TOM SWIFT LIVES!
TOM SWIFT IN THE
UNDERLANDS OF MARS
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 IN
THE UNDERLANDS OF MARS
STAND BY FOR MARS!
“YOU MEAN we’re not going to Mars after all?” demanded Bud Barclay, amazed and angry.
“That’s not what I’m saying,” responded Tom Swift to his best friend. “Give me a chance to explain.”
The famous young inventor stood facing the assembled crew of the Starward, the huge new spacecraft developed by Tom Swift Enterprises under the direction of Tom and his father. Their young commander had called all ten astronauts—a select team of space veterans and scientists—to join him on the ship’s broad observation deck to announce a change in the goals of Enterprises’ latest bold scientific venture, a two-week research mission to the arid surface of Earth’s neighbor, Mars. It had been only minutes since the Starward had broken from its parking orbit about our world and begun its trajectory to the Red Planet.
Behind the crew rose the ship’s curving viewport, almost three stories high and cutting vertically across several open-sided decks of the great sphere-shaped vehicle. Tom paused, the slowly diminishing Earth swimming before him against an icy tapestry of stars. “I said there would be a change, that’s all. The mission is continuing.”
“All right, boss. Then what’s this all about?” The speaker, Lori Matthews, stood at the front of the group and spoke calmly—more calmly than Tom’s emotional, impulsive pal Bud.
Tom’s reply was grim. “This is still a scientific expedition. But now—it’s also a rescue mission.”
Surprise flashed across the collective face of the crowd. The familiar gravel-toned voice of big Chow Winkler broke the moment of stunned silence. “Rescue? Wa-aal brand me fer a heifer, jest who is it we’re s’posed t’ be rescuin’? One o’ them blame Martian space friends o’ yours?”
Shaking his head, Tom gestured toward the one member of the crowd who was unfamiliar to everyone but Tom himself. “Dr. Yun? Perhaps you should answer.”
The stout Korean biologist, black hair streaked with stark-white cords like bolts of lightning, stepped forward and turned to face the others. “You do not know me, ladies and gentlemen, although we are colleagues and companions on this journey. I am Yun Dai-koh, of the Korean National Institute for Advanced Sciences, as you would say it. It was only within the last four days that my government contacted your own to request—indeed, to beg for—a place aboard this ship. Young Mr. Swift and his father were pledged to absolute secrecy, and they gave their solemn word of honor when our purpose was explained to them. We were most grateful that they were willing to modify the itinerary of this long-planned project of Swift Enterprises and your NASA space agency.”
Ever since the day Tom’s Challenger spaceship had carried the young scientist-inventor to the surface of the moon, Tom had known that a voyage to nearby Mars would be an inevitable further step into interplanetary space. With the development of his revolutionary cosmotron propulsion system, installed aboard the Starward and given its trial run on a circuit of the outer Solar System, he and his father had directed the formidable forces of Enterprises toward this next extraordinary quest for knowledge. The announced plan called for a landing on the Martian surface, establishment of a base camp, and a stay of perhaps fourteen days duration. Two new inventions of Tom’s—a support suit for explorers and a flying scout vehicle making use of advanced principles—were to be tested on the frigid plains of the dry, dusty, all-but-airless planet.
Beyond the scientific investigation of the Martian environment, the Swifts had identified one further extraordinary mission goal. Achieving this goal had a personal edge to it. During the course of their stay Tom hoped to find definite evidence of intelligent life on Mars, an alien civilization that had been detected in the early Twentieth Century by the youth’s great-grandfather, the legendary Tom Swift who first gained the world’s attention for his remarkable inventiveness. Tom’s namesake had been unable to replicate his findings before a skeptical world, compromising his reputation in the later years of his life. Even though robotic surveys of Mars had as yet shown no trace of life or intelligence, young Tom hoped to redeem his great-grandfather’s name.
But now the space team wondered if Dr. Yun was about to announce something that would interfere with this aspect of the historic project.
“I will assume you are all familiar with the fate of the prior attempt to place humanity on Mars. I refer, of course, to the Red Eye expedition.”
The crowd muttered restlessly. “Of course we know about it,” declared Tom’s chief engineer Hank Sterling. “Who doesn’t? It was a world tragedy.”
“Yes, indeed so,” agreed Dr. Yun in his clipped accented tones. “Forgive me if I recount a brief summary of this sad, famous affair.
“The Red Eye, words that translate a traditional Chinese name for the planet Mars, was the project of the Eastern Nations Consortium of Space Sciences, as it is known to you in English—that is, ENCOSS. Seven Asian nations joined together, with the support of their respective governments, to plan and mount this space effort. Some have said that regional pride, a wish to compete with the announced planetary goals of Europe and America, lay behind all this; and some have added that perhaps it was undue haste and lack of proper testing that led to the resultant human disaster. Of that, I know nothing. My own role in the operation, as an employee of the Institute, was very slight.
“The Red Eye craft left Earth orbit without incident, bearing its crew of seven outward toward Mars, propelled by a solar-sail method. As you know, the transit lasted more than a year. Finally the landing module parachuted into the very thin planetary atmosphere—or at least, that was what was anticipated.
“Atmospheric penetration was to take place on the side of the planet then turned away from the Earth. It was expected that confirmation of a successful landing, by radio transmission, would come after a gap of several hours while that part of the surface rotated into position. Yet I have no doubt you all remember the silence, dreadful silence, hour after hour, day after day.
“Telemetry from the various photographic drones then circling the planet showed no sign of wreckage. It was ultimately concluded that the Red Eye had exploded during the initiation of powered retro-descent, which used rocket thrust engines following ejection of the parachute array. Subsequently the fragments of the capsule would have burned to cinders by the friction of its uncontrolled fall through the atmosphere.” Yun added: “So it was thought.”
“You’re saying that’s not what happened?” asked Bud skeptically. “But Tom himself surveyed the area―”
Tom interrupted. “That’s right. During the course of our initial unsuccessful Mars-scan for signs of intelligent life, we used my megascope space prober to examine the entire region for any trace of wreckage, or any sort of recent impact crater or burn mark. We found nothing.”
“Then what’s with the rescue bit?” persisted Bud heatedly. “There couldn’t possibly be any survivors down there! I mean, jetz! Even if they managed to make it down to the ground, it’s been years now!”
Dr. Yun gave a thoughtful nod of acknowledgement. “Your objection is surely well taken, young man. At the Institute which employs me, which established an astronautics program to honor the memory of the lost astronauts and continue the cooperative multi-nation endeavors of ENCOSS, there was no thought of even the bare possibility of survival. In the event of a successful landing, the crew had brought with them only about twenty-six months’ worth of provisions, just long enough to await the time when the planet would again be at close proximity to Earth and the long return voyage could commence. Now it has been, as Mr. Barclay points out, a good number of years since that day. And so you can well imagine our surprise—indeed, our disbelieving astonishment!—when the radioscopic detector instruments of the ENCOSS organization―”
He paused, and Tom continued the thought. “A signal! They’ve picked up a signal from survivors—on the surface of Mars!”
A MURDER PLOT
ONLY dry cabin air whooshed into, or out of, the gaping mouths of the stunned listeners. No one spoke aloud.
Unsurprisingly, it was Chow who broke the silence. “You tellin’ us—those poor people’re still alive up there on that planet? But how th’ hey did they pull it off?”
“Just what was the message they sent, anyway?” asked Neil MacColter, one of Enterprises’ top veteran spacemen. “Did they explain what happened to them?”
Tom answered for Dr. Yun. “The signal only lasted for about 18 seconds, and carried no vocal info.”
“It was the locator beacon signal from the lander capsule,” continued Yun. “It was unmodulated, but the frequency profile could not be mistaken.”
“Hoax is the most likely explanation,” snapped physicist Rafe Franzenberg, a characteristically blunt-spoken man.
“That would be as impossible as the event itself, sir. Brief as the signal was, our instruments were able to triangulate upon the emission source on the Martian surface. Even over 18 seconds there was a slight shift due to the planet’s normal rotation.” Bud asked if the precise location on the surface had been pinpointed. “No, not pin-pointed, as you put it. But it was in the general area where the Red Eye would have touched down—within three or four horizons, so to speak.”
“All right,” Hank said. “Let’s assume the signal was genuine and some part of the expedition has survived. What’s the plan from here on out?” The young engineer pointedly turned his gaze toward Tom.
“No immediate change,” pronounced Tom. “We’ll pull the Starward into orbit, then descend down to the surface in Mod 2 and set up our base camp. It’s just that we’ll be landing in a different part of Mars. We’ll still be able to collect our data while we search for the Red Eye capsule.”
“It’s your decision, Skipper,” Neil stated to a smattering of quiet applause and nods.
“Thanks, fellows. Dad and I know we can always count on all of you—no matter what we end up putting you through.” Tom dismissed the crew to their many tasks. But as they scattered, Dr. Yun joining them, Bud and Chow dawdled behind.
Bud was glowering. “Tom—you could have told me.”
“We don’t keep secrets from each other,” conceded the young inventor apologetically. “I’m sorry, flyboy.”
“Now you hold off there, Buddy Boy,” Chow remonstrated. “Tom and his Dad gave their words, sounds like. You cain’t ask ’em t’go against that—not those two.”
“Yeah. I know.” Bud gave up his moment of pique with a half-shrug. He couldn’t stay angry at his pal for long. “But you haven’t explained the need for the secrecy.”
“That’s purt’ much what I’d like to know!” Chow put in. “Seems like we ’as jest doin’ a pure good deed, plain an’ simple. Folks all around the world would be glad if we got ’em back, wudden they? Not like we’re overstocked with heroes back home—not even in Texas!”
Tom lowered his voice to a near-whisper and motioned his friends forward, into a huddle. “I’d rather not go into this in front of the rest of the crew.”
Bud groaned softly. “I can see it coming a parsec away! Spies, saboteurs, all that bad-guy stuff—right?”
As Tom nodded with a wry grin, Chow said: “Still don’t make no sense t’ ole Chow, boys. Jest why’d anybody want us not to rescue those foreign folks?”
“I can only tell you what I know—what the Korean officials told Dad and I. In these last few days there have been attempts on the life of everyone who knows about that beacon signal.”
“What!” gulped Bud, eyes as wide as Chow’s—which was wide indeed.
Tom nodded soberly. “There were a half-dozen people at the ENCOSS lab involved in processing the signal, including Dr. Yun, who’s been using radiotelescope data, and our own Enterprises telesampler device, to search for organic compounds in interplanetary dust. These six then informed two key members of the Institute. After consultation with the government, the scientists were told to maintain absolute secrecy for the time being—to prevent a media frenzy, I guess. Yet within hours of identifying the signal peculiar things began to happen. Car brakes went out, lab fires broke out, home windows were shot out―”
“I get the idea!” Bud whisper-shouted.
“There was an attack on a man working late at the Institute, by an unidentified masked assailant. And Dr. Yun survived what looks like a knifing, while he was walking through a crowd. Three of the eight are now hospitalized with serious injuries, and one other died from a bullet wound. In other words,” Tom pronounced, “whoever’s behind this is aiming at murder!”
Chow Winkler, the expedition’s cook, had turned as white as flour-sifted bread dough. “Good gravy, sure sounds like it! And nobody knows who er why, boss?”
“Not a clue,” confirmed the crewcut young inventor. “Our own top-secret sources contacted me to let me know that even they are stumped on this one, for once.” He reminded his listeners that the attacks on the science team had begun even before the Korean government had been contacted. “Someone with immediate access to ENCOSS’s instrument data must have ‘tagged’ the event. But no one knows why—or how they found out in the first place, assuming the plotter isn’t one of the original eight. Because the scope of the enemy’s spy technique isn’t known, the two governments agreed to a high level of secrecy until the Starward was off to Mars.” Tom concluded, “And that’s the story, you two.”
Bud’s face told Tom he was feeling abashed even before he spoke. “Well, then, I guess the secrecy may have been a good idea.” The black lock of hair flopping across the youthful pilot’s forehead seemed to droop further than usual. “I mean—they could have been bugging me. Or Chow.”
“Or anyone, as far as we know,” said Tom with a sympathetic smile. “But now that we’re under way, it doesn’t matter. Nobody can get at us in space.”
“Mebbe so t’ that, but it’s sure still a blame mystery!” Chow noted. “I’m gonna watch my back. —An’ whatever yuh’re thinkin’, Buddy Boy, jest toss ’er back fer once!” Bud’s affectionate cracks at the expense of Chow’s ample breadth were easy to predict.
Now that the Starward had passed beyond the critical point of Earth’s gravity “well,” her bank of force-ray repelatrons was shut down and the ship’s cosmotron spacedriver was activated. As the revolutionary device grabbed ahold of the fabric of spacetime, the huge craft shot forward almost instantly, traversing thousands of astral miles in a matter of seconds without the slightest jolt to those aboard. Standing at the main control board next to Neil MacColter, pilot and navigator for the voyage, Tom picked up a microphone and announced to the crew: “We’re nominal for the main traverse, folks. We look to be entering Mars orbit in about three hours or so.”
With time to kill, Tom and Bud went to the communications compartment. “Much as I like saying Hi to Sandy,” said Bud, “I’ll bet she’s madder than a dunked kitten at being left out of the loop.” His pal agreed with a laugh.
At the main panel Tom selected one of several cartridge-like containers from a rack and clicked it into place in a port on the board. Each cartridge contained a matrix of subatomic particles that allowed it to forge a unique quantum link to exactly one counterpart cartridge back on Earth—in this case, inside a unit that Tom knew was, at the moment, in the Swift home in Shopton. The family would be expecting this word from space.
Almost as soon as the PER—Private Ear Radio, the nickname used nearly always in lieu of the official mouthful, “parallelophone”—had established its connection, the voice of Tom’s father came through loud, clear, and instantaneous. “We’ve all been sitting in the living room with our eyes on the com unit, son,” said Damon Swift. “Your mother and sister were getting a bit restless.”
“Not you, Dad?” Tom joked.
The two scientist-inventors spoke for a moment of various technical matters. Then the PER was handed to Tom’s mother, and then to his vivacious sister Sandra. At the moment her vivacity evidenced a bit of an edge. “Tom Swift! How am I going to face Bashi, having to tell her that my own beloved brother wasn’t willing to leak a few scraps of this delicious murder-mystery-plot stuff! I hope you realize, Tomonomo—I probably could’ve solved the whole thing for you before you even left.”
“Our loss, San,” replied Tom with a chuckle at Sandy’s pretended outrage. “I know Dad’s explained the reason. As for Bash, I’ll just bet she’s standing there right next to you. Am I right?”
“You are annoyingly right, as usual,” came the voice of the pretty young Pakistani, close friend to Tom and the family—in which Bud was included by popular demand. “Sandra is livid, but I am quite willing to forgive you for making her so. But—but Tom―” Bashalli Prandit continued, suddenly hesitant with emotion, “are you quite sure you’re out of danger up there on Mars?”
“Hey, don’t worry, Bash,” Bud chirped in. “Any big multi-armed Green Martians we come across’ll be sent packing by one of Tom’s X-raser disintegrator rays!”
“I am now so comforted, Budworth.”
Incredibly soon the Starward had put more than 300,000,000 miles behind it and was beginning its approach to the Red Planet. In anticipation Bud and several crew members had joined Tom on the main deck at the control panel. Mars had swollen to the size of a quarter at arm’s-length, revealing its mottled surface of pale brick highland plains and the darker shades of the lowlands.
Suddenly Neil called out quietly, “Tom, take a look at the scope.” He gestured at the radar monitor, where a small patch of white had appeared.
“What is it?” asked Rafael Franzenberg.
“Not a matter of concern, I hope,” added Dr. Yun fretfully. Despite his outward calm, the voice of the Korean scientist bespoke the anxiety inherent in his first trip into space.
Tom studied the radar bogie. Then he smiled. “No, it’s not a danger—in fact, I think it’s something interesting. Neil, let’s overtake it and pull up close.”
The astronauts were soon confronted by a huge, circular object floating in the void, slowly rotating. Resembling a ribbed umbrella, it was many-sided but basically disklike, stark white in color, slightly parabolic. “Good night!” Bud exclaimed, “it’s bigger than a football field!”
“Bigger than two American football fields, in fact,” corrected Dr. Yun. “It is the discarded solar sail from the Red Eye.”
“It’s been floating out here all this time?” wondered Hank Sterling.
“Indeed so, in a high-ended elliptical orbit about Mars, which sunlight pressure has further distorted over the years. After returning to space, the Red Eye landing module would have reconnected with it for the return trip, tacking like a sailboat in the unceasing wind of light.”
Fascinated, Tom directed Neil to guide the spaceship closer. “Let’s do a photo study to take back to Earth,” he commented.
They drew up to within one hundred feet, the sail extending off to its own horizon, a great curving expanse of shining white that made them shade their eyes.
Abruptly Bud exclaimed, “Hey, what’s up with that?” A tall and growing ripple, like a plasti-foil tidal wave, was sweeping across the surface of the sail in their direction.
“My gosh, it’s accelerating! It’ll hit us if we don’t put on a little distance,” declared Neil. He activated the spacedriver engine to move the Starward out of the way.
But the action came too late! To the shouts of the started crew, one edge of the Red Eye’s sail suddenly curved up in a great lunge and slapped against the hull of the ship like a flyswatter against a fly!
THE IMPACT was as violent as it was unexpected. Tom and his fellow astronauts were knocked off their feet, sliding together against the compartment bulkhead in a tangled heap. Like a giant’s soccer ball the Starward rocked and somersaulted backwards away from the solar sail.
Neil MacColter leapt at the controls, but Bud was quicker. The youth’s hands flew over buttons and touch-pads, and finally grasped the unistick control lever, easing the great ship away from the sail and off into space.
“Good great grief!” exclaimed Hank. “What made the sail pull that stunt? Look, it’s still vibrating.” The Red Eye sail was oscillating back and forth from edge to edge, wave after wave.
Returning the controls to Neil, Bud jerked a thumb toward an intercom speaker. “Shall we start a countdown?”
“Hey up there!” crackled a familiar bellow from the ship’s galley.
Tom approached the unit and pressed the mike button. “Chow, are you okay? Did the jolt damage anything?”
“Hunh? What jolt? I jest wanted t’ know when you plan to have lunch.” As Bud’s eyebrows flew up in surprise, the big westerner broke out in a laugh. “Naw, I ’as jokin’ with ya. But brand my space-quakes, what was that anyhoo? We get hit by a meaty-er?”
“No, just a bolt of stupidity on the part of your captain,” was Tom’s rueful reply. He turned to the others, keeping the voice circuit open so Chow could hear. “The ship’s big shadow is the culprit, folks. I forgot—when we cut off the pressure of the sunlight, it threw the structural tension on the sail out of balance.”
“Yes, I see now,” commented Dr. Yun. “As it began to distend, the change in angular momentum produced a self-reinforcing oscillation in the foil, which is extremely thin.”
“Don’t have no idea what you fellers are jabbin’ about,” commed Chow. “But boss?”
“If you plan on doin’ it again, let me know afore-hand!”
They resumed their planned trajectory, and Tom was soon able to announce that the Starward was in orbit about Mars. “Well, look over there!” called out Lori Matthews, the team’s planetary geophysicist. “There’s Deimos—I recognize her from her publicity photos.” For the benefit of those who were newcomers to the space neighborhood, she gave a brief description of the tiny, potato-shaped Martian moonlet, only about five miles across. “Mostly made of meteor-type materials, according to our spectrometry readings.”
“Not much to ’er,” commented Bud.
“Well, look quick, Bud. Both Deimos and her big sister Phobos have deteriorating orbits. In a few million years they’ll take a swan-dive into the atmosphere.”
“Do you plan a close pass?” Dr. Yun asked Tom. “Perhaps we might retrieve some surface samples to take back to Earth.”
“Actually, we already have, by means of my telesampler.” This invention of Tom’s allowed the excision of molecular samples from across the reaches of space.
“And besides, Dr. Yun, landing on Deimos—or even getting too close—is one thing our nice big cosmotron express can’t do,” stated MacColter in a serious tone of voice.
The Korean scientist looked puzzled. “Oh? But why is that, might I inquire?”
“It’s the space people,” said Bud.
Tom explained. “Doctor, I know you know all about the Planet X scientists we call our space friends,” he said to Yun. “They’ve made clear that they have some sort of base, or research installation, on Deimos—probably under the surface, as the megascope doesn’t show anything on the outside.”
“They wish no visitors?”
“You might say that,” replied the young inventor dryly. “Though they don’t seem able—or willing—to explain the situation, we’ve doped out that their superiors on their planet of origin have imposed a sort of ‘information quarantine’ on them. They are required, compelled actually, to be very secretive about the X-ian civilization, their technology, even their physical form. We know little of the purpose of their work in this solar system.”
“But they shor do like t’ study us, jest like rats under a dang microscope,” put in Chow, who had joined the group. “Don’t care a whit whether we like it er not!”
“That’s more or less true,” Tom agreed. “We’ve suggested meeting them in space many times, and the message back is always something like ‘not possible to comply’.”
Dr. Yun nodded. “I understand, Tom. And I presume you’ve asked them about the Red Eye?”
“Yes, just as soon as we found out about the possibility of survivors. They signaled back, ‘unable to provide requested data’. And when we told them of our planned Mars expedition,” Tom continued, “they said: ‘extreme danger to you can not be contained if you approach within thirteen minor radii of the planet-four lesser satellite’—which means Deimos.”
“I wonder what they’re afraid of,” murmured Lori. “With all their super-technology, they act like scared space rabbits.”
“That’s something we haven’t figured out,” Tom stated. “For all we know it may be some sort of overpowering instinct for self-protection hardwired into their nervous systems.”
“Anyway,” said Bud, “if it’s privacy they want, I vote we give it to them!”
Tom had already programmed information on the revised landing site into the spaceship’s guidance computer. “We’ll touch down in a region called the Ophir Planum, near the edge of the cliffside of a deep gorge, the Coprates Chasma.”
“Them places sound dangerous!” gulped Chow.
“The Chasma is like a long crack in the ground with high sides and a wide flat bottom,” Lori Mathews explained. “It’s an offshoot of the Valles Marineris—Mariner Valley—which stretches almost halfway across the western hemisphere near the equator.”
Dr. Yun interjected, “One of the goals of the Red Eye expedition was to study the topography of the Marineris region. It was thought that pockets of life might exist, warm and protected at the bottom of deep crevices.”
The crew understood that the Starward itself would not descend from orbit. Instead they would touch down in one of the three smaller spherical modules attached to her hull. “So who’s gonna git left behind to watch the ship, boss?” Chow asked Tom. “Not me, I hope!”
Tom chuckled. “O’ course not, pardner—we have to eat, you know! Actually, no one needs to remain aboard the Starward. She’ll be safe up in orbit, and we can always access her controls and sensors remotely.” The young inventor now turned to the others. The entire exploration team had assembled on deck, carrying their various items of specialized equipment like travelers’ suitcases. “All right, everyone, the landing site is just coming up on the horizon. Time to board Mod 2 and get going.”
“What a strange, startling moment this is,” muttered Dr. Yun. “Once I envied the men and women of the Red Eye as they left on their journey. And now I myself am here in their footsteps—on the threshold of Mars.”
“I know the feeling, doctor,” concurred Bud. “You never know what life has in store for you next. I’ve sure learned that, thanks to genius boy over there.” Bud couldn’t help thinking for a moment of his many strange experiences at the side of his friend, from their first perilous adventure in South America in Tom’s Flying Lab to their recent involvement in political intrigue and nuclear blackmail, a plot foiled by the young prodigy’s remarkable thoughtograph imager.
With her crew of eleven aboard, Neil MacColter disconnected Excursion Module 2 from her recessed docking port at the summit of the Starward, moving off with a gentle nudge from the craft’s inbuilt bank of repelatrons. Mod 2 was shaped like a pintsized version of the multistory Starward, and like the mother ship a large part of her hull was covered by a huge rounded viewport, its encompassing shell of metallumin coated with transparent Inertite for protection against cosmic rays.
As the repelatrons pushed against the far planet horizon ahead of them, the module lost its orbital speed and began to curve smoothly downwards. A slight vibration announced entry into the atmosphere.
“I thought the air here was ultra-thin,” Bud noted with curiosity. “How come we’re feeling it so high up?”
“Ultra-thin it is,” confirmed physicist Franzenberg. “Average surface pressure only about seven percent of Earth-normal.”
“But that doesn’t make it any tamer, flyboy,” Tom said. “Just the opposite—it’s so thin and dry that it’s subject to big variations in temperature across the planet. And with gravity so weak, there’s nothing to stop the winds from picking up quite a head of steam.”
“Not that I’m worried,” said Tom’s pal quickly and unconvincingly.
In minutes Neil announced that they were hovering a half-mile above the Ophir site. Tom gave the okay for a landing, and Mod 2 drifted down yard by yard, extending her curving landing struts. The landing was so soft and well-cushioned that the astronauts didn’t realize it had happened until Tom exclaimed: “Touchdown! We’re on Mars, space fans!” The control deck rang with cheers and excitement—yet everyone could feel a shadow falling across them as they gazed out at the eerie, silent world beyond the viewpane.
Mars awaited. But would it prove hospitable to the
explorers and rescuers from distant Earth—or reveal itself as the Angry Red Planet of space legend?
BEFORE opening the main airlock hatch Tom spent a good twenty minutes reviewing the accumulated data from the various instruments that were continually sweeping the environment for any sign of unwelcome surprise. For this task Rafe Franzenberg and Hank Sterling were his expert assistants.
“What’s the verdict, Skipper?” Hank inquired. “Can we start setting up camp?”
“I see no problems, Tom,” added Rafe.
Tom nodded happily. “Neither do I. The Mod’s in perfect shape, windspeed is okay, temperature a scorching 38 degrees in early afternoon—and the penetradar shows we’re perched on good solid ground. Let’s open up and take a walk!”
Tom briefly contacted his family via PER to announce the safe arrival of the expedition. He then clicked a different cartridge in place and spoke to the Swift Enterprises liaison at NASA, who would inform the world media of the historic event.
Hearty congratulations ringing in his ear, the young space explorer directed the others to pull on their Mars-environment space outfits. “I’d like all of you to join me outside for our ceremony,” he said. “But from here on out, let’s make a practice of always having one crew member stay behind while the rest are off safari-ing.”
“Safer that way,” commented Marlene Jencks, the project’s planetary meteorologist—whom Franzenberg called our lovely weather girl.
The group crowded into the outer hatch accessway and Tom activated the micromotors that swung the curving hatch out and sideways. There was no need for the usual airlock procedures—an invisible barrier of Inertite microfilaments sealed the open portal, preventing the craft’s internal air from bursting free, yet allowing human-sized objects easy passage.
After activating an automatic video setup, Tom led the others down the access ramp and onto the dry, dusty surface. The first human words from the surface of another planet were uttered by Tom Swift. “That’s it, everyone—life on Mars!”
“Huh? Where?” whispered Chow into his suit transiphone, startled.
“He means himself, cowpoke,” Bud replied.
Tom planted an American flag, kept upright and in position by a small gravitex stabilizer, and saluted it proudly. “We aren’t legally entitled to claim Mars for the U.S.A.—but it’s sure a wonderful thing to think we made it here first!”
“Not counting the Martians,” added Hank Sterling with a chuckle.
“Yeah,” Bud put in. “Or those Planet X scientists.”
“Yet I am also here, on behalf of my country,” Dr. Yun declared. “And so, perhaps we might say that I stand for that small portion of the human race that happens not to be American.”
Tom nodded. “As far as I’m concerned, that flag stands for science and the quest for knowledge—and knowledge belongs to everyone.”
Tom’s sentiment raised smiles. Yet as the crew gazed about, they were unable to shake the eerie feeling that had descended upon them even as Mod 2 had descended upon Mars. As they looked out at the flat plains, broken here and there by rocky crags and ancient craters, it seemed to the visitors that the plains of Mars were looking back.
Knowing that they had only hours before sundown plunged them into frigid night, they quickly began to unload the special equipment that would give their exterior encampment a comfortable earthlike environment in which to work. This involved erecting the odd-looking device that Tom had first invented for use on Earth’s tiny second moon Nestria. Simply called an atmosphere-making machine, the atmos-maker would use an atomic furnace to extract breathable oxygen and nitrogen from surface materials, its whirling spreader jetting the mixed gases out into a pressure dome of the same suspended Inertite filaments as were used to cover the hatchway.
“Let’s give the dome an 80-foot diameter overlapping the hatch,” Tom directed. “That’ll be plenty of room for us, I think.”
“Say, boss, we gonna give this here camp a name?” inquired Chow. “Cain’t jest leave it as a dot on th’ map.”
“Got one in mind?”
“Naw, wouldn’t be fair t’ give me the job,” the ex-Texan responded. “I got to name the last one, when we ’as at the South Pole. Someb’dy else kin take a crack at it.”
“Then I have a suggestion,” Neil MacColter spoke up. “I grew up reading the Mars stories written by Edgar Rice Burroughs. Let’s use his name for Mars and call the camp Barsoom Base.”
“Done!” Tom pronounced, pleased by the notion of honoring a great imaginative writer who, Tom knew, had inspired many a dreamer. “By the way, Burroughs has a big crater named after him, near the southern icecap.”
Looking like a construct of cubical blocks, the base unit of the atmos-maker was assembled some thirty feet from the hatchway. At the touch of a button the disklike air-spreader rose to a medium height above the unit and began to whirl, not only emitting air but also spinning out the Inertite filaments that would coalesce into the permeable dome-enclosure, which was necessary to maintain pressure.
“Won’t be long now,” commented Bud to his pal.
“Right,” Tom nodded. “But keep your suit on, Bud. I’d like to take some soil readings about fifty yards beyond the dome, to see if we can find a better mix of soil to feed the air machine. There’re plenty of oxide compounds all over this rusty red planet, but I don’t want the nitrogen component at too low a proportion.”
Soon Tom pulled open his helmet and announced that a comfortable shirtsleeve environment had been attained inside the airdome. The team began pulling off and stowing their bulky pressure suits.
“Hey,” said Bud, “what’s with Tex Winkler over there?”
Chow was approaching Tom and Bud with a determined step. He was still wearing his Swift Enterprises spacesuit; in fact, he was pulling his bubble-helmet over his bald head, to reseal it to his neck ring.
In response to Tom’s question, the cook said, “Afore we shut down fer the night, I had a notion t’ try somethin’ out there in the open.” He gestured toward the relatively flat ground beyond the dome perimeter. “I figger since gravity up here is only about a third, I orta be able to run three times as fast—jest like a pony!”
“Well actually...” Tom began. But the big cook held up a big hand.
“Now don’t you discourage me, son. Mebbe it won’t work, but I’m bound n’ determined to give ’er a Texas try.” Chow stalked away, sealing his helmet as he approached the barely-visible curve of the filament barrier.
Suddenly Tom exclaimed, “He’s not bracing himself! Chow!”
“He can’t hear you!” muttered Bud. “He’s sealed in!” Starting to run, the youths pulled their helmets shut to activate their suit transiphones.
Chow strode forward confidently, stepping through the permeable dome—but only part way. Before he could penetrate the barrier further than one boot and the prow of his stomach, a strange invisible force seemed to seize him from behind. The big bulky westerner shot forward through the dome barrier like a human cannonball!
“He’ll be hurt!” Tom cried as he and Bud sprinted after Chow. And some very sprightly sprinting was required—Chow was tumbling and bouncing across the sands of Mars like a runaway whirlwind!
“Chow!” Bud cried into his transiphone. “Are you okay?”
The cook’s hundred-yard skid had sputtered to a stop. He lay face down, his bright red spacesuit streaked with dust. To the boys’ relief, he stirred at sat up.
A groan came across Chow’s transiphone—and then a few more pointed comments. “Bling blang dang!—if’n this here suit wasn’t made outta shock absorbers all the way through, I’d be nothin’ but a pile o’ bruises!” As Tom and Bud trotted up close and helped their friend to his feet, Chow made clear that he was far from placated. He glared at Bud. “Well, Buddy Boy, go ahaid ’n laugh!”
“Huh? What do you—”
“Come on, I know’d it was you—you an’ yer jokin’. You sneaked up behind me and gave me some kinda super-scientific push! What’d you use, one o’ them repelly-trons?”
As Bud started to bark out a denial, Tom said calmly, “Pardner, Bud never got anywhere near you. You just forgot about the pressure differential, that’s all.”
Chow frowned. “Fergot? Jest how could I fergit somethin’ I didn’t know about it in the first place? Tell me that, young’n!”
Tom tried to speak in soothing tones, not wanting to make the older man feel embarrassed. “It was part of your training, but I know these things can be easy to forget. The pressure inside the airdome is like Earth’s—more than ten times what it is outside the barrier. When the front part of you goes through the dome surface, there’s so little pressure on that side—”
“Uh-huh, right,” said Chow, reddening. “The pressure on my big backside was enough to shoot me right out like a blame bullet from a sixgun! Sorry there, Bud.”
Bud nodded with a smile, and Tom said, “Why don’t you try your experiment tomorrow, Chow.”
“Right. Gotta give my aches n’ bruises a chance to settle in fer the night.”
Tom and Bud turned to go back inside the dome for the equipment they would need, expecting Chow to follow. But instead—
“Hey! Help! Sumpin’s wrong!”
Instead of walking after the two, Chow was still standing in place where they’d left him, slightly sagging at the knees. “Cain’t lift my legs!” he cried. “I’ve done gone all weak-like!”
Tom drew closer—then grinned. “Don’t worry. It’s just the gravitex unit built into your suit. Look at the dial. It must have got turned up high by accident, while you were imitating a billiard ball.”
Turning down the power with a clumsy movement, Chow shot another bad-weather glare Bud Barclay’s way. “Accident, hmm. That it? Or is this jest mebbe this’n’s latest idea o’ makin’ fun o’ my husky Texas weight!”
“Now look Chow,” gritted Bud, “you can’t blame me for everything that happens to you. I’m trying to turn over a new leaf—I, mm, sort’ve promised Tom.”
Chow snorted but seemed to accept Bud’s account. “Okay then. Mebbe I’m jest in a mood.”
Again he started to walk back to camp. And again, he couldn’t manage it! He swayed awkwardly back and forth as if his feet were glued to the ground. “Doggone it, now what’d you do, Barclay-Bud? Boss—I can’t pry up my feet! They’ve sprung roots!”
Tom sighed. “It’s the ground-gripper filaments on the soles of your boots. You’ve got them on maximum extension.”
“I do?” Chow looked at a small meter dial on his sleeve. “Hunh. Reckon I do. Sorry-twice, Buddy Boy.” Adjusting the suit controls, the cowpoke picked up one foot tentatively, then the other. With a redfaced nod, he stomped back toward the airdome.
Tom shot Bud a suspicious glance. The dark-haired youth shrugged in reply. “Nothin’ to do with it, genius boy.”
The two collected their test equipment and walked a little distance away from the airdome. Not far ahead the ground became noticeably rougher and assumed a downslope. One mile further lay the deep Coprates Chasma.
Tom knelt down and began selecting pebbles to be placed under the input sensor of his portable spectroscanner.
“Say Tom—what’s that sound?”
“Just the wind, I guess. It’s not like the moon, you know. There’s an atmosphere here.”
“I know,” Bud murmured. “But it seems kinda loud, don’t you—” He broke off with a gasp. “Tom! Look!”
The young inventor twisted his head around to look and echoed his pal’s startled gasp. Weird streaks of pinkish haze were drifting across the pale Martian sky. “That’s high altitude dust!” Tom exclaimed. “A windstorm!”
“Will it hurt the camp?”
“Bud—it could bury the camp!”
The next instant the full force of the windstorm swept across the camp like the blow of a hammer!
THE ANGRY RED PLANET
THE ONSLAUGHT of high-velocity wind rocked Bud and Tom onto their backs and started to drag them across the yielding surface. “Turn the gravitex up!” Tom shouted. “Max setting!”
Bud followed Tom’s example. Instantly the tiny gravity-concentrators in their suits forced them down flat against the ground, immobile, as the raging dust-laden winds roared over them.
Tom carefully turned up on one shoulder to see what was happening at the encampment. The airdome bubble, made visible by the reddish dust as it settled, was twisting out of shape like taffy!
“The wind’s gonna push it flat!” Bud choked.
“Not the wind,” Tom muttered fearfully; “the particles in the wind. They’re big enough to force the filaments aside, and the dome barrier can’t handle it.” The airdome would reconstitute itself after the storm had passed, Tom knew. But there was a real danger nevertheless. At the “kinks” in the deformed curvature of the barrier, the net of filaments would become so porous that the air would begin jetting out faster than the atmos-maker could supply it. “They’re not wearing spacesuits in there! If the pressure drops too quickly—”
“No, look—they’re all making for the ship!” Bud exclaimed in relief. The shirtsleeved crew was scrambling into the hatchway. As the last of them disappeared, the massive hatch swung shut.
“Thank goodness,” Tom breathed—and then his breath caught in his throat as another panicked figure appeared around the far side of the atmos-maker’s base unit. “It’s Dr. Yun!”
“It’ll be okay, Skipper,” Bud reassured him. “The way he’s running he must still be able to breathe all right.”
The two watched as Yun ran up the rampway to the closed hatch and vigorously thumbed the control button next to it. Nothing happened! “Something’s wrong!” Tom transiphoned over the shrieking wind. “We’ve got to help him!”
Decreasing their gravitexes Tom and Bud staggered to their feet and threw themselves into the teeth of the Martian tornado. It was one step back for every three forward. Yet they finally managed to force themselves into the quivering dome, where the winds were largely blocked.
Tom was horrified to see that Dr. Yun had collapsed on the hatchway ramp. As the pressure within the dome dropped, he was slowly asphyxiating! Tom and Bud were shouting into their transiphones already, and in a moment were pounding on the hatch panel.
“They can’t hear us!” Bud groaned. Then he turned and sputtered, “Tom! What are you doing?”
Kneeling down the young inventor had pulled loose his bubble-helmet, having touched the control that turned its engineered composition from something rigid as glass to something flexible and easily folded. Holding his breath, he compressed and twisted the material into a funnel-shape and pressed it to Yun’s lips, as tightly as possible. The man’s eyelids flickered gratefully as he drew upon the oxygen still coursing through the micro-capillaries within the transparent material.
Bud and Tom alternated applying their lifegiving oxygen, desperate to keep themselves alive as well as the Korean. But how long can we keep it up? Tom wondered. His head was swimming!
Suddenly he heard Bud gasp, “It’s—it’s letting up!” In a matter of seconds the great storm had rumbled along, charging off toward the cliffs of the Chasma, trailing skirts of dust.
The air pressure was rapidly restored, leaving three stricken astronauts gasping—but alive.
A clank announced the opening of the hatch. “Oh no!” cried Hank Sterling. “Someone—over here!”
Inside Mod 2 the three recovered quickly.
“We thought Dr. Yun had gone into his cabin,” explained Marlene Jencks apologetically. “The door-hatch of his cabin was shut.”
“It was a terrible nightmare,” murmured Dr. Yun. “I could not imagine what to do when the hull hatch refused to open for me. All I could do was keep pushing the button.”
“Bad time for a glitch to show up,” Tom remarked.
“You preserved my life, Tom, and I am grateful. Just seeing you two out there, struggling against the winds—you gave me hope.”
Tom smiled and said, “What I want to do now is take a look at that hatch problem.”
The young inventor went outside and thumbed the hatch control button curiously. To his surprise the mechanism now responded immediately.
“Hunh!” Chow snorted. “Now jest whattaya make o’ that, boss?”
As Tom shrugged, Rafael Franzenberg responded. “Temporary effect of static electricity in the air—from the wind. Couldn’t be any dryer, you know.”
“If you’re saying Doc Yun was a victim of a terminal case of static cling—man!” There was a good dose of skepticism behind Bud’s quip.
“It’s plausible, though,” Tom stated thoughtfully. “We ran complete diagnostics right after landing.”
Chow’s big eyes were narrowed. “Wa-aal, what I say is—they’s coincerdence—an’ then mebbe somethin’ else.”
Tom knew Chow was thinking of the strange, unexplained attacks back on Earth. Bud shot the Texan a wry look and said, “Don’t look at me, wrangler-man. I didn’t make the wind blow!”
The sun was setting at the bottom of a sky already crimson from a haze of fine dust. “Let’s switch off the heat lamps and batten down for the night,” Tom ordered. “It’s about to turn into mid-winter in Antarctica out there.”
“Do you plan to begin the rescue search tomorrow, Mr. Swift?—that is, Tom?” inquired Gretl Dornis, an older woman who was Enterprises’ chief biochemist.
“I’ll assign tasks tomorrow morning. But you can count on getting started looking for signs of life, Gretl. I’m anxious to get hot on the trail of Great-Grandad’s Martians.”
When Tom made his end-of-day report to his father, he handed the PER unit to Dr. Yun at the man’s polite but insistent gesture. “Please do inform my colleagues in Korea that all is well here, if you would, Mr. Swift.”
“Of course,” replied Damon Swift. “Incidentally, I have our staff medic Dr. Simpson here with me. I thought he might ask you a few questions, Dr. Yun. We must do what we can to make certain there will be no consequences to your experience today.”
“Very well,” said Yun, somewhat reluctant. “No doubt it is advisable.”
Young Doc Simpson was a close friend to Tom and Bud, and a medical researcher as well as an MD. “I knew I should have gone along on the trip!” he joked. Simpson asked a number of questions and had Tom use some instruments from the ship’s medical kit to perform a cursory examination. “Well, no obvious signs of difficulty from your temporary asphyxia, Dr. Yun,” the doctor pronounced. “Tom, it’s mighty lucky you and Bud were using the old-model suits instead of the new ones you’ll be testing out.”
“That’s for sure!” Tom agreed before signing off.
As they strolled back to the main deck area, Yun asked Tom to explain Doc’s remark. “As a late addition to your crew, I do not know certain details. There are two kinds of protective suit?”
“Yes,” Tom confirmed. “Our standard suits have the kind of tanked oxygen-feed system that allowed us to help you, but the new experimental ones work on an entirely different principle.” He briefly explained that the new exploration suits permitted greatly extended surface treks without the need to recharge the compressed air reservoirs. “Matter of fact, there are no external air feeds at all!”
“Ah? But how is this possible?”
“Get ready, Doctor—it sounds a little gruesome!” Bud warned humorously.
Tom chuckled. “Basically, the suit infuses oxygen directly into the bloodstream of the wearer!”
“My word! An intravenous connection?”
“Yes and no,” was the reply. “There’s no measurable break in the skin. Virtually the entire inner surface of the suit—which would cover a surprisingly large number of square feet if you spread it out flat—is equipped with densely-packed microfeed tubules, barely visible to the unaided eye. As they press snugly against the skin they release tiny doses of a special solution that carries dissolved oxygen right through the epidermis and into the outer subdermal arteries, which are extensive.”
Yun broke into a broad smile. “Indeed, I see now! I once wore what is called a nicotine patch. The principle is similar.”
“Yeah,” Bud confirmed. “Just think of it as a whole-body patch.”
Tom added that a special medication originally developed by Doc Simpson was included in the oxygen-bearing solution. “It greatly increases the efficiency of respiration and suppresses loss of water from bodily tissues, as well as the, er, normal buildup of waste products.”
“Which is mighty nice!” called out Chow from across the deck. “They’s sure no service stations handy up here on Mars!”
Yun asked how long an explorer could remain outside in the suits. “For days!—in theory. They even carry liquified nourishment. But I don’t plan on shifts of more than six hours at a stretch. Bud and I will be testing the suits tomorrow.”
As darkness fell, lush with countless stars and two hurtling moons that made the shadows dance, Chow served a dinner imaginatively cobbled together from Mod 2’s un-imaginative store of rations. “Leastways it’s better than what we usedta have t’ eat—all that frozen, de-hydro-flated stuff. Weren’t fit fer a prairie dog.”
“But this is delicious, Charles,” commented Marlene. Chow beamed.
As the crew chatted quietly and kept watch on the Martian night, Chow returned to the galley compartment to bring out a dessert.
Suddenly a blinding flash of blue-white flame erupted onto the deck!
The fireball lasted only an instant as built-in extinguisher devices put an end to it. But every member of the shocked, fearful crew had jolted up with the same thought. The fire had come from the galley!
Tom leapt to his feet, but Bud was already on his feet—and running! He burst into the galley through a veil of smoke. “Chow!” The rotund westerner was lying in a heap on the floor, his colorful shirt singed, his bald head blackened.
Bud dropped to his knees and Chow began to cough and wheeze. “Is he hurt badly?” called Hank from the doorway, standing next to Tom, whose face had turned pale with concern.
“I—I don’t know,” Bud whispered hoarsely. “But he’s alive!”
“I th-think my ol’ hide’s got itself smoked right good,” groaned Chow weakly. “Th’ oven door took th’ worst of it, thanks be.”
As Tom wrapped on soothing, healing-assist medicated bandages, he asked softly, “Pard, do you know what happened?”
“N-not exactly, son,” was the shaky response. “I jest remember—I opened th’ oven, and—”
“There’s a little scrap of metal foil inside,” Hank observed. “It’s charred black. Must have caused a microwave hotspot that turned into a fireball when Chow cracked the door.”
Tom nodded. “Uh-huh. Fed by the high proportion of oxygen in the Mod’s air.”
Bud would have none of it. “No—it can’t be just a coincidence—not again! One a day is my limit, guys.”
“It’s dang pee-culiar,” Chow chimed in, his tones even gravelier than usual. “Where’d that there foil come from? It shor wudden there a half-hour ago!”
“I know what it means, Chow, and so do you—Tom too!” Bud walked up to his pal and spoke fiercely. “Somehow or other, whatever was after those scientists on Earth has followed Dr. Yun to Mars!”
A MARTIAN ODYSSEY
“WHAT’S Bud talking about?” demanded Hank Sterling. “What followed us to Mars?”
Bud could tell that Tom was half-ashamed of himself for having kept matters from the rest of the crew, trusted friends and colleagues from Swift Enterprises. “I’d hoped I wouldn’t need to dump it on everybody’s plate until the expedition was over, but now—I guess it’s time for a briefing.”
Tom called the team together, explaining the situation with the assistance of Dr. Yun. “I’d assumed nothing about the incident with the door hatch,” declared the Korean researcher. “And yet, perhaps there is something to what Bud Barclay has concluded, however rashly.”
“All right, but look here, Doctor,” huffed Franzenberg. “If someone deliberately set up a booby-trap, it was aimed at Chow, not you.”
“Why would anybody do that?” exclaimed Neil.
“Thank you!” said Chow.
Tom’s frown was deep and bewildered. “What I’m afraid of is that—if these incidents were deliberate—someone has decided to target everyone on this expedition.”
“Sure,” grated Bud; “someone. How about if we jettison all the secrecy and careful talk and say it outright? ‘Someone’ has to mean someone here in this room right now—one of us!”
Tom shook his head, but it was a headshake of reluctance—very pained agreement. “Bud’s right. There’s no place for a stowaway to hide. It might be possible, barely, on the Starward, but not in this little module. And the galley door is right over there in front of us, in plain sight. No stranger could have sneaked across the deck in front of our noses.”
“Then as far as this physicist is concerned, it was just coincidence, some sort of fluke.” Rafe Franzenberg stood up. “It can’t have been caused by anyone, because there’s no one to cause it. That’s the rational conclusion, boys and girls.”
Chow scratched his head-bandage, which brought a wince. “Reckon I can’t argue with that.”
Tom gave a smile that was unconvinced and a bit sour. “Well then, now that the matter is resolved—nothing to do but hit the sack.”
Sleep was difficult. After a few hours Tom got up and wandered restlessly out to the main deck, where he found Chow pacing, a big wide silhouette in front of the huge curving viewpane and the somber landscape beyond. “Cain’t get a wink o’ sleep,” grumbled the cook.
“Your burns aching?”
Chow shook his head. “Naw. Them special bandages help right nice. Jest got m’self in a state, worryin’. Ever’ time I hear a little tick ’r tack out here, I think it’s somebody sneakin’ up on us.”
“It’s just our equipment switching from one programmed task to another,” responding Tom, a hand on the westerner’s shoulder. “Think of it as a troop of automatic guards watching out for us.”
“Okay. I’ll think it. And stick in some good earplugs!”
The expedition’s first Martian morning came suddenly, a wedge of the sun peeping over the horizon like a high-powered searchlight. “Mighty cold out there,” said Neil MacColter to the breakfasting team. He pointed out the viewport. A layer of frost had collected on the inner surface of the airdome barrier!
“We’ll have to crunch it aside when we go out,” commented Hank. “Minor drawback to having moist air to breathe.”
Tom began to parcel out the day’s work assignments. “I’d like you two to set up the automatic telesampler station next to the cliffs,” he said, indicating Hank Sterling and Dick Folsom, who was an expert electronics technician. “Chow—”
“Aw, I know, Tom,” interrupted Chow with a wry snort. “You want me t’be the one who stays here in th’ rocket ship, doncha.”
The young inventor grinned. “Just for today, pard—it’ll give you some extra time to heal up ‘right nice’.”
He asked Gretl Dornis to work with Dr. Yun on the search for traces of Martian life, past or present. “You both have a biology background,” he noted. “Dr. Yun’s field is cellular biochemistry.” Tom put Neil MacColter with Marlene, who would be doing meteorological studies, and Lori Matthews with Dr. Franzenberg. “Bud and I will be testing out the exploration suits and the air scout,” Tom concluded. “We’ll run the rim of the canyon first, then head inland to the north.”
As the expeditioners broke up to prepare, Tom quietly pulled Rafael Franzenberg aside. “Maybe it’s just my imagination, Rafe, but—when I announced the team-ups, I noticed that Lori looked... well, a little disconcerted.”
“My reputation precedes me, chief,” declared the big, imposing physicist, who was never caught short on self-confidence. “As you know, certain women find me irresistible. Which has consequences, alas.”
Tom knew very well that Franzenberg did, indeed, have something of a reputation! “I suppose, as head of the mission, I should ask—has anything happened between the two of you that might constitute a problem in working together?”
“Not a problem for me,” he harrumphed. “As to the women, ask ’em.”
“I believe in dating widely. One must have a broad sampling domain to acquire sufficient data upon which to base justifiable conclusions. Science is founded on evidence, and evidence is derived from experience. Wouldn’t you agree?”
“You were involved with Marlene as well as Lori?”
“And Gretl.” Rafael gave a wide and knowing grin.
Unsure how to react, Tom ended up looking amazed. “All three?”
“No, no, not at the same time, of course. I carefully spaced them out on a daily schedule throughout the week, without overlaps or crowding. Whole thing didn’t last more than, oh, four months or so. With an occasional hiatus for recuperation.”
The physicist shrugged. “Naw you don’t—not at your age, kid. But I’ll tell you something about the firmer—I mean, finer—sex. They don’t like the process of alternate comparison. Makes ’em jealous. You noticed Lori’s face, but the other two made even worse faces, let me tell you. I was watching. Pure animal jealousy and possessiveness.”
“Well,” Tom said, “I expect all of you to do your jobs in a professional manner.”
“Don’t fret, chief. They’re all good gals—that’s why I turned on the charm to begin with.” As Tom nodded, Franzenberg added: “I don’t anticipate any hair pulling, not at this point.”
As the teams prepared for the day, Tom and Bud made their own preparations, which consisted in suiting up in the new experimental suits. The garments were thickly padded and a gaudy green in color for easier long-range visibility. The flexi-helmets were similar to those of the standard Enterprises spacesuits—fishbowl-like globes that could be folded back like sweatshirt hoods—but Tom explained that the inbuilt helmet air-feed system would only be used to maintain the pressure balance in the wearer’s lungs with a moist nitrogen-helium mixture.
“These suits are oversize-plus. I just hope we’ll fit inside that flying compact car of yours,” Bud declared ruefully.
Tom laughed. “We’ll go sporty and put the top down!”
The maglev flyer, as Tom called it, was removed by crane from its cradle in Mod 2’s hold. It was a sleek, wheelless vehicle, only about eight feet from stem to stern, equipped with a wraparound windshield. “You say your Mars Special works by magnetism?” Bud inquired.
“Magnetic levitation,” was the reply, “already in use on some of those high-tech bullet trains. Extremely powerful electromagnetic flux coils running along the underside induce a magnetic field in the ferrous—this is, iron-bearing—granules in the soil. The induced magnetic currents push back against the field that created them, which produces a lift effect.”
“No, flyboy,” Tom said. “Just a few feet—and we can only get that much altitude in a lower-gravity environment like that of Mars.” He noted that the high iron content of the Martian soil was crucial to the operation of the flyer. “It really is a Mars Special. It wouldn’t work back home.”
The youths climbed aboard. “Maybe Swift Construction can sell ’em to Martian commuters,” Bud cracked. “But what makes the thing move forward?”
Tom gestured toward the rear with his thumb. “That parabolic dish mounted back there is a small repelatron radiator. Even though single repelatron field-beams are too unstable near the planetary surface to provide constant vertical thrust—which is why we can’t just use the Repelatron Donkeys for near-ground exploration—we can still get some good horizontal thrust by aiming it off in the distance, toward the horizon.”
“Okay, enough explanations. Let’s go explore Mars!” chortled Tom’s pal.
Tom activated the flyer’s neutronamo power source and cautiously worked the controls. The craft bounded upward like a soap bubble to a height of nearly five feet. “Wow! Better than expected,” Tom murmured happily.
“Hey, look at that!” cried Dick Folsom from across the campsite. The other team members waved goodbye and good luck as the flyer accelerated forward and passed easily through the Inertite barrier, from which the film of frost had already melted. Its gravitex devices braced the Mars Special against the jolt of the pressure differential.
“Jetz! This is great!” Bud exclaimed.
Determined to put his new invention to the test, Tom opened her up, metering power to the repelatron. The craft shot forward, executing some smart turns with the aid of the inbuilt gyros and gravitex stabilizers.
The young space commander turned the nose of the flyer toward the cliffs that edged Coprates Chasma. Soon they were speeding along eastward, a few yards inland from the ragged edge but well able to see into the depths of the huge canyon-like fissure, far larger and deeper than Earth’s grandest Grand Canyon. Though in some areas they could see gentle slopes and what looked like ancient landslips, a good part of the Chasma walls consisted of jagged upthrust rock and a tumbled terrain, wildly uneven. Bud muttered, “How are we ever going to find the Red Eye guys, if they ended up somewhere down there in the middle of all that?” He glanced at his friend. “Can the Mars Special even work down there, with the ground so jutty?”
Tom shook his head. “It’s only designed for use on the level plains.”
“You mean we have to explore that big crack on foot—in just a couple weeks?”
“I know it seems hopeless, Bud,” Tom said, the hollow Martian wind whipping by with barely a whisper. “As I explained to Dr. Yun and the ENCOSS delegation from Korea, our main chance lies in the possibility that the survivors might transmit another signal, which we could follow to its source. Other than that, about all we can do is comb the area with our instruments. It’s possible that something might be visible down inside the Chasma, in plain sight. The rugged terrain interferes with the megascope beam, so our earlier look-see from Earth wasn’t the final word.” Tom noted that the limitation on the electronic space prober was one reason he still held out hope that his great-grandfather’s dramatic evidence of a civilization on Mars might yet be discovered.
They flew along, eyes and instruments operating with peak efficiency. “Plenty of shadows and fissures down there,” observed Tom. “And it’s even worse a ways to the west, where Coprates joins up to the Valles Marineris proper. You could drop the state of Connecticut in there and never find it! If they came down in there, it’d be years before we’d be likely to run across them.”
“Unless they send a signal,” Bud reminded him.
Their odyssey took them more than two hundred miles away from Barsoom Base. Finally Tom turned about. “We’ll take a more inland route on the return leg. Maybe we’ll happen across something in the Ophir desert.”
Soon they found themselves whizzing over a vast, rock-strewn plain stretching from horizon to horizon. “This is what I call dull scenery,” Bud complained. “If it weren’t for the craters, it’d be nothing but basic flat.” He nudged his pal. “If this is the tourist package, I want my money back!”
Tom chuckled. “No monsters yet. But the craters are pretty interesting in themselves, chum. They show how old the surface is. Mars has been bombarded by all manner of meteors and asteroids for billions of—”
The young inventor broke off, and Bud turned to regard him curiously. “See something?”
Hands on the controls, Tom gestured with his chin. A plume of dust was rising from the horizon in front of them. “Another windstorm?”
“No, I don’t think so,” Tom replied, puzzled. “I suppose it could be what they call a dust devil, a sort of desert cyclone. But...”
Bud was turning wary. “No ‘buts,’ pal. Let’s enjoy it from a distance.”
Tom turned the nose of the maglev flyer back toward the Coprates Chasma, which now was out of sight beyond the horizon. But it made no difference. Within a minute they were alarmed to see more of the mysterious streamers of dust, this time toward the south ahead of them. “Good night!” Bud gulped. “Something’s kicking up the dust all around us!” A rolling red haze seemed to be charging the craft from every horizon. They were boxed in!
Tom came to a sudden dismaying realization. “It’s a quake! The ground is shaking dust particles into the air!”
“Can’t we backtrack?”
“Backtrack where? The quake sectors are spreading—we’re right in the middle!” Nevertheless Tom gunned the repelatron and desperately put on the speed, aiming at an area where the dust seemed somewhat thinner. He knew—and Bud sensed—that if the rippling of the ground overtook the flyer, the unevenness of the surface could interfere with the maglev reaction. They could crash!
But then the nightmare redoubled. As the dust engulfed them, the ground heaved up in two directions, opening up a broad fissure directly in their line of flight. Almost before the youths could think, the Mars Special had plunged over the edge—into darkness!
INTO THE UNDERLANDS
BUD BARCLAY was made of equal parts courage and excitability, and in this extremity it was the emotion that won out. He yelped in fear, grasping his restraining shoulder straps, as the sunlight was whisked away behind them.
Tom Swift was able to tap his reservoir of calm. He worked the cybertron mini-control unit in his hand, trying to maintain some measure of stability for the stricken craft.
The Mars Special had lunged in an instant from the dust-dimmed sunlight falling into the mouth of the crevice, into blackness. The thin Martian air carried a thunderous roaring and crashing to their ears—the grumbling groan of Planet Mars!
The dizzying fall seemed faster than it was. But even at one-third the pull of Earth, the astronauts knew that unyielding rock walls—and a catastrophic crash—were close at hand. Tom allowed the flyer’s cybertron guidance system to radar-detect the contours of the open space around them, steering by means of the stern-mounted repelatron. But now the instability effect had taken over. The repelatron’s force ray was unable to tune itself precisely to the detailed composition of the nearby walls flashing past them. The Mars Special swerved and vibrated erratically as it descended, sideswiping the rocks with enough force to hurl Tom and Bud out into space! Only their taut safety straps held them in place.
Tom managed to switch on the flyer’s headlamps. To his surprise, the long beams barely reached the edges of the great chasm into which they had fallen.
“We must be in some kind of volcanic shaft or eroded-out lava pipe,” murmured the young inventor. Bud shot him a sardonic look. At the moment, scientific observation was not a priority!
Tom used the stabilizers to reorient the craft as it fell, angling its nose upward and the repelatron downward in the direction of motion. Instantly the youths were pressed back in their seats as the repulsion counterforce took hold, slowing the descent.
“M-maybe you can push us all the way back up,” Bud gasped.
“The field-beam is too scattered and unstable,” replied his pal grimly. “I can’t get a fix on anything. At least it’s slowing us.”
With the computerized assist of the cybertron, Tom attempted to balance on the repelatron beam as if on stilts. The flyer no longer whanged against the sides of the shaft, though falling rocks whanged against them. “Good grief, doesn’t this ever end?” demanded Bud in a shaky voice. “Is Mars hollow?”
“We’re not all that deep,” said Tom quietly. “Less than two miles down, I’d say. The radarscope is getting some bounceback from a bottom.”
“How far below?”
“A few hundred yards. But it’s sharply slanted and very uneven.”
In fact, the vertical shaft was beginning to shift toward the horizontal. Using the repelatron Tom forced the flyer into a sideways trajectory as the downsloping floor loomed near.
“We’re slowing down,” Bud declared.
“The maglev coils are starting to get some bite, now that we have a surface close under us. If the slope gets shallow enough, I should be able to brake us.”
Finally the headlamps revealed a broad, low-ceilinged cave, the overall slope of the floor no steeper than a modest hillside. Tom decelerated the craft—and cried out in alarm as it suddenly swerved sideways toward a hanging curtain of stone.
“Duck down!” he yelled, yanking on Bud’s spacesuit sleeve. Releasing their safety straps, they hunkered down as best they could. There came a violent, screeching shock—another—and the Mars Special suddenly crunched to a halt, half turned on its side.
Tom and Bud were catapulted forward from the cockpit, slamming against jagged rock which shattered in all directions like a thin pasteboard crust.
Lying still at last, Tom moaned. Bud replied with a faint: “Chow was right—thank goodness for padding!”
Though the flyer’s lamps were still shining, the boys had fallen into the opaque shadows behind the thin rock overhang. They switched on their small suit lamps, staggering to their feet, trying to maintain balance on the wildly irregular surface. “Check the readouts, Bud. Any sign of leaks?”
“Pressure’s steady,” replied the young pilot. “As to my pulse rate—different story.”
“Yeah. Quite a ride!”
The two turned about, throwing the lamp beams in different directions. “This little mini-cave doesn’t lead anywhere,” Bud pronounced.
Tom nodded. “Just an old petrified lava bubble blown out from the main shaft. Let’s go back to the flyer.”
Falling to their knees, and eventually to their chests, they crawled and squirmed their way under the rock-curtain and stood up next to the Mars Special. Tom groaned in dismay. “Great space, what we have here is a wreck.”
“Uh-huh. ‘Houston, we’ve got a problem!’ Yeow!”
For all the high-tech strength of its composite shell, Tom’s maglev flyer was in sad shape. Though there were no breaks in the hull, it was easy to see that the undergirding frame was twisted, and some of the Tomaquartz cockpit panes were almost pried loose from their positioning flanges, barely hanging in place. Worst of all, the Lunite antenna rod in the repelatron radiator dish had snapped in two, rendering useless that crucial propulsion element.
Tom climbed aboard, setting the craft to rocking back and forth, and checked the instruments. Then he awkwardly clambered out onto the rocks and popped open the repair access panel. He whistled in dismay. “Good grief! Here’s a good example of why you should always follow the instructions in the manual! By using the coils to brake us as I did, I caused a back-reaction, a super short-circuit. The circuitry looks like somebody went over it with a blowtorch! The neutronamo’s in shutdown mode,” he reported. “The flyer’s running on the battery reserves.”
“Is that enough to make the lift coils work?” Bud asked bleakly. He feared the answer—and got it.
“But—” The big dark-haired youth tossed his head and licked his dry lips. “You can rig up something. Right, genius boy? To get us back up topside?”
Tom slid down off the big jutting rock, plopping down on a shelf of stone next to his worried friend. “Same answer, pal. We’ve tumbled down the rabbit hole to Wonderland—the underlands of Mars, that is. If you want to hike back, I’d say it’s a good three miles. Thataway!”
He pointed—straight up!
UNDER THE MOONS OF
“WE’LL find them,” declared Hank Sterling. His voice held no hint of doubt. “Both of them—alive!”
“Aw, I know we will,” responded Chow, trying to keep the gravel in his Texas voice from shaking loose. “But—”
“Brand my starry spurs, what if I’m wrong?”
“We must find them!” said Dr. Yun. “Not only for their sake, but for the sake of the Red Eye survivors.”
Morning had become noon, afternoon had become late afternoon—with no sign of the maglev flyer, no radioed word from Tom and Bud. Hank, acting mission commander in his young employer’s absence, had finally organized several search teams who trekked over to high ground in several directions, seeking good vantage points from which to survey the landscape. Meanwhile, radar probing from Mod 2—and from the orbiting Starward, remotely accessed—showed nothing for hundreds of miles around.
As the sun drifted lower, Hank lifted off in the Excursion Module with her crew, leaving the self-sustaining airdome and atmos-maker behind, Gretl Dornis remaining in case the boys should return. They flew in an expanding spiral, high and low, even dipping down to skim the flat bottom of Coprates Chasma all the way to its junction with Valles Marineris. There was nothing to be seen, only the strange tumbled landscape of the bleak Red Planet.
“All this could have been easily avoided,” huffed Rafael Franzenberg. “Tom could have brought along a second PER unit configured for communicating between the Mod and the flyer.”
“True enough,” said Hank. “Their radiocom is useless with a horizon or two in the way—not to mention ‘down in the valley, the valley so low’.”
Chow snorted. “Ain’t no time t’ sing songs, Sterling.”
“But that fact also gives us a bit of hope, doesn’t it?” Lori Matthews spoke up. “What if they ran across the Red Eye survivors? If they had been detained there, they wouldn’t be able to radio and tell us.”
Yun nodded with a slight smile. “Ah, would that it were so.”
At last, the sun a sliver, Neil MacColter piloted the ship back to Barsoom Base. “Nothing to report,” Gretl reported.
A somber quiet fell over the main deck. What could have happened? A mishap with Tom’s new invention? A freak weather phenomenon? Could it be another case of sabotage?
Suddenly Hank slapped his head. “What a jerk I am!” he exclaimed. “There’s an easy way to find them!”
“Huh? Wa-aal don’t hold back fer th’ surprise, tell us!” demanded Chow.
“We just have to get in touch with Swift Enterprises.”
“I’m afraid I don’t follow you, Hank,” Gretl said.
“We can have Mr. Swift use the megascope to search the area!” laughed Hank in excitement. “It won’t reach down deep in the slope crevices, but it’ll give a better survey of the flat areas than we could manage with our naked eyes.”
The crowd bustled over to the communications console behind Hank, and the young engineer slid the Enterprises-linked PER cartridge into its slot. But after a moment the others could see concern and irritation on his face.
“Sumpin wrong?” asked Chow.
“I’m not getting a connection. Nothing’s coming back.”
“Try one of the other cartridges,” Dick Folsom urged. Hank proceeded to try the cartridge attuned to the Swift home, then all the others.
The efforts were futile. “I can’t understand it,” stated Hank. “The circuitry checks out just fine.”
“Let me try it, Sterling,” Rafe Franzenberg said curtly. But after several attempts the big physicist and electronics engineer was as baffled as his younger colleague.
“Perhaps the signal is being blocked in some way,” suggested Yun Dai-koh. “Or—and I do hate to bring this up—perhaps it is being jammed intentionally.”
Franzenberg responded with careless impatience. “That would be contrary to the laws of physics, Yun. The PER utilizes a quantum-entanglement principle. The spatial distance between the counterpart units is, in a strict scientific sense, zero. Which means, obviously, that nothing can come between them.”
“Wa-aal, somethin’ shor has—obviously!” Chow put in sarcastically; “An’ I’d think you great brains wouldn’t have t’wait fer yer dang cook t’tell you what it is!”
“What do you mean?” Marlene inquired.
“It’s them Planet X people!—jest like t’when they stole the space station an’ moved ’er over t’ Venus!”
The never-seen X-ians, dominating superiors of the Space Friends based on Deimos, had used their advanced technology to a fantastic end, moving the Enterprises space outpost from Earth orbit to an orbit about the planet Venus. Tom had headed up a long and desperate rescue effort, bridging the millions of intervening miles with the help of his space solartron invention. Though the effort achieved its goal in an unexpected manner, no adequate explanation for the alien beings’ actions had yet been provided.
“What Chow’s talking about is this,” Neil explained. “The spacemen created some kind of invisible ‘shield’ around the outpost that radio communications couldn’t get through. And he has a point. For all we know, something like that might pry apart the quantum link, too—whatever the laws of physics have to say about it.”
“Right!” sniffed the culinary cowpoke.
“If that’s what we’re dealing with, we may be in more trouble than we realize,” noted Hank with furrowed brow. “That same barrier was able to stop the Challenger from passing through it. I’ve been assuming that if worse came to worst we could rendezvous with the Starward and use the com system up there, or even hand-carry the specs of the problem back to Earth—it’s only a trip of a few hours, after all. But—”
“Let’s give it a try right now,” declared Neil, striding over to the main controls. “With the boys out there somewhere we really don’t have time to fret over it.” He closed and sealed the hatch and activated the repelatron bank. The big sphere stirred slightly—and then settled back down onto its landing struts. “No go!”
“But how can this be?” cried Dr. Yun. “Within the hour we were able to fly freely!”
“Sure. And within the day, we were able to get in touch with Swift Enterprises, too!” grated Hank Sterling. “For some reason, someone has decided to keep us isolated down here—marooned on Mars.”
Chow gulped. “Sterlin’, that may have a nice ring to it, but right now it’s purt near last on my list o’ things I wanna hear!”
Dr. Yun rubbed his eyes despairingly. “I fear we must consider some further possibilities, my colleagues. If the aliens are willing to undertake such extreme measures, it may well be that they themselves caused the crash of the Red Eye. Indeed, the beacon signal may have been false, to lure us here to captivity!”
A gravel voice broke the startled silence. “Y’know thet list o’ mine, folks? I jest revised it!”
Even dismay and bewilderment could not stop supper. As the disconsolate crew sat about eating, Dr. Yun cleared his throat and said, “I must say—for we are in this same boat together, eh?—I have not revealed everything about myself and my interest in seeking survivors of the ENCOSS mission.”
“Were you personally involved in the planning, Dr. Yun?” asked Lori.
“No, yet my stake is a very personal one. You see,” he began, “I was a researcher at one of the Korean technology companies deeply involved in the scientific aspects of the project. My own particular specialization was experimental molecular genetics: we were trying to produce new medications by a cloning methodology, a common dream in those days, if you recall. Even now.
“As a minor consultant I had some occasional, inadvertent contact with the Red Eye people; and in this way I met the selected astronaut from my country, a most vivacious woman named Ri Quong-ju. We had biology in common, one might say. To be frank, we found ourselves in love.”
“Love ain’t easy,” Chow opined in the voice of a wounded veteran.
“Easier for some than for others, especially at inconvenient times,” was Franzenberg’s contribution, which seemed to draw ice-laden glares, oddly simultaneous, from the three women present.
“I cannot defend love, nor explain it,” continued Yun.
“In secret, we made plans to marry upon her return after nearly three long years. The night before the departure of the Red Eye, I gave her a little poem to take with her, near her heart. It said that I would climb the path of stars, however long, to be with her.”
Chow sniffled and wiped his eyes with his cowboy bandanna.
“This all must be incredibly difficult for you, Doctor,” Hank said after a respectful moment. “I can see why finding the truth about the mission would be especially important to you.”
The Korean nodded shyly. “Yes. And if I find nothing, I would almost like to remain here; for what then is life worth to me? But of course I have a duty to my country to return and report.”
Later, in the dead of the Martian night, Hank was startled from a troubled sleep by a rap upon his compartment door. Lugging the heavy door hatch open, he found Marlene Jencks awaiting with wide eyes. “I got up to check one of my instruments, and I’m sure I saw someone outside the ship!”
“Outside! In the airdome?”
“Yes—someone skulking around in the shadows!”
They rushed to one of the Mod’s instrument panels. “It’s well below zero out there!” Hank hissed. “Is anyone missing from the ship?”
“I don’t know,” replied Marlene doubtfully. “Shall I alert everyone?”
Hank shook his head. “No, I’ll suit up and check things out. You know—it could be Bud and Tom! The hatchway button might be acting up again.”
Sterling pulled on his temperature-controlled spacesuit and exited the ship into the airdome, illuminated by the shifting gleam of the double moons of Mars. As Marlene watched anxiously through the viewpane, he began to make his way around the perimeter, looking behind the various piles of supplies and equipment.
Hank was on edge, and cautious. He felt vulnerable and unprotected beneath the night and stars of what was, after all, an alien world. Several times he gasped, startled, as he seemed to detect movement out of the corners of his eyes.
It’s just the moonlight, he concluded ruefully. Those two little moons move pretty fast and the shadows are playing tricks on my eyes. But—hey..!
Marlene saw Hank bound across the clearing with triple-size strides toward the big high bulk of the atmosphere-making machine, disappearing from sight behind it. He didn’t reappear. The minutes ticked away, and sudden fear began to assault the nervously watching planetary meteorologist.
What had happened to Hank?
ONWARD AND DOWNWARD
“EVEN IF we could make our way back up that rocky ramp to where the cave branches off, we couldn’t climb up that vertical shaft,” Bud stated grimly. He added with a twitch of grin: “I mean, I might be able to, genius boy, but your idea of a gym workout is lifting a screwdriver!”
His pal managed to squeeze out his own wan version of a smile. “Trying to go up is a good way not to get anywhere.”
“Maybe you could repair the radiocom on the flyer.”
Tom Swift shook his head inside his fishbowl helmet. “Bud, we’re three miles down and well over the horizon. Even if the com were working perfectly, the amount of iron-laced rock between us and Barsoom Base in cubic yards—”
“Don’t finish. I’m depressed enough.”
They sat side by side in discouraged silence, for too long a time. At last Tom rose to his feet. “I guess down is the only way to go.”
Bud also stood. “You mean, keep hiking down this cave? Won’t that just make us harder to find?—our bodies, that is!”
“It might work out, just possibly,” replied the young inventor. “I’ve been thinking about the geophysical structure of this region of Mars. We’ve learned some things about it already. The big shaft and this cave are, basically, giant cracks in the ground—fractures. It’s turning out that quite a bit of the planet’s upper strata is—well, I guess you could call it foamy. The rock is super lightweight, full of gaps and emptied-out bubbles and pockets where hot gases must’ve collected when it was molten. Basically, everything has been hollowed-out. Look.” He grasped a pale hand-sized rock jutting out from the cave wall and pulled it free. Clasping it firmly between his two gloved hands he easily snapped it in two in a spray of dust.
Bud marveled. “Good grief! The rock is brittle as sandstone—or old rotten wood!”
“A lot of it is. And I’m thinking this whole Ophir plain must be riddled with caves and fissures everywhere, all around us. The Mars quake just happened to cause a bit of the thin crust to collapse.”
“Yeah—right in front of us,” agreed the young flyer ruefully. “But I still don’t see how that’s a good thing, Tom. Even if we found another cave, who knows whether it’d end up even near the surface?”
Tom nodded. “You’re right, but I’m thinking of something else—the Coprates Chasma. We’re not really all that far away from it. There’s a good chance the process that first created it also created a network of fault-fissures radiating away from it, but connecting up to each other. Just by following the cave system in that general direction, we might finally pop out on the Chasma’s inner slope.”
“Uh huh,” said Bud skeptically. “And just how many days will these super-suits keep us alive?”
As Bud sank down again onto his rocky bench, Tom reached over and yanked his chum to his feet. “Keeping alive is tomorrow’s worry, Barclay. As for me, partner, I still live! And you and I are going to do whatever it takes to come out on top—like always.”
Bud gave the best salute his helmet and padded glove would permit. “Then onward and downward!”
After preparing a note to attach to the cockpit seats that stated their plan, they left the wreck of the Mars Special behind, quickly losing it in the twists and turns of the down-slanting corridor of tortured stone. As the dull hours wore on their suit lamps revealed an unending panorama of dark rock-fingers, grasping and gesturing rudely at them on all sides, above and below. Sometimes the cave grew so broad that its further reaches were lost in dead shadow. Other times the sides seemed to crush together, and the youths could only proceed by shouldering aside the fragile, crumbling walls to make the opening as wide as a human body.
“Man, the rock is so crumbly, I’m surprised it doesn’t just fall in on us—especially what with the weight of everything above it,” Bud observed.
“It’s worth study, all right,” agreed his companion. “There must be a sort of undergirding ‘skeleton’ of stronger stuff. The fragile material just lines the caves and crevices.”
They tried not to watch the clock. But when Tom finally called a halt to rest, he told Bud that they had been descending for nearly four hours. “How far down do you suppose we’ve got to?” asked Bud.
“Judging by my suit gauge, roughly another 3500 feet. Which is just fine; we’re not trying to set any depth records.”
“But—how far have we gone in the direction of the big valley?”
“Can’t tell,” Tom replied. “Miles, certainly. If the photon-deflection compass is accurate, most of our movement has been in the direction we want.”
Unfortunately, another wearisome hour brought the news that the cave had now swerved away from the Chasma. “We’ll end up going in a circle!” groaned Bud. “What should we do?”
“Take a side cave. But...”
“I know—which one?” Suddenly the muscular young pilot gave a grin. “Want to flip a space wrench for it?” The two had let fate make its own decision on previous occasions.
Tom chuckled but shook his head. “Let’s suck up a little nourishment from the suit bags. Maybe something will come to us.”
“Sure—a white rabbit for us to follow!”
Trudging along some time later, looking for who knows what, Bud suddenly yelled out:
“Hey! What in th’—?” He bent over, looking down at his space boots. The left boot had sunk down into the crunchy floor nearly up to his ankle.
“Stuck?” asked Tom. “The ground’s been getting softer and flakier.”
“Feels funny. I’ll pull myself out.” But his foot didn’t come free easily, and when the youth gave an extra jerk, the force sent him stumbling forward down the cave slope, where he flopped over onto his stomach. Tom began to laugh at his friend’s predicament—but the laugh froze in his throat.
Bud, struggling, was sinking down into the floor of the cave!
“You can’t get up?” cried Tom.
“N-no. Can’t get ahold of anything. Jetz, it’s like—quicksand or something!”
Tom began to rush forward, stretching out an arm, but Bud warned him back. “You’ll sink in too—there’s a dropoff!”
“I’ll try over by the wall.”
Tom edged along the wall, testing every step with dread and caution. Yet he forced himself to hurry. Most of big Bud Barclay had already disappeared from view!
Bracing himself, Tom reached out his arm. But strain as he would, he could come no closer to Bud’s fingertips than six inches. “Hey—got an idea!” Bud transiphoned. He explained, and Tom gave it a try. Like a human spider he walked up the side of the cave and, after finding a suitably firm spot, stood on the low ceiling, his head pointed down. From that position he could easily reach “up” to grasp Bud’s hand and carefully swing his pal free of the clutches of the Martian soil.
“Thank goodness for those gripper-soles,” gulped Bud. “Forgot about ’em, hmm, old brain-bean? And you invented ’em!”
They looked at one another—and suddenly, unaccountably, broke out laughing! “Man oh man, if it isn’t one thing it’s another,” chortled Tom helplessly. “But look at your spacesuit, chum.” Bud looked down and noticed that much of the bright green was obscured by a darkish stain of some sort.
“What is that stuff?” he asked. “Another kind of dirt?”
Crouching down, Tom pulled a small object from one of his suit utility pockets. It looked like a rectangular piece of thick glass, about three inches high by five long, with a silver wire running around its edge. Holding the device up to his helmet in line with his eyes, he bent near Bud’s suit fabric and switched it on. A bright rectangle of light appeared on the fabric. “It’s my li’l ole prisma-visor,” explained the young inventor, “an improvement on the self-illuminated magnifying glass I carry with me. It gives you a spectrum band in the middle of the visor pane, so you can get a crude preliminary analysis of the composition of whatever you’re looking at.”
“You’re just full of inventions, aren’t you! So what is it?”
Tom frowned as he concentrated his attention. “Well... Let’s look at some of it from the source.” He dug in with his hand and scooped out a bit of dark dirt from the cave floor. Examining it, he said at last: “Flyboy, it’s water—basically.”
“Whatcha mean, basically?”
Tom stood, looking like he had an overpowering urge to rub his chin, or at least scratch his head. “It’s water in solid form.”
Bud shot him a look. “I believe it’s called ice, pal.”
“Yep. But it isn’t ice, not in the usual sense. You see, ice crystals can form in nine different configurations, most of which only show up in very unusual conditions—high pressure, mostly. It looks to me like this is one of the weird ones, which means it could have some properties you wouldn’t see in what we would call ‘ice’.”
“Okay, but if it’s solid, how is it I sank down into it like that?” objected Bud.
Tom explained. He was excited by the thrill of a strange discovery! “The crystals aren’t joined together into a continuous sheet, but scattered throughout the soil in separated fragments, like dust. Evidently, mechanical pressure—like when we press down on the soil—causes them to momentarily liquify, creating a superfine ‘sludge’ that gives way like quicksand. I wonder what sort of geophysical phenomenon brought it into existence,” Tom continued musingly. “Maybe some shock effect of the crater-making bombardments; or maybe it’s actually welling up in veins from a high-pressure area way down deep.”
“Um, very intriguing,” commented his fellow spaceman. “Maybe we’d better test the ground with our toes from here on.”
After a long rest they proceeded again, cautiously, staying close to one side of the cave. “Hey, is it my old gray eyes,” Bud spoke up suddenly, “or is the ground moving?”
The two halted and watched. The new phenomenon was uncanny! The midsection of the cave floor seemed to be trying to keep pace with the hikers, albeit very slowly. As the dull dry surface oozed along at a snail’s pace it formed ripples, like wrinkles of dirt. Tom examined a section. “Let’s keep walking. I think we’ll find another Martian surprise around the bend.”
A few further twists brought the sight Tom had in mind. The suit lamp beams danced off something shiny that made wavery reflections on the ceiling. “A stream!” Bud exclaimed happily. “Looks like the ice finally melted.”
Tom grinned but said, “Yes and no, pal. It’s an ice flow of our weirdo ice, sliding along a few thousand times faster than glacial ice likes to go on Earth, in spite of the lessened gravity. See, poke your hand in—it’s still solid.”
“But it moves. Like syrup, but still...”
“The growing longitudinal pressure, from the growing weight of the ice vein further above it on the slope, is shattering and liquifying the individual crystal structures, giving them some freedom to move. But they recrystalize almost instantly.”
Bud gave a shrug. “Can we drink it, Skipper? Eventually we may have to.”
“I don’t know,” answered Tom. “We can’t drink it in solid form, that’s for sure. If we melted it at this point, we’d just get fine Martian mud.”
“Oh well, at least the stream will keep us company,” commented the other. “Hey, I might start whistling!”
They decided to camp there next to the ice stream for a few hours of welcome sleep. Then, their underground “night” behind them, they pushed on—and down, ever downward into the depths of the Red Planet.
Presently they entered a length of corridor in which the main cave seemed unable to decide on a direction. A number of cracks and sub-caves branched off hither and yon—even up into the ceiling and down into the floor. Bud looked at his pal and asked, “So where do we go?”
“We might as well follow our stream,” was the answer. “It seems to be tending in the general direction of Coprates. And like you said, flyboy, the time may come when we’ll need the water.”
The new cave was very different from the old one. It was unnervingly narrow, with high straight-sided walls, a ceiling too far above to make out, and a steep, rugged downslope for a floor. It was difficult for them to keep their feet. The boys had to pick their way along precariously next to the stream, which was showing traces of free liquid for the first time.
It was also becoming warmer. “The temp’s now over 40,” Tom reported, checking his suit meter. “We know there’s active volcanism on Mars—maybe there’s a hot spot somewhere down below us.”
When Tom glanced up, Bud was pointing silently into the distance, eyebrows raised. The young space explorer followed with his eyes, and whistled softly. In his suit lamp beam a hazy, fluttering plume, like an ostrich feather, was protruding from the wall!
“You’re not gonna tell me that’s the rear end of a Martian bird, are you?” inquired Bud, mystified.
“There are more further along—see?” Tom edged closer—then laughed softly. “Water vapor! It’s a mini-sized steam geyser.”
“Funny we don’t see any water dribbling down from the cracks.”
“There is, but it doesn’t last long enough to be noticed,” explained Tom. “In the almost-no air pressure, the ice is sublimating—turning directly to vapor without the liquid phase.”
As they made their way along, the narrow cave began to fill with a puffy haze. “The atmospheric pressure’s gone up a little,” Tom reported; “more than I expected. Something unusual’s going on.”
“Well, there’s something unusual,” Bud declared with a nod. A nearby section of cave wall was cloaked in some dark, rough substance that they had not seen before. It almost looked like velour cloth.
Tom examined it with his prismavisor device, and his voice became puzzled. “I don’t have a clue what this stuff is, Bud. Strange stuff! It’s made up of little curly flakes and twisted spikes.” Looking even more closely, he continued: “You know, I think it has a fractal structure—the more general form is repeated in the smaller components, and over again in the yet smaller parts.”
Bud asked, “But what is it? Some kind of mineral bed? Underground chemical deposits?”
Tom could only shake his head. “I’m not getting detailed-enough spectral readings to make a good guess.”
As they continued, the purple-black material became ever more prominent. Eventually the cave walls were completely covered with it, and stiff “threads” of the mossy stuff were dangling down from the distant ceiling like the fronds of a weeping willow, impeding their progress as they were forced to crash on through.
Bud was walking a short distance behind Tom, head down and starting to grumble. “Good night, maybe these things are petrified spider webs.” Glancing up, he saw his friend turn sideways into a recess in the wall. “What are you up to, Skipper?” he called out via transiphone.
“I just wanted to see if the stream was pooling any at the base of the wall in here,” the answer hummed back.
Bud turned in to the recessed section—a short rounded hollow no more than about twelve feet deep—and suddenly stopped dead. Were his eyes tricking him?
The floor of the stubby cave was flat and open, without boulders or other obstruction. He could see everywhere in the light of his suit lamp, side to side, front to back. But one thing he couldn’t see—any trace of Tom Swift!
OUT OF NOWHERE
MARLENE Jencks lost patience with being patient and sounded the general alarm, ordering the crew of Mod 2 to assemble immediately on the main deck. As the yawning, eye-rubbing crowd accumulated one by one, she briefly explained what had happened, repeating the story in bits and pieces.
“Hain’t seen hide nor hair since?” Chow demanded. “That it?”
“Hank’s out there with whatever it was I saw skulking around at first.”
“If anything,” commented Rafe Franzenberg. “Please remember, Marlene, my dear—you do have a tendency to become a bit over-exercised.”
“I don’t notice you rushing outside to investigate, Rafael!” Jencks snapped back.
“I merely took a moment to put on my spacesuit garb before making an appearance,” he replied blandly. “As you can see, I am now ready to take charge of matters.”
“Say, where’s Neil MacColter?” asked Dick Folsom suddenly.
“Lookee there!” exclaimed Chow, pointing through the great viewpane.
Two spacesuited figures had appeared near the base unit of the atmos-maker, one half-dragging the other, who seemed unable to walk. As they neared the access ramp, Lori Matthews quietly announced, “It’s Neil and Hank.”
Neil pulled the semi-conscious Hank Sterling through the hatchway barrier and lowered him down onto the deck. Both were wearing their helmets for extra warmth, leaving them unsealed and slightly ajar to breathe-in the air provided by Tom Swift’s machine.
“How is he?” asked Dr. Yun, rushing up to help. “I’ll look him over as best I can.”
“He was humped over the conveyor conduit, pretty much out of it,” explained Neil, panting.
“Did you see anything?” Rafe demanded of MacColter. When the veteran astronaut shook his head, the triple-threat scientist shot Marlene Jencks a condescending look.
Using stimulants from the medical locker, Dr. Yun was quickly able to bring Hank around. “Okay, enough,” Hank coughed, sitting upright.
“What happened out there, son?” asked Chow.
The young engineer frowned for a moment, his eyes sweeping the worried faces of his comrades. “I was sure I caught a glimpse of something, like someone trying to duck out of sight behind the equipment. I remember running over to look... after that, I’m not sure. I think I remember being grabbed from behind, someone yanking my helmet back. I don’t know. But my head sure hurts!”
“One needn’t be a medical doctor to determine the cause,” said Yun. “There is a swelling bruise back here, where the bottom of your skull meets the top of your neck.”
Hank felt of it tentatively, and winced. “Nice place for it! But I don’t know if I banged against my loose helmet when I fell—”
“Or if’n someone banged sumpin against you!” finished Chow grimly.
Hank now stood unsteadily. “Folks, you know Tom put me in charge here while he’s gone. I hate to have to do it, but—I have to ask each one of you to account for where you were, and what you were doing, over the last hour.”
“You’ve concluded one of us must be behind these events, have you?” Gretl asked.
“I’ve concluded nothing, Dr. Dornis. All I know is that I’ve got a goose-egg camped out on the back of my head, and it had to come from somewhere.”
“Dang right,” agreed Chow. “An’ we’re the only people on this here Mars right now—less’n you count Tom and Bud, or mebbe them Red Eye folks—or Martians plain ’n true!”
As the crew traded sober glances, it was Neil who spoke first. “If anyone’d like to know how I happened to be outside—when Marl sounded the beeper, I was lying awake on my cot with my suit still partly on. Couldn’t really sleep, so I was just trying to rest a little. When I overheard what’d happened, I just went on out the hatch—guess no one noticed.”
“I thought I had my eye on the hatch the whole time,” said Marlene thoughtfully.
“Naw, ma’am, if you’ll pardon my sayin’ it,” responded Chow Winkler. “When-so-ever you started in t’tell the story again, you turned toward the person who’d jest come in.”
Marlene nodded. “I suppose so. And you, Chow? What were you doing?”
“Aw, ma’am, jest sleepin’ like a bee. An’ don’t ask me whar they got thet expression—I jest say it, I don’t pertend t’ understand it.”
Hank chuckled and turned his curious gaze toward Lori Matthews. “I was asleep too,” she declared; “and please have the good taste not to ask if I can produce witnesses.” As Rafe Franzenberg made a slight sound, she said challengingly: “Oh, I believe the eminent Dr. Franzenberg wishes to speak next!”
“I had roused myself from a fitful sleep and was working on some theorems,” he stated.
“Perhaps you wouldn’t mind showing us your work, would you?” demanded Gretl. “Not that we have any reason to distrust you, you big sweet bear of a man, but I have never known you to work between the dinner and breakfast meals. Making a logical distinction between work and effort, of course.”
Franzenberg reddened. “And what’s that supposed to mean?”
“Only that you might have been outside the ship for some time, slipping back inside while Marlene went to activate the alarm.”
“Petty jealousy,” grated the physicist to no one in particular. “The injured pride of the—”
“Enough of that,” ordered Hank. “Who’s left?”
“I was quite asleep,” reported Dr. Yun.
“As was I,” Gretl said.
“I wasn’t,” declared Dick Folsom. “I was lying on my cot reading a book. You can look in my cabin—the reading lamp’s still on.”
“Well, I guess I’ve done my duty,” concluded Hank wryly. “That’s everyone.”
But Franzenberg displayed one of his imperious frowns and objected. “No, Sterling. What about our Miss Jencks here?”
Hank gave a look of surprise. “I know where Marlene was, Franzenberg—I was with her.”
“Now now, chief, you’re thinking like an engineer, not a theoretical physicist.” Dr. Franzenberg cleared his throat, as if about to launch into a lecture before a class of inattentive students. “There is what one knows, and what one merely thinks one knows. Am I right?
“The only reason you were out in the airdome in the first place, and thus vulnerable, is that Marlene herself awoke you with a tale—which of course you accepted without evidence—that induced you to leave the ship. What might have happened thereafter? Can we rule out the possibility that she herself donned her extravehicular gear and followed you out, lithely heading around behind your back, concealing herself near the atmos-maker machinery? Then, having accomplished her incomprehensible purpose, who is to say that she didn’t re-enter the Mod, unsuit, and then raise the alarm?—and please don’t bother with the look of outrage, Marlene. I’m only providing a thorough analysis. You’d do the same, no doubt. Assuming you were capable.”
Chow clonked over to a sofa and plopped down on it. His plump arms were folded in Texas-wide disgust. “Seems t’me we don’t know nothin’! Exceptin’ mebbe that one ’r two of us don’t much like two ’r three of us.”
“Turning us against one another may be precisely what our adversary has in mind,” murmured Gretl Dornis.
“That may be what he or she is accomplishing so far, Dr. Dornis. But I beg you consider that it may only be sheer luck and accident that we are speaking of feelings now—not murder!” Yun exclaimed sharply. “One of my ENCOSS colleagues is dead, and I myself have twice been a target. With his protective suit partially unsealed as it was, Mr. Sterling could easily have died of hypothermia while lying insensible.”
“There’s one thing we do know now, and maybe it’s all we really know,” said Hank, trying to keep the peace. “—and that’s to be alert.”
The ill feelings and suspicions hung over the crew throughout the night and through the day that followed, a long worrisome day that brought no word from Tom and Bud, nor any release from their mysterious imprisonment.
To try to keep up morale, Hank urged the others to continue with their scientific investigations as best they could. To that end they were pleased to find that the strange forces holding down the ship and blocking communication did not prevent them from moving about the local area on foot, even as far as the rim of Coprates Chasma.
“But the thing that makes me madder’n a bent bee is this,” grumbled Chow, walking along beside Hank and Dr. Yun a half-mile north of Mod 2. “We don’t know if we’s out o’ touch with Tom and Bud because somethin’ bad happened to ’em—or jest because them space desperados is shootin’ down their signals.”
“They became silent hours before the spacecraft was locked down in place,” pointed out Dr. Yun. “I suggest an attitude of optimism. I have learned to maintain such an attitude with respect to the fate of my fiancee.”
“Guess hopelessness never did do anybody the least dang bit o’ good,” concurred the ex-Texan.
Hank Sterling had been quiet for a time. Now he motioned for his two companions to decrease their transiphone radii so their communications could not be heard by others. “I have something to tell you two.”
Chow’s eyes bugged out. “Secret stuff?”
“About our hidden stalker?” added Yun.
Hank nodded. “You’ll see why I wanted to keep it between us when I tell you. I spent the rest of last night going over what had happened in the airdome—and what everybody had said about themselves. A lot of things just don’t make sense, you two.”
“Thet’s what I think too!” Chow snorted. “Er—but you go first, Hank.”
“For one thing, Neil says he was resting on his bunk with his suit half on. Now look, these spacesuits are real wonders—but not exactly loungewear!”
“Why yes, I see the point,” muttered Yun. “One would surely remove it entirely if one wished to rest.”
“Right. But there’s something more. This morning I looked at the footprints in the dirt near the atmos-maker’s conveyor unit. It was easy to see my own, and Neil’s. But I’m sure some of my boot-prints were on top of his!”
Chow gulped at the implications! “Meanin’ MacColter musta been out there afore you were, not after.”
It was Dr. Yun who rushed in with a bit of caution. “We must surely be careful in our interpretations, gentlemen. Perhaps the boot-prints were from the work of the previous day.”
Hank conceded the point. “That’s why I haven’t made an accusation. Not to mention the fact that Neil MacColter is a trusted Enterprises employee and a proven loyal friend!”
“Wa-aal, then it’s a blame good thing you didn’t go spoutin’ off about it, no offense,” declared Chow. “Cause what I got’ll put ’er in a different light!”
The cowpoke scanned the horizon conspiratorially. “I been doin’ a drib o’ thinkin’ myself—about th’ other night when my oven got so het up. Niether me nor n’body else sawr anybody go in or out o’ the galley but me—that’s what I said—but brand my bear-trap, sometimes people get so fermiliar you almost fergit t’see ’em when yuh’re lookin’ right at ’em!”
“That is indeed so,” commented Dr. Yun. “Experiments have shown how the mind sets to one side perceptions it finds commonplace and unworthy of attention.”
“Are you saying you did see someone in the galley, Chow?” Hank asked.
The older man flapped his chins up and down vigorously. “Jest b’fore I went in that time! She ’as standin’ there like she’d come through the doorway. I had t’steer myself around her, so t’speak—which I’m useta doing, o’ course.”
“Who do you mean?”
“I’m tellin’ ya, Hank, it was Marlene Jencks! Mebbe she was pullin’ a stunt just like ol’ Franzenberg said!”
This multiplication of murder suspects was greeted by an outburst of stunned silence! “But what possible motive could Marlene Jencks have to try to take out members of the crew—including Dr. Yun here? What does she—or anybody—have to gain by killing us one by one?”
Yun Dai-koh sighed. There was an apologetic expression on the Korean’s face. “I don’t wish to add further confusions to all this, yet I must tell you something. I have also detected a suspect. And it is not one of those yet mentioned!”
“Aw, that sure figgers!” groaned Chow, which made Hank laugh aloud. “So who you got?”
“When I spoke of my actions last night, I said that I was soundly asleep; but that was an exaggeration. How could one sleep soundly on such a night? No, I was often awake, and my ears were listening! In this way I heard sounds from the cabin next to mine that suggested the opening and gentle closing of its heavy hatch door not more than fifteen or twenty minutes prior to Miss Jencks activating the alert signal. Someone was moving about, trying to be very quiet. Yet all the cabin doors are massive and cannot be opened or closed without a bit of sound and vibration.”
“Okay then, so who’s the owlhoot with the cabin next t’ yours?” asked Chow.
Hank Sterling answered for the Korean. “I’ll tell you who. Dick Folsom!”
Chow Winkler was aghast. “Naw! Dick? Cain’t be! I mean, he hails from Texas too, jest like me!”
“That’s a great testimonial, wrangler, but all these people are pretty impossible subjects as far as I’m concerned,” Hank stated. “I’d just as soon—”
“G-Great gobs! Look out there!” interrupted Chow with a quavering shriek. “It’s Martians! We’re bein’ invaded!”
A weird object of unearthly form was moving toward them out of the empty reaches of the Martian desert! Hank wanted to rub his eyes in disbelief—or pinch himself to make sure he was awake. This was no weather phenomenon or trick of the light!
The object was rounded, bulging in some places, wrinkled in others, in the manner of a beanbag, and about seven or eight feet broad. Though splotched with grime and dust, much of its surface had a smooth sheen to it that splashed sunlight back at the eye. It soon became obvious that the material was transparent. And it was in motion, basically rolling slowly across the planetary surface like a tumbleweed, sometimes hesitating on a shallow incline, sometimes flopping over dramatically as it worked its way steadily forward.
“It’s alive!” gaped the young engineer.
“You’re right in a sense, my friend,” stated Dr. Yun calmly. “Or at least, it contains life. They called it a walker-ball.”
Sterling did not turn his gaze aside, but said: “Something from the Red Eye?”
“Indeed yes, a sort of portable life-support ‘pod’ to aid in exploration of the surface by foot: for they had no ground vehicles. One seals oneself inside and shuffles along.”
As the pod came closer, the three could see that it was just as the Korean had said. Through the grimy surface of the flexible plastic sphere they now could make out a single form, trudging along with convulsive strides that rotated the sphere beneath him. Still little more than a gaunt and struggling silhouette, the figure sported long bedraggled hair and what seemed to be a work garment, olive-green in color. As the walker-ball drew close enough for the occupant’s features to be made out, Dr. Yun cried: “It is Col. Sihnopsacdwar! The Cambodian member!”
The three began to run forward to meet the walker-ball, which evidently was attempting to reach Barsoom Base. As they drew nearer, waving, the spherical pod stopped its advance.
“H-he don’t look all that happy,” muttered Chow.
The gaunt man’s face seemed to have turned chalky white and was convulsed with fear! Like a cornered animal he shifted his gaze rapidly between Chow, Yun, and Sterling—then turned about inside the sphere and began to fling his weight against its opposite wall. The walker-ball began to rotate again, somersault-fashion. But now it was receding from the three Swift Enterprises crewmen, and from Mod 2 and the airdome. The man seemed to be making staccato gestures behind him. Keep away!
“The hombre’s boltin’!” Chow cried out, perplexed. “What’s got him so skeered?”
Before anyone could guess at an answer, the spaceman from nowhere collapsed to the bottom of the pod as if he had fainted from sheer, uncontrollable fear!
WEIRD NEW WORLD
SEVERAL stunned moments passed before Bud could find his voice and force it through his suit transiphone. “H-hey... Tom? Do you read me?”
The instant response had a joshing tone. “Whatsamatter, flyboy? Getting nervous?”
Bud yelped in relief! “Where the holy heck are you, Skipper?”
“Right here! Just walk to the back end of the cave—and keep on walking!”
Puzzled, half suspecting a joke, Bud did as he was asked. He approached the rear of the cavelet with outstretched arms. The wall was choked with the purple “spider-webbing.” As the young astronaut continued forward, he was amazed to find that the hanging strands were flexible, almost elastic. They yielded to his touch rather than splintering into fragments, creating a tight aperture that was hard to hold open. Bud could feel the jostling of a breeze pushing past him. In a moment he had worked himself through the narrow slot, finding himself in another chamber standing next to Tom. “It’s like a shower curtain or something!” Bud exclaimed.
“Yup—and also something else,” responded Tom. “An airlock!”
“No kidding, pal. The pressure in this section of the cave is several points higher than on the other side.”
“But that means—!” Bud looked back at the wall and found himself with a gulp in his throat. “It must be artificial!”
However, Tom shook his head. “I don’t think so. It’s some sort of natural substance that takes on that form, just as the stalagmites and stalactites do in caves back home. But it’s formed in tiny segments, and somehow the segments are linked to one another by a kind of molecular ‘hinge’ that gives it some freedom of movement—this variety, anyway.”
“Genius boy, let’s not dance around the most likely explanation,” Bud urged excitedly. “This junk isn’t just some kind of mineral. It’s living tissue!—a plant, or something like moss. What we’ve been seeing up to here must be dormant or dead—all dried up.”
“Okay, okay! It could be,” Tom conceded with a grin. “But who knows if the earthly distinction between animal, vegetable, and mineral holds in this sort of environment? Remember, we’re on another planet—and miles down!”
“Don’t remind me!”
The boys found that a branch of their little stream passed through the chamber and on out beneath the opposite wall, which also turned out to be made of the fractal streamers. Passing through this natural airlock led them to another similar chamber. “This is all just one long cave, divided up by these ‘curtains’,” Tom pronounced. “And each one maintains a slightly higher pressure on the other side.”
Bud asked where the air was coming from. “My guess is, from the purple stuff itself,” was the reply. “I’m sure now that it’s releasing—are you ready for this?—oxygen! Maybe nitrogen too. And of course we’re getting moisture from the stream and the steam-emissions.”
“Then it really is something like a plant, Tom. Plants give off oxygen.”
Tom nodded thoughtfully. “They sure do. And that might explain why the material has a fractal form. It maximizes the surface area of—well, I guess you could call ’em leaves. Some sort of weird chemistry is going on inside Mars, Bud, leeching the oxides out of this deep rock and releasing oxygen as a waste product.”
Suddenly Bud said: “Pal, switch off your lamp.” They both did so—and gasped!
The walls of the chamber were glowing! The phosphorescence was very dim, yet Tom and Bud could make out one another as their eyes grew accustomed. “You know... the last time we saw something like this...” Bud began in a worried tone.
He didn’t have to complete the thought. “Right—under Mount Goaba, in the caves of nuclear fire.” As they switched their lamps back on, Tom checked his suit instruments. “But don’t worry. There’s no radioactivity. This is some kind of chemical reaction, a byproduct of the oxide-conversion process.”
Tom and Bud pushed on ahead, chamber after chamber. The external pressure continued to increase by steps, as did the oxygen content. “Great space!” Tom murmured in astonishment. “It’s becoming similar to Earth outside. Pretty soon we’ll be able to take out suits off!”
After an hour of the mystery, they noted that the cave walls were curving away from them, as if opening out. But into what? “I wish I knew what direction we were heading in,” said Tom in frustration.
“I know the direction, Skipper,” Bud grumped. “Down!”
Finally they plunged through one of the airlock-curtains of the substance they now called purple moss—and halted, gaping in utter wonderment at the scene before them. “Who’d have ever dreamed something like this could exist under the surface of Mars!” Tom breathed.
“The underlands of Mars!” whispered his companion, wide-eyed.
The cave had opened into a system of vast, low-ceilinged caverns stretching off in every direction as far as the eye could see, illumined by the watery pastel light of the moss that seemed to cover every inch of stone and soil. Yet it was less like a cavern than an underground Grand Canyon resting on its side! Though the low, irregular roof turned the further distances into narrow slots, in some places they seemed able to see for miles, even as far as a very far-off horizon—a Martian horizon bathed in real air, buried six miles beneath the planet’s arid surface.
As Bud marveled helplessly, Tom strode over to the purple moss on a nearby stone and examined it. “Looks like a more sophisticated variety,” he said half to himself. “Something peculiar about the way it’s glowing.”
Returning to Bud’s side, the young scientist-inventor said, “I think I understand how it is that we can see so far into the distance down here, despite the dimness of the phosphorescence.”
“Er—yeah, I’d been wondering about that,” dryly responded the dark-haired young spaceman.
“You won’t believe it.”
“Nowadays I believe everything!”
Bud gave a half-groan. “Maybe not everything, genius boy! You’re telling me some bug-eyed beast is holding a light show down here?”
Tom laughed—so long and hard his pal began to wonder if Tom was getting an oversupply of oxygen from his suit-feed! “Chum, what would I ever do without you to give me a little perspective? Anyhow, I think whatever the moss is using as cellular protoplasm isn’t just emitting light, but acting like a very crude wave-coherer, like the ruby rods they used to use in lasers. Instead of just radiating random frequencies of light in all directions, the ‘leaves’ are giving off a spread of tight beams that fan out but remain individually well focused. They can go for miles with minimal dispersion.”
“Mars sure has her surprises!” Bud chuckled.
After a long rest—their legs were aching fiercely—the two Earthlings proceeded alongside the stream, which now ran liquidly on the surface of the floor of purple moss. Presently Tom said, “Pal, I suppose I’m being a little crazy, but I’m going to unseal and fold back my helmet.”
“You sure it’s safe?”
“The instruments confirm a thin but breathable atmosphere—no toxic gases, no trace of particulates or anything that looks like a microbe. I just have to do it, Bud—to breathe the air of Mars!”
“But—!” But even as Bud said but, Tom had already done it. The crewcut young inventor drew in the air, and motioned for his friend to join him in it.
“Smells strange,” commented Bud. “And I can feel in my lungs that it’s real thin, like on top of a high mountain.”
“We’ll have to make sure we don’t overexert ourselves,” Tom cautioned. “But the low gravity will help, of course.” He noted the temperature in the underground world, now a brisk but livable 51 degrees Fahrenheit. “The temperature is probably more or less constant. We couldn’t be better insulated down here than if we were inside a thermos bottle!”
They trudged along—one, two, three hours, following the little stream around great crags of rock and humped hillocks that often touched the ceiling. Here and there the dark purple carpeting was discolored by splashes of something whitish and powdery. Tom deduced that some of the mineral material had become dislodged from the ceiling by the occasional temblors.
“Say, chum,” said Bud during one of their brief rest stops, “just what do we do when these sucky food reservoirs give out?”
“Hmm! I guessed right.”
They hiked on. A moment later Tom drew back so suddenly that he ran into Bud, almost knocking him to the ground. “Hey, what’s the—” began the athletic youth. And then he stopped himself as he saw the reason for Tom’s abrupt action.
It was the most incredible of all sights yet seen. Not one hundred yards away, statue-still, wide eyes trained upon them, stood a man—a human being!
“WE MUST get him into the dome!” shouted Dr. Yun desperately, trotting after the walker-ball as it rested inert upon the rusted sands. “He can tell us where the other survivors are!”
“I jest hope we’re not too late,” murmured Chow. “Don’t look to me like he’s breathin’!” But at that moment Col. Sihnopsacdwar stirred slightly within the pod.
“Drag the whole thing,” ordered Hank.
The walker-ball was designed to be light in weight, and the Martian gravity made their task all the easier. As they neared the airdome, trailing a cloud of dust, other crew members came out to help.
“Who on Mars is it?” gaped Dick Folsom.
“Let’s get him out first,” stated Franzenberg, “then we can commence our speculations.”
Dr. Yun showed Hank how to unzip the walker-ball’s sealer flange. Yun and Hank gently pulled Sihnopsacdwar into the open air of the dome. Though his eyelids twitched convulsively, the Cambodian was clearly dead to the world—any world!
They carried the unconscious man into the ship and laid him down on the cot in Bud’s unoccupied compartment, which was next to the medical locker. As the crew, electrified with excitement, pressed against the compartment hatchway, Sihnopsacdwar seemed to rally for a moment. He scanned the faces around him with dim eyes and muttered a few harsh syllables in his native language.
“He’s absolutely terrified,” declared Gretl. “But of what? Something outside on the plain?”
“If’n a monster was chasin’ him, we sure couldn’t see it,” Chow said nervously. “Mebbe it’s invisible!”
“Nothing was chasing him,” corrected Hank. “He became agitated when he saw us and the ship.”
“And yet—when we first saw him he seemed to be trying to reach the ship,” murmured Dr. Yun. He rested a calming hand on Sihnopsacdwar’s shoulder and bent down close to the Red Eye survivor, speaking softly. When he stood up, the man seemed less agitated, though his eyes were still wide and fearful.
Dick Folsom asked Yun what he had said. “A short little prayer of comfort, in Korean. I doubt he understood the words, but I think the tone has calmed him somewhat.”
The others filed out of the compartment and onto the main deck. When all had exited, Hank strode back and pulled the heavy hatch shut as gently as possible, noting that Col. Sihnopsacdwar had turned his head to the side. “Let’s let him rest—maybe sleep.”
“Who knows how long the poor poke was shufflin’ along in that ball,” said Chow. “No wonder he’s out of it.”
The crew collapsed into the padded chairs on the deck to discuss the startling development. “Well well, boys and girls, we now know the signal wasn’t bogus,” noted Rafael Franzenberg. “Red Eye came up with at least one survivor.”
“Maybe more,” Lori Matthews added.
“Certainly more!” declared Dr. Yun heatedly. “I’m quite sure of it. One individual could hardly survive alone all these years.”
Hank nodded in agreement. “I’m assuming several of the crew have survived. Even if we don’t speak this guy’s language, he’ll surely be able to indicate how many others there are—and where.”
“Ceptin’ he may be plumb loco,” put in Mars’s local chuck-wagoner. “Happens when you’re alone too much. Cowboys get that way out on th’ dang prairie—range-happy. Only so much a body can take o’ the sun and the stars. Happened t’ my own Aunt Hepzibah, matter o’ fact.”
Gretl Dornis snorted with incredulity. “Your aunt was a cowboy?”
“Naw, course not, ma’am! She was a girl.”
“We must not waste time in pointless conversation,” Yun said. “We needn’t wait for Col. Sihnopsacdwar to recover. We can follow the track of the walker-ball back to their camp—but soon, before the next dust storm destroys it.”
“It would be smarter to speak with Sihnopsacdwar first,” stated Hank firmly.
Yun startled them by bursting out: “No! We must leave now!” He paused, regaining control of himself. “Forgive me. But I must remind you, Mr. Sterling, of the mission of this ship. It is our charge, by your own government, to ascertain the whereabouts of any Red Eye survivors.”
Hank responded quietly. “I understand how you feel, doctor. I’d feel the same way if it were my wife out there somewhere. But I have to remind you that this expedition has more than one mission—and I’m in charge. Look, Yun,” he continued, “let’s give it a night. You and I can start early following the track. And that’ll give the colonel in there a chance to get it together.”
“Speaking of our guest, I’m going to look in on him,” said Marlene, rising. “If he can’t sleep, or is in pain, we can give him some medication from the locker.”
The others saw her swing open the hatchway and enter the compartment. When she reappeared after a moment her face was drawn and pale. “Hank—everybody—I’m afraid...”
Hank Sterling jumped to his feet. “Dead?”
Marlene nodded wordlessly.
“B-but he was alright just a few minutes ago,” whispered Lori. “He wasn’t bleeding—Dr. Yun said his pulse and blood pressure were fine!”
“Know what I think, folks? Blame if the poor feller didn’t scare hisself t’ death!” Chow was obviously halfway there himself.
Hank entered the cabin and examined the inert body of the Cambodian. “A few old bruises and scars, but nothing that could have killed him, at least as far as my amateur opinion is worth anything. He’s just—gone.”
“Most likely heart failure,” declared Franzenberg. “Stress related. Very sad, of course, but purely natural.”
“I can not agree,” Dr. Yun said quietly.
Hank fixed his gaze on the Korean. “Murder?”
“But come on, everybody, that’s just crazy!” exclaimed Dick. “He was alive when we left him alone, and we’ve all been sitting out here since then—all of us!”
Gretl turned toward Dr. Franzenberg. “Perhaps our distinguished master of three fields of science will share with us another of his theories.”
Franzenberg gave back a stony glare. “Juvenile sarcasm ill becomes you, Gretl. You’re rather too mature for it, don’t you think?”
Sterling held up a hand. “Let’s proceed in our scientific tasks. It’s all we can do—hey, it’s what we’re paid to do!”
“We gonna bury the—the guy out there on the prairie?” asked Chow.
“No. You’re going to help me put him inside one of the extra spacesuits, to carry him back to Earth in.”
Chow gulped. “S-sure, Hank!”
Soon after daybreak, Hank and Dr. Yun began to trek along the marks left in the sands of Mars by the walker-ball. They each carried a spare oxygen canister, as their trip would probably be a long one. “Five hours out, five hours back,” stated Hank. “That’s the most I can allow.”
Yun replied, “I bear the hope it will be much less than that before we find the encampment.”
“I like your optimism, Dr. Yun. We have to keep in mind the fact that if we find anything, we won’t be able to radio it back to Barsoom Base.”
“Indeed so. But surely the survivors will be willing to accompany us back forthwith.”
They trudged along in the slowly growing daylight for some fifty minutes. The sun showed a smaller disk on Mars than earthly eyes were accustomed to, but the difference was not great. This could be the Mojave Desert, Hank thought. The huge Ophir Planum was very flat and utterly desolate, with only the occasional eroded crater to interrupt the view. When they stopped to rest and looked back behind them, the airdome bubble and Excursion Module were still plainly visible.
“I suppose the thin air creates an illusion of closeness,” Yun speculated.
Hank shrugged. “Right now I’m more concerned about ahead than behind. This track seems to be meandering almost aimlessly.”
“Poor Col. Sihnopsacdwar was very weak, I think,” said Yun. “Perhaps he had some difficulty steering the walker-ball. Or he may have been delirious. You know, Mr. Sterling, his coming to us in the first place suggests something positive—that the encampment is near enough for our ship to be seen. He couldn’t have been simply wandering aimlessly in the desert.”
“Did you know him?”
“Very slightly. My work was entirely with the life sciences members and their equipment. Sihnopsacdwar was the flight engineer and all-purpose technician. It may well have been he himself who transmitted the signal that has brought us here.”
They resumed the trek. But in a moment Hank suddenly held up a hand. “A problem?” asked Yun anxiously.
In reply the young engineer gestured skyward. Thread-thin streaks of light were sparkling through the upper darkness of the minuscule Martian atmosphere. “Meteor shower,” Hank pronounced. “As I understand it, Mars gets more than its share of space junk.”
“Are we in any danger in the open like this?”
Hank smiled. “Well, no more in danger than back at camp! Our airdome wouldn’t stop a determined meteorite. But the chance of one actually hitting us is mighty slim.”
They watched the flickering display for several minutes in silence. But then came a brilliant flash of light and a ground shock that almost threw them off their feet! “Gosh almighty!” exclaimed Hank. “Close one!”
He pointed. They could see a plume of black smoke about a mile to the west.
“A large one, was it?” commented Yun.
“Not necessarily. Even one the size of your fist can have quite an impact if it’s going fast enough... in fact...”
Sterling’s voice trailed off uncertainly, and Yun gave him a curious look. “Something’s wrong over there,” Hank murmured. “There’s too much smoke, and it’s spreading.”
Hank shook his head impatiently. “Fire takes oxygen, Dr. Yun. What we’ve got all around us here on Mars is almost entirely carbon dioxide.”
Yet events seemed to be proving Hank wrong. Clouds of smoke were rolling across the landscape on all sides of the spot where the meteorite had fallen, and the smoking area seemed to be broadening rapidly.
“It’s like a wildfire,” said Yun in wonder. “The meteor has ignited it. But what could be fueling the combustion?”
“It’s spreading in the direction of the base,” choked Hank Sterling in sudden alarm. “Come on, Yun!”
“But we can do nothing!”
“I know, but—I need to be there with the others.”
They ran, a bounding low-gravity run like kangaroos in molasses. They ran toward Barsoom Base until breath failed them. Then they stopped, bent over, panting.
The bizarre wildfire was now racing along on its deadly course only a couple hundred yards away, off to the side. There was no flame in the usual sense. Instead the ground itself seemed to be turning to brightly glowing embers in some sort of chain reaction, giving off great wafts of smoke and an occasional burst of sparks.
There was no time, and no need, for Yun and Hank to start running again. A tendril of the ground-fire suddenly seemed to shoot forward in the direction of the airdome. They saw it cross the faint, hazy corona that marked the perimeter of the Inertite bubble and flash across the oxygen-rich air space with trailing jets of real fire.
The flames engulfed the base unit of the atmosphere-making machine. And then, with a horrific blast, the atmos-maker exploded!
THE MARTIAN CHRONICLES
OF ALL the fantastic discoveries Tom and Bud had encountered since the wreck of the Mars Special, this was the most unexpected, the most astonishing. Human life six miles beneath the surface of Mars!
“Tom, we—we must be losing it!” Bud whispered. “There can’t be people down here!”
But the young inventor managed to pull back his eyes and notice details. “Bud, look at what he’s wearing—I’ve seen photos of the Red Eye crew wearing similar uniforms.”
“Good grief! Then—”
Tom took a few tentative steps toward the man, raising his two arms—and glad he had folded back his spacesuit helmet. “Hello! Don’t be afraid! We’re from...” Should he say Earth? “From the United States of America.”
The man was clearly as little sure of his own sanity as Bud had been. His mouth hung open, trembling. Finally he managed to repeat, faintly: “A-mer-ica?”
“Do you speak English?” Tom called.
Hearing the word English, the man shook his head. As the youths drew closer to him, they could see that he was of Asian extraction, a middle-aged man with shaggy, gray-streaked hair and a long drooping moustache.
They now were close enough for Tom to offer a handshake. The man stared at the young inventor’s outstretched spacesuit glove. Then, slowly, he offered his own bare hand. “Tom Swift,” Tom said. “You, mm—Red Eye?”
The man brightened and nodded his head.
“Good night, no wonder you couldn’t see them on the megascope!” Bud exclaimed with an excited grin. “They’ve been living underground!”
The man abruptly turned about, gesturing for Tom and Bud to follow him as he scurried off in excited haste.
The three walked a zigzag path between a number of small, dune-like rises on the cavern floor. A final turn revealed their destination. Three figures—two men and a woman—sat together on the ground amid a number of small containers and shards of equipment. They wore the same sort of garb as Tom and Bud’s guide. Catching sight of the visitors, they bolted to their feet in shock and shouts!
The boys’ guide ran up to the other castaways, leaving the youths behind, and a frenzied conversation in some melodious language commenced, with violent gesticulations and signs of both fear and joy.
Finally the woman gestured for Tom and Bud to approach. “You are Tom Swift?” she said in cultured English, as if addressing an hallucination.
“Yes,” he replied. “My father is Damon Swift, of Swift Enterprises in New York. Our spacecraft landed on Ophir Planum a few days ago. I presume—gosh, it sounds silly to say!—you four are from the Red Eye expedition.”
The woman nodded and said, “Tom Swift!—and I know of Damon Swift. I met him at a conference in Singapore, when he was part of one of the teams developing an instrument-probe to land on this planet of ours. Then you—you are descended from the first Tom Swift.”
“He was Dad’s grandfather.”
“It seems you have inherited some of the famous genius for invention.”
“Take my word for it—a big helping!” Bud chimed in. Tom introduced him.
“I am Dr. Ri Quong-ju, the Korean member of the Red Eye team,” said the woman. “The biologist; and as it turned out, the exo-biologist. As you can see all about us, Mars has offered something most surprising for my profession to study.”
“We’ve been calling it the purple moss,” Tom commented.
“As good a name as any. Once they speculated of lichen on Mars, tiny primitive stuff. How naive we were, daring to assess the limits of evolution! Incidentally, I am the only one among us fluent in English. I studied in Canada, at university.”
“You must have an amazing story to tell, ma’am,” Bud prompted, impatient to hear it—which prompted a grin from Tom.
“But our story is much the longer of the two,” said Dr. Ri. “Perhaps you might tell yours first.”
They all sat down and Tom briefly recapped the events of recent months to the moment of coming across the lone figure in the wilderness, who had been introduced as Batanol of Indonesia, a geochemist. Dr. Ri translated for the others. Finally she said, “To clear up one mystery before I begin a chronological account, the signal you received on Earth was sent by our team engineer, Col. Sihnopsacdwar, from the remnants of the Red Eye capsule, which we were able to drag under an overhang for protection against the elements. To make way back to the surface is a very difficult and strenuous task, like climbing a high mountain, and we have done it rarely these several years. It is especially difficult now in that the pressurization of our suits has failed us, and so one must bear the additional burden of one of our collapsible exploration ‘pods’ with which to endeavor the upper reaches of the journey, where there is no air. But Sihnopsacdwar had some notion of making a repair to the transmitter, and could not be disuaded. He left weeks ago. To be frank, we all believed we would never see him again.”
“He was successful,” Tom said, “though he was only able to activate the emergency beacon, and only for a matter of seconds.”
“Yet it was enough, obviously. If all goes well we shall be able to thank him. Perhaps soon?” Ri Quong-ju paused to collect her thoughts. “So much else. How can I tell it all? The mission traveled so far across interplanetary space, yet its crucial last minutes disclosed interference—sabotage!”
Bud silently repeated the word with wide eyes. “Are you sure?”
“Very sure. The instruments showed how the equipment had been undone before our departure, in a manner impossible to detect. It could not have happened by accident.”
“There’s reason to think that whoever did this to you is still active, somehow,” declared Tom soberly. “But what happened, exactly?”
“We entered the atmosphere, ejecting the drogue chutes and balloon-chute apparatus at the planned altitude. What a moment of glory for the seven of us! The retardation rocket thrusters activated perfectly. But at one point, during the last kilometer of descent, there came a great violent shock from the engines and the hull fragmented around us!”
“It’s amazing you survived.”
The woman nodded with a sad smile. “Amazing. Yes. But we had already slowed a great deal, and some of the rockets were still functioning even after the malfunction. We were thrown sideways, far off trajectory, by the explosion, and when we crashed—a hard crash that crumpled what was left of the life capsule—we were unsure of our exact location. Not that it mattered. The space transmitter was beyond repair—so we concluded at the time.
“One of our number, Professor Olajuaya, our Filipino astrophysicist, did not survive the crash. He is buried near the wreck of the ship. The rest of us labored to salvage what we could, for we chose to survive as long as we could manage, to survive with no hope. One might call it a game, to take our minds off—our fate.”
“Did you live up on the surface?” asked Bud.
“Only for a few sad days,” replied Dr. Ri. “Some of our resources—oxygen and water—had been blasted away to parts unknown. Most of the food packets were undamaged, luckily. We assumed we would be dead within a few weeks at best.”
She hesitated, and Tom commented, “And then you discovered the cave to the underground system?”
“No. It was not like that, Tom Swift.” She said something to the others in their adopted common language, Cantonese, and the men smiled and nodded. “What happened was—I do not know what to call it, not as a scientist. It was an occurrence, an intervention, we have not been able to explain.
“As we huddled under the overhang of rock one night, a light appeared!”
“A light? Like from a searchlight?” Bud inquired.
Tom asked if it had been a natural phenomenon. “Not in the sense you mean,” continued Ri. “It was a narrow shaft, a directed beam of light as from a focusing source. Yet there was no source! It simply appeared in midair, out of nothing. It was a brilliant white, with a bit of intense green at the edges.
“Of course, we were mystified—terrified! The beam swept across us one by one, then focused off into the distance, pointing into the empty desert. Then it disappeared. But the next night it came again, and we came to understand that we were to follow it, to go where it was pointing.
“At last we chose to brave the terrible night cold and allow the light to guide us. It went before us, four nights, until we came to a rocky outcrop with a crevice in it, opening onto a cave that sloped downward.”
When Tom speculated that the cave was the same one he and Bud had followed, Dr. Ri demurred. “From your description, I think not. It seems there are many such caves. An endless twisting slope within rugged stone, mile after mile. It was not dark, though. The light never failed, and waited for us when we rested. Even so, we were weakened by our injuries and the need to conserve oxygen and water. Another of us died during the course of the journey downward. Two deaths.
“Perhaps you can anticipate the rest of our chronicle, my friends. We found the chambers of the moss and the permeable pressure-curtains, and came at last into this endless cavern-world, which has been our home since then. The beam that led us vanished.”
“I presume you found the ground water drinkable,” Tom declared, “and of course you had oxygen and warmth. But what about food?”
“By experimentation we found that certain mineral salts, added to the pulverized moss and boiled in water, produced an edible paste that could sustain life.” As Bud winced, Dr. Ri chuckled. “Yes, it tastes horrible.”
When Tom asked if they had ever seen the mysterious light again, the biologist answered, “No, never. Of course, we made many speculations. Several of us have religious beliefs. But perhaps we are not meant to understand.”
“There are things that have happened on Earth since your departure that may help answer the question,” said the young inventor. He summarized the history of contact between the Swifts and the extraterrestrial space friends. “They seem to use light energy as an aspect of their propulsion technology. They have a scientific installation of some kind on Deimos, and it’s very possible that they monitored what had happened to you and used their methods to lead you to a place where you would be able to survive. They’ve helped us—saved us—before, several times.”
“I see. And yet they did not communicate with us—nor did they bother to tell our own world of our fate here.”
“No, they didn’t. Their motives and manner of thinking are something we don’t yet understand, Dr. Ri.”
Ri translated some of the conversation for her companions. At the end, a sense of the eerie had fallen over the little group. Were they being watched even now by unknown powers in the depths of space?
Bud Barclay broke the silence with: “Let’s go back a little. You say you know, definitely, that what happened to the Red Eye was deliberate. But even with the things that have happened topside—to us in the Starward camp—we still haven’t been able to figure out why anyone would want to sabotage a scientific mission like yours. Or like ours! I mean, why? Who?”
“Do you have any idea, Dr. Ri?” inquired Tom. He felt sure that she did!
A red flush spread across the biologist’s visage. Fury! “Oh, young man, I know why, and I know who—all too well. This horrible, evil act was perpetrated by a man who has no conscience, a liar, a scoundrel. And twice so far—a murderer!
“His name is
bitter in my throat. How I hate the day I ever heard it, the name of my
wicked countryman Yun Dai-koh!”
YUN DAI-KOH and Hank waited cautiously outside the airdome bubble for some time, waiting for the phantom ground-fire to die out. Its leading edge, a probing finger, had already moved on through Barsoom Base and out again in the direction of Coprates.
They were relieved to note that the bright embers dulled away to nothing but a blackened scar in moments. The burning effect did not linger, though a veil of smoke remained to mark its passing. Relieved—yet frantic and heartsick. Even though they had watched the Enterprises team take safe refuge aboard Mod 2, the vital atmosphere-making machine had been reduced to twisted ruin!
“What will this mean, Sterling?” whispered Dr. Yun plaintively through the transiphone. “Can the expedition survive without the air machine?”
“I don’t know what’s going to happen,” grated Hank. He had to wonder: have I let Tom down?
Inside the ship, the shaken crew posed the same question to their acting commander. “All right. Here’s my assessment of the situation,” he stated. “It’s obvious that the atmos-maker is beyond repair, so we’ll have to rely on our tanked air supplies. We have ten high-capacity emergency tanks stored in the hold, plus whatever remains in your various suit tanks. And then...”
“And then we must be prepared to start holding our breaths,” finished Rafael Franzenberg. “But what of that wildfire phenomenon? It clearly wasn’t ‘fire’ in the usual sense, but some anomalous sort of chemical combustion.”
“Is the matter of any real importance, Dr. Franzenberg?” asked Yun with some irritation.
“It is if it turns out to be some sort of periodic phenomenon. Mars is subject to meteorite impact on a continuing basis. We’re zoned for asteroids here, you know! The next strike could set off some sort of series of explosions that might encompass the spacecraft directly. And I needn’t remind you that we can’t leave, Yun.”
“No, you needn’t, Rafael,” snorted Marlene.
“Wa-aal now, look, you’re all mighty smart science hombres,” Chow put in. “Whyn’t you put yer big heads t’gether and come up with a way t’ make air, like Tom did with that solar-a-tron he made? Cain’t be all that hard, since it’s a’ready been done!”
Hank grinned, thankful of the excuse to lighten the grim mood. “Nice you have confidence in our ‘big heads,’ Chow. But Tom’s space solartron only works in the vacuum of space, where it can collect loose hydrogen atoms.”
“Not to mention the little fact that we don’t happen to have one with us,” remarked Dick Folsom.
Chow scratched his big bare head. “That so? Wa-aal then. Hmm!”
“Let us not take out a draft of trouble upon the future, not before it is necessary,” urged Dr. Yun. “I gather our stored resources will permit us all to live and breathe for some time to come.”
“With careful use, a couple weeks,” Hank said.
“And during that time, much can transpire. Our missing colleagues may return to us safely. The barrier imprisoning the module may be lifted. And surely you will all agree that we have a duty to continue the effort to ascertain the whereabouts of the Red Eye survivors.” Yun looked about the deck with raised eyebrows.
“I’m sure we’ll do what we can,” said Dr. Franzenberg dismissively. “But now—if our good Captain Sterling doesn’t object—I’d like to examine the ground outside for unsuspected chemistry.”
Hank nodded permission. “Go ahead. I’ll be checking out the tank reserves.”
By midday Franzenberg was able to report his findings to the others. “Remarkable stuff going on up here on little Mars, fellow seekers of truth. It seems that beneath a rather thin crust of accumulated wind precipitates one finds, here and there, shallow beds rich in powdered aluminum, which has been used in solid rocket fuels. I have yet to work out the complete sequence, but it appears there is a complex reaction involving iron oxides and trace hydrocarbons of the alkane family—paraffins! You know how such compounds can burn—ethane, butane, propane, and the like. Here, admittedly, they are not pocketed, but appear as locked suffusions in the lower—”
“Okay, okay!” interrupted Chow. “Yuh’re sayin’ we’re sitting on top of a great big propane tank, that it?”
“Not quite that bad, Chow,” said Lori soothingly. “It seems it takes very intense, localized heat to set off the reaction. The meteor strike was just—”
“A right unlucky strike!” the westerner concluded, provoking some welcome laughter that Chow heartily joined.
Hank had examined all the air tanks and noted down their capacities and pressurization. He set forth a plan on how the ship would cope with the crisis. They would first exhaust the trapped air that remained in the outer dome. The dome—which would eventually become unstable without the atmos-maker—would be shut down and the ship sealed up. “Then all we can do is count our breaths,” he ended.
“I’m gonna start in right away,” announced Chow. “There!—one.”
They continued to make periodic efforts to reestablish contact with Earth, to no avail. The barrier remained in place. But during one such attempt later in the afternoon, the open speaker suddenly erupted in a piercing whine.
“Ouch!” gulped Dick, hands to his ears. “What’s that, Hank? Meteorite ion trail?”
Hank slowly shook his head, frowning. “Don’t ask me. Some kind of high-frequency microwave phenomenon. Way high, almost in the infrared range.”
They listened, puzzled and slightly alarmed, as the screech persisted, wavering but growing louder all the time. Then, abruptly, a vibration passed through the structure of Mod 2—and the deep throb of a boom!
“Hank! Dick!” called Gretl Dornis from the hatchway. “Get over here! Something just landed next to the dome!”
“Landed!” gasped Sterling. Pulling on his pressure suit, he ran outside, pushing past the milling crew and on out into the harsh Martian environment. A long gouge had appeared in the red drift a score of feet ahead of him—with something at its far end that was definitely not a work of raw nature! “Holy—!”
“What is it?” transiphoned Dr. Yun.
“Some kind of capsule, discoid in shape. It’s very much like something we dealt with on the Moon expedition, folks—the saucer that carried those sick alien animals, the one we called the Space Ark.” But this object was much smaller. Hank estimated its breadth as no more than five feet, if that.
It had obviously made a hard landing, plowing into the ground. Yet it seemed unharmed, and he found that it was giving off no detectable radiation, and was no warmer than sunlight despite what must have been a superfast dive through the Martian atmosphere.
He pulled on it, and it lifted easily. He dragged it near to the dome so the others could take a look at it. “I won’t bring it inside, though. Might not be safe.”
“Any guess on what might be inside?” asked Neil MacColter through the portable transiphone unit.
“I’d rather not guess,” was the reply. “It’s certainly too shallow to contain any sort of living—oh! Here’s something!” He pointed a gauntleted finger at a spot on the saucer’s hull.
“Don’t see nothin’,” Chow declared, squinting.
“Markings etched into the surface—you can see them in the sunlight at a certain angle. Space symbols!”
“Is that not the written language the Swifts use to communicate with the extraterrestrials?” Yun asked.
“Shor is!” answered Chow. “Mebbe it’s th’ directions on how to open ’er up.”
Franzenberg took the communicator. “You speak symbol, Hank. Can you read it?”
“A little,” responded the young engineer. “I’ve helped Tom and his Dad a few times. Let me see...”
TO TOM SWIFT EARTH TRANSPORT. WE ARE FRIENDS. WE CAN NOT NEGATE
“Something or other,” Hank muttered.
AS IT IS ACCOMPLISHED RESULTANT IMPOSED BY OUR SUPERIORS AND CAN NOT BE REVERSED DOWN
“A little more,” he reported, “but that’s all I can manage.”
Dr. Franzenberg emitted one of his characteristic snorts. “No need—more of their usual cryptic nonsense. Once again they use the tired excuse that their masters on Planet X have done this, and they themselves can’t undo it. Useful information? I think not.”
“That’s an odd way to put it, don’t you think?” remarked Lori Matthews. “‘Reversed down.’”
“Brand my big dictionary, ma’am, ever’thin’ them space aliens say is odd,” Chow declared in disgust. “Might as well go to a blame palm reader!”
Hank managed a shrug, unseen beneath his pressure suit. “It gives us something to think about, anyway. My translation might not be very good.”
As the dim afternoon lengthened, the space travelers found they had less and less to say. They continued their scientific researches without enthusiasm, and Hank and Yun Dai-koh essayed another foray into the wilderness in search of the Red Eye survivors. But there was bitter disappointment in store for them. “The effects of the fire phenomenon have cut right through the more distant part of the track, obliterating it,” Yun reported disconsolately when the trekkers returned by late afternoon.
Gretl tried to comfort the scientist. “Then it’s up to them to take the next step. Another of them may come to us across the desert. Maybe it will be your fiancee herself.”
“I will attempt to be hopeful, Dr. Dornis. But as with our air, I fear hope is a thing that can be exhausted.”
Changing the subject, Rafael Franzenberg raised a question about the reserve air tanks in the hold. “I know you’ve checked them already, Sterling. But what of the purity of their contents?”
“Rafe has a point, Hank,” put in Dick Folsom. “Our phantom saboteur could have slipped something into one of them—poison gas or something.”
“Aw now, Dick, fer a feller Texan you think way too much!” Chow protested nervously.
Hank stood up, grinning. “It’s a good idea. I’ll use the microsampler on them.”
He strode over to the man-sized panel covering the access port and fingered the control button. The panel began to slide open—and suddenly the deck was rocked by a sharp whistling sound, an explosive whoosh! Hank staggered backward, wincing under the blast of air that had burst from the sealed storage hold.
“What happened?” cried Neil, running up to the engineer ahead of the others.
“I—I can’t...” An expression of dismay suddenly shone on the face of the young Enterprises employee. “It was a pressure-burst of air—from the reserve tanks! Someone must have opened the valves!”
He hastened into the hold and the other crew members waited in fretful suspense. When he reappeared, it was easy to read on his face that the news would not be good. “All the tank valves were opened, every one. It happened over the last several hours, after I checked them out this morning. The reserve tanks are empty. Our oxygen supply is gone, totally gone!”
FLIGHT BY SEA
BUD was aghast at Dr. Ri’s shocking pronouncement. Their determined enemy was the very man believed to be one of the attacker’s prime targets, Yun Dai-koh!
Yet Tom Swift’s reaction was calm. “I thought as much.”
“You had already solved the mystery?” asked Ri Quong-ju. “But how do you know Yun?”
“He’s the Korean scientist on our crew representing ENCOSS, the one I mentioned in passing.”
“No!” she exclaimed. “The snake himself is among you? Here on Mars?” The biologist was too overcome with emotion to continue.
Bud shook his head in his customary admiration. “I should have known. Naturally you didn’t bother to tell your best friend about it!”
Tom shrugged. “Don’t be sore, Bud. I don’t like to turn suspicions into rumors before the facts are in. It isn’t fair—I could have been wrong.”
“But you suspected him?”
“Yes. The night after the windstorm I got to thinking about a few things as I replayed them mentally. How is it that he hung back—just long enough for the hatch to be closed—when all the others ran into the ship? It could have been nothing. But then—
“Dr. Yun knew you and I were out beyond the dome. He could see us. Did you notice the way he stood on top of the ramp while he was trying the button?”
Bud was puzzled. “Sure, but what about it?”
“The button is on the right side. He’s right handed. Normally, wouldn’t you just reach over and push the button with your right hand? And as we were off to his right, his forearm would have blocked our view of his hand. But instead he was halfway turned toward us, which forced him to use his other hand on the button, awkwardly. Just as if he wanted to make sure we could clearly see him pushing the button over and over—or pretending to!”
“Faking it, of course,” stated Ri. “His typical method. By making himself look like a victim, he hopes to throw you off the scent.”
“Maybe I’ve watched too much cable TV, but I get it,” Bud said. “He put himself in real danger deliberately and wanted to make real sure his ‘victimhood’ came across to us. He took advantage of the windstorm and the dome leak to polish up his image—in a way. See what I mean?”
“That’s what I think now,” agreed Tom. “But it was another detail that really drove it home for me. The crew didn’t think he was trapped outside because the hatch to his private compartment was shut. But no one bothers to pull those doors shut during the work day—they’re made heavy and hard to move.”
“That’s right. You really have to give ’em a yank.”
“So why did he take the extra trouble to make sure his was closed before he went outside?”
“Just to fool the others into thinking he’d got aboard safely,” Bud responded grimly, “so they wouldn’t blow his plan by letting him in. But Skipper—he couldn’t have caused that windstorm.”
“No, but it sounds like he’s one crafty guy, always looking for opportunities. He must have seen what the wind was doing to the dome from inside the module. So he thought it through in a flash and slipped outside without being seen.”
“Yun is as clever as he is unscrupulous,” pronounced Dr. Ri. “In some way or other he is responsible for all the strange events you have endured since you came here to Mars.”
“I didn’t tell you before, doctor, but it began before we left Earth, at the ENCOSS facility in Korea.” The young inventor now gave a more complete account of what had transpired since the beacon signal had been detected. “Now it makes perfect sense why he would be careful to continue faking attacks on himself even here.”
“Sure!” Bud exclaimed. “Because otherwise he’d be the only likely suspect in the attacks on the others in the ship—since he’s the only one we don’t know personally and the one who was already tied in to the first group of incidents.”
“I have no doubt of his guilt in all of it, including this bogus ‘knifing’ in Korea in which he was again an apparent victim. And you say there was a death there, Tom—now there are three murders on the conscience he seems not to have!” Ri Quong-ju gathered her breath. “I will explain now how all this began. It is right that you should know everything.
“He and I met a few months before the Red Eye vehicle left for space. I will admit I was attracted to the man—snakes can mesmerize. We spoke of marriage. And I was fascinated and, indeed, honored; for this Dr. Yun Dai-koh had acquired some fame for his researches in the field of cloning for industrial purposes, in which a good deal of money was involved, as well as patriotic feeling. One might call it a kind of cellular space race.”
Tom indicated that he understood.
“He was known for a certain promising discovery, an experimental breakthrough. Yet one night, left alone in his apartment, I discovered certain records—clear evidence that he had cunningly, methodically fabricated the results upon which his fame rested. A charlatan! I—well, I threatened to expose him.”
But Tom Swift shook his head and spoke gently but firmly. “Please, let’s have no secrets, Dr. Ri. You didn’t go public and expose him. What you did do is called blackmail.”
She lowered her eyes. “He was becoming wealthy and influential, and I—I behaved disgracefully. But my shame surely came down upon me, didn’t it? As well as many innocent persons. I only laughed at his threats as I spurned his entreaties.”
“He sabotaged the Red Eye to ensure you would never return to expose him.”
Ri Quong-ju nodded curtly. “Even at the cost of other lives. I remember his final threat, a sinister insinuation handed to me as I left to board the spacecraft. It was in the form of a little poem. He swore he would follow me anywhere, even to the stars!—and I would never escape him.”
“Man, I love the drama!” Bud exclaimed. “So the idea is that he came to Mars to finish the job?”
“Oh, of course,” she said. “What else could he do, to protect his ‘reputation’? When you located us after landing, he would have somehow contrived to reach us before you, killing us all before we could reveal his secret. Ridiculous—but I’ve no doubt that was the tenor of his thinking.”
“But at first he tried to keep word of your survival from getting out, by making attempts on the lives of everyone who knew of the signal,” Tom observed. “But word spread. So he pulled some strings and made himself part of the rescue expedition.”
Bud frowned. “All very neat. But something doesn’t fit. What’s the point in trying to bump off all the rest of us from the Starward?”
“Let’s make sure to ask him when we get back,” Tom replied dryly.
Her strange chronicle complete, her personal shame revealed, Ri Quong-ju rose to her feet. “As to your getting back, you must begin as soon as possible, however you plan to accomplish it.” Surprised at her tone of urgency, Tom asked why. “Because it seems this underground world of ours may soon become unlivable.”
“You know, ma’am, I don’t much like the sound of that,” Bud gulped.
But Tom seemed to catch on immediately. “I saw the white powder over the moss out there—obviously something that happened recently.”
The Korean woman nodded. “The recent Marsquake that opened a road to you two was much more violent than any we have suffered over our several years of habitation. Hananoki here, our geologist and the pride of Japan, has reason to think the layers above our cavern ceiling have become badly fractured and are slowly shifting out of place. The matter is grave indeed. After a perhaps a billion years, now this great complex of hollows is doomed to collapse!”
And Tom Swift was also grave indeed. “I can’t buy that’s it just a fantastic coincidence. I’m afraid our rescue expedition may have started it.”
Bud was flabbergasted. “No! How?”
“The repelatrons on Mod 2. Remember how the Challenger’s ’trons affected the ground when we were on the moon? The force-beams swept across this whole region as we came in for a landing, and solid matter doesn’t block them—they go right through. The transferred weight of the ship must have put a strain on a crucial stratum. And now the place is falling apart!”
“What a good feeling, Tom Swift, to be able to share my burden of shame,” said Ri. “But at any rate, if we are to survive, we must flee this area as soon as possible.”
Bud asked if they planned to climb toward the surface over the route they had first traveled. “It is no longer possible,” she answered. “Our cave of entry was the first spot to collapse, during the quake of the other day. And Dr. Hananoki’s calculations indicate that the caverns through which you two entered, and surely the caves leading into them, comprise the most vulnerable area. Any moment we may hear the sound of their death throes!”
Eyes wide, Bud nodded. “Okay, then I recommend we try some other way!”
Ri Quong-ju smiled. “How would you like to take a sea voyage, Bud?”
“Down here—a sea?” Tom boggled.
“And why not?” replied the biologist, amused. “Come!”
Leaving the other men behind, she led Tom and Bud along a well-worn trail in the purple moss. They approached one of the spots where the ceiling dipped down to the floor and joined it. Proceeding on past the obstruction they entered another of the endless series of mammoth, interconnected caverns. Presently they stood upon a rise, looking out at a new wonder of the sub-Martian wonderland.
“We’ve named it the Pearl Sea,” declared Ri Quong-ju. “In our respective languages, of course. And now, in yours.”
The body of water was white as milk, lustrous as pearl across its unmoving surface. It extended wholly across the cavern from one side to the other, a width Tom estimated at two miles or so. Straight ahead before them, though, the cavern stretched on and on into the dim distance, passing through the slotted mouth of an arched opening several miles away—and continuing. Though the illumination from the moss, covering the ceiling as well as the walls, was ultimately insufficient to make out a further shore in that direction, it seemed to Tom and Bud that they could see at least ten miles unobstructed through the arches of the rounded, overlapping caverns.
“There are no beaches along its periphery,” said Dr. Ri after giving the Shoptonians time to absorb the sight; “for there are no waves upon its surface to wear against the walls that enclose it. It has lain this way, dead and silent, for—well, who knows how long? Aeons of time.”
A few cautious steps brought Tom to the edge of the water. “Is it drinkable?” he asked, looking down in fascination.
“No. It is choked up with all manner of precipitates, some of them mildly acidic. But our battery-operated equipment continues to operate, however feebly, and we’ve been able to boil it to obtain something clear and safe.”
Bud had joined Tom. Now he glanced back at Dr. Ri. “Have you ever tried fishing in it?”
She laughed pleasantly. “Oh, at first we did. But we have never detected any sign of life in our magnificent little Pearl Sea—indeed, no life anywhere in these lands, except the moss.”
“But still,” Tom mused, “the underlands aren’t all there is to Mars. And this local system of caves and caverns isn’t all there is to the underlands.”
“Quite so,” Ri agreed. “We have learned to be humble in our conclusions.” She paused thoughtfully as the youths returned to her side. “And as a matter of fact...”
“Have you—have you seen something?” Bud asked.
“No. But to be truthful, now and then we have heard something.”
Bud shivered involuntarily. Tom asked what the sound was like. “Hard to describe,” was the reply. “Low in tone, rather irregular in pitch, coming and going. One might say—like a moan, but turned to a faint whisper by distance. When one first hears it, one wonders: do I only imagine it? It is most distinct here, at the edge of the sea.”
“Right—the acoustical properties of the flat surface below and the rounded hollows above,” Tom observed. “It’s a hopeful sign in a way, because it’s probably caused by the atmospheric wind blowing past the open outlet of a cave somewhere, turning this whole complex into a glorified police whistle! If we can follow the sound—and I may be able to rig up something to help us—it’ll lead us right on out to the surface.”
“Sure,” remarked Bud without much confidence. “If that’s what it is.”
Tom pointed off to the left. “Now there’s a sign of life, flyboy. Intelligent life, as a matter of fact.”
An oblong, flat structure rested at the edge of the water, seemingly made of tarplike sheets of transparent plastic. “Our ingenious little raft, which we began working on yesterday as our means of escape,” Ri explained.
“Did you put it together out of one of those portable pressure-pods?” inquired the young inventor.
“Two of them, actually,” she confirmed. “Cobbled out of bits of this and that, with some ribbing of taut plastic cord above and below. We have already put it to the test, and it—ah, she—floats very nicely.” Her expression changed. She gazed at the two very seriously. “We were within hours of putting out to sea, and had already collected stores of the moss-food and whatever lightweight equipment we felt we could not do without. Hananoki is most insistent that we leave these caverns as soon as possible. He thinks there is a chance of safety if we get beyond that arch out there, miles down this little fjord. Our binoculars show that the waters open out into something more impressive beyond that point.”
“We’ll help you prepare, Dr. Ri,” Tom stated. “Do you think you’ll be able to accomodate the two of us, though?”
“We will make room. What alternative is there, to leave you to be crushed? No. We are still human beings here, Tom Swift.”
Bud Barclay grinned. “Mighty neighborly of you, ma’am.”
“I’m quite a nice person, really,” she smiled back; “for a blackmailer.”
The final loading was quickly accomplished, and within the hour the ingenious raft set out into the shallow waters of the Pearl Sea, propelled by paddles made from carton lids and other odds and ends. Its flexible plastic “deck” bowed down deeply, sometimes scraping the bottom, under the weight of six passengers: Tom, Bud, Dr. Ri, Hananoki, the single-named geochemist Batanol, and Shang Tsieu, the Chinese astronomer and meteorologist.
Tom inquired of Ri Quong-ju if they knew anything about the overall depth of the sea. “Our investigations have been very slight, and of necessity conducted near to the shore. There is a long and shallow ‘bay’ for a few thousand meters, and then the floor takes on a slope. Dr. Hananoki believes the open water in the cavern beyond must be very deep.”
Suddenly the passengers exclaimed as one, startled, as a great splash of water rose up in front of them. Tom and Ri both looked upward simultaneously. Ri spoke: “It is beginning, I fear. Our ceiling is coming apart over our heads!”
Bud whispered: “Listen!”
They could hear a rumbling sound behind them, punctuated by crashes that seemed to be growing more frequent—and more violent! Hananoki said something, and Dr. Ri nodded. “The collapse of our home cavern has commenced. It will spread our way, for this cavern too—up to the arch—is part of the same system.”
They rowed desperately faster, faster! More rocks fell on all sides, and behind them it was beginning to rain boulders. At one point Shang Tsieu cried out in pain and clutched his shoulder. A jagged shard of their roof had struck him square, drawing blood.
“At least a mile to go,” Tom murmured to Bud under his breath, panting. “Pal, I—I don’t see how we can make it.”
His friend leaned close, all fear gone from his young face in the thrill of the moment. “Tom Swift, repeat after me—I still live!”
Then a shout from Batanol and a grumble of thunder behind them drew their gaze. The shred of beach from which they had launched the raft was gone, obliterated by an unforgiving hail of boulders and dust. And charging toward them, broad as the cavern, was a twisted dune of hurtling, foaming water—more than fierce enough to capsize them and bring their frantic flight to an end!
“IT SEEMS our enemy has earned our congratulations—whichever one of you it may be,” declared Rafael Franzenberg with sour-faced irony. “You’ve succeeded. In a couple days we’ll be dead. You’ll die with us, of course, but at least you’ll feel some degree of lunatic satisfaction to lighten the moment.”
“Then there is no harm in revealing yourself!” blazed Dr. Yun. “Your work is done. Who are you?” He swept his glare across the others like a searchlight.
“Shall we all say not I, not I—as in the fable?” asked Gretl. “I see no one smiling.”
“The sabotage happened during the last four hours,” Hank stated.
“Or—did it?” Franzenberg fixed his eyes upon Hank Sterling. “Insofar as I know, your own hand was the last to touch those air tanks.”
“Now lissen, Franzenberg—!” Chow Winkler exploded with double fists. “You jest keep yer dang accusations—”
Hank held up a hand to silence the cook. “Your theory is valid, Rafe,” the engineer said coldly. “All I can do is claim that your conclusion is not. I don’t know how to prove it.”
“Going by how I feel, nobody here is guilty!” Dick Folsom exclaimed. “But—I guess feelings aren’t enough. So let’s just try to be calm and logical. Who was inside the ship for any length of time this afternoon? Did anybody notice anything?”
Marlene Jencks nodded in Franzenberg’s direction. “I don’t recall seeing our big physicist outside for an hour or so.”
“I swear,” responded the big physicist in question, “I will never again have anything to do with what poor naive men call the gentle sex.” He looked up grandly at the others. “I entered the ship intermittently to make use of the computer, that’s all.”
“Wa-aal, no offense, Dr. Yun, but it seems t’me I saw you go on inside round about two, and if’n you came back out, I shor missed it.” Chow looked fierce as the Texas sun.
“I doubt you spent any great length of time with your eyes fixed upon the hatchway, sir,” Yun responded. “I rested in my compartment for no more than a matter of minutes, for the sunlight was bothering me. And what of you yourself? Is it not your custom to come in as the dinner hour approaches, to begin your machinations?”
Chow blinked. “If that means my cookin’, I shor do. But they’s one thing wrong with that there theory. I ain’t half smart enough t’ fiddle around with them air tanks. I mean—jest ask anybody!”
“He’s right,” Dick confirmed.
“There y’go,” nodded Chow sharply.
Hank Sterling spoke quietly. “Dick—you were already inside when I came in to try the communicator.”
Folsom paled. “Well, yes, but—”
“You can’t make anything of that, Hank,” Lori interrupted. “Dick and I were working together outside the dome all afternoon. He left to take a break just before I saw you go up the rampway. So we can confirm each other’s whereabouts. I’ll let the rest of you decide whether we’re both in on it.”
“Hardly likely,” conceded Rafe.
Now Marlene spoke up. “Before anyone points a finger, I was inside for two hours early in the afternoon, studying my meteorological charts on the desk in my cabin. Can I prove it? No, I don’t suppose I can. But it’s the truth.”
“Is this the last time we’ll be going through this procedure?” asked Gretl in quiet anger. “We’re destroying ourselves. Or is that the point, perhaps?”
“You’re not under any suspicion, Dr. Dornis,” Hank assured her. “You were in plain view all through the day. I’m sure one or the other of us had you in sight at all times.”
Silence fell. Finally Neil MacColter stood up from his chair. “It’s my turn, I know. I was trying to go over my actions in my mind. But heck, I was in and out of Mod 2 all day long. It’s my job to keep tabs on our instruments and equipment. You all know that. But I had no reason to even go near the air tank hold. And I didn’t.” He sat again.
“Then once again, we are nowhere!” proclaimed Yun angrily. “Nowhere but soon dead, as I gather. Dead!—and with our deaths, so will die the last hope of the Red Eye survivors.”
“Wait now, wait,” Dick exclaimed. “I just thought of something. The oxygen that was in the tanks was released into the hold, which has a pressure seal like just about everything in the module. So then Hank breaks the seal and it comes blowing out. But so what? It’s still inside the ship or outside in the dome—it isn’t lost!”
“Tell me something, Folsom,” began Rafe with a frown of solicitude. “Do you feel giddy from an excess of oxygen? Pressure on your eardrums, or in your sinus cavities? Hmmm?”
“What’s your point?”
“I’ll tell you the point,” said Hank. “Because the sealed hold is designed especially for the reserve tanks, it has an automatic safety mechanism. If a tank should blow and the pressure in the hold rises too high, the excess is vented out through a valved outlet port near the top of the ship.”
Dick gave a sour nod of comprehension. “Which is outside the dome. I see.”
“The blast I took was just a leftover fraction of what the tanks put out.” Hank slowly strode over to the great high viewport, gazing out listlessly as the setting sun called out the extra dollop of stars that the band of pale reddish sky, resting upon the horizon all around, hid for most of the day. His thoughts were halfway to being visible, and the others waited without a word crossing the silence.
At last the youthful engineer turned and said in a low, even voice: “There’s air in the dome, air in the ship, and some air still in the tanks on the spacesuits. With a little care and a lot of luck—we can stretch it out for several days. Four, maybe. It might be that our ‘siege’ will be lifted before then; the space beings have never yet caused a human death.”
“Then our fate is in the hands of these inhuman creatures—who indeed may not have hands at all,” summarized Dr. Yun. “Is that truly the best that can be done?”
“Maybe not,” Hank answered. “Back on Earth Tom and I did some preliminary work with Dr. Simpson on how to improve the efficacy of his ‘adapticum’ pills by—well, by a different sort of preparatory treatment. The work wasn’t finished in time to make use of the technique on this trip. I remember enough of the work to recreate the basics, but to finish it off I’ll need the help of someone with a special expertise in cellular chemistry.”
“In which you have a world reputation, Dr. Yun,” Gretl Dornis pointed out.
“But what would be the objective of this?” asked the Korean.
“The formula allows the human body to use oxygen in a much more efficient manner,” explained Hank. “Tom believed the improved version would effectively diminish bodily oxygen demand by as much as fifty percent.”
“Aw, now what good does that do?” objected Chow. “We wanna live longer, not shorter by half!” But Neil MacColter, with great delicacy, explained that the math worked in the other direction.
“Let us begin right away, then,” urged Yun Dai-koh.
The crew watched, from a polite distance, as the engineer and the biologist pored over numbers and diagrams well into the moody night. There was a feeling of dare-we-hope expectation in the air, matched by the exterior weather. The Red Planet was silent and windless.
At last, near midnight, Hank called a halt. “We won’t be any good unless we get some sleep,” he declared to Yun. Then he took note that all the others were still up and awake, seated here and there about the deck, awaiting news. “We’ve made progress,” Hank reported. “My own part is almost done. Tomorrow Dr. Yun will work out the final steps.”
“Well, I suppose there’s something to be said for living an extra half-week,” muttered Franzenberg.
“If you don’t want your air, Rafael dear, several of us wouldn’t mind taking it off your hands,” Gretl pronounced sweetly.
“I have one of those, er, orders for you all,” Hank Sterling said apologetically. “However hard it may be for you to get to sleep, please stay in your compartments all night—until 6 AM, let’s say. And keep your hatch doors closed the whole time, won’t you? I know they aren’t lockable, but at least the heavy hatches might be discouraging.”
“I take it you don’t think our mystery murderer has had his fill,” remarked Neil.
“Frankly, I think we’re dealing with someone who’s—how shall I put it?—nuts!” was the reply. “I mean, look, one of you has been able to pose as sane, professional, and a personal friend for years. To be able to keep up that front while plotting a totally senseless murder—on another planet, yet!—good night! as Tom and Bud say.”
“Which is just what I’ll say, chief,” stated Rafe. “Good night!”
The night was long but uninterrupted. As the team gathered on the wide view-deck with their breakfasts, Hank entered, face sober.
“What’s up?” asked Dick Folsom, reading the engineer’s expression. “Looks like we’re all still alive.”
Hank held up a small object in his right hand. “Anyone recognize this thing? I know it real well. It’s a special visor for what Tom calls his spylamp.”
“The wearer can see with it, but the light is invisible,” offered Lori Matthews. “Isn’t that right?”
“Uh-huh. And it can be adjusted to different mixes of frequency.”
“All right, Sterling, you obviously have something on your mind,” said Rafe Franzenberg over a roll. “What is it?”
“A bit of detective work accomplished with the assistance of Dr. Yun,” declared Hank.
“I was to serve as live bait,” noted the Korean.
Hank stood amid the others, turning slowly to look at them one by one. “After you all turned in last night and shut your doors, I dusted the carpet in front of each door with a thin powder of special crystals, a different mix for each of you. It’s hard to see, and that was the point.
“And what was the point?” demanded Franzenberg impatiently.
“Mr. Sterling presumed the plotter would make an attempt on my life,” Yun explained calmly. “I was now the last hope of this expedition, a hope the madman—or woman—would surely wish to eliminate. And it would have to be done last night, before today’s work.”
“It came to me while Yun and I were working together last evening,” Hank continued. “I told him about it in written messages, not aloud.”
“So you assumed someone would go to his cabin,” Gretl said. “Did you stay up watching?”
Hank shook his head. “No, with all the light from our instrument readouts and the big window, I’d have been seen right away—which would spoil the plan, because I wanted the plotter to go all the way to Yun’s door, not stop short with some excuse.”
“Smart thinkin’!” congratulated Chow.
“You put Dr. Yun at risk, Hank,” frowned MacColter.
“Not really. I’m an engineer,” he replied. “I figured out a quiet way to temporarily immobilize the emergency hatch sealer mechanism. So Yun’s door was as good as locked.”
There was a pause as many glances were exchanged. Whoever had been identified by Hank, the result was going to be a shock to all of them! And they knew that the target would now be feeling very nervous.
Hank went on, slowly pacing back and forth. “I was up first this morning, even before our dedicated cook here. I used the spylamp to check the carpet for traces of the crystal. Each mixture showed in the visor as a different color—glowing bright.
“And thus,” said Yun, “a shining path would lead from one compartment to my door, and then back in frustration.”
“Did it work?” asked Gretl quietly.
“Don’t drag it out, Sterling,” snapped Dr. Franzenberg.
“All right, Rafael, I won’t. There was a double trail across the deck carpeting. Clear as day—clear as crystal!”
Hank took a step and, bending down, looked Rafael Franzenberg square in the eye. “Your cabin, Rafe.”
An icy silence fell upon the deck like a bolt of lightning!
The big scientist bolted to his feet in volcanic rage. “It’s a lie!” he cried. “A great and damnable lie!”
CAUGHT ON A LINE
THE WALL of water sped toward the little raft like a predator moving in for the kill. “Everyone down flat! Keep the center of gravity low!” Tom cried in a commanding voice. “Hold on to the cords—maybe we can ride it out.”
“We will,” whispered Bud to his pal.
The leading edge of the wave dashed against the rear of the raft and flipped it upward. But instead of rushing over the crude, low vessel and swamping it, it merely lifted it up on top of its swelling crest—and held it there. “Good gosh, we’re riding the wave!” Bud hissed in amazement.
Like a flexible surfboard of plastic, the raft was sliding down the front of the great billow as fast as the water could surge forward down the fjord! They whipped along at thrilling speed, a stinging, gritty spray in their faces as they closed the distance to the arched opening that marked the limit of the cavern. They knew that the spreading cracks in the rocky ceiling could easily outrace their mini-tsunami. Was Fate playing a cruel game—or would they be allowed to escape the doomed cavern?
“Here we go!” shouted Tom.
To their right and their left the wave struck the walls that framed the opening, shooting upward in great frothy jets. Their own section swelled up, up—and suddenly they saw the top of the arch sweeping past only a few feet above their heads. With most of its bulk dissipated, the wave collapsed beneath them. For a moment they were hurtling forward a like a javelin. Then came a sickening feeling of fall—and a violent plop! that knocked the breath from them.
They’d made it through!
The raft was still moving quickly, blown by a powerful wind roaring through the arched opening, which pinched it like stone lips attempting a whistle. As the ceiling of the cavern behind them completely shattered, its falling mass shoved the air in all directions with the force of an underground hurricane.
But finally the raft slowed and the sea-surface became calm again. The underland mariners sat up to check over the raft and endeavor a clear view of their surroundings.
“Not a true sea, perhaps,” murmured Dr. Ri. “But it is enough.”
The archway, and the rock wall that enclosed it, were now far behind them. Ahead and on either side, the Pearl Sea stretched placid and silent, mile after mile. The laser-light from the moss fell upon it like the brightest starlight, glowing from all directions and producing no shadows.
“Jetz, are you sure we’re still underground?” marveled Bud Barclay.
“It’s—” Tom stopped. Then he laughed. “Good night, I’m all adjectived out!”
Ri Quong-ju spoke for a time to her Asian associates. “They are all well, and the raft seems to be in good shape,” she reported to the boys. “This special plastic material is extremely durable and tightly sealed. It cannot easily be punctured.”
“Ma’am, when we get back to Earth, let me be the first to show you the latest in wonder-plastics—Tomasite!” joked Bud. “A lot has happened since this guy turned eighteen!”
Suddenly Tom ordered them to be quiet. Ears straining, the escapees made out a low sound, as if a whisper from another world. “That’s it,” said Ri simply. “The moaning.”
Tom nodded. He unsealed several utility pouches in his suit and began taking account of their contents, a variety of electronic parts. “These are spare parts for emergency repairs,” explained the young inventor. “I’m going to try to cobble together a directional sound-detector. If I can manage to filter and unscramble the bouncing sound frequencies, I think we’ll be able to use it as a sort of compass to guide us toward the road to the surface.”
He was quickly absorbed in his work, oblivious to the absurdity of the situation. Ri Quong-ju looked at Bud with raised eyebrows. “It seems he is truly his great-grandfather’s descendant,” she said with quiet admiration. “Had he been along on the Red Eye, perhaps none of this would have happened.”
Bud gave a nod. “And if I know Tom Swift, he’d answer: Sure, but then we never would have made these great discoveries! I’m used to it.”
When the wind gave out, they began to paddle. There was no particular destination but ahead. At the very limits of their vision there were only vague shadows, not a definite shoreline. For all they could tell by sight, the Pearl Sea was wrapped about the entire bulk of Mars like the skin around an apple—but hidden beneath another skin.
They rowed. They rested. They talked—and even sang, in words not all could understand. The underground sea remained featureless, the strange soft light unvarying.
Taking a break from his work, Tom stretched broadly. “You know, this is all like a dream, something unreal. I feel like I’ve fallen asleep in my living room back in Shopton—with a Jules Verne novel on my lap!”
“It does seem a little on the fictitious side,” Bud agreed wryly. “But let’s face it, Skipper. Everything you and I do is like that!”
Dr. Ri smiled at the banter, but then turned grim. “Though we do not speak of it, my boys, there are more dangers facing us than merely climbing miles to the surface of Mars! Yun is there aboard your ship. Who knows what he has done, or is doing now?”
“My rule is: one challenge at a time, ma’am,” Tom replied, going back to work. “Not that I always keep it.”
Somewhere between the hours the talk turned to the secondary, almost forgotten special goal of the Swift Enterprises expedition to Mars. “What exactly was it that your great-grandfather detected on Mars?” inquired Dr. Ri. “For we have found no sign of complex life, much less civilization.”
Tom answered, “He saw it with his giant telescope. The telescope was an experimental invention using ‘flexible glass’ in a formulation that came from a meteorite. Through some fluke which could never be replicated, he and his father were able to see the surface of Mars as if close by, as we can nowadays with my megascope space prober. It only lasted for seconds, unfortunately.”
“And they saw signs of intelligence?”
“They saw a city!” Tom exclaimed, eyes shining. “Big buildings, aircraft, individual beings moving about!”
Bud asked Tom if his great-grandfather’s notes included drawings of what had been glimpsed. “No, nor was there any way to determine exactly where on the disk of Mars the telescope had focused. As to the inhabitants, the view was not near enough to make out detail, just an impression of moving crowds.”
“But if it was on Mars, it must have been one of the bases of the space friends, the Planet X scientists,” Bud reasoned. “Who knows how long they’ve been here?”
But his friend disagreed. “This seemed to be a real city, not just a scientific installation. The space friends say they can provide no information about it, or about the general question of life on Mars. It’s that information quarantine of theirs, I guess.”
Dr. Ri gave a slight shrug. “I need not tell you, Tom, that no such thing has been detected by the orbiting photographic probes, which have studied the planet in great detail.”
“True,” conceded the scientist-inventor. “And it’s also true that none of those satellites detected this underground world we have all around us!”
After a pause, Bud said: “I don’t like to think this, but... What if the X-ians wiped out the native civilization during the last few decades—every last trace?”
Tom could only shake his head. “I’ll never accept that possibility without absolute proof.” He broke off the discussion and returned to his work on the audio device, as Bud and Dr. Ri exchanged understanding glances. If there’s one phenomenon the Swifts just can’t believe in, it’s Evil, he thought.
It was sometime later that the drowsy quiet was suddenly broken by a shout from Batanol, pointing off into the water. “He says he saw something moving beneath the surface,” reported Ri Quong-ju.
They all gazed intently over the edge on both sides of the raft. The water, apparently much deeper now, had also become less milky and more transparent. “I see something,” Tom said in quiet excitement.
There was motion beneath the glassy surface! Something dark, like a huge shadow, swept past the raft, followed a moment later by another. “What wonder!” breathed Dr. Ri. “Higher life forms after all!”
“But we can’t make them out,” Tom observed. “I hope they’ll come to the surface.”
“Genius boy, I’d just as soon they didn’t!” contributed Bud nervously.
“I thought you wanted to do some fishing.”
“I’m afraid those big guys might end up fishing for us!”
But no more of them were sighted. Presently Professor Shang Tsieu called Dr. Ri’s attention to the starboard view. In the far distance, some details of the cavern wall were becoming visible. “We’ve come closer,” Ri pronounced, gazing through binoculars. “There’s a bit of a ledge rising up from the water. Many fissures in the rock. Oh!” She lowered the binoculars for a moment, then looked again. When Tom asked what she had seen, she shook her head slightly. “Nothing—something in my eye.” But the young Shoptonian could see something with his own eyes—that Dr. Ri didn’t believe herself!
Four oars working together, they drew nearer the beachlike ledge. Hananoki made some comments, which Ri rendered in English. “He says he doubts these cave openings connect to the surface. There is no use our investigating them.”
Then the mariners gasped as one!—in several languages. Something gigantic and grotesque had come charging from one of the cave mouths!
The creature was elongated and sinuous, like a snake or even a monstrous worm at first sight. Yet as it scurried further into view they could see small, thick legs sporting claws, bumpy armor plating like an armadillo’s, and an underslung mouth lined with rows of teeth, not the fangs of a snake. What the watchers had first thought was its body was actually a long, tapering snout that swept slowly back and forth—a snout twenty feet long!
“An—an anteater!” Bud said faintly, horrified yet fascinated. “Or a giant mole!”
“Do not be so terra-centric,” admonished Dr. Ri. “It is neither snake, nor worm, nor anteater—not reptile, not mammal. It is alien, an example of exobiology. We must not try to force it into our established categories.”
“I think we’d better backpaddle and study it from a distance,” Tom urged.
From one hundred yards out they studied the creature as it stood at the edge of the water. Its color was a very pale yellow-green—like rotting celery.
“Can it see us, you think?” asked Bud.
Tom pointed. “See those depressions under its snout? It may be using infrared imaging, picking up our heat output.”
“Or it may use sound waves, as bats do,” suggested Ri Quong-ju.
The beast startled them again as it suddenly let out a hissss! as loud and sharp as a blast from an old steam locomotive! It reared up its head, poised in an s-shape in the manner of a cobra preparing to strike. And then, before anyone had time to comment—it struck!
Flaps at the front of its snout opened up and long cables of fleshy material shot out into the air, slim tendrils or tentacles with something bony and pointed on the tips.
“Row! Row!” screeched Bud.
But the tendrils fell far short of the raft, slapping down into the water. And now the viewers realized that they had not been the target at all. Blowing froth in all directions, a second weird lifeform appeared at the surface, struggling and writhing. It was broad, flat, and pinkish in hue, with a wavering fringe all around it that resembled a pleated apron. At one end—they assumed its front—were long stalks with openings on the end that opened and closed convulsively.
“Look!” Tom cried. “The land-creature’s harpooned it!”
The tendrils and their bony tips functioned as living harpoons. Several seemed to have gouged into the flesh of the sea beast and were holding fast. The harpooner now began to scurry backwards into his cave, the tendrils becoming taut as the struggling marine lifeform was dragged from the water, into darkness.
No one needed to say let’s get out of here in any language. They rowed away from the deadly shore at top speed.
Finally, again in the middle of the blank Pearl Sea, they stopped and drifted, panting helplessly. “I sure hope neither one of those things is an intelligent Martian!” Bud declared.
“And if it is, what then?” teased Dr. Ri. “To them, we are no doubt grotesque, frightful little wriggling things, floating along on a lily pad.”
They began to relax again, as if the underlands of Mars concealed no more dangers. It was Tom Swift who first realized the folly of that convenient assumption. “The underwater shadows,” he half-whispered. “More of them!”
“All around us!” added Ri, pale.
Like a school of fish, the huge hidden things seemed to all be moving together in one direction, the general direction in which the raft had been headed before turning toward the cavern wall. More and more could be seen darting along, each one as long as a house trailer, until the whole sea was dark with them and the surface was rippling and agitated.
They caught only a single glimpse of the aquatic beasts. Something rolled up out of the water, then slipped back in. It was flat-sided and tapering, coal-black in color, with rows of cup-shaped organs along its spine.
“Suckers, like on the tentacles of squid,” speculated Tom.
The Red Eye men were whispering among themselves, eyes darting about. Although the little raft had not been molested, it seemed very small and vulnerable amid the vast Martian herd.
“They sure are swimming fast,” Bud muttered. “Maybe the harpooner set off a sea-stampede!”
Tom chuckled—weakly. “Now you sound like Chow, flyboy! It’s more likely that this is part of some migratory—aaak!” Tom fell backwards violently. They all did!
The raft was yanked forward so quickly that it raised a white wake in its track like a speedboat. And their speed was increasing rapidly!
“They’ve caught us!” Bud gasped. “We’ve been hooked by a fish!”
THE ENEMY UNMASKED!
DR. RAFAEL Franzenberg stood like an imposing statue, frozen in fury, yet also pale and bewildered. “I tell you, I never once stirred from my compartment throughout the night, never even touched the door latch! I don’t care what your little science project has to say about it, Sterling!”
“I’m not done with my dramatic revelations, Rafael,” said Hank Sterling. Taking a step back, he reached into his worksuit pocket, pulling out a small object and holding it up for Franzenberg, and everyone, to see. “Recognize this?”
“If he don’t, I sure do!” Chow declared. “One o’ my little paring knives from the galley!”
“Just now I found it half-hidden on the floor of Dr. Franzenberg’s cabin.”
No longer blustering, Franzenberg could only shake his head in denial. “You’re framing me, Sterling. Now I see—it’s been you all the time!”
The engineer gave a grim, confident smile. “You might want to hold back the accusations until I’m done. You’ll notice I haven’t made any so far. I’m just reporting the facts.”
“Yet it’s very clear, isn’t it?” Gretl stated flatly. “You have the trail, and you have the would-be murder weapon. Every incident could have been arranged by Franzenberg in one way or another. With his vaunted technical expertise he could easily have disabled the hatchway button, hidden a piece of foil in Chow’s oven, and contrived, by some sort of remote-control squib, to sabotage the tank valves.”
Hank nodded. “He certainly does have the ability. Don’t you, Rafe?”
“I’ll concede the point,” responded the physicist. His native smugness seemed to be making a comeback. “Yet I deny the charge. Let’s say it isn’t you, chief. You might ask yourselves, all of you—who aboard this ship has the strongest motive to frame me? The women in general, yes, certainly. But especially Gretl Dornis, a biologist whose biological clock is running down. The situation has been known to lead to romantic obsession and, a common sequel, violent revenge. Hormonal imbalances, in part.”
“What a charmer you are, Rafael,” was Dr. Dornis’s only response.
“Did you say—there are more revelations, Hank?” asked Neil MacColter.
Yun Dai-koh frowned. “Franzenberg was not acting alone, perhaps? For as you know, I had further suspicions.”
“I remember, Dr. Yun. And you’re right. The data from my experiment suggests that a second member of our crew was involved.” Hank slowly strode to the center of the deck. “Franzenberg’s crystals were the only ones leading up to Dr. Yun’s door and back again, true enough. But there was another trail, a circuitous route from another compartment to the galley, then on to Franzenberg’s cabin, then back.”
“B-brand my plot twist!” gulped Chow Winkler. “Then that there ‘somebody’ must’ve given Franzenberg the knife!”
“Sure looks that way,” nodded Hank, turning with studies abruptness to confront another member of the team. “Care to tell us why you did it, Marlene?”
The pretty meteorologist did not protest, but only glared sullenly at the acting commander.
“All right then, perhaps I drew a fallacious conclusion in advance of the evidence,” admitted Rafe grumpily. “Marlene is also subject to jealousy. No doubt she feels she has reason to try to pin these things on me.”
“Much as I would enjoy pinning something on you—and right through you if possible!—I never left my cabin last night. And as you well know, I don’t sleepwalk.” Marlene Jencks was keeping her voice low and level.
“Then where’d that trail of crystals come from?” challenged Dick Folsom.
“I can’t begin to imagine. Maybe you planted it!”
“No,” pronounced Hank. “Dick was in his cabin all night. The coating on his threshold is undisturbed.” Prowling about slowly, the young engineer now began to pace outside the periphery of the circle of crew members, some now standing, some still sitting, all perplexed. “It’s a philosophical thing, isn’t it? Science gives us the facts. But what if the facts suggest a conclusion that just doesn’t fit? Do we follow the facts blindly—or make room for faith? For intuition?”
“Then you refuse to accept the results of your own experiment in detection?” asked Dr. Yun in surprise.
“Experimental data is always embedded in other data, Dr. Yun,” Hank stated. “You can’t weigh things in isolation, not in the real world. I’ve worked with these people. I’ve known some of them for years, as did my late father before me. The Swifts call them friends. Despite whatever ‘romance’—if that’s the word—did to a few of you, you’re not maniacs. If it turns out that you are, then—every other fact in the world is wrong!”
“What are you trying to say?” asked Neil impatiently. “That everyone in this room is innocent after all?”
“No. Just that the facts are compatible with more than one theory, Neil, more than one possible answer.” Hank stopped his pacing. “Hasn’t it been obvious all along, folks? Only one of us comes from Korea, where the earlier attacks took place. Only one of us was in a position to learn of the beacon signal right away, when it was received by ENCOSS!”
An arm darted forward and clamped a muscular hand on the rounded shoulder of the shorter man standing in front of him. “Dr. Yun, would you please hold up your right hand, in the light?”
A trembling, pudgy hand was raised, fingers splayed. The tips were coated with something transparent but, in the light, reflective. “When I spread the powder, last night after the rest of you were in your compartments, I also applied a different kind of coating, an indelible compound, to the outside handles of each hatch door—a further experiment, based on logic and a hunch. Though the doors were unlocked, they can’t be unlatched and opened without lifting the handle. So tell us, Dr. Yun: just how did you spend your time last night?”
Yun lowered his hand—and suddenly lit his round face in a grin, as if thoroughly delighted. “A wonderful deduction, Mr. Sterling, very ably delivered. And such suspense!—you’ve made Chow Winkler wipe his forehead with his handkerchief.”
“Do you deny this, sir?” demanded Dr. Franzenberg.
“No, of course not.”
“Then I take it you’re stark staring crazy!” cried Dick Folsom. “What’s behind all this? I mean, man, you made yourself a victim!”
But the bio-scientist shook his head, still smiling. “No, no, what an idea! My stabbing in Korea was self-inflicted, of course. And my frantic pressing of the exterior hatch button was only a bit of pantomime, perfected on the spot—I believe they call it improv, hmm?”
“I hope you won’t make us guess at the rest,” said Gretl sourly.
“Why would I? I wish to enjoy your admiration! But I choose not to tell quite all of it, as it’s embarrassing and rather personal. A private folly, one might say.”
Chow broke in. “More o’ that blame love!”
“I will reveal this, however,” continued Yun Dai-koh, standing very still in Hank Sterling’s grip. “I badly wished no rescue of any living survivors of the Red Eye, and dedicated my efforts to ensuring that none would be found. Naturally, this entailed that I reach the capsule first. It was thus to my advantage to eliminate as many of you as possible, while burnishing my own role as ‘victim’ to render Mr. Sterling’s simple observation less unanswerable.”
“Sowing suspicion and mistrust along the way,” Lori Matthews stated.
“Muddying the waters. It gives one a certain advantage, I’ve found. And yet—here is what I am proudest of—these little tricks were not done by my hand at all! Delicious irony, that it is in fact that very hand that now has betrayed me.”
“I finally came to realize how you were working it,” Hank said. “Took me long enough.” He raised his voice a bit, addressing the others. “Dr. Yun is basically an engineer like me, but he works in biology—cells, cloning, medication development.”
“A most prestigious and lucrative field,” Yun declared.
“He’s developed some sort of something that makes people vulnerable to suggestion, as they sleep. It had to be during sleep, I figured.”
“Hypnosis?” asked Franzenberg.
Yun shook his head. “Hypnosis, no—awfully ‘old millennium,’ hypnosis. Nowadays all is chemistry and medicine. It is called mnemproticine-i, and it is I who discovered it, a genuine discovery which no one can take away from me. The Korean authorities declared it unsafe, and my corporate employers disavowed it. I cannot help their lack of vision, now can I? It’s wonderful stuff, really. It was to be a medication to assist learning, you see. Do we not all wish more efficient learning in our children? And it has the further advantage of quieting behavior problems and inculcating obedience—imagine its value in stopping a riot!”
Gretl Dornis interrupted with, “You needn’t provide the entire commercial, Yun.”
“Whadja do, salt it into our food?” demanded Chow indignantly.
“No, no, do calm yourself,” chuckled Dr. Yun. “One merely holds a small vial under the nose of the subject during sleep. Very potent, you see. A deeper sleep is the immediate result; and then, suggestibility, conveyed even in a whisper, with a slight accent. Do you know, Mr. Sterling, you might suggest to Tom Swift that these inner doors be made lockable, for safety. I now know which among you snore, by the way.”
“Did you sabotage Tom’s air scout?” grated MacColter.
“Oh no, no credit there. That was unexpected good fortune, nothing to do with my efforts. And—” he added, “I hasten to say that I have nothing to do with this mysterious force that holds us captive. Surely much beyond my poor capabilities.”
“I’m purt sure you used Marlene here fer puttin’ that foil in my oven,” Chow declared with narrowed eyes.
“Me?” exclaimed Marlene.
“Yes indeed,” was the response. “But we mustn’t blame Miss Jencks for having allowed herself to be seen at the door. Perhaps I neglected to tell her to be careful. One forgets details at times, in the stress of the moment.”
“And as to that night out in the dome—Neil?” Hank inquired.
“Ah, you’ve shocked him, Mr. Sterling. But it’s true. I had him go out secretively. Originally he was to sabotage the air machine. Fortunately I remembered to direct him to defend himself in some stealthy manner if he were to be seen. And here we find a surprising experimental outcome. It seems the conflict between his orders and his personal concern—his feelings—rather immobilized him and prevented the completion of the task. I have since learned to be more careful.” He nodded—as if bowing to acknowledge applause! “Of course, nature had designs upon the machine anyway, as it turns out. Or was it the power of prayer? Let each one decide for himself.”
MacColter rubbed his forehead. “But... I remember distinctly being in my cabin when Marlene raised the alarm, then going outside and finding Hank.”
“In your cabin in your spacesuit? Unlikely. But here we have a good demonstration of the mind’s ability to bring dissonant facts into harmony, in this case by the falsification of key memories.”
“Was it me that you used to undo the air tank valves?” asked Dick Folsom in a faint voice.
“No, you may set your mind at ease,” answered Yun. “Now would anyone care to take a guess?”
Hank tightened his grip suddenly. “It was me, wasn’t it.”
The Korean laughed gleefully. “You win!”
“There was no sleep period between the explosion of the atmos-maker and my checking the reserve tanks.”
“As an engineer you know little of the science of suggestion,” said Yun. “One may give commands to be carried out, not immediately, but at some later time. Or in your case—seeing as you were our acting leader—I took a flexible approach, suggesting only that you would obey such commands as I might give you on an unspecified occasion, your vulnerability to be activated by a certain code word. I merely whispered to you as you passed: After checking each tank, open the valve. Worked well, didn’t it?”
“Then my theory at the time was not a baseless accusation after all, Sterling,” huffed Rafael. “I will accept your apology in the form of a bottle of champagne.”
“But what was the varmint up to last night?” Chow asked in furrowed-brow perplexity.
“That? Something set in motion, by whispers, well before our resourceful Mr. Sterling came up with the oxygen-medicine business and his ingenious plot to unmask the enemy,” the scientist replied. “More muddying of the waters—an attack on me that ‘luckily’ failed, evidence found in Franzenberg’s cabin, signs of assistance from a mysterious ‘other’. I have read my paperbacks, dear colleagues.”
“And now we know,” Neil said.
Yun raised his two hands jovially, soliciting attention. “Perhaps I’ve worn out my welcome with this lengthy account. But we’re all friends here, and one can speak frankly. After we part company, there is another matter you might wish you had remembered to ask about. I refer to the matter of the unfortunate Cambodian gentleman, the Red Eye survivor.
“Surely by now it’s occurred to at least one of you that his fear and attempted flight came upon his seeing my own face among the rest. Clearly the survivors—one in particular—discussed the fact of my likely culpability in the sabotage of their mission. No doubt she made me sound much worse than I really am. I’m hardly a serial killer or some such nonsense. The Colonel clearly reacted to me with inordinate fear. His physical weakness and lengthy isolation may have had an effect.”
“You murdered him,” growled Hank.
“Well actually, you know, I had to. He recognized me, and would have tipped my hand upon regaining his senses. A very inconspicuous injection of a helpful medication from the locker nearby, administered to the base of his neck as I bent close in a comforting way.”
“You may not fully realize that you’re insane, Yun,” Franzenberg declared, “though if you were to review your actions carefully, you would find the conclusion inevitable.”
“Which is a good argument against excessive self-knowledge, don’t you think? I suppose I’ll concede to being a cold-blooded murderer,” the biologist responded with a shrug. “No more than that, though.”
Gretl stared at him, as if he were a specimen of some nonhuman lifeform. “All for nothing. We have you now.”
Yun smiled back mildly, but with twinkling eyes. “Do you? I do indeed feel Mr. Sterling’s hands on my shoulders. Have you considered that he might still be susceptible to my control? No, no gasps!—I’m only joking. His dose has worn off. But I’ve visited yet others of you at night. I wished to have a sort of ‘joker’ in my pocket for emergencies, someone well beyond suspicion.”
He now spoke in a voice that was loud, sharp, and heartless. “Chow Winkler, what do you think of Belgian endive?”
Chow’s jaw dropped. “Hunh?”
“Hank, stop him!” cried Neil.
But Dr. Yun wrenched himself free in an instant and stepped forward. “I wouldn’t, Sterling. Chow’s life is in my hands! If you interfere—well, you know. Just don’t risk it.” Uncertain, Hank stood unmoving. “Very well now, Chow, I have said the magic words I whispered to you a couple nights ago—you’re one of the snorers, by the way. My word! Here are your instructions, which you will obey with gratitude and a friendly smile. See the cushioned chair over by the communications board?”
“I shor do,” replied the ex-Texan, smiling peacefully.
“Good. Walk over to it, won’t you?” Chow complied with big cowboy strides. “Now if you’ll feel down in the crack between the seat cushion and the back, down where one loses loose change, you’ll find a small weapon, a sort of plastic gun that shoots little blades with a fair range and good deal of penetrating force.” Chow bent down, and Yun and Hank could see, around his bulging personal horizon, his elbows moving.
“Got ’er, boss,” Chow reported.
“You’ll find it easy to use, I think. You know how to aim, man of the prairies, and how to pull a trigger. So.” The Korean chuckled. “As you may need some practice, let’s start with the largest target, Dr. Franzenberg. Oh yes, a precaution—should anyone move, that person is to be shot immediately. We want no interference from this assembly of real American heroes.
“Begin with Franzenberg, then proceed until only you and I remain. Lethal shots, please. I trust you to use your own judgment. And then, only then, shoot yourself in the, oh, neck. No—the chin. Hmm? Now you may begin.”
As stark horror filled the room, Chow raised his big hand and aimed!
TOM SWIFT could easily guess what had happened. One of the mammoth marine creatures, surfacing, had come into contact with the underside of the raft and latched on to it with its row of spinal suckers. Must be how they catch food, he thought. And now the raft was being trundled home like a bag of exotic groceries!
The male scientists were exclaiming in various shades of fear. “What can we do?” Dr. Ri called out, turning Tom’s way. “Some of those legendary heroics, please!”
“Can we beat the thing away with our paddles?” Bud suggested.
“Its back is too far down. But if it starts to dive, we may be wrenched free of it.”
Bud snorted. “Or dragged down! I’m going to commence some merciless hitting.” The athletic youth used everything he could get his hands on to poke down into the water on either side of the raft. But Tom was proven correct—the beast was too far below except at the very middle. And it seemed its row of suckers was well accustomed to ignoring the struggles of its “catch.”
The entire herd of undersea beasts seemed to be egging each other on, faster and faster. The spray was becoming stinging. “Listen,” Tom called out, “undo the sealer flap of the pod, the flap up front. We can all lie flat and pull it over us for protection.”
Ri translated Tom’s idea, and it was quickly put into effect. The six lay tight-packed side by side, the transparent plastic sheet stretched over them as far down as their ankles. They held fast to the crisscross of cords that maintained the raft’s shape.
“That’ll keep the spray off us,” Tom muttered, “as well as give the equipment some protection.”
“If you mean your little sound-device,” remarked Dr. Ri, “I’m now very much afraid you will have no chance to use it.”
“We still live, ma’am.”
“Let us hope you will still be saying that one hour from now.”
But the racing sea journey lasted much longer than an hour. They snatched gulps of their foul-tasting sustenance. In the monotony they managed to nap now and then—or at least to lapse from normal consciousness into something even stranger. Hour after weary hour the scenery was unchanged: frothy water on all sides with shadows beneath, the flat pearlescent sea beyond for mile after featureless mile, and then—a faint unreadable haze with no sign of the walls of the titanic sub-Martian cavern.
Eventually Batanol whispered something in Cantonese. “He says, listen!” translated Dr. Ri.
“I hear it too,” Bud murmured. “Sort of a crashing sound, way distant. What do you think, Skipper? Surf against a shore?”
Tom listened for a long moment. “Maybe. But—how could there be surf on something as flat as this sea?”
The sound grew to a roaring, hissing, rushing sort of noise. Tom cautiously sat upright, looking ahead through the plastic and the spray. “Good night! The cavern ends half a mile ahead!”
“I was right, then,” Bud said.
“No, flyboy. It isn’t surf hitting a shoreline or the wall. It’s rapids—whitewater!” Tom sank back down again. “A river of water is coming down a sloping tunnel in the rock wall. And it looks like there’s a huge whirlpool where the waterfall hits the sea.” The young scientist-inventor seemed lost in scientific thought for a moment. “That’s why the downflow of water from a higher stratum doesn’t just fill up this cavern. It’s draining away through an opening in the sea floor.”
Dr. Ri translated Tom’s analysis for the others, and a question came back from Shang Tsieu. “He asks a very good question, Tom. Will we be sucked down through this opening?”
Tom could not answer. Another minute would tell the tale!
But as the minute passed, the youth suddenly let out a gasp, almost a cheer, low and wan. “As you’d expect, the fish are all working their way around the whirlpool. And—oh, I can’t believe what I’m seeing—they’re swimming right up the cataract!”
“What, you mean like salmon?” demanded Bud.
“Delightful!” cried Ri. “They are spawning!”
But Bud Barclay did not sound impressed. “I don’t care what they’re doing. I want to know what they’re gonna do to us!”
Said his chum coolly, “Get ready to find out.”
Their transport fish curved its back and leapt violently upward with a slap of its barely-seen tail. In an instant the quivering “deck” of the little raft took on a sharp slant, and the fearful mariners were utterly drenched as hurtling water surged all about them—and over them. Yet by some miracle the raft held together, and the sealer flap gave just enough protection to keep the breath from being slammed out of them.
Talk was impossible. The six could only grasp the stretched cords until they cut deep weals into their palms and fingers. The raft bucked and twisted as the aquatic leviathan struggled upward against the fierce cataract. How is it possible? Tom thought in dazed wonderment. True, gravity’s less than on Earth. And they’ve had a few billion years to perfect their technique!
Time meant nothing. It was enough to stay conscious and alive.
Then at long last came a respite. The raft tilted again, then again. The river’s corridor was leveling out by degrees. “Get ready to jump off!” shouted the young inventor against the roar. “Grab what you can!”
With many a terrified glance they made ready to abandon ship as Tom pointed portside. Suddenly he tore aside their plastic tarp—the signal! The six scrambled madly off the raft and into the water.
Raft and fish were immediately out of sight. But another of the creatures was close behind. “Come on!” Tom cried, gesturing. They all plopped frantically through what was evidently a shallower and more placid off-current stretch of river, and then further into a sort of quiet inlet with a stony beach. There they collapsed one by one, panting uncontrollably, muscles trembling.
It was some time before any words were spoken, and they came from Bud. “Wh-what is this place? Is there any way out?”
Tom forced himself onto his feet and shone his suit lamp around. They were at the edge of a long ragged cave with the cataract roaring down its center line. Tom pointed his lamp upward. The light found no ceiling, only blackness. The purple moss, still all around them, produced no illumination fit for human eyes.
“This river’s gouged itself into the cave floor year after year for who know how long,” he declared. “The sides just go up and up.”
Dr. Hananoki, the geologist, had sat up and was taking in the sights with bulging eyes. Now he spoke and pointed. Tom illuminated the wall section. The circle of light revealed black bands interrupting the areas of bare rock that were visible here and there like baldspots. Ri Quong-ju began to translate: “He says—”
“I know,” breathed Tom. “Coal!”
Bud gaped. “I don’t claim to be an expert coal-ologist,” he said. “But doesn’t coal from compressed plants and animals? What’s it doing down here?”
Tom turned to him, his eyes bright with excitement. “It means Mars really was, once, an ‘abode of life’! When the atmosphere was denser, before the water started hiding deep underground, the planet must have had a rich biosphere up on the surface. Seams of coal were formed from the remains—which eventually ended up down here due to a surface fold or something similar.
“But this is fantastically good news, Bud—everyone!” he continued. “It means we’ve been carried a long ways, horizontally and vertically, and we’re now fairly close to the surface!”
When Dr. Ri repeated this in Cantonese, the scientists surprised Tom by breaking into applause!
Bud gave a bland smile. “I’ll start applauding too, professor—as soon as you show me the road back upstairs.” The dark-haired pilot gave a broad gesture. The walls were full of cracks and cave-mouths of every size and shape. Some might lead to the surface—but which among them?
In answer Tom unsealed his suit pouch and brought out the instrument he had put together, his sound-analyzer device. Switching it on with a wary smile, he played the receiver across the cave walls, up and down, a tiny earphone in place. “I can hear the sound,” he reported. “It’s very distinctive.” But when he lowered the detector and looked over and the others, his young face bore disappointment.
“Did it not function properly?” inquired Dr. Ri.
“Oh, it did... too well. With all the echoes from the roar of the river, I’m picking up sounds with the specified frequency-mix from dozens of these openings.” His brow crinkled in frustration. “I don’t know offhand how to tell which routes are most promising, or even if any—”
His words were choked off. A circle of intense, sparkling light had appeared on the cave wall!
Dr. Ri spoke quietly. “Our phantom light has returned to us.” The narrow beam cleaved the air as if from a flashlamp or lensed spotlight. Yet it began from the middle of empty space. No source was visible.
Tom overcame his awe and dashed over to an area of the moss near the spot produced by the beam. With a screwdriver he hastily scraped away the purple moss, producing lines and figures that stood out against the background.
“Space symbols!” Bud pronounced. “I’ve sure seen enough of ’em.”
Tom stepped back. “Just a short and simple message. I’m asking, basically, Are you our space friends?”
The illuminated circle now panned across the clustered symbols. Then it stopped, focused narrowly on just one hieroglyph. “The symbol for ‘space friends’!” cried Tom. “That proves it!”
The beam now moved again, without hesitation. In a moment it was beaming into one of the cave mouths.
“That is where we are to go,” declared Dr. Ri. “It—they—are guiding us back to the surface.”
After some rest and a bit of their diminishing store of edibles and water, the six set off into the upward-tending cave. Soon the roar of the cataract had faded away behind them. “But my detector is picking up the air-whistling clearly,” Tom reported. “How far ahead, I can’t guess.”
Ri asked if Tom’s suit instruments gave an indication of where they were. The young inventor shook his head ruefully. “I’m afraid they didn’t make it through our thrill ride in perfect shape. They only show the obvious—that we’re making progress upward.”
“That word has a nice ring, doesn’t it?” Bud remarked happily.
As they climbed, they began to notice a slight falloff in temperature. They found an airlock-curtain of the moss blocking their way; passing through, they all could feel greater difficulty breathing. “It’s what we have to expect,” Tom said. But after passing through several more of the barriers, he called a halt and said to Dr. Ri: “Bud and I are going to have to close up our spacesuits and seal our helmets, doctor. But the rest of you—”
“We know,” she responded. “We must remain in this chamber and hope for rescue.”
Tom handed Ri a small battery-operated emergency locator beacon, part of his suit equipment. “It sends out a continuous radar-type signal. It can’t penetrate the rock, but it should ‘echo’ down the various tunnels, and help us find you.” He rested a hand on her shoulder. “I promise all of you, we won’t give up—not as long as our lungs still breathe and our muscles can still carry us.”
“We know, my friend,” Ri Quong-ju responded. “And you will have the light with you.” The biologist squeezed Tom’s hands, and Bud’s too, as the three scientists surged forward to offer their thanks and Godspeed.
The boys plunged on through the moss curtains. The light beam traveled with them, unhindered by the barriers.
“How long do we have, pal?” asked Bud quietly.
“A few hours,” was the brief reply. “By breathing the air all this time, we’ve conserved a lot of our oxygen. But the reservoirs are close to empty.” He didn’t need to add that even attaining the surface would not solve their dilemma. They would have to—somehow—find the way back to Mod 2 at Barsoom Base.
The purple moss became scarce around them, and finally there was no more, only bare jagged rock. The trail was now very narrow and twisty, and numbingly steep. Their aching leg muscles caused them pain that only sheer determination allowed them to overcome.
On a rocky landing, they finally gave their young bodies an hour of sleep.
The path, still illuminated by the phantom light beam, became too narrow for Tom and Bud to walk two abreast. Tom took the lead as they trudged along, winding back and forth as the cave—now just a glorified crack—kinked sharply one way and another.
Tom was several score feet ahead when Bud noted that he had come to a dead stop, staring around a corner. “What is it, chum?” he transiphoned. “Sunlight?”
The young inventor made no answer, and Bud worriedly joined him. When he saw what Tom was seeing, he was rendered speechless. “There it is,” whispered Tom Swift. “I’d almost given up, but there it is. It’s real, just as my great-grandfather always knew, no matter what the world said.”
A city lay before them!
A DOWN-AND-OUT ESCAPE
CHOW WINKLER pointed the blade gun calmly and confidently as big Rafael Franzenberg simply looked at the westerner.
“No,” plead Gretl Dornis. “Please, no!”
It was Hank Sterling who took action. He barked out: “Chow! Anything that moves!"—and hurled himself forward into Yun Dai-koh’s back!
The startled Korean toppled forward to the deck, involuntarily throwing up his arms. Chow shifted the muzzle of the little gun, angling down toward a spot midway between Dr. Yun’s terrified eyes!
“Bang, bang,” said Chow. “How’s that feel, Dr. Yun? I shor liked it!”
He’d pointed—but hadn’t shot. He tossed the gun down on the cushion and hastened across the deck, to take a seat on the groaning Yun. Whose voice of command and control became oddly muffled.
“Why you ding-danged culinary cowpoke, you were faking it all along!” exclaimed Hank in mock indignation as the ship filled with cheers.
“Yup, shor was.”
“But how did—”
The ex-Texan chuckled, fishing around in one of his big pockets and pulling out a pair of small objects. “Earplugs! Good ones, too—slept right through this ole feller’s connivin’!”
Franzenberg harrumphed. “I appreciate the trace of sentiment you expressed, Dr. Dornis,” he said in Gretl’s direction. “I acknowledge that my personality can at times come across as rather overwhelming. As you’ve overcome your difficulty in adapting to it, perhaps you and I might—”
She smiled icily. “Someone hand me the gun, won’t you?”
“Hank, that was mighty quick thinking,” noted MacColter with a broad grin. “‘Anything that moves!’—great!”
The engineer laughed. “I had to switch from being an urbane case-solver to a hard-boiled detective with muscle. Now back to science!”
Far away, somewhere beneath the ground, lamps from two spacesuits played back and forth across an eerie, astonishing sight. “Do you—do you really think this is what your great-grandpa saw in his giant telescope?” Bud asked.
“It’s not the same city,” Tom replied. “That one was alive and up in the sunlight—this buried city has been dead and ruined for a tremendous span of time. But it proves the basic premise, Bud. It shows the presence of intelligent life on Mars.”
Every sweep of light showed how incredibly ancient was the city before them. There were tall, slope-sided structures that seemed to merge with the cavern ceiling high above, as if embedded in rock that had once flowed like water. Everything was covered in thick shells of grime, dust, and what appeared to be some form of clay. All was utterly dark, silent, and lifeless.
Climbing down a shallow embankment, the boys approached one of the buildings. Tom scraped off some of the covering material, revealing, in the lamp-light, something smooth and iridescent beneath. He pulled out his prismavisor. “Some kind of metal alloy—that’s all I can determine. But if all these buildings are constructed of metal, it’s no wonder it’s still standing after all this time.”
“How much time, genius boy?” asked Bud. “Is it as old as Aurum City? That one’s supposed to go back to Atlantis, you know.”
Tom grinned at his friend.
“Aurum City? Atlantis? Pal, if I’m right this city has passed through several geological epochs—maybe several hundred million years!”
“But—but I still don’t get it,” protested the young pilot. “This city is that old, yet you’re saying there’s a living city somewhere up on the surface made by the same race of Martians?”
The young inventor gave a happy shrug. “I’ll admit it’s a scientific mystery. Who says that intelligent life can’t evolve twice on a planet? Or perhaps the original guys went extinct when the air drained away into space, but some remnant was left to survive a multi-million-year ‘dark ages’.”
“Maybe they built all their cities underground,” Bud mused. “Except—the telescope showed—”
Tom laughed. “Don’t you love mysteries, Bud? But right at this moment, here’s what I think. I think there were just a few centers of population left up on the exposed surface—places of refuge for the very last members of a doomed species. Great-grandfather Tom saw one of them, back in 1939. And then, over a few decades, they were completely abandoned and the dust storms covered them over, making them undetectable by space-probe photography.”
“So what happened to those last people? Are you still sure the X-ians didn’t just kill ’em off?”
“I don’t believe that possibility,” Tom declared. “But there’s another obvious possibility that should have occurred to me, but didn’t. The Planet X people may have evacuated the last of the Martians! They might have moved them as a group to another world with suitable conditions. It could be that the Deimos station up there is connected with the project.”
“I like the idea!” nodded Bud.
They knew they dared not stay to explore the long-dead city. The floating light, which had been waiting patiently, now motioned them toward a fissure at the far side of the cavern.
The trek resumed, hour after hour, footstep after footstep. They cut back on the oxygen flow more than once to extend its life.
The light-beam never failed. But finally the last embers of their hope began to flicker and die.
They sank down to the cave floor, knowing how hard it would be to rise again, leaning weakly against each other. “We tried,” said Bud simply.
“Maybe you should have stayed in California.”
“And missed all this exercise?” The youth chuckled faintly. Bud’s words came thick. “You made my life add up to something, genius boy. Thanks.”
“All the places we’ve been...” Tom murmured. “Now we’re going someplace new. I’m glad we’re going there together, flyboy.”
And suddenly the phantom light-beam was gone. A sign that life was also departing?
But no! “Bud!” gasped Tom Swift. “I can still see you! There’s still light coming from somewhere!”
“Y-yeah. Sunlight... up above. You can see it on the cave roof. We just have to climb out... we made it.” With a deep, tremulous groan, Bud Barclay forced himself to his feet—and his athletic muscles managed to pull up Tom next to him. “You yanked me up awhile back. Now I yanked you. Know what that makes us? A couple of jerks!”
They finally stumbled out into the open, blinking in the sun and very weak. They were on a ledge. Ahead of them lay a great gulf. They recognized it immediately.
“The Coprates Chasma!” was Bud’s would-be cheer. “You were right, Skipper. All those caves and caverns and cracks did connect up to the valleys!”
“And we’re not far from Barsoom Base,” observed Tom in relief. “Look up there, on the edge—there’s the automatic telesampler station.”
“Then we’ll make it! If our air holds out.”
“We will. And it will. Let’s go!”
They made it up and over the cliffs with little difficulty—though much panting. Barsoom Base awaited them like home in the distance! They staggered toward it, kicking up as much dust as they could manage. But before they could make much headway, the boys found themselves swept up in a herd of overjoyed, spacesuited figures.
“Chow saw you first,” stated Hank Sterling.
But Chow Winkler didn’t say anything. He couldn’t. He could only hug. And sniffle.
As they trudged back, Tom warned the others about Yun Dai-koh’s treachery. “You don’t say,” said Gretl Dornis.
Neil MacColter gleefully explained that the problem had been solved. Yun—raving and near hysteria—was now securely confined behind his disabled cabin door.
Inside Mod 2, as the boys gulped oxygen and sipped cool water, they were dismayed to learn of the mysterious force that held the ship captive.
“Let me take a look at the photo you made of those saucer symbols,” Tom asked Hank. He pored over them for some time. Then his face lit up! “They’ve given us the solution!” he proclaimed. “Down!”
“We couldn’t figure out that ‘reverse down’ expression,” Lori explained.
“They’re not supposed to be linked—it’s two separate concepts.” Tom pointed to a cluster of the mathematical figures. “The last part means: ‘Down traverse for escape solution’.”
“Uh hunh,” said Chow. “Izzat s’posed to mean somethin’, boss?”
“It sounds as if they want us to tunnel under the barrier,” Rafael speculated. “The energy-force must not pass on through the ground.”
“But good night, what good’ll it do?” demanded Bud. “The ship will be stuck here. How can we get back home?”
Tom gave a bright, reassuring grin. “We’re heading underground again, flyboy. And this time I plan to take the ship with us!”
The young inventor had quickly evolved a daring plan. After studying the subsurface readings of the penetradar unit, he identified a spot near the ship where their rocky “platform” showed signs of being cracked and—hopefully—fragile. “We’ll blow apart the rock underneath us, and use the repelatron bank and the weight of the ship to force our way down, out of the range of the ‘bubble’ of energy. As I explained, there are extensive caverns and linked caves throughout this region—it’s honeycombed. There’s a good chance we’ll be able to blast our way through and come out in the Chasma. Then we head home!”
“One thing, though,” Dick objected. “What in the world do we use to blow apart the rock? We didn’t bring one of your earth blasters along, Tom. And we’re not carrying any TNT. Are we?”
“We’re not,” said Franzenberg. “But Mars is!”
They gathered together the explosive ground materials that the Red Planet provided so generously and compressed them into a container, which they buried at the point of fragility. Then, from within the excursion module, Tom remotely set off a small chemical pellet that produced intense, localized heat.
“Thar she blows!” whooped Chow. A huge fiery plume arced into the red sky, followed by a powerful ground tremor—which didn’t stop! As a spiderweb of cracks shot through the rock beneath the ship, Tom activated the downward-facing repelatrons, throwing the ship’s full weight against the subsurface rock formations.
The ground shattered and collapsed beneath them, and the big sphere of the ship fell from sight, into darkness!
“We’re inside the cavern we detected,” Tom reported. “Nothing’s holding us back down here, and the repelatrons seem to be working fine.”
“Have you mapped out a route to the Chasma?” asked Hank.
“Yes,” Tom answered. “But we’re not going there now—not right away.”
“I know,” Bud commented softly. And so did the others.
As fast as they could manage, they wandered through several systems of caverns and caves. When they proved too narrow to accomodate Mod 2, repelatron blasts blew the crumbly foam-rock to powder.
Finally the ship’s antennas picked up what Tom had been searching for. “There’s the signal!” he cried. “Got ’em!”
It took some time for the ship to follow the twists and turns of the bouncing pulse to its source. But at last—two-thirty AM on a dark morning in the sunless underlands of Mars—the last of the astonished Red Eye survivors had been brought aboard, and the outer hatchway sealed.
“It’s a good thing Yun’s door is locked,” Bud wisecracked. “For him!”
The mod retraced its path, then turned aside into another broad cave Tom had detected. Its narrow mouth proved no obstacle at all. The ship burst through into Coprates Chasma, swerved away from the site of the now-abandoned Barsoom Base—and Tom warned the travelers to hang on. The repelatrons slammed on full strength, and Mod 2 roared through the thin night air of Mars like an upturned meteorite!
They had escaped!
There was no interference, nor any comment, from the space beings. The module rendezvoused with the orbiting Starward without incident, and soon its powerful cosmotron spacedriver had them Earthbound—and grateful.
“What can be said at this point?” mused Dr. Ri, watching the mottled planet shrink away. “How can we express what it feels like to be rescued long after all hope was gone?”
Tom modestly changed the subject. “Dr. Yun’s plot made no real sense—obviously. Even if the force-barrier had finally been lifted, how did he plan to get back to the earth, with everyone dead? And you know, Dr. Ri, I’m not so sure all those ‘attacks’ on himself were completely planned and deliberate. I think a few too many whiffs of that chemical of his fractured his mind and turned something loose that he didn’t want to acknowledge.”
“Yes,” agreed Ri. “His conscience. Which in many subtle ways made him pay the price for his murderous actions. I doubt that he will allow himself to live long enough to see a courtroom.”
Dr. Hananoki, sitting nearby, said something in Cantonese. “He says—now that you have conquered Mars, Tom Swift, where next do you go?” reported Dr. Ri.
Tom chuckled. “Well, tell him... In one direction is Jupiter, in the other, Venus. Maybe I’ll flip a coin!” He wasn’t entirely joking. But he knew that for explorers from Earth to survive in such harsh, deadly environments, he would have to perfect the new invention awaiting him back in Shopton, his Humanplifying Exosuit. And he could hardly wait!
The others on the Starward’s view deck drifted away—all but one. “Thinking it all over, Chow?” asked Tom.
“You mean about Mars an’ all that? Naw, that there’s old news, boss,” replied the ex-Texan. “Sumpin else on m’ mind.”
Chow approached his young friend and employer. He seemed a bit embarrassed. “Wa-aal, it’s like this. Yew know how you told Buddy Boy t’ lay off on the pranks an’ jokes—’bout my shirts and my belly an’ all?”
“Has he started up again?”
The cook shook his head. “Uh-uh. Naw, he’s keepin’ to it, all right. But you know somethin’, Tom? I don’t like it s’ much after all. Makes me a mite nervous—things jest don’t seem right. So I ’as thinkin’, you s’pose you could tell him to go back to the way he was before? Mebbe jest have him leave that there promise behind, up here in space?”
Tom’s laugh was affectionate, and his friend beamed. “Sure, Chow, if that’s what you want. I’ll make it a rule: What happens on Mars, stays on Mars!”