as well. So many perhapses. But as to the one you saw, as it happened we could not pursue him. Our duty was to stay with you.”
A silent taxi ride took Sandy and Chow back to the hotel and their respective fates.
There was no breakfast for Tom and Bud the next morning, a fact Bud took care to notice aloud, more than once. Tom drove the party’s rental car to the edge of the city and beyond, directed by Ikrina Gumboll. She was showing signs of worry. “I cannot think of any reason why my associates at the substation would not be receiving my calls,” she murmured as she lowered her phone for the fifth time.
“Well,” Bud remarked, “maybe Brungaria just has a lousy relay system.”
“I hardly think it would be that simple. We shall find out when we arrive.”
Tom asked the Russian if she were confident that her colleagues could protect Andri. “Not much of all this seems to have remained secret,” he noted.
“They are all experts at what they do, very experienced,” she replied distractedly. “We would not allow anything to happen to our wonderful little man.”
The area known as Gomisdal was wooded, bordering the foothills. There were a few industrial buildings, some dilapidated farmhouses, little more. It was evidently a place for impoverished refugees from the newborn capitalist life of Volkonis.
Mrs. Gumboll pointed to the right. “Between those trees, a little lane. Straight on to the gate.”
After a few score feet an aluminum gate arm blocked their way. A skinny, shaggy young man in American denim stood next to it. Tom rolled down his window.
Mrs. Gumboll asked: “Do either of you speak Russian? No? Then I will speak to him and show my face.” Gumboll leaned over, and she and the youth exchanged a few sentences. He swung up the weighted gate arm. “Vaschi says all has been quiet here, nothing amiss. But he has not seen any of the others since before midnight. As to his cellphone, it seems the little battery has died.”
They pulled to a stop before the ugly power substation, concrete-gray and featureless—except for a rusted sign showing a cartoon figure whose arms and legs were made of lightning.
Mrs. Gumboll was now clearly agitated. “Pyotr should have come out to meet us! What could be wrong?”
She led Tom into the building, noting with alarm that the metal door was unlocked. There were two square rooms within, the smaller one neatly painted, decorated as a bedroom. “No no no!” she quavered. “No one is here—no one!”
Tom and Bud scuttled about, trying to stifle their dismay as they sought clues. “I don’t see a thing,” Tom declared. “No sign of a struggle, no bullet holes, everything neat.”
“And no bodies,” Bud added.
“I have failed in my assignment,” moaned Ikrina Gumboll tearfully. “I have failed my country! How could this happen?”
As she sank into a chair, Tom crouched down next to her, trying to sound reassuring. “The Zirghozyians wouldn’t harm Andri, Ikrina. He’s about as valuable a commodity as could be. They must have forced their way in, somehow, and taken the boy and his guards at gunpoint.”
She nodded. “Yes. It must have been so. But perhaps—oh, I can not believe it—one of my own men has betrayed us.”
“We’ll find Andri!” Tom stated forcefully.
She seemed to be only half-listening. “Yes... I have read of your robot machine that tracks people.”
“My sensitector robot-mobile, which I call Rover Boy, could do the job; unfortunately it’s back in Shopton,” replied the young inventor. “But there’s no need to postpone taking action. I have another device back on the Sky Queen that can detect minute traces of substances. I’ll use it to gather evidence.”
But Mrs. Gumboll seemed beyond being consoled. She gestured toward a shelf. “Over there—you see? Pyotr’s cellphone. He would never leave it behind willingly.”
“Hey, here’s a thought!” cried Bud abruptly. “Tom, the imager works long-distance, even through walls! Maybe you could just tune-in to the kid’s brain pattern and figure out where he is!”
“It doesn’t work that way, Bud,” was the disheartened response. “I have to know, at least approximately, where the person is, so I can direct and focus the sensor-field. That’s why I had to track your phone signals in Manhattan.”
Mrs. Gumboll made several calls, speaking in Russian. The thunderous eruptions in response were loud enough for the boys to hear them from the far side of the room, and it wasn’t necessary to understand Russian to get the gist of them. When Ikrina clicked-off the cellphone, her pretty face was pasty-white.
“I am directed to wait here, for certain persons from our Embassy to arrive,” she told the youths glumly. “It is all I can do, now. Please return to the hotel; I will call you, if I am permitted.”
As Tom and Bud left the substation and made for the car, Bud touched his chum’s arm. “Get in, genius boy, and pick me up at the gate. I want to schmooze for a minute with good old what’s-his-name, Vaschi.”
The young inventor frowned. “But you don’t speak Russian, Bud.”
“I do now!” Bud grinned.
Starting off slowly, Tom saw the two speaking in what appeared to be a friendly, casual manner. When Bud got into the car he was silent, but smiling. Vaschi lifted the barrier, and waved to Bud as they passed.
“Okay, flyboy, what was that all about?” Tom demanded.
“My buddy Vaschi is a nice guy, for someone who doesn’t know English,” chuckled the dark-haired pilot. “I felt sorry for him, out here without a working phone. So I gave him mine!”
“You don’t have to speak the language to know when someone is giving you something for free.”
“Fine,” said Tom, “but why did you do it?”
“Don’t you get it, pal?” Bud’s gray eyes were sparkling. “Ikrina talks to the guy, and he says he didn’t see anything. So what did they do, tunnel in underground? There’s at least a hundred feet of clearance around that substation.”
Tom nodded. “True. Vaschi must have seen something. Maybe he didn’t want to admit that he’d allowed it to happen.”
“Absolutely!—that’s how us guys are.” Bud flashed Tom a look of triumph. “So now this guy has a Swift Enterprises cellphone on him!”
Delighted, Tom yelped a laugh. “Barclay gets the prize! Now we can go to the plane—and use the thoughtograph to find out just what he did see!”
UNSEEN AND UNKNOWN
WHEN TOM contacted his father to explain the dreadful situation, another shock awaited him. “It’s Agent Narz, son,” Damon Swift said. “He’s disappeared.”
Tom gasped. “Disappeared!”
“I knew it!” Tom’s car companion blurted out. Bud’s face reflected his disgust and anger.
“We don’t know when it happened,” Mr. Swift continued. “All was well when he returned to the hotel with us last night.”
“He seemed fine, Dad,” mused the young inventor. “He said goodnight to us, to Ikrina. We saw him close his door, and I heard him bolt it.”
“So did I. But there may have been someone lying in wait inside. The maid—who has security clearance, you know—said Narz’s bed hadn’t been touched since she made it up yesterday.”
“So whatever happened must have happened right away, before he retired,” noted Tom. “Mr. Svoont didn’t notice anything?”
“Not a thing. He’s quite upset, of course.”
Bud spoke up loudly, so Tom’s cellphone would pick up his voice. “Mr. Swift, this all fits together. Narz and his bum eye must have something to do with kidnapping Andri!”
“You could be right, Bud. Anyway, I’ve informed the government here; Undersecretary Trane as well—I’ll spare you those details. And now it seems I have further bad news for them!”
“Dad, please don’t call them just yet,” Tom urged. He explained Bud’s cellphone ploy. “I can triangulate-in on the unit’s locator signal and thoughtograph the guard’s mind from the Queen. He may have seen some important things without realizing their significance.” The elder Swift agreed to his son’s request without hesitation.
Bud was fuming. Tom told his chum: “Flyboy, Narz may have been another victim, not a perpetrator. Don’t forget, he was ready to take on that gunman to save all your lives.”
“Right,” conceded the athletic youth. “Unless it was all some kind of phony stunt—a real sacrifice play!”
They drove directly to the airport and boarded the Flying Lab. “She’s all ready and warmed up, Tom,” reported one of the Enterprises technicians who had been bunking on the ship, Dick Hampton. “Just as you asked.”
Tom thanked him and transmitted, from his personal cellphone, the coded signal that would silently activate the locator-transponder in the unit Bud had given Vaschi. “Got it!” Tom announced. He calibrated the imager. A soft electronic glow suffused the monitor screen.
“Have you locked-in on the guy’s cortex?” Hampton asked, fascinated. Then the young technician added, to himself: “Man alive, I can’t believe what I just said!”
“Take a look,” was the answer. “These must be current thought-images.”
Bud snorted. “Comic books! No wonder he wasn’t paying attention.”
“Now I’ll back it up,” stated Tom. “We want his memory images from last night—the same thing we did with you, Bud.”
Tom sequenced backwards, one vague image replacing another. The scene darkened as the previous night replaced the present morning, and Tom slowed the process, carefully studying each frame.
“I don’t get it, genius boy,” Bud finally remarked in frustration. “We’ve scanned back and forth twice now, haven’t we? Over the whole night, beginning to end. I sure don’t see anything that looks like people coming or going from the building. Jetz! Maybe they really did tunnel underground!”
Tom exhaled a sigh. “I’m stumped. Even if a portion of what we’re seeing is just imagination, wandering thoughts—I’m sure any funny business would have attracted his attention. And you see how he constantly patrols the perimeter. One person might’ve been able to work his way in and out without being caught, but not a whole crowd.”
The youth pushed his chair back and raked a comb of fingers through his spiky blond crewcut. “What are we missing here? Where’s the false assumption?”
Dick Hampton asked if Andri and the others might have been taken before nightfall the previous day. Tom thought it over. “Ikrina said she’d been in touch with them frequently, even into the early evening. She made one of the calls from the dinner table—I could hear the reply.”
“What if whoever she was talking to—this Pyotr, or whoever—was just faking her out? She did say it was possible that one of her crew might have been ‘turned’,” Bud pointed out. “Why couldn’t he have taken Andri any time after she left the building yesterday morning?”
Tom conceded the possibility. “But don’t forget, she was only willing to admit that some one of the men might have betrayed her. There was no sign of struggle, and given the stakes I’m pretty sure those Russian security men would have put up a lot of resistance, even at the cost of their lives. So if you’re right, pal, Ikrina’s wrong—they were all in it together, except maybe that fellow Vaschi. However unlikely, the men must have all been conspiring against Ikrina from the start.”
“Betraying their countrymen, thousands of them,” Bud noted with a snarl in his young voice. “Stuff like this makes me feel like resigning from the human race.”
Tom returned to the imager console and backtracked further, trying to identify the point in time when the young guard’s eyes had registered Mrs. Gumboll’s departure for Volkonis. “We can move forward from there moment by moment.”
“If that gatekeeper saw the men leave with the boy and didn’t report it to the Gumboll woman, he must be in league with them after all,” Dick Hampton observed.
Tom nodded. “We’re about to find out—I hope.”
Bud caught a glimpse of the Russian woman, and Tom began sequencing forward. “There she is,” Bud said. “There’s her car. She’s getting ready to leave. These thoughtographs must be showing yesterday morning.”
“No one out in front with her,” noted Tom. The fact struck him as odd. Hadn’t she been surprised that the man named Pyotr hadn’t come out to greet them? Wouldn’t he have gone out to say goodbye?
The figure of Ikrina Gumboll grew larger on the screen as she approached Vaschi to speak to him—larger and more vivid. “Now that’s one nice-looking lady!” said Dick.
“Vaschi seems to think so too,” remarked Tom. “Look how solid and detailed the image has become. He’s really paying attention now.”
“The kid has hormones,” Bud muttered in wry agreement. “In fact—from the look of it—a pretty lively imagination!”
“Wait!” cried Tom suddenly. “I thought I caught a—let’s back it up a few frames.”
He went back to a very close, detailed image of Ikrina standing within arm’s length of Vaschi, speaking to him soundlessly as one hand swept through her long hair, nervously pushing it back. Tom halted the sequence of motionless frames.
“Okay, pal, nice head, nice shoulder,” Bud remarked. “So what?”
Tom glanced up. “What I’m interested right now is her neck. You don’t see it?—let me try to enhance the image.” As he worked the dials, he murmured: “Like somebody breathing on a window pane—this is real emotional fog!”
Bud Barclay gasped as the visual details leapt into focus. “Good gosh! There on her neck― ”
Tom nodded, suddenly angry at the world—and himself. “We couldn’t have seen it, not with her hair down. But we could have, should have, considered the possibility.”
“What on earth are you two talking about?” demanded Dick Hampton. “What’s so important about this woman’s neck?”
“It’s what’s on her neck.” Tom touched the screen, pointed at a spot just beneath her ear. “See it? Vaschi must have found it fascinating, the way it attracted his eye.”
“A double mole!” Bud exclaimed. “Just like on that blurred image from the dead guy’s memory. It’s Ikrina Gumboll who’ s the turncoat!”
Tom concluded the thought. “And now she’s taken Andri.”
MAKING USE of the PER unit in the Sky Queen’s control compartment, Tom immediately contacted Richard Trane in Washington DC. The undersecretary’s reaction fell somewhere between internal and external combustion. “Do you have any idea what this means, Swift?” he sputtered. “This was my baby! I insisted! I wheedled! I wore the Big Guy down, and now it’s all gone to sludge. Even if I manage to keep my job, I’ll hardly be allowed to― ”
“Excuse me, sir,” Tom interrupted with a simmering anger. “We have something at stake that’s a little more important than your political prospects.”
“Oh right,” Trane grumbled coldly. “The famous idealism of Tom Swift, boy genius.”
“Never mind that. As I understand it, we don’t have much time left before Ubar carries out his threat. I have various instruments at Swift Enterprises that could help us find both the boy and Mr. Narz, and it would take less than a day to have them flown here.” The young inventor tried to ignore the muttering on the other end that had been set off by the word Narz. “For example, my sensitector. The constant winds in Volkonis don’t help matters, but it still might be worth― ”
The man wasn’t listening. “Narz. My recommendation. Another great footnote for my resume. No, Swift!” Trane barked abruptly. “Your involvement in this is over. Pull in your people and fly home immediately.” Speaking to himself, he added: “It’ll go down the hall, I know it will. Frederickson. No!—that idiot Reigert…”
“Excuse me, sir,” Tom said forcefully.
“Hmm? What, Swift?”
“I just thought I might remind you of something,” the young inventor continued. “You may have forgotten it. Mr. Undersecretary, I don’t work for you!” He cut off contact before the first wave of Trane’s reaction could singe his ears!
An hour later, pacing his room at the hotel, Tom received a grim report from the head of the National Presidency’s elite security apparatus. “We went to the power substation in Gomisdal, and have no hopeful news to give you. We arrived only minutes before two carloads from the Embassy of the Russian Federation. The woman is also gone. The boy Vaschi, who is now in custody of the Russians, says a small car came for her, and she went off with them with a smile and a wave.”
“Has he confessed anything concerning his role in all this?”
“He knows little. He was told from the start that everything that has happened was part of the official plan. When Gumboll spoke to him in Russian in front of you, her actual questions were not as she led you to believe.”
Tom was chagrined, but puzzled. “But what about the men with her? She mentioned a man named Pyotr…”
“Pfah! There never were any other men at the substation, just Vaschi and Gumboll and the boy Andri. At the dinner that night, she was only speaking to an automatic recording. According to Vaschi, the other government agents left the train at the Russian border, in keeping with their revised ‘official’ instructions from Gumboll.”
“Then she’s working for Ubar!” declared Tom.
After hanging up, Tom talked over the crisis with his family and Bud. “Do you think we should follow orders and fly back to the States, Dad?” he asked.
Damon Swift gave a smile. “Oh, of course. We’ll follow them—slowly!”
Bud brightened. “Great! Tom’ll get a brain-picture of this kid yet!”
“We know you’ll make it work out, Tom,” said Sandy.
“Thanks, sis—all of you,” was the grateful response. “As a matter of fact, there’s something I’d like to try right away, this afternoon. I’ll need your help, though.”
“What do you have in mind, Dear?” inquired Anne Swift, gently taking her husband’s hand.
In reply Tom unfolded a map of the city and environs on the breakfast table. “See this area here, up on the slope of the mountains? It’s the main outlet for the winds that blow across Volkonis.”
“Call me dense, but I don’t get it,” said Bud quizzically. “What good is wind?—except for throwing Rover Boy off the scent.”
“But maybe we can get along without Rover!” Tom smiled with excited determination. “If I’m right and we’re lucky, I’ll be able to use my analytracer up there in the mountains to pick up the molecular ‘scent’ connected to our boy Andri. From that and basic data about wind vectors, I’ll calculate the general area where he’s being held—assuming he’s still somewhere in Volkonis.”
Sandy objected reluctantly. “Tom, I know your analytracer can pick up and analyze tiny trace particles, but—even if you could get a sniff, I’d think the winds would have spread it all around in every direction and scrambled it all up.”
“That’s true, San,” her brother replied. “There’s no way to use this method to pinpoint Andri’s location. But I think that by using detailed information about the paths of the wind currents over the period since he was taken, we might be able to backtrack the flow of the giveaway particles—to some extent at least. It’ll narrow the search, give us a zone to concentrate on.”
“It’s quite a daring approach, Tom, scientifically speaking,” commented Mr. Swift with obvious pride.
“So where do we come in?” Bud asked.
Tom explained that the others would help prop up his cover story, his ostensible reason for taking a drive out to the mountainous area. “As Sandy found out, the Volkonis news legion is turning frenzied—by following you, sis, the other day, they now know where we’re staying. It’s a pretty fair bet that our hotel is staked out for a block around.”
Sandy nodded ruefully. “These Brungarian reporters are even worse than the ones back home. Quim told me that the new, unregulated press is full of sensationalism.”
“That’s exactly why we need an excuse that sounds plausible,” the young scientist-inventor continued. “We’ll say we’re scouting out locations for the repelatron towers, which goes along with the idea that the skyway will arch over the mountains. With all of you along with me, it looks even better—it’s been announced that you’re here for a vacation trip, and it’s natural that you’d want to see the sights.”
“I think I understand,” Mrs. Swift said. “It gives the government a good public reason to prohibit the gaggle from following us. Very clever!”
The plan agreed to, Tom arranged for a somewhat larger auto, which was filled by his parents and sister, his best pal, and his personal chef—who filled somewhat more than his share. “Getting a bit close in here, Chow,” Bud complained.
“Cain’t do much about it, buddy boy, now can I?” retorted the westerner. “Wa-aal, got me an idee.” He squeezed up an arm and tipped his ten-gallon hat off his head. “There now.”
“You’ve been a big help already, Chow,” Sandy called back from the front seat. “With you along it’s totally impossible for Mr. Svoont to come with us.”
Mr. Swift, at the wheel, drove first to the airport, where Tom picked up the compact, portable analytracer unit from the Sky Queen. They then followed a route to the mountains that passed next to the power substation, where they paused for a few minutes to allow Tom to take and record some trace samples to compare to the windborne particles. “Now a little bit of Andri is in the sample cartridge,” Tom observed upon reentering the car. “And Mrs. Gumboll, too.”
They took a winding road up to the mountain pass known as the Aabershuf, where a stiff, frigid wind cut past them from the direction of the city. There was snow on the ground, and the peaks that loomed on all side were sparkling with it in the afternoon sun.
At a tourist overlook, closed to the public during the cold season, Mr. Swift parked the car and all got out.
“Oh, isn’t it just beautiful!” breathed Sandy to Bud, gazing down at the now-distant capital.
“Don’t say that to Chow over there,” Bud gibed in return. “Not unless you want the complete course on the natural beauties of the State of Texas.”
Tom took several dozen samples of air with the analytracer, using its inbuilt GPS transponder to make a very precise record of angle, direction, and position. A separate unit, which Tom had clipped to the mechanism, registered wind direction and fluctuation. After an hour and a half, he announced that he had completed the procedure. “We can go now.”
“About time, boss, no offense,” Chow grumbled. “I been shiverin’ so much I kin jest feel my calories burnin’ away!”
As they reboarded the car, a distant, sharp sound made Sandy look up at the peak directly adjacent to the Aabershuf forming one wall of the pass, sloping skyward from the overlook area. She screamed in fright! “The snow!—it’s an avalanche!”
Tom instantly stuck his head out the open door and looked upward. “My gosh! Dad—get us over by the mountainside, close as you can!”
They now could all hear the rumbling of the monstrous wave of white bearing down upon them. Damon Swift gunned the engine, and the wheels spun on the ice-slick asphalt. No traction!
“Ohhh, man!” gulped Bud.
Abruptly the passengers jerked backwards as the tires finally grabbed. The big car staggered toward the mountainside, swerving right and left and finally lurching into an uncontrolled spin. The fender slammed violently against the rugged upthrust—and the rolling white thunder was upon them! The car rocked and rattled as the afternoon sun was blotted out by a roaring darkness. The car tipped nose-up, and for a moment it seemed they would be flipped over completely and probably yanked over the edge and into the chasm of the Aabershuf. But suddenly the front of the car leveled down again and the horrific roaring was blotted out by a strange, dead silence.
Damon Swift switched on the overhead compartment light. “How are we doing in here?”
“Sandy!” Bud cried. “You’re bleeding!”
“Oh, I just bumped my forehead,” she replied as she wiped off the smear of blood with the back of her hand.
“L-let’s get outta here,” Chow muttered.
“It’s not so easy, Chow,” Mr. Swift replied. “We’ve got quite a weight of snow over us.”
“Great,” Bud grumbled. “The Zirghozyians don’t get us, and we end up captured by snow!”
Chow was not in a mood for Bud’s customary banter. “I dunno about th’ rest o’ you folks, but I’m getting’ cold through and through, an’ that’s a whole lotta through!
“Mebbe we should start diggin’ ourselves out, doncha think, boss?”
Tom was deep in furious thought, but replied distractedly, “Dig? We can try, but it looked to me like we’re pretty deep down.”
“Brand my igloos! You mean we jest gotta wait around till the snow melts? How th’ hoo hey long’s that gonna take?”
“Until the snow melts?” The young inventor gave a big eloquent shrug, which made the ex-Texan all the colder. “I’d guess the melting will start with the Spring thaw—about a month from now!”
A CLUE IN THE WIND
“AW NOW, Tom, you gotta be jokin’!” Chow pronounced in a gravel-footed but faint voice.
“What about air?” asked Tom’s mother. “How long will it last in here?”
Mr. Swift responded, “A good while, I should think. The compartment is big and high-ceilinged, thank goodness, and we also have a volume of air in the trunk—under the hood, too.”
“Not only that, Mom, but there’s more air trapped inside the fresh-packed snow than people realize,” added Tom reassuringly.
Bud asked if they could call for help. Tom shook his head. “The cellphone signals, including the unit built into the car, can’t get through the snowpack. But listen, we have electric power, and quite a bit of electronic circuitry in here—not only the cells, but the radio, CD-player, GPS unit—as well as the insides of the analytracer.”
“But what good will all that do us?” demanded Sandy.
“We’ll see. I have my set of microtools in my wallet. Let me try a few things.” Tom scrambled into the front seat, trading places with Sandy.
Bud snorted. “I think the only time you stop inventing, genius boy, is when you’re fast asleep—and not dreaming!” The youth swiveled and glanced at Chow, crammed-in beside him. “And just what are you up to, cowpoke?”
“Jest takin’ a little breath. Think I’m gonna pray fer a couple things.”
“Yep. I’m prayin’ that he’s up there listenin’—and that he’s plumb inclined t’ fergit that time in Abilene!”
Tom had pried open the dashboard panel and was giving the various circuit boards and wires a workout. The minutes ticked by and the glib conversation glumly died away. The air was becoming stale, and cold, too. Mr. Swift had switched off the heater to conserve power from the battery.
Finally Tom sat back up, groaning as he stretched his cramped muscles. “I think I’ve got something going,” he announced. “I’m pumping out the locator signal from my cellphone through the car’s GPS antenna system, and the amplification ought to be pretty strong.”
“But is anyone listening?” murmured Mrs. Swift. “Who knows we’re here?”
“Several people, Dear,” replied Tom’s father. “Mr. Svoont, for example, and other people from the government.”
“Hey—don’t forget Arv and Hank!” Bud reminded them.
“They may know we’ve gone up the mountain,” Sandy said in discouragement; “but Mother is right—are they listening?”
As the moments dragged on, Tom asked Sandy if she had seen the cause of the avalanche. “I didn’t exactly see anything,” was her answer, “but I heard a sound, sort of a bang.”
“It figures!” hissed Bud. “Old Bum-Eye probably set off some dynamite up on the slope.”
Tom said nothing.
Presently Chow looked up from his fretful funk, eyebrows raised and eyes narrowed. “You folks hear suthin’?”
“What do you hear, Charles?” Anne Swift queried.
“Unless someb’dy else hears it too, I don’t hear a blame thing!”
But soon they all could hear it, a chuff-chuff rasp from up above that was growing louder and nearer. “Oh thank goodness!” cried Sandy, near tears. “It’s shovels! They’re digging us out!”
“Someone must have picked up the signal and tracked it,” Tom exulted.
“Let’s hope it’s a good someone,” put in his best chum. “We already know one person knows where we are—the guy who caused the avalanche!”
Suddenly the darkness around the vehicle turned a shade lighter. In a few more suddenlies a wink of sunlight could be seen, along with moving shadows and glimpses of shovel. Mr. Swift opened his window an inch and yelled out, “Here we are!”
A throaty laugh drifted down. “Da! Inso you are, heh?” This was followed by a string of comments from others.
“What’s that, Brungarian?” Sandy asked.
“No,” Tom declared. “I’m sure it’s Russian. These must be some of those friends you and Chow made the other night.”
“And right nice people they was, too,” added the cook jovially. “Leastways when ya get t’ know ’em.”
The roof of snow was quickly lifted away, and the passengers were helped up to the surface by several men and a strong rope ladder. Before leaving the buried car, Tom grabbed the small record-cartridge from the analytracer and slipped it into a hidden pocket deep in his jacket for safekeeping. He thought: We’ve gone through a lot for this little thing!
A disconcerting surprise awaited the Shoptonians up above. A familiar figure stood among the Russians.
“Quim!” gasped Sandy.
The man nodded. “You okay?”
Sandy began to talk rapidly, but the agent held his hand up. “That’s all I needed to know. We can get into the details later.”
“How is it you happen to be here, Mr. Narz?” Tom asked. “What happened to you?”
Narz stared at the young inventor. “You didn’t get the message I left? Wrote it out and set it on my nightstand.”
Tom winced and snapped his fingers. “The maid! She must’ve thrown it in the trash without thinking when she came in to make up your room.”
The Americans were helped across the mound of freshly-avalanched snow to the clear part of the mountain road, where a truck and several cars waited. They huddled inside the largest vehicle, a van, warming up and sipping a strong Russian coffee, as Quimby Narz told his story.
“When I got to my room last night, the light on my phone was blinking—voicemail message. It was my old friend Igg. No surprise, him being involved. His message told me there were new developments, important things, and I needed to meet him right away. Couldn’t tell me over the phone. No time to sleep. I scribbled out my ‘don’t worry’ note and went to the meet.
“These Moscow boys—there are more of ’em in the city—started off on the train with Ikrina Gumboll and Andri. At the border Gumboll told them new orders had come through. They were to get off and drive to Volkonis separately, where they were to keep a good eye on us Americans and wait to be contacted.”
“They didn’t verify the orders?” asked Damon Swift.
“Gumboll’s the boss. In Russia, who’s-the-boss? matters a lot.”
“So they didn’t know where Mrs. Gumboll was hiding Andri,” Tom observed. “But they must have spotted her when she came into the city to meet with us.”
“Sure they did,” confirmed Narz. “But she had ordered them not to interfere, and not to follow her back to the hiding place.”
One of the Russian men, who understood English, spoke up. “We guessed a meaning to all this, though we did not speak of it. We thought perhaps one of us was distrusted.”
“What was the news Igg needed to tell you?” Tom inquired.
“I’m getting to it,” was Narz’s reply. “He and his boys compared notes, and were able to identify the man skulking around in the ruins. Fella named Mec, a Zirghozyian. He’s the chief of the Presidential Protective Guard—basically Yongjiss’s private Secret Service.”
“That sounds like a pretty powerful position,” Sandy noted.
“It is, Sandy. Which is why Yongjiss Ubar reserved it for the only person on Earth he trusts—his son!”
The Americans gaped in surprise, and Bud said: “So if Daddy is the First Citizen, I guess that makes little Mec Number Two.”
“He’s the chosen successor as President. He’s also a highly trained agent. Or what passes for highly trained in the Zirghoz Republic. Dangerous. Not dangerous ’cause he’s smart, mind you—dangerous like a bull!”
Mr. Swift asked why agent Narz hadn’t returned to the hotel after his meeting with the Russians. “Had to do some scouting on my own,” the man explained in his usual flinty tones. “Made some calls, contacted a few friends, paid a sunrise visit to the American Embassy. Then I played tail. When you three were at the substation, I was up on a hillside watching you.”
“Then you saw us leave without Andri and Mrs. Gumboll,” Tom stated. “We have a story to tell you, too. But right now there may be something more important. Did you see what happened here, what caused the avalanche?” Without looking, Tom knew Bud’s eyes were fixed on Narz like twin lasers.
Narz shook his head. “I was in Volkonis. Igg’s guardian angels were watching you and saw the mountain come down on your heads. Didn’t see who caused it. My money’s on Mec Ubar, or someone working for him. By the way, don’t think the locator-signal business was a waste of time. Told us right where to dig.”
“Riding with these two men of mine is like riding with seatbelts and an airbag,” declared Tom’s mother proudly. “They should be standard equipment!” She kissed them both, and so did Sandy.
“An’ don’t fergit,” added Chow, “without me bein’ along, there woulda been another person to dig out!”
“You want a kiss, pardner?” teased Bud.
“Rain check on that, buddy boy!”
Tom and Mr. Swift rode with Narz back to the city, and on the way they gave him an account of the day’s catastrophes—the kidnapping of Andri Burkeshyanov and the discovery of Ikrina Gumboll’s duplicity. Narz responded: “Naturally, I wondered if there had been a change of plan. So I went back to Volkonis and continued my gentle probing. Gentlemen, while you were getting cold under the snow, I was finding out just how wrong Russia can be in deciding whom to trust.”
“Referring to Mrs. Gumboll?” asked Damon Swift.
“Yes sir. It seems she attended college years back at the same time as an older man, a foreigner getting a good Russian education who didn’t disclose, not to the school, that his old man happened to be the head of a country. But he must have told Ikrina. They became—close friends. And now we know their relationship persisted in secret. Must have been quite a chore. Gumboll didn’t need to be turned, folks. She was facing the wrong way from the start. So to speak.”
As Narz turned onto the main boulevard of Volkonis, Tom explained his plan to use the data from the analytracer to get an idea of the current location of Andri and his kidnappers. “Of course, they may not have returned to the city at all.”
Narz gave a curt nod. “Bright idea. Afraid you’re right, though. Not likely the hub of the op is in Volkonis. They’re probably somewhere over—or on—the Caspian Sea right now, headed for Zirghozyia. But let’s run your plan, Tom. Who knows?” He took a corner and headed for the airport, calling the other cars and telling them they wouldn’t be arriving at the hotel until evening.
Aboard the Flying Lab Tom fed the analytracer output into a computer primed to compare the data from the substation with the wind-traces. Two columns of minerals and compounds crawled up the screen in parallel. Almost immediately the telltale matches were highlighted. “Andri and Gumboll are still in the city!” cried Tom.
“Great Scott! I’d never have thought you could do anything with proportions that small,” remarked Mr. Swift in something like awe. “I should never underestimate you, son.”
Tom grinned at the praise. “Now let’s see if it’s all been a waste of time.” He glanced behind him. “Do you have that weather data, Hank?”
“Fresh from the Volkonis satellite,” responded Hank Sterling. “I’ve plugged the chip in. Go ahead, Skipper.”
Dotted gradient lines and shaded patches swirled across the monitor, superimposed over a detailed street map of the capital. Finally a crescent-shaped section was outlined.
“That’s a pretty big slice of the city, Tom,” Arv Hanson commented.
“Best I can do.”
“I can do better,” put in Quimby Narz curtly. “I know exactly where they’re holding him!”
TOM AND BUD met for a council of war in Quimby Narz’s hotel room. With the permission of the President of Brungaria, they included the persistent Mr. Svoont, explaining the real mission of the Swifts.
“We apologize for having misled you, sir,” Tom said after completing his summary account of the nuclear crisis. “I’m sure you understand why.”
“It is no problem,” he responded with a diplomatic sniff. “You do your job, as I do mine. Now tell me, please, how I can help you.”
Narz answered. “You know the city, Svoont, even better than I do, and you also know its public servants present and past. We need you to wangle the best way to cranny-out the details we need about the history of those buildings.”
Having seen the area selected by Tom’s analysis, the agent felt certain that Andri was being held somewhere in a building near the center of the indicated area: namely the Embassy of the Zirghoz Republic! “A secure environment,” Narz had commented. “Foreign soil. Can’t enter without official permission, and the diplomatic boys can come up with a thousand plausible-sounding reasons to refuse.”
Now Tom asked if the boy were likely to be held in one of the main administrative offices, which an outsider might have some excuse to visit. “No, and for that very reason. Even if they shuffled him around, there’s always the possibility of something left behind that people like me might pick up on. But big old buildings in Europe, especially big old buildings used by foreign diplomats, tend to grow secret rooms, basements, passageways. Svoont here may be our quickest route to that information. Right, Svoont?”
The man gulped but nodded. “Yes. One would not wish to go through the new bureaucracy to locate the old files, but I know some who served in the former regime who might point the way, if they are out of jail. I will contact Olga.”
As he punched in the phone number, Bud stated, “Looks like you know it by heart.”
“Indeed yes. We were to be married. And then, the revolution.”
“Wars and revolutions can be pretty inconvenient,” observed Tom dryly with a wink in Bud’s direction.
After several links in the chain of contact, the fax in Narz’s room squeezed out an old architectural drawing showing the original layout of the century-old building that had become the Zirghozyian Embassy. “Of course, many changes have been made over the years,” Svoont pointed out.
“They’d leave the interesting stuff in place,” remarked Narz. He unrolled a modern blueprint supplied by his CIA staffers and compared the two. “Hmm, hmm, seems this hallway here has gotten narrower. Couple closets, a waiting room, restrooms…”
“But this shaded part between the wall of the hallway and the outside of the building is almost five feet wide,” Tom noted excitedly. “And look how it blocks off these windows here.”
“A secret room!” Bud exclaimed.
“Probably, probably,” Narz muttered. “It has some advantages over other possibilities. Tom, how much on-target does your thought machine have to be? Is this a small enough area?”
Tom shook his head reluctantly. “To get anything worth having, the sensor-field should be positioned within a foot or so of the subject’s cortex. We’ll need to tighten it up. But― ” His brow furrowed. “Another problem just occurred to me!”
Bud patted his pal’s shoulder. “No offense, Skipper, but we really aren’t in the market for new problems.”
“What’s the problem, Swift?” demanded Narz.
“The beam from the telextenna is of the same sort as the field-beam used by my megascope.” The reference was to Tom’s megascope space prober, an electronic super-telescope. “The specs have been published widely in journal articles, and― ”
“No, I get it,” agent Narz interrupted. “Probably every embassy building in the world has added a megascope-beam detector to its electronic security apparatus. Our embassies have. Start probing back and forth in that long room and a warning light goes on somewhere. They’ll hustle the boy out and keep him moving, thinking they can keep your megascope from locking on to him.”
“Couldn’t we just keep watch on all the exits? Maybe have the police check any vehicles going out?” Bud objected.
Narz snapped Bud a brief, impatient look. “These plans show plenty of possible routes for underground escape tunnels, Barclay. Buildings with basements on all sides—they could come up anywhere. And then the op’s sunk.”
“We need to thoughtograph Andri on the first try,” stated Tom. “We can’t use the sensor-point to fish around with.”
Bud turned ironic. “I’m in awe of the logic, guys. Now tell me how you plan to pinpoint the location of somebody you can’t see!”
Tom turned and paced away slowly. Bud looked down at his wristwatch. “Pressing appointment, Barclay?” asked Narz, showing his own capacity for sarcasm.
“Just thought I’d time how many seconds it takes Tom to come up with the solution—probably an on-the-spot invention!”
With a snap of his fingers, Tom whirled to face the other two.
“Eighteen seconds. Not bad,” Bud announced, grinning at his friend.
Approaching, Tom said excitedly: “This is something Enterprises came out with a while back. It’s a sort of transparent paint—invisible, really.”
Narz was querulous. “And just what use is paint you can’t see?” he asked.
“It’s not for decoration, Mr. Narz,” Tom retorted. “A coating of SolarSheath can be connected directly to a power lead. Applied over a big enough area, the paint turns sunlight into usable electricity. The material is slightly elastic; most importantly, it can be formulated to adhere strongly to just a few selected substances, like roofing materials or the metal of a spacecraft’s hull. It quickly gets sloughed off by anything it isn’t ‘tuned for’. ”
“I follow you so far,” Bud said.
“So what I have in mind is this,” continued the young inventor with sudden enthusiasm. “We could formulate the SolarSheath to cling to human skin, with a little extra ‘kick’ in it attuned to the molecular mix the analytracer picked up from Andri’s room at the substation. If we could disperse it widely enough in the embassy building, it would pass from hand to hand like a cold bug and end up clinging to Andri!”
Narz nodded sharply. For once his craggy face reflected impressed respect. “Yes. Ingenious.”
Svoont, who had been listening meekly, spoke up. “If I may inquire, perhaps you won’t mind explaining to me how such an outcome will help you?”
“I can use a special transmitter-scanner device to get a fix on the boy’s position,” Tom explained. “The electrical properties of SolarSheath allow me to use it as a kind of spray-on transducer. And the in-and-out signals are of such low energy that the embassy’s detection system won’t be able to distinguish them from the random radio noise that’s always in the air.”
“But,” said Bud, frowning, “first you have to get this magic bug of yours into the embassy.”
Tom gave the dark-haired pilot a smile of steely confidence. “You got it, flyboy!”
There was no choice but to wait until the next day to put Tom’s plan into operation. In his lab in the Sky Queen, he carefully formulated the batch of SolarSheath, then assembled his radarlike detector device with Arv Hanson’s help. By noon, all was ready.
At one thirteen, two young men sharply dressed in suit and tie entered the lobby of the Embassy of the Zirghoz Republic and approached the pinch-faced woman at the visitor’s desk. “May I assist you?”
“We must speak to Ambassador Lussquenda immediately!” said the grim-faced youth with spiky blond hair.
“And you have an appointment, no doubt?”
“No appointment,” Tom replied. “But no doubt His Excellency will see me. He may even be expecting me!” Tom and Bud showed their official documents of identification.
“And don’t tell us he’s out to lunch!” Bud added.
A few phone calls and curious glances later, Tom and Bud were ushered into the presence of the pompous looking man who represented Zirghozyia to Brungaria. “Mr. Swift, Mr. Barclay—an honor, to be sure,” he said in fumbling English, shaking hands with them. “Of course, we knew of your visit to Volkonis, my second-favorite city in the world.”
“Let’s get to the point, shall we?” From a briefcase that had been carefully searched and X-rayed, Tom pulled a photo and set it on Ambassador Lussquenda’s desk. “I’ll assume your superiors have informed you of the situation that exists between your country and the Russian Federation.”
The man gave a slight smile, utterly noncommittal. “And who is this, Mr. Swift, this boy in the photograph?”
Bud leaned forward, eyes alive with threat. “I wouldn’t try to use that diplomatic stuff on us. President what’s-his-name and Tom are good buddies, and he knows we’re here.”
“Yes, Mr. Barclay, and I myself am ‘good buddy’ with President Radichyofski. Now, if you will—the photograph?”
“As I’m sure you know, this is Andriej Burkeshyanov, sort of a much-sought-after celebrity guest right now.” Tom Swift did his best to sound imposing and look ominous. “Please don’t waste our time denying that he’s being held here somewhere, in this building. We know all about it. In the name of two—three!—governments, I demand that you release him to us!”
The man shook his head, condescending amusement on his face. “A demand? But surely, my young man, that is most undiplomatic. Permit me to suggest that these supposed matters between governments should be addressed by officials appointed for that purpose. Hmm? However, if you wish, I shall keep this photograph. Should I happen to run across this fine lad, perhaps on the boulevard, I shall ring you up. And now, good day.” He again shook hands with his glowering visitors, giving the tiniest of bows. “A pleasure, to be sure.” An armed guard appeared at the door to undiplomatically escort the boys out.
Passing through the lobby, Tom handed a sheaf of the photos to the woman at the desk, and another to their escort. “Remember that face!” Bud called out. With a wink he signed to Tom in ASL: “This is fun!”
In their car, having put a block between them and the embassy, Tom and Bud burst into laughter. “What a couple hams we are!” chortled Bud.
“But it sure worked!” Tom exclaimed happily. “There was enough SolarSheath smeared on those photos to choke a horse.”
“My guess is that the stuff on our hands is what’ll turn the trick,” remarked Bud. “They say nothing gets passed around faster than a handshake.”
Pointing the car toward the hotel, Tom nodded. “And as it evaporates, it’ll spread through the air conditioning system. I’m sure a goodly number of molecules will be adhering to Andri by bedtime.”
“Try Tom Swifticide, the spray-on bug spray that sprays itself and bugs you for days!” Bud chuckled.
Tom suddenly lost his good humor. “But the thing is, Bud—we don’t have many days left.”
QUIMBY NARZ had arranged for Tom to set up his equipment in the fifth-floor suite of an antique hotel across the boulevard from the Zirghozyian Embassy. Although the thoughtograph imager could work its wonders across a distance of a mile or more, Tom’s SolarSheath detection system would be ineffective at more than a couple hundred feet or so. The suspected secret room was on the sixth floor of the tall Embassy building, facing Tom’s suite. Arv and Hank helped him install the imager as well as the SolarSheath “radar” that would guide its focus.
The fifth floor was entirely unoccupied during the present slow season in Volkonis. The room had been procured and the equipment brought over immediately after Tom and Bud’s Embassy visit. By late afternoon, Tom made his first test of the locator-detector.
The round monitor screen showed many points of light of varying intensities slowly moving like fireflies hither and yon against the schematic layout of the Embassy. “Can you tell anything, genius boy?” Bud asked. “I sure can’t.”
Disappointed for the moment, Tom sighed. “The particles haven’t been spread enough yet. What I hope will happen is that whoever brings Andri his meals will carry the traces to him—and they’ll accumulate on his skin. It may take a few hours, though; even overnight.”
“I guess these people don’t shake hands as much as I’d expected,” remarked Bud wryly. “Must not be a very friendly place to work.”
At Tom’s request, and over protest, agent Narz remained at The Presidency Regal to keep protective watch on Tom’s family and the others. “The Zirghozyians know where we’ve been staying. Everybody does. There’s a real danger that Mec or his associates might try to take hostages, or even plant a bomb.” When Narz issued the opening volley of an argument, the young inventor cut him off with Narzlike impatience. “Look, Quim, the equipment requires my complete attention. If you don’t want to endanger the ‘op,’ you’ll spare me the distraction. I suppose Hank and Arv and Dad, and probably Chow too, can take care of themselves. But call me old-fashioned, I won’t have my Mom or Sandy put in any more danger.” This final point seemed to convince the CIA man.
“Here on this floor you’re all by yourselves, and it’ll stay that way. The Russians are spread out in every direction with a line of sight, watching this joint here. I have Igg sitting hidden in the lobby with his cellphone. Anything suspicious, he’ll call up, then call me.”
As Narz left, he paused at the door and said: “Good luck, boys. And throw the deadbolt!”
As they ate a brownbag supper prepared by Chow aboard the Sky Queen, they discussed the overall plot, with its many intricacies and puzzle-pieces. “We still don’t know anything about that message bit in Shopton,” Bud commented as he munched away.
“Still think Narz is a betraytor?” Tom asked. “If he is, he’s not only fooled us, but quite a few people in the U.S. government—like the CIA.”
“It can happen,” retorted the pilot stubbornly. “But what else could the message mean?”
Tom shrugged. “Beats me. ‘One eye open’! Maybe its some kind of old Russian saying. Or Zirghozyian.”
“Or Brungarian!” Bud pointed out. “They use that kind of lettering here too. And another thing keeps tuggin’ at the ole synapses, Tom. Though I’m glad they did, why are Mec and crew keeping Andri alive? His only use right now is to tell us the code, and that’s exactly what they don’t want to happen.”
“It does raise a few questions,” conceded Tom. “If Ubar’s scientists have possession of that Shoebox device, they know Andri is the only remaining way that the Russians could possibly dope out the current Second Edge code. So if they’ve stashed Andri away alive—and we know he’s still with us, because the analytracer readings would have allowed me to distinguish between a living or dead body—then…”
“Then they must not have the Shoebox in hand after all.”
“Hey, flyboy, since when have you gotten so logical?” grinned Tom. “But that’s exactly right. If they think the Russians have the Shoebox and already know the code, then Ubar has to think he’s dealing with the mirror-image of the real situation. He and his son must be planning to try to force Andri to reveal whatever he remembers of the number sequence, because then the Zirghozyians will know how to jam the Russians’ signal, the one that ruins the warhead.”
Bud ran a hand through his ragged black hair. “I must not be as logical as you think. I can ask the questions—but I don’t understand the answers!”
The SolarSheath detector was operating continuously near the room’s big window, over which a gauze curtain had been drawn, sheer enough to permit a view of the opposite building and the street below while obscuring the view from outside. As the Volkonis sky darkened, they kept the room lights off so as to remain unseen. The only light was the faint glow of the detector screen.
As eleven PM rolled around, Tom stretched and said, “It’s not going to happen tonight. Maybe in the morning, when they bring Andri his breakfast.”
“Yeah—his gruel,” said Bud sourly. “Shall we take shifts watching the monitor?”
“No need. An alarm will go off if the blips start to clump together in an interesting way. Let’s turn in.”
“And hope for that alarm!” added Tom’s pal, yawning.
They were awake early, the eastern light a faint coral that plated the clouds and the mountain peaks that overlooked the city. The monitor showed change, but nothing definite. Calculating the time difference, Tom used his cell to call the Fiske-Hergan Institute.
“Dr. Fiske is in the treatment room with Miss Prandit right now, Mr. Swift,” said the neurologist’s assistant. “He can’t come to the telephone, but said that if you called, I was to tell you that there are some hopeful signs with regard to the treatments, but no definite improvement in the case.”
As Tom clicked off, Bud remarked, “Nothing definite there, nothing definite here. Good grief, we might as well go back to sleep.”
Then they both reacted, startled, as the monitor alarm went off!
“About time,” exulted Tom as he examined the detector output. “We’re getting a nice collection of ‘pings’ right in the middle of that room! It has to be Andri!”
In the morning light, now bright yellow and slowly growing, Bud helped Tom set up the telextenna next to the curtain. The young inventor noted down the precise coordinates from the detector and carefully fed them into the computer that would manage the more minute adjustments to the aim of the multi-pronged antenna array.
As he stood at the control console, Tom asked Bud tensely, “Have the fireflies moved any?”
“Not much—maybe a little. He could still be asleep.”
“The particles are probably reaching him through the air vents,” muttered Tom. “But the bounceback wouldn’t be getting stronger like that unless they were clinging to the material composition I formulated them for—his personal skin chemistry.”
His fingers quivering slightly under the incredible tension of the moment, Tom activated his thoughtograph imager and attuned it with the utmost delicacy, studying its panoply of wavering needles and zigzagging oscilloscope lines.
“We have lock-on,” he murmured. He depressed the preset-process control button to commence the thoughtography, then the monitor power switch so the results could be seen in real-time. The image screen glowed to life. “It’s working! Thoughtographs coming in!”
As Bud gave a cheer of triumph, images swirled across the screen like leaves in a windstorm. “Man, those pictures are weird, Tom. Some parts are super-detailed, but look at all these squares and triangles floating around.”
“Mental fragmentation,” Tom murmured. “Certain kinds of visual elements stimulate his brain and draw his attention. Everything else is just background static. We’re looking at the world through the mind’s-eye of someone with autism—and it’s a very different world.” He now began the reverse-time sequencing, a process he knew would be lengthy and difficult. Would the boy remain in position long enough for Tom to achieve his goal?
They saw glimpses of faces here and there, bits and pieces of rooms and landscapes. Some image elements seemed to persist from frame to frame even as the backgrounds jumped about in unruly restlessness. “What are those things?” Bud asked, fascinated. “Furniture?”
“I think so,” nodded the young inventor. “Bright blue backpack, books, a painted chair, a lamp. Gumboll told me Andri’s guardian, the murdered man, always arranged to have some of Andri’s special articles shipped to wherever they’d be staying. It seemed to keep him calm and focused. She said they brought them along to the substation.”
“Don’t remember seeing them there.”
“When they moved him to the Embassy room, they probably were careful to send them ahead.”
After a few minutes, Tom halted the backtrack. “This is months ago. Should be a little before the scheduled visit to the warhead. Now we’ll run ’er forward—slowly.” Though it was very difficult to make sense of the shifting images, the youths decided that they were seeing the trip to the deadly device, and then at last the device itself. “This is the moment,” Tom whispered. “There’s a hand… that rectangle must be the readout panel on the Shoebox… there!” he almost shouted.
A row of numbers had appeared in the frozen thoughtograph frame on the monitor!
“He was interested in them, just as we’d hoped—he committed them to memory, one after another!”
He stopped the scan and backtracked slightly. “Okay. Recorder on. Now forward nice and― ” But the young inventor’s hand was stopped, poised in midair, before it could press the main processing button to resume the scan.
“Tom!” Bud hissed. “What’s that sound?”
The sound was very faint, almost inaudible, odd and shrill—and somehow familiar. “Could it be coming from the machine?” Tom asked himself rhetorically, bemused. But as he stepped up to the console and bent close, the sound did not increase. Then, turning to look back at Bud, he gasped in amazement.
A tiny fleck of silver was crawling up the wall behind Bud!
Not wanting to speak aloud, Tom signed in ASL: “Behind you! Stay quiet!”
Bud whirled about and his jaw dropped at the eerie sight. The fleck now revealed itself to be the endpoint of a small, sharp knife blade, cutting a neat vertical gash in the room’s wallpaper—from the other side. Before the boys could move a step, the knife stopped a few feet below the ceiling, and was withdrawn.
A rectangle of wallpaper ripped and shredded as a heavy door was violently kicked open from the hotel suite next to theirs! It had been papered over, undetectably.
A booted foot was followed by a short, muscled, black-haired man. He strode into the room, gun in hand.
He nodded slightly. “A good morning to you two.” The accent was weighty, and the man spoke quietly and calmly. “Move back away from the machine, both you. I tell you, I can aim deadly, almost by instinct, even as I look elsewhere. You must not tempt me.”
As Tom and Bud backed across the room, the man edged over to the bath and reached around its open door. Clicking the inner button-lock, he pulled the door closed. “If someone is cleverly concealed awaiting his moment, he must first alert me by undoing the lock. And then all his moments shall end.”
“I recognize you,” Tom pronounced, backing away until the imager console stopped him. “We were shown your picture.”
“Of course you were,” said the man. “As you know, I am indeed Meciar Ubar. Call me Mec if you wish to be friendly. Now then, be good, and I shall chat to you as we proceed.”
He motioned Tom and Bud to turn back-to-back, and bound their four wrists together tightly behind them with twisted metal cable. “Unlike the many fools, I do not stand about idly while I speak to my captives. For there is work to be done, and tempus fugit. From my little room next door I have listened to you for some time this morning. It seems this nice invention of yours, Tom Swift, has begun to take from our friend Andriej his very special memories, just as you and we had hoped. Yet perhaps in my haste I interrupted you at a crucial moment. And so, first business, to instruct me to operate the machine so to complete its mission.”
“And what do you offer us if we cooperate?” Tom inquired with a snarl.
“Ah. Your lives?”
The Zirghozyian’s eyebrows raised. “American hard bargaining. Then let me see. How about the lives of your family? In fact, for good faith, I throw in the life of your fat cook.”
Tom stared silently. He was desperately trying not to glance in the direction of the nearby chest of drawers, where his cellphone lay in plain sight. “You do not answer,” observed Mec. “Yet perhaps I have not asked a precise question.” He moved to stand behind the imager console, gesturing with his gun for the two to shuffle further away. “I intend to set down my lovely weapon to free my hands, but you might like to know how very expert I am at grabbing it up and shooting, like your cowboys. Bundled up, you could hardly reach me; not alive, that is to say. I hope you agree.” He set down the gun within reach. Then to Tom’s chagrin, he stretched out his arm backwards and scooped up Tom’s cellphone off the chest, dropping it into his pants pocket. “To keep it safe for you.”
“We have people watching this hotel,” Tom stated. “They’ll be heading up here now.”
The man smiled a very small smile. “The wicked Russians? But they do not know I am here, for I did not enter through the street door, but up from the basement—a narrow tunnel, you see, from our Embassy. One may crawl through like a gopher. All the buildings around have such tunnels. But we did not have to go exploring, for we knew you were here, Tom, Bud. Public servants are not well paid in the new Brungaria. Thus, they are bribeable.”
Bud, face turned away, groaned. “Svoont!”
“It is only fair that he should betray you,” said Mec. “Were we not ourselves betrayed by our operative in Shopton? Knowing as we all did that some sort of mystery trip to Volkonis was in preparation for you, she suffered an attack of conscience on the very eve of her being removed from her position and escorted back to her beloved Zirghozyia. When we find her, she will not have a chance to regret having a conscience. But by luck her more faithful associates were able to photograph, with a telescopic lens, her crude inscription, even as you examined it there in the street. ‘One eye open’—now you shall know what it means. It is a rather vulgar nickname, in our language of course, for a certain good-enough woman, Ikrina Gumboll, conveniently a traitor to Russia. You see, my boys, she has a reputation for having chosen as her very best friend a man who is powerful and deadly and not always grateful for the favors of women. The complete phrase is: ‘She must sleep with one eye open.’ The gist of it is obvious.”
“Hey,” Bud called out, “is Narz your boy too?”
The man shrugged, studying the thoughtograph controls. “Narz? You Americans have such peculiar names. Your companion, face like a sour prune? No indeed, he is CIA pure and true, they tell me.” Mec suddenly chuckled. “Oh, I see—his eye. Amusing coincidence.”
Trying to keep the man talking, Tom said: “If you had killed me in that avalanche, as dead as that Russian technician you murdered, you’d have lost your chance to use the machine.”
“Does ‘as dead as’ make any sense, I wonder?” mused the dictator’s son. “But to clarify, we did not know of this mental picture-taker at that time. One of the medical persons who witnessed the remarkable autopsy in your airplane finally responded to our overtures, but not until yesterday. Loyalty!—is there such a thing these days?”
“You did plan to kill us, then,” Tom accused.
“Oh of course we did, at first. Your presence in Volkonis during this exciting time suggested a threat of interference to be dealt with—and you had been warned of this, somewhat uselessly, in Shopton. But plans must be flexible; the mind must be open to change, new developments. We intended to force the boy, by proven Russian methods, to yield his information. Now, it seems, we have a nicer, pleasanter alternative. But to work, to work.” Mec positioned his two big hands over the controls atop the console, where they hovered. “Assuming you have accepted my offered bargain, you will instruct me now as to how to resume the process, recording all I see, as you mentioned earlier on your side of these thin walls.”
Tom cleared his throat as if about to speak. He could feel a plan trying to evolve in his mind. But it had not yet crystallized. He had to stall. Suddenly his thinking was interrupted by a sharp poke from behind!
Twisting his bound wrists, Bud was pressing his fingers against Tom, spelling out a message in ASL, a message in signs that could only be felt, not seen!
“My sig, two pokes, duck way down, I flip over back, hit antenna, copy?”
Tom was able to sign back: “Yes!”
“Good, wait sig.”
“I cannot afford to wait for you to think this all through, Tom,” said Mec Ubar sternly. “Not such a difficult decision, surely. Will it help you if I shoot your friend? That little gun has on it a fine Zirghozyian silencer. I need have no fear that—ay! Qunz i’yalba—?”
Tom’s cellphone, on vibrate mode, was ringing in the man’s pants pocket! As he popped it up into his hand and glanced down at it involuntarily, Bud poked, and Tom dropped to his knees, rolling his shoulders forward. Bud launched himself up and backwards with his muscular legs, the muscles of a young athlete! With a grunt Bud’s back rolled like a loose barrel over Tom’s as Bud drew his knees up tight in a bundle, Tom jerking his body forward and trying to give his pal an extra boost with painfully twisted arms. Bud’s feet were flung ceilingward and continued their arc as Tom made an agonizing half-somersault forward, head slamming into the floor under Bud’s full weight. He had to keep up the forward roll or his arms would be wrenched from their sockets!
Bud’s feet slammed down hard on the telextenna prongs, knocking the entire assembly onto its side. At the last he and Tom managed to swerve as their hips thudded against the floor. They lay huddled in an awkward tangle, panting violently.
In the wall mirror Tom could see Mec staring at the sight with bulging eyes, gun in hand and rising to aim. “Listen!” Tom choked out. “The transmitter is bent—it can only be restored back at Enterprises. The operation is blown. Go, run, get the kid back to your country. Or do you want to take the time for a useless, pointless double murder?”
“Time? Take the time?” Mec Ubar forced himself into a semblance of calm. “We have a good deal of time, I should think. No one knows what is happening in this room, eh?”
Suddenly a shape darted through the air—one of Tom’s shoes, undone and hurled by a convulsive flick of Bud’s swelling hand! It was the most difficult pass of the ex-footballer’s life. Pushing the gauze curtain before it, the shoe slammed against the window.
And bounced away harmlessly.
Mec laughed with no feeling but contempt. “In our Embassy, one thing we had to learn was the city codes. Plexiglass windows are required, for safety. Do you feel safe?
“Still, clever thinking, to attract attention by smashing the window. But no go, as you say.”
“Actually,” Bud Barclay gasped, face pressed against the carpet, “what we say is: shaking that curtain is a signal the Russians are watching for. You have about—what would you say, Skipper?”
“Oh, maybe, I dunno… Fifty seconds? No, less—I hear ’em on the stairs.”
Ubar swore in his native language, and suddenly was gone. They could hear his frenzied footsteps in the next room, continuing down the hall.
Bud grunted in pain. “Oh, ohhh man, I’m twisted like a pretzel. Tom, can we somehow wriggle over to the controls, complete the scan before they take the boy away? I know what you said about the antenna was just a bluff, like my ‘curtain signal’ bit.”
“Re… relax, ch-chum,” Tom replied weakly, feeling that unconsciousness was near. “See… the thing is… wh-when he came in, my… my back was to the controls, and… I was able to… to kill the monitor and… and push…”
“Tom!” Bud cried in happy, muffled amazement. “You started the sequence, recorder and all! The thoughtograph was running the whole time!”
But the young inventor did not reply, as he had fallen into one of the states of unconsciousness that was not sleep.
QUIMBY NARZ’S repeated calls to Tom Swift’s cellphone went unanswered, and his next call was to Igg five floors down. The Russian agent found two young men turning various shades of purple, one unconscious, one indignant. He cut them loose. Hearing a brief account from Bud, he called an ambulance.
When Tom drifted up into consciousness at a nearby hospital, he found his parents and sister clustered by his bed. “Oh Tomonomo,” murmured Sandy gently. “The things we get into in this family.”
Tom moved slightly, and groaned more than slightly. “How bad is it?” he asked his father. “What do they say?”
“You’ll be fine, Tom,” Damon Swift replied. “Both of you. Sprains, pulled muscles, very ugly bruises—but fine.”
“One question before all the rest—how’s Bashalli?”
Tom’s heart sank as the three exchanged glances. It was Anne Swift who replied. “We have no news, really. There is no change.”
Tom shook his head. “What aren’t you telling me?”
“It’s true,” said Sandy. “There’s nothing to worry about. I’ve been calling. Most of the time, I can’t reach Dr. Fiske—he’s in with Bashi, doing some sort of experimental treatment. Maybe that’s good.”
Mr. Swift changed the subject before Tom could respond. “You’ve been out for hours, and the news is that the crisis is over, according to Mr. Trane and Teodor Kutan. You and your thoughtograph device made the difference.”
“What happened? What about the boy, Andri?”
“He’s safe in the Russian Embassy,” Tom’s mother answered. “Isn’t it wonderful?”
Mr. Swift put a hand on his son’s shoulder, then removed it with an apologetic look when Tom winced. “It seems that when Mec Ubar crawled his way back to the Zirghoz building, he called his father and told him the operation had failed—the boy’s mind could not be read, and the security forces of Brungaria would be on alert to prevent Andri from being spirited away. Zirghozyia would have no chance to extract the code. So Yongjiss Ubar made a pragmatic choice and ordered Ambassador Lussquenda to release the boy to the Russians with some nonsensical excuse.”
Tom asked if the Russian government now had the chip from the imager with the recorded Second Edge code. “They do—Hank Sterling conveyed it to them. The inner validation elements proved it to be accurate; the boy’s visual memory is phenomenal. At any rate, President Ubar has withdrawn his implied threat and ultimatum, and has invited the Russians to retrieve both the warhead and the missile. The only thing missing is that device they call the Shoebox. Fortunately, it doesn’t matter now.”
Tom’s relief was painted all over his bruised and bandaged face. “I can’t wait to get home to Shopton. Maybe Enterprises can figure out a way to help Bash’s recovery.”
“I’m afraid our departure will be a bit delayed, Dear,” Mrs. Swift said with a rueful smile. “A ceremony in our honor is to be held day after tomorrow at the Russian Embassy. The President of Brungaria will be present, and that Mr. Trane was most insistent that we attend.”
By the time of the ceremony, Tom and Bud were much improved, and able to stand. Wooziness-making pain medications suppressed their many aches for the moment. As flashbulbs popped, they received thanks, and medals.
All the party received medals of one sort or another, including Chow Winkler, who held it up high, above his best ten-gallon cowpoke hat, which he used on formal occasions. “Brand my silver stars, boys, look at this here ornament they gave me!”
“It’ll go with your shirts, Pard,” Bud remarked. “Of course, anything would.”
Chow ignored the gibe and said to Tom, “Say there, why’nt you two troublemakers come upstairs an’ meet little Andri. He’s mighty nice, fer someone that don’t make sense. Spent a bit o’ time with him yesterday.”
In a room carefully outfitted with all his special, beloved articles, Andriej Burkeshyanov sat with wide, sober dark eyes, eyes that now and then took to darting about in inexplicable ways. As they entered he hugged his blue backpack with one arm and thrust out the other in Chow’s direction, mechanically. “The cow,” he piped.
“That’s what he calls me,” Chow commented. “I think th’ sprout likes me—probably got his brain full o’ pictures o’ my face. Mebbe you could get a snapshot er two, Tom.”
Tom grinned and said, “I guess all red-blooded kids like cowboys, anywhere in the world.”
“Does he speak English?” Bud asked.
Chow nodded. “Sure does. He speaks a whole passel o’ languages, all at th’ same time. He kin switch back and forth inside o’ one sentence. That’s a lot better ’n I kin do.”
Tom crouched down to look in the boy’s eyes, hoping his bandages wouldn’t disturb him. “If we have time, taking some more thoughtographs might be a good idea, Chow. It would finish things off nicely if we could find out where the Shoebox got to.”
“Guess it would,” Chow agreed. “I ’as here when they asked him about it, over an’ over in Russian. But he jest looks at ’em, doncha, son.”
The boy had not taken his eyes off Tom’s face. “Sh’box,” he said. “Sh’box.” Not turning his eyes, Andri unzipped a flap in his backpack. A hand darted inside like lightning, and in an instant a small object, about the size of a butter cube, was held up before Tom’s astonished eyes.
“Good gosh! The Shoebox!” gasped the young inventor in disbelief. “He had it with him the whole time!”
Chow boggled. “You mean to tell me all them smart spies didn’t even think t’ look inside his backpack?”
Bud shrugged, with a little yelp of pain. “Nobody’s perfect, huh?”
Finally the Sky Queen headed for home. Tom and Bud sat in the viewlounge with Quimby Narz. “We snafued,” said the agent with a self-disgusted headshake. “Those old connecting doors had been locked shut and papered over fifty years ago, according to the building files. Why we didn’t put someone in all the adjacent rooms... Maybe I am due for retirement. So what’s the bottom line, Barclay?” the agent asked Bud. “My foulup is good evidence. You still think I might be working for Ubar?”
Bud winced, embarrassed. “Guess you found out about that.”
“Knew it before I met you,” Narz snorted. “Figured you’d make a connection between me and that message, what with this eye of mine. No need to bring it up. What could I say? ‘I’m a nice guy, please believe me!’ Naw.”
“Guess I see your point, Quim,” Bud admitted. He covered his face with a big hand, then opened a gap between his fingers to glance at Tom with one eye. “Quick, pal—change of subject! How about the details on that mysterious space trip your Dad mentioned the other day?”
Tom winked. “Still up in the air, flyboy—way up!” It would not be long before the details fell into place, in a daring plan that would become known to the world as Tom Swift in The Underlands of Mars.
Sandy entered the lounge, and Tom said, “Sis, I’m going to call Dr. Fiske. Want to tag along?”
“You don’t need to call him,” she answered, eyes lowered. “I just spoke to him. He says the first round of treatments had no effect, but he isn’t discouraged. I guess there are other things to try.”
Tom was silent, looking off into the blue sky. Though Tom himself hadn’t managed to speak to the doctor, the news from the others had been the same for days now.
It was early afternoon when they landed in Shopton, setting down gently onto the big Swift Enterprises airfield.
Heading for the hatchway, Bud noticed that his pal was hanging back. “Come on, Skipper,” he called.
“Just a minute,” was the response. “I want to check something on the equipment before they take it off the ship.”
When Tom emerged from the Sky Queen, he was squinting in the bright sunshine. His fellow travelers were knotted about the end of the exit rampway, their collective expression mysterious. The little crowd parted and a figure stepped forward.
As the onlookers laughed and cheered, Tom rushed up to her and hugged her warmly. She responded with a shy kiss on his cheek, which he returned.
“Sorry Tom,” said Sandy with apology and a giggle. “We’ve known since last night. I thought it was a little mean, I really did, but Bud talked me into it.”
“It was a shared conspiracy!” Bud retorted. “We all thought a nice big surprise might help you heal faster.”
Tom looked at Bashalli, his grin broad and sunny. “Then Dr. Fiske’s treatment worked! Your memory is back!”
The pretty Pakistani nodded. “Oh yes, it seems to be. I do vaguely recall your name—Thomas something, isn’t it?” Her eyes sparkled gaily as they looked into his. But then they narrowed. “But something is not quite right.”
Tom’s eyebrows raised in surprise. “What do you mean?”
“I mean I know you—again—and I know what those deep-set-eyed looks mean. I think you were not as overcome with joyful astonishment as you ought to have been. In fact—Tom Swift, you had already guessed this surprise, hadn’t you!” she exclaimed in mock accusation.
Tom’s intriguing expression did not change.
“Well?” Bashalli demanded. “What do you have to say?”
“Not a thing,” he replied suavely. “I guess you’ll just have to read my mind!”