TOM SWIFT LIVES!

TOM SWIFT AND HIS

HUMANPLIFYING EXOSUIT

 

 

 

 

This unauthorized tribute

Is based upon

the original TOM SWIFT JR. characters.

 

SCOTT DICKERSON, AUTHOR

 

As of this printing,

copyright to

The New TOM SWIFT Jr. Adventures

is owned by

SIMON & SCHUSTER

 

 

 

 

 

This edition privately printed by

 

RUNABOUT

2011

www.tomswiftlives.com

 

PRINTED IN THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA


 

 

 

 

 

TOM SWIFT AND HIS

HUMANPLIFYING EXOSUIT

 

 



 

CHAPTER 1

 

 

 

          THE JUPITER TRAP

 

 

 

 

“EARTH to Spaceman Swift! You’re halfway to Jupiter, Skipper! How’s it going up there?”

Test engineer Sid Baker’s voice came through Tom Swift’s control board loudspeaker with a hint of chuckle, echoed by the young inventor and his friend and co-adventurer, Doc Simpson. The youthful Swift Enterprises physician was accompanying his renowned employer on a daring research expedition—not to distant Jupiter, but into an equally deadly realm on planet Earth!

“Halfway already? Nothin’ to it, Sid. Six G’s and all’s well.” Glancing at Simpson, Tom added teasingly: “Actually, Doc looks a little green.”

Doc motioned and Tom handed him the microphone. “It’s that soft, sedentary life of mine, Sid. I’m not used to stress.”

“Uh-huh. Just thinking about gravity in double-digits makes me nervous. And I’m out here!”

Baker, with several technicians at his side to assist him, was separated from Tom and Doc by two barriers. The nearer, outer, barrier consisted of an ultrastrong metal, called metallumin. Transparent as glass, Tom had originally devised the remarkable material to withstand and contain the high pressures of his aquarium for deep-sea life.

The second barrier was the “skin” of Tom’s newest invention, a robotic vehicle with a humanlike form standing twenty-five feet tall on massive legs of gold-gleaming metal. This “exosuit,” as the young inventor had named it, would permit astronaut-pilots to tread the surfaces of planets where extremes of pressure, temperature, and gravitation prevailed. Like Tom and Doc, the dual exosuit operators would ride in a sealed control compartment that took up most of the vehicle’s chest area. A bulging pane of metallumin offered the “test pilots” a view from a height.

As Tom smilingly switched off the tele-intercom connecting the exosuit compartment to the team of test-chamber attendants, Doc made a further comment. “Chief, there isn’t any real reason to worry, is there? I know we discussed the medical aspects I’m monitoring in here, but—this gravity business... maybe I need a little bit of the sort of explanation you usually give Bud.”

Tom understood. He always made sure to give his best friend Bud Barclay the lowdown on his latest inventive efforts. “Sure, Doc. As we planned, they’re bringing up the G-force gradually inside the chamber. We’ve still got a few minutes before we reach the level prevailing on Jupiter. What would you like to know?”

“Just how you’re able to block the pull of gravity inside this robot-suit of yours. And how do you boost it inside the test chamber? I mean, you know—we’re talking about gravity.”

Designed by Tom and his father, the new Swift Enterprises extreme-conditions test chamber was a fifty-foot cube of flat metallumin panels, its thick walls surrounded on all sides by a separate deck for control and observation. The entire chamber could be raised or lowered as a unit like a giant elevator, its floor resting atop powerful pistons. At the surface, under the bright morning sun of Shopton, Tom had maneuvered his exosuit prototype into the containment cube, one of whose walls could be swung open for access. Then, as a planned safety measure, the chamber had been lowered into the ground to a depth of 180 feet as reinforced panels slid closed across the shaft opening above it.

“I’ll start with the second question,” said Tom to Doc. “You know how my gravitex device works, don’t you?”

‘How’ would be an exaggeration. I know you use it to generate a heightened gravitational pull to stabilize that cosmic-ray spacecraft you came up with.”

“Right, the Space Kite. Well, the gravitex units don’t actually generate gravity. They use a gyrating electromagnetic flux which acts as a kind of ‘magnifying lens’ for the gravitational field, with the concentrated G-pull focused on the interior of the machine itself.” The young inventor explained that a bank of many such units, oriented upward, was built into the floor of the containment cube. “I’ve designed these special gravitexes to displace the focal point vertically, so the magnified gravity field projects upward and affects everything inside the cube—there only.”

“Including us. Got it.” The medico nodded thoughtfully. He was clearly caught up in the gravity of the situation.

“As far as the other question,” Tom continued, “the answer is really the same as the first one. But in this case gravitexes inside the exosuit refract the intensified field away from us, shoving it outside the hull where it just melds-in with the ambient field. Here in the pilot compartment we’re in the ‘shadow zone’ that the machines produce, the area that gravity has been diverted away from. It’s that zone of reduced G-force that counteracts—well, now it’s eleven times Earth-normal out there.”

“And we’re stopping at twelve,” noted Simpson, “which is more than high enough for the first medical tests.”

Both exosuit occupants were connected to a panoply of medical sensors and instruments to monitor and record their physiological responses to the experience. Doc scanned the output registers with a keen eye, alert to the possibility that the tug-of-war of invisible forces, though unfelt, might trigger an unexpected reaction in their bodies. “Biochem good,” he pronounced. “Coagulation normal. Heartbeat strong. Pulse rate—as you might expect.” Doc added wryly, “Mine is running a tad high.”

“And here we are!—twelve G’s, a nice day in the suburbs of Jupiter,” reported Tom triumphantly. “The exo’s skeleton is holding steady. You know, Doc, Jupiter doesn’t have a solid surface. Its atmosphere just gets denser and denser as you go deeper down. In there the exosuit would be less like a spacesuit-for-two than like a submarine, fighting off pressures as great as― ”

A startling sound interrupted the thought.

“Wh-what is it?” asked Doc.

Tom frowned. “Automatic alarm.”

“Something’s wrong, Tom. I feel it.”

The young inventor cast a chiding look toward his test-copilot. “I know you’re a little nervous, Doc, but don’t let your imagination run away with you.”

“No—I mean I really feel it! Don’t you? Like—like I’m getting― ”

Tom Swift gulped in dismay. “Heavier! Now I feel it myself.” He hurriedly checked the instruments. “Good grief, the G-level here inside the suit is almost twenty percent higher than normal! We’re really starting to pile on the pounds.” He scooped up the tele-intercom mike from its cradle. “Sid, there’s some kind of glitch in our gravity-nullifying setup—the G’s are starting to leak through!”

“Yeow!” came the surprised response. “Okay, Skipper, I’ll power down. We don’t want to turn you guys into pulp heroes.”

Tom laughed at the comeback. But nervously.

The vertical pressure began to ease off—then suddenly it redoubled! The two rocked back in their contour chairs as if massive weights had thudded down on them!

“Sid! What’s― ”

“We can’t power down! I think—I think the main controls have failed!”

As Tom whistled to himself softly, Simpson put an unsteady hand, concrete-heavy, on his friend’s arm. “It’s getting worse. At this rate of increase― ”

“I know,” grated Tom. “In minutes we’ll be dealing with as much force in here as is outside in the chamber. And if the main controls are malfunctioning, the exterior levels might also go through the roof. In theory the cube’s gravitex array could produce over fifty G’s!” Tom calculated mentally. The resultant weight pressing down on his bones and body would be almost five tons!

As Doc eased back in his seat with a sudden thump, Tom leaned forward in his, reaching for the microphone again. Even now it felt like his hands were wearing lead gloves! “Sid, throw the main power switch for the test chamber. Or call the plant’s generating blockhouse—but you have to cut all power immediately!” The loudspeaker remained silent. “Sid? Control, what’s going on?”

The youth knew that the most likely cause of the silence was failure in the tele-intercom circuitry. They should still be able to elevate up to the surface so we can swing open the big door, he thought. We’ll walk the exo off the base pad. He decided to try signaling the control team by hand through the viewpane.

The G-pressure made Tom’s head heavy and forced his neck and shoulders into a forward curl. Tensing his young muscles he raised his chin and managed a glance through the exosuit viewport. He was shocked by what he saw—or didn’t see. The control consoles beyond the metallumin walls were unmanned. Sid Baker and his fellow technicians were nowhere to be found!

His muscles bulged as he struggled to brace himself against the chair arms. If he weakened and started to slump forward, he knew he would be unable to stop and would fall face-first onto the deck. If that happens, he thought, it’ll be the end!

“T-Tom!” came a weak, choking voice. “We need to flatten out these seats or... our circulatory system... w-will...” Simpson paused, panting for the breath to speak, the strength to lift his chest. “Look, is there... can we lower ourselves to the deck?”

“We can’t,” croaked the young inventor. “And don’t let yourself slip off the seat. You’ll... you’ll snap your bones if you fall even two feet...” He forced his eyes toward a readout dial on the control panel, straining pierce the spreading blur as his eye sockets and lids sagged under their mounting weight. 3.7 G’s inside the suit, and still rising!

“Skipper... can you do anything?”

“Maybe. Hold on, Doc.”

“H-hold on? Not a time for joking...”

“Don’t give up—I’m not. Bud and... and I lived through... a worse G crisis in the Star Spear, you know...”

“Fine, an optimist. Now I f-feel much better.”

“Hunh! Wish I did!”

They both knew that the gravity-neutralizer setup inside the exo was much more limited than the array of gravitexes built into the test chamber. And Tom knew the precise figures. Even now the load was too much for the exosuit’s protective system to completely counteract. If the forces outside continued to increase, it would fail utterly! The exosuit will make it through in one piece, he thought wryly. But Doc and I won’t be around to appreciate it.

Fighting desperately not to collapse, Tom suddenly levered his right forearm up onto the slanting control board, wincing as the sheer weight rammed it down onto a protruding switch. He shoved it forward—it slid along on its own perspiration. Inching up to the selector dial he was aiming for, he fumblingly twisted it with a groan at the pinch to his yielding skin. Words glowed on the selector’s monitor panel.

 

DRILL THREE RIGHT

EXTEND

 

Though the side of his face was pressed flat against his seat head-rest, Doc was able to read the words. “You’re going to... d-drill our way out?”

Tom gasped out a reply. “Drill... diamond tip... cut through the metallumin walls. M-maybe we can ram our way through...”

“If—right, if you cause... a weak spot.”

The massive right arm of the robot-vehicle began to move, extending forward as the needle-sharp drill bit was thrust into view from a covered slot hidden in one of the exosuit’s golden fingertips, which served as container-pods for various tools and instruments.

The control deck vibrated with a weird groan of straining metal joints. Suddenly the two cried out as the exosuit seemed to jerk sideways. “It’s all right,” Tom muttered. “The... ungh!... the computer automatically repositioned a leg for better support. With gravity this high, just moving an arm is enough to throw us off balance.”

“Th-that’s your idea of ‘all right’?”

The instruments announced that the drill tip was pressed against the wall before them. Tom activated its powerful motor.

Doc read the result from his friend’s face. “Not working?”

“Not... fast enough... I can’t keep the arm in position to maintain the pressure. Maybe another place, different angle—Doc, I’m not sure... what to do.”

“Listen to your doctor, Tom Swift. Don’t bother with being sure. J-just― ”

“I know,” Tom whispered. He had no more energy to waste on speaking—no energy to waste on anything but a last chance at survival. Heart thudding with the tremendous strain, he thumbed the controls with a jerking movement. It was all the force he had left to marshal.

Shadow crossed the viewpane. Doc could see the colossal right arm of the exosuit again gliding into view. But the powerful mechanism was stretching, not toward another section of the cube wall, but upward. It was as if the machine were raising a hand to signal surrender! “Skipper! What—what are you― ”

His companion could barely manage a croaking response. “I’m... ejecting the drill bit... dropping it. Just dropping it.”

He fumbled it, thought Doc as consciousness swam away into darkness. This time the optimist couldn’t think of a solution. No answer. First time. History’s made and you were there, Simpson! And now, boys and girls—I think it’s OK to give up.

He did.


 

 

 

 

CHAPTER 2

 

 

 

          TOM MEETS HIS MAKER

 

 

 

 

THE FALLING drill bit could no more be seen than a bullet in flight, nor could any sound from the world outside penetrate the walls of the exosuit control cabin.

But sight and sound proved unnecessary. Even as Doc Simpson said his inner farewells, the leaden pressure on his chest and arms and head fell away and he rebounded from the cushions. Slowly, unbelievingly, muscles fiercely aching, he pulled himself upright and turned to look at Tom. “What—not that I really care at this point but what—happened? Did we pop a circuit breaker or something?”

Tom found his voice. “In a way. I knew the drill bit would keep its point downward as it fell—high-velocity aerodynamics. When it hit the cube floor, the tip penetrated about half an inch. That was enough to break a few of the nano-thin wires embedded inside the deck plate—the breach-detection sensor grid.”

“Emergency shutdown?”

“I’d call this an emergency!”

Doc snorted. “I tend to agree. But why was it able to break through when it just fell freely, but not when you were pushing it against the wall?”

“Oh, that? Well...” Tom stretched mightily and groaningly. “I did a little head-figuring. It was about eighteen G’s out there, and I knew the field gradient was varying top to bottom as the third power. So― ”

“At last! The ‘so’!”

“So it hit the floor at roughly 8700 miles per hour. And that,” he noted, “was enough.”

There was still no sign of the control crew through the viewport pane. With gravitation in the chamber now normal, Tom and Doc hastened out the rear hatchway and down the access ladder. As they approached the human-scaled door in the metallumin wall, Tom called out with relief: “Look! Thank goodness!”

A woozy head—Sid Baker’s—had risen into view from behind a console.

In a moment the two were surrounded by the control team, all of them wincing and dizzy but apparently none the worse for their experience. “The G magnification zone wasn’t contained in the cube,” explained Sid. “It suddenly came sweeping out into the control deck. No one was braced, and it flattened us. Pulled us right out of our chairs!”

“What could have caused all this?” asked a technician. “Didn’t the chamber and the suit check out completely the other day?”

“Yes,” Tom acknowledged, “separately. We have to find out what factor emerged when we brought the two together.”

“Boss, could it have been human error?” speculated Sid.

“Sure!—everyone looks at me!” complained another team member, Dave Bogard. He wasn’t entirely kidding.

Tom grinned and said: “I don’t see how any sort of simple mistake could have caused this. When gravity went wild the failure must have been within the system, a glitch.”

“Yeah—a major malfunction.” Baker nodded. “We’ll wheedle it out of her, Tom. Don’t worry.”

“Worry? Hey, I never worry!”

“I do,” sourly noted Doc Simpson.

At home that evening, after a dinner full of inventorly conversation, the family retired to the living room of the spacious Swift home, which had recently been rebuilt. Sitting down on a curving sofa, Bashalli Prandit—Tom’s frequent date about Shopton town and a not infrequent guest for supper at the Swifts’—asked if the crewcut young inventor had heard from Bud Barclay.

Tom shook his head. “He’ll probably call later. I’m sure he’s out on the town with his friends.”

His sister Sandra shot her older brother a skeptical look. “Out on the town in Waterfield? Tom, Waterfield doesn’t have an ‘out’!”

“Just who are these friends that Budworth is charming with his usual wit and verve?” asked Bashalli.

“Some boys on a trip that he used to know in school in San Francisco,” Tom’s mother explained to the Pakistani. “He called them his best pals.”

“Ah, I see—first drafts of Tom Swift.”

“Probably football buddies,” Sandy noted. “American boys grow up with ‘sports cronies’, Bashi. Is it the same in Pakistan?”

“Of course. Different sports, but I think the male is the same the world over. Tiresome!”

The male population of the living room, Tom and his father, laughed. Tom protested: “Bash, you’re stereotyping!”

“Indeed you are,” put in Mr. Swift. “Games and competitions are stimulating to human beings in general, not just the male of the species. I suppose there’s an evolutionary advantage.”

“If there is such a thing as human evolution,” Bashalli stated, “how is it that we have people who talk on cellphones in movie theaters?”

Mrs. Swift brought out a tray of desserts. “Do you girls know that Tom is going on TV tomorrow night?”

The girls erupted in chicly-restrained excitement. “It’s nothing major,” Tom told them. “Just the Connie Flenck interview show, Today’s Crisis in Shopton. I’ve done it before—so has Dad. Local stuff.” When Bashalli asked the subject of the interview, Tom went on: “George Dilling thinks it’s time to go public with info about my exosuit invention. The rumor mill—and the Internet is about ninety-nine percent rumor mill—has been getting it wrong. They think it’s some kind of body armor for military use.”

“Exosuit?” Bash looked puzzled for a moment. “Oh, but perhaps that is the great golden lummox you were speaking of, Thomas, your gianter giant robot!”

“Uh-huh.” Then, as an uninvited thought struck the youth, he turned toward his sister. “Say, sis—have you received any more of those e-messages? From Him?”

Sandy frowned. “I would rather not discuss ‘Him’ right now, thank you.”

“I am told that Him is still in—perhaps I ought not say hot pursuit,” commented Bashalli mischievously.

“Perhaps you ought not say anything.”

“Darling, I do wish you’d reconsider my speaking about it to Harlan Ames,” urged Tom’s father, a concerned expression crossing his face. Ames was the head of security for Tom Swift Enterprises.

“No, Daddy. I can handle it—please. He’s really very sweet. Despite the slight difference in our ages.”

“We must accept that Sandra considers him a live romantic possibility, should he live so long,” said Bashalli. “In other words, what you call here ‘a good catch.’ Surely more promising than waiting for Bud Barclay to grow up, don’t you think, Mother and Father Swift? And of course being an agent of your CIA is a job of great honor.”

Damon Swift huffed disapprovingly. “Quimby Narz is old enough to be Sandy’s grandfather!”

When Tom had traveled to the country of Brungaria to use his thoughtograph imager to defuse an international crisis, his family had accompanied him. A well-seasoned CIA agent, Quimby Narz, had been assigned the task of protecting the Americans. Without a hint, to the surprise of everyone, it seemed the sixtyish agent had become silently infatuated with Sandy Swift. While Tom and Bud were off in space, an exploit chronicled in Tom Swift in the Underlands of Mars, Narz had begun to express his feelings by regular e-mail messages, polite and proper yet increasingly personal, their implications too clear to be dismissed. A vestigial human remnant of an earlier generation, an all but extinct culture of peculiar customs, he had lately found one excuse after another to send Sandy little gifts of flowers and chocolates. The flowers were sniffed and tossed. The chocolates were eaten, thoughtfully.

The matter was perplexing. “You have to admit, San, it is a little creepy,” Tom observed.

Bashalli smiled. “I do believe the word wanted is ‘weird’.”

Sandy crossed her arms stubbornly. “Meet the Swift family, Miss Prandit—all weird, all the time! Now listen, everyone, so I don’t have to repeat it yelling. When Tom and I were made emancipated minors, they said they approved our application because we had adult judgment and a mature sense of responsibility. So please allow me to judge and—er, respond!”

Tom gave a grand bow. “Let it not be said that Tom Swift would ever stand in the path of true love.”

“Is that why you two were made emancipated minors?” asked Bash with a shrug. “I thought it was so you could have your own bank accounts.”

“That too,” Sandy conceded.

The next morning Tom arrived at the plant eager to hear from his engineering team whether anything had turned up in their preliminary examination of the test chamber and the exosuit. As he strode away from his bronze sports car, a beep penetrated his thoughts.

He fished out his cellphone, doubly flipping it open from shoehorn size to a unit with four times the area on its face-panel. “Tom here,” he said.

“Tom, this is Murray over in the Visitors Center. You know, in the gift shop?” He seemed to be speaking in a whisper.

“Sure. Hi!”

“There’s a problem with a visitor. She’s—well—she’s here to see you and― ”

“Have you called Security?”

Murray sounded somewhat abashed. “Er, no. It’s not anything that’s really... that is, I wouldn’t want to...”

“Okay,” Tom interrupted impatiently. “I’m in the executive lot. Be there in a minute.”

Even before Tom arrived at the Tom Swift Enterprises Gift Shop, he could hear the sounds of a restrained, rather plaintive, argument. Yet at first he could only make out one voice, Murray’s. But as he drew nearer he realized that the pauses were filled with a soft piping sound.

“Please, please ma’am, just leave the rack where it is. We don’t want you to hurt yourself, now do we?”

“There is no ‘we’ here, I dare say. I am certainly capable of knowing what I’m doing!”

Tom took in the scene from the shop doorway. Next to harried Murray Walsh a wisp of a woman, very elderly, had planted her two feet on the carpet like a stubborn bull. She was gripping with one hand a rotating metal-frame rack stocked with books.

“M-ma’am?” Tom broke in. “I’m Tom Swift. May I help you?”

Both faces brightened, and the woman called out in warm, reedy delight, “Tom! Why, so it is! Dear boy!”

As Murray withdrew with evident relief, Tom approached cautiously. “Have we met, ma’am?”

She let go of the rack. “Met? Oh, no, we never have, you know. I didn’t think it was necessary. Yet I have always been curious.” She took a half-step forward and offered a hand that looked like a small bundle of dried twigs. “Tom, I am Henrietta Weidenhauser.”

Tom grasped her hand, trying to avoid the slightest pressure. “Hello. I’m afraid I don’t quite recognize your name, ma’am.”

She wheezed out a slight laugh. “My, my. Why Tom Swift, I am your creator!”

“My—! Um, excuse me?”

She nodded. “Why yes, your creator; Tom Swift’s creator, that is—in a sense. Of course, I’m putting it in a dramatic way, as I’ve learned to do. To pique the interest of the reader.”

Fine. Sandy gets one—now I get one! thought Tom wryly. “Sorry, but I don’t follow you.”

“She’s been trying to drag that book rack all over the shop,” said Murray loudly—from across the room.

“I did explain it to this—this clerk, Tom,” she retorted with haughty indignation. “You can’t blame me for wishing to have my books more prominently displayed. They are written with love, love on every page.” She plucked one of the books from the rack and held it up before Tom’s eyes. Its bright, gaudy cover proclaimed:

 

TOM SWIFT AND HIS

SPACE SOLARTRON

 

And suddenly it all came clear. Henrietta! “I understand. You’re the nice lady who writes the fictionalizations,” declared the young inventor. “The book series.”

“I am indeed, indeed I am,” she confirmed with pride. “As were my dear late father and his father as well. Like your inventing, dear boy, it is the great work of generations!”

Tom’s great-grandfather, whose name Tom bore, had made that name famous indeed. His mechanical and electrical inventions, his airships, warships, submarine-ships, and explorational hardships, had led the young man into danger and high adventure. Whatever facts lay behind those adventures had soon become entangled in a growing mythology as a series of books, edifices of fiction raised upon a smattering of truth and science, became popular with “science-minded boys” of several generations.

Tom knew that the Swift family—perhaps unwisely—had long ago sold off the rights to the stories and their key “characters.” Swift Enterprises had managed to retain the right to publish and distribute the books, but their reissue, and the preparation of new ones based on Tom’s own exploits in modern times, were still in the hands of something called Odtaa Scienti-Fiction Authorship, Inc. And now Tom suddenly remembered that the company was owned by the authors of the books—a family of authors named Weidenhauser.

Taking the book and glancing at its cover, Tom mused, “This is the one about how I rescued Dad and the space outpost.”

“And don’t forget that crooked attorney! Really, I do love writing those sleazy, sarcastic villains.” Recharging herself with a gulp of breath, she added: “Oh, that ending!—it still brings a tear to my eyes.”

“Mine too,” Tom commented dryly.

“Now Tom, I do realize that my stories are not entirely... accurate,” acknowledged Mrs. Weidenhauser. “I am not a scientist, of course, although I do take care to consult regularly with a gentleman friend of mine who is a real scientist. Well—he did teach general science, in high school. Before he retired some years ago.” She rushed on, “But these marvelous tales are not meant to be newspaper reports. They inspire! Imagine how many young boys—girls too, I suppose—have taken up science and engineering due to the romance and excitement of the field, as portrayed here.”

“The romance and excitement of people getting hit on the head and things blowing up.” Smiling, Tom slipped the book back in the rack. “Well, Mrs. Weidenhauser, it’s nice to meet you.”

“I came here today to speak to you about something important, Tom.” The woman paused for a long moment. “I know I did. How annoying!—my memory has become a bit chancy since I turned eighty-five...”

“If you think of it, you can― ”

She brightened. “I remember. The jokes!”

“Er—jokes?”

“Yes indeed.” She took a set of cards from her purse and held them up in front of Tom’s eyes with quivering hand. “You see, I was speaking to your communications official, that very sweet man—what is his name?”

“George Dilling?”

“I don’t think so. No. Perhaps. But I do telephone him now and then, to hear of your latest adventures in science and space. He told me you were about to be interviewed on television, and were to discuss a new invention.”

“Yes, tonight.”

Mrs. Weidenhauser smiled. “How nice. Well, you see, I have decided it is time to branch out a bit in my writing endeavors. One must expand, don’t you think?—just like the universe! But I am told one must first develop what they call a ‘track record’. And thus I have prepared a number of humorous remarks for you to salt into your conversation tonight, to lighten up what might otherwise be...” She suddenly grasped Tom’s wrist with apologetic earnestness. “I do hope you’ll forgive my saying it, but your scientific accounts can be just a bit dry, Tom. I rather agonize over the dialog at times.”

The young inventor politely suppressed a laugh. “I suppose you’re right, ma’am. I’m not really much of a polished celebrity.”

She pressed the note cards into his hand. “Oh, but you are. At least on paper.”

Before parting from his creator, Tom promised he would try to work in some of her material.

Finally arriving at the big office he shared with his father, he was pleased to find that the two lead members of his engineering team, Hank Sterling and Arvid Hanson, had arrived before him. “Find the problem?” Tom asked.

They exchanged glances, and Hanson answered: “We think so.”

Tom found the glances disquieting. “Is it a problem problem?”

 “It’s looking like a bigger problem than anyone could have guessed!”


 

 

 

 

CHAPTER 3

 

 

 

          TODAY’S CRISIS IN SHOPTON

 

 

 

 

TOM was dismayed at Arv’s pronouncement. Yet somehow he was not entirely surprised. The sinking feeling was all too familiar. “Sabotage?”

“We’re not using the ‘s-word’ this time,” Hank Sterling replied hastily. “Of course the day’s still young! The problem is technological, but pretty strange. The disturbing thing is that we can’t be certain just how far it goes.”

Tom nodded. “Hit me with it, guys.”

“Arv and I spent hours tracking the difficulty to one small component in the sensor for the gravitex-array modulators,” explained Hank, showing Tom some notes as Arv nodded. “And finally we narrowed it down to something even smaller.”

Hanson spoke up. “Much, much smaller, boss. A single microchip!”

Tom shrugged. “They do fail occasionally. We’ll replace it.”

But both engineers shook their heads. “It’s not that simple,” declared Sterling grimly. “We yanked it and put it under your leptoscope to examine its inner structure in detail. Tom, I know how this sounds, but― ”

Arv completed the thought. “The silicon in the chip is being eaten!”

The young inventor took a step back, not sure whether to frown gravely or laugh aloud. “I see. Eaten by what?”

Hank grinned. “See, Arv? I told you he’d take it calmly. What a pro.” Then he sobered. “Tom—you’ve seen microphotos of the synapses of people who have Alzheimer’s disease, haven’t you? How the dendrites look like they’ve been stripped down and chewed up? That’s what we saw on the leptoscope screen.”

“In my professional judgment as an engineer of Swedish descent, what you have here is an infestation of silicon-eating invisible termites,” pronounced Arv Hanson. “Each one about the size of a molecule.”

Tom glanced at the flip-calendar on his desk. “Nope—not April 1st.”

“We’re putting it jokingly, Tom, but the phenomenon is real,” Hank assured his young boss. “Come see for yourself.”

Tom had long since decided on a frown. “You saw nano-sized termites?”

“Well, no,” Sterling admitted. “But it’s a pretty good way to describe what we did see. The silicon-semicon grids have been thrashed, broken up by jagged gaps that really do look like something has been busy gnawing away at them.”

“Could it be some kind of acid?”

Arv quashed the idea. “It’s not diffuse; it’s a pinpoint effect. Concentrated acid droplets just don’t get that small. If it is some sort of chemical reaction, Hank and I have never run across anything like it. But look, Tom, we haven’t yet told you the worst.”

Hank Sterling was in charge of the worst. “Whatever’s going on, it’s spreading. The phenomenon has infected other silicon-based microelements in adjacent components!” He explained that the deterioration of the other components hadn’t yet reached the point of failure. “But it may be just a matter of time.”

Shocked and awed, Tom sank down into his desk chair. “Do you have any clue as to the mechanism of the infection—the process?”

“So far we don’t know any more than we’ve told you,” was Arv’s reply. “The erosion of the silicon doesn’t seem to take place very rapidly. We detected no change over several hours in the infected components, and for all we know the chip that failed may have been deteriorating for weeks or months.”

“Or days. The process may start slow, then accelerate exponentially,” Sterling cautioned.

Tom snorted. “Don’t try to cheer me up, Hank!” The youth was silent for several moments, taking deep draughts of thought. “If the phenomenon really does spread like some sort of infection or infestation, it could get passed along all through the plant—and on into the outside world! Good gosh, imagine what could happen to our civilization if high-tech microelectronics became undependable.”

“Supremely talented as I am, even I would have a hard time making a wrist-wearable computer out of vacuum tubes,” nodded Arv Hanson, who was Enterprises’ chief maker of models and miniature prototypes. “Man, you might as well try figuring a moon shot trajectory with a slide rule!”

“Do they even make slide rules any more?” Tom mused. “I’ll talk to Dad right away. But for now, fellows, we have to institute quarantine measures as a precaution.” Tom directed them to keep the exosuit in the test cube for observation, and the entire test chamber sealed underground. “Also, please isolate that chip and the other affected units.”

“Will do,” Hank promised. “We’ll keep ’em under glass. It’s mighty lucky your leptoscope works through glass, Tom.”

Worried but trying to keep any sign of panic from his voice, Tom immediately called his father at home. “It’s a very serious matter, obviously,” observed the elder scientist. “And yet—what do we really know? One chip shows internal decomposition of a very striking form; several chips in the vicinity also show defects—but as of now we can’t be certain that it’s even the same phenomenon at work. The test chamber control units were all constructed at the same time, you know. All these components might have been drawn from a single bad lot.”

“That’s true, I guess,” conceded Tom. “Some problem at the supply end. We can backtrack by the serial numbers.”

“Those components passed through many hands, son. The defect might be due to some kind of impurity in the original ore.”

There was reassurance in Damon Swift’s voice. Tom expressed his relief by chuckling. “Thanks for cooling me down. I was ready to alert the authorities!”

Mr. Swift joined the self-amused relief. “Who would have come charging in and shut down the entire plant. Now we’ll have a chance to actually solve the puzzle—not just puzzle over it.”

Tom’s father ended the call by wishing his son good luck in that evening’s interview. “Your mother and I will be watching, of course.”

Seven-thirty found the young inventor sharply dressed, pancaked, outlined in eyebrow pencil, miked, and fidgeting in a swivel chair in a small TV studio near the Shopton city limits. Consuela Flenck, petite and as slim as she could plausibly engineer, sat two feet from the lanky youth’s kneecap. “Welcome to ‘Today’s Crisis in Shopton’,” came booming from the darkness, “with Connie Flenck and a live studio audience.” Tom had seen the audience before the lights had gone down—several cameramen, an audio technician, a childlike director, and a woman who could have been Miss Flenck’s mother. And indeed, all were alive.

“Our special guest tonight needs no introduction. So I haven’t written one,” declared the interview host to the amusement of a titter-generator somewhere or other. She turned to the unintroduced guest. “Tom, you’re actually using one of your inventions right now, even as we speak.”

He nodded. “I sure am, Connie. Instead of reading from your prompter screen over there, I have a contact lens in my left eye that displays words in perfect focus, easy for me to read. It’s linked to a midget computer in my― ”

Miss Flenck interrupted. “You needed prompting to say ‘I sure am, Connie’?”

“No, I mean, I will be― ”

“Now then. Something new and very big is about to come forth from the Brain Factory on the other side of town. You call it an X-O suit. What does the ‘X-O’ stand for?”

“Er, actually... it’s ‘exosuit’, as in exobiology.”

“All right. What do those letters mean, in X-O biology?”

“It’s not letters—that is, it is letters, but not those letters—well, two of them are, but—” He stared helplessly. His ocular mini-prompter offered no help. “To explain...”

“Please.”

“An exoskeleton is a rigid covering that certain insects use, in place of bones, to support their bodies. But nowadays you hear it in reference to man-made frameworks that a person might wear to artificially enhance his strength, or to extend his reach. I’ve heard them called human amplifiers.”

“Mm-hmm. And now Swift Enterprises is coming out with one of these ‘humanplifying’ machines.”

Humanplifying? Tom hoped the mush-mouthy term wouldn’t catch on—a hope doomed to dashing. “The exosuit has room for two operators inside. The shell is extremely tough, its muscles are as strong as any of our Swift robots, and its huge stride allows it to move along at better than fifty miles per hour. Although it could have many uses here on Earth, we’re thinking of it as a tool for human exploration of other worlds.”

“So. Big and fast.” The woman smiled blandly. “Does that also describe its inventor?—I mean, we can see that you’re fast.” The mechanical audience ate it up and spat it back.

“I’m a little over six foot,” Tom replied, when he could. “The exosuit is about 25 feet from head to foot, and with his extensible arms up, you can add another 15 feet or so. As a matter of fact—” Tom made use of the joke that had been poised before his left eye since the interview began. “Um, ‘the exosuit is so big that he gave his girlfriend a basketball hoop as an engagement ring.’

“The machine has a girlfriend?”

“Well, no—I’m just illustrating how big it is. Matter of fact, I’ve nicknamed it Koku, after my great-grandfather’s shop assistant, who came from a South American tribe of people who are unusually tall.”

“We’ve all seen pictures of Tom Swift’s famous giant. What a life he had! Isn’t it true, Tom, that Koku was basically a slave?”

The youth flushed angrily. “A slave? Absolutely not! He was not only provided with free room and board, he was paid the same wages as every one of― ”

“That was before the minimum wage law was instituted, of course. A different world. Back in those days, speed meant faster than a horsecar. Times have changed. Don’t you think?”

Rather than challenging Miss Flenck’s daring assertion about time, Tom forced himself to cool down and, touching a hidden button, moved along to his next scripted joke. “Our aircraft, such as my Flying Lab, are the world’s fastest, Connie. Why, ‘you can lose both your luggage and your lunch in just three minutes’!”

Miss Flenck stared at Tom curiously. “Yes. Well. What sort of power does Koku run off of?”

“Atomic. You see, ‘lugging a really long extension cord all the way to Venus would be a problem.’ The exosuit uses one of my atomic power capsules, called a neutronamo.”

“Tom, ‘neutronamo’ sounds like something you’d yell jumping out of a plane.”

With a thin smile, the young inventor decided he had more than done his duty by Henrietta Weidenhauser’s wit. “Seriously, Connie― ”

“I thought we were being serious!”

Hahahahahahah!

“...one reason I’m here tonight is to make an announcement about the exosuit. To test it out, we’ve given ourselves a real-world challenge. If Koku stumbles, everyone’s going to know about it!”

 


 

 

 

 

CHAPTER 4

 

 

 

         NO-PLAYER PIANO

 

 

 

 

CONSUELA FLENCK showed no surprise on her pancaked face. Leaning forward in her chair, she put a petite hand to where her ear had been prior to cosmetic rethinking. “We all know the importance of secrecy these days, Tom. Just whisper it—I won’t tell a soul.”

“Aheh! Yeah. Well, our plan is to walk all the way across the country, New York to California!”

“Now that’s quite a walk. For publicity?”

“Swift Enterprises doesn’t need publicity.” Tom had a brief image of George Dilling shaking his head. “This is a real test of Koku’s basic capabilities over the long haul. We’ll be looking for opportunities to make use of his various systems in a spontaneous way, as they come up en route. Nothing will be planned in advance.”

“Will the exosuit be plastered over with decals, like a racing car? You could turn quite a profit auctioning advertising space.”

“No. We never― ”

“And that’s it for our premier guest tonight, Tom Swift,” pre-empted the host. “You’ve heard it here. Tom Swift and his humanplifying exosuit!—stomping your way soon on the streets of Shopton.”

As the program went to a commercial for the local organ mart, which was running a special on thyroid glands, a pert young girl rushed forward to free Tom from his collar mike. “It’s so nice to see you again,” she murmured.

“Have we met?”

“No, but we could.”

Standing, Connie Flenck offered the young inventor a limp, cool hand. “Thanks so much, Tom. Till next time.” Their hands touched briefly and she turned the laser of her attention elsewhere.

Tom’s drive home from the studio was a frown on four wheels, interrupted by a cellphone bleep. “Dan Perkins, Tom,” said the owner and editor of the Shopton Evening Bulletin.

“Hi, Dan. You caught me on the― ”

“Figured you’d be driving home. I saw the show, Tom. Now don’t fret about it. You’ll be avenged. It’s disgusting how the broadcast media sensationalizes everything—the old gotcha game. Flenck, she’s the worst. No principles. A piranha! Terrible kisser.”

Tom was puzzled as to how to respond. Was Enterprises’ one-upping news stalker trying to be kind? He dismissed the bizarre thought instantly. “Actually, I thought it went pretty well,” he said hesitantly.

Perkins chuckled. “Right. Glad you can joke about it, my friend. I was outraged on your behalf. I say: trust the print media! Says so right on our website.”

“Okay, Dan. Thanks.”

When Tom arrived home, he was surprised to find the lights dimmed funereally and only Sandy waiting up for him. “Mom and Dad went to bed a little early,” she explained.

“They saw the interview, though. Didn’t they?”

Sandy looked away. “Sure... I suppose they did.”

Tom knew he looked as pitiful as he felt. “I know I’m not a TV personality, San. Those jokes...”

“Oh Tom.”

“I should keep the day job?”

“Stick to inventing. By the way,” she added, “Bashi called.”

Her brother nodded. “Same sentiments?”

“Ohhhh Tom. But she said to call her tomorrow morning when you get a chance.” The girl paused, looking a bit resentful. “I gather she thinks you need some kind of ego stroking. She said something about my not being tactful. Hmmph!”

As the embarrassed young scientist-inventor began to drag himself upstairs, he glanced back down. “And did ‘He’ have an opinion?”

“Yes ‘He’ did, Tomonomo, as a matter of fact,” she replied pertly. “Which happens not to be any of your business!”

“Well,” said Tom, “I’m sure he’s seen a lot of comedy in his long life.” He smiled. She didn’t.

The next morning Tom gave a call to Bashalli from one of his labs, and they agreed to meet near noon at The Glass Cat coffeehouse, owned by her older brother. He had scarcely finished speaking to the young Pakistani when the phone beeped with a call routed from outside. It proved to be Henrietta Weidenhauser. In her thin, whispery voice, a voice that suggested ancient yellowed parchments that had learned to speak, she thanked her literary creation for making use of her materials on television.

She concluded by suggesting that his timing needed “work.”

As he plonked down the receiver he heard the clack of cowboy boots in the hallway. Right on time, he thought. And I need a little cheering up! He hastened to seat himself on a chair across the lab, leaning his head back so that his blond crewcut pressed against the front of a padded boxlike device attached to the wall just behind him.

Chow Winkler entered with his usual morning snack for Swift Enterprises executives and team leaders. “Mornin’, Tom,” said the rotund former range cook to his young friend. “Got some o’ them fritters you like. Had yer breakfast?”

“At home,” responded Tom with a hidden grin. “Say, Chow, isn’t ‘Home On The Range’ one of your favorite tunes?”

Chow’s gaudy-hued shirt bunched in a shrug. “Where’d you get that ideer, son? Even us Texans git tired o’ that old saw.” Seeing Tom’s face fall, he continued quickly, “Wa-aal, now, not t’say it ain’t a nice piece o’ music. Howcome you asked?”

“Oh, I learned how to play it on the piano.” He gestured and Chow’s baggy eyes followed. The cook noticed for the first time that a small upright piano had been rolled against the far wall of the lab.

The westerner nodded. “Been doin’ yer practicin’ here, hunh?”

“Yep. Want to hear?”

“Shor would, boss.”

Instead of rising from his chair, Tom leaned back relaxedly, resting his open palms on his knees, fingers spread wide. Suddenly Chow started as piano music began to tinkle out from across the room! He swiveled in surprise.

The bench in front of the upright was bare of life, but the keys on the piano were moving visibly up and down with no hand upon them. The tune plunked out was awkwardly done and barely recognizable, but “Home on The Range” it was—and inexplicable.

Chow turned back to Tom. “One o’ them m’chanical player pi-anees, is it?”

“Nope!” replied the youth in languid satisfaction. “I’m playing it myself, right now. For example, I can do this—” A pair of notes tinkled in the highest octave. “Or this—” Another pair tinkled at the low end.

Chow’s eyes narrowed. “Guess it’s one o’ them jokes you ’n Bud Barclay like t’play on me. You got a ree-mote c’ntrol on you?”

Tom held up both hands, palms wide. “See one?” Even as he spoke, the piano echoed the rhythm of his words.

Chow scratched his head, looking perplexedly back and forth between instrument and performer. “Guess I give up. Say now, you got Buddy Boy hisself a-hidin’ inside it?”

“Not at all, pardner.” The piano clunked out a last note. Tom stood up and stretched. “But you’re right about it being a joke.”

“Uh-huh. Figgers.”

“Still, it also gave me a chance to give another test to an invention of mine.” He slapped his friend on his broad back. “Had to see if I could sneak the gimmick past a shrewd cowpoke.”

Chow beamed. “Unnerstan’ that! So tell me about it.”

“I’m calling it the neural impulse intellitor.”

“Got a short version fer that one?”

“Just call it the neurintel,” laughed Tom. “It’s a sort of remote-control system I’m developing for use in the exosuit.”

“Right—that there human-firin’ exer-thing.” The Texan added, “Watched you on th’ TV last night.”

Tom paused but refused to let the reminder sour his mood. “Er—right. Chow, you remember Ole Think Box?”

The Texan chuckled. “Shor do! That’s the feller from space who couldn’t chew gum.”

“Our energy-brain visitor from Planet X. But Ole Think Box wasn’t the fellow himself, but the robotic container we designed to allow him to perceive the Earth environment and interact with it.”

“That’s right. Looked like a right big fireplug t’ these old eyes.”

“It wasn’t very stylish,” agreed Tom; “but it worked. We’ve developed some other things from that basic sense simulation technology since then, including the cortex-‘reader’ in the thoughtograph imager.”

Chow scratched the plain of barren skin that covered his own cortex. “Guess that’s th’ antenna that reads-off yer brain waves.”

“You could say that. Anyway, the neurintel is another step. It’s tuned to scan certain parts of the central nervous system for patterns of nerve activation that indicate...” He spent a moment searching for a term that Chow would grasp right off—but failed. “Well, it’s called a readiness wave.”

“Wa-aal now—I think I heard o’ that,” stated the cook. “Ain’t that what they do at football games?”

“It has another meaning too,” was the careful, polite response. “It’s a spreading pattern in the cortex and nervous system that happens just before you start to move your muscles—to reach for something, for example, or to press a button. See?”

“Guess I do. Before ya do it?”

“By a fraction of a second.”

“So what happens if y’ change yer mind?”

“I don’t know. I suppose there’s a second signal—disregard previous message! At any rate,” Tom continued, “the neurintel’s electronic sensors are able to detect the readiness wave and to interpret it. In other words, they can tell what a person is about to do with his muscles.”

“Uh-huh.”

“And then it does it for you!”

“Uh-huh. So’s you don’t hafta.”

“Exactly.”

“Now, son,” said Chow with a frown. “Don’t mean t’say a discouragin’ word, but ain’t that sorta the height o’ bein’ lazy? Jest what’re yew thinkin’, thet folks need to rest their blame button-pusher muscles?”

The pained, pointed remark made Tom laugh heartily. “You’ve got a point! But even with all the advances in artificial intelligence and face-recognition technology, our human reactions to the unexpected can still be quicker and more precise, or more delicate, than a robot’s. That could be important for planet explorers.

“And there might be a practical advantage to being able to do some simple routine sorts of things with your brain, by trained habit let’s say, while your hands are left free for—well, for whatever hands do best. You could learn a sort of ‘muscular code,’ if you see what I mean. When it’s perfected, a person could train himself to use it like an extra hand, just as we can do one thing with our right and something else with our left at the same time.”

“Guess that’s so,” Chow conceded. “Druther use my hands t’ shape the dough than t’ switch on the stovetop.” As a further thought struck him, he asked: “So now—you got your brain all trained to play the ol’ upright?”

Tom explained that Arvid Hanson had rigged up a set of tiny motors in the piano console to depress the keys from within. “The neurintel itself is inside this box on the wall, and the sensors, which have only a short range, are inside the panel I was leaning my head against. As I ‘tried’ to move my finger muscles, the neurintel transmitted an ordinary remote-control signal to the piano—and it played!”

“Didn’t see any twitch in your fingers, though.”

“No. Feedback from the machine suppresses overt movements of the selected muscles. Our bodies do the exact same thing every night, while we sleep.”

“Ceptin’ fer dogs. They allus got their paws twitchin’ when they dream about chasin’ rabbits. Funny thing t’see.” Sufficiently impressed for one morning, Chow turned to leave, then half-turned back. “Oh, and boss? Meant t’ say—about the show last night― ”

Tom groaned slightly. “I apologize.”

Chow shrugged. “Hunh? Fer what? I thought you did jest fine! Wa-aal, one thing, though—a person has gotta be a mite careful with how yuh say things. Don’t get your feelin’s hurt now, son, but some o’ them things you ’as saying made me laugh out loud!”

The young inventor worked for hours on the details of his exosuit, pondering, back somewhere in his mind, the worrisome matter of the silicon infection. He tried to remind himself not to fret. “So far the problem’s only shown up in a few of the chips in the test chamber equipment,” he murmured. “No trace of it anywhere else—such as the exosuit.”

As planned, Tom drove to The Glass Cat around noon to visit Bashalli and receive her irony-tinged sympathies, chatting with her as she tended the lunch crowd. As noontime slipped into afternoon, she said to her friend, “Moshan is taking the next shift, Thomas, while I go to the bank with a cash deposit. Will you join me for more of this pleasant banter?”

“Sure, Bash,” grinned the youth. “A little head-clearing banter sometimes leads to big ideas.”

“So I am told by Bud. I shall be his temporary substitute.”

The twosome strolled the block to the smallish World Commerce Bank of Shopton, enjoying the sun and the fresh breeze from Lake Carlopa. As they stood together in line, another line-stander, elderly but clearly in a jaunty mood, nodded at them. “Sweet day in Shopton,” he said.

“It is lovely,” agreed Bashalli.

But three seconds later, sweetness had flown and loveliness had turned ugly. The same man yelped out “Fire! Fire!” at the top of his lungs as a thick puff of smoke surged over the tellers’ countertop!


 

 

 

 

CHAPTER 5

 

 

 

          BANK BUSINESS

 

 

 

 

THE EARLY afternoon banking crowd was sparse, but proved themselves equal to the challenge. They panicked. The several tellers stumbled backwards away from the counter, the customers sprinted or tottered toward the walls, and only the armed guard approached the source of the smoke from his post at the door.

“Stay calm, everyone!” called out the bank president, Mr. Ablate, darting from his office in pursuit of his stomach. “There is no danger! We’re federally insured!”

Tom Swift and Bashalli Prandit stood their ground in the middle of the tiled floor. “Good night! If I had one of my repelexes― ”

“But you don’t,” interrupted the black-haired Pakistani. “It seems to be just a little fire, though,” she added. Then she added more: “In fact, do you see any flame? I see only smoke.”

Suddenly a shot rang out!—as shots seem always to do. An accompanying voice did not so much ring as dribble out. “All right, everybody, relax. Tellers, stay back from the counter. No button-pushing, please. Not even with your feet.”

It was the elderly man who had spoken pleasantly to Tom and Bash. He brandished a pistol in his hand, like someone who thought he knew how to use it well enough to do at least a little damage. “Now listen, ladies and germs, there’s no fire, just a little tiny smoke-maker, absolutely harmless—and it’s used up, anyway. Still, it sure got the tellers to back away from their alert buttons, didn’t it, folks? Excited the security guard, even brought my old friend Hyman Ablate out from his office before he could phone anyone. Oh, speaking of phones—” The man unpocketed a cellphone and set it down on the countertop. “Before you good people start fumbling with your speed-dial buttons, look at this little gizmo of mine. Won’t take your picture or call Grandma, but it does beam out static interference to keep other phones from making a connection. Not bad!—if you’re a bank robber.” He rotated toward the guard. “Naw, forget it, you just set that gun down, Barney, and slide ’er my way.” The crook-wannabe winked at the crowd. “Not that he could hit much after his breakfast round of Whiskey Sours.”

“Hey!” grumped the guard indignantly. “My doctor says I gotta stay relaxed!”

“It’s working, Barney. Your liver’s just about fallen asleep.”

“I suppose you want us to lie down,” snapped one irritated woman.

“No,” replied the man. “Just sit down, I guess. Keep your hands out where I can see ’em. Form a half-circle, like when you did ghost stories at camp.” As the nervous crowd complied, the man strode up to the main door, fixing it shut with a metal rod that he had hidden in the sleeve of his neighborly cardigan. “Someone’ll come along and get rattled soon enough, but this’ll only take a few minutes.”

“Augustus Tenney!” pronounced the bank president thunderously. “Do you really imagine you can get away with robbing this bank? Robbing your friends and neighbors, who have entrusted their hard-earned wages to this secure institution, with its friendly tellers, high interest rates, and free checking?”

“I’m making the speeches today, Hyman,” responded Tenney with a chuckle. “You know, folks, when he says ‘high interest rates’, he means the rates on the loans he makes.” Holding the gun casually, as if its barrel were a microphone, he began to rove around the circle, an expression of merriment creasing his face. “Who do we have here today? Anybody here from Iowa? Well look—Rick Fourth! His family has a street named after ’em. Here’s Sammy Bondoola, a real idiot. —no, don’t say anything, Sammy, I’m just quoting your father.”

Tom jolted slightly as Bashalli giggled, and Mr. Tenney turned in their direction with a wide smile. “And here we have today’s celebrity guest, young Tom Swift, along with his wink-wink girlfriend from that hippie coffeehouse down the block.” He took a step closer. “Just kidding. The Glass Cat offers a wide range of flavorful coffees at a very affordable price.”

“I thought you looked familiar,” Bash said. “Thank you.”

“Don’t mention it.” The man now commenced a rambling speech to his nervous, bemused, attentive audience. It seemed the time had come to speak of many things. He made pithy comments about wealth and poverty, local politicians, weather, taxes, gun control, motion pictures, the New York Police Department, internet spam, and rap music. “And as for that great big concrete box of discounts over at the edge of town, I say: what about the woodlands? Is cheap hairspray worth the massacre of hundreds of homeless squirrels? You tell me, ‘Mr. Deveen’, who used to be known as Herbert Kropp of Sulphronia, Arkansas! I’m not saying you’re not a good stylist, Kropp, but whatever happened to the American barber?”

“Mr. Tenney—is it Augustus?—you have a lot to say, but scaring people is no way to get them to really listen to you,” said Tom gently.

“True enough,” the man replied. “And it’s Gus. But don’t assume I expect to make any changes in this world. A little late in the day for that. I’m just here to—” He paused, then grinned, and his grin became a laugh. “Why, I’m here to rob a bank! Better get on with it. Time’s almost up.”

Tenney emptied some money from a cash drawer into a plastic bag, then headed for the front door, which he unfastened. “Well, everybody, I’ve said my piece. Big clock on the wall says it’s time to go. Listen, you’ve been a great audience, and I do thank you for your time and your kind attention. Meant a lot to me. Sure did.”

With a nod, he left the bank.

“Crazy,” muttered Sammy, the real idiot.

“Do you know him, Mr. Ablate?” asked Bashalli as she regained her feet.

“Know him? Not really, no. The man lives in a house trailer!” The bank president sniffed contemptuously. “Of course I try to be friendly to our customers. This is a bank with a friendly face. I sent him a cheese log last Christmas.” As a teller approached and said something in low tones, Mr. Ablate shook his head. “No need to use the expensive alarm system we just put in, Rita. I assume we can contact the police directly.”

“Use the land line,” urged Rita.

“Do I look stupid?” he huffed. “It’s Sammy Bondoola who’s the idiot around here.”

“It just happened the one time,” protested the youth.

As Tom and Bash hurried from the building a police car roared past, followed, unexpectedly, by an ambulance. “They must think someone is injured,” said the girl.

Tom frowned. “But they’re not stopping.”

The vehicles screeched around a corner, and Tom and Bashalli joined some other pedestrians who were trotting after them curiously.

The vehicles stopped next to where a small crowd was growing. A white-haired figure lay spread-eagled on the sidewalk next to a spread-eagled bag of cash. “He just started gasping, and then he fell down,” a woman was explaining to a police officer, cellphone in her hand.

Bashalli gasped too. “My word! It’s― ”

Tom touched the responding officer’s elbow. “He just robbed the bank, officer. His name is Tenney.”

“Well, he’s not nobody no more,” said the ambulance medic who was bending over the body. “He’s gone.”

“But—but—” objected Bashalli, “with those electrical shocker-things you use― ”

“TV lover, huh. This guy isn’t fibrillating, lady, he’s just plain dead.”

“He was fine just minutes ago,” Tom told the officer.

“He’s still fine,” shrugged the officer. “He’s just not here.”

Tom whirled as a familiar voice called out, “Tom! Bash!”

“Bud!”

“Just got back,” panted the dark-haired, muscular youth as he came running up. “So what do I see right off? Tom and Bash running after an ambulance!”

The two gave a concise, breathless account of the bank business to their friend. “And now the guy’s dead? Jetz!” exclaimed Bud Barclay in amazement.

“And it was just the other night that Sandra spoke of ‘weird all the time,’ was it not?” noted Bashalli.

Hoping to investigate the bizarre incident further, Tom asked Bud to run Bash back to her shop in his red convertible, parked recklessly somewhere in the vicinity of a curb. But before they could leave, an unfamiliar voice made Tom look up. “Tom, Bud—good luck!” It came from a nondescript figure in the crowd, who waved.

“Who’s that?” Bud inquired.

The young inventor shrugged. “A well-wisher.”

“Perhaps a television viewer who thinks Tom needs it,” stated Bash dryly.

Tom sped to the Shopton PD police station and sought out Captain Rock, a longtime friend of Tom and his father. “Already heard all about it,” Rock said. “Just about everyone in the bank called the station as soon as their cells got up and running. It’s just unbelievable, Tom.” He paused to shake his head. “Unbelievable! Barney Ferlands back on the bottle again. Dinny dan doh, that poor cocker spaniel of his.”

Tom inquired whether the culprit, Augustus Tenney, had any sort of reputation with the police. “Nothing criminal,” was the reply. “A pretty nice guy, matter of fact. Lived in Shopton all his life. Wife passed on some years ago, but he’s got children out there somewhere. I guess I’ll have to be the one who calls them.”

“Was he some sort of recluse?” Tom asked. “Older people can develop—problems.”

“Yeah. So can young guys like me,” snorted the officer. “I never heard anything about him having mental lapses, if that’s what you’re driving at. He wasn’t a shut-in or recluse, either—went shopping, talked to his neighbors, took vacations, normal as anybody.”

The youth said frowningly, “What a strange occurrence. He seemed more interested in talking to us than in robbing the bank. Good night, that small amount of money he took hardly justified the effort!”

“And then a block away, down he goes,” mused Rock. “Guess old Shopton was just next in line.”

Tom was puzzled. “What do you mean?”

“What, you haven’t read about it? Tom, I’m bettin’ our fair burg has just been hit by the Nonsense Wave!”


 

 

 

 

CHAPTER 6

 

 

 

          XENOCULOUS POSSIBILITIES

 

 

 

 

“I’M SORRY,” responded Tom Swift. “Did you say—nonsense wave?”

“Sure did,” nodded Captain Rock. “You don’t know what it is?”

“Isn’t it something they do at football games?”

The man chuckled. “Gotta remember that. No, my friend, it’s what the papers have started calling a series of very peculiar events taking place across the country—city to city, running north up the Atlantic states. Guess it’s mostly back page stuff so far. Little humorous stories.”

“Tell me about it, won’t you?” urged the young inventor.

Rock shrugged. “Each one’s different as far as the details. The only thing that really ties ’em up is just the fact that they’ve all been bank robberies pulled by ordinary citizens, not pros. Coincidence.”

“I’ve learned to be a little skeptical when coincidences come too thick, Captain,” observed Tom with a smile.

“Good policy. Well now, this one’s number six. Priors in Fort Lauderdale, Charleston, Richmond, Trenton, and just a couple days ago in Syracuse. All of them spaced out since the first of the year.”

Tom rubbed his chin. “Then this would be the first time there’ve been two robberies in the same state. And also—all the others have been big cities. Shopton isn’t.”

“That I’d definitely agree with,” said Captain Rock. “But I suppose the news people will roll it in with the others, to make a better story.”

“I’m still not clear on why they call it a Nonsense Wave.”

“Oh, well... Now I’m gonna have to dredge up a few items from my memory, Tom. They’ve all been just as strange and senseless as this Tenney business. They get the customers in a helpless position, then do things that aren’t so much dangerous as off the wall. First robbery, the guy stripped off his clothes—every stitch, interested onlookers reported, and he wasn’t exactly a gym-goer—and ran out the door that way, money bag in hand. Let’s see—a lady acted out a scene from a current movie. A teenage boy sang songs like one of those Las Vegas lounge guys. The Trenton fellow dumped a gallon of blue paint over the head of a customer. The old lady in Syracuse just told jokes—dirty ones, they say.”

“That’s terrible!”

“Actually, they were pretty good.”

“But what’s the point? The connection?”

“There is no connection, Tom. Silly things like this happen all the time, but sometimes, on a slow day, the news guys pick it up and run with it. It’s just people. Never underestimate the eccentricity of the human race.”

Tom shrugged. “I don’t. But Captain—don’t you think there are a few common threads here? You said these are plain citizens without records, stealing negligible amounts while... I don’t know—it almost seems they’re forcing people to watch them do things they’ve always wanted to do but haven’t dared.”

“A real captive audience! Okay, I’ll concede the point,” declared Rock. “And if you really want to push it, I guess there’s something else, too. Of the six bank robbers, three were dead, of natural causes, within twenty-four hours—including our Mr. Tenney!”

“Natural causes,” Tom mused. “I can’t make anything of that.”

“No one can. Let it go, Tom,” urged the older man.

He’s right, Tom thought, rashly and all-too-hastily, as he left the station. For once this nonsense has nothing to do with Enterprises—or with me!

The attempted bank robbery was all over the local papers for days, but Tom set it aside as he made preparations for his test-trek across the country in Koku. As always, his best pal would be by his side.

“What’s the actual itinerary, genius boy?” asked Bud. “Have you mapped it all out? I suppose we’ll be stalking along the major highways.”

“We can’t,” Tom explained in reply. “The legal department has had to get all kinds of permits and permissions to do what we want to do, and we had to agree to keep clear of major thoroughfares and big-city streets, to prevent traffic jams and, er, stepping on people. We’ll be crossing some national parks, federal reserves, and military bases, though—even an Indian reservation!” He added that, with some effort, he had gained permission to invade a few towns along the way to test, with gentle care, Koku’s superhuman abilities.

“Man! So where does this jaunt end up, Tom? Hey—how ’bout San Francisco? We could stay with my folks!” enthused the young pilot.

Tom grinned but said, “No-can-do this time, flyboy. We’ll cross into California through the desert south of the mountains and end up on the El Toro Marine Base, on the coast near San Diego.”

“Assuming that silicon bug doesn’t stop you,” Bud noted.

The comment brought a shadow to the face of the young inventor. “There’s no trace of a problem in the exosuit, but we still don’t know the cause of the phenomenon. The leptoscope doesn’t show anything unusual, nor the Swift Spectroscope.”

“Have you thought of this?—Maybe it’s one of those micro-robots, the nano-things you’ve dealt with that are smaller’n germs. Saboteurs always keep up with the latest.”

“We checked out the possibility right away. So far it doesn’t look like the answer. Anyway, pal,” continued Tom, “you and I and Koku will be ‘stepping off’ sometime tomorrow.”

“Not too early, I hope!”

After an affectionate chuckle, Tom said: “You know, pal, I haven’t really had a chance to ask you—how did things go last week, spending time with those old buds of yours?”

The present bud winced slightly. “It was okay... I guess. People sure can change over just a few years. Soupo’s married—that’s what he calls it—; Bunk has a degree in, get this, medieval literature; and Chad owns a bar downtown. Good night, were they ever dull!”

“You don’t suppose they might have been a little—envious?”

“Yeah. Green! So what’d they think I’d do with my life, hang around Fisherman’s Wharf?”

“Instead, you went to the moon—and Mars!” Tom nodded.

“Jetz! And what’d I get spending a few days in Waterfield with those three? Nothin’. We spent all our time eating and telling wheezy old jokes and playing poker. Matter of fact, I lost my shirt.”

Tom looked humorously disapproving. “Maybe you shouldn’t play poker for money.”

“I didn’t!” was the indignant retort.

Late in the day the two Swifts’ efficient secretary and receptionist announced an unexpected visitor—Tom’s mother. “Oh really?” Eyebrows up, Tom reacted in surprise. “Thanks, Trent.” He stood to greet his mother, and unconsciously sat up straighter as they both seated themselves.

“Gosh, Mom, you hardly ever drop by to see me! Nothing wrong, is there?”

Tom’s words bore implications that a mother could easily decipher. “No, Dear,” replied Mrs. Swift crisply. “This has nothing to do with your sister and her... suitor. I was out shopping, over in Mansburg, and I just thought I’d drop in on the way home.”

“Hmm.” It appeared that the son was a tad skeptical of the mother’s explanation.

“And—something else.”

“Aha!”

“About the problem you’re having. The silicon eater.”

The young scientist-inventor could not suppress a look of amazement and even higher eyebrows. “You have an idea― ”

“Now Tom,” said Anne Swift with patient motherly indulgence, “I did have a bit of a life before I became a wife and mother. Why, my goodness, I even had an advanced degree!”

Tom nodded with a sheepish laugh. “Sorry, Mom. I haven’t forgotten your degree in molecular biochemistry.”

“I do hope you recall it to mind with every bite of pot roast.”

“But—are you saying—the silicon thing could have something to do with biochemistry?” Tom frowned. “You think it really is some kind of nano-termite?”

“No,” responded Mrs. Swift. “But my active scientific mind was fully engaged even as I shopped at Mordlen’s. I remembered something I’d read a year or so ago in Ladies’ Home Journal of Molecular Biochemistry. I have the issue on the library shelf with the others. That shade of teal makes such a nice color accent.”

“What was it about?”

She smiled prettily. “Now I have your attention! The article was about, basically, the history of speculations in the research field that never panned out, never led to anything. One of the examples was a theory—a warning—about something with a memorable name. They called it a xenocule.”

“Never heard of it, I’m afraid,” shrugged Tom. “But the name must mean something like ‘strange molecule’.”

“Mm-hmm. I don’t recall all the details, but the idea was that somewhere in the process by which they manufacture silicon-based semiconductor chips, there’s a statistical chance that single super-complex molecules could turn up as a contaminant, by accident. They have peculiar properties—dangerous ones. As a matter of fact,” she went on, like a grim-faced magician delightedly producing a rabbit, “the thing about xenocules is this: they eat silicon!”

Mrs. Swift’s rabbit made Tom rear so far back in his chair that he had to windmill his arms to regain his balance. “Mom, that’s—fantastic!”

“Makes me a Swift, doesn’t it?”

“I’ll say!” The young inventor immediately called Hank Sterling and the head of Enterprises’ materials science division, Shan Lilof, and asked them to hasten to the office.

“Can’t say I’m familiar with the concept,” was Sterling’s response to Anne Swift’s account. “Great name, though. Xenocule!”

“I remember the original research, Mrs. Swift,” Lilof declared. “We studied it in a university class as an example of premature theorizing, along the lines of ‘polywater’ and the ‘cold fusion’ business. The mainstreamers concluded it was too unlikely to be worthy of consideration, although they couldn’t totally dismiss the possibility. Which didn’t stop them from snickering, of course.”

“It just may be that now it’s more than a possibility,” retorted Tom. “And if it’s getting spread around—or somehow spreading itself—it’s a terrible threat!”


 

 

 

 

CHAPTER 7

 

 

 

          BAD TRIP

 

 

 

 

AT HOME that evening, Tom read the journal article avidly, then called up further information and comment via computer. The accidental antagonist from the microworld was just as Mrs. Swift had recollected, a dreadful threat to the modern world of microelectronic technology. One article was prefaced by the dire-sounding warning issued by a team of international scientists to a couldn’t-care-less global community:

“We suggest the probability that a unique molecular soliton, a ‘xenocule’, will eventually manifest as a byproduct of the manufacturing process, the likelihood of its appearance increasing dramatically as such manufacturing comes to dominate the world industrial economy. Bonding to the monoatomic vertices of the silicon crystal lattice, the xenocule will tend to ‘trap’ and dissociate weakly-bound terminus atoms, producing a free-ion plasma shunted by Van der Waal traction to the facia extremities, progressively degrading the product to unusability.” The article went on to describe how the lifeless molecule would be able to mimic a retrovirus, using its silicon nourishment to effectively replicate itself, spreading unchecked to neighboring materials.

Tom sat on the edge of his bed, running over the worrisome scenario with increasing alarm. Was the molecular virus being introduced deliberately in a plot to destroy modern civilization? Or was it indeed an accident? How could the contamination be quarantined?

Could it even be stopped at all?

So much for a good night’s sleep, the youth thought ruefully. And then he began to ponder the consequences if the exosuit’s complex circuitry had been undetectably infected. Good gosh, the cross-country trip could make us Typhoid Marys! He was still thinking it as the first snore came unannounced.

Morning light dissipated much of the fear, but not the possibility. Tom discussed the matter with his father over breakfast. “Do you think it’d be best to postpone our trip, Dad?”

Damon Swift frowned. “I’m reluctant to. I’ve been reviewing everything your inspection team has come up with, and I don’t see the slightest indication of any sort of degradation or contamination in the exosuit’s circuitry. Furthermore, even the theorists admitted that these xenocules are big, bulky things, as molecules go. You saw the drawings—like complicated knots all tangled together. They could hardly be expected to penetrate even a thin layer of shielding. And Koku is sealed tighter than a drum.”

“Yes—Inertite, Tomasite, and Neo-Aurium.”

Mr. Swift added a chuckle. “And then, of course, we wouldn’t want to upset George Dilling!”

Tom laughed. “Okay, Dad, you’ve talked me into it—just as I’d hoped!”

Tom said his goodbyes to his family, adding a mischievous goodbye to be conveyed to Quimby Narz, which Sandy received without retort. “For once, don’t push the envelope too far, big brother,” she said with big eyes. “And take care of Bud.” Sleeping in shifts along a zig-zagging course, Tom had estimated that the road trip would take about four days.

Picking up Bud, Tom sped over to The Glass Cat to receive Bashalli Prandit’s fond bon voyage, then drove on to Swift Enterprises. They found Koku gleaming and ready, looming over the plant airfield like a mammoth, silent sentinel. “He’s been stocked up with food and given a last checkout by Art Wiltessa,” Tom told his pal. “We’re ready to roll!—mm, walk.”

“You could’ve stopped after ‘food’, genius boy!”

From sole to crown, Tom’s exosuit stood two stories tall on curving treetrunk legs of golden metal—ultrastrong, ultralight Neo-Aurium mined on the floor of the Atlantic. Above extended hip joints, the broad torso of the giant rested upon a gimballed waist which allowed it to bow at an acute angle or turn at will. Its arms were powerful looking and apelike, the curled metal bands of its “fingers”—twelve in all—spreading from the concave “palms” of hands that hung down to the metal creature’s knee joints. Its head was a molded sphere, its face a flat, dark panel rectangular in shape. From the center of this panel protruded a single huge, glassy eye, making Koku a mechanical Cyclops.

Bud, who had been given training on the exosuit’s operation in Enterprises’ elaborate 3-D simulator, pressed the DNA-reading contact switch on the giant’s heel. The vehicle’s rear access door swung up and open, and a flexible ladder of Duraflexon unrolled down to them and turned rigid.

They assumed their seats before the view dome, and Tom actuated the control panel and monitors. “Ready, flyboy? I’m going to walk him out under manual control, then switch to the neurintel on the other side of the wall.”

“Ready like you wouldn’t believe!” enthused the black-haired mission copilot.

Out on the tarmac a large crowd of Enterprises employees and friends, along with a throng of news people, had gathered to see the machine’s first big steps on the road to California. The boys noted Mr. Swift standing next to Jake Aturian, who was the chief of the Swift Construction Company. They picked out Hank and Arv, Linda Ming and her brother Felix, Doc Simpson, pilot Slim Davis, Markham Wesberg, Bob Jeffers, and many others, all friends. Security director Harlan Ames was a dignified hat-wearer, joined by stocky Phil Radnor, his assistant.

“Look, Tom, there’s that—I mean, there’s Dr. Kupp,” said Bud, indicating a somehow blurry, blinking figure who appeared more theoretical than real.

“And George Dilling, naturally.”

But as always, one bystander didn’t just stand by, but stood out—like a roly-poly western-themed signal flare. Picking up the microphone, Tom switched on the exosuit’s exterior phonosystem. The invention utilized the shell of the suit as a sound transceiver, making it a super-microphone and projecting loudspeaker in one. Tom had adapted the basic approach from a similar setup used by his hydrolung diversuits.

“Chow! You didn’t need to get all gussied up just to see us off!” boomed Koku with the voice of Tom Swift.

The big crowd echoed the cook’s good-natured laughter. “Picked up this ol’ shirt jest fer sayin’ adios, boss!” he called out. “You young’ns eat right on this trail drive o’ yours.”

Bud took the microphone and said, “We’ll sure try, buckaroo! But we’ll be ready for the Armadillo Special when we get back!”

Leaning over the control board, Tom slipped his hands into a pair of glove-like handgrips and, with a wink at Bud, eased the right lever forward. In response the giant assumed a barely-noticeable tilt as it began to swing out its right leg for the first step on its journey of a thousand miles.

The tilt did not remain barely-noticeable. The youths cried out as Koku swayed alarmingly! “What in—!” gasped Tom. “Bud, we’re falling over!”

“Jetz! Koku’s tripping!”

The exosuit leaned further, turning and shifting as if it were straining to regain its footing. But it was no use. Like a toppling redwood, the multi-ton colossus arced down toward the frantic crowd below!


 

 

 

 

CHAPTER 8

 

 

 

          UNIDENTIFIED WALKING OBJECT!

 

 

 

 

“BUD! The gravitexes!” Tom Swift barked, and Bud understood the command. His strong hands flew at the duplicate controls in front of him, manually adjusting the gravity concentrators to provide extra stabilizing force.

Even as he spoke, Tom was trying to right the exosuit, or at least to slow the giant’s fall. Force-beams from repelatrons concealed inside Koku’s golden shell stabbed out in the direction of the tarmac. The young inventor knew it would take a second or two for the telespectrometers to tune the repulsion machines to the element-mix of the surface. Did he have a second or two?

After a heart-thudding hesitation, the toppling giant slowed—and stopped. It hung weirdly in mid-fall at an angle of forty-five degrees, bobbing slightly.

The terrified crowd had begun to scatter, but one rotund figure had lost his own balance and remained unscattered. Chow Winkler thudded down wincingly, white face turned up at Koku’s huge golden one.

“Chow...!” muttered Tom in horror. For all he knew, the exosuit could resume its crushing fall any moment! He set at the controls like lightning, reconfiguring two of the repelatrons and tuning them to the cotton fibers in Chow’s clothing.

The Texan’s cowboy hat bolted off into the wind, and it looked like his gaudy-hued shirt was about to follow it. He chortled out a whoop of astonishment as an invisible force swept him roughly across the tarmac in a sitting position, shoving him out of harm’s way.

Yet in the end the robotcraft did not fall. As the repelatrons, gravitexes, and gyros took hold, Koku slowly swung vertical again.

Bud sighed his relief, but Tom was already trying to untangle the problem. Was it possible that the silicon-eater had invaded the exosuit after all? The thought haunted him.

Seeing Slim Davis waving at him, Tom switched the phonosystem back on. “Skipper, the right leg flexed but didn’t lift! The thing tripped over its own feet!”

“I didn’t touch a darn thing!” came a defensive voice from back in the crowd—Dave Bogard’s.

“I’m checking it out up here,” responded the young inventor tersely. “Arv, Hank, plug into the peripherals and see what you come up with.”

Arvid Hanson produced a handheld diagnostic readout unit. With Hank at his shoulder, the modelmaker unsealed and opened an access panel in the exosuit’s ankle and connected to an output port. After a moment Hank called out, “Nothing obvious at this end, Tom.”

But Tom had discovered the cause of the giant’s near stumble, and it reddened his face with chagrin. “Uh, folks—problem found and corrected. It was my fault. When I went manual I forgot to switch over the gradient sensors. Koku didn’t know where the ground was! Sorry.”

“That there’s okay, son,” yelled Chow, rubbing his ample backside. “Now git goin’!” He may have had a bit more to say, but Tom wisely switched the phonosys to Off.

This time Koku redeemed himself from disgrace. Ten mammoth strides, weirdly graceful and delicate, took the exosuit to Enterprises’ high perimeter wall. Pausing, Tom swiveled the robotcraft at the waist and waved goodbye to the crowd with the machine’s ponderous metal arms, extending them toward the sky to their maximum reach. Then, turning the upper chassis forward again, he guided Koku over the wall in a single high step.

“He didn’t get woozy that time,” chortled Bud excitedly.

Tom returned a grin. “With all the stabilizing gimmicks we’ve built into the suit, Koku could balance on one leg as steadily as if it were set in concrete.” He added wryly: “Unless the human pilot forgets to switch ’em on, of course.”

Outside the wall, Tom brought Koku to a standstill and pulled the thick-padded headrest of his seat forward. When he had positioned it comfortably he flipped a control switch and leaned back against it. The board beeped. “Contact!” he said to Bud. “Let’s see if the Swift brain is smart enough to put a robot through his paces.”

Pretending to ignore his pal’s nervous gulp, Tom tried to raise his arms. The youth’s arms of flesh and bone did not move a micro-inch—but the exosuit’s stretched upwards like a sun worshipper! Tom spent a minute practicing opening and closing Koku’s hands and extending various instruments from the giant’s fingertip compartments.

“Now a few neurintel baby-steps!” At Tom’s words the exosuit lurched forward, one foot, other foot.

“What’s it feel like, genius boy?” asked Bud.

It was Koku who responded, making a gesture like a shrug of the hand. “Got to watch that!” laughed the young inventor. “As for the feeling, chum, it’s very strange. It seems like I’m moving my arms and legs and striding forward—and yet they don’t move.”

“I had knee surgery once, and they anesthetized my footballer legs,” Bud commented. “When I thought I was lifting my foot a couple inches, it was more like a kickoff!”

The exosuit walked along across the undeveloped field that bordered that corner of Swift Enterprises in sync with its inventor’s will and muscle-commands, but it took some time for Tom to accustom himself to walking while sitting down, as he expressed it. But soon enough the machine was able to walk smoothly.

“Those big feet must be leaving some major footprints in the soft ground,” remarked Bud. “When the rain fills ’em up, maybe we can stock ’em with trout.”

Tom retorted, “Don’t forget, those ‘big feet’ distribute the suit’s weight over a fairly large area. And more than that,” he went on, “we’ve stocked some big blocks of G-inverted anti-ballast at several places inside the exo.”

“Right, the stuff that makes things lighter. So let’s give up on the fishing and teach Koku some ballet steps!”

The Mayor of Shopton had declared a mid-morning celebration in Tom and Koku’s honor, clearing the main road like a parade route. As the youths made their way up the deserted highway toward town, Bud pointed out that the skies above were far from deserted. “Jetz, look at all those choppers!” he exclaimed.

“News copters,” pronounced Tom with a trace of concern. “The authorities are worried they’ll start crashing into each other, and so am I. But I’ve got a plan to handle the problem.”

Bud grinned mischievously. “Koku can fire antiaircraft missiles?”

“Just wait!”

The rural highway merged into Commerce Avenue, running down the middle of town and now lined with rank upon rank of excited onlookers. Tom greeted them by phonosys and waved jauntily and gigantically. Coming opposite The Glass Cat, he raised, then lowered Koku’s right arm, bringing it near the roof of the building. Extending a delicate gripper-tendril from a fingertip, he rapped loudly on the roof, and Bashalli came running out in her apron, waving and laughing merrily.

Further along Tom came to a furniture store, its owner a friend of the Swifts. The young inventor made a quick cellphone call as Bud looked on, puzzled.

As some employees dragged a couple large beanbag chairs out onto the sidewalk, Tom gripped his microphone. “Ladies and gentlemen, please step back and give Koku a little room to display one of his talents.”

The giant turned toward the shop and bent over slightly, stretching his arms and spreading his bouquet of metal fingers. He picked up one beanbag in his left hand, the other in his right, then stood straight. “Let’s hope Koku and I don’t make fools of ourselves,” he muttered side-wise to Bud. “I taught myself to do this while I was testing out the neurintel interface with the motor-muscles.”

The exosuit tossed one of the beanbags into the air, tentatively, catching it again as it fell back. Then Tom tossed it higher—and simultaneously flipped the other beanbag across to the now-empty hand. In a moment Bud was alight with happy amazement. Koku was juggling!

Inevitably Tom fumbled a beanbag and the show was over, but the crowd had already grown hoarse from roaring delight and limp from applause. The giant bowed primly, while inside Bud applauded.

The exosuit resumed its lope.

Commerce Avenue ended at the recreation pier on Lake Carlopa. With a glance at his copilot, Tom guided the exosuit forward in confident strides—right into the Lake!

“Good night, Skipper, you might’ve warned me!” laughed the young Californian gleefully.

“And spoil the surprise? Anyway, I wanted to give the exo a real-time underwater test,” Tom said. “Could be useful on Neptune’s moon Triton. There may be oceans of liquid water beneath its icy surface.”

They marched further and further from shore as sailboats and motorcraft made way with toots and shouts. The waterline rose to the bottom of the viewpane—then surged over it. In seconds the robotcraft was completely submerged, head and all. Abruptly changing direction, Tom said, “Now let’s see the flying newsies chase after us!”

“Bet Dan Perkins is up there somewhere.”

“He can stay up there ‘somewhere’!”

Demonstrating the suit’s main features, Tom split the underwater gloom with a beam of brilliant light that issued from Koku’s cyclops-eye like a science fiction death ray. “Mighty bright,” Bud commented, “but it’s hard to see anything, what with all this muckety-murk our boy’s stirring up around us.”

“Then how about this?” A change in the board readouts showed that Tom had used the neurintel to make an adjustment to the control settings. Bud started back in his seat as the confused glare beyond the dome was replaced by a sharp, clear scene, brilliantly lit.

“Man oh man!” breathed Bud. “Bring on the sun! I suppose it works like the aqualamps on your subs, hmm?”

The young inventor nodded—about all he was able to do while his muscles were keyed to the neurintel and kept “offline”. “But the aqualamp setup can’t do this!”

The view was suddenly magnified, as if a powerful telescope had annihilated distance. “Don’t forget, Bud, this isn’t just a nice picture window; we can make the pane opaque and turn the inner surface into a digitized TV screen. Besides the polyfrequency light beam, we can see in sonar, radar, infrared, ultraviolet, all sorts of modes. I could even bring up a spectroscopic profile or a computer schematic.”

“How about a sitcom?”

“Sure. Bored already?”

“Not just yet.”

Koku rose up out of the lake in a wooded area some distance from town, and Tom turned southward as planned. The arching trees apparently shielded them from aerial view. The distant choppers, discouraged, appeared to be scattering.

They advanced steadily on a prescribed, somewhat isolated route across woodland and farmland, occasionally stepping across a stream, ducking under a bridge, or, now and then, paralleling a roadway. Noting the startled swerves and goggling stares of drivers, Tom announced: “I guess it’s time to do a little ‘silent running.’ Or at least unseen walking!”

The board readouts changed, but no change was apparent through the viewpane. “Did you do something?” asked Bud, puzzled.

“Not much. Just made us invisible.”

“What!”

“Okay, not exactly invisible—but hard to see.” Moving into Barclay explanation mode as he liked to do, Tom reminded his friend that the exosuit was outfitted with a unique kind of camouflage system based upon Tom’s 3-D telejector. “Photon holoceivers up on top detect and analyze the wavefront patterns coming in with the reflected light from all sides. Then telejector antennas hidden inside the shell produce a curving ‘screen’ around and above us that reproduces the opposite-side images in 3-D, as if Koku had turned to glass.”

Bud looked abashed. “Bet that was part of the training, wasn’t it. I knew I should’ve read the manual.”

After a time the pilots brought up a computer map onto their big screen to see where they had gotten to. “Just east of Terris Palma,” Tom murmured. “Let’s see now, here’s the river... then down to Kossuth... We should be having lunch somewhere in the wilds of Pennsylvania.”

“Well, it’s got to be more exciting than Waterfield,” remarked Bud.

The giant’s legs and hips were configured in such a way that the up-and-down swung of the exosuit’s strides were compensated for, giving the pilots a smooth ride across any sort of terrain. For long stretches it was possible to leave Koku to his inbuilt cybertron unit, his sophisticated automatic pilot, with only an occasional correction—mostly in the best interests of wandering cows.

In the quiet of the pilot compartment the boys chatted about the future of human-amplifying devices. “It’s a different direction for robotics and cybernetics,” Tom told his friend, turning his head slightly against the neurintel headrest. “There’s a place for machines built entirely with efficiency in mind, but the human form—and the brain that runs it—have been developing for quite a while to deal with whatever nature cooks up. We shouldn’t be so much in love with techno-stuff that we get prejudiced against finding uses for human technology. Do you see what I mean?”

Bud’s unexpected response was: “Do you see what’s going on out there, Tom?”

“Hunh?” Tom swiveled his blue eyes back to forward for a startled look. “Gosh, what’s the matter with those people?”

They had come near a dirt road not clearly marked on the map—but evidently much more used by the locals than the map assumed. The road was crowded with pickup trucks, farm tractors, bikes, and motorcycles, with more converging on Koku across the wide fields on either side. And there were people too, running and waving their arms and shouting as if in a frenzy of excitement.

Or was it fear? Concerned, Tom briefly switched on the phonosys, cutting it off again as the cabin filled with yells and horn-honks.

“Excited greetings from the locals?” speculated Bud with no conviction.

“They don’t look happy, pal, they look afraid.” The puzzled scientist-inventor brought the exosuit to a halt. Blanking the viewpane, he brought up television programming. Brief channel-surfing produced a news report. “...still coming in of rumor and panic along the way. But we’re told that curiosity is also playing a role, Frank.”

“We sure are, Cindy. To bring our viewers up to speed, authorities and news outlets have been flooded with reports of an unidentified phenomenon moving southward across northern Pennsylvania.” Pictures cobbled together from cellphone videos now took over the screen. They showed an eerie, oblong object skimming along irregularly near the ground, a vague, ghostly silhouette. It had no details, no center, and no shadow—a dim transparent halo engaged in a continuous writhing motion.

Bud gasped. “Tom, that’s us—Koku! Good grief, we’ve set off a panic!”


 

 

 

 

CHAPTER 9

 

 

 

          FREEDOM’S THREAT

 

 

 

 

“OH NO!” Tom gulped out in dismay. “I assumed everyone would realize from the news― ”

But Bud shot his copilot a wry look. “Pal, I don’t think anyone happened to mention this camouflage-cloak deal to the media.”

With a sinking feeling it came to Tom that his chum was right. The public had no idea that the weird phantom gliding across rural Pennsylvania was Swift Enterprises’ golden superman! “I’d better call—who?”

“Keep cool, kid,” Bud urged. “Betcha Harlan Ames is already on top of this.”

“Right, right.”

Suddenly he winced, and Bud almost jumped from his seat, as a swarm of loud clang!s battered the suit’s Neo-Aurium shell! “T-Tom—about keeping cool? Forget it!” gulped Bud, wide-eyed.

“Now somebody’s shooting at us!” Tom grated. “This nonsense has gone way too far.” Resolving to take quick action the young inventor neurinteled the control computer to deactivate the telejector camouflage. The roiling crowd, some armed with shotguns, some with metal bats, most with cameras, flinched back with shouts of alarm at the startling materialization—a giant invader from outer space!

“Ladies and gentlemen,” boomed the enormous voice, “this is Tom Swift, from Swift Enterprises in Shopton, New York. Please don’t be afraid and don’t panic. And please stop shooting at us! This is my exosuit, the robot vehicle you’ve seen on the news. It’s just being tested—it’s not a danger.”

The ragged masses yearning to shoot free seemed to hesitate, exchanging glances. Then the control compartment filled with amplified cheers. “Hey Tom! Hey! It’s Tom Swift!”

“Hello everybody!” called Koku. And then a second, different voice came floating down from above. “Say, folks, where are we? Where is this?” Bud waved through the viewdome.

“Four miles west of Rompro Turkeys,” a petite farmer’s wife called from atop a tractor.

The exosuit had been halted on a downslope next to a dry creek, near a concrete highway bridge which was—literally—within reach. Several trucks had pulled to a stop on the bridge for an elevated view. And in the control cabin a few yards below, Tom Swift’s nose began to twitch.

He sneezed.

—and the colossal, supersized arm of the exosuit whipped upward toward a nose that didn’t exist! Koku’s flailed fist slammed into the side of the bridge just below the flimsy guard rail with the force of a bundle of TNT. Tire-sized chunks of concrete erupted in all directions. And a few of those directions led to shrieking human beings!

Automatic reactions, humanplified by the neurintel setup, took over as Tom instinctively moved to bat aside the hurtling debris. With no thought his inert muscles became the exosuit’s powerful pistons. Koku batted the fragments whirlingly aside and off into the empty—cowless—field.

“The truck!” Bud cried. One of the big trucks was tottering over the edge of the break Koku had made. In an instant it slid off the road bridge into the empty air!

But Tom was already primed for action. Feeling himself stretch, he deftly extended both exosuit arms to their limit, simultaneously opening the clustered finger-bands wide. They closed gently on the truck chassis, following along as it fell, slowing it and easing it to the ground in a single motion.

“Man—nice catch!” Bud chortled. “Swift snags the high fly!”

Though the crowd’s cheers had redoubled, Tom was horrified at the consequences of his humanplified human reflexes. Switching off the neurintel and again able to move freely, he unsealed the control cabin and scrambled down to the ground, trotting up to the rescued truck. Its occupants, a big gruff-looking man and two boys, stood shakily next to it. Tom gulped involuntarily as the man began to stalk toward him.

“Sir, I—I don’t know what to say! It was a freak accident, but if anything had happened to—!”

The man interrupted the youth’s stammered spiel with an extended hand. “No apologies, guy! Whilikers! We’as gonna be on the news, my boys ’n me—part o’ jim-danged hist’ry!” The two boys tripled the man’s enthusiastic hand-pumping.

“Er—my pleasure,” said Tom.

The young Shoptonian climbed back aboard and put a few miles of distance between Koku and the crowd, avoiding any sign of humanity or highways. Switching the manual controls over to Bud, Tom turned to the section of the board that controlled the exosuit’s communications capabilities. Selecting the quantum-matrix cartridge linked to the Enterprises switchboard, the youth was soon speaking to Harlan Ames by PER, his space-annihilating Private Ear Radio. “My apologies, Tom,” said the security man. “I had lunch in town with my daughter and left my cell behind in the car. I just now heard about this public snafu. But fire me later,” he went on. “Radnor and your Dad have been in touch with the authorities, and they’re starting to get the word out.”

“I’m not too sure people are much interested in ‘the word’ right now,” Tom commented dryly. “They’re in the mood for excitement. I just gave them quite a sideshow.” After providing Ames with details of the incident, he said: “I’ll keep the camo system off, but I’m still concerned about flying media people flocking overhead and fouling one another.”

“Well, I think that’ll be taken care of,” responded Ames. “Your Dad contacted the aviation authorities in D.C., as well as the Homeland Security folks. As long as we keep them updated on Koku’s general route of travel, they’re prepared to issue emergency orders keeping air traffic at a distance, for safety’s sake.”

“That’s good, anyway. We’d better stick to the offroad routes even more than we’d planned. It seems we can’t win—visible or in-!”

After a chuckle, Ames told Tom that he had a further matter to tell him about. “You remember Hal Brenner, don’t you? The FBI man who got involved in rescuing you and Sterling from—oh, whoever it was that time.”

“Sure, Harlan, I remember him.”

“He’s been trying to get through this morning, but the switchboard has been flooded, as you can imagine. Anyway, he left his direct number—wants you to call him right away.”

A new interruption! Tom was surprised. “It’s that urgent? Okay, give me back to the switchboard. I’ll ring him immediately.”

As Tom waited, Bud leaned over and whispered, “I’ll re-invisibilize us, Skipper, while we’re standing still. It’s moving ghosts that spook the natives, I’ll bet.”

When Agent Brenner came on the line, Tom could detect a flinty seriousness in his voice. “Believe me, I wouldn’t interrupt this test trip of yours if it weren’t a top priority.”

“Meaning—lives at stake?”

“Very possibly,” was the response. “Yet it’s a delicate situation and our chief wants us to move cautiously. What are your goals for the rest of the day? We know you’re heading southward.”

Tom thought over the prospective routes, making some quick decisions. “We crossed Sinnemahoning Creek and are getting close to Weedville, but obviously we’ll skirt wide around Pittsburgh—no jokes, please.”

“I never joke.”

“We’ll clip the corner of Ohio, then work our way down into eastern Kentucky, then southwest through Tennessee into Alabama. That’s where we’ll see sundown.”

“All right,” said Brenner. “Now—in Kentucky, what would you think of heading toward Crittenden County, way over at the southwest corner on the Ohio River?”

“I’d have to work out the exact route, but it wouldn’t make any real difference to our testing routine. But why?”

“I’ll explain. There’s a fairly large wooded district over there, mostly state owned but with a few rural townships here and there—and also quite a few squatters with good lawyers.”

“Just a sec,” Tom interrupted. “I’ll bring up a map.” Blanking the viewpane, the young inventor projected a detailed map of the state and zoomed in on Crittenden County.

Brenner provided some coordinates. “See a little speck called Erstwhile Gap?”

“Got it.”

“It’s not really a town, just a road and some buildings. Now, though, it has a new name—Freedomhome. A backwoods-type militia group has established a compound there on private land, a few dozen families. They call themselves the Fierce Freedomites. They have a weekly shortwave radio show and webcast, Cries of Freedom, run by their leader, a man named Kent Philbin Foster. Rightwing neo-anarchist stuff. I’d call it paranoid. Get the picture, Tom?”

“I think so,” replied the youth. “What are they up to, Agent Brenner?”

“Our local field office received several anonymous tips last night and this morning, and our analysts think there’s something to them—but after the Waco and Ruby Ridge incidents, we need solid substantiation to look very closely. That is, officially,” Brenner added pointedly.

“What were these tips about? A threat?”

“Mass suicide!”

“Great space!”

“Or maybe mass murder would be a better way to say it. Foster’s supposed to have absolute control over his followers, and the tipsters are saying that he plans to ‘inspire’ the women and children to kill themselves—whether they want to or not, I’m sure. Guess the Freedomites want the world to take them more seriously.”

Tom’s mouth was dry. “What can Bud and I do, sir?”

“One little thing. It’s not difficult, and we think your exosuit vehicle is well equipped to do it—and to protect you two while you do it.

“The sky will be overcast tonight. We feel sure that using your ‘obscuration screen’ you’ll be able to get fairly close-up to the compound without being seen.”

“But surely these guys have a fence with an alarm setup,” objected the young inventor.

“Heavy rains last year washed out a part of their perimeter fence along the back acres, somewhat out of sight of the main buildings. I can send you a detailed schematic showing how to get quite close to an old barn.” Brenner explained that, according to the tips, the women and children had already been herded into the barn and locked up. “Tomorrow noon the men plan to fire the barn—and there’re plenty of gasoline cans inside. We hope you boys can get close enough to use your instruments to get some sort of photo or video evidence that the people are being held prisoner. Send us something credible and we can move on it.”

Tom pointed out that the FBI’s trained agents would be a more logical choice for such an operation. “You’re absolutely right, Tom,” the man replied crisply. “But there’s all kind of legal and political ‘stuff’ coming down. The emergency authorizations aren’t getting through, not soon enough. Given the obvious danger to even a trained agent—well, our hands are tied. You’re a private citizen with a big metal-hulled machine and the sort of equipment the operation would need...”

Tom finished for him. “And a public excuse to be blundering around in the woods.”

“Look, it’s entirely up to you. I felt a kind of moral duty to tell you the facts. The tips may be false—but we don’t think so.”

With a deep breath and a glance at Bud, who was nodding and grinning with excitement, Tom agreed to the plan.

Hours of cross-country trekking, as much removed from public view as possible, ended in deep night-shadow near a place once called Erstwhile Gap, between tall trees. A couple fly-yellowed lightbulbs and the outlines of some ramshackle buildings hulked a few hundred feet in front of them.

“Something’s going on inside that barn,” murmured Bud in a whisper that the sealed exosuit made unnecessary. The high structure, on the far side of some low trees and brush, showed threads of light between its planks.

“I’m recording from the hull videocams,” Tom replied. “But light from inside the barn doesn’t mean much of anything.” He adjusted the televisor pane for a closer look, using night-vision enhancement. “I can’t tell if that’s a padlock on the door. Might be.”

“A shame the Eye-Spy camera won’t work at this range.” Bud reached over to put a hand on his pal’s shoulder. “You know what I want to do, Tom.”

“Too dangerous.”

“Uh-huh. I think the people in that barn might be in a little danger too. Listen, I’m sure I can sneak through the shadows and poke the portable cam unit through a knothole or something. I’m good at that sort of thing. Besides, you’ll be keeping watch over me in the exo. Somebody comes a-runnin’ with Old Betsy, you can head-butt ’em or something.”

Very reluctant, Tom saw the logic in what his friend was suggesting. “But I want to edge up closer before you get out. Over left would give me a better view angle.”

A hazy shadow of itself, the exosuit took a few careful steps to the side. The phonosys was alive to external sounds, and every snapped branch made Tom’s brow crease. “Good night,” he grumbled, “I should have had a silentenna installed on this rig to kill the sound.”

“Yeah, but who’d think we’d be― ”

The pair shouted as the cabin deck tilted violently without warning! Koku seemed to struggle and slide for a moment—and then the ground dropped out from under him. They were jolted as a brief fall came to a crunching halt.

“Aw jetz!” Bud moaned. “We’ve fallen into a pit or something!”

“Fallen,” agreed Tom, working the controls uselessly, “and we can’t get up—or out. Our arms are pinned.” He tried to open the hatch behind them. “No go,” he pronounced grimly. “That side’s wedged against the ground.”

The hole or pit was about ten feet deep, and the bottom of the dome remained above its upper edge, though low to the weedy ground. Through the speakers Tom and Bud could hear the squawk and wail of alarms and barking dogs by the packful. Figures bearing flashlamps—and, as became evident, armaments—were trotting toward their mammoth captive and his kangaroo-cub pilots.

“They can’t see us,” stated Bud, hopefully and uncertainly.

Tom dashed Bud’s hopes. “They can see enough, from close up.”

A runty man balanced at the edge of the pit, squinting and pointing a polished and very large rifle their way. “Well hey now, whatta we got?—a boy hero and his good buddy, I’d say. That you in there? Say hey, boys! Welcome to Freedomhome!”


 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER 10

 

 

          MACROPOLIS

 

 

 

 

“NOW I’m sure you can call for help over the radio,” the Fierce Freedomite shouted into the ghostly haze before him. “And maybe help’ll come running. But lemme tell ya, boys, one toe on our private land here and we start the fireworks. Want that on your nice New York consciences?”

Tom picked up the microphone. “We’ll cooperate. Just help us get our machine free and we’ll go on our way.”

The man shrugged. “Not all that simple, sorry t’say. But no need to go into it now. Let’s see what we can do for you. First step, shut down the fog machine and let us see you clear.”

Tom complied, and the exosuit popped into solid visibility. A pair of trucks rumbled up, and truckbed cranes deployed twisted metal cables which the men worked about Koku’s lower reaches by circling the pit. At a signal the trucks and cable-drums began to move, and the lightweight exosuit was slowly hoisted upward.

Just as the bottom of the rear hatch rose into view, the runty man made a brusque cutting motion with his arm and the motors fell silent. “Far as we go,” shouted the leader, “until you two come on out. Get moving.”

His hands out of view of the watchers, Bud conveyed a message to his pal by ASL—American Sign Language. “Hurry quick radio police.”

But Tom shook his head and signaled back, “Too much danger to them.” The youth assumed reasoning with the Freedomites was still an option.

On the ground, rifles of military type herded the youths toward one of the buildings. A quick backward glance revealed that the exo had been pulled clear of the pit and was lying on its back. “We dug pits and trenches all over here’n about,” commented their captor, walking behind. “Don’t always know when the Federales and our traitor guv’mint’s thugs’ll come sweeping in.”

“And might you be our host for tonight, Kent Philbin Foster?” inquired Bud with sarcastic bravado.

“Sheddit!” barked the man. “But yeah, I’m Foster, blood bone flesh. The voice of freedom.”

Bud snorted. “Plan sharing any?”

“If you lieutenants of the Effete Elite would come down from the ivory towers and listen t’ the words of reason and patriotism, Reason With A Red White ’N Blue, you’d know the motto of the Fiercers—‘to freedom our devotion, to traitors no mercy, no pity’.”

“You consider me a traitor, Mr. Foster?” challenged Tom as they clomped up the wooden porch steps.

Foster shot out a hand and grabbed the young inventor’s neck by his T-shirt, yanking him to a stop. “Just about every night I look up in that sky. Know what I see? Two moons, boy—two! You went up to that little one in your rusty rocket and planted the traitor flag. Did I see it or didn’t I? I did! S’now up there they got their telescopes watchin’ us, their listening bugs recording us, their missiles all pointin’ our way. You ever wonder what it feels like t’be probed? Sucker thugs, just waiting for the good-t’-go from Guano Hill on th’ Potomac! And then—but wait, there’s more!—just who d’ya suppose comes marchin’ across the Bering Strait up north and the Rio Grande down south?”

“I give up,” said Bud. “Who?”

“Illegal aliens! Space aliens! Illegal space aliens! Those friends of yours, Swift! Tell me, just how many half-breed babies you got now? What, lost track? You sold us out, sold out the sons of freedom. What’d you get for it, Tom Swift?” Foster gestured dramatically toward Bud. “Was this one a gift? They make him just for you? We know he’s not real. We all know he’s a synthroid!” He seemed to be playing to the crowd, and the crowd nodded their guns in agreement.

“Well actually, he’s mainly just the guy always standing next to me in the news photos,” Tom responded blandly with a wink at his chum, who retorted with a look.

The little man glared back at the unfazed comment, turning red beneath his gray-tinged buzz cut. “You sheddit, whelper!”

Said Bud to Tom, “Seems he’s just a little prickly.”

Said Tom to Bud. “I wouldn’t go quite that far.” After milking the comment with a beat of silence, he added: “After all, Mr. Foster is our host.”

“Typical,” growled Foster. “‘Let your speech be as Yes and No’,” he quoted. “But the Effete Elite can’t manage that. Everything’s a put-down of us Unwashed Uneducated. You wait for it, we Normals’ll have our revenge.”

Bud shrugged. “Why not? Montezuma had his.”

Foster turned to one of the armed men standing next to him. “Warrior-Brother Serpe, take ’em to the Green Room.”

“Roge that, C’mmander.”

The Warrior-Brother nudged them through the dim-lit house as women—all in pretty skirts, but without a trace of cosmetics—watched timidly from afar. They seemed fascinated by Bud. “He looks so real,” murmured one to another. “How’d they manage it, ya think?”

There were children too. “Is that the toy?” asked one little girl.

Beyond a heavy door with a steel padlock lay a windowless room with cots and a half-bath. Serpe motioned Tom and Bud inside, then switched on a bare lightbulb. “Here y’go, traitor boys—boy, I mean. Have your fun, now.” He laughed on his way out the door.

Bud frowned at Tom. “A synthroid. How insulted should I be?”

“Forget that,” muttered Tom, his bright eyes searching the room and the dingy walls of peeling green.

“Looking for the thermometer?”

“Just taking stock of things.” He ASL-ed to Bud: Careful what you say in here.

Bud nodded. Got it. Both knew they were almost certainly being listened to—and watched.

After a moment Tom said aloud. “Women and children here in the house and walking around freely. It looks like those tips were fake. In fact, I’m pretty sure these freedom-loving patriots were expecting us.”

“But how?” He added by hand: FBI plant?

“I don’t know,” his pal replied. “Of course, it’s generally known that we’re road-testing the exosuit, and that we planned to cross the southern states. But if they calculated we’d be called in on the tip...” Tom finished the sentence: Then this Foster creep is a lot smarter than he seems!

They talked in whispers and fingers for a time, then fell silent as they heard the padlock being keyed. Commander Foster entered, a mighty revolver in hand. “Hey again, Tom and—‘Bud’. Like the accommodations? Any-hoo, felt like goin’ over the itinerary with you. Like t’see things go smooth.” The two stared but did not respond. “No smart-mouth talk? No threats? Protests? Say, this is Freedomhome; we like dissident voices, long as we agree with ’em. Good enough.

“So now, tomorrow—ten-ish, I’d say—off we go to Macropolis in Tom Swift’s big walker-stalker, you two at the controls, me at your back—me and Missy here.” He waggled the revolver. “Where we’re headin’― ”

Tom interrupted with a sudden hunch. “A bank?”

Foster’s eyebrows flew up. “Well yeah! Macropolis National Federal, not far from the Pigpen—cop station—but we don’t need to worry about bullets in your metal dealybobber, do we? Not from outside, anyway. Bet it’d stop a penner dead fine.”

“If you wouldn’t mind telling me,” Tom said coolly, “how did you work all this out, sir? What made you so sure you could lure Koku here and use him for a bank robbery? Impress me.”

“Maybe we’re a lot smarter than you think, we Fiercers,” chuckled the man. “Don’t never underestimate a man with a gun. And listen now t’ the wisdom: you never know what’s gonna come fallin’ from the tree just when you need it.

“Naw, don’t try t’ figure it out, Swiftooney. I’ll just tell you this, I’ve been looking at everything you folks have been puttin’ out about this human giantizer of yours. Couldn’t fix ’er if she blows a flat, grant you; but I pretty well know what she c’n do, and I know how you can run ’er on brainwaves. So that’s a little problemo for old me, innit? My patrols tell me they’s no traitor-troopers closer than Milt’s crew up on the ridge, and they’re not worth nothin’ as long as we keep ’em paid off and sauced up. But how-now-brown-cow do I keep you from sendin’ out for help while we amble along? Wellllll, I’m thinking on that one. Don’t bother getting too hopeful.”

“I know—no mercy, no pity,” Tom responded grimly. “But you can’t stop me from having hope, Mr. Foster.”

“Guess I can’t at that. Well then, I s’pose I’ll let you ‘two’ get back to whatever it is you like to do with each another.” Smirking, he pulled out and shut the door.

Declared Bud, “I’ll never again call Jerry the Dentist a nut as long as I live. Or as short as I live!”

“Long live the revolution!” Tom muttered in disgust toward the locked door.

The next morning they were served a greasy breakfast. At midmorning a small platoon of Warrior-Brothers marched them at gunpoint to the exosuit, which had been hoisted upright and was leaning against the side of the house.

Kent Philbin Foster awaited them, holding Missy and enclosed in a snug powder-blue cardigan sweater. Interpreting their glances, he said calmly, “My Dad was a strong man, a stern man, a brave man. He wore this very sweater in combat, under his flack jacket. It’s sacred to me—like Missy here.”

Tom smiled slightly. “Very stylish.”

“Matches your eyes,” Bud added.

“All aboard,” pronounced Foster, gesturing toward an aluminum ladder that had been set up next to the exo.

Following Tom and Bud into the control compartment, he ordered them to take their seats. But then, as they moved to do so, he suddenly barked out: “Stop!”

“What is it?” Tom demanded.

To his surprise, Foster giggled shrilly. “Outsmarted ya, traitor boy, that’s what! I know ‘Bud’ is your copilot—now I know for sure which chair is his, ’n which is the pilot’s chair. So you come back here with me, synthroid; got some cuffs for you, since I don’t know how t’switch you off. And Swift, you take the other chair. Like the man said, that brain-thing is experimental—not s’darn likely you’ll be testin’ two of ’em at the same time. I’d calculate there’s just the one, your chair.”

‘Like the man said...’ ” Tom repeated as he replaced Bud. “What man?”

“Just you sheddit, pie hole, and let your fingers do the walkin’ over those controls. That Prussian-Blue-eyed brain can just relax.”

After cuffing Bud, arm and ankle, to a stanchion as far away from the board as was possible in the cramped compartment, and similarly uniting Tom’s ankles to his chair, Foster ordered Tom to begin walking the robotcraft along the rutted road to Macropolis. “Listen up, I’ll tell you how to go,” he directed. “Not that’s it’s so hard—that little road don’t run anywhere else.” Presently he asked Tom, “So now! What’ve you come up with?”

“Excuse me?”

“Aw now, I’ve read those lousy PC fiction books you people crank out. This one’ll be a dilly—Tom Swift and His Walking War Tank! Always some ain’t-we-clever escape plan, isn’t there?”

“Mr. Foster, those are just stories.”

“So-called. But ‘based on actual events’,” the man pointed out. “It says so right on the back cover. Or are you folks engaged in false and misleading advertising? That’s a crime!” He laughed. “Okey-doke, don’t tell me whatcha got. I’ll tell you why it won’t work.

“First off, your little friend’s cuffed tight, and the key’s still on my nightstand. I can’t turn him loose even if I wanted to, and there’s not one thing he can touch—includin’ me! So don’t look to this ‘Bud Barclay’ of yours to help you like usual, Tom.”

“You’re a real idiot, Foster!” snarled Bud.

“Oh? How so?”

“Are we supposed to believe you think I’m some kind of robot? Come off it!”

“Not robot,” corrected the commander mildly. “Synthroid. Artificial biological entity made by space alien technology, replicated in plastic down to the last cell. Anatomically correct, am I right? And they say you come from San Francisco. Yeah, and that’s right next to the Silicon Valley where they strung you t’gether. As if comin’ from San Francisco isn’t bad enough, Mr. Machine.”

Tom chuckled slightly. “Believe me, Mr. Foster, we’re a long way from mass-producing Barclays.”

“So say you. ‘More things in Heaven and Earth,’ Horatio.”

“‘The fault lies not in the stars but in ourselves,’ Mr. Foster.”

“Sheddit!”

It suddenly occurred to Tom that the man was saying: Shut it!

“Now then, I was gloating,” continued the Fierce Freedomite, talking vaguely in the direction of Missy the Revolver. “Tom, cuffed down as you may be, you still may think you might just have old Koku fake a misstep and fall in a ditch someplace, wait for the gunboys to come take me. Well, I’m not lib’ral-permissive when it comes to mistakes. This thing tilts over, Missy starts givin’ you both a stern talkin’-to. Same thing if I think you’re babblin’ off some code-word talk over your radio. And don’t you think of insulting me with that ‘oh look there’s the warning light but it just means Daylight Savings Time’ bit. It’s worn out and done with, bucko.”

So much for plans A, B, and C! thought the young inventor ruefully.

“Okay,” said Bud. “We stomp over to Macropolis and you have Koku knock over the bank—literally. Then what? He runs on down the road carrying the money bags?”

“As you saw, even with the camouflage system actuated the exosuit isn’t invisible,” Tom pointed out. “The police could rope him—or dig trenches just like you did.”

“Obviously.”

“And you’re caught.”

“And I’m caught.”

“Doesn’t bother you?”

“Do I sound bothered?”

“I see,” said Tom quietly. “The whole thing’s just a ruse.”

“Which you sure fell into! Say, hold on,” Foster said. “I forgot—meant to gag you two from the get-go.” He produced duct tape and applied it ruthlessly, leaving the Shoptonians to grunts. “There. Better. Cause I can’t have you talking over th’ phone at the wrong moment, givin’ me away at one certain critical point when me and Missy won’t be in here with you, maintainin’ law and order.

“So the deal is, boys—of course I know you’re a human bein’, Barclay, I’m not some dang nutcase!—that we go to the bank and have some fun, and the blue piggies make a nice wedge formation with guns out, and out I come with Missy pointed and ready, walkin’ straight toward Chief Brunton Lee MacClay—that glory-hound buzzard who took a few shots my way a few years back, right in front of my warrior-brothers. Now that is one big personal slap in the face, don’t you agree? Been on my mind.”

Tom Swift suddenly understood.

“Now here’s where’d you two’d be laughing right along with me if you weren’t taped up,” Foster giggled. “Truth to tell, Missy here is stark bare unloaded—nothin’ in her but good green air. Soo-prise, soo-prise! But when I come out and start walkin’ toward Brunton, boy will I have deadly in my eyes. Practiced at the mirror.

“So now, let him hear who has ears. I walk up, I aim Missy right down the barrel of Brunton’s gun, and what then?—he has to shoot me, don’t he? But me, I got nothin’ in my gun. Fella shot dead an unarmed man! Not so good for his rep. Maybe make him think. Nothin’ else, it sure does illuminate the fact that we Fiercers ain’t afraid t’ die to make a point. I know you’d agree if you could, boys.”

“Mmrr mnn-mm!” Bud choked out.

“Naw, not crazy at all. Just one determined soldier of freedom, son.”

Come on, Tom! thought Bud desperately. Think of something! The young athlete didn’t want a man like Foster to win the match, even if the only death was his own.

Driving the occasional honking pickup into retreat, Koku ambled his big way into Macropolis, a small suburb without an urb. The police expected them—two squad cars paralleled the exosuit.

The exo halted in front of the bank at Foster’s order, and a sparse police cordon-bleu began to form, rifles ready. “There he is!” muttered Foster. “Just has to be up in front. Well now—fun part. Add some excitement.” He drew a bit closer to Tom. “Traitor boy, you see those big phony columns up and down the portico? Southern-style junk, movie stuff, tryin’ to make it look like a bank. But there they are. So you get your machine in there between em’, turn round t’ face old Brunton, and play it like Samson. Got me? Put somethin’ into it, okay? Make it real—bring down the house!”

Noting that anyone on the portico, and probably anyone inside the bank, had fled at the approach of the golden robotcraft, Tom yielded to the command. Guided by camera, he backed Koku into a central space, gripped a column on either side, and, with a deep exhale through his nose, had the giant spread his arms.

The two columns shattered sideways, crumbling to plaster-dust as pieces of the overhang above clattered down on the exosuit’s hull.

“Mighty nice,” muttered Foster after a pause. “Didn’t bring her down, but still—kind o’ thing a fella might dream about.—hey now!” The Fierce Freedomite yelped as he saw Koku’s upraised arms in choppy motion back and forth, fingers waggling in spasms. “Don’t think I won’t shoot you, Swift! What’s all that about? I see your dang hands movin’ the lever-grips!”

The watching Macropolitans, who had come closer during the Samson dramatics, seemed unnerved by the exosuit’s strange movements. They drew back, and one young girl put her hands to her mouth and suddenly ran off.

At a snarled order Tom pulled back his hands from the control gauntlets and reached toward a pen and notepad affixed to the board.

Computer glitch, happened before, had to regain motor control—OK now.

“Doesn’t matter,” responded Foster somberly. “Not now. Let’s see—oh yeah. Don’t wanna get m’self stepped on.” He pulled Tom’s lean arms back behind him and duct-taped the youth’s wrists together. “Keep you off the steerin’ wheel for a while. Okay. Well, Tom, Bud—enjoy. Here we go, Missy!”


 

 

 

 

CHAPTER 11

 

 

 

          SAFECRACKER

 

 

 

 

KENT Philbin Foster had taken care to learn how to unseal and open the exosuit’s access hatch by means of its emergency secondary control, and to deploy the ladder. Through the gaping hatch Tom and Bud heard him clack down the rungs. In a moment he was visible through the dome, stalking across the street toward the cluster of police officers, Missy drawn and looking mean.

Here comes the blood! thought Bud. Nothing we can do about it.

But nothing happened. The officers, one leading them, stood immobile with guns leveled at Foster. No shots. Foster slowed his stride as if puzzled, then made a show of aiming at Chief MacClay. MacClay stood his ground, concrete calm. Then the youths could make out a trace of a smile on his face as Foster stumbled to an awkward halt about ten feet ahead of him. He seemed unsure of how to proceed.

MacClay shouted something, and other officers surged forward to grab and disarm the bewildered Fiercer, whose struggles were half-hearted.

In minutes Tom and Bud had been cut free. Out in the sun the young inventor walked up to the girl who had turned and run, smiling and offering his hand. “The Chief said your name’s Snapper,” said Tom warmly. “I’m Tom.”

“Oh I know,” she said in a shy voice. “We all know who you are. My real name is Sasparillia.”

“You must have quite an education, Sasparillia,” said Tom. “I was hoping against hope that somebody in the crowd would know signing.”

“My Mom’s gone deaf, so I took ASL over at Boynton,” she replied. “But it took me a while to make out what your robot was trying to say with all that arm-waving—‘gun empty don’t shoot him’.”

“But it’s sure what we needed right then,” declared Chief MacClay, “and I’m mighty grateful, Snapper. Foster deserves a good shootin’, but on our schedule, not his.” There was a thoughtful pause. The Chief went on, “Of course, he won’t likely be around long enough to get his due anyway.”

“Oh? Why is that, sir?” Tom asked.

“Liver disease, Tom. Ole Foss’ll be gone by Christmas, looks like.”

Tom registered the surprising fact with a frown.

“What happens now to his gang back at Freedomhome?” Bud asked. “I mean—they all broke a few laws, didn’t they? Kidnapping? Attempted robot wrecking?”

“A few laws, yeppity-yap. Enough? That,” replied the officer, “is the question.”

After giving their depositions, and providing the face-mopping bank president with explanation and apology, Tom and Bud reentered the exosuit and soon had shaken the dust of Freedomhome and Macropolis from Koku’s gilded feet.

“Where to now, genius boy?” Bud inquired, open road ahead.

“The Texas panhandle, I guess. First I’ll PER Agent Brenner, though. Then Dad.”

Tom’s father was amazed at the boys’ exploit. But there was also pride in his voice. “Once again you risked yourselves in the cause of saving lives, Tom.”

“I guess there really wasn’t much choice.”

“No. In any event—I know why you mentioned the man’s health status to me. His being terminally ill seems to tie him in to the other bank-related incidents, doesn’t it?”

“It sure does,” Tom agreed, as Bud looked on and listened in. “A bizarre, pointless crime by someone who’s soon to die—the Nonsense Wave! What could it mean, Dad?”

The reply was firm. “It can’t mean a thing to us. I’ve read about those ‘Fierce Freedomites’. It was Kent Philbin Foster’s father who founded the group. They’ve been around for decades. This couldn’t possibly bear any relation to Enterprises or your exosuit project.”

The young inventor gave himself a half-nod. “I suppose Foster just figured out a way to make use of Koku’s capabilities when he started reading about the suit in news accounts. The test trip gave him a perfect opening.”

“Son, I have a fatherly feeling you’re not quite convinced.”

“Well... hope springs eternal.”

Damon Swift chuckled. “Yes. But as far as Tom Swift and Bud Barclay are concerned, there’s a real question as to in which direction hope springs—toward safety—or danger!”

“Jetz, fathers know everything!” Bud joked. “No wonder my Dad locked me in at night!”

Koku backroaded south and west, with a noon stop at a fast-food franchise that brought a startled sputter to the drive-through window loudspeaker. The exosuit strolled across the bottom of the Mighty Mississippi into Arkansas, but only managed a toehold. Near Gosnell came a PERed call for a new mission for Tom and Bud, relayed apologetically via Swift Enterprises. “This is Commissioner Eskinder, Tom, up in Davenport, Iowa, pride of the heartland. Thanks for taking my call. I know you’re busy as anything, but this is a real― ”

“Emergency. I know,” Tom interrupted. “What can we do for you, Commissioner?”

“Tom, what we have here is a matter― ”

“Of life and death, right. So what is it, exactly?”

“Well, it has to do with some dozen good citizens being locked in a bank vault.”

Bud caught Tom’s eye. Another bank incident! “No one knows the combination?” asked Tom.

“I’ll give you the basics. Caddiwell Secure Trustable was one of the first banks in this area, back before the Civil War. It’s the last one of its kind still standing, as a matter of fact, and it’s on the list of historic monuments.”

“Still operating?”

“They turned it into a restaurant—very upscale place—years ago, but retained the bank theme as a ‘look,’ if you see. The bar used to be the teller counter, for instance.”

“Got it.”

“And the main thing is, they kept the big old vault, using it as a little dining room for private parties. My word, you have to pay through the nose to get a reservation, I tell ya. Well now, the vault door is still there on its hinges, part of the gimmick, and it turns out they kept the whole lock mechanism in place, tumblers and all—just welded-on something to keep it from working.”

“But it started working?”

“Oh, nothing so innocent, Tom,” exclaimed the man huffily. “As we’ve pieced it all together, about an hour back a woman came rolling into the restaurant in one of those electric wheelchairs—which turned out to be outfitted with an acetyline torch setup! So she whips out a pistol and forces the brunchers and staff into the vault, and plants herself square in the opening with the torch going, which makes a pretty fair keep-away weapon all by itself. Now it looks like she did some research on that door, Tom, because she knew exactly how to cut out the safety stops and force the locking mechanism to work. Gotta know the combination for that, I’d say.”

“And so she locks the people in,” Tom said. “And calls the police to tell them what she’s done.”

Eskinder was surprised. “How’d you know that?”

“I’m a good guesser,” was Tom’s dry response.

“She’s in custody now, no apologies. Well, couple more things and you’ll see why we’re calling you in. She jimmied up the lock in some way. Once she shut it, even the combination won’t open it. And the worst thing, she says she sloshed some chemical on the vault floor before sealing it up. Says it makes poison gas as it evaporates!”

“But somebody in Davenport must have tools to cut through the door, or the side of the vault.”

“Tom, that old vault was made to do its job, and it’s been slow going. The boys say they might not break through for hours, and that’s just to make a little air-hole. By then the people may be dead! We realized you and your robot-suit weren’t all that far away― ”

The young inventor sighed. “Just give me directions, Mr. Eskinder, and work out whatever you can to keep the highways sane as we go. If I push it a little, I think Koku can get to Davenport in about an hour.”

“I hope that’s soon enough,” responded the Commissioner. “Your people in Shopton thought your robot tools might be able to do something to break on through to the other side. We’ll all be grateful if you’ll give it a try.”

Bud spoke for his pal. “Oh, absolutely!”

Fifty-four strenuous, thudding minutes later, the exosuit stood before the antique brick structure at the edge of the city. Next to its massive door was an ornate brass plate: Historic Caddiwell Secure Trustable Bank Restaurant.

Tom and Bud climbed out and spent a few tense minutes in conversation with Eskinder and several men from the city’s emergency team and police forces. “Obviously you can’t fit through the front door,” stated Eskinder. “But the vault is fairly near one of the rear walls. Perhaps you could break through the wall, or maybe the roof.” He provided a floorplan and other information.

Inside the exo Bud remarked, “I guess this is no time to be delicate, genius boy. You’ll pretty much have to smash down the whole building.”

“I don’t think so,” mused Tom. “Let’s walk around back and look over the roof.”

The roof of the old structure was well above the view dome, but Tom raised Koku’s arms and deployed some videocams from his fingertips. Studying the images on the viewpane-screen, he told Bud: “I’ll try using the vacuum-lifter tools in the fingers to hook on to the roof material and pry it upward.” He did so, and a large section broke off in the giant’s hands and was set down in the parking lot. Guided by video, Tom then tore his way down to the vault’s outer plating, sweeping clear some space on all sides.

Joined to the neurintel, he first tried to get a grip on the plating by the suit’s fingertip suction apparatus, but Koku’s muscles only succeeded in breaking the contact. A plasma-torch tool made progress, but far too slowly—the death-clock was ticking! At Bud’s suggestion Tom spread Koku’s extensible finger-bands to their maximum stretch and, spreading the giant’s arms, gripped the entire vault on opposite sides as if lifting a movers’ crate. Bracing carefully and throwing full power to Koku’s wrists, he tried to break open the wall by a twisting motion. There was a metallic groan from both machine and vault, but no result.

“Koku’s super strength just isn’t super enough,” Tom muttered in dismay. “One more thing to try, flyboy, but I’ve been avoiding it. It endangers the people inside.”

“Danger isn’t death, Tom,” his chum declared, hoping it sounded encouraging, not trite. “What’s the idea?”

“There’s one thing that’s sure to break through—the X-raser!”

Bud couldn’t hold back a gulp. Tom’s X-raser invention was a high-powered, focusable X-ray laser—a virtual disintegrator ray capable of dissociating atoms into free-floating particles. “Jetz!” Bud cried. “I though the exo wasn’t armed!”

“It isn’t. These are miniature models designed as rock-cutting tools, one installed in each hand. But even with our beam-limiter capabilities, a wrong move by somebody inside could be fatal!” He noted that the device produced a spray of energetic ions at its focal point. “I’ll switch off the beam a fraction of an inch before breaking through. Still, the temperature along the fracture will be very high.” And suddenly the youth thought of another terrible possibility! “Good gosh, for all we know that poisonous vapor may be flammable!”

“But like you said, it’s the last hope.” Bud gave Tom a gray-eyed look that said, I believe in you. “Now hit that wall, Skipper—no mercy, no pity!”

Before deploying the pair of X-rasers Tom used the exo’s special sensor instruments to determine, as best he could, where the captives were located inside the vault. The inputs from the various instruments were merged by computer and displayed on the pane-screen as blurry silhouettes. “Spread out,” he noted. “But this spot here is probably the safest.” He extended the small X-raser tubes from their concealed bays and activated them. The screen showed two faint threads of resonant energy, a point of sunlike radiance where they came together on the vault’s plating.

Tom slowly moved the point along, back and forth, as it gouged a white-hot fissure. Bud kept a trained eye on the readout dials, presently reporting that the circular “manhole” had almost penetrated the wall. Bracing the exosuit by gravitex and suction-gripping the plate section, Tom shot Bud a look—and yanked.

The thick plating pulled free!

But now was the moment of truth and horror. What would they find inside—grateful rescuees? Or flash-incinerated corpses?


 

 

 

 

CHAPTER 12

 

 

          THE SPIRE SQUATTER

 

 

 

 

GRATEFUL rescuees! thought Tom Swift, too relieved to speak aloud. Thank goodness!

They were grateful indeed, if pale with fear and bedraggled, as they wormed their way out through the hole, which Tom had doused with a cooling foam. One by one Tom had Koku lift them up through the broken ceiling, depositing them gently in the parking lot.

“They look about as freaked by your big muscleman as by their stay in the safe,” Bud commented wryly, wiping his brow. At Tom’s suggestion, the Californian scrambled down among the small crowd and explained the nature of their imposing rescuer, and who was in the driver’s seat. The young inventor joined him when all the captives had been extracted.

“We have ambulances, folks, and emergency med teams waiting,” Commissioner Eskinder announced. “Who got the worst of the gas?”

“Gas?” repeated one woman.

“He means the vapor from the fluid that lunatic splashed around,” a teenager explained. “You know—what she said.”

Another captive explained what had happened. “She told us how we were all going to die, then slammed the vault door. I guess we were all pretty frightened― ”

“To say the least,” a voice piped up.

“But after an hour, we could tell it was just meant to scare us. There was nothing to it but the smell—no ill effects.”

Eskinder turned to Tom and said with abashed apology, “So there was no real urgency at all. Just a hoax, pointless and stupid!—and I had to go and interfere with your test schedule.”

“You couldn’t have known, sir,” responded Tom, brushing a hand through his spiked crewcut. “This is another incident in a bizarre pattern of nonsensical ‘bank assaults’ which end up being less than they seem—but no less peculiar for all that! Tell me,” he continued, “did the woman in the wheelchair turn out to be really disabled, or was that part of the hoax?”

“Oh, it’s real,” said a burly man standing nearby in a perspiration-stained coat. “Verna’s condition is progressive. They say her lungs and heart will seize up eventually.”

Tom nodded internally. Sure, another perpetrator who’s on the way to dying!

“Then you know this person?” asked Eskinder of the man.

“Of course I do. She’s my ex-wife!” He daubed his face with a big handkerchief. “Poor Verna’s got mental problems along with the physical stuff. We were divorced years ago, but lately she’s taken to stalking me from place to place—threats by email, legal harassments, that kind of garbage. Swears I cheated her out of her family fortune!”

“Did you?” demanded Tom pointedly.

“Certainly not! She’s a delusional paranoid.”

“There’s the motive, anyway,” Tom said. “She had some sort of fixation on making her ex ‘pay’ for wronging her, so she cooked up this scheme to make him think he was about to die.”

“Makes sense,” noted Bud. “That is—if you’re crazy.”

“She must’ve been a real demon at working this thing up,” the man muttered. “Chemicals, acetyline... and then getting detailed info on the vault mechanisms, including the old combination. Caesar geezer!—she never had any aptitude for stuff like that when we were married. She was a homemaker. Had enough trouble running the microwave.”

Bud could tell that Tom’s agile mind was churning with thought and needed some distance from the crowd. “Let’s hit the road, genius boy,” he urged quietly.

As they loped westward from Davenport, Tom went over his developing thoughts with his best friend and designated listener. “The Nonsense Wave is all about what they call in psychology ‘acting out’. People are creating opportunities to do things they’ve been brooding over, or maybe just things they’ve always wanted to do.”

“Dreams come true, huh?”

“Yes. Some of it’s more or less harmless, but there’s also revenge, getting back at people. Foster had a demented grudge against the police chief in Macropolis, and now this woman Verna has had some schizo fun getting at her ex-husband.”

“And it sounds like every one of these nuts has got a foot in the grave,” Bud observed. A few of them, both feet. But your Dad’s still right, isn’t he? You just happened to be at the bank that day with Bash, Foster’s gripe goes back years before you headed out with Koku and fell into his scheme, and this stuff here didn’t come to us from the woman herself, but a city official.”

Tom nodded. “All true, but... I don’t know.”

“Okay, Tom. Tell you what, one more time with us involved and I’ll start agreeing that something’s up. Deal?”

“Deal!”

As if to seal the agreement, Bud suddenly reached forward and flipped several switches on the board. “There! No incoming calls for a while, not even by PER!—Don’t give me that look, pal. It’s for your own good. After all, it’s not like you promised minute-by-minute reports to the folks back home.”

“True. Okay.”

But Bud himself proved his own undoing. After a while he was foolish enough to switch the viewpane-screen to a broadcast channel. Instantly a newscaster’s sober visage appeared with three big images behind him: the Mayor of Chicago, the Governor of Illinois—

And Tom Swift.

“This trip is doomed,” Bud grumbled.

“...and at the Sears Tower in Chicago, the crisis continues. As Wilt just reported, Tom Swift Enterprises has told the Mayor that they are temporarily unable to contact the robotic device known as the exosuit, believed to be crossing the state of Iowa westward. It is hoped that this public appeal, from the office of the Governor, will alert Tom Swift to call his Shopton office, who have been given a special direct number...”

Shaking his head wearily, Tom quickly established roundabout contact with the office of the Mayor. The crisis had begun earlier in the morning when a hang glider-type craft had made its appearance high over Lake Michigan, borne on the winds of the Windy City toward one of the world’s tallest buildings, the Sears Tower. The tiny figure of the rider-pilot could be seen swinging his weight to maneuver close to the roof of the spire, and then dropping neatly onto it as the glider kite tumbled away. There he squatted, at the very edge of the roof, ignoring megaphoned police directives, using a megaphone of his own to threaten to jump if approached by building employees, roof-hugging emergency workers, or helicraft.

“He’s wearing a harness-belt with big pack on it,” the Mayor’s spokesperson told Tom, “and we have to be concerned about what may be inside it. He says he’ll jump if any of the rooftop access doors even move. Of course we don’t want him to jump, but we also have to worry about his, um, explosive potential.”

Tom asked, “Do you know anything about him? Could it be some kind of political stunt?”

“We know a few things now,” she answered, with a pause as she studied her notes. “He got himself airborne by being dragged along on skis behind his motorboat—he aimed it at the shore and lashed the wheel. When it ran aground we were able to trace the owner. His name is Arthur Vladz, age twenty-eight. Unmarried, lives over in Skokie. According to his parents he was trained as an aircraft engineer, but was dismissed from his first job in that field and couldn’t get himself hired into anything similar. He has had some kind of difficulty holding down a job since. Sold seed packets and something called ‘Grit’ door to door for a while. He’s been fired from a string of desk jobs at various― ”

“Banks?” It was barely a question.

“Yes, actually. Banks—most recently one just down the street from the Tower. The police say he caused some sort of disturbance there just yesterday, made some threats, but the officials chose to let it slide and didn’t press charges. His parents don’t really have any details on any of this. Family problems. He’s cut them off, basically.”

“So no one knows exactly why he’s up there, or what he plans to do?”

The reply was, “All he says is ‘Watch out and pay attention!’—over and over.”

“If he won’t let anybody get near him, I don’t quite see how― ”

“The notion is this,” the woman interrupted. “We think—correct us if we’re wrong, of course—that your machine might fly some of our trained team up to the roof on the side where his view is obscured. Silently, you see. We think that if we gain access quickly enough, we could use a ‘pincers’ formation before he could jump, perhaps force him toward your vehicle so you could sort’ve cup the machine’s claws around him before― ”

“Before he demonstrates his explosive potential,” Tom concluded with a trace of sarcasm. “I’m afraid there’s a problem, ma’am. You see, the exosuit can’t fly!”

“Oh, but your people said― ”

“I can see where the confusion might have come in. It’s true that Koku could propel himself in dense planetary atmospheres, but it’s more like submarine cruising, not actual flight—he makes use of the buoyancy factor. Even though our guy doesn’t weigh much for his size, the onboard repelatrons aren’t sufficient to lift him into the air.”

“Well, then it seems we’ve bothered you for nothing,” snapped the spokesperson. “The Mayor and his good friend the Governor will be disappointed, obviously.”

Tom groaned slightly but said: “Yes, well... we wouldn’t want that. I guess... since we happen to be in the area...”

It took some forty minutes for Tom’s golden giant to reach Chicago’s Loop district, which had been cleared of traffic—though business-suited spectators were knotted along the sidewalks on all sides. Koku stood at the base of the 108-story tower, one of the few things that could make even a giant look small, as Tom discussed his options with various city officials.

He had worked out a daring plan en route. In minutes he put it into action.

The exosuit walked north through the Loop, then onto Lakeshore Drive. When Tom reached a place where the view from the tower summit was blocked, he swerved Koku into the lake, submerging and hunkering down to remain out of sight as the exo, pressed firm against the bottom by virtue of its gravitexes, made its way south again. They emerged on the side of the tower opposite where the squatter was perched.

“Let’s hope he doesn’t decide to patrol the perimeter!” Bud cautioned.

“They say he’s been pretty much rooted to the spot since he dropped in,” replied the young inventor. “But I’ll have Koku walk in a crouch anyway, and stay behind the buildings as much as we can manage.”

They crossed the several blocks to the base-complex of the tower, and Tom edged up to one of the walls, a wall stretching up vertically without interruption like a glass highway to the sky. Bud craned his neck, and his eyes were wide. “Good night!” he breathed.

Then came a fantastic, unforgettable sight. Keeping its upper chassis perfectly upright and vertical, the exosuit balanced on one leg, swinging the other up to horizontal and pressing the bottom of its foot against the multi-pane glass wall.

The exo was configured for a moment like the letter L. And then Koku swung up his other leg. He was standing flat on the wall!

“With the gravs pulling us forward and the trons pushing us forward, we should be stable,” Tom said.

“And we won’t break the windows?”

“We shouldn’t. The horizontal vector—the pressure against the wall—is steady but not too strong, and it’s well distributed over Koku’s wide feet.”

“Bet the owners of the building are nervous, though.”

“Flyboy—I’m nervous!”

“And worried?”

“I never worry.”

And the giant began to walk. Straight up! With the axis of the control cabin still vertical and parallel to the wall, the youths could easily count the stories as they ambled past them like a mammoth ape with great ambition. “Eighty-seven,” declared Bud. “Eighty-eight. Say, howcome we’ve got such good traction against that glass, anyway?”

Tom smiled in the midst of his tense concentration. “Remind me to tell you about the chemical film the exo can exude from its footpads. It acts like a sort of glue—but you can switch its adhesive properties on and off electronically, and it doesn’t leave any residue behind.”

“I’ll take three quarts!”

They slowed the pace as they neared the roof line, trying to be as quiet as inhumanly possible. Tom had Koku halt his climb with the top of his head one story below the roof edge. The exo’s penetradar instrument confirmed that the man, Vladz, was on the opposite side of the roof, the base of an antenna tower between them.

“Good thing you don’t have a fear of heights,” said Tom, looking at his friend as if he might never see him again.

“Just an old sky-walker. You know why it has to be me, Skipper.”

“I know. We might need quick reactions, so I’ll have to switch over to the neurintel― ”

“Not tuned-up for Barclay’s big brain,” Bud chuckled faintly. His bravado was losing steam rapidly and turning pallid. “Okay. One thousand four-hundred fifty-one feet up! Out I go. Get ready for the hand-off!”


 

 

 

 

CHAPTER 13

 

 

 

          “BEST FOR THE JOURNEY”

 

 

 

 

THE LIMBER exosuit was easily able to reach behind itself to the small of its back. Its huge hands plucked Bud out of the hatchway and lifted him upward, safely cupped in its palms as they were swung like a Ferris Wheel car over Koku’s head.

“Oh man!,” muttered Bud as he eased off onto the tower’s flat roof. “Please, Arthur—don’t try to live up to your ‘potential’!”

Inside the suit Tom tracked Bud’s stealthy movements by penetradar, ready to maneuver Koku into position under the squatter for safety—in case Bud’s attempts at sweet reason led him to take to the air. For now, though, the wall-crawling behemoth had to remain out of sight to forestall any outsized reaction from Vladz.

Hoping to avoid startling the roof-sitter, Bud began to whistle a happy tune as he rounded the rooftop antenna base. Vladz stiffened and glanced back with a snarl. “Stay back! And keep your hands up high!”

Bud smiled and raised his hands. “Hey, okay, Arthur, we want you to stay cool, calm, and dry. I’m not packing heat.”

“How’d you get up here, anyway?” The man nodded toward the roof door, which was within his view.

“Just out for a stroll,” Bud returned, jovial but very white. “How’d you get up here?”

Vladz suddenly rose to his feet as Bud tensed. How the heck do you tackle the guy without knocking him right over the edge? puzzled the youth, drawing closer.

“Nobody understands,” said Vladz, fingering the ominous-looking pack strapped to his belt.

“Yeah, tell me about it.”

“So I had a seizure. Couldn’t help it, could I? We all checked each other all the time.”

“At the plant?”

“They said they were afraid I’d let some flaw get by me. Right—like my calling in sick didn’t matter. Like they didn’t even think about the med costs. People like us...”

“I hear ya, Arthur.”

“If I got a little difficult, if I started telling a few people off, can you blame me? Huh?”

“Not me!”

“One job after another—canned. Nobody even wanted the seeds! I’d blank out, see, fall down. My head...”

Bud was now ten feet away. “I know how you feel.”

The comment didn’t sit well with Arthur Vladz, who snapped back: “Yeah? So you’re ready to jump off a building? Don’t patronize me!”

“Sorry, pal. I― ”

“Get back! I’m gonna finish this.”

Bud stopped but didn’t back away. “Ever hear of Swift Enterprises, Arthur? We’re always looking for engineers, good ones. I’m sure we’d hire you—keep you, too! You’re free to keel over any time. It’s our policy.”

“Right. Back up or I’m takin’ the short walk!”

Bud tensed—and darted forward. Koku’s left hand had appeared over the rooftop edge just behind Arthur Vladz! The man squawked at Bud and twirled to leap, then shouted in astonishment at the weird octopus of metal confronting him.

Bud lunged out to grab Vladz, but Vladz’s reflexes sprung the man away toward the exosuit’s hand. “Snag him, Tom!” Bud shouted.

Vladz hurtled into the palm of Koku’s hand, but Tom, overly cautious, didn’t close the fingers quickly enough. The would-be jumper used the fingers like a step ladder, scrambling up and over onto the top of Koku’s forearm, where he stood unsteadily, leaning against the wind, yelling incoherently.

Tom took in the situation, gazing upward through the protruding viewdome. “Good grief!” he gulped. “If I make a move to take him, I could brush him right off!”

Bud Barclay had also sized up the dilemma. If Arthur Vladz were to be snagged, it would be Bud who would have to do it! As Tom moved the arm slowly forward over the roof, Bud clambered over Koku’s finger-bands and crouched atop the golden arm, facing Vladz.

Vladz laughed wildly, on the verge of hysteria. “Can’t catch me, can’t catch me!” As Tom eased the arm forward, Vladz edged in the other direction, toward the elbow, Bud following with pounding heart and a bright sun in his eyes. You can take him! he thought. One, two...

“Restful up here,” muttered Vladz, eyes darting about. “Think I’ll stretch out—stretch out for good. Perchance to dream, perchance to dream.”

Bud knew the moment had come. The ex-footballer followed his trained instincts, digging in as he surged forward in a sudden move. But his instincts had betrayed him. The golden hull of Neo-Aurium was too slick-smooth for his tennis shoes to handle! As Tom watched from below in terror, Bud skidded to the edge of the forearm, toes poking space, arms windmilling.

“Come on, pal! Come on!” Tom cried helplessly.

Bud tried to throw himself backward, and there was a slivered instant of hope. But one foot shot out from under him. He slid off into bare air, slamming hard against the arm’s shell as he plunged.

Now nothing could stop Bud’s fall!

Yet Tom Swift had instincts of his own, and they refused to accept the fact. He was already making a juggler’s moves! Feet planted firmly on the vertical wall before him, Koku swiveled his upper body and swung his left arm downward with violent speed, drawing in the elbow to whip the palm directly under Bud—matching the fall and snagging the youth in midair!

The darting move had left Arthur Vladz hanging in blue space with nothing beneath him. The screeching, struggling man fell a few yards, bounced off the top of the closed hand that held Bud, and whirled sideways, into the exo’s waiting right hand. Tom had juggled two lives, and this time he hadn’t missed!

Koku’s climb down was a televised spectacle of triumph. A hundred cameras saw the giant kneel, resting his hands on the concrete-covered ground. The left hand opened, and Bud stumbled out woozily, blinking and breathless. The right hand opened, and Arthur Vladz tumbled out—unconscious.

Waiting medics examined the two. Bud was pronounced fit, if bruised. “Arthur’s not doing so well,” an attendant told the Mayor of Chicago, the governor and Tom standing close by. “Some cranial bleeding, I’d say. Looks like it’s a preexisting condition, though—I see scars from prior surgery in the region.”

“I heard him talking about seizures,” Tom noted. “What about that pack he’s wearing?”

“Spare underwear and a shaving kit,” snorted an explosives expert.

“Guess he figured he might need it in the next world,” commented Bud in a small husky voice. He had reason for modesty—only Vladz and Tom had seen his courage.

The Mayor had stepped away, conferring with his staff, and with the governor and his staff. He returned and said to Tom and Bud, camera flashes gleaming on his teeth, “Boys, you’ve worked a miracle. Chicago would like to honor you with a ceremony tomorrow morning at City Hall.”

Glancing at Bud, Tom replied, “I suppose—it might be a good idea to rest up for a night in something other than a pilot’s seat.”

“You’ll be spending the night in our finest hotel.”

The milling crowd, now filling the boulevard, rumbled with shouted questions and random cheers. One man approached, offering Tom his hand. “Tom—Bud—let me shake your hands. You do so many fantastic things!”

Tom smiled wearily and shook the offered hand. “Thanks, Mister—?”

“Wilbur Nil, no joke.” After shaking Bud’s hand, the man turned and vanished into the throng.

“Funny name,” said Bud to Tom. “Not that a Budworth should mention it.” Then something caught Bud’s eye. He reached around to Tom’s back and peeled a small object off the young inventor’s T-shirt—a square bit of yellow paper, sticky along one edge. “Somebody must’ve left their desk with a note sticking to them.”

Tom glanced at it curiously. “Hmm!—‘Best for the journey. WN’. I guess Mr. Nil wanted to leave us with a day-brightener.”

“I think my day’s been more than bright enough,” retorted Bud.

They finally broke away from the media and the squadrons of political types. The exosuit was put on well-guarded display in a wide plaza soon packed with the eyes of the public, and Tom and Bud were driven to their hotel, another towering structure.

Up in their lavish suite, they snacked and napped. Before ordering a room-service dinner—they had had enough of people for a time—Tom phoned Shopton, for a lengthy conversation with his father, then his mother, and then Sandy. “No way, no way can you two stay clear of trouble!” she teased. “I think they should forget the books and put The Adventures of Tom Swift on TV!”

“Long as I don’t have to play the title role!”

Presently Tom asked his sister about Quimby Narz. She sighed slightly. “Tom, I... I guess I just have to do some thinking.”

“Is he causing a problem? Too much chocolate?”

“Oh, stop. All I mean is—there’s something underneath it all, something in his tone. He’s so attentive...”

“Didn’t you call it sweet?”

“He’s been sending me little cards, what they call ‘friend’ cards. Just pleasant little notes, nothing... you know. Still, it’s kind of offputting when someone’s friendliness is so persistent. I don’t want to hurt his feelings. But—he’s old enough to be my grandfather!”

Tom grinned. “More than old enough!”

“What if he wants to start dating me? How do you date a senior citizen? Gosh, what if he asks me to marry him!”

“You’d have to carry him over the threshold! Look, San, it might be best just to break it off before it goes any further. Even CIA agents can only withstand so much torture.”

“I think you’re making fun of me,” Sandy pouted. “Maybe some kind of subtle hint...”

“You could just send back the chocolates unopened.”

“There’s no need to go to extremes, Tomonomo.”

After inconclusively concluding the conversation with Sandy, Tom spoke to Hank Sterling at the plant. “I guess I have a mixed report to give you, Skipper. There’s no sign, not so far, that the deterioration effect has spread further than the initial microcomponents. Matter of fact, no offense to your Mom, we’ve yet to actually detect this supposed ‘xenocule’ thing.”

“But we’re looking for single molecules of the same material as those around them.”

“I know,” Hank said. “Only the configuration identifies them, and that’s not easy to pick up on. It may be important to keep trying, though. Even if the ‘infection’ isn’t spreading, the original chips have continued to erode away, and the rate seems to be accelerating.”

“We have to find a way to handle it, Hank,” declared Tom thoughtfully. “There could be other chips out in the world from the same contaminated source, whatever it is.”

“You’re so right,” the engineer agreed. “But on that front, we seem to be getting somewhere. If we really are dealing with mutant molecules—we just might have figured out where they’re coming from!”


 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER 14

 

 

          LORD OF THE MICROCHIP

 

 

 

 

DELIGHTED, Tom flashed a “thumbs up” to Bud across the room, toweling himself from a soothing shower. “What have you got, Hank?”

“What have we got? Lewis Luxor!”

The news depleted the young inventor’s stock of gasps by one big one. “What! ‘Loot’ Luxor?”

“Yup—Sultan of Cyber, Lord of the Microchip!”

“And Emperor of the Internet,” added Tom dryly.

The whole planet knew the name Loot Luxor, as the man himself preferred to be called. Once a teenage genius not unlike Tom Swift, he had blazed a spectacular trail through ever-evolving hardwares and softwares, code-spouting and game-spinning his way to billionaireship before the age of thirty. His mega-corporation, NykronCyber, was probably the largest privately held business on Earth. Many inhabitants of the brave newer world were inclined toward swooning worship. But others whispered words like metastasizing cyber-imperialism.

Hank continued, “It turned out to be a more complicated job than we’d expected, but we finally traced back the serial numbers on the various key components.”

“To NykronCyber?”

“To one of their manufacturing affiliates—two plants in two states, in fact. Two separate batches, matching the separate components in the control units.”

“Then we’ve only narrowed the mystery, not solved it,” pronounced Tom. “We still don’t know if this is a generalized manufacturing flaw in the NykronCyber process—or something exotic spreading from chip to chip at our end.”

“Do you want us to start a conversation with the Nation of Nykron—as the ‘netizens’ call it?”

Tom mulled over the question for a moment. “Hank, it might be wisest, in a lot of ways, to raise the issue on a personal level with Mr. Luxor himself.”

“Have you ever met the Great Man?”

“A couple times at conferences, with Dad.”

“So tell me,” Hank inquired eagerly. “Geek, tyrant, or ‘all this and more’?”

Tom laughed. “Sorry—our meetings were a little too short to pry out the inner man! He seemed pretty normal. Has a sense of humor.”

When the young inventor hung up the phone, his prodigal mind had begun chewing over the question of how and when to approach Loot Luxor. “Flyboy, I think it’s time to bow to reality and revise our travel itinerary.”

“In what way? You’re not having Golden Boy shrug his big shoulders and head home, I hope.”

“No, pal.” He gave an account of the half of the phone call beyond Bud’s overhearing “I’d been thinking ever since we came to Chicago that as we’re up north already, we might as well continue on to California by a northerly route—mountains and snow instead of desert.”

“And then—San Francisco?”

Tom grinned. “Why not? But there’s another reason now. We could ‘just happen’ to pass near Luxor’s estate up in Idaho, near Flathead Lake.”

“Sure! And while we’re in the neighborhood...”

“It’d be rude not to pay a call.”

The next morning’s ceremony was big, bright, and loud, and soon enough behind the pair. To endless waves of photoflashes, Tom maneuvered the exosuit through the streets of the city, through jumbled and stately suburbs, and at last into the forested privacy of Wisconsin and Minnesota. They at last were able to revive the regimen originally planned, sleeping in shifts that night as Koku marched on, passing by the Lake of the Woods at the Canadian border, then a left turn toward the west.

Near dawn, near Bismarck, they stopped in an area where rising pasture land turned to rolling hills, early warning of the northwestern Badlands.

At Bud’s suggestion they climbed down into the cold and sat for a time at the base of the ladder, talking and absorbing the starlight. “I never got to take one of those post-highschool ‘road trips’ they talk about,” Bud mused. “When I moved to Shopton I got into flying and jets right away.”

“And into Swift Enterprises and its danger-prone genius in residence,” observed his friend. “But I’d say this is a road trip to top them all.”

“Sure is!”

For a time the young San Franciscan was silent. Tom asked him what he was thinking. “About Sandy, I guess.”

“And Quimby Narz, maybe?”

“Look, Tom, it’s not some kind of jealousy thing, not at all,” was the reply. “But at the very least, San’s a good friend, someone I care about. And Narz... I mean, jetz, the guy’s an old prune with a bum eye!”

“Uh-huh. And also a pretty smart and brave CIA agent—in fantastic physical shape.”

“Yeah. For his age!” Bud conceded sarcastically. “And Quim turned out to be a nice guy, I guess. But now he’s gotten to mailing cards and letters, and you know, when you start using the mail it’s kind of serious.”

“Don’t forget, they raised the postage rate today. That could put an end to the romance right there!”

“Yeah, well... this whole weird deal with Sandy― ”

Tom nodded. “I know. You don’t see it every day. But sis isn’t a kid, flyboy, and she knows her own mind. Besides, it sort’ve runs in the family. Mom’s grandfather’s grandfather, Dead-Horse Longstreet, was older than Narz when he married a Cherokee girl younger than Sandy.”

Bud was startled at the thought. “Good night! Really? How’d things work out for them?”

“Apparently okay. Or I wouldn’t be here!”—which made Bud laugh.

It seemed the Nonsense Wave had finally run itself aground. There were no bank incidents or peculiar actings-out for the next couple days. Which is not to say that the powers of the humanplifying exosuit were not called upon, but the situations were run-of-the-mill—repelling a charging bull, rescuing a few grade-schoolers from a forest fire, knocking aside a smallish avalanche, holding up a collapsing trestle as a train passed over. Tom and Bud had plenty of time to test Koku’s tools and instruments, as well as his mountain-climbing skills. “That would come in handy on several moons and planets, including Venus,” Tom observed.

Bud snorted. “We’re one hour away from Loot Luxor. Does the exo pack any tools for slippery conversation?”

“It won’t be all that difficult,” chuckled Tom. “He sounded pretty amiable on the phone just now.”

“That just means he’s polite. Business people have to be—image stuff!”

The estate of Lewis Luxor achieved its hugeness by being narrow as a snake but very lengthy, meandering along on both sides of a creek that tumbled through passes in rugged hills now touched with Idaho snow. Koku climbed the private road with ease, and the youths soon began to glimpse their goal. “Good night!” Bud exclaimed. “What kind of mansion is that?”

Luxor’s mansion was four stories high, walls and roof perfectly flat, the edges beveled. It was faced with what seemed to be blond, lacquered wood, resembling a polished cabinet built for a giant. “He calls the place The Ark,” noted Tom. “I’d say all those satellite dishes sort’ve spoil the look, don’t you think?”

“I’m looking at the steam over the swimming pool. He sure doesn’t have to worry about winter.”

Luxor came out alone to greet them. Though about as old as Tom’s father, he was casually dressed and seemed youthful, almost boyish. “Welcome to The Ark, Tom, Bud—Koku!” he said warmly, shaking hands with the first two. “Some people call it the F.B.A., I’m told.” When Tom looked quizzical, Luxor added, “Fortress of Blind Ambition.”

“It looks incredible,” said Bud, eyes wide.

“The architecture is pretty much my wife’s doing,” the man responded. “I’ve never had much of an aesthetic eye. For every talent, a deficit, hmm?”

“True of everyone, sir,” Tom commented.

“Maybe. But then, guys like you and I aren’t exactly ‘everyone’.” Tom agreed, but cast a look toward Bud. Luxor’s casual remark seemed a bit offputting.

Luxor guided the two inside the great box, and prepared light refreshments himself, waving the cook aside. They talked for a time of Tom’s exosuit, and various scientific and technical matters well beyond Bud Barclay’s grasp or interest. Smile, don’t unfreeze! he thought.

Ultimately they were taken upstairs—by escalator—to an enormous room Loot Luxor seemed to use as a combination workshop, communications center, office, and, sometimes, bedroom. “And look at this!” he said. He clapped three times in a distinctive rhythm, and a transparent tube, man-width, slid down from the ceiling to floor level. “Shower stall, plus ultrasonic massage. Fun, isn’t it?”

“I’d love to have one,” Tom said politely.

“I’ll send you one.”

The three sat down on a circular padded bench, facing one another. Tom and Bud noticed glassy-eyed portholes in the ceiling above. The entire meeting was being recorded for posterity—or perhaps for the master’s subsequent amusement.

“I have the twitchy feeling,” Luxor said with a grin, “that our conversation hasn’t exhausted those ‘technical questions’ you said you wanted my opinion on. A cyber problem? Want me to change your bio on NyCyNet Pikipedia?”

Tom took a deep, submerged breath. “Mr. Luxor― ”

The man raised a palm. “Uh-uh. ‘Loot’, please. Otherwise things might go in that direction.” He pointed toward a wall, where he had hung a small sign.

 

JUST CALL ME SATAN

 

“Sure. Well, we ran across something very strange recently, Loot. I guess you could call it a technical problem. It has to do with a sort of deterioration in the silicon chips in some components your affiliates supplied us with. I thought if I described― ”

Luxor interrupted the young inventor once again. He leaned forward, expression laser-like in intensity, yet somehow gleeful. “You’re taking xenocules.” It was not at all a question!


 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER 15

 

 

          LIFELESS VICTIM

 

 

 

 

TOM SWIFT was taken aback! If Luxor already knew of the problem, was he confessing that he was behind it?

The older genius was grinning at the younger one. “Surprise you? I spend two hours every day, lying in bed reading all those journal articles, all that wild speculation. That’s how we live halfway in the future, isn’t it, Tom?”

“Then you know all about the xenocule theory.”

“Sure I do. ‘Silicon deterioration’—big clue. And it’s happening at TSE?”

Tom gave an account of the occurrence, concluding with: “We’re very concerned, obviously. If it is the xenocule phenomenon... I guess you know.”

“I ought to. I’m behind it! The idea is to destroy world technology and force people to purchase NykronCyber computers, software, you name it. It’ll make me a rich man—a rich madman. I’m completely insane, obviously.”

Seeing the expression on Bud’s face, Tom hastily told him, “He’s kidding, Bud.”

Luxor chortled like a schoolboy. “Got you, Bud! Sorry. Jokin’ around. See, Tom, that’s what happens when a guy reads too many of those ‘adventures’ of yours.”

Tom smiled thinly. “Funny. But this is kind of a serious matter, don’t you think?”

Shaking his head, the cyber-magnate responded emphatically. “No, Tom, not really. I’ve worked through that xenocule theory. Garbage! Silicon can’t be tortured into a configuration like that, no way. It’d just collapse into a more compact form. I found five errors in those scientists’ reasoning, and two in their math. So forget it. Trust me.”

“Okay,” said the young inventor. “Then what are we dealing with, sir?”

“What we are dealing with, sir, is some flaw in the doping process—when we introduce microimpurities into the chip so it’ll do its semiconductor thing.”

“Some problem in your manufacturing cycle?”

“I’d guess,” nodded Luxor. “It may have affected a great number of our chips, and there may be customers all over the world who’ve had some ‘technical problems’ because of it. But TSE’s high-tech is usually a much higher-tech than anyone else has. The experimental stuff you guys do is sensitive to tiny malfunctions, and you trace down the failure instead of just slapping in a new unit.

“Anyway, tread lightly for a week or two. I’ll look into it. Don’t worry about the silicon plague nonsense.” The word seemed to trigger another direction for Luxor’s thought. “So. You’ve got caught up in this Nonsense Wave deal, I see.”

“Are you going to tell me there’s nothing to it either?” demanded Tom as mildly as he could manage.

“And deprive Mrs. Weidenhauser of a wonderful plot-menace?” The man laughed pleasantly. “No, Tommo, there’s obviously something goin’ on. And you know, I think I just may have a clue for ya.”

Tom started to lean back against the back of the bench, then remembered that it didn’t have one. “A clue?”

In response Loot Luxor retrieved a business card from his desk and handed it to Tom, who read it aloud for Bud’s benefit. “It’s for the Perchance to Dream Foundation. ‘Let your goodbye be the best moment of your life.’ Is it a hospice, Loot?”

“No. A kind of counseling center. It’s one of the charitable, human-helping things I fund with my filthy billions.” Luxor winked at the boys. “Of course, I didn’t create it—I just donate to it. But I like to pay visits to the things I give to, to weed out the deadwood and the scams.”

“So what do they do, exactly?” Bud asked.

“The concept is this, that people who have a terminal illness, or sometimes who are just very elderly and on their ‘last legs,’ have secret wishes and desires, things they’ve always dreamed of doing—and now the dreaming’s gonna be cut short, if you see what I mean. So they have trained facilitators who get the clients together in little groups, encourage them to talk about it. They call it dreaming aloud, I recall. Neat, huh?”

With a skeptical look, Tom inquired how the organization could be tied to the Nonsense Wave.

“Because when I read about the incidents, I noticed a couple of the names of the perpetrators, a couple unusual names. I have a fairly high-gig memory, and it nagged at me that I’d heard those names before. Finally I realized—I’d met them when I visited last year. They let me sit in on a group session.”

“You said unusual names,” Tom repeated. “Such as Arthur Vladz, maybe?”

“Hey-yo, in one! The Chicago jumper.”

“Tom, listen,” Bud spoke up excitedly. “I don’t know if you heard it over the phonosys, but― ”

“He said ‘Perchance to dream!’ I did hear it!”

“Does this make me a good citizen?” asked Luxor with irony. “And... you’re heading for San Francisco, aren’t you?”

“Yes,” Tom confirmed. “How did you know? It hasn’t been announced.”

“You don’t keep up with the blogs? The anti-NykronCyber sites? I have direct access to video feeds from every camera on Earth or in orbit! Look into your monitor and you’re looking right into my eyes.”

This time it was Tom who laughed first. “I guess the crowd out there doesn’t always like people getting a little ahead of them.”

“As well we know!”

“What does S’Fran have to do with any of this?” Bud objected.

“Look at the card. It’s where the foundation is located. I wouldn’t be surprised if somebody on staff had a few answers to some carefully-posed questions.”

Loot Luxor walked Tom and Bud back to the exosuit. Halting at the base of the ladder, Tom asked if Kent Philbin Foster were one of the names Luxor remembered. “That gun nut down south? Real piece of work, isn’t he? But no, I don’t recall that name. I might not have been introduced to him.”

“Or he could have been enrolled there under an alias,” Tom added thoughtfully as he shook Luxor’s hand.

As daylight drew into night, Koku was making his way through the Blue Mountains of Oregon. The pilot pair ate a foodpack dinner together, then Tom slept, contour chair folded flat and gently gripping its inhabitant, as Bud assumed the driver’s seat. Even without being able to use the neurintel, the young pilot had quickly become skilled at managing the exo and easily guided them along their isolated backroads course south of west. Sunrise found them near Malheur Lake; by lunchtime they were in Bud’s native state, following along the Pit River basin into the great Sacramento Valley.

It was becoming increasingly difficult to avoid people and traffic. “California’s getting a tad crowded this millennium,” observed Bud wryly. “Think we should go camo again?”

Tom shook his head. “I’d rather avoid that. Let’s take a look at the map.”

After studying the details of the topography and the grid of roads and towns, Tom applied a stylus to a sensor board and a glowing thread appeared on the viewpane-screen. “There’s the most secluded route,” he declared.

“Vacaville, Napa, Vallejo—and then you’re practically in the north Bay,” said Bud approvingly. “I’ve been along that old road. Nobody really uses it nowadays.”

“That’s the idea, flyboy. And it’s really the only good route for Koku to tramp over—if we want to avoid the freeways.”

“Believe me, you do!”

Bud was anxious to reach San Francisco, but Tom decided to take it slow. The shadows of sundown had become thick over the sparsely traveled, zagging roadway when they stopped to dine at a microscopic cafe, introducing themselves and their giant to the owner and two goggle-eyed patrons as Koku stood patiently in the parking lot.

They pressed on, and for a quarter of an hour saw no traffic at all. Then a single car sped past in the direction of the Bay Area, shedding light on the sides of the rocky trough the road had been cut through.

“In a hurry,” Bud commented lazily. “Typical Californian.”

The car vanished around the bend far ahead. A minute later, approaching the same bend, Tom muttered something and Koku, neurintel-connected, stretched out a gesturing hand and pointing finger. “Look at the light on the rocks, Bud.”

“It’s wavering... Good night, it must be coming from a fire!”

Tom nodded. “I see smoke too. Let’s go slow. I’ll take a look round the bend with the LRGM.”

The LRGM used tiny variations in the gravitational field to map-out objects through any form of barrier, including a California hill. Unfortunately the result was like a radarscope silhouette, with no detail. “There’s sure something going on, though,” Tom pronounced. “A big object in the road about a thousand yards down.” He neurinteled a change in instrumentation and a bar-graph readout appeared before them. “The analytracer shows heavy petroleum products in the smoke. Bud, I’ll just bet it’s that car that passed us. They must’ve got into a wreck!”

The exosuit now commenced a swift lope. Rounding the bend they saw that Tom’s analysis seemed correct. A big dark object lay across the road amidst a corona of flame. In front of it was sprawled the smoldering figure of something small—with arms and legs!

Bud gulped in alarm. “Jetz! The car could start spraying out burning gasoline right on top of the guy! Have Koku scoop him up or something!”

“If he has internal injuries, that would be the worst thing we could possibly do,” was Tom’s grim retort. “We’ll have to go out there and size up his condition. You and I could move him away from danger more delicately than the exo could.”

“Okay, but we’ve got to hurry!”

The two dashed through the access hatch and half fell down the ladder in their frantic haste. Rounding Koku’s feet plunged them from shadow into the flickering orange glare of the fire, which seemed to be worsening.

Shielding their eyes they trotted forward. Tom knelt next to the dark, smoldering form. There was no trace of movement.

“I-is he still alive?” Bud gulped.

“He’s not alive,” Tom grated. “He’s not even a he!”

“What!”

“This is just some kind of dummy figure in pants and a jacket—like a scarecrow!” Tom stood up angrily as Bud expressed astonishment. “And that thing over there isn’t a car, either, just some kind of framework held together by cords, with cloth draped over it.”

“Good night, genius boy—what a scare!” Bud chuckled. “We must’ve stumbled onto a movie shoot.”

But Tom threw his pal a fierce look and shook his head. “Then why isn’t that car stopped here like we are, next to us? Why wasn’t the road blocked off? You see any lights? Camera? Action?”

“You mean it’s just some kind of prank?”

“No, pal, I mean it’s some kind of trap, and it was set with us in mind! We’ve got to get back inside the exosuit!”


 

 

 

 

CHAPTER 16

 

 

          DANGLING DAREDEVILS

 

 

 

 

THE TWO swiveled and dug out for the exo, tensed for the banging of a gun. But the only sound was the crackle and sputter of the phony fire.

Scrambling up to safety through the open hatchway, they sealed the compartment. “Okay, bad guys—shoot away!” Bud gibed. “Genius boy, maybe we should do something about that fire. Hey, can Koku just stomp it out?”

“Let’s go tech instead.” Extending nozzles from Koku’s fingers Tom had the exosuit jet out a fine spray of foam, and the fire was dead in seconds. He then used the exo’s repelatrons to shove the bogus car and the dummy aside. Finally he contacted the local fire authorities by cellphone, warning them of the possibility of danger—from something other than fire.

As they resumed their trek, Bud asked his chum for some Swiftian theorizing. “What was the point of it? All they accomplished was to delay us for a few minutes. Big whup! They didn’t even try to take us for ransom, or commandeer the exo.”

Tom shrugged. “One thing’s for sure—that car was involved in some way or other. It’s mighty unlikely that somebody would know in advance that a car would be passing, and then drag all that stuff out onto the road in less than a minute. The car must have been trailing us, to pinpoint our arrival at the scene.”

“I hate mysteries,” grumped Bud. But then he revised the thought: “Well, kind of a love-hate relationship.”

The day previous, going through Enterprises, Tom had gotten word to various officials in San Francisco and other bay cities, alerting them to the approach of the exosuit, whose precise route had been kept somewhat secret. As Koku stood contemplating San Pablo Bay midmorning, preparing to get his feet wet, the inevitable phone call came through, from the Office of the Mayor of San Francisco. “Tom, we’re all excited to have you two here as city guests—absolutely. What an honor for this elegant lady of a town! Of course, traffic control, extra police protection... it does run up a little money.”

“We’re very appreciative, sir,” Tom responded, wondering with a twinge of dread what was coming.

“Well you know, here’s a really wonderful way for you to show that appreciation, Tom. Something fun—you’ll like it.”

Dread confirmed! “What did you have in mind?”

“We’ll call it a special element in your test program.” The Mayor explained that a group of graduate students in engineering at the university in nearby Berkeley had cooked up a spectacular stunt with a celebrity daredevil and racing professional, Win Prelasker.

“Wow,” Bud muttered. “I’ve always wanted to meet that guy. He’s a legend! I’d love to shake hands with a celebrity like that.”

“What sort of stunt?” Tom inquired of the phone, giving Bud an amused look.

“You won’t believe it!—but of course, there’s a lot about your own life that folks don’t quite believe. In essence, Win is going to cross the Golden Gate Bridge by motorcycle. Not impressed? How about if I tell you that he’s going to do it underneath the bridge—upside down!”

“Uh—I don’t think I follow you, sir.”

The Mayor laughed. “Now please don’t try to pin me down on the technical details, Tom. Evidently the motorcycle has been outfitted with a pair of ultrapowerful magnets of some kind, built right into the wheel rims. He’ll ride along upside down, strapped to the bike frame, while the magnetism holds the bike to the underside of the span. It’s for charity—a TV network won the bidding to cover it for the price of a substantial donation. Happens just before noon today! Nice timing.”

“Very nice,” agreed Tom with some eye-rolling for Bud’s benefit. “Er, what did you want us to do, Mr. Mayor? Walk underneath in the bay to catch him if he falls?”

“Ohhh, ha, no indeed. We’ve read about the capabilities of your ‘Koku’ and it seems to us—do correct me if we’re wrong—that you could also cross the bridge underneath from the other end, at the same time, so that you’d pass each other right at the midpoint. We’re all primed to get the news out, and the TV people say they’ll double their charitable donation!”

“That’s great. Charitable donation to—what?”

“Oh, we have a combined fund,” replied the Mayor vaguely. “Different things. All the big diseases. Nothing to do with my reelection campaign, no connection. —if that’s what you’re wondering about.”

“No. Certainly not. But I’m afraid I still don’t quite grasp the scenario. Are you thinking that the suit could walk along under the bridge upside down? We do have a gripper function in the footpads, but the gravitexes work by aiming at― ”

The man interrupted. “No, Tom, we have something else in mind. We’ve temporarily installed a flat track—magnetic metal is sandwiched inside—beneath the bridge structure, one end to the other. Our engineers say it’s bolted very firmly and can support a fair amount of weight without pulling loose. It’s only a few feet wide, with an overhang on either side. Now then, we envision you using the robot’s hands to grab onto the overhangs, from beneath.”

“You mean dangle from the track?”

“And then work your way forward, hand over hand. You know, like a monkey hanging from a tree limb. Do they still call those things in kids’ playgrounds monkey bars?”

“I see.” The young inventor felt very much like groaning. And yet—what a test of the exosuit’s capabilities! “And when we get to the middle, I suppose Win Prelasker― ”

“Will pass right between the suit’s upraised arms at top speed. Quite a spectacular sight for the viewers, wouldn’t you agree? The TV people think so.”

“Mr. Mayor, I—I don’t know what to say.”

“How about the third shortest common word in the English language—Yes!”

“What’s the second shortest?”

“The sad alternative. No.”

“And the shortest?”

“The most common of all—I!”

With mixed feelings but tempted by the challenge, Tom gave in. Bud whooped. Koku himself had no voice in the matter.

Overcoming the exo’s buoyancy by the downward pull of the gravitex system, they strolled across the bottom of the northern San Francisco Bay, passing unseen beneath the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge. They crossed through the narrow strait that divided Tiburon from Angel Island, then angled southwest past Sausalito to Fort Baker at the tip of the peninsula, finally climbing from the waters near the northern anchor of the Golden Gate Bridge.

As Tom repelatroned away the sheen of water on Koku’s skin, he pointed off across the Bay with a giant arm. “Yup,” said Bud with a native’s grin of recognition. “Good ol’ Alcatraz! Feel like I’ve come home.”

“The Bridge looks pretty long from underneath,” Tom remarked, eyeing the shadowed arc of girders.

They made their way up to a huge crowd dotted with TV cameras on cranes and satellite-dish uplinks. After the obligatory hearty handshaking and photo-ops with officials, Tom and Bud reentered the exosuit and took their starting position just below the first accessible spot on the underside of the down-curving structure. Linked into the neurintel circuit, Tom extended Koku’s arms straight up. The youths watched the video feed from the suit’s fingertip cameras as the human controller kinked the giant’s huge fingers around the track’s edge-flanges, which had been painted bright green for easy visibility.

The metal fingers—one dozen per hand, in four separated clusters of three—clamped firmly into place. Examining the dials, Tom pronounced with satisfaction, “We’ve latched on. We’re solid.”

“Too bad you can’t switch the neurintel to me this time,” observed Bud. “I think I’ve had a little more experience with this athletic hand-over-hand stuff than you have, Tom. I aced ‘playground.’ You have to keep to a kind of swinging rhythm― ”

“Uh-huh, I know. I’m using the cybertron to provide a little fine-tuning for my clumsy unathletic motions.”

“Yeah, but― ”

“And of course my home schooling included gymnastics. Remember, muscle man?”

“Fine. Wake me when it’s over.”

The difference in speeds meant that the exosuit would start off well before Win Prelasker at the opposite end. A cellphone signal gave the alert. Instantly Tom began Koku’s dangling “walk,” swinging one hand into place, arcing beneath it, then clamping on the other. With astounding ease the golden giant loped his way forward. In seconds he was high over the sparkling bay!

Bud leaned over, gazing down, face alive with shimmering reflection. “This is maybe just a little exciting. Long way to fall.”

“Koku’s a lightweight, and I’ve set our repelatrons to ease our fall if it comes to that. But even an all-out dive from this height wouldn’t hurt our boy.”

“It might hurt us in here, though.”

“Not with the interior G-‘shadow’ cushioning us. Not to mention some repelatron anticrash support in the cabin.”

“Man! You think of everything.”

“They do call me genius boy.”

Koku was most of the way to the midpoint when Tom received the signal that Prelasker had begun his leg of the stunt. In moments Bud called out, “Good night, there he is already!” Like some fantastic hallucination, the inverted motorcycle and its rider were speeding toward them along the narrow under-track, headlamp blazing.

Tom had wondered if the stunt might call forth some unscheduled heroics on the part of Koku, as seemed to happen on a routine basis. But for once the moment of truth came and went without incident. Cycle and rider flashed between the exo’s arms like a football between goalposts and sped onward north as Tom and Bud continued south toward San Francisco.

When they touched the rising ground, Tom released Koku’s grip and swung down his arms. “If it were me, I’d need to stretch,” Bud gibed. “When we get topside, don’t forget to have Golden Boy do a victory wave!”

Again came thanks, trumpets, television, and ceremony. When it was over, the Mayor drew Tom aside. “I know you two will be staying with Barclay’s parents. What about your machine?”

Tom explained that Swift Enterprises had arranged to use a hangar at the airport. “It’ll be well-guarded, and in any event it’s just for tonight. Our test trip is over, and the Sky Queen will be here tomorrow to take us back to Shopton.”

“Your suit as well?”

“Yes sir. Lying flat, he’ll fit nicely in our hangar-hold.” As the Mayor gave Tom another grateful handshake, Tom asked, “Incidentally, on the way to the Barclays I thought we might stop by an organization I was told about. Are you familiar with a group called the Perchance to Dream Foundation?”

“Why yes,” he nodded. “Fine citizen of our city. A major contributor!—mm, to San Francisco.”

After housing the exosuit Tom and Bud taxied to the address on the card Loot Luxor had given them—a picturesque old building on a side street. “My gosh and gravy!” exclaimed the man at the entrance counter. “Tom Swift! And, er― ”

“Homer Glockenspiel,” stated Bud sourly.

They were introduced to the woman in charge, who told them at length of the history of the organization and how it functioned. “We teach people not to fear life’s final destination, but to make peace with it, dream it, enjoy it as the grand finale and ultimate expression of― ”

Bud was uninspired and impatient. “How do you find these die-ers, anyway? Suicide hotlines?”

“Yes, that’s one way. We advertise all over the country—doctor’s offices, hospitals, mental health professionals, various kinds of counseling centers,” she explained. “Thanks to the generosity of donors like Mr. Luxor, we’re able to pay the way of clients from all over the country. The sessions are free to qualified persons, persons who we think might benefit from our services.”

“Counseling groups, isn’t it?” asked Tom.

She smiled. “We call them ‘rap groups’, although that’s rather an old-fashioned term nowadays. The groups are overseen by lay facilitators who are trained and supervised by our licensed staff.”

Tom made a gingerly approach to his purpose in visiting. “This is a wonderful concept, ma’am. I happen to have met a couple of your clients. Maybe you remember them—Augustus Tenney? Arthur Vladz?”

“Oh, I do indeed. Gus and Arthur! Lovely men.”

Tenney was also a client! My guess paid off! thought Tom jubilantly. “But I’d guess you attract all sorts of people,” he went on cautiously. “I understand Kent Philbin Foster came here as well.”

She shrugged with a smile. “Perhaps so. That name doesn’t ring a bell.”

Another member of the staff, who had been listening from the water cooler, now spoke up. “Judith, that guy was a client here—I recognized his picture in the paper just the other day! But not under that name. What did we call him? Oh—Mr. Renditt. Remember? A strutting, obnoxious little― ”

“Ohhh yes, I do remember that one,” the woman confirmed. “We had to insist that he leave his guns behind. Really, though... I suppose we oughtn’t speak about our clients.”

“Well, it was just...”

“An interesting coincidence,” finished Bud.

“Yes,” she said. “Indeed, there’s another coincidence as well. I recall that those three men we’ve mentioned were members of the same weekly group, about a year ago.”

Tom’s eyebrows raised. The interesting coincidence had just become even more interesting! “Really! I don’t suppose you’d recall who was in charge of that group?”

“The facilitator?” The woman seemed to search her memory. “He’s no longer here, but he did volunteer for quite a time, several years. It’s odd, isn’t it? I can’t quite picture him, or come up with his name. It seems I ought to be able to. Do you know, Chad?”

The staff member nodded. “Oh sure. Pleasant guy, but—well, next to the word ‘dull’ in the dictionary—you know.”

“Then you remember his name?”

“Uh-huh,” he replied. “His name was the only interesting thing about him, if you’re into remarkably dweeby names. Wilbur Nil.”

Tom and Bud were stunned!


 

 

 

 

CHAPTER 17

 

 

          FAMILY MATTERS

 

 

 

 

“YOU said—Wilbur Nil?” Tom repeated.

“That was his name,” confirmed Chad. “Bet he got teased a lot. You know, Willy-Nilly.”

“Do you know him?” asked Judith.

“He’s a big fan of Tom Swift,” Bud declared slyly. “We ran into him just the other day, in Chicago.”

“My, what a coincidence!”

“Isn’t it though,” said Tom. Saying his goodbyes, he turned to leave. As he did so Bud nudged him with an elbow and nodded toward a colorful poster on the wall. Its large-lettered benediction:

 

BEST FOR THE JOURNEY

 

Calling another taxi, Tom and Bud headed for the Barclay residence on Gough Street, with traffic making it a somewhat lengthy trip. “Okay, genius boy,” said Bud. “Theory, please. Anything!”

But the young inventor, perplexed, could only shake his head. “What facts do we have? Some of the Nonsense Wave perpetrators—maybe all of them, for all we know—are connected to one another by the fact that they came here, to this Perchance to Dream center.”

“And maybe they all had the exciting Wilbur Nil as their sponsor—facilitator—whatever.”

“Maybe,” muttered Tom. “And then Nil makes a point of meeting me in Chicago, where one of his suicidal group members tries to pull off a ‘nonsense’ stunt, which is probably one of those grand finales they talk about in group. And the question is, did Nil know in advance what Vladz was going to do?”

“How about: did Nil know in advance what Tom Swift was going to do?” retorted Bud. “Looks to me like he was ready and waiting with a sticky-note. How’d he figure that we’d be there in Chicago right then?”

“Maybe he was followin’ you,” opined the taxi driver, which reminded the boys that they were not alone. With a shared look, further conversation on the subject was postponed.

As they walked up to the Barclays’ townhouse residence, their small travel packs in hand, Bud said softly, “The guy has a point, Tom. Old Wilbur could’ve been stalking us all along. The news gave the world a pretty good idea of where we were.”

“True,” Tom agreed. “And remember that car. It’s possible he literally shadowed us by car from Shopton, city to city. And yet—how could he have followed us under Lake Carlopa, or the rivers?” When Bud pointed out that someone in the Shopton crowd could have attached a homing beeper of some kind to the exosuit, his pal nodded and said: “That’s the simplest explanation. When we get back to the exo tomorrow, I’ll give it a sweep with our instruments.”

Mr. and Mrs. Barclay welcomed their son—and their “other” son—warmly. As they sat down to relax in the living room, Bud’s mother said, “Oh, Darling, your Grandfather Newton is visiting. He’ll be down after his nap.”

Tom noticed the look that passed between the three Barclays. “Bud’s never talked much about Mr. Newton,” he remarked curiously. “I’ve always wanted to meet Ned Newton’s son. Since his father was my Great-Granddad’s best friend, he must’ve met the real Koku—the original.”

“Tom...” Bud began. Then he paused.

“Of course, the family had relocated to San Francisco several years before Ned Jr. was born,” observed Mr. Barclay. “Even after the two families began, mm, reconnecting, I’m not so sure― ”

“Father doesn’t talk a great deal about the past,” said the former Phyllis Newton. She hastily changed the subject to Bud’s years-older brother and sister. “Budwee, David and Michelle will join us tomorrow for lunch, to see you off.”

Tom turned toward Bud with a slight, quizzical smile. His pal reddened. “Mom calls me that. You know how it is with Moms.” He looked pleading. “Tom, please don’t tell anyone back in Shopton.”

“Like Chow?”

“Anyone!”

“Oh honestly, it’s just a cute little name,” said Mrs. Barclay.

After an hour of chat, Bud’s father left to return to work and his mother retired to the kitchen. Tom and Bud talked of the Nonsense Wave mystery, but their time alone ended as an elderly man entered the room, using a walker to steady himself. The boys stood politely, and Bud said, “Hi, Grandpa!”

“Hello, hello, Budwee. And you—young Tom Swift.” As he shook hands with Tom, he added: “Saw you and your robot-thing on TV before my nap. Quite a circus feat, I’d call it.”

They all talked for a time, pleasantly enough. But when Tom tried to turn the conversation to the days of Ned Newton and the first Tom Swift, Bud’s grandfather seemed to balk. “Well now, I’m not such a young man any more, Tom. If you want information about my Dad and your great-grandfather, you’ve got a whole series of nice books to read—not to mention that Pikipedia thing on the internet.”

“I know, sir,” replied the young inventor. “But the stories are fictionalizations, and official sources sometimes get it wrong. You have a personal angle.”

Ned Newton Jr. stared at Tom. “Are you entirely sure you want my personal angle?”

Bud did his best to ward off danger. “Uh, Grandpa, Tom, maybe we should― ”

But Tom persisted. “Please go on, Mr. Newton. I’d be very interested.”

“If so, you’re about the first,” huffed the man. “They all tell me to keep it to myself. You see, Tom, my Dad, rest his soul, was a good-natured fellow. He got over it pretty quick, he told me. He and Swift spent a lot of time together in those last years. Of course it took him away from his family, all those trips back east. Don’t think I don’t remember. A boy remembers that.”

“Yes, I understand. I guess... when people have a long history together― ”

“Oh yes, quite a history!” snorted the elderly man. “And how did Mom and I feel, his cavorting with the man who insulted us, our whole family? And it never stopped! Still going on today with Budwee here.”

Tom was flustered by the outburst. “I don’t think I know all the in’s and out’s of what happened, when your father resigned from Swift Construction and he and his wife moved here. I know business affairs led to some friction with― ”

“Forget that!” snapped Mr. Newton. “They all talk about that part, but what about the burial, the family plot?”

“I’m afraid I don’t follow you,” Tom responded.

“Oh?” The man leaned forward in his chair, eyes blazing. “I’m talking about that infernal Boomerang!”

Bud rubbed his eyes in sighing resignation. “Tom, he means the mule.”

“I see,” nodded Tom. “That was the mule owned by Great-Grandfather’s friend Eradicate Sampson.”

“Got it right!” Newton confirmed with scorn. “A darn mule, some kind of pet owned by that old ex-slave. Now don’t you read anything into my attitude, young man. This has nothing to do with Rad Sampson. Dad always spoke of him in the highest terms. But the mule—!”

“Grandpa,” interjected Bud desperately, “Tom doesn’t know anything about this.”

“Then kindly permit me to elucidate. You see, Tom Swift, your great-grandfather consented to Mr. Sampson’s request that his mule be buried in that little family graveyard you folks have in Shopton, the one next to the old house. The very same one where my father and mother now rest! You Swifts interred my folks next to a barnyard animal!”

“But—but Mr. Newton,” Tom floundered. “I know about the mule being there, of course, next to Eradicate. But as I understand it, both your parents asked to be interred there at the Swift site. Both Boomerang and Rad Sampson were long gone by then, and the, er, unusual circumstances of their graves were well known.”

“Which makes it all the worse, don’t you think? My sisters and I tried to get ’em shipped out here for years, but your high and mighty father and his own arrogant, pig-headed― ”

“Okay, Grandpa!” Bud broke in heatedly. “That’s enough. Tom’s a guest, and—my best friend. If you can’t talk politely I’ll pick you up and carry you back upstairs!”

Bud and his grandfather were frozen in each other’s glare for a moment. Then both suddenly broke out laughing! “Doggone, Budwee, you always did speak your mind, just like your Mom!”

“I guess... well, I’m sorry,” muttered Bud. But then— “Hey! No I’m not!”

Ned Newton Jr. shook his head. “I got a little carried away myself,” he admitted. “My apologies, Tom.”

“That’s not necessary, sir. I’m glad to know about it,” responded Tom. “I just don’t know exactly what to do about it. If my family was just following the wishes of your parents, that’s pretty final, isn’t it?”

“Well, you could move the mule, couldn’t you? Or did he also express a wish?”

Tom smiled, thinking it best to take it as a whimsical remark, not sarcasm. “Tell you what, sir. I’ll talk it over with my father. Dad will listen to me—tenacious or no.”

Ned Jr. took in and let out a deep breath. “That’s all we ever wanted. No more high-horsiness, just some honest respect and attention. Some people can’t seem to manage it, but it seems you can, Tom.”

“I try, sir,” said Tom.

Tom and Bud, in dark glasses and caps, did some sightseeing for the rest of the afternoon, doing their best to elude the news media. In actual fact they were rarely recognized in their simple disguises. It had often been noted that young Tom Swift, prodigal genius, looked like the archetypal boy next door. And despite his many heroic exploits, Bud Barclay, “Homer Glockenspiel,” had kept his face from the public eye. Or rather, the public eye had looked elsewhere.

“I wonder if Wilbur is watching us right now,” Tom said quietly, gazing up at the stern, dignified faces of buildings looming above the city’s mighty financial district.

Bud looked around. “You know what, genius boy?”

“What?”

“I just realized—I can’t remember what the guy looks like!”

Tom chuckled but agreed.

The boys returned to the Barclay residence in time for supper, Grandfather Newton in a smiling, quiescent mood. Yet they had barely begun when the front bell buzzed.

Bud noted the smiles on his parents faces as Mr. Barclay rose from his chair. “Expecting someone?”

“As a matter of fact, we are,” his mother replied.

“Sis and Bro decide to come over early?”

“No, darling.”

The footfalls of two pairs of feet crossed the hardwood floors. Mr. Barclay reentered the dining room, the visitor following.

“Good night!” Tom exclaimed.


 

 

 

 

CHAPTER 18

 

 

CAPTIVES OF THE GOLDEN

ROBOT!

 

 

 

BUD leapt to his feet, grinning and delighted. “Jetz! Sandy!”

“Well hi!” responded Sandra Swift suavely. “Surprised, Tomonomo?”

“I sure am!” Tom laughed. “Has the Sky Queen come in already?”

Tom’s sister took a seat at the dinner table as Mrs. Barclay went to fetch another plate. “Now Tom, dear boy, you should know I don’t have to wait for any old Flying Lab when I feel like jetting across the country. I am a trained and licensed pilot.”

“Trained by the best,” observed Bud, indicating himself and Tom.

Sandy explained that she had flown with Mr. Swift, Chow, and the others on the Sky Queen, which had made a stopover at the Enterprises facility in New Mexico, the Citadel. “Daddy needed to stay there one more night, but as you may have heard, I have a tiny streak of impatience. I flew on ahead in one of the little jets. Slim Davis will fly it back to the Citadel when they all get in tomorrow.”

“It’s wonderful to see you again,” said Mrs. Barclay. “Now we’ll have some extra time to visit and catch up on life in Shopton.”

“Such as it is,” Sandy replied. “Nothing much happens there, you know. People are always leaving. They prefer to get in trouble on Mars or under the ocean.”

“Or on top of tall buildings,” chuckled her older brother.

Bud had a mischievous look in his gray eyes. “By the way, San, how’re things going with your new― ”

“Pass the peas!” Sandy interrupted, frowning her version of a yellow caution light. Tom was wise enough not to say a word. Or even think one.

The next day they all lunched together at a fine restaurant—Mr. and Mrs. Barclay and their three children, Ned Newton Jr., Sandy, and the celebrated phenomenon known as Tom Swift. The restaurant required jacket and tie and frowned on caps, so the young inventor caused a stir by his palpable presence. A stir, and a swirling flurry of autograph seekers and upheld cellphone vidi-cams, memorializing a youth who had been, essentially, everywhere.

“Is it always this way?” inquired Bud’s sister Michelle.

“Oh, one does get used to it, I suppose,” Sandy replied with a toss of her golden hair.

“Since I’ve made our meal a trial-by-fandom,” Tom remarked to the table, “let me make it up to you. Come along with me and Bud when we go to the airport later. I’ll personally introduce all of you to our big buddy Koku. I need to check him out anyway before the Sky Queen gets in—get him ready to take a nap in the Flying Lab’s hangar-fold.” He and Bud traded glances. The inspection would focus on a search for a tracking beeper.

“Do you feel strong enough, Father?” Phyllis Barclay asked Mr. Newton.

“Surely do,” he answered. “But I tell you what, Tom, if you’d care to really make it up to me, how about rigging up a motor for my walker?”

Tom grinned. “Gas or electric?”

“I was thinking in terms of rocket.”

At the airport later in the day, Tom slid aside the hangar doors and a shaft of setting sun turned golden as it fell across the looming robotcraft. As the others circled the exosuit, marveling, Tom and Bud began a close scrutiny of the chassis. “What should I be looking for?” Bud quietly asked his friend. “What’s a robot tracker-bug look like, anyway?”

Tom shook his head—a head-shrug. “With microelectronics turning into nano-electronics, who can say? All I know is that we haven’t caught sight of it so far.”

“It must be held in place magnetically.”

“Couldn’t be. Neo-Aurium is nonmagnetic, flyboy.”

“Yeah—and mighty slick,” added Bud ruefully.

The search yielded nothing. “I may be just a finance consultant, not a techno guy,” said Bud’s brother Dave; “but couldn’t your shadower triangulate on your radio signals, or maybe pin you down when you use the cellphone towers?”

“That’s a good idea,” Tom said. “But we’ve avoided using conventional radio, and our cells are relayed via satellite, not a ground system.” He reminded the others that they had relied on the Private Ear Radio, which used a transmission principle that could not be tapped or traced by any human means.

“Tom said ‘human’ because there is one exception, and human it isn’t—the space friends,” commented Sandy.

“The Martians?” asked Mr. Barclay.

Tom responded, “The extraterrestrials we communicate with. They have a scientific installation inside one of the moons of Mars, but we’re not allowed to visit it. We don’t even know what they look like.”

“Maybe Koku should go knocking on their door,” Bud gibed. “The big guy’s not the sort of salesman you can brush off.”

“But anyway, Sandy’s right,” continued the young scientist-inventor. “The Planet X people have an advanced technology that gives them mastery over space and time, matter and energy. When we were trapped on Mars, they were able to interfere with the PER’s quantum link, somehow.”

Sandy made a comment and added a ladylike wink. “I don’t suppose I dare mention the possibility that this Wilbur guy could be a space person in disguise?” Her theories about human-camouflaged space invaders had become a family joke, which she now took good-naturedly.

“Maybe, San. But he sure picked a dull one!” Bud stated to laughter.

Tom climbed up to the cockpit alone and demonstrated the ladder and hatchway mechanism, showing how the hatch panel was so perfectly fitted into the hull that the threadline crack that surrounded it could not be seen. Then he took his seat and actuated the neurintel. “Okay everybody, I’m brained-in!—and no wisecracks, please, Sandy and Bud,” Tom announced over the phonosys.

“Amazing sound quality!” murmured Michelle admiringly. “Really, he ought to market it. Can he hear us, Budwee?”

Sandy stared. “Budwee?”

“I can hear everything just fine,” interjected Tom-Koku hastily. He then demonstrated some of the exo’s capabilities, rotating and swiveling the suit’s eerie cyclopean eye and showing the various beams it could emit, some beyond human sight, a few of them faintly visible in the dim light of the hangar. He concluded with the sunlike illuminator beam derived from his great-grandfather’s searchlight invention.

“I once saw the original ‘great searchlight’ in action,” declared Ned Newton Jr. “My word, my word, time rolls on, doesn’t it?”

The onlookers gasped as Tom switched on, then off again, the camouflage screen. “Skipper, how about a demo of Koku’s stretching power?” called Bud.

“Wilco!”

First Tom lengthened and shortened the legs, and the exosuit moved up and down like an elevator. Then, grinning secretly, he aimed the arms and stretched them—one toward Bud, one toward Sandy. As the two laughingly backed away, Tom neurinteled a deft, darting motion. Both youths were swept up into the exo’s hands!

As the others applauded, Tom lifted the two up to his eye-level. “Sorry if I can’t wave,” he announced. “Hope you’re comfortable.”

“Like a feather bed,” responded Bud. “Made of cold metal, of course.”

“Tomonomo, lift me further up, so I can touch the ceiling!” Sandy cried out in excitement.

“Okay, but hold still for a sec.” As the girl complied, small contoured pads of plastic slid from their compartments inside the fingers and the palm-disk itself, telescoping toward her and touching gently. Suddenly the huge fingers closed slightly, and she could feel the pads pressing against her.

“They use tiny gravitexes,” explained Koku’s pilot and master. “The microfields hold you steady and stable, but don’t adhere like the gluey stuff exuded from the footpads. Holds you pretty delicately, doesn’t it? I figured you might worry about your dress.”

“I never worry,” retorted Sandy primly. “Now—to the ceiling!”

“Yes ma’am!”

Koku raised a golden arm to near-vertical. Then the forearm began to grow like Jack’s beanstalk, stopping smoothly when the panel instruments told Tom that the hand was near the arching hangar ceiling. Stretching her own arm upward, she touched it. “My goodness, it’s got oil and grime all over it! This hangar needs a good cleaning.”

“I’m sure Koku could handle it,” Bud called from below.

Tom contracted the arm and rotated it forward, lowering Sandy until she was level with the robotcraft’s shoulder. Then, to her surprise, the downward movement stopped. The exo’s closed left fist was suspended almost two stories high above the hangar’s concrete floor. “All right, big brother, you can set me down now.”

Bud laughed. “Maybe he plans to juggle us! Hey, genius boy, when you build another one we could toss Chow back and forth like a football!” Receiving no answer, Bud turned his head and glanced into the dome. Tom sat at his controls. Connected to the neurintel, Bud knew his pal could not move a muscle—not from the neck down. But something about his face... “Tom, what’s up? Besides me and Sandy.”

Tom did not reply, though Bud could see his lips moving. Guess he switched off the phonosys, Bud concluded. But how come?

“Bud,” Sandy called down from the clenched fist that held her, “I think something’s wrong. Tom, can you hear me?” Still no answer! “Okay, maybe I will worry a little! Bud, you don’t think the neurintel could have― ”

A sudden yelp from Bud interrupted her. “Good night, that hurt! He’s got those field gadgets gripping me, too.”

“I’d better call the guards to come in,” yelled Bud’s father. “Tom may not be able to disconnect himself from the controller.” But before Mr. Barclay could start moving, Koku started in himself. The exosuit took an unsteady step toward the hangar door, then another.

“Tom! Stop!” Bud cried.

The exosuit ignored him, walking faster instead. Koku strode out into the reddening sunlight of the airfield with a determined pace, holding Sandy and Bud high—captive in his huge golden fists!


 

 

 

 

CHAPTER 19

 

 

          THE MYSTERIOUS OTHER

 

 

 

 

WHAT had begun as a late-afternoon amusement for family and friends had evolved into a crisis for San Francisco. The exosuit humanplified its way north from the airport back to the city proper, heedless of honking, swerving freeway traffic. The rush hour passed from jammed irritation to startled fear, then ended in an eerie silence as the roads were blocked and cleared. Helicraft whupped overhead, delivering news and megaphoned warnings.

If Koku’s course didn’t quite become a swath of destruction, it was at least a swath of annoyance. The exosuit developed a habit of kicking parked cars and carelessly running its jutted elbows along the fronts of tall buildings, whirling off a fountain of glass shards in his wake like Red Riding Hood’s trail of breadcrumbs. He arrived at downtown in a net of police searchlights and proceeded to diss the financial district, stomping up and down Market Street. Once he bent over and awkwardly picked up, between wrists that gripped it like a vice, a cable car engaged in its halfway-to-the-stars climb. As passengers shrieked he seemed to examine it curiously, as if it were an unfamiliar toy, fixing it in the diamond-bright ray of his all-seeing eye. At last he set it down carefully—for him.

“Oh Bud, what can we do?” cried Sandy as the fist gripping her swung up again. “Tom’s just sitting there!”

“He can’t move,” Bud called back. “I’ve been trying to work my way free, but those gravity-grippers—! No go.”

The police took to swarming about Koku’s feet, shouting amplified warnings and commands, and questions to the giant’s two captives. But their varied attempts to corner and apprehend the behemoth led to nothing. Bullets and bazookas were out of the question; even shots aimed at the exo’s feet could rebound onto Bud or Sandy, and consultation with Damon Swift—for the Sky Queen had arrived—convinced them that the shell of Neo-Aurium was invulnerable to ordinary means of assault.

Metal cables were strung across the boulevards ahead and behind, but Koku took a don’t-fence-me-in attitude toward them, easily tearing them aside or simply stepping over—or on—them.

“The Governor has called out the National Guard,” the Chief of Police advised Damon Swift as they stood watching one block away, next to a squad car. “They’ll get this thing under control.”

“What do they plan to do, appeal to the exosuit’s better instincts?” Tom’s father snapped back. “The vehicle is designed to be effectively unstoppable, to overcome any obstacle.”

“Okay, Swift, it’s your son piloting the thing,” grated the man. “You figure something out.”

Mr. Swift could only shake his head in frustration. “Tom doesn’t respond to the PER. He seems to be paralyzed.” He turned to the knot of people standing nearby. “Have you engineers come up with anything?”

“I’m dry. I don’t have a clue,” replied Arvid Hanson. “The suit is completely shielded and insulated—layers of Tomasite and Neo-Aurium, and a glaze of Inertite. No way to give it any kind of electrical hotfoot.”

“As I said before, it can’t shrug off a repelatron,” Hank Sterling declared. “We could fly some of the big models in from the Citadel― ”

“Brand my batterin’ ram, Sterling, whyn’t we jest go fer th’ guts right off?” demanded Chow Winkler, near hysteria over the fate of his beloved boss and friend. “Use th’ blame Sky Queen t’ nudge that ole giant over on its side!”

At the moment Hank was not inclined to be polite. “Sure, Chow. And then maybe we could brand him.”

“There is something we could do to keep the suit under control and out of harm’s way—other people’s harm, that is,” Mr. Swift said thoughtfully.

“That’s what I wanna hear,” enthused the police chief. “What’s the plan?”

“The Flying Lab carries a device called the vacuum lifter, which is lowered on cables from its hold. The Queen could hover a ways above the exo and lower it down on top of it. Then when it clamps on to the suit’s chassis, we could raise the whole thing into the air.”

“Forget it!” barked Bud’s father. “That’s my boy up there! What if your fool robot decides to free up his hands and let go of him while you’re flying it around?”

“May I remind you, Glynn,” Mr. Swift responded coldly, “that it’s also my son and daughter up there.”

“Please, let’s all stay nice and calm,” urged Bud’s sister. “Men, we really need all your brain power right now.”

After a time Koku seemed to tire of the sights of picturesque San Francisco by dark. Sweeping his personal searchlight beam across the clouds, he paused at an intersection ominously, then seemed to make a decision, choosing one thoroughfare and clanking off down it. He made his way to the freeway and turned south, an armada of official vehicles trailing cautiously behind.

“Can you tell where he’s going?” called Sandy to her co-captive, her voice faint and hoarse, her blond hair bedraggled and hopeless.

“I don’t know, San. Maybe San Jose.” After a thought, Bud added: “Good grief, let’s hope he’s not of a mind to take a stroll down to Los Angeles!”

Koku seemed in no particular hurry, ambling along at a relaxed pace with an occasional pause for random mischief. “Thank the Lord he hasn’t killed or maimed anyone,” muttered Mr. Swift, passenger in one of the follower vehicles. “He’s being rather careful, more a brat in a bad mood than a berserker.”

“Allow me to share a thought with you, Damon,” said Ned Newton Jr., sitting next to the head of Swift Enterprises. “This is all psychological.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, let’s think about it, this business of holding back and being careful, the way Budwee and your daughter are being safely held. Don’t you see? They’re being protected from harm!

“After all, what you have is an interface between Tom’s brain and the suit’s mechanical body and motor mechanisms. Who’s to say that some kind of malfunction mightn’t have broken through the, shall we say, brain-barrier that walls-off Tom’s conscious and subconscious mind?”

Chow Winkler gave a snort that was as loud as it was impatient with mental metaphysics. “Aaa, jumpin’ jackrabbits, that there’s a big pile o’ oats that’s been through both ends o’ the horse!”

“The voice of the people speaks!” reproved Mr. Newton. “I’m pointing out that the machine seems to be outwardly expressing the kinds of destructive infantile impulses that we all have stored away somewhere or other, the inborn things we have to lock up as we grow older.”

“I see,” Mr. Swift said. “What they call the Id.”

“Hunh! I seen that in a movie once,” Chow conceded. “Great big monster.”

“Perhaps the particular human part of Tom Swift that has been ‘humanplified’,” continued Newton, “is the Id—impulsive, careless, lawless. But still somewhat restrained by the more civilized layers of his mind, the element that wishes to protect Bud and Sandy and to― ”

“I don’t give a holy hang about all this ‘what’s my motivation’ stuff,” snapped the Police Chief from the front seat. “I just want it stopped!”

After some hours of twists and turns Bud thought he knew Koku’s chosen destination. “I’m pretty sure he’s heading to Villa Manga,” he yelled out. “It’s out near Milpitas.”

Sandy yelled back: “Which tells me a grand total of nothing!”

“It’s a city. Big university there—JIT! Major science stuff.”

“All right, I’ve heard of that,” called Sandy. “Maybe he’ll let us—Bud!” She interrupted her thought with a startled cry. “Bud, there’s somebody else in the control cockpit, someone other than Tom!”

“Come on, it can’t be!”

“I know what I saw! When we went through the searchlights just now― ”

“What did you see?”

“A figure standing there behind him. It was just a glimpse, and the angle was bad—I could just see part of his legs. I can’t see him now. I can barely make out Tom.”

Bud answered, but inwardly, to himself alone. It figures. Koku’s been hijacked!

Tom Swift was as much a prisoner as Bud and Sandy, a prisoner of his own invention!

But who was the mysterious other? The young San Franciscan had freed his arms, and now he used his hard-won victory to scratch his head. It must be that guy. What was his name again? Walter? No...

Dawn was sneaking in when the exosuit finally reached JIT—the California-Pacific Joint Institute of Technology. Deep black clouds had blotted out the stars, but the still-hidden sun made streamers of blood-red, like rips in the sky. The horizon was pale, somehow ominous.

Koku stood immobile in a broad, barren parking lot, staring at an ultramodern building near him, transfixed.

Bud had been on the campus before, but never quite at that spot. He had never inspected the doors to that building before that tense moment. He had never before seen the signs mounted on those doors. The signs warned all comers of danger—cataclysmic danger—death!

Inside the exosuit, Tom Swift had known instantly what had happened to him, if not how it had come to be.

The young inventor had halfway lowered Sandy from the hangar ceiling, readying a joking comment, when his muscles seemed to lose touch with the world. Though they hadn’t been moving, their outward expression by means of the neurintel system created an illusion of muscular power and control, as if it were the man himself, amplified mightily, who was reaching out with the arms of a colossus. The sudden disconnect was an unsettling psychological jostle. Tom felt as if his arms had been painlessly, silently severed from his body!

“Sorry, sis, hang in there!” he said over the phonosys—or tried to. Oh, gosh, that’s gone out too! he grumbled to himself. Better switch over to manual.

He couldn’t.

The neurintel wasn’t dead, only rebellious. It held Tom in its grip, yet refused all his commands. And then, to the young inventor’s startled dismay, Koku showed a mind of his own—a destructive mind! The youth could only sit in his pilot’s chair, stiff, inert, and helpless, as his golden giant set off on its long, strange trip.

Though the viewpane was now just a window, Tom watched what happened as if a movie were unfolding before him. And at the top of his mind: What would happen to his sister and his best friend?

As the exosuit thrashed and trudged down Market Street, the young inventor’s agile mind floated free. He began to dream up a theory. What if, somehow, the neurintel had all along been working in both directions? Could Tom’s control of Koku’s powers have been matched by Koku’s growing a sort of brain—an independent will that had now broken loose from its erstwhile master? “It could be like magnetic induction,” he mused. “My thinking process was imprinted on the cybertron, and now the cybertron is working in reverse, controlling the robot through me instead of vice versa!” But no, he concluded, that’s just—

Nonsense. As in: the Nonsense Wave.

Weirdly enough in the tense situation, Tom felt as if he were drifting off to sleep—to sleep, perchance to dream. He fought against it, striving to come up with some way to outwit the machine and regain control. But he could not flex a muscle, electromechanical or otherwise.

It was somewhere on the road to Villa Manga that Tom Swift began to suspect—and then became certain in a chilling rush—that he was not alone in the little compartment.

Had the neurintel hookup amplified some latent power of mind? Tom was sure someone was standing behind him, just outside the circle of his limited vision. “I know you’re there,” he quavered weakly. “Let me see you.”

A figure edged into view on the further side of the copilot’s seat. “Recognize me? Don’t be embarrassed if you don’t.”

“I don’t know whether I’d recognize you out on the street. But I know who you are, Wilbur.”

Wilbur Nil gave a slight nod. “I gave up on the idea of people recognizing me back when I was your age. That’s exactly why I’m a netizen, a cybernewt, a gamer—in cy-space no one cares what your name is, only your moniker. And instead of worrying about looks, you worry about the game.”

“You’re pretty good at it,” said Tom.

“I know. I’m the best. And I’m not bragging: I’m rated number one on a gaming site where they maintain comparisons of certified scores from all over.”

“Slew your share of dragons?”

“That’s just a stereotype. Newbies are into that. ‘Glorydeath’ competes in the high architecture, where the rules are rewritten nano by nano. Evolution!”

“So this—” Tom managed a slight nod toward the window. “—this is what you’ve earned the right to play, the reality game.”

“Nah. Let’s not talk about me. Expert gamers know enough not to get into the ranting-villain thing. Concentration, man, concentration.” Nil held a complicated-looking box in his hand, and Tom could see, through the corner of his eye, that his captor was doing complicated-looking things with it. The reason was immediately apparent as the exosuit slowed, then swerved left at an intersection.

Tom asked, “How do you do it, Wilbur? I did my best to seal-off the cybertron from unauthorized interference.”

“I know,” the roundish, doughy face replied. “Inertite, all that. But hey, Tom, you didn’t coat the insides with Inertite.

“See—oh well, here I go!—like any smart prince of players, I did my homework. When your Enterprises website started talking about this robotic exo-skeleton, I started researching anything I could find about your ‘Tom Swift way’ of solving human-emulation problems—your robots, the relotrol, cybertron, the thoughtograph sensor system—whatnot and whatever. I got inside your head and learned to think like you do. That’s the secret to it all, you know. You can’t just know your opponent, you gotta be your opponent.”

“Like method acting, hmm?”

“Yeah. I guess. Or what FBI profilers do. And I’m, you know, kind of a mega-genius at techno stuff.”

“Obviously! I’m feeling a bit jealous, Wilbur.”

“No, I don’t think so,” reproved the man blandly. “That’s not your way, Tom. ‘Jealous’ is not what you do. Listen, I read all those juvenile ‘Tom Swift’ books what’s-her-name cranks out. Behind all the junk you can sorta make out the shape of the truth. See?”

Tom nodded and fell silent, not wanting to overplay his hand in drawing out the talented, if forgettable, Mr. Nil. But it was Nil himself who pursued the subject of Nil. “I grew up in San Francisco.”

“Beautiful city.”

“Isn’t it? I had no friends.”

“Hard to get along with?”

“Oh no, just the opposite. I was too easy. I never had an opinion on anything. I’d do whatever anyone else suggested. Like white bread in your mouth, you know what I mean? They say a guy like that isn’t very—stimulating. By high school my social life was pretty much over.”

“Problems with girls?”

“Man, I’d have probs if there were ten sexes!”

“Your family― ”

“Families aren’t any better, Tom. They’re just people. Mom and Dad can decide they don’t much care for you. And then what, hunh? No... it’s not like that rosy glow they put in your books, mommy always serving pot roast, heart-to-hearts with old Pop.”

“But don’t you― ”

“No, let’s talk about something else,” snapped Nil. “Now I see why the bad guys rant—it kills time. Jeez, I hate dead time.” But his anger was only a dull spark. He sighed. “Okay. What shall we talk about? How about how I followed you from Shopton? Take this as a game challenge, Tom. Solve it.”

“All right.” The young inventor tried to make all the pieces fall into place. “From the way you asked, I’d guess it’s not something straightforward, like a locator beacon—we didn’t find one, anyway.”

“Cohh-rect!”

“So what other ways are there? Well...”

“Don’t let me down, friendi.”

“If Koku left some kind of trail... but the Inertite coating wouldn’t allow anything through, at least not enough to stand out after the atmosphere has rustled it around.”

“Uh huh. So?”

Tom made an unnnk of victory in his throat. “Something on the outside of the Inertite layer, a chemical mixture, shedding traces all the way across the country! Did you spray it on?”

“That’s great!” laughed Nil. “No, I didn’t spray it on, I pretended to be washing off the sidewalk and sloshed it out across Commerce Avenue in Shopton, about an hour before you came walkin’ by. Clingy gunk, a special formulation, all over the bottom of the suit’s feet. Then I just followed along in my car, with one of your analytracer gadgets bolted under it. Get it? It was easy to guess where you’d come up out of the lake, or where you’d cross the rivers and so on.”

“Easy? We changed our announced route all over the place.”

“Oh did you? Are you sure you changed it?”

The great gamer swelled up with pride, and suddenly Tom could see the bigger picture for the first time. “Good gosh, that’s it! The Nonsense Wave bit was― ”

“Let me say it, Tom. Brilliant!—that’s what it was. The most magnificent long-term game ploy in cyber-human history!”

The inspirations of the moment came flooding over Tom Swift. He was shocked to realize that he was starting to feel a twinge of admiration for his foe! “The first robberies were to establish a pattern, to give the whole thing a name and make it strange and intriguing.”

“Intriguing to Tom Swift in particular. The books are unanimous about how you can’t resist hunting down certain kinds of things—human mysteries as much as scientific. So! I gave you a few preliminary ‘dots’ to connect, with help from the police and the news media. Then I sent old Gus on his mission to the bank at the time your sweetie Bashalli goes there every weekday. Your being along that time was just dumb luck.”

“You figured I’d really get roped in if Bash were a witness to it.”

“Oh, sure, yeah,” Nil nodded in enthusiastic vigor. “Absolutely! I knew Gus would put on quite a show. And then the finale. He drops dead in the street.”

Tom didn’t like the implication. “You killed him, Wilbur?”

“Nah, not at all—come on! Tom, you don’t know me well enough to say something like that.”

“Er, sorry.”

“See, it’s a complicated plot, though not as bad as the one in Jetmarine.”

“Don’t blame me. That one was dressed up a little by the author.”

“Okay, what-like-ever.” Wilbur Nil was all warm smiles as he recollected his genius. “Whether or not it’s lonely at the top, it can be kind of... boring. I knew I was getting more interested in death than life. I got involved with the Perchance to Dream thing, and wound up leading groups. I’d already thought of ways to make use of that—to use the clients, see—when I started thinking about you and all the junk you do, all the news, the stories—all that. So I said to myself, Self—why not?”

“Kidnap me?”

Nil laughed loudly, now with a sneer. “You wish! It’s a lot more than that. Kiddoo, when Glorydeath wins, he wins big!”


 

 

 

 

CHAPTER 20

 

 

          PERCHANCE TO DREAM

 

 

 

 

WILBUR NIL paused to redirect the cybertron, and the moment of distraction extended into minutes. A road sign gave Tom his first clue as to their destination. “We’re going to JIT, aren’t we.”

“Tell you when we get there. Now—okay—my idea, the game ploy. I sketched out all the basics, then started working up the details when the articles began talking about your exosuit. Knowing you inside out, it was obvious that you’d test the thing in realtime, a big test. So maybe—cross country? But even if you’d stayed in New York I’d have worked it out. It was a flexible plan, a logic tree with many branches, see?”

“I think I do see,” stated Tom. “You wanted me to get hooked on the Nonsense Wave mystery so I’d be drawn to other such incidents while I was field-testing the exo.”

“I figured you need to have a smidge of personal interest in it, even if it was more or less subconscious. Otherwise you might’ve just begged off when they called you in on the Fierce Freedomite gag.”

“Which put me in a certain location at a certain time.”

“Uh-huh. Every move led to the next one, if you think it over. Because you hung around Kentucky for an extra day, they could get you to go north to Davenport.”

“And because I was there, Chicago was in range.”

“Now you’re gettin’ it, Tom! Yee-ah! You’d announced that you were heading to California. My big challenge was to try to get you to go to San Francisco. What with Bud Barclay and all, I knew you’d choose San Fran as your destination once I’d got you traveling in the north instead of the south. Plus I knew that you’d finally put together the fact that all the Nonsensers were linked by the PTD foundation. My little note was kind of a nice clue, wasn’t it? Bravado, man! All to make sure you’d head off to San Francisco.”

“Then...” This brought a gulp. “Then Loot Luxor is in on this whole thing after all. He’s the one who told us about the foundation connection.”

To Tom’s surprise, Wilbur Nil appeared flustered. “Hunh? Luxor? I wouldn’t have anything to do with that fascist cyber-toad! Did you stop at the F.B.A. in Idaho? After you left Chicago, I didn’t need to follow you anymore. I just went on ahead.”

“Then you don’t have anything to do with the silicon problem?”

“Are you having a silicon problem?” He almost looked genuinely concerned, as if Tom had said stomach problem. “Wow. That’s heavy. Silicon is vital, you know? What would this planet be without silicon? Man—what would I be?”

Nil brought Koku to a dead stop, facing a low, blocklike building. No sound seeped through the robotcraft’s hull, but Tom could imagine the sirens of police cars and emergency vehicles as they roared about, eventually forming a defensive line at a safe distance. “They can’t do anything,” muttered Nil. “I like watchin’ ’em clown around, though. All because of boring little Willie.” He switched on the exo’s searchlight-illuminator and played the eerie half-seen beam back and forth. Whatever it fell upon seemed to leap forward, a bundle of vivid contrasts and amplified colors. “This is great!” chuckled Tom’s captor gleefully.

Something caught the young inventor’s eye, and he tried not to look at it, turning instead to his companion. “What you’ve done isn’t a game, Wilbur. You took a group of desperate, troubled people who trusted you, and you exploited them for your own ends. Some are dead now, and I’d call it murder!”

Nil snorted derisively—and, as Tom had fervently prayed, he concentrated on his captive, turning his eyes away from the scene outside. “Right. Murder. Koodo, these people were half-dead already, every one of them. You don’t get it. They came to the foundation because they knew they were dying, or were afraid they were dying, or wanted to die—to end it all. I did exactly what PTD promises to do. I gave them all a great big finale, a memorable bye-bye. Perchance to dream, huh? Don’t you think Gus or Vladz or that creep Foster got a little charge out of taking center stage before the funeral?”

Tom spoke quickly, emphatically; because outside things were happening that he didn’t want the mad gamester to anticipate and fight off with robotic power. “Am I supposed to believe Gus dropped dead right after the job by happenstance?”

“Oh, I don’t much care what you believe, young master Swift, sitting in that nice chair. For the record, we both agreed that the robbery would be, literally, the ‘last act.’ He stopped taking his meds a couple days before. He knew, walking into that bank, that the excitement and blood pressure and the run down the block would take him down.”

“Why banks, anyway?”

Nil smiled. “Wellll... I don’t care much for banks and money and all that idiotic stuff. Notice how I trashed around in the financial district? And I did want to have a little bit more of a common theme than just nonsense, to tie it all together for the newspapers. But it turns out quite a few people have fantasies about banks. Banks are kinda symbolic—father figures with money! All along I kept in touch with my flock, keeping tabs, counseling over the phone, urging them on, meeting them. We developed the final plays jointly. Therapy, see. Now that’s real human amplification!”

Outside a cranelike vehicle had rolled into position a few score feet from the exosuit. Tom had recognized in an instant the gleaming golden cable dangling down from it, for he himself had invented it—long flexible cords of Neo-Aurium intertwined with strips of transifoil, a predecessor of Duraflexon that responded like a muscle fiber to electric current. “I suppose you’re the one who provided your human tools with whatever props they needed.”

“Yeah. I gave Gus his cellphone-blocker, the Iowa woman her plans and equipment, Vladz his para-kite. I was there, you know—not just in Chi, but in Macropolis and back in Shopton― ”

Tom groaned. “Of course. The guy who yelled good luck! Our well-wisher.”

“Yup, mi-mo-me. I was there in the Davenport crowd, too. Naturally, you didn’t spot me. I’m sort of the invisible man, ’cept I get to keep my clothes on.”

Tom wanted desperately to look, directly, at what he managed to glimpse in bits and pieces beneath lowered eyelids. A figure in a tight-fitting outfit, with a black, boxy protective helmet covering his head, had hooked himself on to the dangling lift cable. At a signal the loose cable swung upward like an arm—or a snake about to strike. In his protective suit, which was derived from Tom’s high-pressure diversuit and could stop a bullet, the man swung high up. Then he began to slide forward, hanging from a hand-grip mechanism. In a split second the daring rescuer had reached his target: Sandy!

Tom struggled to find words to hold Nil’s attention. “Um, okay, so you maneuver us into going to San Francisco. But you had to get inside. When? Oh—that accident you staged!”

“Uh-huh. That road was the only one that made sense. Made you stop, got you both to run out big-frantic. And I was just sure you’d leave the ladder down and the door open! So up I go, and I hide in that closet compartment where you’d keep astronaut suits. At the end I had hours to myself in the cockpit to get into the electronics and set up my― ”

Motion outside made him stop in midsentence. Tom’s heart leapt!—the rescuer had managed to work Sandy free of the gravitex grippers, and was yanking her roughly out of Koku’s fist! Nil yelped, but it did no good. One arm wrapped about Sandy, they slid down the golden cable to safety.

Nil glared at Tom fiercely. But then the fierceness evaporated. “It doesn’t matter at this point,” he murmured. He manipulated the control unit. To Tom’s joy Koku lowered Bud to the ground and freed him. “I just brought them along because you already had them in hand when I took control. Figured it might make the Nasties think twice before a major assault. Now, though, I’m where I want to be.”

“I gather you plan to murder me, Wilbur, and then yourself.”

“Couldn’t very well do it in reverse order, could I, guy.” Nil hummed tunelessly for a moment. “My own end is gonna be one for the books, I tell ya. Nil gets the all-time score, unbeatable, infinito props unto, like, forever!”

“For killing me?”

“Nah, for the whole thing, beginning to end. The game that put the whole Bay Area in the golden palm of one humanplified hand! Sounds good.”

Tom couldn’t keep the fear from his voice. He had no plan! What could he do, helpless in a chair? “Wh-what are you going to do? The X-rasers are limited, you know, and the shell can easily contain any bomb you set off inside the exo.”

“Oh, I know, I know, don’t you worry,” he responded with a big grin. “If you’ve read your own TSE website, you know what G.S.P.E. stands for.”

The reply was as dull as Nil’s face, and hollow. “Yes. Dr. Kupp’s article on the field mathematics of― ”

“He called it a Gradient Shear Propagation Event. Take an array of your measly G-concentrators and switch ’em on and off with nano timing, something only a computer—like your cybertron, just fer’instance—could do. Result? Anyone? An interference effect, overlapping peaks of increased gravity squeezing and twisting whatever matter they roll across.”

“But just for the briefest instant,” Tom pointed out with dry lips. He had noticed the ominous signs on the building in front of them!

“All it takes!” laughed Wilbur Nil. “You see, I’ve studied what’s in that so-called high-security facility. You can find anything on the Net. Nuclear research, medicine, whatever they want to call what’s really going on. The GSPE will do nicely to breach the seals on the containment block and jet out a regular fumarole of superhot steam, which happens to be—shall we say it together?—radioactive! A little breeze, a few million people—ooh, Willie wins, Willie wins! Boring cyber geek takes out Tom Swift and the whole shebang! And they say technology is a mixed blessing.”

“Okay, okay. It’s brilliant, Wilbur. But now, have you thought― ”

“Puh-leez, I know what you’re up to. I’ve read the books. Gee, could you maybe be trying to keep me talking, get me to waste time while the Forces of Good come swooping in? Forget that, m’man. The good guys lose this one. You’ve lost already!”

What had Tom said to Kent Philbin Foster? “You can’t stop me from having hope, Nil.”

“No. I just thought I’d try, though. Part of the fun—my victory dance! Now,” he continued, “hear me out and see if you don’t agree. For this thing I’m the fuse; or maybe, the timer. I have a little implant under my skin, a little tiny thing I slipped in myself. Like, oww! When my heart stops beating, it sends out a signal. Okay, yeah, I got the idea from a comic book.

“Then, two things: the cybertron tells the gravitexes to produce the GSPE—hey, ‘gasp’!—and a little explosive goes off here in the cabin. But ‘little’ is a relative term. It’ll be a case of instant crematorium, TS. We won’t even make it out of this world as bones and teeth. Just a few handfuls of ash. I know—melodramatic. But man, I have a right to my dream too!”

“And so Wilbur Nil goes down in history.”

“And in the Net gamer record books—super props for moi.”

“You’ll stop your own heart?”

“Easy. I took a capsule before I came out into the cabin. All those tiny time pills are working—I can feel it. Call me Socrates.” He was suddenly quiet, as if deflated. “Just... minutes left. Tom Swift, it’s been an honor.”

Tom gawked at the madman. “Pardon me for saying this, but it’s an honor I’d just as soon decline!”

“Too late now.” But Tom thought: No! Can’t be!

The young inventor tried to rattle his captor. “You’re proud of having thought through every detail, but have you really? If there’s so little left of you, who’ll ever know the story? How will you tell the world that you did it?”

Nil seemed to be having some difficulty speaking. “I—what?—I thought about a mass cyber mailing or blog announcement, b-but... I’m afraid... people are getting cynical about what they get over the Net. Sad. So... all I did... mailed off a real letter, physical words, my own handwriting—and a good photo—to the—the newspaper. Whole story. W-whoa, pretty thick. ...Say, Tom, is this getting boring? It seems a little long to me.”

A light had come into Tom’s deep-set blue eyes. “A letter? Then you must have mailed it a couple days back.”

“So what?”

“Nothing.”

But Wilbur Nil wouldn’t settle for nothing. He regarded Tom for a long moment, then began to pace. “Now let’s see. Why would you say that? What could it mean? Final challenge! What, what? What could it matter, my mailing a letter?”

“Look, it’s nothing. Please don’t boost your rate of circulation! Just relax.”

“No. You meant something by what you said. I’m getting... I can’t think so good any more. Tell me... tell me what you meant.”

“You won’t like it, Wilbur.”

“Just tell me.”

“All right,” said Tom. “I just wondered if you put enough postage on the letter, that’s all.”

“Why would you wonder that?”

“Oh, nothing. You must have known...”

“Known what?”

“That the postage rate went up just the other day. You knew that. Of course you did.”

It was a sort of depth charge. Tom could do nothing but wait and hope. Nil rubbed his eyes and leaned on the back of the copilot’s chair. He was stone silent for more than a minute, but Tom could sense a frenzied brain at work. “The postage rate! Oh. That’s right. Did I remember? I...” He stared into Tom’s eyes. Suddenly he looked like the most whipped puppy on Earth. “You know, as a matter of fact, I forgot. The letter will get returned.”

“With no one to receive it. It’ll just sit somewhere. Do they still call it the Dead Letter Office?”

Nil sank down onto the deck. “Then I totally screwed up. I blew it.”

“Well, cheer up. Even if no one knows just who did the thing, you’ll still have accomplished something historic. Right?” Tom hoped it wasn’t right!

“No. No, Tom. They’ll finally put it all together. But I’ll be remembered as that idiot loser who killed all those people—but couldn’t put the right postage on a letter! That’s not... what I want. It’s not perfection. Abort, abort! I g-gotta make it... small. Small it down.”

Gasping, Nil staggered to his feet. Tom flinched as the man suddenly tore into the underside of his forearm with a fingernail! Amid streaming crimson he plucked out some tiny, toothpick-like object and flicked it to the deck. “My way, or no way. Perfect plan, or it doesn’t... count. I’d rather be a... be a...”

He sank down, choking.

“Wilbur, set me free,” Tom begged. “I can help you!”

Nil made a convulsive movement toward where his control unit had fallen. He fingered it awkwardly, and suddenly Tom’s paralysis lifted. The young inventor rose from the chair and staggered to Nil’s side, bending low. “Hold on. I’m sure there are paramedics outside.”

“H-hold on? To what?” And that was Wilbur Nil’s final word on any subject.

Outside the crowd surged forward as Tom Swift came staggering down the ladder into the pale, widening daylight. At the fore were Mr. Swift and Chow—and ahead of them by a bound, Bud Barclay. “Tom! What’d he do, turn you loose? Was it that guy?”

“I—I can’t talk—give me a sec, flyboy.”

After the sec, Tom began to spill out the tale. Concluding, he said suddenly: “Oh, Sandy—how is she?”

“Not bad,” Sandy’s voice floated over the crowd. She approached, and brother and sister held one another for a moment.

“Shor was a brave thing, what that feller did,” observed Chow breathlessly. “Where’d he go, anyways?”

“Yeah, who was that masked man?” gibed Bud.

“He’s over there,” pointed Sandy. “Still in his helmet—the strong silent type.”

“I’d like to thank him,” said Mr. Swift, and Tom nodded. They caught the rescuer’s attention and waved him over.

As he walked toward them, he pulled off his helmet. Only Sandy didn’t gasp. “I knew it,” she said calmly.

“Hello, Quim,” muttered Tom weakly, extending a hand to agent Quimby Narz.

The gray veteran of many a mission gave one of his basset-hound half-smiles. “Surprise you, did I?”

But Sandy shook her head. “Only slightly. I knew you were in Shopton keeping an eye on things. On me.”

“Of course you did. How could I be living in Virginia if I saw that local cable show? Didn’t think you’d be fooled, Sandy.”

“You’ve obviously been following her,” frowned Damon Smith. “However grateful we are, you surely owe us an explanation.”

Tom asked, “Were you after Nil?”

“Never heard of this ‘Nil’,” the agent responded. “No, I’ve been keeping tabs on our little Miss Swift here. To make it legal, by the way, I’m not part of the CIA—at this moment.”

“Why Sandy?” inquired Bud.

“Don’t any of you realize that Sandy’s the most vulnerable one in your little key group, which includes Bud here, and Bashalli Prandit? She’s close to the center of every unguarded discussion—more so than her mother—yet she travels around in the open without the sort of watchful protection available to Tom and Damon, or even you, Bud. That fact seems to have escaped everyone. But I have associates who are able to calculate these factors.”

“Then I’d be a valuable prize,” Sandy said. “At least—in that way.”

Mr. Swift said: “And so you decided to watch over her yourself.”

“I suppose—I guess—those letters and gifts were part of that,” ventured Sandy, crestfallen.

“A nice cover for my paying attention, for living secretly in Shopton, for following you by jet across the country,” explained Narz. “You see, folks, I myself am being—paid attention to. My little infatuation provided an excuse.”

“Rather an implausible one,” snorted Sandy’s father.

“Perhaps. Yet also rather enjoyable.”

Sandy’s lip seemed to be trembling—or was it the light of a barely peeking sun? “Then all those things you said were just... pretend.”

“Ah. Didn’t say that, Sandy,” responded Narz with the slightest of winks. “And after all, you did eat the chocolates, didn’t you?”

Tom had moved aside, standing moodily, deep in thought. Bud drew near and said, “Hard to see somebody die, isn’t it, pal.”

The young inventor nodded, but added musingly: “The guy had no real purpose, no friends, no joy, no conscience—most of all, no hope. Nothing left as a human being. Bud, he was already dead.”

Bud nodded, his sweat-tangled black hair bobbing on his forehead. “But you have all of it, genius boy. And the next invention’s waiting for you around the corner.” And so it was, and Fate had already given it a name, the X-Flight Solarplane.

“It was hope that defeated Nil,” Tom observed, looking up at Koku. “I couldn’t move a muscle, but I could still think—and I didn’t give in.”

“And that’s no joke,” Bud agreed. “Which’ll give old Henrietta a good closing tag for this adventure!”

Alas, Quimby Narz, overhearing, had to spoil it. “No, Barclay, it’s not over yet. Not a chance. Something’s started, and unless Tom Swift can figure out how to finish it― ”

The rest went unsaid!