TOM SWIFT LIVES!
TOM SWIFT AND HIS
This unauthorized tribute
Is based upon
the original TOM SWIFT JR. characters.
SCOTT DICKERSON, AUTHOR
As of this printing,
The New TOM SWIFT Jr. Adventures
is owned by
SIMON & SCHUSTER
This edition privately printed by
PRINTED IN THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
TOM SWIFT AND HIS
TOM SWIFT repeated the ominous words of CIA agent Quimby Narz, standing in front of the young inventor like a figure of grainy wood in a green rescue suit. “Something’s started. All right, Quim. What is it? And what does it have to do with me?”
“Just about everything has to do with you, big brother,” said Sandy wryly, running a hand through her bedraggled blond hair, her wry a bit weak after hours of captivity in the hands of a metal giant.
Quimby Narz shot a stony glance a Tom’s sister, fresh if well-worn from her recent rescue. It occurred to the youth that in Narz’s case the stoniness could well indicate an appreciative appraisal. Narz said to Tom under his breath:
“Let’s get some cover.”
“Bud comes with.”
“I don’t think so.”
“Then,” said Tom firmly, “I don’t think so. Enjoy the rest of your vacation, Agent Narz.”
The very seasoned man frowned his basset-hound frown, then hoisted it into a drooping half-smile. “Both of you, then.” He turned abruptly and began to stride toward the wall of the nearby lab building, expecting the two to follow unasked.
“Stand on either side of me,” he directed as they came to a halt, “and face the wall. Lean on it with your hands.”
“What is this?” demanded Bud Barclay. “A CIA ritual? Are you swearing us to silence?”
“As if that would count for Boston beans. What I’m doing, Barclay, is ensuring that watchful eyes among this nice crowd—planted eyes—can’t read our lips.”
Bud gulped and the two youths complied.
“Now then,” said Narz. “You need to know just how much I know—Tom. I know about the silicon business.”
Tom was startled. “The—the what?”
“Oh, how about the thing that just about killed you in your robot suit, the thing you’ve had your lab boys sweating over, the thing you asked Loot Luxor about during your visit the other day. Don’t patronize me. No time for fun, not right now.”
The young inventor drew in a breath. “Sorry, Quim. So—you know about the xenocule?”
Narz gave a slight nod, looking straight at the wall, knowing Tom was looking sidelong at him. “It’s been on our plate since those scientists published their article. Your government isn’t stupid, not on this occasion. We paid due attention, even if you science fellas did not.”
“But,” interrupted Bud, “I thought it was all a mistake. It turned out not to be a silicon-eating termite—right?”
“That’s what Mr. Luxor concluded,” Tom said, suddenly awash in doubt.
“No, that’s what he tentatively concluded. Then he spent a few hours doing this incomprehensible thing he does, which he calls thinking. And then he started making some calls.”
“He called you?” asked the young inventor.
Tom thought he knew who might have initiated that call, and who had supplied Narz with information about the goings-on inside the high walls of Swift Enterprises. Nothing seemed to fall outside the gaze of the deep-shadowed government group he had come to call Collections!
Narz had stopped speaking, as if awaiting an inevitable question. After a moment Tom said: “Has there been some further development?”
“There has. Our hopes that the problem could be contained have proven false.”
“The bug is out of the bag,” gibed Bud—nervously.
“And crossed the ocean. To Russia.”
Tom stood back from the wall, needing a feeling of balance to absorb the dismaying news. “It’s what the scientists warned against—that once the silicon-eater appeared, it would spread like an infection, an infestation. The whole world depends on silicon!”
“Business, commerce, national defense, entertainment—name anything you want,” agreed the agent. “When I was your age, we thought the transistor was the biggest news around. Just imagine, a vacuum tube smaller than a pencil eraser! Wowee K. Zowee. But that was nothing, nothing compared to this beeping, annoying new world of semiconductors and nano-whatsits and microchips. Think of Loot Luxor and his empire, NykronCyber. The man lives on silicon.”
“And manufactures microchips,” Tom pointed out. “The infected components came from his plants.”
“That’s to be determined. Not my area. The great brain of the Lord of the Microchip has generated a variety of, whattaya call ’em?—hypotheses.”
“I may be standing here leaning against a wall like an idiot, but I’ve been paying attention,” Bud interjected sharply. “And you haven’t really answered Tom’s questions yet, Quim. What exactly is this new ‘development’ in Russia? And how do you want genius boy here to get involved?”
Over the raised metal collar of his duraflexon rescue suit, Quimby Narz actually smiled at Bud. “Say, you’re right. Thanks awfully for reminding me. As for details—on the flight back. You two have to think about stowing away the big boy over there― ” He nodded Koku’s way. “And, of course, clearing out the moldering remains of that lunatic Wilbur Nil. My story will require full attention. This little mini-briefing here—this was just a teaser, an intro. Might call it an icebreaker.” For some reason the last remark brought a trace of amusement to the agent’s sobersided face.
“I take it we can stop leaning now,” Bud said.
“That’s up to you.”
“Why’d you have us― ”
“Oh, you didn’t get that? Proven trick to get you to pay attention. Harder to fidget. Parents should try it.”
There were indeed many things to do, now that Tom and Bud has completed their walk from coast to coast in the humanplifying exosuit. The weary twosome spun out the rest of the early morning inside Koku’s cramped pilot compartment running diagnostics to catch and reverse any damage Nil’s electronic interventions might have caused. “Cybertron and neurintel back on line,” Tom finally reported to Bud. “Nil just patched himself into the system in a pretty basic way.”
Sandy, Tom’s father, and the others were driven to the San Francisco Airport, where the Swift Enterprises Sky Queen awaited. By noon Tom and Bud had joined them, having delicately walked the golden giant back to the Bay area with a discreet police escort.
Along the route, Bud reached over to touch his pal’s shoulder. “Look, Skipper.”
Beside the highway, a big truck lay half on its side, crunched, as if kicked by a tantruming colossus. “I’m afraid Koku has a lot to answer for,” Tom said grimly. “George Dilling wanted publicity for Enterprises...”
“And he sure got it.”
The exosuit lying flat but comfortable in the Flying Lab’s big hangar-hold, the Sky Queen jet-lifted off for the cross-continent trip back to New York and Shopton. In the view lounge Chow Winkler served a hot lunch and stayed to listen. “Thet is,” stated the ex-Texan sheepishly, “if yew don’t mind th’ cook listenin’ in to all this spy stuff.”
“Doesn’t matter, not up here,” replied Narz. “The whole Tom Swift entourage generally learns about everything anyway. No such thing as a secret for very long. And most of you—Damon, Sterling, Hanson—you’ll have to be in on it, as you’ll be working the problem.”
“And I keep the stomachs full-up,” Chow added.
“Right. And as for Sandy...” Quimby Narz paused. “Well, I suppose Sandy deserves a bit of consideration. Part of my apology for slightly misleading her.”
“I’m so moved,” said the girl with no attempt at conviction. The bursting bubble of even an unwanted romance had been quashing. Her feelings hadn’t quite rebounded.
“Very well,” Damon Swift said impatiently. “Now kindly tell us what we need to know. Just how do you plan to put my son’s life in danger this time?”
Narz leaned back against the sofa cushion and made a show of finishing the drink in his hand before commencing an answer. “The Russians have alerted us, the United States, to a technological problem, an internationally embarrassing one that they find themselves unable to solve. The crisis is in its earliest stages. But the next stage will cost lives, a few. Thereafter, who knows? Perhaps many.”
“Not like that nuclear thing, I hope?” asked Sandy with wide eyes, referring to the previous occasion of the Swifts’ involvement with Quimby Narz, recounted in Tom Swift and His Thoughtograph Imager.
“That one was exciting, wasn’t it? No, the loss of life won’t exceed three digits in the foreseeable future. A guesstimate. But it’s in America’s interest to try to― ”
“Good night, what is it?” barked Tom. He was rubbed raw emotionally by the death he had just witnessed, and the second death he had barely managed to avoid.
Narz set aside his glass and leaned forward. “I imagine you engineers have heard of Russia’s iceworm?”
Several heads nodded. Several more bore blank faces, Chow’s included. “Say now, ain’t that somethin’ they put in their drinks? Like they do with tequila?”
“It’s a vehicle,” Hank Sterling said. “For exploring beneath, or inside, glacial ice.”
Tom added, “I’ve read about it—the gist of it, anyway. It’s like a tank, very lightweight and ultra-strong. They haven’t revealed the tech details, but I gather that the hull releases chemicals that ooze along it like oil.”
“Think of the fluid as an acid,” Mr. Swift continued. “It eats away at the surrounding ice, but doesn’t melt it—not in the standard sense of the word. Liquid water is not evolved during the reaction. But for a brief time the product that results, the layer of ice crystals in contact with the chemical, is ‘lubricated’ and slightly compressible, allowing the vehicle to force its way forward. In effect it undoes the unique fact that the solid form of water takes up more space than the liquid form.”
“They’ve used it successfully several times now, as part of their national urge to explore beneath the Arctic ice sheet,” Narz explained. “Despite the new treaties, they still have an interest in establishing some claim to mineral and petroleum rights off their northern coast. ‘Off’ to them means all the way north to the pole.”
“Has something happened to the iceworm?” asked Tom.
The CIA man nodded briskly. “Big problems beneath the ice for the Azov-441, as they call it. Two weeks, three weeks—they’ll all be dead. And there she is, lady and gentlemen. Today’s crisis.”
“And the Russians want assistance from― ” began Mr. Swift.
“You don’t recall that sad business a few years back? The trapped submarine? Black eye for Russian pride. Political problems for the government.” Noting some signs of recognition, Narz went on: “Keeping the Russian Federation calm and stable and relatively democratic—assuming the notion of one-party democracy with repressed dissent has much meaning—is in the interests of many governments. The Russians made the mistake of permitting their media to follow the iceworm’s current mission up to a point. And now ―”
“Is the crisis in the news?” Sandy asked.
“Not just yet. But the deaths of those crewmen will have a certain human-interest appeal, wouldn’t you imagine? Hard to keep the lid down in these days of the Internet.”
Tom was frowning deeply and allowing himself every freedom to fidget. “Quim—what is the situation?”
“Hmm. The situation. Basically, the Azov is stuck deep down under the ice. Crew of six, trapped. They were about a week in, on a four-week mission, when the problem happened, so they have air and water—power, too; she’s nuclear—for a few more. Could be stretched, I’d think.”
“I don’t understand,” declared Arvid Hanson.
“Me neither,” added Chow. “If they got power, how come they cain’t just back ’er up ’r something?”
“You’re asking me a science question, my friend, and I’m not a scientist,” was the reply. “I was given a summary. Evidently their ice-dissolving system requires some kind of very exacting realtime control second by second, electronic control from the onboard computer. The computer has failed, and the deep ice is gripping them like a vise.”
“The computer has failed,” repeated Tom. “Failed because something inside it has become infested with the xenocule—and is being eaten!”
THE UGLY ICECRAFT
“WELL now,” responded Quimby with wry mockery. “When you put it that way, even I can believe it. And I’m a natural skeptic.”
“You talked about many more deaths, beyond the iceworm’s crew,” Hank pointed out. “Do you mean—if the xenocule infestation gets out?”
“We don’t really want a thing that feeds on microchips getting into Russia’s nuke armaments, now do we?” answered the agent. “Might make me lose a little sleep. Want more? How about massive contamination of the polar sea by atomic waste?”
“Good grief!” Bud exclaimed. “Is their reactor gonna explode?”
Tom muttered, “That’s not likely.”
“Explosion is not the problem,” said Narz. “According to mission control over there, the situation with the reactor is what makes a rescue a dicey affair. They say the hole made by the Azov as it crawls along—she moves very slowly—pretty well crunches closed behind them as the chemical reaction wears down. No way to just stroll down to them and bring them back up. Every rescue scenario anybody’s floated involves boring through, or cutting through, a sheet of ice that’s tremendously thick.”
“Wa-aal now, so what?” Chow demanded. “Tom’s got that there—whattaya call it, that sub-boat that goes right through the ground?”
“The geotron,” said Bud. “It uses repelatrons to make its own tunnel as it goes. I’m sure it’d work under ice just as well as under rock.”
“It’d be easy enough to just sink a hole with Tom’s atomic earth blaster,” Sandy suggested. “And then― ”
“And then you bring the crew up in the terrasphere, one by one,” Arv finished. The terrasphere, an exploration capsule lowered on cable from a crane boom, had already proven its worth inside the caves of nuclear fire in Africa.
Bud had another idea to insert into the animated discussion. “Hey, even simpler!—just use an X-raser beam to slice right through the ice, just as we did in Alaska when we made that underground lab. Nothing stops the X-raser!”
“If you’re all through telling us how foolish two governments are to call this simple matter a crisis,” said Narz sarcastically, “I’ll tell you why you’re wrong.
“The Azov is stable right now. But the scientists, the ice-geologists or whatever they’re called, say that the surrounding ice is vulnerable to fracturing or shearing—whatever. Constant pressure from all directions on all sides. Punch through it in any conceivable way and you introduce a weakness. The ice sheet starts to shatter and shift around.”
Sandy asked skeptically, “Do you mean they’re afraid of causing an ice quake or something?”
“ ‘Or something’ is right,” was the blunt reply. “The iceworm’s hull and frame are tough, but not tough enough to stand up to sliding glaciers colliding right on top of it.”
“All right, I understand now,” Tom offered. “They’re afraid the vehicle would snap in two, or be crushed. And that could allow the reactor fuel to spread into the ice through the fracture faults—eventually into the sea.”
“Exactly. So no tunnels. No holes.”
“But now wait. Hold yer horses fer a second,” urged Chow. “The geotron doesn’t make a hole. Tom explained it t’ me.”
“That’s right!” Bud piped up. “The rocks and earth around it are elastic—just elastic enough to pretty much spring back into place after the Gee!-Oh! passes.”
The notion had a short life. “It wouldn’t work,” Tom stated. “A solid layer of ice is about as non-elastic as you can get. We’d basically make a long fracture corridor of slush and debris—a weakness.”
“Now that I’ve got you good people nicely enlightened,” smiled Quimby Narz, “I can settle back and sip my fizzy drink. I’m just playing messenger. No role for a guy like me in this crisis.”
“But Tom will have to find a solution,” Damon Swift noted soberly.
“And he will!” Bud insisted. “Check back in an hour!”
It took more than an hour, though the young inventor’s imagination began to chew over it—and the wider problem of the xenocules—almost immediately. In the effort Tom found himself working without his customary supports: at Doc Simpson’s urging he had insisted that Bud take a few days off to relax and rest from the cross-country road trip that had brought the black-haired young pilot to the crushing grasp of the exosuit. Tom smilingly resisted Bud’s protests, noting that he himself would also be relaxing as he studied the iceworm problem.
Yet Tom found that he could not take the medic’s advice. The looming challenge made him restless, and Swiftian energy was not easily banked. The day after the return to Shopton he managed a sneaking, sheepish visit to Enterprises, working for hours in his lab and at his desk in the administrative office.
Those men are trapped down there, he told himself by way of excuse. If I can’t come up with a rescue plan, it’ll be on my conscience!
By the next day an approach had presented itself. By the day following, modelmaker Arv Hanson had made something solid of it for the youth to hold in his hand and mull over. This was where Bud usually ambled in. But his chum had gone backpacking upstate, alone.
Tom stood at the door of his office and called out into the reception area, “Say, Trent, do you have a minute?”
“Of course,” replied the efficient secretary. He swiveled to his feet and approached.
“What do you think of this?”
Munford Trent glanced over the small plastic model in his young employer’s hand. “A paperweight?”
“It’s the invention I’m working on. I call it an icecraft.”
“Well. Very nice.” Trent began to turn away.
“Er... you’re probably wondering how it works.”
“Oh, I’m not much into the science stuff.”
“Oh, I... see.”
Instinct brought Trent to a halt. “Not that it isn’t well designed, Tom. Very stylish. You say you make ice with it?”
Tom laughed. “No. And you don’t need to humor me—it’s as ugly as a prickly pear, isn’t it?”
The secretary gave an uncertain smile. “I’ll admit it’s not the sort of look I’d favor for my home decor. Okay, sure. Ugly!”
To judge by the model, Tom’s icecraft would be a barrel-like cylinder set horizontally, with bristles of needlelike spikes or vanes extending forward from the prow and backward from the stern. The hull of the craft was utterly featureless and unbroken.
“Ugly she may be,” Tom conceded grinningly, “but in a good cause. You see, this vehicle― ”
“People will ride in that?”
“Yup. It’s designed to penetrate solid ice without producing any sort of hole or fracture-zone.”
“Does it melt its way through?”
Tom shook his head. “That’s out as well. What the icecraft does is produce a hollow space in the ice that the vehicle fits into snugly—sort’ve a hull-shaped ‘ice bubble.’ It does this by simply transporting the ice from in front of the craft to behind it, leaving no gap, no empty space for the ice to collapse into.”
“A stress-free approach. I like it.”
“Right! There’s no resultant weak spot, because the vehicle itself completely fills the hollow space, which moves right along with it, the ice filling in solidly behind. The pressure remains unchanged on all sides, from all angles.”
As Trent looked as if he were about to escape, Tom quickly said: “Now—as to how it’ll work― ”
The young inventor explained how he had used an earlier invention, called the incismitter, to safely uncover a frozen animal carcass by paring away thin shavings of the enclosing ice. “It transported the ice virtually one molecule at a time, using the principle of my quantum telesphere to transposition it into a receiving container some distance away.”
“Beamed the ice across, hmm?—no, that’s right, we’re not supposed to say ‘beamed,’ are we.”
“Only because it’s inaccurate. What the method does is tumble matter through quantum protospace—think of it as a shortcut—and out the other side. Now the vanes on the icecraft,” Tom went on, “act like the incismitter’s prongs, producing a highly concentrated quantum-field matrix between them. The microfields at the front send the ice particles in immediate contact with the vanes into protospace, and the similar fields at the rear bring them back into ordinary space. The ice itself is completely whole and unchanged—just in a slightly different position. By means of my gravitex device, I’ll pull the icecraft forward, taking my ‘hole’ along with me!”
Munford Trent, who had not been informed of the ice crisis in Russia, was moved no further than a polite smile. “Very nice. Umm...”
An awkward silence was rescued by a bleeping ring from Trent’s desk in the reception area.
“Oop. Better get that. I try to answer by the third ring.”
“It’s only rung once so far.”
“But I’m not exactly at my desk, now am I?—and there’s ring number two.”
The caller proved to be Bud. Tom was surprised. “Hey, chum, I thought you’d planned to rough it and leave your cellphone behind?”
“I’m not on a cell,” was Bud’s tense reply. “I’m at a little campground just north of Ragged Lake. It has a pay phone.”
“So how’s the hiking?”
“Not as relaxing as I’d expected. Tom, I’m being followed!”
“HOW’S THE HUNTING?”
BUD had garaged his much-abused, much-beloved red convertible, nameplated TSE TSE FLY, in a little village in the Adirondacks called Chalpagattay Brook, renting a space that had been advertised as available and secure. Before plunging phoneless into the rugged woods, he had stopped at a gas station at the edge of town to check hiking directions with the minimart clerk.
A mudcaked blue car—an old-style station wagon—had pulled in to the pumps behind Bud. Turning idly to look, he said to himself: “Saw them behind me on the highway.” Minutes later, glancing over again as he left, he noticed that the car was still there, parked at the edge of the pavement, motor idling. Its occupants were only vaguely seen, but it seemed to Bud three sets of eyes were watching him intently through the grimy windshield as he proceeded off the lot.
That first day was uneventful, and as the sun climbed down the athletic youth made camp, checking his only concession to technological convenience, a handheld device that Tom had invented called a localculator. The Lookor told him he had reached his planned travel goal for the day.
As he lay back after supper studying the starry night, his gaze fell across the silhouette of trees, black against the luminous sky, on a ridge perhaps a half-mile distant. A movement caught his eye—a dull red light swinging along unevenly, passing behind tree trunks that intermittently blocked it. In a moment it had joined two more. The three bobbed away as a group into darkness.
Glancing again, a few minutes later, Bud thought he glimpsed them further along on higher ground. The beads of light stood immobile, then sank toward the ground and disappeared, as if those holding them had sat down.
The sight twitched Bud’s instincts. He had read of such lights—the dim filaments of special infrared beam-lamps used for night hunting and photography. Nothing wrong with that, and yet...
Had they been looking his way? Standing and watching him in the smoldering glow of his small campfire?
Three. And there were three in that station wagon, persisted his mind.
It was shruggable. He switched off his brain and slept soundly. But breaking camp the next morning, twenty steps brought him to an area of brush where branches were newly half-snapped and pressed down. “Good night, maybe I’ve been in this business with Tom too long,” he murmured. “But it sure looks like somebody was milling around here within the last few hours.” And he—more likely, they—had taken good care to make no sound. Had they watched him as he slept?
Bud soldiered on, alert and, inevitably, nervous. It was also inevitable that he began to hear things—hushed crackles and trudges somewhere back of him. Weren’t there a few nudges of distant tree limbs that didn’t quite match the breeze? Birds, of course, or squirrels; even deer.
Once in midmorning, once in late afternoon, he thought he glimpsed something, civilized color half-darting among distant brown and green and shadow. Hunters, he thought, probably those same three. Makes sense. And I’m wearing my warning-beacon jacket too.
Then he added: “Right.” His brain wasn’t buying it.
They weren’t behind him. They were pacing him from off to the side. When he had his second glimpse, it struck him that they hadn’t veered off over the several intervening hours.
He found himself making his course an erratic one.
At sundown, seeking a sheltered campsite for the night in rising ground, he approached on open spot and stood at the edge of the trees. Ahead were tumbled rocks, the cracks between caked with dirt and forest-grass to make a flat tabletop. Beyond was a ravine, then more boulders piled into a rise by aeons of time. Bud’s gray eyes followed along, and up.
A figure stood atop the rise.
No rifle, Bud thought. The San Franciscan stepped forward into the red sunwash and raised an arm. “Hey!” he called across. “How’s the hunting?”
The figure twisted his way, startled. He appeared to be a young man, perhaps in his late teens. He held his hunter’s cap in hand. Bud noticed that the boy’s skin was very pale, his fine thin hair a dull, almost colorless blond. How would one describe that sort of coloration? Washed out? “No,” Bud concluded, “just watery.”
Bud repeated his call and his wave. The boy merely stared. Then suddenly he backed away into the trees and was gone.
Chilled and aware that he made a well-lit target, Bud also stepped back out of sight. “They’re hunters,” he said in a self-murmur that had become a full-fledged mutter. “Namely, out on the hunt for That Guy Who’s Always Standing Next to Tom Swift. And it ain’t Homer Glockenspiel!”
He felt sure of his conclusion. Yet what was their goal? Murder? Kidnapping? If they had approached Bud’s sleeping form in the night, why hadn’t they proceeded? It seemed they were content to watch for now.
That night Bud slept in as secluded and inaccessible a spot as he could find. Nonetheless he felt exceedingly accessible.
The following day was chilly and overcast. The youth contemplated an early end to his recuperative trudge among trees. Yet as the day drew along he detected no signs of pursuit. “Guess maybe I scared ’em off,” he told himself. Or perhaps there had been no “hunt” in the first place, just a few unnerving coincidences.
He fell asleep early and, unexpectedly, slept deeply.
Only for a time. He suddenly tumbled into wakefulness. The clouds had fled; stars were everywhere above, and the whole forest was whitewashed in pale light.
What had roused him?
It came again, something like a voice far distant, something like the rhythm of words, something like—
“...clay...can’t see us here if...”
His mind ten-hutted. Bud spent out the night on full alert. At the first gray of dawn, he angled off to the east and a speck on his map, the campground he now was calling from.
“And they never took a shot at you?” asked Tom. “Nothing?”
“Nothing I know of, Skipper. But I was sure scanning the countryside on my way here this morning, and I think I saw someone way behind. Maybe.”
“You did the right thing to call me,” stated Tom. “Look, with the atomicar I could be there in less than― ”
“No reason to put you in danger. Besides,” Bud added sarcastically, “I wouldn’t want to interrupt your restful recovery at home.”
At his end the young inventor didn’t smile. “Bud, call a taxi or whatever, but you’ve got to get back to your car and head back here.” Tom outwaited the expected ensuing silence. “Okay. So just what are you planning to do, flyboy?”
“Oh... finish my vacation.”
Tom groaned. “You’re making yourself a target. Why not just― ”
“Oop! Sorry, Tom. Your signal’s breaking up.”
“We’re on a land line.”
“Uh-huh. Guess the land’s breaking up!”
Bud hunkered down in the cinderblock shadow of a rest-stop wall. Okay, here I am, he thought. Now what? What would Tom do?
Bud was sure, with his usual cocky confidence, that he could turn the tables on his mystery pursuers. Confident—but without the hint of an idea. So he took his brain’s good advice and spent some time “thinking.”
“I don’t know where they are. They know where I am. Tom’s right, darn it, as usual. I’m making myself a target.”
But Bud had often seen Tom Swift twist apparent disadvantages inside out. The hunters had undoubtedly followed the youth until he had approached the campground. Then they would have held back, to avoid any risk of being seen by the scattering of campers and backpackers here and there. Now they’d be watching him from a distance among the tree shadows, poised to resume the track. Could he engineer a turnabout from that fact—from being visible?
Bud unfolded his pocket map and studied it. An unpaved road threaded past the campground and on to the west. After a lazy half-moon curve it finally united with a highway some miles distant. The curve was on a broad slope that spread like an apron, and the map indicated that the whole area was relatively unforrested, the road gouged out between low hills. And it narrows and kinks at this spot here for a stretch, he thought, so it must go through a gap with high sides. Which means—at this point...
He proceeded determinedly down the road. He made no effort to stick to shadows—he wanted to be visible, to be not a mere target but a lure. He thought he heard the followers off among the trees rearward.
“Flushing ’em out from in front of ’em!” he told himself with silent glee. “Howsabout that, genius boy!”
Mossy boulders and hillocks began to poke up on both sides, and eventually he was walking between walls of brush-studded rock. Unable to keep him in view, his followers would hike across the top of the ridge to Bud’s side, probably the one to his right. They’ll think I called someone to drive over and pick me up where the trail-road meets the highway—might even go on ahead to get there first.
To confront him? Shoot him?
Bud didn’t intend to walk into whatever might lie in wait, but around it.
Hunched down, he struggled up through a “V” in the rock wall and onto the slope, working his way through boulders and the scraggly trees and underbrush. He waited for a time under cover, and his wait was rewarded—his ears made out several pairs of feet crunching through the brush higher on the slope in the direction of the paved highway. And he thought he heard a few words in low, cautious voices.
As the sounds became distant, Bud crawled from his hiding place and sought high ground. Pausing at a shadowed vantage point, his usual grin of mischief broke out. There they are! Backs turned his way, three figures were clambering along the rocky ground some hundred yards distant. “A football field away,” murmured the ex-footballer.
The three men—two men and a boy—stood clumped, looking toward the road junction ahead and below, gazing and puzzled. And very importantly, there were no signs of guns.
“Okay, guys,” said a strangely friendly, strangely triumphant voice behind them. “Freeze. Don’t turn around if you know what’s good for you.”
“And what if we don’t know what’s good for us?” snorted one of them, clearly the eldest.
“You’ve been pretty smart so far,” Bud declared. “Not bad, the way you’ve been trailing me.”
“Not to be disagreeable, but I’m turning around,” stated the second man, fortyish. He swiveled to look, as did the others. Bud instantly realized that they were all of the same family—grandfather, son, grandson. Three versions of the boy he had seen. They were all very pale, their hair almost colorless with only hints of blond without gold in it.
The boy blurted, “It’s― ”
“Figures,” said the middle-aged man. “You waved at my son the other day. Not so friendly now, hmm?”
“I’m not holding a gun on you,” responded Bud, “but I’d sure like to know why you’ve been spying on me.”
The grandfatherly man, vigorous and sixtyish, half chuckled. “Here you are sneaking up on us, and you want to know what we’re up to! So just who might you be, fella?”
Bud lost his grin. “You know exactly who I am.”
“Toldja, Dad!” exclaimed the boy. “It is him!”
“I dunno,” the man said. “Maybe.” Addressing Bud impatiently: “So are you?”
“Am I what?”
“Ricky Rick Shane.”
“Wh-what, the actor? The movie guy?” The muscular youth was startled—and more than a little pleased. “I don’t even look like him. Not really. Much.” He added: “You think?”
“I don’t see it,” replied the man. “But my son says you celebrities always look different in person.”
“Well, I—wait!” Bud recovered his balance. “Whoever you think I am, you’ve been trailing me like hunters. I know you spied on me the other night near my campfire. And here you are, up here worried that you lost me.”
“Hunters,” repeated the elderly man. “See any guns between us?”
“You have those infrared units. And I see the goggles hangin’ from your belts.”
“Of course you do,” he snapped. “How are we supposed to see the wildlife at night without them?”
“My father and I are naturalists,” said the middle-aged man, “and my boy here is a naturalist in training. Not that you have any right to our names, ‘Ricky Rick,’ but it’s Bellarmin. Frederick, Andrew, and Drew Junior.”
“But you― ”
“Was that your campsite we saw the other night? We were squirrel tracking.”
“The rare Kanamashik Spotted,” said Grandfather Bellarmin. “A family was attracted by the scent of your dinner. We’d tracked them southeast for an hour before we saw your campsite. The Spotteds, they’re all quite intelligent, known for their ready adaptation to the presence of man and his edibles. Sniffed it miles away.”
“And yes, we’ve been keeping half an eye on you this morning,” said the younger man. “If there’s a stalker here, it’s Little Drew. He was just sure you were― ”
“Ricky Rick. I know,” said Bud, deflating rapidly. “Sorry, but I’m not. I’m just... a guy.”
“You look sorta f’miliar,” the boy said.
“If you want my autograph― ”
Bud shrugged, embarrassed, not entirely sure what he was embarrassed about. “Sorry, guys. Guess I made a mistake.”
“Yes, I guess you did!” stated the father with an edge to his voice. “And now, perhaps we can bear to part company.”
Bud did his best to fade back into the great outdoors.
Ricky Rick... He put in some distance.
And then with distance beneath his feet, he halted. Unwelcome, insistent thoughts reined him in. Just how much sense did it make for nature students and unarmed animal observers to be clomping around in a forest with infrared gear but no cameras between them?
“What did they plan to do, memorize the squirrels’ faces?”
More to the point, the fact that they had taken the bait and followed Bud along the road proved that he hadn’t been wrong in thinking they had trailed him to the campground and watched and waited. Didn’t it? Ricky Rick or no.
“They didn’t even try to explain that!” Bud grumbled in chagrin. “They distracted me—with that stuff about― ”
The hike was over. It was time to return to Tom and Shopton and a search for explanations.
With a glance at the sun, he checked the Lookor output. Bud’s meander had taken him in a scribbly circle; Chalpagattay Brook and TSE TSE FLY now were fairly close.
He closed the distance, senses sharpened, and arrived at the private garage he had rented by mid-afternoon. As he unlocked and rolled open the big door—
“Freeze, Barclay! Tracked you down—and trapped you!”
BUD BARCLAY reacted as Bud Barclay. At the command to Freeze! he spun around—and broke out laughing. “Hank! Jetz, what’re you doing here?”
Hank Sterling grinned. “The question from the boss is—what’re you doing here?”
“Guess I got him a little worried, hunh?”
“Might say that. He asked me to fly up in the atomicar. The Silent Streak is parked just around the corner.”
Bud envisioned Tom’s strange, sleek flying car zooming high above the treetops. “You planned to land on top of me? Guess that’s one way to pin me down! But hey—how’d you find me here, anyway?”
“Easiest thing in the world,” Sterling replied, “if you have a sensitector handy! You told Tom the name of the town; I just turned loose the robot bloodhound on Main Street here, which is pretty much the only street around. We do have quite a library of Barclay scents on file—not to mention trace-profiles of your car. They’re all over Tom’s and Sandy’s clothes.”
The young pilot nodded wryly. “So you were gonna track me down, starting from here.”
“No. This garage was the end of my trail. Tom’s not worried about you, friend. He’s worried about your car!”
Bud’s eyebrows flew up. “Huh? Whatta you mean?”
Hank strolled up close to TSE TSE and tapped her on her scarlet hood. “Ever occur to you that the reason these mystery shadowers were letting you catch a glimpse might be to get that impulsive Budworth curiosity switched on, slow you and delay you out in the woods? Long enough to― ”
Bud turned white! “Good night! To plant a bomb in my car!”
“Or at least some kind of bug or tracking device. But resume your normal coloration, Bud. I just finished running the analytracer all over TSE TSE, including the wheel wells. She’s clean.”
“Th-thank goodness!” gulped the Californian. “I owe the Skipper a big apology, Hank. He’s trying to save those trapped Russians, and here I am on my hike with nothin’ to do but distract that big brain of his. And all for nothing, it looks like. I mean, I didn’t get kidnapped. Man, I didn’t even get knocked out, for a change!” With a wince he added ruefully: “I thought I was blowing the case wide open, but—I guess I just blew it.”
Hank’s friendly smile was sympathetic. “If you have an apology to deliver, there’s a Private Ear Radio sitting in the atomicar. I’ll be using it to report in.”
“Thanks, but... I’ll do it in person, tomorrow.” Bud’s face was now abashedly unabashedly red.
“Tomorrow? You and TSE TSE will be back in Shopton in just a few― ”
“Tomorrow,” Bud repeated firmly.
And it was tomorrow, early morning, when he finished telling his chum the story. “I’m sure sorry, Tom,” he said.
“You don’t need to be, flyboy,” the young inventor replied, “because I think you may be right.”
Tom nodded. “Instincts can mislead a person, all right, but they can also pick up on unnoticed bits and pieces of the ‘picture’ that don’t fit. Your instincts are pretty solid, Bud. I think what these guys were doing was mighty suspicious, and you’re right—their ‘explanation’ doesn’t really make sense. They didn’t try to kidnap you. But don’t you think I might have been the real target?”
“Jetz! Rack up another for not-thinking!” exclaimed the black-haired flier with chagrin. “They probably assumed I’d be meeting up with you somewhere during the hike.”
“So they tailed you. Then again... why did they sneak up close to you that one night, with their infrared equipment?” He rose from his stool and approached a computer terminal, standard equipment in all his labs and offices. “Let’s see what ‘our friend’ the Net has to say about the Family Bellarmin.”
After feeding several possible spellings into Enterprises’ sophisticated search engine, Tom nodded at the screen as Bud peered over his shoulder. “Bet this one’s him; the age sounds about right. Frederick K. Bellarmin. Graduate of the University of Virginia some forty years back. Masters Degree in—hmm—chemical engineering and industrial applications.” He pursued the search further, and finally concluded: “Nothing relating to zoology or botany or any professional background that would make him a ‘naturalist.’ Still, it might just be an interest, a hobby.”
Soon they found traces of his son, Andrew Bellarmin, in the form of a web-published resume. “It’s pretty old,” Tom commented. “Background in private industry and manufacturing—looks like hands-on engineering stuff. No recent addresses, but maybe we can search it out through the son.”
Declared Bud a moment later, “There he is. Swim team, Colophon High School, just last year! And that’s the kid, there in the photo. I recognize him.” He shrugged. “Okay, genius boy. So where’s Colophon?”
Map data eventually became US Census data. Tom’s brow was furrowed with intrigue. “Colophon, Texas. Right on the Gulf. Look at these population figures. From 1200 to 32,000 in ten years!”
Tom switched off the monitor and regarded Bud thoughtfully. “Growth like that happens a lot. Sometimes it means that things are popping nearby, outside the city limits—setting up an industrial park, for example.”
“Yeah,” said Bud. “Maybe with a big manufacturing plant for Middle Bellarmin to work in.”
“Could be. But I don’t see anything to pursue right now, pal. And we’ve got other stuff on our plate!”
“Important stuff,” Bud agreed. He turned a thumb toward a pile of sketches and electronics on a counter across the lab. “Plans for this ‘icecraft’ of yours?”
Glancing over, Tom shook his head. “No, that’s another project I set aside when the Mars trip came up. I mentioned it to you—the ‘x-flight’ deal.”
“Right,” his friend responded. “Flight at ex-treme altitude for ex-treme duration. That’s a lot of ‘x’!”
“I’ll get back to it after the Azov crew is safe and surfaced,” said Tom. “Let me show you the icecraft model—maybe you’ll be more interested than Munford Trent!—and then the real thing.”
Bud whooped in surprise. “Good night, you mean it’s already built?”
“Hey, we work fast around here!” joked the scientist-inventor. “I can’t just sit around lettin’ the ol’ crewcut grow, you know. Seriously, Arv and Art Wiltessa’s people worked round the clock, and it doesn’t really involve any fundamental breakthroughs—the capsule design is off the shelf, and she uses existing tech, such as the incismitter.” He added that a “live” test was scheduled for the afternoon. “It’ll be a field test, too, in an icy environment.”
“Yeah? So where do you find ice around here this time of year? Or do you plan to Sky Queen-it to the North Pole?”
“Not quite that far!” Tom laughed. “We’ll carry it a mere sixteen miles, by flatbed. I’ve got to finish some details, but I’ll explain the whole plan on the way.”
Not long after lunch Tom and Bud rode in the bed of an Enterprises flatbed truck, next to the battened down, tarp-covered icecraft. The bulky, rounded vehicle was about the size of a luxury-size auto. “Guess I don’t understand, Skipper,” Bud remarked. “I know Jack’s driving us over to Vatterantis and that ice rink. But didn’t you say you’ve already tested out the ship’s ability to penetrate ice?”
“Yep, but this is different. I need to see how she handles running around inside a thick ice sheet, not just a little layer like the one we made at the plant,” explained Tom.
“Yeah, but I always thought the ice on a skating rink was just a thin layer.”
“If you’d been keeping up with our fine international journal, the Shopton Evening Bulletin,” Tom teased, “you’d know that the ‘Skate Lake’ at Arctic Play-Park is a lot more than a traditional artificial skating rink.” He went on to describe the new attraction’s major public pitch—a “winter wonderland” stretched over many acres, duplicating icy scenes from all across the world, pole to pole, the Alps to the Andes, in all their wild ruggedness. “They don’t just use the standard snow machines and cooling pipes, flyboy, but a sophisticated refrigeration technology using flexible subsurface metallic sheets, like a kind of heavy foil, that absorb heat and conduct it away by the thermocouple principle. They took what was left of the old Vatterantis Reservoir, filled it half up—and froze it into a solid block. No way a skater could fall through!”
“The world’s biggest ice cube! That should be about enough to give the icecraft a challenge, I’d say.”
They arrived presently, pulling through the enormous parking lot, clogged with funseekers toting ice skates and skis, and stopping in front of the Park’s administrative office. Inside Tom spoke to the facility manager, to whom he had already spoken several times by telephone. “Thanks again for giving us permission to conduct the test, Mr. Polmner,” Tom said. “But—one thing—your parking lot looks pretty full-up...”
“That’s the way we like it.”
“Yes, but you said over the phone that you’d be willing to close the park early; at least the skating lake area.”
“Arctic Park Skate Lake, young fellow, is our big draw and our claim to fame,” the man replied in polished tones. “I talked it over with the owner. We decided it’d be too—difficult—to shoo away our guests for the afternoon. Don’t want to disappoint all those families, do we? Little kids, hearts set on skating the glacier? Husky young men with girlfriends to impress?”
“I understand. It’s just that― ”
“Now Tom, you were quite definite that this experiment under the ice would be safe and harmless. No damage. Changed your mind?” he challenged. “Something we should know?”
“Well, no sir. It should be fine. I’m sure it will be.”
“Just what I like to hear! Then let’s go to it, eh?”
The Skate Lake was huge, a mile wide and almost two miles long. As Tom and Bud guided the icecraft from the truck to the shore on its extensible wheels with the help of the two Enterprises employees who had driven the flatbed, Bud gave an exaggerated shiver. “I’d say that refrigerator of theirs is working at top efficiency!”
“Sorry—forgot the parkas.” Tom was kidding, but they could both see wisps of frozen breath trailing behind the many skaters out on the ice, which had been expertly sculpted into fantastic shapes.
The two climbed inside the bulbous vehicle and Tom extended the rear wheel-legs so that the forward cluster of prow-vanes tilted down to touch the surface of the ice.
“A little, er, close in here,” Bud commented wryly. “You’re planning to pack six of those ice guys inside—plus us?”
“We adapted an existing hull. Making the vehicle much larger would’ve introduced a few technical complications,” Tom muttered in reply as he studied the instrument readouts and the flow of power from the neutronamo atomic capsule. “I didn’t want to take the time. We’ll evacuate the Azov over three trips; there’s room for two to squeeze in behind the command seats.
“Now—let’s see if she works as well on the big stuff as she did yesterday in the test hangar!”
Bud watched his pal do complicated things with buttons and switches—and then do them again, frowning. “Problem, Skipper?”
“Problem,” confirmed the young inventor. “I can’t get the reciprocal actuator system on the forward vanes in phase with the aft ones. We’re not getting any quantum ‘bite’ from the incismitters.”
“More likely a problem in the control circuitry. Let’s open her up.”
Tom unsealed the access panel to the main electronics bay and commenced to examine and test various key circuits, with Bud, who had picked up some technical training, giving him a hand. After long minutes, Tom said suddenly:
“There it is! One of the triple-Y junctions is bent. Hand me a replacement from the kit, Bud.”
As he did so, Bud chuckled. “I’m a key member of the team, all right.”
“You sure are!”
The two resumed their seats. Seconds later the icecraft lurched forward and downward, angling into the ice sheet like a mole. “Like a mole with a hotfoot,” gibed Bud. “This baby’s a lot faster than your geotron, Tom.”
“Yes,” Tom agreed. “But only inside solid ice. The sort of sharp variations in density that we’d run into in ordinary ground would throw off the phase synchronization pretty badly. There’s where the Gee!-Oh! earns the gold.”
The icecraft had no viewport, only a monitor setup based on the principle of Tom’s penetrating Eye-Spy camera. Observing the screen and various readouts, he presently told his co-pilot that they were 40 feet down and already nearing the midpoint between the two shores.
“Pretty smooth now,” Bud commented.
Tom grinned. “Like it rough? The space-shift of the ice from ahead to behind is more or less continuous—much more continuous than the sequence of frames that you see on a movie screen, for example.”
He checked a dial. “No sign of a hitch. Tail pressure holding steady. Gravitex tug just where I want it. In addition to the pull from the gravitex, the shifted ice itself is squeezing us forward with― ”
And then came a hitch, a big one. Tom and Bud cried out as the icecraft suddenly veered sideways—violently!
“OWW!” Bud choked as his forehead slammed against the bulkhead curving next to him. “D-did we hit something?”
Tom didn’t answer, fighting to regain control of his invention as it bucked and swerved like a maddened bull. A moment later all motion ceased. “I cut the power to the externals,” he told Bud grimly. “I can’t diagnose the problem with the ship jumping around like that.”
Bud gazed worriedly at his friend. “So, as of this moment—we’re stuck under the ice ourselves, just like the Russians?”
“No. This is different. We have the inventor on board!”
The icecraft also had a Private Ear Radio built into its communications console. Tom accessed the flatbed truck, waiting on the shore. “Jack—Earl—we’ve run into some trouble down here.”
“Not so far. But in a week or so, I’m going to start feeling a little nervous!”
Bud snorted. “I’ll handle the quips around here.”
“Anything we can do from up topside?” asked Jack Snider.
“Not at the moment,” Tom replied calmly. “Just wanted you to know that we might be a tad delayed.”
But Bud Barclay knew that Tom had another reason for reporting the situation to the two employees. If something unexpected and sudden—something dire—should silence them, it would be the “ground crew” who would make the call to Swift Enterprises. Though the PER had Enterprises within its quantum reach, Tom would avoid alarming his father and friends as long as—alarm could be avoided!
Bud asked soberly, “Could that replacement I gave you have failed?”
Tom shook his head. “According to these readings, it’s a separate unit that’s acting up, part of the incismitter fine-tuning circuitry. The shifted ice particles are ramming together as they re-emerge out of protospace. The push-pressure has become uneven.”
“Okay then,” said Bud, “guess we open ’er up again.”
His chum’s momentary silence was ominous. “Looks to me... that the failed system is one of the ones that’s mostly out of reach from inside the cabin. It’s meant to be serviced through the hull port. But― ” Tom shrugged with forced casualness that fooled neither youth.
“Even if we’re rockin’ and rollin’, we could still stagger our way back to the surface, right?”
“Oh... I’m sure we can.”
Bud cast a dark look. “Sure you’re sure.”
Tom spent some time attempting to program in a compensation routine that might smooth the craft’s upward lunge. Finally, after alerting the truck to keep watch, he reactivated the icecraft’s propulsion-penetration system.
As Tom had predicted, the ship proceeded to move forward and upward. As Bud had predicted, she staggered—like a drunk on stilts. The boys gasped and gulped as they thudded back and forth within their seatbelts.
“J-just ten more feet!” Tom hissed.
Daylight broke across the face of the monitor screen. “Whew!” shuddered Bud, somewhat bruised and more than somewhat green.
They unsealed and slid open the pilot hatch—and gasped as water and icy slush came tumbling over the threshold. “Good gosh!” Tom groaned, pointing outward.
For hundreds of yards in all directions, the surface of the ice had cracked and shattered! Panicked skaters were scrambling to avoid jagged upthrust ice-blocks and deep cracks slowly filling with meltwater.
“I—er—guess our compression problem was a little more than Skate Lake could handle,” breathed Tom in wide-eyed dismay.
Bud lay an ironic hand on a sagging shoulder. “I’d say the Enterprises legal department is gonna really earn its pay!”
Eventually the crippled icecraft was hauled back to Shopton beneath one of Enterprises’ powerful Workchoppers—twin-blade helicraft with extensible gripper-arms. There, in the mammoth hangar beneath the airfield, Tom opened the hull and began his examination.
He found the cause almost immediately, holding up a tiny component in technicians’ tweezers for Bud and Art Wiltessa to see. “See this red band on the side? It should be invisible. It means the main semicon wafer has failed.”
Art toed the cement floor skeptically. “Not what I’d call a likely occurrence, Tom. For the whole component to fail like that, five nanoslats in series would have to crash, minimum. That just doesn’t happen.”
Bud held up a reluctant hand. “Except, it does—when xenocules start spreading. Let’s say what we’re thinking, boys. That has to be it!”
Tom slammed an angry fist against the hull. “But how could it happen? Since the first problem with the exosuit, we’ve only used sealed components.”
“All examined by your leptoscope,” Wiltessa pointed out. He took the tweezers and eyeballed the part. “And this serial number was one of the groups I checked myself.”
“It’s the same thing that happened to the iceworm in Russia,” declared Tom, frustrated and angry. “On the other side of the world! The silicon plague is real—and it’s beginning to look like it can’t be contained.”
Bud threw his pal a strong, stern look. “Then you’ll just have to come up with a cure.”
Tom knew that the rescue of the trapped ice-tronauts would have to come first, before any scientific derring-do; their survival margin was shrinking by the hour.
Every silicon-bearing part of the icecraft was removed and destroyed utterly by X-raser, and replacements were unsealed and inserted by hand—the hands of Art Wiltessa and Hank Sterling. Tom himself inspected each and every part with his leptoscope camera, eyes reddening and fatigue taking hold as hours became one day, then two. “I wish there were another way to do it,” he murmured hoarsely to Bud and Chow during a short break for nourishment. “If we weren’t so pressed, I could fly all the components out to the Time Cave and run them through the dyna-4 capsule.”
“Hunh?” objected Chow. “You mean that big thing that makes y’r clock run fast ’r slow?”
“The time-flow distorter, pardner. Our two ‘patients’ inside it wouldn’t be hurt—as far as they’re concerned, only minutes have passed since the door closed.”
Curious, Bud inquired, “How would using the capsule have helped, though?”
“Did you forget, flyboy? Speeding up time is a perfect way to determine if a part’s going to fail—all the wear and tear of years before breakfast!”
“Ye-ahh,” said Chow. “But the main thing y’don’t have right now is time, cap’tal T!”
Tom nodded wearily, his head a rag. “You’re oh so right.”
After two grinding days, and many translated teleconferences with the Russian mission control team, the Swift Enterprises rescue expedition was ready to depart for the far side of the world. Standing with Tom in the cavernous underground hangar as the ceiling doors began to open, Bud gestured toward the waiting Sky Queen. “She’s still standing high-up. Shouldn’t you close up the landing gear pistons? The icecraft’s been loaded into the hangar-hold, hasn’t it?”
“No—you’ll see in just a moment when we lift the deck platform out of the way,” replied his friend.
The platform, a large section of the skyship’s underhull, rose like an elevator from the hangar floor and clanked into place. Now Bud could see that the icecraft was on the exterior of the Flying Lab’s fuselage, clamped to the underhull just forward of the extensible platform. “You’re not hauling it aboard, Tom?”
The young inventor rubbed his forehead, jostling his ragged crewcut. Even his hair seemed exhausted. “I have the vacuum-lifter sticking out of the belly hatch. That’s what’s holding her up. The icecraft’s pretty light in weight.”
“We’ve had enough trouble with xenocule ‘infection’!” Tom snapped. “Since we don’t know how the thing spreads, I want to keep the icecraft as isolated as possible from other electronics and machinery—and the hold has plenty.”
“I understand,” Bud said meekly. “It’ll be safer, keeping it out in the air.”
“The VL will hold it firm, even at supersonic. I’m keeping the icecraft’s systems active. We’ll ride inside her during the flight, for continuous monitoring.” After a sigh: “Sorry, flyboy. I’m tired and on edge.”
“No prob. Take it out on me,” Bud chuckled. “I’m from San Francisco. We’ve heard it all.”
Soon the great silver-white jetcraft was airborne and leaving its engine-roar far behind in the stratosphere. Inside the icecraft, Tom switched the monitor to a video feed from a pinhead-sized “light pipe” in the hull, one of several. Distant icy clouds sailed past, far below, as the Sky Queen jetted north along its pole-topping route to Russia.
“Permanent winter down there,” murmured Bud. “Maybe they can warm it just a little and put in a few ski lodges.”
Tom responded, “Permanent winter may not be all that permanent. You’ve read about global warming—it’s a big political issue as well as a scientific question. If the polar ice gets into some serious melting...”
“Yeah—flooding! Not so good for California real estate, Skipper.”
“Not so good for a lot of things. The world’s weather could get out of kilter. If the snowfall pattern were to shift by just a few percent, the meltwater wouldn’t be there to fill the streams and rivers that people depend on for drinkable water. Farm lands could become deserts.”
“But isn’t the weather always shifting and changing?”
“Sure, but the big changes happen over geological epochs. Human civilization could handle something that crept in over thousands of years. What they’re worried about is rapid change caused by human activities. Right now we can’t handle an instant Ice Age—or permanent summer!”
Presently Tom announced that they had crossed over the invisible border into a region of the Arctic ice sheet claimed, disputably, by the Russian Federation. It was not long afterwards that the skyship commenced a lazy descent toward the iceworm’s lonely, wind-wracked control station.
“The last time I was in Russia was a couple years before you moved to Shopton,” Tom mused. “I went with Dad to a conference. Things were still pretty unsettled back then—private enterprise was a new concept, and the Russian mafia had infested everything.”
Bud knew the word infested would bring up worrisome thoughts. He changed the subject. “We’ll be done and back home in no time. So—what’s this x-flight project of yours all about, anyway? You said it had something to do with a solar-powered super-plane.”
Tom was happy to redirect his thoughts. “I call it a solarplane. But it isn’t solar powered, not in the sense that we say the Queen is solar powered. It taps the energy of the sun for other purposes.”
“Well, there’s plenty of sun up at those extreme high x-altitudes. That’s why you had to go into space to use the solarizer gimmick you made for your rocket ship. Of course—after sundown you can have some problems with solar stuff.”
“We’ll be using the solarplane where there isn’t any sundown,” Tom grinned.
“Up in space?”
“Above the Arctic Circle, ‘land of the midnight sun.’ And almost up in space. She’ll be flying through black sky at the edge of the ionosphere, at an altitude of around 50 miles.”
“Might as well call it outer space!”
Tom smiled distractedly. “Nothing much above it. A handful of air molecules and what they call the Appleton layer.”
“Now that’s what I call a wholesome name!”
Weariness seemed to have put Tom in a thoughtful, brow-furrowed mood. “Bud, the main reason for the x-flight project is the sort of thing we were just talking about. Science makes possible so much that improves our lives in the short run, but sometimes we have to raise our view a little, don’t you think?
“I don’t see why the same kind of innovation and brainpower that comes up with nuclear reactors and pesticides and hairspray cans couldn’t work on developing technologies that solve the problems they create. It doesn’t sound as romantic and heroic as a trip to the moon. But maybe...” He stopped himself with a rueful smile. “Guess I’m ranting.”
“No, Tom, it’s fine. So what’ll you be doing up there, exactly?”
“Oh, I won’t be up there—the solarplane is an unmanned drone craft. The main idea is to use solar energy to—unnh!”
His words were choked off as the deck of the icecraft jerked downward into a sharp wobbling tilt, throwing the youths forward violently in their seats. “Good night, now what?” Bud exclaimed. “We’re not even underground!”
Tom’s eyes grew wide. “Look—the readouts! The vacuum lifter is failing! We’re pulling loose!”
He grabbed for the tele-intercom mike. Before his lean fingers could make contact, the icecraft gave another great heave, followed by a sudden eerie silence—a horrifying silence.
“T-Tom!” Bud gasped. “We’re falling!”
AS THE ICECRAFT began twisting and wavering, the youths could feel the stomach-pit sensation of free fall!
Tom’s hand darted to the control board, changing the video angle. They could now see the underhull of the Sky Queen becoming small and distant!
Bud scooped up the tele-intercom microphone. “Slim! The icecraft’s― ”
“We’re too far, Bud,” Tom said quietly, scanning the board.
“Okay, right, then the PER― ”
“What can they do?”
“A power dive! If they get underneath us― ”
“And then what?”
Bud had no answer to Tom’s question!
Now, increasingly, the silence was being violated by a shrill whistling sound as the icecraft accelerated in its miles-long plunge. “Th-then... Tom... this is really it, isn’t it? Man! Gravity didn’t get me on the Sears Tower, but she didn’t give up, I guess. Pal, genius boy... I’ve got to tell you—all we’ve been through, together― ”
Bud boggled. “For when?—!”
Attacking the icecraft’s controls, Tom didn’t reply. Suddenly the winding wavering diminished, the craft’s nose pointing straight down as she fell as smoothly as a brick. “There,” Tom breathed. “I’ve reversed the incismitter vectors. They’re transpositioning air from the rear to the nose.”
Bud’s face brightened. “Jetz! An air cushion!”
“It’s not enough to stop us, or even slow us. But it’s given us a little stability.”
His black-haired chum checked the monitor screen, now showing the uprushing white ground. “Yep, the ground’s still there. Seconds to go.”
“Brace yourself, flyboy.”
“B-brace myself? You gotta be― ”
And then Bud found out the reason, as a tremendous jolt threw him forward—which now was also downward. A spasm of pain tore across his taut stomach where the seatbelt restrained it.
The youth glanced about in wide-eyed confusion. The giddy sensation of falling had been replaced by a leaden forward pressure, pressing the two of them toward the down-pointing nose. A weird, rumbling, crashing sound penetrated the hull from beyond. The monitor screen had turned black.
“G-good grief!” gulped Bud Barclay. “What’d we do, crash right through the ice into the ocean?”
“We’re inside the ice,” Tom responded, allowing himself the time to pant. “The vanes are transpositioning the ice away from the front, making a moving hole for us. We’re falling right through the solid ice, basically, without impacting against it—and we’re slowing down. I’ve changed the ‘scoop’ contours to let the ice give us a little resistance, a squeeze.”
At last slowing became stopped. Tom rotated the undamaged icecraft level, then grabbed the Private Ear Radio mike. “Icecraft to Queen! Slim, I thought you might like an update on our condition.”
For a moment the speaker swelled with hysteria and confusion—and cheers. Then Slim Davis’s quavering voice came on. “S-Skipper, what I’m worried about right now is our condition! I’ve gotta scrape a few guys off the floor!”
Tom explained what had happened as calmly as he could, concluding with:
“I’ll surface now. Guess we’ll have to ride inside the hangar-hold after all.” Clicking off, he gave Bud a wan grin. “I’ll hold off on collapsing for a few more minutes!”
As the young inventor raised the nose and began the icecraft’s upward cruise, he cast a glance at his still-stunned copilot. “Now—what was it you wanted to tell me, flyboy?”
Bud gulped. “Now I don’t need to!”
They surfaced, finding the Flying Lab’s jet lifters burning clouds of steam off the ice field a half-mile west.
Inside the skyship, Tom’s vehicle safely berthed, the young scientist-inventor began to examine the vacuum lifter setup. There seemed to be no mechanical problem. The flexible tubes and support cables were unbroken, the power feed showing no irregularities. “Which means the problem was in the control circuitry,” muttered Tom. “Just as I suspected.”
So it was. “Key semiconductors corrupted—useless!” Tom pronounced. “Somehow the xenocule got into the system, despite all our precautions.”
Bud rubbed his gray eyes, dismayed. “But how? When? Jetz, the guys did the standard maintenance routine on it just this morning! I helped them load it back on the Queen myself—it was never out of our sight!”
“No answer, Bud—so far. Remember, it seems the molecules can lie dormant, perhaps for a long time. We don’t know anything about the sequence of events that makes them go active.”
Bud snorted. “Maybe they just get bored.”
“They’re not alive.”
“But they sure are hungry!”
Tom contacted Swift Enterprises by PER, then radioed ahead to the iceworm base to speak to the man in charge, Leonid Maznyrkov. “This vacuum lifter business, Tom... you say it is now unusable?”
“It would take a day or more to locate and install the specialized components we need. But the greater danger is that the device is unreliable—it’s infected by the xenocules.”
“Ah, yes, of course. And soon may be all of Russia! But now, what shall we do? You had planned to lower the evacuation vehicle with your ship hovering at a great height above the spot, using this lifter and its cables.”
“Yes, because we can’t risk exposing the ice sheet near the Azov to the Queen’s weight or the effects of the jet lifters.”
“Who knows over what span the ice may be vulnerable? One kilometer, one hundred? You might as well start at our coastline here, at the station. Your craft is very fast, you say—surely a few further hours of travel will make no difference to the condition of the men?”
Tom disapproved but said, “It’s up to you, sir.”
In eleven minutes the Flying Lab was hovering over the iceworm base, a cluster of prefab structures, roofs striped bright neon-orange to give them better visibility against the gray gloom and white glare of the snowscape below. “Where is this place, exactly?” Bud asked Slim.
“Exactly? Way north!” replied Slim dryly. “We’re about halfway between the north coast of continental Russia and the North Pole. That’s the Barents Sea out there.”
Tom continued, “This little islet is part of the group called Franz-Joseph Land, the northernmost landmass in this hemisphere. The Russians call it Zemlya Frantsa-Iosifa.”
“Santa’s Workshop, hmm.”
“The iceworm itself is about 300 miles further north, inside the permanent ice sheet over the Nansen Basin. Their mission chief, Commissar Maznyrkov, said it took them weeks to travel the distance, taking instrumental readings and samples all the way along,” concluded the young inventor as he gazed down through the Sky Queen’s control viewpane.
“Did you say ‘commissar’?” Slim repeated. “That sounds like a holdover from the Soviet days.”
Tom shrugged. “It may be. But technically it just means the assigned supervising chief. I gather the iceworm operation has both a military and a civilian staff.”
They landed on a cleared, rocky area and began to unload the icecraft from the hangar-hold. As they did so, a balloon-tired vehicle came scurrying up with several figures—parka-clad and discreetly bearing arms—inside. “Hello, hello, Tom Swift!” bellowed a thickset man with a thickset accent. “Now we meet face to face with our real faces, eh?”
“We’re anxious to get started,” Tom said politely, shaking hands.
“Tomorrow morning, good enough,” the man, Leonid Maznyrkov, responded. “They are not going anywhere. Now we shall welcome you to our little tiny island, Ostrovskiya Lakrimon. Few visitors do we get here. Soon, hot dinner, nice speeches. If you like it, we have the highmost permission to give the secret recipes to your chef!” The man laughed heartily.
“We had to leave Chow Winkler behind on this trip,” Bud commented. “That’s our executive chef. But if you want to slip me an encrypted file with the data, I’ll carry it back under my trenchcoat.”
“Trenchcoat? Ah, no more, no more. Modern Russia is not ‘into’ that ‘scene,’ no more. Now we are all the nicest of guys.”
But as they turned away from Commissar Maznyrkov, Tom shot Bud a subtle wink.
At supper the Sky Queen crew was introduced to the many scientists and technicians of the iceworm station, whose polysyllabic names were quick into the American ear, and quickly out the other side. Tom had to ask for many a repetition—and was left wanting more.
“I’m sorry, ma’am, I didn’t catch― ”
“Bvenantioz Fazgueue. Sure, sure, it doesn’t, like, trip off the tongue. Be glad you don’t have to spell it. It’s Macedonian-Bulgarian—that was Papa. Mom was pure Rosski. Russian, see.”
Miss Bvenantioz Fazgueue, who very definitely asked not to be called doctor, was as odd a combination of parts as was her name. She was very short and very round. Though surely of middle years, her hair was a mop of spikes with a metallic orange color streaked in. The metal theme was extended to earlobe, nose, and lower lip; perhaps further. Her voice, faintly accented, seemed to be piped in from a cynical, slangy, slackered teen-ager. “Okay, guys, I’ll put you outta your misery. Call me Yoz. Or Faz. Whatever.”
“Er—sure, Yoz.” Tom was unsure whether he had a question, a comment, or a felt need to politely slink away from the table. “I...”
“I think you maybe want to know what I do.”
“Of course. Are you one of the team scientists?”
“Naa,” she said. “Got the creds—Sofi U., Saint P’s Technical, geochem, industrial metallurgy—but I don’t do the research thing, so I don’t use the title. Call me a free spirit. I’m here from...” She paused, seeking a word. “You don’t have it in the West. It’s a government bureau that writes up science stuff for the large wigs in Musc. No,” she corrected herself. “Big wigs.”
“Scientific summaries, then. Research findings.”
“They call it, if you can even stand a stone-cold translation, Responsibles’ Documentation. That grab you? ‘Documentation’ with a ‘k’. Responsibles means elected government politicos, basically. Aa!” Yoz then uttered a few curses in, and about, her own language.
Tom nodded uncertainly. “I see. It’s like journalism—science writing.”
“Yo-ho. Even semisecret ops like the iceworm have to be dokumentya, written-up in grade school terms. The dignified suit-guys in the Duma don’t want to be caught flat-footed when the next weekly scandal breaks out.”
“Do you plan on interviewing us, Yoz?” asked Bud.
“Maybe. Do something important and I will.”
Tom smiled. “We’ll try.”
“And I get to decide if it’s important.”
“Happy deciding, ma’am.”
“Don’t call me ma’am.”
As the boys walked with the other Shoptonians back to the ship, Bud muttered quietly: “Man! We’re a long way from ‘Natasha’ these days in good ol’ Russia! She looks more like somebody you’d run into on the street in S’Fran asking for a handout.”
“If you did run into her,” responded Tom, “you’d have to check over your upper body for puncture wounds!”
After their jetlagged night, Tom and Bud met early with Commissar Maznyrkov. “Ah, this woman, this Yoz—very much a character of sorts. The new Russia! We are to exercise what you call ‘public relations’ at all times. Funding, funding—always money nowadays.”
Tom was surprised, somewhat irritated, by the continued small talk. Was there not a crisis at hand? “Sir, we need to get started in the icecraft. What have you heard from your crew?”
“Of course—my tray of brave ice cubes! I spoke to them within the hour, and they are well. A few more days, then it will be different.”
Bud asked how the base was able to communicate with the disabled vehicle, far away and deep in the ice. “It is—my scientific terms are not too good—a kind of sonar and radio acting together as one. The complex harmonics penetrate the ice, pass along inside it, and follow the curve over the horizon. Tom understands. Perhaps he will have a clearer explanation.”
“The main thing is, they’ve put together a transceiver that we can connect directly to the icecraft’s system,” said Tom crisply to Bud. “And I’ll give you, sir, one of my parallelophone units, the quantum link we call Private Ear Radios. We’ll be in touch at all times.”
“What, no suspense?” Maznyrkov laughed. “You are making it harder for our friend Yoz to write a report that anyone will wish to read.”
“We’ll board the icecraft now, Commissar,” came back the terse response.
The Enterprises rescue vehicle had been set up near the Sky Queen at the very edge of the hidden coastline, nose angled down and touching the ice. As Maznyrkov left the two, a PER unit in his hand, the messily cobbled-together ice sheet communicator in Tom Swift’s, another figure approached, looming a very low-to-the-ground loom. “So the bag of wind told you about his way pleasant breakfast chat with the icemen, hunh?” said Bvenantioz Fazgueue with a dismissive toss of head. I’m surprised she doesn’t clank! thought Bud.
Tom nodded, but was puzzled at the question. “He said they reported that all was well.”
“Sure. Macho pride lives!—in Rossiya, new or used. Believe me when I tellya, having to call in little Yankee-boy genius to, like, pull out the fat set the Vodka running.”
“I’ll bet!” Bud grinned.
“Yoz, are you saying the Commissar’s report wasn’t true?” asked Tom.
She smiled. “Oooh, like, what is truth?—as somebody once said. The boys aren’t dead down there. They’re still singing patriotic Russian songs on command. But my sources tell me air’s getting stale and the crew is feeling desperate. The Komzra—like, Commissar—got a tongue whipping from the crew captain, I’m told.”
“We’ll contact the crew as soon as we get under way,” Tom declared brusquely. “If we can manage to get under way!”
“Oh, don’t let me hold you up,” said Yoz sweetly. “I mean I’m just, like, a girl.”
Bud thought: Yeah, a girl who’s been around a little too long!
With many a glance exchanged, the Shopton youths entered the icecraft and slid the hatch panel shut, its edges fitting so closely into the hull that the hairline crack was invisible to the eye. Tom plugged the glacier-sonarphone into its assigned port in the communications control panel. In less than a minute they were blazing a quantum trail down into the Barents ice sheet, a trail unseen ahead, never seen again behind.
“Yoz is what my Dad would call a real kook,” Bud commented with a chuckle, “but maybe you should make contact with the worm, Skipper.”
Eyeing its wobbly circuitry with wary disapproval, Tom activated the Russian communicator and accessed the stranded iceworm immediately. The microphone was passed over to the one crewman who was fluent in English, whose name was given as Ekkin Dravchevsky.
“You ask how we are, Mr. Swift, do you? I will tell you what I told Maznyrkov an hour ago. How we are is, we are dying!”
THE FORCES THAT CRUSH
TOM GAVE his copilot a furious look, eloquent with: We’ve been lied too!
“Tell us the situation, Major. It seems we’ve been working from... inaccurate assumptions.”
“I have told the old fools of this for days now,” Drachevsky spat out, “days! Something is failing in the power system, the—what do you call them in English?—the thing that changes our atomic process to usable electric current. Do you see? The reactor, yes, still very much alive. But the power output declines and wavers. We cannot purify and recirculate the air. The heating, we have little now. Oneksi Grannsin, here next to me—he is very ill. I regret to say, he may die within this hour!”
“Jetz!” choked Bud. “Tom, will we have time to make several trips make and forth with the crewmen?”
The young inventor shook his head without speaking. He said into the Russian unit, “There are six of you, Major, and our rescue vehicle has only a very small pilot compartment. We had planned on making three trips, taking two of your men each time. The whole evacuation was to take more than a day, even if all went as smoothly as possible.” Tom hesitated, trying to envision other approaches. “Instead of taking you back to your base each trip, we could just carry you up to the surface two at a time, to be picked up by helicopter or our own ship. We could use a jacob’s-ladder arrangement to bring you up without landing on the ice, which might cause fracturing.”
“Ah, you think so? Did not Maznyrkov manage to even provide you with a weather report? Up there now is ‘white out’ condition! No aircraft possible.”
“It wouldn’t bother the Sky Queen.”
“If you are asking what the result shall be, Tom Swift, I don’t know.”
Tom continued, “Do you think you can hold out? We’re a few hours away.”
“I say, I don’t know!” snapped Major Dravchevsky. “The deterioration of all technical systems goes fast, faster. In hours we may have frozen to death, in darkness!”
The panic and fear in the man’s voice hung heavily in the cabin of the icecraft. Bud snatched the communicator from Tom’s hand, his muscular arm nudging against its tangle of protruding wires and components. “Major, listen up! I don’t know you, but I do know Tom Swift. You guys don’t have a thing to be afraid of down there! He’s never met a problem he couldn’t send to bed by nine sharp!”
The bark had its bite. The Russian replied: “Young man, I do not understand what you have said, but your belief—is heating us nicely. Do what you can, my friends. As for us, we will wait here, eh?”
After clicking off the device, Tom murmured:
“Thanks, flyboy. I sure hope you’re right.”
“Pal, if I’m not—please don’t tell me.”
As the tiny craft hastened forward through the depths of the ice, Tom pulled out his notebook and began to “think on paper.” After several minutes he said, “I just don’t see how we’d be able to cram six men in here with us.”
“I’ll suck in my gut,” Bud gibed.
Tom smiled. “I’m just glad Chow isn’t copiloting.” At last he told Bud that he had decided to PER Slim and have the Flying Lab pick the men up from the surface without making a landing.
Hours passed, dismally. The reports from the Azov-441 were resigned and increasingly funereal. “We are drinking up our store of Vodka now,” reported Dravchevsky. “It is a nice game. We sing songs. But always it is darker and colder.”
“We’re less than an hour away now, Ekkin,” Tom declared. “And the Sky Queen is already overhead and circling your position.” As he broke contact, the youth looked at his copilot in self-angry frustration. “If only I’d brought one of the baby aircraft along on the Queen! But it wasn’t until the last minute that I decided not to freight the icecraft inside the hangar-hold.”
“No one expected the xenocule to start bustin’ out all over, Tom.”
But at last the instruments reported that the Russian iceworm was dead ahead! In minutes the jet-black contours of its hull filled the Eye-Spy scanner’s monitor screen, which was able to “read” the buried object even in the absence of natural light. With an adjustment Tom and Bud could see not only the exterior of the craft, but the desperate crewmen inside.
“We are ready for you, very much, my friend,” said Ekkin. “But the sick one, Oneksi—he is very bad now. I—I don’t know.”
“He’ll be in the Queen’s sickbay in fifteen minutes,” Tom promised. “Tell him that.”
The icecraft now gently edged up to the iceworm, its incismitters deftly sculpting a small open space between the two hulls. Tom extended a special sealer flange that encircled the hatch of the Enterprises craft. It slid into place around the Azov’s corresponding hatch, creating a firm connection, a handshake of machines. The two hatches were opened, and Tom and one of the iceworm crewmen carried Oneksi Grannsin, barely conscious, across to the rescue craft. “Take him up first, by himself,” Major Dravchevsky called across. “He should lie flat. As for us, we can wait a few minutes. It will allow us to sober up!” he added jokingly.
“Listen,” Bud murmured to Tom, “I’ll wait inside the Azov while you head up. It’ll give the poor guy as much room as possible.”
“Okay, flyboy. Thanks.”
To prevent any melting of the ice sheet, and to make the angle of Tom’s ascent gentler, the Flying Lab was jet-hovering a mile distant, the cable chair dangling down beneath her. Tom surfaced nearby, finding that the white-out condition—if there ever had been one—had cleared out.
One of the skyship’s crewmen, Sam Barker, helped him strap Grannsin in place. As they watched the cable being reeled in, Sam asked Tom about conditions below. “I didn’t want to say it aloud in front of the Azov men, but I’m worried,” Tom replied soberly. “There’ve been changes in the ice sheet readings over the last hour. The pressure differentials are increasing rapidly, and the forces with them.”
“Making it worse for the iceworm?”
“If the change accelerates, the Azov could be crushed before we get the last man out!”
Tom did not wait to see Grannsin pulled safely aboard the skyship. He reentered the rescue craft and immediately set off on the return leg at top speed.
The young inventor activated the ice-sonarphone device. “Azov, have the next two ready. I’m on the way.”
There was no reply, and Tom tried again—and again! His eyes scanned the communicator dials, marked in Cyrillic letters.
Power on, he thought. Channel unchanged.
But now there was only silence from the stricken iceworm!
“Dravchevsky! Bud! Come in!” Nothing!
Yet the monitor presently showed the Azov ahead, in place, unchanged. Somewhat relieved, still puzzled, Tom nudged into position and again extended the connector. He noted with grim concern that the space he had made earlier had drawn closer in a matter of minutes!
The first face and voice at the hatchway belonged to Bud Barclay. “That was quick, Skipper! So who goes next?”
“I’ve been trying to contact you,” Tom stated. “Couldn’t you hear me?”
“Not a sonic peep.”
“Our own equipment is fine,” put in Ekkin Dravchevsky. “I was just speaking to the station.”
Tom nodded. “Then... some problem with our own unit. It was assembled hastily, I know. Anyway, let’s go on. I want to get this over with.” He tried to keep the edge of fear from his voice, but Bud gave his pal the sort of look that said he hadn’t been entirely successful.
The evacuation proceeded smoothly and efficiently from that point forward, while Tom kept a nervous eye on the pressure readings from the ice. As the final crew members were scrambling into the icecraft, they were all startled by a thunderous creaking sound. The Azov’s deck tilted slightly.
“J-just the glacier wishing us bon voyage,” Bud quipped hollowly.
Tom was unsmiling. “Let’s get out of here.”
Major Dravchevsky grinned. “We shall leave behind the rest of the Vodka, to have it nicely chilled.”
Upon his exit Tom did his best to shut down the reactor system and isolate it, to lessen the danger of a disastrous breach. But he knew the Russians would need to recover the Azov as soon as possible, a task beyond the capabilities of the tiny Enterprises icecraft.
Finally, having shifted position some eight miles further, the Sky Queen lowered itself to a cautious touchdown and the icecraft was hauled aboard onto the hanger deck.
A Russian physician and her assistant had traveled from the base in the ship. As they examined the iceworm crew in the Queen’s sickbay, reporting that the stricken crewman would recover with an administration of powerful antibiotics, Tom and Bud tried to unwind in the top deck view lounge.
“Weren’t we up here just last week talking to Quimby Narz?” chuckled Bud. “Lots has happened since then.”
Tom gazed musingly out the floor-to-ceiling windows. “Lots. But no real answers. How is the xenocule spreading? Can we stop it?”
“Yeah, genius boy. What we need is an inoculation. But how do you give a shot to a semiconductor?”
“And then there’s the Bellarmin boys. Nothing happened to you out in the woods, pal. But it seems so― ” Suddenly Tom’s expression changed! “Wait a sec...”
“What is it?”
“I just realized—something I’d overlooked that just might give us a lead!”
“NOW you’re talking!” Bud cheered. “What is it?”
“I won’t say it’s the most solid clue in the world,” Tom responded with a slight shrug. “Remember what we found the other day on the Net? Frederick Bellarmin—chemical engineering and industrial applications. His son Andrew― ”
“Also engineering and industrial stuff, right?”
“Right. And what just occurred to me is that there’s a third link in that chain. Miss Yoz has a degree in geochemistry and ‘industrial metallurgy,’ and she doesn’t ‘do research’. So,” he went on excitedly, “just what does she do? There must be a whole army of these ‘documentation journalists.’ How does her kind of background get someone appointed to report on the iceworm project? I can think of any number of specializations that would be more useful.”
Bud’s brow wrinkled. “It may be a little odd, I guess. But just how is that a lead?”
“Maybe it won’t turn out to be anything,” answered Tom, “but what gets me is this. Right now we have a crisis involving a ‘mutant’ product of industrial manufacturing, the xenocule. And one specific part of that crisis has shown up here, in connection with the iceworm. And at the same time, you’re getting stalked by some guys with a background in industrial science and engineering, and here in Russia we run into an oddball lady with a similar background! Couldn’t there be some sort of connection?”
“I—er—guess there could, pal.”
Tom looked sheepish. “Not too impressive, is it.”
“Come on, genius boy. I’m always impressed!”
However mixed the reception, Tom quickly decided to pursue his ideas, calling Shopton and asking Enterprises security to look further into the background of the Bellarmin family.
Minutes later the great ship landed at what Bud had started calling Santa’s Workshop, the iceworm base. The boys smilingly endured the cheers and backpats from the mission scientists and administrators, and each received boxes of cigars, conferred upon them ceremoniously, as if they were Federation medals, by Commissar Maznyrkov. Tom politely avoided noting that neither smoked, nor were likely to take it up.
“A glorious service to Russia and her science heroes, my lads!” exulted the official. “And most timely, for I have been told—that is—it appears my earlier contacts with the crew did not entirely reflect the gravity of the― ”
“What matters now, sir, is that the men are safe,” Tom interrupted coolly. “With the crew out of danger, I suppose you’ll be able to proceed with excavating and retrieving the Azov. It’s my estimate that the vehicle won’t last much longer. The spread of nuclear material is still a very serious matter.”
“Yes, yes, nuclear pollution—not so good for the fishes.” The man paused. “In fact, yes, it is all rather serious. You say time is short. It occurs to me, Tom, that with your machine― ”
“Might we not easily revisit the Azov-441? Perhaps to carry back to base the reactor fuel and wastes, like vacation luggage, in special containers?”
Tom nodded. “Yes, that’s a plan, sir. But I thought you were concerned about recovering the entire iceworm craft before it’s crushed. Or did I misunderstand?”
“No, no, of course not!” Maznyrkov laughed heartily. “How wonderful to have it all back, in good shape, with its store of samples from down beneath. Yet you say your own vehicle can not accomplish it.”
“Enterprises has special tunneling equipment which― ”
The administrator’s joviality suddenly seemed forced. “There is no time. You have said this yourself, my lad.”
“That’s true,” Tom conceded. “Very well. Bud’s exhausted, but if you’ll lend me someone familiar with the reactor setup― ”
“Excuse me over there, but Bud hasn’t just spent days checking out silicon components!” cautioned a nearby voice.
Maznyrkov found his inner chuckle. “Both of you are worn frazzled, I’d say. Please allow Russia to offer the comforts of rest and good health—something of a little sortie. You can even make it a business expense, for it will have scientific significance!”
“Mr. Maznyrkov,” said Tom, “I don’t follow you. The pressure buildup is already endangering the Azov. I took measures to isolate the reactor materials in the case of a hull breach, but if you want to use the icecraft to ferry the materials back to base, we don’t really have the luxury of a vacation.”
A frown snapped into place, then fled. “The surface weather has deteriorated. I will not permit further unnecessary risk. And indeed, there is no choice but to endure a brief hiatus. We do not have the necessary shielded containers available here on our tiny Ostrovskiya Lakrimon.” The revelation left Tom amazed and puzzled—why, then, had the man brought up the option in the first place? What gives with this guy? thought Tom.
Maznyrkov plunged ahead. “So, now, do accept Russia’s hospitality. One wishes to preserve good diplomatic relations, I trust?” He winked.
“What did you have in mind, sir?”
“Merely a visit by you and your friend to Iskrya, the first from your country to be so privileged!”
The young inventor gulped—but his deep-set blue eyes were shining with excitement. Iskrya!—the Russian Federation’s fantastic stratosphere station!
It had meandered through the world’s news for years, striking sparks in the journals of engineering and science. Yet the Russians had been cautious, almost stingy, in the reports they had provided. The world knew that after many failures, and perhaps some unreported catastrophes and fatalities, the great republic had succeeded in creating a huge artificial platform, a flying science-city, suspended high in the upper air. It was known by the public to have scientific and military uses; it was assumed that additional frank disclosures and reassurances had been made behind closed doors to the world’s governments. But though it had been officially inaugurated to much fanfare months before, few from the West, and no Americans, had been invited to visit.
Tom nodded and said a little breathlessly:
“It’s your decision, Commissar. Bud and I would be very honored—thrilled!—to take you up on your invitation.”
“I’ll say!” came the nearby voice. “Who needs sleep, anyway?”
“Not me!” declared Maznyrkov. “What is sleep but a mere nothingness of the mind?”
Tom said, “I’ll tell the Sky Queen’s crew that we’ll be taking off soon.”
The man shook his head slightly and spoke in a quiet, confiding tone. “Ah, well, perhaps it would be best not to do things that way. I could not get permission for all you Americans, not this time. Surely it would be less awkward to allow our own aircraft to transport you. To lessen hurt feelings. Don’t you think?—then it is settled. We shall leave in an hour. Your stay will be overnight.
“As for the icecraft of yours, no doubt you will wish to have it refurbished and checked out during your little holiday, to make it safe and ready for its further service. For we must be efficient in our use of time, you know.”
“I’ll have it unloaded from the hangar-hold right away, sir. It’ll be easier to go over the exterior out in the open.”
“Mm. Good.” Maznyrkov turned abruptly and strode off, leaving Tom and Bud excited yet puzzled.
As they walked back to the skyship, Tom said quietly to his pal, “There she is, behind the snowcat, watching and listening.”
Bud snorted. “I can’t see the summit, but I can sure see the slope.”
Bvenantioz Fazgueue knew she had been detected and slipped forward into the liquid sunlight with a strange, languid delicacy. “So. Today’s men-of-the-hour get the tour of Russia’s bragging-rights-of-the-year.”
“You’re a dedicated reporter, Yoz,” stated Tom dryly.
“My ear cuffs are wired. Your chumniki the Komzra is a nice fuzzy bear. As to the reason? Ummmmm—dial tone. No one on the line.”
“And what do you think?” asked the young inventor.
“Oh, pretty much nothin’. It’s what Maznyrkov is thinking that’s, you knowwww, like, ‘that is the question’.”
“Sounds like we’ve got a little distrust going on here at Santa’s Workshop,” Bud remarked darkly.
“Of Russia’s finest? Naa. You boys have fun way way up there above the weather.” As they turned away, she suddenly added: “Oh, the weather. That reminds me. I hear the weather over the Barents ice sheet is way too rough to risk bringing up the tub right now. Inside the big ship, you might want to tune in a weather report. I recommend the BBC.”
The Shoptonians knew Yoz’s cryptic recommendation rang with her usual resonances of double meaning. Aboard the Queen Tom tuned in to a satellite downlink of realtime weather data. “Maznyrkov’s lying again,” he told Bud. “Conditions in the area of the iceworm are placid from horizon to horizon, with nothing on the way. That ‘white out’ is gone, too—if it was ever there in the first place!”
“He got his men back,” declared Bud. “But he didn’t exactly light a fire under us to get there. He says he wants the Azov back, but not enough to go to any trouble to get it before it gets turned into a squeezed lemon.”
Tom nodded. “He wants the nuke fuel back too. It’s bad for fishes! But no haste, no worry. A day or two, no problem. Oh, and we have to be efficient.”
“Oh well,” shrugged Tom’s best chumniki, “at least he’s a jolly old soul. Kind of a Russian Chow Winkler.”
“With a dark side,” added Tom pointedly. “And a load of secrets.”
Tom had an hour to consider the matter before he and Bud were whisked away aboard a military jet. They headed almost due south by Tom’s reckoning. “Where are we?” he asked one of the pilots presently.
The man’s smattering of English was a fairly small smattering. “South is where.”
They crossed the coast. A large city soon loomed on the horizon before them. “Archangel’sk,” said the pilot.
“Archangel,” Tom repeated to Bud. “Russia’s big northern port.”
Bud nodded, remarking. “Bet a lot of herring—and a lot of oil—go through there.”
“And Iskrya is nearby,” agreed the young inventor. “Not necessarily to keep an eye on the herring, either.”
They had wondered if the jet would land them directly upon the Iskrya platform. Instead it descended smoothly to a large, new airport, ringed like a coral reef by modern buildings out in the middle of nowhere. “Here now,” announced the pilot. “From here they take you up.”
Bud, an expert pilot, smiled and shook hands with their pilot and tour narrator. “Thanks a lot.”
The man also smiled in a friendly way. “Yes, me also too, up your tailpipe, buddy.”
“Must be a Russian idiom,” Tom hastily commented to his pal’s pensive look as they walked away. “Friendly guy.”
They were met by a very young toothy man in military uniform, who spoke perfect English. “I trust the flight was comfortable?”
“Absolutely,” nodded Tom. “Are aircraft not allowed to land on the platform? I thought there was a special landing and takeoff facility.”
“Oh there is,” replied the young man, Lev. “But it’s still rather experimental, and your two pilots are not among those who were trained in its use. One cannot land on the upper deck of Iskrya—its ‘ground,’ so to say—because the great buoyancy envelope is sealed to it along all sides. One would enter through portals and land within the structure. It’s a nice parking garage for jets.”
“Is that how we’re going up?” Bud asked.
“No, Master Barclay. We will go up by the magnetomotive lift. You’ll both find it exciting.”
Bud grinned. “They say I’m easily excited!”
Meanwhile Tom was leaning far back, shading his eyes as he tried to penetrate the sky. “Isn’t the station directly overhead? I can’t see it.”
Lev pointed and the young inventor finally made out a small dark speck among the clouds and glare. “She is indeed in the stratosphere, a height of forty-seven kilometers. Our flying island! Do you two know much about our Iskrya?”
“I just know it’s big,” shrugged Bud.
“Oh, very much so. The platform is square, one kilometer to the side, and the balloon envelope extends upward to nearly two kilometers. She is the largest occupied structure on this planet, friends.”
“Jetz!” But Bud quickly added: “Of course, Swift Enterprises in Shopton is four miles square. Not four square miles, Lev—four miles square.”
“But much shorter,” Tom laughed.
They boarded a compact tram and were driven to the anchor point of a sort of braided cable, as thick in cross-section as Tom’s waist. It curved upward toward the sky in a great slack arc, finally vanishing in the distance. “Don’t dare call it an elevator cable around here,” Lev joked. “The technical name, in English, is ‘magnetance lift column.’ In my language the word translated as column actually refers to the cords of arm muscles, like those you have in such abundance, Bud.
“There are four such lines, one for each corner of the platform. This one is specifically designed for passenger use; the others are for equipment and other freight.”
Tom nodded and remarked, “I don’t see the other three lines.”
“No, for the anchoring points are spread apart by several miles. As you see, there is no attempt to make the columns perfectly vertical—they are permitted to drape and curve naturally, which was found to help the stability of the platform. The trip up starts off almost horizontally, but then smoothly curves toward the vertical.”
A pressurized glass-walled cabin encircled the cable like a doughnut. The three entered, Lev nodding to the man in military uniform who was guarding the elaborate anchoring base, a cluster of machinery atop a concrete slab.
“So what pulls it up, Lev?” asked Bud. “Something about magnetism, I guess.”
“I know the answer to that one,” Tom interjected. “It works on an electromagnetic induction principle, kind of a vertical maglev train, and the power is supplied by a masered microwave beam that runs along inside the flexible cable-tube.”
“Absolutely correct,” declared Lev, clearly very proud of his country’s accomplishment.
“Okay, Lev buddy, you got Tom to answer that one for ya,” Bud said with a smile, “but I have another. What does it mean when a Russian says to somebody ‘up your tailpipe’? Hmmm? Our friendly jet pilot said it to me. Just curious.”
Tom groaned inwardly, but their guide only shrugged. “I’m afraid I don’t know anything about aeronautics.”
The access panel was closed and pressurized, and they found themselves in silent motion almost before they realized. The cab deck remained level to the ground, but they could see the lift-line overhead stretching forward at a moderate slant. In seconds they were far from the ground, constantly accelerating.
“About how long does the trip take?” inquired Tom.
“All in all, about eighteen minutes,” replied Lev. “The first half is a gentle acceleration, the second half the reverse. At the midpoint we shall be going quite fast indeed.”
“In the U.S. the newspapers― ”
Tom’s voice trailed off as a slight shock passed through the cabin. A shrill beeper began to sound.
“That’s got to be a danger alarm!” gulped Bud.
Lev, white of face, could barely whisper a reply. “It—it means—separation! The anchor below has pulled loose from the ground! Tchkaida! The line is swinging free!”
THE DECK of the lift cabin had tilted noticeably as the tube above began to shift from semi-horizontal to way too vertical! “In—in a moment—compensation mechanisms—uh― ”
Lev’s throat had gone dry. Tom placed a calming hand on the youth’s shoulder, hoping his own trembling was out of sight. “Please tell us what’s happened. The line has separated from its mooring?”
“Y-yes. Tchkaida! The readings say that the bottom end is dangling, just dragging across the ground.”
“We’re still moving, though,” Bud pointed out. “We’re climbing up the lift-line.”
Lev wiped his brow. “True, true. The power beam comes from up above, from the station. A break at the lower end makes no difference.”
“Then it seems we can continue up to Iskrya safely,” Tom observed.
Lev stared at the young inventor. “Safely? Well now. We shall continue, but look, the column is subject to swinging like a clock pendulum. There are powerful winds in the upper atmosphere, I’m told.”
“We’ve heard,” Bud declared wryly.
Tom was nodding. “And also—if oscillation gets started along the line, harmonic reinforcement could get out of hand.”
“Uh-huh, uh-huh. There are mechanisms within the column which they call ‘dampers,’ but I don’t know that they’re powerful enough for this sort of thing.”
A small cabin speaker, formerly uttering Russian-style elevator music, was now erupting in panicked speech. Lev answered and a Russian conversation ensured.
He turned to Tom and Bud. “The technicians upstairs are trying to make adjustments. We will accelerate faster than is comfortable.” The three could already feel the extra burden of weight caused by their acceleration.
Hearts thudding with suspense, they watched the far horizon darken and curve, seeing for a time the disorienting optical illusion that the spread of ground far below had become cup-shaped. Only the passing of the cable-column through the doughnut-hole in the center of the capsule showed the great speed with which they traveled; otherwise they might have been standing still.
Finally, through skylights, they could see the shadowed square that was the underside of the huge stratosphere station. It filled the sky like a stormcloud as they drew closer to one corner, decelerating constantly, dizzyingly.
The cabin nuzzled to a stop with a jolt that almost toppled them off their feet. “W-welcome to Iskrya, my dear friends,” Lev gasped.
“Say there, Lev,” commented Bud with a slight wink, “I’m trying to improve my Russian. What does that word mean—tchkaida?”
“That word? Why, it means ‘oh my goodness.’ To say it approximately.”
“Thanks for the approximation.”
The hatch of the cabin was smoothly docked into a waiting airlock, and in moments the three were engulfed by Russian arm-wavers of all sizes and shapes. One man—identified as an engineer by his never-out-of-style outfit—came rushing up, blurting:
“Tom Swift! Bud! My word, what a terrible introduction to Iskrya! I thank Heaven that you are safe!”
“Do you know what happened below?” Tom asked.
“In other words,” interjected Bud, “was it deliberate? Sabotage?”
“It appears so, I am ashamed to say,” the man replied. “It was all a matter of minutes. Security cameras show that the mooring guard, Feodor Raschkin, detonated some kind of explosive device and fled. A military vehicle awaited him, the kind with heavy armor, and he and his helpers smashed through the perimeter and took to the roadway at high speed.”
Tom nodded. “I see. Has there been speculation as to a motive, Mr.—?”
The man snapped off a slight bow. “I am your assigned guide here on Iskrya, Petar Ullamig. I am to make you comfortable. So now—are you comfortable?” He raised his bushy eyebrows with humorous irony. “As to your question, though: no one has claimed responsibility. No note left behind. Yet still, it is all too soon. There have been threats...”
“Yes, yes, foolishness. Paranoia! Environmental fanatics, you see. They believe we are trying to create factories and military bases high in the sky, to spread pollution or some such thing. The ozone, radiation—that we are nuclear powered only raises their paranoia to greater heights—one might say.”
“Okay, but, no offense—do you have some kind of manufacturing purpose?” Bud inquired. “Our Swift Enterprises space station—the space outpost—is a factory as well as a research center.”
Ullamig shook his head impatiently. “Not a bit. We are strictly a science city, an international research institution that might be moved from place to place. We study the upper atmosphere and weather phenomena, and also matters of cosmic space, such as radiation and solar emissions. For world communications and safety in space exploration, we must begin to predict in detail the sun’s great outbursts.”
“My father has been working on that goal,” remarked Tom. He then added pointedly, “You conduct quite a range of studies here, don’t you? I’ve read that Iskrya has military significance for your nation.”
There was a frowning pause. “The West surrounds my country with radar and missiles, and fills the starry space above our heads with probing eyes. Do you deny us the right to establish a vantage point, floating calmly and peacefully? There are no weapons here, sir.”
“I’m sorry if I’ve offended you, Mr. Ullamig,” was the quick response. “I was only repeating what I’ve read, even in news releases by your own government.
“Yes, well, that is true. No matter. Now—permit me to guide you to your overnight quarters, very comfortable indeed. Then we shall plan the rest of this day.”
They were led through well-lit halls to a private suite as luxurious as that in a five-star hotel. Mr. Ullamig showed it off like a proud concierge. “The beds have a vibrative massage apparatus, the bathtub connects to an in-suite jacuzzi, the temperature and humidity may be varied by a touch, and you see on the far wall a television screen of the most advanced kind. We offer a fine choice of recorded programming as well as, naturally, what is broadcast. At this altitude the reception is superb. You may select translative subtitles from the visual menu. As honored guests we will waive the extra charge for certain special programming, should you desire it. And to switch the lights on and off—clap your hands.”
Tom suppressed his amusement and asked, “What is your itinerary for us, sir? I don’t think Bud and I will spend too much time during our visit on TV and the jacuzzi.”
The man smiled. “No, surely not. Let me suggest a couple hours to relax and enjoy, then we shall proceed to the midday meal, and then today’s tour. More tomorrow.” As he began to leave, he added: “As a standard safety measure—we are a pressurized environment, of course—these doors in the guests’ section are self-sealing. But if you wish room service or anything at all, merely lift the telephone and press the red button. There is no significance to the red color.”
As Ullamig closed the faux-oaken door behind him, Bud grinned. “Gotta admit, I feel very safe.” Glancing about with joking suspicion at the walls and ceiling, he appended some conspiratorial thoughts via American Sign Language:
“What do you think is happening back at Santa’s Workshop?”
Tom signed back: “Nothing yet. They’ll wait for late night.”
“I think our relaxation will be snafued by an early morning wakeup call.”
“I’m afraid so!”
Lunch was tasty and exotic, on tablecloths of white linen. The restaurant—evidently for honored guests only and otherwise cavernously deserted—had a huge picture window that showed an indigo sky that never lost its stars, with hazy high clouds and ground spreading far and below, embraced by the visible arch of the horizon.
Ullamig pointed out various sights. “Our great stratosphere station is well-named. It is all for seeing, for gazing. This name, Iskrya, comes from a bit of our Russian folklore—the witch who can see anything, anywhere, by looking into a block of ice. The word is related to a verb you may know, to scry, what crystal gazers do. I’m told the root word is Greek.”
“You know,” Tom said, “I hope we’ll have a chance to meet some of your permanent personnel, the engineers and scientists. I’d imagine some of them speak English.”
Their host smiled politely but didn’t respond for a moment—and then evasively. “English is more and more taught in Russia.” It seemed he was unenthused at his guest’s desire to schmooze with the workforce.
After lunch the Americans saw many things; though it seemed to Tom Swift that a great deal was also kept under wraps. They elevatored to the upper deck of the platform and stepped out into a domelike lounge under the blinding-bright sunlight of an otherwise dark sky.
Bud leaned far back and gazed upward, shading his eyes. “If that’s the skin of the balloon up there, you can hardly see it.”
“Yes,” nodded Ullamig, “for it is quite transparent and nonreflective, despite its multiple layers and enormous tensile strength. Within it you cannot breathe, though.”
“Just like Los Angeles!” joked the San Franciscan. “Isn’t the bag full of gas—helium or something?”
“It’s basically a mountain-sized hot air balloon, flyboy,” Tom explained. “I think the idea came from Buckminster Fuller. Balloons work because whatever fills them weighs less than the atmospheric air it displaces, and warmer air takes up more space per unit volume than cooler air, so the overall weight is less.”
“I understand that,” retorted the Californian. “You educated me before, chum, when we went up in that repelatron-bubble balloon, the XAIP. But if this is a hot-air balloon—you’re lifting up something bigger than an enclosed shopping mall plus parking lot, and it doesn’t feel especially warm up here.”
“Ah, but it does not need to be,” Ullamig said. “As a pilot you surely know that the stratosphere is very cold. It is the difference in temperature that counts.”
“Uh-huh. But I also know that up here there’s not a whole lot of air to elbow aside in the first place,” countered Bud.
“Pal, I’ll tell you the big Russian secret,” Tom chuckled. “It’s the scale-up factor—pure geometry. The bigger the volume of the balloon, the more efficient the lifting force. Iskrya’s balloon bag encloses such a huge space that even a fairly unnoticeable degree of warmth is enough to keep the whole thing aloft.”
“A fine exposition, Tom,” complimented Ullamig. “It was the development of the wonderful plastic that was crucial.”
Studiously not looking the man’s way, Tom remarked blandly, “They say it has properties somewhat like our own Tomasite plastic.”
“Oh, do they? Well—I am not a plastician.”
They went below into the five-storied platform structure, touring the aircraft hangar, then the research section. “Here,” announced Mr. Ullamig at one stop, “we have our astronomy complex. See there. Admittedly, not the megascope space prober of Tom Swift Enterprises; but a sophisticated optical instrument with laser distortion-nullification enhancement. And over there, our multiphase radar telescope assembly.”
“I’d say Iskrya is always keeping up her crystal gazing,” smiled Tom. Hearing one of the attending technicians speaking English to an associate, Tom impulsively wandered over to her and said:
“Hello, I’m Tom Swift.”
“Oh of course,” she responded with a bright smile. “So young! We in Russia follow your every move. Those old books have been reprinted in our language. And now, today it is all downloadable.”
“So they tell me.” The young inventor nodded, then pointed at a familiar symbol stamped on a piece of computer equipment. “NykronCyber.” Glancing about, he added: “In fact, I see it all over the lab. I’m honored that you use an American manufacturing firm in so much that you do here.”
“We’ve found it to be well-made. He is your fellow American genius, Mr. Swift—though he has not yet been to Mars.”
“I’m sure he’ll wind up there eventually.” Tom’s expression changed subtly as an idea homed in on him. “Were you able to meet Loot Luxor when he visited here, ma’am?”
She nodded. “Yes, me especially, for I am in charge of computation technology for this laboratory. I spoke to both of them, Mr. Luxor and his lovely wife. I did not expect them to be friendly to such a commoner as myself!”
“Well, as one commoner to another—I’m very pleased to meet you.”
Tom returned to Bud and Ullamig. The latter appeared pensive. Even disapproving. “If you have questions about the research,” he said, “do not hesitate to ask me. For I am your guide.”
“Oh, I won’t, Mr. Ullamig,” was the mild reply. “Hesitate, that is.”
As they proceeded to the next lab, for atmospheric research, Tom held back slightly and told Bud, in whispers, of his brief conversation. “So it seems we are not the first Americans to visit Iskrya after all.”
“I’ve lost count of the lies,” Bud murmured. “And hey!—good old Loot Luxor.”
“Could be just an innocent technical visit.”
“Yeah. Could be. But is it ever?”
After a late dinner with a number of the station’s scientific personnel, all of whom seemed to have been carefully selected for discretion and an inability to speak English, Tom and Bud exercised for a time in the deserted gymnasium, then returned to their suite for the night.
“Guess there’s no point setting the alarm clock,” Bud yawned. He signed to Tom:
“I’m betting about six.”
“No, too casual. I say before five.”
“Loser buys burgers.”
It was four fifty-one when the telephone erupted in an attack of the bleeps. Tom was already half-awake with resigned, slightly resentful anticipation.
“Hello? This is Tom Swift.”
“An emergency call has come through for you, Mr. Swift,” said the communications officer on night duty. “It is Commissar Maznyrkov from the science base at Zemlya Frantsa-Iosifa.”
“Please put him through.” Tom looked over Budwards with a show of triumph. “What do you know? Maznyrkov!”
“At this hour?” The comment had the force of sarcasm behind it.
Maznyrkov’s voice now came on, for once devoid of all joviality. “Tom? Are you there?”
“We’re both here, sir. The operator thought there was an emergency. But surely not. Or—?”
“Oh my, my young friend, oh my! Reported to me some minutes ago, but I had to see for myself, to ask questions. Incredible! Impossible!—embarrassing!”
“Your wonderful vehicle, Tom, your icecraft! Suddenly it is missing! Gone! Stolen!”
A GIFT OF THE PAST
THE youths remained on the stratosphere station for another hour, long enough to have an early breakfast with the tired-eyed Mr. Ullamig. “Your historic visit, cut short so soon! A shame, but understandable.”
“Perhaps there will be other occasions,” munched Tom with raised eyebrows.
“In fact, it will surely be soon in coming. I have been informed that the government has approved opening Iskrya to all visitors with a scientific purpose, from any nation. I will myself send an invitation to your facility in, what is it?—Shopton. Now, scientists. Eventually, tourists.”
“Rich tourists?” inquired Bud mischievously. “It’d help pay the heating bills for the balloon bag. But probably only a Loot Luxor could afford it.”
Ullamig frowned. “The heating? My apologies, but I am not a heating technician.”
Tom asked if he and Bud would be returning to ground level to board the same jet that had ferried them the day previous. “No, no,” declared Ullamig, “for the passenger lift has not yet been secured and tested, and I will not have distinguished visitors using our freight conveyors. Instead, you will be flown out from the station’s own hangar, here above the clouds. You will find it fascinating.”
Bud shrugged slightly. “Actually, we fly out from sky-high hangars all the time. The Sky Queen, y’know.”
Tom hastened to say, “We thank you for your hospitality.”
“Till we meet again, then. May it be soon.”
The sky-high departure from Iskrya was a good deal more exciting than Bud’s shrug had intimated. A catapult-conveyor system flung their jet out into the dark stratosphere like a javelin! For long moments they arced down in a dramatic stomach-fluttering plunge. At first nearly weightless, they were suddenly reintroduced to gravity as the jet leveled out, sending their blood toward their contoured seats. “Good night, a real strato-coaster!” gasped Bud.
Their pilot made no sound. He spoke no English—it seemed. Nor did the boys speak aloud during the flight back to the arctic, though their fingers were busy with terse conversation.
As they circled the airstrip at the iceworm station, Tom remarked: “Yup—no icecraft.”
“Definitely Missing! Gone! Stolen!”
“At least everything’s okay aboard the Queen.” Tom had contacted Slim Davis immediately after Maznyrkov’s call.
The Commissar came bustling up to them as they climbed down from the jet with their overnight bags. “Tom, Bud, this is a terrible thing! A disgrace to us—my goodness, my goodness!”
“Yeah,” responded Bud dryly. “Tchkaida, huh?”
Tom noted: “My crew aboard the Flying Lab say they saw nothing.”
“Yes, our disgrace, you see,” nodded Maznyrkov; “for it was at my own instigation that we posted our base security beside your vehicle, two men whom I trusted. The next shift comes—both are gone.”
“With the icecraft.”
“Da! And no sign upon the surface, no tracks. It surely was piloted into the ice next to it, where it had been deposited for today’s re-testing of its burrowing systems prior to the return to the Azov. Was there no lock upon the controls, Tom?”
The young inventor shook his head. “No, and no lock for the hatch either, just its sealing mechanism. Frankly, I didn’t see any need for a high-security device, like one of our DNA-readers.”
“Nor would I have thought of it. How these traitorous men learned of its operation― ”
“Most of the basic command routines are selected from a computer screen, Commissar,” Tom pointed out calmly. “It wouldn’t have been very difficult to figure out how to run the icecraft, especially if they’d studied the cybertron guidance system Swift Enterprises produces and sells. It’s become widely used.”
“Say,” Bud put in, “howcome our little miss science correspondent isn’t out here to greet us? Seems Yoz would want to record our reactions for history.”
“Miss Fazgueue?” A twitch of distaste flickered across the face of Maznyrkov. “She left not long after you did yesterday. A helicopter picked her up. All as arranged—her assignment was concluded.”
“Oh really? Even before the recovery of the Azov-441 and its fuel?” Tom hoped his voice reflected skepticism.
“Do ask her about it when you see her next,” snapped the man. “And now, Tom, what do you intend to do? Of course the central authorities have been alerted: they will soon commence a search for your craft, as well as some plan to descend safely to our own. But now it will be difficult, a necessary delay.”
Bud asked Tom, “Couldn’t you track the icecraft with your sensitector?”
The youth shook his head. “Not effectively, not inside ice. Same with the aquatomic tracker. On the other hand... the LRGM...”
The Commissar adopted a frown. “What is this device? I’m not familiar with it.”
“It’s called a Long-Range Gravitoscopic Mapper. By detecting slight variations in the gravitational field it could easily pinpoint a hunk of metal under the ice sheet.”
“I see.” Maznyrkov appeared to be turning the idea over in his mind, and on his face. “Well then... I gather it is sufficiently long-range to survey the region from the air? For there is obviously many, many square versts, miles, to be covered in the search.”
“True,” Tom agreed. “It might be just as efficient to permit your government people to pursue the matter. If there’s a conspiracy involved, they may get a few people talking.”
The Commissar smiled. “A Russian specialty, even in the New Russia.”
The youths excused themselves and retired to the Sky Queen and privacy. Slim Davis greeted them with:
“What a nightmare! I should’ve argued with the guy when he insisted on posting his own security guards.”
Yet Tom Swift was all smiles. “I’m glad you didn’t, actually. It would have discouraged them.”
“The icecraft joyriders.”
“Wh-what? You mean you wanted this to happen?” Slim was amazed.
Bud broke out laughing. “You gotta have some faith in the Skipper, chum. We knew what was coming down the pipe—Tom had it all figured out before we took off yesterday!”
The veteran pilot backed away from the two jokingly, as if faced by supernatural powers! “I can’t believe this! Was the whole thing planned?—a hoax?”
Now Tom laughed as well. “Come on, I’m too sincere to pull off a hoax! We weren’t involved in doing it, Slim, but we were pretty sure it would happen.”
Bud continued: “Tom thought it over, and it was the only way to make sense of ol’ Mazz’s weird reactions.
“Think about it, Slim. He put some polar fire under Tom to have the icecraft checked out and made ready to go—which got it out of the hangar-hold—then insisted on getting us out of the way overnight so his cronies could arrange to steal it.” He turned to his pal. “And by the way, I don’t buy the notion that Yoz finished her job and hung it up. The chopper could have set her down somewhere to meet the icecraft. That strange lady has to be involved in this up to her nose ring!—both of ’em. And the spike.”
Tom directed Slim to ready the Sky Queen for takeoff within the hour, then climbed to the top deck with Bud to stow their bags. “I guess I agree with you that Yoz is mighty peculiar. And she does have that industrial background that seems to tie her in with Bellarmin and the xenocule problem. Then again...
“I wonder if two groups are involved, perhaps separately. They may even be rivals! The base security guards here are all from the Russian military, as was the guard at the cable mooring who blew it up. Nowadays the central government doesn’t have a patent on that kind of thing.”
“And Yoz sure doesn’t come across as a soldier.”
“No. But as to Commissar Maznyrkov, he clearly has more government and military connections than he discusses openly—despite his big smile and jolly Russian laugh. They may not be entirely above board and official.” He thought for a moment. “We still have some time, flyboy. I have an urge to nose around Santa’s Workshop a little more.”
“Couldn’t hurt to establish diplomatic relations with the elves!”
Hoping to avoid being noticed by Maznyrkov, Tom and Bud spent most of an hour strolling among the buildings, greeting the personnel they had met previously and nodding politely at the many who spoke no English.
As they were about to leave and reboard the Sky Queen, a frail looking man approached them, speaking somewhat apologetically in halting English. “Hello, pardon me. We have not met, Mr. Swift, but there is something I wish to give you. It is a gift.”
Tom smiled. “I’d be honored, Mr.—?”
“Ah, my name, it is Vladimir Cjarnosk. That name, please, means nothing to you. But the name of Tom Swift means a good deal to me and to my family.”
“Wow,” chuckled Bud, “the Russian Tom Swift fan club!”
But Tom’s impulse was to be serious. “Mr. Cjarnosk, has something I’ve done affected you here in Russia?”
The man waggled a hand. “No, no, this is the wrong Tom Swift! I refer, you see, to the former one, who came to Russia so many years ago with his dirigible and his glider.”
“Oh!—my great-grandfather Tom.” The young inventor told Bud: “He came to Russia to try to rescue a man held in servitude by the Czar and his secret police. The fictionalization is called Tom Swift and His Air Glider.” Turning again to Cjarnosk, he added with a smile, “The story wasn’t too accurate, but it’s one I always enjoyed reading. I think the air glider sort’ve inspired me to design my ultrasonic cycloplane.”
The man shrugged. “As my school teacher, who used it to teach English, pointed out, the book contains many errors of typography and grammar. Nevertheless, sir, it is sacred to me; because the man rescued, Petrofsky, was my mother’s beloved uncle.”
“Why, that’s wonderful!”
“Indeed, and the wealth of the platinum mine discovered during the rescue took the entire family out of poverty. Even in the decades after the Revolution, even under Stalin and the Party, we were among those who lived well; for with money to bribe, all is possible. And now I am here, a scientist, even a bit of a hero to my own children.
“For this reason, Tom Swift, when I learned that you were to come here to this station on Ostrovskiya Lakrimon, where I work happily as an assistant materials engineer, I arranged for a special token, in memory of what has gone before so long ago.” He withdrew from his pocket a small wooden box and handed it to Tom.
Opening the box delicately, Tom showed Bud its contents—a small polished nugget of silver-white metal. “Pure platinum from the old mine,” declared Vladimir Cjarnosk. “The mine is played out now, but this piece is one I kept in my home, and now my family gives it to you and yours, in thanks.”
Moved, Tom shook the Russian’s hand warmly. “We’ll treasure it, sir, believe me.”
“There is one more thing about it, Tom,” said Cjarnosk. “My hobby is... well, to make minute inscriptions, using special instruments and a magnifying glass.”
“Yeah, I get it,” Bud nodded. “Like the Declaration of Independence on the head of a pin.”
“In this case, it is a passage from the Holy Scripture. It is most inspiring. When you get to America, to your facility and its microscope devices, please read it.” Cjarnosk suddenly looked into Tom’s blue eyes intently and grasped his wrist. “Please, Tom, promise me you will do so.”
“Of course, sir. You have my word.”
The man nodded. “I must return to my tasks. I am not authorized to speak to you.” Suddenly he turned and strode briskly away.
“Hmm!” Bud said. “That’s a great gift, pal. For a split second I wondered if he might have another for me. Since, you know, my great-grandpa Ned Newton was also along on that trip. Ahem!”
Tom clapped his chum on the back. “Feel free to look at this nugget any time you want, flyboy!”
Not long afterwards the Flying Lab took to the air. “Same route back, Tom?” inquired Slim.
Tom shook his head. “Not to start. Follow the headings you used yesterday when you picked us up at the iceworm.”
The pilot expressed surprise. “Taking more measurements of the ice?”
“I might as well while we’re in the area. But that’s not the reason.”
The young inventor grinned. “Just a whim. When we get to the Azov-441, I expect to find our wandering icecraft parked right beside her!”
TOM explained to the boggling pilot that he had deduced more about the plot than he had told him. “When I talked it over with Bud, it became obvious that what the Commissar wanted was to use our icecraft to get back to the Azov as soon as possible—but without any of us Amerikanskis along on the ride!”
Slim slowly nodded. “Yeah. Got it. And I get the urgency, too, given that the ice is crushing the thing. But what I don’t get is why he wants to go to a lot of trouble to exclude you. The guy even faked an icecraft-jacking! Is there some big state secret about the nuclear fuel?”
“Could be. But I think it’s more than that,” Tom stated. “I’ve wondered from the start just what the iceworm was up to, down under the ice. It was making instrumental readings and collecting samples of seafloor materials on a weeks-long mission, without a break. Pure scientific research? Or were they looking for something specific?”
“Must be something important, whatever it is.”
“And I think the real reason for all this haste and secrecy is for Maznyrkov and company to get ‘it’ back to base from the sample bins before anyone else can—maybe before the government authorities get wind of it!”
Slim drew a hand through his hair. “Precious minerals, maybe? Oil?”
“I’d sure like to find out!”
It took bare minutes for the Sky Queen to make position above the iceworm’s site beneath the ice. Bud joined Tom in one of the lab cubicles, where the young inventor was engaged in carefully focusing the LRGM device.
“Genius boy, when I see that look on your face, I know somethin’s fouled up,” Bud declared. “Is the gravy-scope not working?”
“It’s working fine,” muttered Tom faintly. “But it seems all my genius-boy deductions were off the beam.”
“Can’t be! Maybe the icecraft just hasn’t gotten there yet.”
“It’s nowhere within thirty miles, Bud,” was the youth’s frustrated reply. “And that’s not the strangest part. The Azov isn’t down there either!”
“Hunh?” The San Franciscan’s gray eyes widened. “You mean somebody’s already raised it?”
Tom shook his head thoughtfully, switching off the machine. “There’s no sign of any breakage in the surface ice sheet. My guess is that the icecraft got itself ‘stolen’ from Santa’s Workshop hours earlier than Maznyrkov reported. They rendezvoused with the Azov, and― ”
“And put somebody on board who started her up!” Bud finished excitedly.
“If that’s what happened,” continued Tom, “they must’ve known precisely which microcomponents had failed due to the xenocules—which parts to switch out. That’s something the crew was unable to determine onsite. So it looks like whoever was desperate to get to the iceworm is directly involved with infecting it with the silicon-eater in the first place!”
Bud slammed down a fist, which made the LRGM rattle in its stand. “Even if it killed the crew!”
“Unless someone on the crew is part of the plot.”
“True. Aw man, add a few more to the list—Maznyrkov, Yoz whatzerface, the Bellarmin Three...” A new thought crossed Bud’s face. “And why not Loot Luxor, Tom? We know he was here in Russia within the last few months!”
Tom was alone in his thoughts for a moment before agreeing. “Luxor certainly has the right expertise. No one on Earth knows more about cyber-silicon manufacture and high-tech components. But let’s say he and his cronies have been working to hijack what seems to have begun as a legitimate research project. Why? The Azov-441 must’ve run across something of tremendous value and importance down there, maybe something the crew members and base scientists didn’t know they had. But—what?”
“Yoz said it, pal—‘that is, like, the question!’,” Bud nodded.
After a brief search pattern that revealed nothing, the Flying Lab returned to its great-circle course back to the United States. Finally landing at Enterprises, Tom made his reports and shared his mystifications, then headed home for a long, deep sleep that was desperately needed.
Next morning, late, Hank Sterling joined Tom in the young inventor’s all-purpose private lab. “Bud told me about the platinum nugget, boss. Is that it?”
Tom handed the shred of platinum to his chief engineer. “I was about to put it under the leptoscope. I promised the man who gave it to me, Vladimir Cjarnosk, that I’d read the microscopic inscription on it—for inspiration.”
“If there’s enough inspiration for two, I could use some myself.”
Adjusting the leptoscope, Tom began to search the surface of the nugget, which appeared on the screen, ultra-magnified, as a rugged planetary landscape. “There it is,” he announced. “Let’s bring it into focus.”
Words appeared, straggling gouges but legible. As Tom started to read, he suddenly murmured:
“Good night! This isn’t from Scripture, Hank!”
TOM SWIFT, FOR ALL YOUR ANCESTOR DID FOR MY FAMILY, I OWE YOU THIS AT THE RISK OF MY LIFE. EXAMINE THIS NUGGET WITH INSTRUMENTS. IT WAS GIVEN TO ME BY CONTACTS WHO STOLE IT, BUT IT IS TOO UNIQUE TO BE SOLD WITHOUT DRAWING ATTENTION. YET IT IS OF EXTREME VALUE. SUCH PIECES ARE CIRCULATING ON THE BLACK MARKET. RUMOR THAT IT WAS IN ICEWORM SAMPLES FROM GAKKEL RIDGE. THEY NOW SUSPECT A VEIN NORTH OF BASE NEARER THE POLE. THE AZOV-441 WAS DISABLED SO SAMPLES COULD BE RECOVERED SEPARATELY BY PLOTTERS FOR ASSESS-MENT. THEY ACT OUTSIDE THE KNOWLEDGE OF OUR GOVERNMENT. DO NOT CONTACT ME OR MY FAMILY WILL BE ENDANGERED. BUT I BEG YOU STOP THESE MEN, THEY USE SILICON X-MOLECULE AS WEAPON WHICH COULD INFECT MOST WIDELY MY COUNTRY AND LEAVE US DEFENSELESS AND RUINED.
“Fantastic!” Hank breathed. “But what’s he saying, that this nugget isn’t platinum?”
Tom was frowning deeply. “It has all the gross characteristics of platinum. Perhaps it’s an unusual alloy of some kind. The spectroscope should tell us.”
As they strode over to the Swift Spectroscope, Hank asked if Tom were familiar with the location mentioned in the inscription, the Gakkel Ridge. “It’s north of Siberia and nearly three miles down,” he responded. “It’s been in the science news lately because unusual, explosive volcanism has been detected, which is unprecedented at that depth. I know one of the Azov’s expeditions studied the phenomenon.”
“Yeah, and brought back a few pieces of it, looks like!”
Tom inserted the nugget into the Spectroscope’s target chamber and actuated the device. A pattern of colored bands appeared on the digital readout screen, with a column of numbers beneath it. “It’s platinum, all right,” Tom pronounced. “Not of a particularly high grade, either. The Black Lake mine in Siberia—the Petrofsky brothers’ claim—was of greater value.”
Hank shrugged. “Fine. So what’s going on?”
“I’ll use the computer to cook the data more closely.”
But minutes later both young men were left to chin-rubbing and head-scratching. “I can’t make sense of these readings, Hank,” Tom declared. “There’s a basic spectrum-match to platinum, but the world’s scientific databases have nothing like the rest of it.”
“Could it be an unknown isotope, like that silicon isotope you named silicoidium?”
“Maybe,” Tom nodded uncertainly. “The Gakkel Ridge activity involved anomalous ‘leaks’ from deep in the Earth; and we’ve already seen indications of deep-earth fusion phenomena...”
“Then its value is scientific.”
“Yes,” agreed the young inventor. “But it could have a purely practical value as well.”
“Absolutely,” Hank stated with the wry enthusiasm of an engineer. “Even plain ol’ garden-variety platinum has plenty of important uses in electronics engineering.” He added over a chuckle: “But Tom, something tells me this ain’t your great-grandpa’s platinum!”
Tom decided that he would drop a sliver of the nugget off to Romer Degg, the head of Enterprises metallurgical research division. He ridewalked over to the Materials Sciences building and was promised a prompt analysis and report.
Much on his mind, the afternoon found Tom on the airfield next to a company jet, its pilot, and a gaudy western-style shirt with a Texan inside.
“Thanks, Boss, fer lettin’ me take this here plane trip with Buddy Boy here,” Chow Winkler said with a panhandle-wide grin. “It’ll give me a nice chance t’ look in on a friend ’r two out there in N’Mexi. Things got a mite rushed last time through.”
Bud had been assigned a delivery trip to the Swifts’ nuclear research station, the Citadel, in the New Mexico desert. He and Chow would be returning the next day. “You’re not planning to try to talk Jessee Thunder Lake into getting married, are you, Chow? It’s just a one-night stay, you know!” joked the San Franciscan.
As Tom laughed, Chow gave his black-haired friend a wincing look. “Naw, fergit that one. Jessee’ll have t’ get by with someone else—if she kin manage it. But I guess I’ll drop in t’ say hello, jest fer politeness.”
Clapping Chow on the back, Tom said to Bud, “Better keep an eye on our guy, Bud. I’d say he’s dressed to kill.”
“Aw, son, it’s jest a little somethin’. Kinda goes with Purple Mesa, doncha s’pose?”
“Pardner, I don’t rightly know what would go with that shade,” Bud teased.
Tom watched the jet taxi away and take off, then jeeped back to the office complex. As he climbed out of his midget nanocar, a scowling figure came stalking his way.
“Er—hi, Romer,” Tom nodded, apprehensive. “Are you already― ”
“Tom, if you want to play jokes, play them on your cook, not on me!” huffed Romer Degg. He held up the sliver of platinum Tom had given him, sealed in a plastic container. “I just wasted hours on this nonsense.”
The young inventor was taken aback, but managed a weak smile. “Listen, Romer, it wasn’t a joke. That’s the metal I was given. Isn’t it platinum?”
“Looks like it. Feels like it. For all I know, tastes like it!” the metallurgist replied. “But I’ll tell you one thing I know right off the bat. It isn’t platinum! It for-certain-doggone can’t be!”
“Because it’s an amalgam!” snapped Degg. “Know what that means?”
“Well... sure,” said Tom. “An amalgam is an element that is chemically combined with mercury, giving it useful properties that― ”
“Uh-huh, and there’s one element that absolutely can’t be amalgamated.”
“Let me guess. Platinum?”
“Chemically impossible! The atomic configurations have no stable bonding geometry in common. So what did you do, Tom, monkey around with my equipment? Doggone, if you have a notion to test me, why don’t you― ”
“Romer,” the youth interrupted sharply, “if this is a hoax I’m as much a victim as you are. Now if you’ll please calm down—I’d like you to reconfirm the results of your analysis. If something bogus is going on, I need to know now.”
The man was still in deep scowl. But he agreed to do as Tom directed.
That evening, checking his computer after a late dinner, Tom found an emailed note awaiting him.
I APOLOGIZE FOR MY REACTION. I REPEATED MY ANALYSIS AND SENT THE RESULTS TO GRANDYKE U. FOR COMMENT. THE METAL IS INDEED AN AMALGAM BASED UPON THE ELEMENT PLATINUM, BUT WITH A FORM NEVER SEEN BEFORE. IT WILL TAKE A GOOD DEAL OF RESEARCH TO DETERMINE EXACTLY HOW THIS IS PHYSICALLY POSSIBLE. THE PROPERTIES OF SUCH A MATERIAL ARE UNKNOWN BUT MAY BE OF CONSIDERABLE IMPORTANCE TO TECHNOLOGY. I WILL CONTINUE MY LAB WORK ON THE SAMPLE. HAVE A NICE DAY.
ROMER PRESCOTT DEGG
Tom replied with his thanks.
Heading downstairs he brought his father up to speed. Mr. Swift responded gravely. “Son, if it holds up this could be a discovery of great significance. The expense of platinum has been a barrier to its use in fuel-cell development, which applies it as a catalyst.
“Something more, too. As you know, there’s something of an international scientific race at present to crack the problem of room-temperature superconductivity—conduction of current with zero resistance without the use of liquid-helium supercooling.”
“I know. And I know platinum has been used in certain of the experiments.”
“Yes indeed,” said Damon Swift. “But the results have been meager, and the rarity and expense of the metal have put a damper on further research. If there’s really such a thing as this ‘quasi-platinum’ occurring in nature― ”
“Then it’s no wonder someone might risk murder to find the source and maybe corner the market!” finished the young prodigy excitedly. “Dad, q-platinum isn’t only of value to unscrupulous types and engineers. Governments will want control of it too, to gain the technological high ground.”
“And would surely go to great lengths to attain it. Perhaps the Russian government—or some element within the government—is backing Maznyrkov’s actions after all. Your informant, Cjarnosk, may not know of it.”
Tom shrugged. “Who knows? Maznyrkov handled things in a quirky way, but our suspicions may turn out to be wrong. He may be a dupe. And I don’t yet see the tie-in with the xenocule phenomenon—if they’re related at all. It hasn’t been limited to sabotaging the iceworm.”
The shrugging conversation turned to the report that had been placed on both Swifts’ desks regarding the background of the Bellarmin family. “So. The grandfather and his son both worked for years at manufacturing installations owned by NykronCyber!” pronounced Mr. Swift. “And this new, high-tech plant outside Colophon, Texas, is devoted to the early-stage processing of key semiconductor material.”
“If Luxor wanted to spread the xenocule, that’d be a great spot to start from!” Tom exclaimed angrily. “The guy sat there right next to his ‘Just call me Satan’ sign and told Bud and I that it was all a mistake!”
“And yet within days he changed his mind and raised the alarm himself.”
“If you’re suggesting it doesn’t make sense, Dad,” his son replied with chagrin, “I agree.”
At his lab early next morning, the young inventor tried to shove aside all thoughts of icecraft, xenocules, q-platinum, and the Lord of the Microchip. If I’m going to get anywhere with the x-flight project, he told himself, I’ll have to really focus on it.
He turned his attention to the solarplane, working furiously through the noon hour—which meant nothing to the young inventor without the customary proddings of the absent Chow Winkler. It was after two when he was startled by a piercing voice:
“Tom, Tom, you don’t call for me! So what does it mean? I ask you.”
He spun around on his stool. “Oh—Boris.”
“Yes indeed!” snapped the Russian-born chef, assistant to Chow and his second-in-command. “It is Boris himself, waiting to prepare a meal for The Boss, awaiting his desires. Instead, here you are working. As The Winkler is permitted to impudently ‘bug’ you, here I am too. Brand the chitlins, you must eat!”
Tom grinned involuntarily. “You’re absolutely right. What’s on the menu?”
“Menu? Is this a fast food counter? The moment of decision has passed, and as an executive chef, I have taken executive action.” He paused and suddenly looked timid. “You don’t mind?”
“Not at all, Boris. What do you have?”
“Ahhh!” The Russian proceeded to wheel in his dainty lunchcart, whisking off a silvered cover to reveal a steamy mass of muted colors. “A light vegetable dish based upon rhubarb and radish, with the delicate tang of sesame.”
“A Russian delicacy?”
“Mongolian. Outer Mongolian.”
And it tasted it. But Tom admitted it was the best Outer Mongolian dish he had had in many a grateful year.
When Boris returned to the lab to clear away the plates and debris, Tom said, “Boris, I suppose I should tell you what I was working on, why I forgot about lunch.”
“It is not necessary.”
“It’s no trouble.”
“I did not say it was trouble, only that it is not necessary. But no matter.” Boris sighed slightly. “Very well, for you are The Boss. You are working on what, then?”
“I call it a solarplane.”
“Solar power? To save energy? Trees? Oil? I know it is something.”
Tom handed him a sketch. “It’s a flying platform composed of separate units linked together. Each single unit is four acres in size.”
Boris shrugged. “Many things are four acres. Even more.”
“The solarplane is made up of sixteen of ’em!”
The chef said nothing.
“You’re not impressed?”
“What I am not is a mathematician. And so, what is the purpose? A field for sports up in the sky? Now that, Tom, I call a worthy idea.”
The feeling crept upon Tom that Boris fell short of the expositional standard set by Bud and Chow—or even Munford Trent. “The design is rather simple, and the units can be ‘stamped out,’ in a way, mass produced and assembled quickly. The rigid Tomasite shell is extremely light in weight and somewhat buoyant, and the up-facing surface is coated with a sheath of a material than can convert solar radiation to electricity with great efficiency, especially when we’ve put most of the air out of the way by flying it at high altitudes. The body has a sort of honeycomb structure, and as atmospheric air flows through these crescent-shaped ‘mouth’ apertures, the air reacts catalytically with the chemically engineered materials that fill the inside of the plane’s body. Er—that word, ‘catalytic’― ”
“I know. I understand. Do not pause to explain, please.” Boris’s words had the urgency of someone striving mightily to grasp as little as possible.
“Well, with help from the SolarSheath output, the interior materials interact with the flowing air. Over time the apertures widen as the as the catalysis-fuel erodes away. It’s like what happens in a solid-fuel rocket—you could think of it that way. The catalytic reaction yields not only ozone, but suspended particles I call macromols; I call them that because― ”
“No doubt a good reason. Let us take it for granted.”
“Okay.” The young inventor was becoming discouraged. What fun was this? “The ozone helps with the depletion of the ozone layer, and the macromols have been engineered to respond automatically—a chemical reaction—to solar infrared, reflecting some of it back into space selectively, kind of a ‘greenhouse effect’ in reverse.”
“I see, then—a greenhouse upside-down high in the sky that flies around a zone layer spreading mackerels. Ah.”
Tom gave up. “Right.”
“I know science, Tom. In preparation to apply to this position, I read the books, in Russian language. I know much. All I know, I learned from Tom Swift books, as they say.”
At which point Tom really gave up.
Later, after Bud had returned from his Citadel overnighter, he and his pal shared a laugh. “I guess it’s not just anybody who’s ready for one of your ‘well-Bud’ talks, genius boy!” gibed Bud. “So when do I get mine—the real thing? There’s gotta be more than what you’ve mentioned to me so far!”
Tom grinned with mischievous anticipation. “Wellll... I suppose there is one more little detail that you might find interesting. Namely just where the solarplane is being put together.”
“Want me to guess? I gather it’s not over at Swift Construction, not something all that big. So where—someplace TSE rented?”
“Didn’t have to. Free use.”
“Hmm. Fearing Island?”
“Close—if you call 150,000 miles close!”
“150,000 MILES, says the boy inventor, folks,” Bud repeated. “And his pal says, Whoaaa! Good grief, you’re building the thing up in orbit?”
“Yep!” stated Tom, eyes twinkling. “Except—well, it’s not actually in orbit. And I was just rounding off the distance.”
“Not in orbit. But what’s approximately 150,000 miles away, except space?”
“L1, along the line between the earth and the moon.”
“A space station?”
“One of the five Earth-Moon Lagrangian Points.” Tom was enjoying himself.
Bud snorted. “Cut it out.”
Tom grinned. “Just tryin’ to learn-ya somethin’, flyboy! It has to do with the geometry of gravitational attraction between celestial bodies. Basically, there are small moving ‘oases’ of stability in the orbital plane, where the gravitational vectors from both bodies balance out. Something placed there floats along, keeping pace with, in this case, the moon—but without orbiting around it. See?”
“Sure. But what’s the point of the point? What’s your solarplane doing out in space anyway?—it’s for flying in the air, I thought.”
Tom explained that the platform of linked cells, sturdy as it was, nevertheless had too much inherent flexibility to take off from the ground like a standard aircraft. “It would start oscillating—flop all over the place and shake itself to pieces.”
To solve the problem, Tom and his father had worked up a radical approach. Enterprises’ huge cosmotron spaceship, the Starward, was “parked” at L1, where it served as the workers’ base and factory for the assembly of the four-acre units out of raw materials which were continually being ferried from Earth on the Starward’s three excursion modules. “Construction began right after we returned from Mars, and the structure is nearly complete. Right now I’m just making some final adjustments to the macromol catalyzer-fuel which coats the flow-apertures.”
Bud brushed the straggling lock of hair from his forehead. “I guess you did tell me about a big space construction operation going on, but I didn’t realize it had to do with the x-flight solarplane. Okay, you’re putting it together in space. Then what? If it can’t hack a takeoff, how’s it going to manage reentry?”
Tom drew a diagram for his chum. Or at least did his best. “When it’s completed we’ll use the Starward’s repelatrons to nudge it away from L1, very gently. It’ll be eased into an elongated, sort’ve ‘twisted’ trajectory that almost nicks the edge of the atmosphere.”
“Man! It looks like a loop-the-loop carnival roller-coaster!”
“We’ve calculated it so precisely that at the low point—for just a few minutes—it’ll be short of sustainable orbital velocity, but will match speed with the atmospheric fringe just below it.”
“Like a geostationary satellite?”
“Yes, but just briefly and way down low. Tiny micro-repelatrons attached to each unit will steer it down into the atmosphere, just far enough and fast enough for it to maintain itself at the altitude we want.” He added, like a professor: “The lateral velocity the solarplane retains from L1 is about four times too fast. The idea works because we’re coming in on the polar region at a sharp angle, almost a polar orbit. We’re trading ‘sideways’ for ‘forward’.”
Bud nodded. “I guess I follow it, Skipper. Butcha know—even with its ‘midnight sun,’ the polar regions have nights. Long ones! So does the plane go to sleep for a few months, or what?”
“Nope, we work it like slavedrivers! Once it’s been lowered into the ionosphere, we gradually accelerate it so as to match the sun rather than the ground below. She’ll stay in direct sunlight all the time.”
“Is it those tiny trons that keep it in flight after you reach position?”
“No, they’re mainly for steering adjustments, and for braking during the long fall from L1. The individual units of the platform have a lifting-surface conformation, but the major lift-force is provided by the earthward thrust developed in the catalytic reaction itself. They’ll be ‘on’ continuously.”
“You might even call ’em jet lifters!” joked Tom’s chum slyly.
Tom chuckled and said, “And you might call what the solarplane will be doing an orbit—an orbit inside the atmosphere!”
After Bud had left, Tom barely had a chance to resume his work when his phone beeped, an outside call not routed through the plant switchboard.
He noted the name on the indicator. “Hi, Bash!”
“Correct on the first try!” pronounced the Swift family’s close friend and the young inventor’s usual social date-ee.
Tom grinned an unseen grin. “Aw, c’mon. How long’s it been? A few days?”
“A few days much too many!” retorted Bashalli Prandit. “Let me see now... There was the minor event of my amnesia, but I do seem to vaguely recall that we spent some time together upon your return from Brungaria. And then—off to Mars!
“You return and give a jaunty wave, and the next time I see you, another jaunty wave. Delivered on your behalf by a robot, whose name, Koku, you surely remember more readily than my own. And now I am told by Sandra and Bud Barclay that you have been to Russia and back!”
“You’re being a little hard on me,” Tom said. “There were, you know—emergencies. And gosh, we all went out to the club just... well, wasn’t it last week?” Suddenly, embarrassingly, Tom wasn’t so sure. “Okay, maybe a few weeks ago.”
The young Pakistani sighed. “I suppose time does not matter, Thomas, as it seems you never age.”
“I’m sorry, Bash. Look, maybe—as soon as― ”
“Thomas, ‘maybe’ and ‘as soon as’ cuts no ice with me. As a spirited young lady of simmering blood, I urge you for your own wellbeing to drop what you are doing and have dinner with me.”
“Or last Tuesday. You may decide.”
“Uh, you know, tomorrow is looking― ”
A decidedly deadly sweet smile came through the phone. “This negotiation is concluded. I will walk from The Glass Cat and meet you at our sentimental park bench at precisely five twenty-one PM. And fourteen seconds!”
Tom made a point of getting there early. By one hour.
When Bashalli arrived, ten minutes late and without apology, she thrust into her friend’s hand a bouquet of flowers. “According to news reports, you deserve these,” she said primly.
Tom stared at them, face red. “I, uh—thank you.”
“And I thank you too, Tom, for saving the world or the United States or the Theory of Relativity or whatever else you might have done lately behind my back.”
The young inventor forced a casual laugh. “Ha, yeah. I guess I... I’m sorry.”
“You guess you’re sorry?”
“No, I’m really sorry.”
“Indeed you are. But let us talk of pleasanter things. For example, here is a discussion question. Tom, did you leap from the womb self-absorbed, or is it a well-honed skill?” She smiled prettily.
Now Tom’s chuckle was wincingly real. “All right, Bash. I apologize and hereby beg for mercy.”
“Don’t stop. Do continue with the begging.” But she giggled. “You deserve the harshest teasing, but I will be satisfied if you will treat me for the tiniest moment as if I am Bud and tell me of your new invention and its purpose and—all that.”
With a gulp Tom commenced a thorough account of his x-flight solarplane project. Bashalli listened with noncommittal attentiveness, pretty in the setting sun. “And why is it you will have it fly around above the arctic?”
“Well, we calculate that Earth’s rotation and the weather systems driven by arctic conditions will help distribute the ozone and the macromols.”
“Ozone,” she repeated. “Huge though this flying raft may be—can it really solve the ozone deficiency, the ‘hole’ they speak of?”
Tom chuckled. “No, Bash, not by itself. This is just a baby step. But think of the day, some day, when we have a fleet of solarplanes constantly circling above the arctic—and Antarctica, too.”
“I see, Thomas. Vehicles that spread pollution; but now it is to be good pollution. Is that the idea?” When the youth nodded warily, she continued, “And what of the other part? What are these ‘macromols’ you speak of?”
Tom rubbed his chin. “I don’t know if I can explain it too well, Bash...”
“Granted I am nowhere near as scientifically sophisticated as Bud Barclay, but do indulge me. Quickly, please. Because those flowers have a money-back guarantee if I return them unwilted.”
“Uh—okay! Molecules are ordinarily super-small... well, you know that. But they vary greatly in comparative size and structural compactness; for example, the protein molecules that are the basis of human life are huge and complex compared to, er, hydrogen peroxide.
“Using my translimator machine I’ve been studying how to ‘grow’ giant, stable molecules—macromols—that can’t exist in nature.”
“Perhaps you underestimate Nature.”
“These macromols,” Tom persisted, “are real monsters. You can actually see them as individuals under a powerful optical microscope.”
“Are they worth seeing?”
“Just little specks. But the point is, the macromols are so complex that they can be ‘programmed,’ in a sense, to respond chemically in fairly sophisticated ways. You just have to engineer them properly.”
Bashalli nodded. “Like little synthetic bugs. Perhaps we should thank the silicon molecule-menace for your inspiration?”
“The xenocule? No, actually I’ve been working on the problem ever since I started studying the anti-Diracinium barrier that Li Ching― ” He halted himself. “Oh. I guess you were just kidding.”
“Pay no heed to my unfathomable foreign wit. So. The big plane sprays out big molecules. For what reason?”
“The macromols respond differentially to solar radiation—frequency, intensity, even the angle. I guess they’re like those polarized sunglasses that adjust themselves to glare automatically.”
“It is no wonder Budworth praises your analogies. Sunglasses for the Earth! To protect her lovely blue eyes?”
“To deal with global warming.”
“Eventually. When the fleet is in.”
“It won’t happen soon.”
“Will we still be alive when it does happen?” she asked. “Will anyone be?”
Bashalli had turned alarmingly sober. As Tom floundered for an answer—nothing floated to the surface—she gazed out at Lake Carlopa, silent.
She broke the ominousness with: “Tom, is every problem solvable?”
“I don’t know. I like to think so.”
She nodded slightly. “Yes. For that is Tom Swift.”
“It’s science, Bash.”
“Which you believe in so dearly. And now even pollution and consumption and human damage are to fall under the great plow of technology. But what if there were things, important things, that could not be fixed, problems that could not be solved—human problems? Problems of the way a person thinks and lives.”
The young inventor stirred, uncomfortable and puzzled. “Bashalli—is there something on your mind?”
She half-turned to look at him sharply. “On my mind. Oh, Thomas, perhaps it does happen—now and then. But surely it would be best to overlook it. My thoughts are rarely exciting or adventurous. My little thoughts will not challenge your inventiveness or lead you into fantastic world-saving exploits.”
“Did I say something wrong?”
“Please. You are never wrong. If such a thing were conceivable, you and Bud would be dead ten times over.—Tell me, what would you do if the task of fixing these global matters weren’t fun? If perhaps it were rather dull? Do you have a minute slot in your inner computer for the notion of plain old unadorned everyday life, Tom, with all its repetitions and little moments?”
Tom replied heatedly. “I’ve heard that point of view. People want to scorn technology and science. But, you know, meditation and self-flogging isn’t for everyone. It’s true: the sort of thing Tom Swift Enterprises does can lead to problems along the way. But isn’t that also a part of nature, Bash—human nature? Isn’t that a part of what human beings are for—to face challenges? To think? Gosh, it seems to me that if technology creates problems, it has kind’ve an obligation to work up solutions too.”
“Well. Right again. My hooey is perhaps too gooey.”
“Sorry. You caught me off guard with― ”
“With my absurd tree-huggery?”
“Bash, I didn’t say that.”
“There are any number of things you didn’t say.” Her gaze fell upon the bouquet of flowers. “Might I ask when was the last time you gave anyone flowers?”
Tom raised his eyebrows. “Er... well, it wasn’t too long ago.”
“And to whom did you give them?—if you dare to say Bud Barclay I will scream!”
The young inventor laughed. “Aw, c’mon, Bud doesn’t care about flowers! I gave them to Mom.”
Bashalli nodded. “You are... a good son.”
Abruptly Tom put his hand on her arm. She looked up into his deep-set blue eyes with passionate expectancy.
“Bash...” he whispered.
“Over behind the softball bleachers—in the shadow—somebody’s spying on us!”
THE PLAGUE CARRIER
“IT SEEMS Fate is conspiring to force me to scream after all,” said Bashalli sourly. “And why would anyone be spying upon us? Given that here we are doing nothing.”
“I noticed him before. He’s been there for a while.”
“Perhaps one of your fans.”
“Wait here. ...Please.”
“I do it well.” As Tom started away, she added: “You might leave the flowers.”
Tom stalked toward the bleachers with a determined stride. Maybe it’s nothing. The guy’s just been standing there, he thought. Man, why am I so charged up?
A figure darted from the shadows. “Hey!” Tom yelled, breaking into a run.
Tom’s long legs gave him an advantage. As he drew near, his quarry suddenly halted and spun around. “What’s wrong? Why’re you chasin’ me?”
Tom also stopped. They stood a few feet apart, panting. “And why’re you hanging around spying on me and my friend—Drew Jr.? If you’re looking for Ricky Rick Shane, try Hollywood.”
Andrew Bellarmin Junior glared at the young inventor. “How’d you― ”
“You can find anything on the Web. So what’s your story? What is it Dad and Grandpa are having you do?”
“I don’t have to talk to you. This is a public park. I was just lookin’ at the water.”
“Looks kind of wet.” Tom thought a moment, wondering if he might convince the teenager to reveal his purpose. “Listen, Drew, I don’t blame you for trying to help your family. You have to start by trusting someone, right? But whatever they’ve gotten you into is wrong—criminal. What does it say, their putting you in danger like this? Even when you think you know people, you’ve got to know when to ask questions!”
Drew Jr. shuffled his track-shod feet. “I haven’t done nothin’ wrong. We didn’t hurt your friend, did we?”
Tom knew the cause was hopeless for the present. “Okay. But think about what I said.”
“I’m always thinkin’!”
The Bellarmin boy turned away and trotted off toward the road. Tom wondered if the other two were parked there somewhere, in their mud-caked car. And he wondered if the confrontation had done any good.
Tom returned to the bench and found it empty. In the distance he saw Bashalli walking in the direction of the coffee house, The Glass Cat.
Yet there was something on the abandoned bench after all—one flower, a forlorn daisy with a few petals missing. Tom picked it up.
“Guess I can always get fast food,” he murmured, studying the remnant of a strange conversation.
When Bud popped by the lab the next morning, he asked:
“So how’s Bash?”
Tom shrugged. “Maybe we’ve been neglecting her. But listen to this!” He gave his pal an account of Drew Jr.’s actions.
Bud whistled. “So Boy Bellarmin’s being used to keep track of you in Shopton!”
Tom nodded grimly. “Just as they stalked you up north. Yet they never actually do anything.”
“Yeah. Maybe they like to watch.” The black-haired youth noticed a tangle of electronics on Tom’s workbench. “Say—isn’t that the under-ice communicator the Commissar gave you?”
“I unplugged it from the icecraft but forgot to give it back. I thought I’d give it a detailed lookover as a test for― ”
“Hah! A new invention!”
Tom grinned at his chum. “According to Bashalli, I’m ‘being Tom Swift’! But this one’s just a little bit of tinkering.” He explained to Bud that he had designed a device that would scan, in micro-detail, complex electronics without the need to disassemble what was being studied. “The scanning element is based on the principle of the leptoscope, but here’s what’s new about it.”
He adjusted a set of controls. Bud took a step backwards as complicated pattern of lines and shapes, like a dense spiderweb, suddenly sprang into existence in front of his eyes, floating in mid-air. “Wow! 3-D! Using the telejector?”
“Right,” confirmed the young inventor. “The scan of the circuitry and components is stored as a holographic image in full detail, then projected into space for easier inspection. See those moving color ‘highlights’? They’re painted-in by computer, based upon a functional analysis of the circuit logic. And you can zoom-in almost down to the atomic level!”
“Sure beats those old alligator-clip circuit testers,” Bud marveled.
Tom commenced his inspection of the Russian device. His attention was drawn immediately to one small knot of wires and components. “Looks like a problem right at that point. Must be what caused the communicator to fail during the trip. Let me see...”
A moment’s study uncovered disturbing news. “Not again!”
“Jetz!” Bud gulped. “The xenocule?”
“Looks like it spread right along this array, corrupting the silicon wafers as it went. But it’s so hard to understand...”
“I thought you understood pretty well what makes it work, Tom.”
“That’s not what I mean,” said Tom. “Why did it fail at precisely that moment, not earlier? The unit sat in the icecraft the whole time; we didn’t take it into the Azov.”
“It must have been infected back at Santa’s Workshop, like the iceworm was,” suggested Bud.
“Yet as I understand it, it was constructed just prior to our arrival at the base, long after the Azov left. No other ‘infection’ was reported. Even if they happened to have some components from a common source, I would think other devices would have also drawn on that source and started breaking down at about the same time. What caused the xenocules to strike here, in this communicator—the very one we were using?”
“It’s a clue, genius boy!” Bud exclaimed. “You just have to dope out what the incidents have in common—and not just over in Russia, either. There’s also what happened to the vacuum lifter, and the prob we had under the Skate Lake.”
Tom was lost in musing thought for several long moments. “Some kind of infection route. A plague carrier. But what connects the different incidents?”
Bud Barclay had also been concentrating on the problem. Suddenly an idea surfaced—one that made him turn white! “G-good grief, Tom! It’s not a what, it’s a who!”
“You mean the Bellarmins?”
“No,” gulped Bud. “Me!”
Tom stared at his pal, thunderstruck—yet almost immediately putting it together in his mind. “Bud! You handed me that replacement part during the Skate Lake test. I installed it at a point adjacent to the cyber components in the system that eventually failed.”
“I helped load the vacuum lifter onto the Queen, Tom. And I remember brushing against the uncovered circuitry in the communicator.”
The young inventor tried to retain some skeptical hope. He objected: “What about the Azov-441?”
“I won’t take the blame for that one. But as for the others― ” He broke off, gray eyes widening. “Jetz, what a stupid jerk I am! It was the Bellarmins who infected me—out in the woods!”
“Hunh? But how? Did you shake hands with them?”
Bud snorted. “We weren’t exactly on friendly terms. But don’t you get it? That’s why they were hanging around near my campsite that night while I was sleeping! They did do something to me after all—they dusted me with mutant molecules!”
Tom regarded Bud with what remained of his lingering but now fading skepticism. “I guess it could be. The xenocules could be ‘nested’ in some undetectable substance that helps it cling to skin and hair even through washings, then finally gives way in its own sweet time. And it seems it doesn’t take more than a single molecule to create a ‘hot zone’. Still, flyboy, it’s just a theory.”
“No—more than that,” insisted the other. “It didn’t hit me at the time—I was a little distracted, I guess—but that story they told had a real flaw in it. They said they came near my camp because they were tracking wildlife, squirrels, who’d picked up the scent of my dinner. ‘Tracked them southeast for an hour,’ the man said. But I remember that I put my sleeping bag on the side of the cookfire that I did because the breeze was coming from the northwest—the smoke would get in my face.”
“In other words,” stated Tom, “your spot was downwind of them. Your food scent wouldn’t have carried in the direction they came from.”
“Now how does Barclay’s Theory sound to you, genius boy?”
“Good night!” exclaimed Bud wryly. “I’ve thought of myself as a secret agent—but not an infectious agent!”
Unsmiling, Tom regarded his best friend from beneath a furrowed brow. “This is pretty serious. We’ll have to inspect you and your clothes, your car—any place and any thing you might have come into contact with since you got back from your trip.”
“I—I might’ve spread the xenocule far and wide!” gulped the young pilot.
But Tom spoke reassuringly. “For all the contact you’ve had with electronics equipment over the last couple weeks, only three incidents have surfaced. And look—in all three cases, the effect developed within minutes of exposure. I’d guess the xenocules require some sort of special condition to really ‘take root’ after the binding agent weakens, perhaps something having to do with the distinctive chemical environment around electronic components.”
“And also—I may have finally shed everything I was carrying on my bod.”
“Let’s take a look, flyboy.”
Tom led his friend across the facility to the Dynamics Test Complex.
Bud reacted to the sign on the door of the room they were entering. “The wind tunnel? Skipper, I’ve grown sort’ve attached to my skin!”
Tom chuckled. “I’ll keep it on the lowest setting—we won’t go hypersonic this time. I’ve got to try to separate some of the particles from you. If they’re still adhering strongly, the instruments won’t have anything to analyze.”
Sealing Bud inside, he carefully activated the mechanism and had Bud turn around a few times in the mild blast of air, arms raised. Then the young inventor entered the chamber with a portable spectroscanner and examined the walls, which were normally kept scrupulously clean of all foreign matter. “Here’s something,” he muttered, taking a scraping from the wall with a tiny scalpel-like tool.
Tom put the sample under the leptoscope and studied it for a long time, as Bud looked over his shoulder nervously. At last Tom pronounced:
“You can stop worrying, pal. You’re clean.”
“Thank goodness. But can you tell if there ever was anything on me?”
Tom nodded thoughtfully. “There are leftover traces of the biopolymers they used as ‘glue.’ More than that, I see fragments of the xenocules themselves.”
The San Franciscan brushed a hand through his dandelion-ed hair. “I didn’t think molecules ever just fell apart.”
“They don’t. What seems to have happened is that the silicon super-molecules eventually ‘deconformed.’ They collapsed to the normal, compact form of silicon, losing their destructive properties.”
“That’s good news!” Bud proclaimed. “The things get old and die—eventually.”
“The artificial configuration is only semi-stable. But the deterioration is probabilistic—the agglomerations have a half-life, like radioactive material does. Lard on enough of them and you could still have a few ‘virulent’ molecules months later. Maybe even years.” As Bud absorbed the idea, Tom continued: “We’ll still do a quick check of the places you’ve been, but odds are the very few molecules you’ve sloughed-off are already inert.”
Tom’s assumption proved to be the case, and Enterprises—and the Citadel in New Mexico, so recently visited by the innocent plague carrier—breathed easier for a time. Nonetheless all personnel were alert to signs of any further outbreak.
When the prodigal scientist-inventor had a chance to sit down for a conversation with his father, Damon Swift asked him, “Will you be able to focus on the solarplane now? I know you’d love to plunge into the mystery of the stolen icecraft and the q-platinum.”
Tom sighed ruefully. “Maybe I’m trying to prove something to Bashalli, Dad. I’ll get the solarplane flying. The new formulation on the macromol fuel-sheath seems to be panning out fine. In fact, one more test and I think we can start shipping the material up to the L1 work team. All they’ll need to do is apply a ‘treatment’ to the existing aperture coatings.”
“That’s great news, son. What sort of final test do you have in mind? Something at high altitude in the Sky Queen?”
Excitement glowed in Tom’s eyes. “Something more down to Earth. I’m planning to spend an afternoon making like a hothouse orchid!”
THE BIG company van lumbered along the byways of Ohio farm country. On both side panels was the well-known emblem of Tom Swift Enterprises with its oval-framed caricature of what Bud Barclay called the hat guy—Tom’s famed great-grandfather reduced to a logo symbol.
“Glad t’go with ya, son,” rumbled Chow listlessly. “But this ain’t no palomino, and I’m gettin’ jest a mite green.”
Tom shot his rotund friend a concerned look. “Car sick?”
“Naw. Mebbe jest a little case o’ back-road-itis.”
Arvid Hanson leaned forward from the rear seat. “They don’t have back roads in Texas, cowpoke?”
“Shor do. But they run straight, mostly. These ol’ farmers get usedta runnin’ this way ’n that around their fields. Not folks like me.”
“The farmer and the cowman should be friends,” Tom remarked with a smile. “Besides, Prendell’s Growery isn’t for farming. It’s a sort of hothouse-greenhouse for growing exotic plants. Some of them are edible, but many end up as decor items in tony penthouses.”
“Used t’ know a Tony Pantowsky. Fifth grade.”
“Too bad Bud couldn’t come along,” Arv remarked. “Plenty of room in the back seat.”
Tom nodded. “Doc Simpson wanted to run some tests today, to make sure he didn’t have any xenocules adhering to the lining of his lungs.”
“Wonder what ever happened to ol’ Tony,” Chow mused. “Usedta put pencils up his nose.”
The backroads led to a modern house dwarfed by the broad, high structure behind it, white in color and about a block square. The exterior, a plastic fabric stretched between struts, had a quilted appearance.
They were met in front of the house by a vigorous gray-haired woman, while another, younger woman watched them from a distance, frowning. “Hello, hello, welcome to the Growery!”
“Hi,” said Tom, shaking hands. “Mrs. Prendell?”
“Eva Prendell. Been runnin’ this place forty years now. Over there, that’s my partner and little sister, Braina.” The woman leaned closer and said in a low voice. “Doesn’t look like me, ’cause she’s adopted.”
The three men nodded at this news. “Shall we go ahead and start setting up, ma’am? As I said on the phone, I’m very grateful to you and your sister for letting me try this little experiment.”
They unloaded Tom’s equipment from the back of the van and wheeled it into the hothouse-greenhouse through a flap-door. Inside was a thick, humid atmosphere smelling of fertilizer and exotic plantlife. “Nice, isn’t it?” said Eva Prendell. “So peaceful. You can just feel things growing all around.”
Chow gazed about skeptically. “You say some o’ this is fer eatin’?”
“Lots! World hunger—serious problem. Look over that way. Looks like watercress, but three times the nutrition per waterin’.” She pointed toward the ceiling. “It’s all those special lamps up there that make it possible, that ’n the organics. Ultraviolent, infrared—the control board lets you mix them any way you need, power up, power down. Sometimes we have to wear goggles.”
Tom smiled. “That’s exactly why we came here. The nozzles on this tank will spray out a fine mist that’ll form a sort of ‘cloud deck’ up above. The suspended particles—they’re actually individual molecules that I call macromols—will automatically adjust to different mixes of radiation. I’m hoping they’ll work just as well when they’re dispersed over thousands of square miles up in the ionosphere.”
“And you say it won’t hurt my plants? I regard these plants as members of my family.”
Chow made a choking sound, recovering under Mrs. Prendell’s sudden glare.
“There was no biological effect at all in our tests at Swift Enterprises,” Tom assured her. “The particles are safe to inhale, by the way.”
“So we won’t be gettin’ high on the stuff.”
“It’s the ‘stuff’ that’ll be getting high,” put in Arv. To blank stares, he added: “A pun.”
As Eve Prendell made adjustments to the radiation lamps, Tom slowly allowed the molecule-gas to hiss into the dome. It was colorless and had no detectable scent. “Density good,” reported Arv presently, checking a small sensor instrument.
Chow shrugged. “So now, what’s s’posed to happen? Is it happenin’ a’ready?”
Tom was scrutinizing a readout dial. “Definitely! If it weren’t so humid in here, we’d be able to feel the drop in temperature. A big range of the infrared is bouncing back—ultraviolet, too.”
For more than an hour the young inventor tested various conditions and macromol proportions in the air of the greenhouse. “Better than I’d hoped!” he proclaimed jubilantly.
Mrs. Prendell had walked out among her plants. When she turned toward her guests, she was frowning. “Maybe it’s a coincidence, boys, but I don’t much like the color of my sicarobynthia over here. They’re very sensitive.”
“I got folks in my family that’re the same way,” Chow declared.
“We don’t anticipate any aftereffects, Mrs. Prendell,” Tom said, “but if you do detect any changes, please let us know.”
As the three Enterprises were loading the apparatus back onto the van, the other woman, Braina, passed by. “How’d it go in there?”
Tom grinned happily. “Very well!”
“Evvie didn’t make a fool of herself? She’s a little out there these days.” The woman glanced back and said quietly. “Adopted. That’s why we’re so diff’rent, she and I.”
Tom, Chow, and Arv talked animatedly as the van headed back north and east, an hours-long drive ahead. “I’m going to let Fearing know right away that we can start shipping the reformulated macromol-chemicals up to L1,” Tom exulted. “It’s great to make progress like this!”
“Uh-huh,” said Chow knowingly. “So’s you kin get back to gettin’ shot at or kidnapped or whatever you an’ buddy boy are fixin’ to do next.”
Tom and Arv laughed at this truth of truths. “I’m planning to stay clear of menacing Earthlings for at least a little while,” joked Tom. “Even when we guide the solarplane down from L1, I’ll be busy high up in the sky testing every― ”
The car phone bleeped. “Knew it!” commented Chow smugly.
It was Tom’s father. “A problem, son. It may pose a real threat to the solarplane project.”
The youth felt his stomach elevator downward. “Enemy action, Dad?”
“No, a problem with the sun—or rather, from the sun! I just received a call from, of all places on Earth, the Iskrya science platform in Russia.”
“Good gosh, the stratosphere station!”
“As you know, they have a continuing operation involving monitoring the sun. It’s rather sophisticated; they’ve invited me to come and observe, in fact,” explained Damon Swift. “According to the man in charge, Radschivich, their radiometric scanners are showing a burst of solar activity—a type-9 solar prominence!”
“I... I see,” Tom responded faintly. “That’s unheard of at this point in the cycle. Gosh, the radiation― ”
“You see the threat, Tom,” the elder Swift said. “That blast of helioplasma could totally decompose the SolarSheath coating on the structure.”
“And it could fry the electronics, too,” noted the youth grimly. “We’ll be set back months.”
“Sorry for the bad news.”
“I know, Dad. Is this one of the ‘slow’ bursts? How long before it reaches us?”
“About four hours before we start getting bowshocks in the outer magnetosphere, they estimate; the major portion will arrive about thirty minutes afterwards. The space outpost astronomers are working on confirmation. I’ve already passed word to Quezada on Fearing to advise the space workers to remain inside the Starward.”
“Our storm cellar. The Inertite coating will handle it fine,” Tom said. “Too bad we couldn’t cover-over the SolarSheath with it.”
“I’ll keep you posted, son. See you later.”
As he clicked off the unit, Chow made sympathetic noises. “Not jest what you wanna hear, is it, boss. Guess mebbe I jinxed you by predictin’.”
Tom shrugged. “It won’t wreck the project.” He grinned wryly. “But delays put a real drain on my patience.”
“Which you don’t have a lot of to begin with,” Arv remarked. “None of us do at Enterprises.”
“Ye-ahh, yew kin shor say that again,” agreed Chow. “What I say, if you don’t chomp th’ bit, you might as well jest stay in th’ stable.”
Arv continued, “I’m not as familiar with the engineering details of your project as Sterling and the others are, Tom. Why is it such a problem, this ‘sunburst’ striking the solarplane assembly? Couldn’t you just guide it out of the way?—maybe into the shadow of the Starward, or even the moon?”
“That would make it easy,” replied the young inventor, “but unfortunately solar blasts like this expand outward in all directions as they travel—it’s not like just standing behind a wall to avoid the wind. There’s no practical way to maneuver the solarplane around it in such a brief span of time.”
“So it’s gonna peel the paint off it, that it?” asked Chow.
“Just as bad. The problem isn’t the actual force of the hydrogen atoms—we’re not dealing with much more than a vacuum even at the height of the blast. But the radiation and ionization effects could easily burn out the SolarSheath and its embedded circuitry. Probably will.” Tom shrugged. “Nothing to be done. I’ll tell Bashalli that Mother Nature’s getting her revenge on us scientists.”
“Ye-ahh,” nodded the ex-Texan. “Hear tell she’s been spoutin’ off on all that stuff lately.”
“She has strong feelings about it, Chow. Maybe there’s more to it than I want to admit.”
“Wimmin allus have strong feelings, son. My old Pa told me that’s why men chew t’bacco.”
“Er—I don’t get it,” said Arv.
“Me neither. Never did.”
At long last they pulled into the delivery parking lot at Swift Enterprises. The van had barely halted when a waving figure came thundering like a freight train across the lot. “Bud!” snorted Chow. “More trouble on th’ way. —oh, sorry, Tom.”
“Tom!” Bud called out breathlessly. “It just came through—from the Starward work crew up there― ”
“Easy, chum,” Tom urged. “I know about the solar flare-up.”
“Not that—something else! Bob Jeffers called through on the PER—I was there next to your Dad― ”
“What, Bud? What is it?”
The muscular youth caught his heaving breath. “It’s about one of the workers up there, one of the guys working on the solarplane assembly. They called everybody into the ship for safety, but Bob says there’s one unaccounted for. Something’s happened to him—they can’t find him! He must still be out there in space! When that blast from the sun comes through― ”
“It could kill him,” Tom finished. “And there’s no way to get up there fast enough to protect him!”
HIGH above Shopton a shooting star shot in the wrong direction—upward. The compact spacecraft was oddly shaped, like an angled-off letter U, and at the end of its high tail was a glowing sphere of crystal.
“Have you ever tried using your dynasphere for something like this, Skipper?” Bud asked Tom from his copilot’s chair.
“Never,” his pal replied, eyes studying the control readouts intently as the Dyna Ranger soared toward the void of space. “But it seems certain that the dyna-field could deflect the helioplasma away from L1. The idea is to punch a hole in the burst, just has we did in the antimatter barrier around Nestria, with the magnetaser.”
“Which is on Fearing Island.”
“The dynasphere is the only option available—the only thing we can throw at it!”
“And at the speed of light, that’s quite a throw.”
Tom’s polar-ray dynasphere projected a focused linear field capable of traveling through space in a tight beam. At its terminus the field could modify certain fundamental constants of the vacuum, giving the operator control of distant electrical and magnetic forces. “It took us hours to get the polar-ray out to Saturn when we used it before,” Bud remarked. “Glad we don’t have to wait so long this time.”
“It’ll take less than a second! I’ll start beaming it as soon as the Dyna establishes position—we need a trajectory that’ll keep the ship stationary with respect to L1, even though we’ll still be more than 100,000 miles away.”
The atmosphere fell away as the spacecraft rose on its columns of repelatron force. Presently the Spacelane Brain guidance system announced that they had attained the desired position. “Here goes, flyboy,” Tom murmured.
The dynasphere globe began to shine brightly, surrounded by a corona of shifting color. Invisible to the eye, the ray shot toward the L1 work base. “The instruments show a good, solid dyna-field,” Tom reported moments later. He added quietly. “This’ll work. It has to—or that crewman could fry in his spacesuit.”
“It will, Tom.”
Even from the tensely waiting Starward, there was nothing for human eyes to see. Space was as black and sparkling as always. But the sensors and scanners told a hopeful tale. “It’s working, Tom,” exulted Bob Jeffers over the Private Ear Radio. “The plasma flux-density is dropping like a brick—already down ninety percent!”
Tom let out his captive breath with a relieved look at Bud. “According to the space outpost, the worst will be over in about twenty minutes. Then Bud and I will be heading up there to help with the search. Who’s the worker who is missing, Bob?”
“A newbie—this is his first big space job. His name’s Gary Dalquinn. Nice kid. I sure hope he’s all right out there.”
“Me too. The coating on his suit would’ve given him substantial protection, but microbursts from Alfven-wave resonance could be deadly inside such a small contained volume.”
“Then he may owe his life to your dynasphere maneuver, Tom.”
The Dyna Ranger lacked the power and speed of Tom’s two great spaceships, the Starward and the Challenger, or Enterprises’ midget powerhouse the Space Kite. It took the boys more than five hours to reach the L1 station, the huge sphere of the Starward, which was itself dwarfed by the giant flat bulk of the raft of linked units that was the solarplane. Teams of spacesuited project workers had been combing the geography of the enormous platform—to no result.
“Jetz!” Bud grumbled. “The guy didn’t just evaporate. Are they sure he was out there in the first place?”
“Bob says he was working right next to him all the way through his shift.”
The Dyna lacked full space-docking capability. After placing her in a station-keeping mode, Tom led Bud across to the Starward in their spacesuits.
They were warmly greeted by Jeffers and construction crew chief Cinder Norlin. “That was a fantastic save, Tom,” she said. “Of course, we all expected it.”
“A real yawner, hmm?” Bud gibed.
“We don’t know what to make of Gary’s disappearance,” said Bob with a shake of head. “He doesn’t seem to be anywhere! Boss, I’m at fault here. I should have herded him back onboard personally.”
Tom inquired about recent radar scans. “No sign of anything man-sized within a thousand miles.”
“But the solar burst could be interfering, despite the ‘hole’ we made,” the young spaceman pointed out. “It might have knocked out his suit transiphone, too. Let’s take out one of the excursion mods. They have better instrumentation than the Dyna Ranger.”
Only one of the modules, Mod 2, was available at the ship, as the other two were en route with materials. The sphere, a scaled-down version of the Starward, detached from the ship under Tom’s control and skimmed the solarplane assembly, top and bottom, foot by foot. “What a sight!” Bud exclaimed. “Like a big football field floating in space!”
“With holes through it like Swiss cheese,” chuckled Bob. “You’re pretty sure it’ll get off the ground, boss?”
“Fortunately, it won’t have to,” Tom grinned. “Let’s do a flyover pattern to look down through each of the apertures.”
But nothing unusual was hidden in the shadows of the crescent-shaped “scoops” that would release the macromols into the airflow. “What could possibly cause this?” Tom mused.
“He may be just floatin’ around unconscious,” suggested Jeffers. “I don’t recall hearing his acknowledgment when I ordered the crew to make for the ship.”
Bud shook his head grimly. “Problem is, his air tanks would’ve given out by now. Even the emergency reservoir must be near empty.”
“I’m not giving up,” declared Tom Swift; “not while I’m still breathing!”
Inside the spaceship and at a loss, Tom questioned the radar personnel who had been on duty when the exterior workers had been ordered in. “That’s the thing,” said one of them. “There was nothing unusual on the scopes—nothing!”
They all echoed the sentiment, but the young inventor noticed that one man seemed uneasy—slightly hesitant.
“Say, Carl—come over here a sec, would you?”
Out of earshot, Tom said to him quietly, “Are you sure there wasn’t something, some little detail, you haven’t mentioned?”
“Mr. Swift, I just do my job, and I do it right.”
“Of course,” Tom responded. “But maybe there was something that didn’t seem important. I know the scopes can act up on their own, and the solar burst was closing in, which would’ve fouled the signals anyway. A pro like you wouldn’t want to bother us with something you thought was just a glitch.”
The man lowered his eyes. “Well, I guess you may have something there. Like you said—I thought it was just a glitch.”
“What did it look like?”
Now the radarman looked at his employer with eyes that were unbelieving. “Tom—it wavered and squirmed on the scope like it wasn’t solid! Nothing like a rocket or a meteor or—Gary. I figured it was just a little shred of plasma that got here ahead of the rest. See?”
“Sure, Carl. And maybe that’s all it was.”
“But it wasn’t!” hissed the man. “That bogie covered 150 degrees of arc in two seconds! And triangulations gave a distance of 14,000 miles away! So you do the math.”
The scientist-inventor couldn’t help gasp at the report! “Whatever it was must have been traveling at an incredible velocity!”
“Yeah, I’ll say. And Tom, when I tracked it, it was slowing down! Just seemed to come zooming out of nothing.”
“What happened after those two seconds?”
“It stopped. A full stop in an instant—my eyeballs slid right off the scope, b’lieve me. And then it just plain disappeared. M-maybe... maybe it took Gary along with it, huh?”
Tom squeezed the older man’s shoulder reassuringly. “It was probably just an ionization effect or interference node. It gives us something to work on, though.”
The youth pulled Bud aside and repeated the account to him. “No need guessing at what we’re both thinking, Skipper,” he responded with grim excitement. “Stuff like that has happened more than once.”
“The Space Friends!”
The friendly extraterrestrials, reclusive and unpredictable, had never shown their faces to Tom Swift, their earthly contact—if indeed they had faces. Yet they had assisted Tom and others by warning them of imminent dangers in space, transmitting symbols via radio that used mathematical concepts to suggest their message. “They might have been keeping an eye on the project in one of their non-inertial ‘light-vehicles.’ Even if they had nothing to do with Gary’s disappearance, they might be able to lead us to him!”
The two rushed to the Starward’s communications center and had the ship’s deep-space antenna extended from its bay in the hull. The young inventor hastily composed a message and sent the string of symbols out into the black cosmos.
TOM SWIFT TO SPACE FRIENDS. ONE MEMBER OF THE EXTERIOR WORK CREW AT THE ORIGIN POINT OF THIS SIGNAL HAS DISAPPEARED. DO YOU HAVE ANY INFORMATION TO ASSIST US?
Tom pressed the transmission button. The reply suddenly flashed across the screen almost before he had a chance to sit back in his chair!
WE MONITORED THE DANGER AND ACTED TO PRESERVE LIFE. THE INDIVIDUAL OF REFERENCE
A startled shout echoed down the corridor from the radar compartment!
HAS NOW BEEN RETURNED TO VICINITY OF YOUR TRANSPORT VESSEL.
“Tom!” yelped Bob Jeffers. “It’s Gary! He—he’s― ”
He was knocking on the main hatch of the Starward!
Inside, helmet off, the young worker seemed dazed. He took a sip of water, staring about with wide eyes. “I—I don’t know what happened to me out there.”
“Do you remember being out on the platform, working on the sheathing junctions?” asked Cinder Norlin.
“Oh, sure. Mr. Jeffers told us all to go inside. I started to follow but I guess I got a little nervous and didn’t handle my suit controls too well—I jetted right into the side of the platform! After that, nothing worked right, and I started tumbling.”
“What happened then?” Tom urged.
“Then? Then I was at the hatchway! Did I black out? I can’t remember how I got there.” The young man rubbed his forehead. “Guess I’ve got a gap of a few minutes to account for.”
“A few minutes?” repeated Jeffers in amazement. “Gary, it’s been hours since you disappeared!”
“Wh-what?—!” choked Gary Dalquinn. Looking about wildly, he seemed on the verge of becoming hysterical!
Tom spoke calmingly and ordered Gary to the infirmary. “Don’t strain yourself trying to remember, Gary. The details may come back to you on their own.”
Tom began to leave, but some nameless intuition made him pause at the door and glance back. Gary seemed to have lost his agitation and regarded Tom coolly. “Was there something else, Mr. Swift?” asked the space workman.
“No. Nothing. It’s good to have you back.”
As Tom and Bud walked down the corridor toward the hatchway, Bud said, “What’s on your mind, genius boy?”
“That big one in your skull that I know so well!”
Tom shook his head—unconvincingly. “Just thinking about the Space Friends, and how little we understand them. How long before they tell us just what happened to Gary during all those hours?”
“Or anything. You know, they’re just like you, pal—they intervened to save lives. Who cares if they’re a little mysterious about it?”
But Tom didn’t nod. “They help us. But they also put us in danger when the mood strikes them. It’s hard to understand—why would they...”
The sentence trailed away in mystery. The hours-long trip back to Earth and Shopton was mostly thoughtful silence, which Bud dutifully respected by dozing off.
At breakfast the next morning, the young inventor took an unexpected call from an old friend of the family. “Captain Rock!”
“Morning, Tom. Hear you’ve had some more of your space adventures.”
“Well, here’s something a little more mundane,” said the police officer, “courtesy of your ever-vigilant Shopton Police Department.”
“Was there an incident in town?”
“Sure was,” replied Rock. “I thought you might want to know of it, because it involved that young fellow you told me about, Andrew Bellarmin Jr. We’re holding him here—he’s been arrested!”
A SPY’S CONFESSION
THIRTY minutes later, at the Shopton PD station, Captain Rock amplified upon his brief account. “Tom, Shopton just loves Swift Enterprises, but you guys sure seem to bring us the nutcases! Little Mr. Drew Bellarmin drives his motorcycle right over the curb up to the now-former plate glass window on the front of Loope’s Drug Store, rams it, then sits on it calmly for ten minutes, flicking the ignition but not going anywhere. So we pick him up, take him here, and book him. Does he tell us how to contact his family? Nope. Arrange for bail? Just shakes his head. So there he sits.”
Tom’s thoughtful frown was wide and deep. “Has he tried to give any explanation? Anything?”
“Just says, ‘Let me out so I can do it again.’ Or variations on a theme. I don’t call that an explanation.”
“Is he on something?”
“Yeah—teenagehood. No sign of chemicals beyond the customary hormones. I’d say we have a kid with real authority issues.”
“Who did everything possible to make sure he was nabbed by ‘the authorities’,” Tom added. “Would it be possible for me to speak with him?”
“Why yes! At this stage. He hasn’t asked for a lawyer—really, he’s being held more for observation than the misdemeanor itself. Loope assumes it’s just an accident—he’s insured.”
Captain Rock led the young inventor to what the officer called the one-foot-in-jail-waiting-room. In a moment another officer brought in the young offender, who sat down at a table opposite Tom. The pale youth stared at Tom, but he appeared more frightened than angry. “Hi,” he said with a thin voice.
“Hi, Drew,” replied Tom. “I thought you might have something to say to me.”
“Beats me. Guess I’ll find out. I know it’s something you’re not supposed to say.”
The boy looked startled. “How ya figure that?”
Tom shrugged slightly. “It’s not rocket science. You made a real effort to put yourself here, maybe the one place your father and grandfather—I assume they’ve been staying close and watching you—would want to avoid. In fact, when you get out you can tell them you had to ‘talk’ to the police. You can call the whole thing an ‘accident’ and hope they won’t blame you. Or suspect that you’re deliberately tattling on ’em.”
“They know you came here,” said the boy fearfully. “They’re watching.”
“But they won’t know I was permitted to talk to you.”
Drew Bellarmin leaned forward, intense with desperation. “I—I know—I—thought about what you said to me, about... everything. Dad and Grandpa― ”
He paused, and Tom said sympathetically, “I know this hurts.”
“They’re my family, but... do I even matter to them? I had a whole bunch of mothers and grandmothers growin’ up. No one could stand being with The Bellarmin Men very long. All they care about is whether you do what they say or not—exactly what they say, no questions, no backtalk.”
Tom nodded. “The ‘no pity, no mercy’ school of family values.”
“It’s not like your family.”
“No, it isn’t.”
“I hate it—I hate them!” The words came in a tearful rush. “Man, the stuff they have me doing!—I can’t even sleep.”
“Uh-huh. Stuff like spying on me.”
“Yeah!” Drew spat out. “We just drive around and live out of the car. During the day I’m supposed to hang around, keep an eye on your friends...”
“You followed Bashalli the other day, didn’t you.”
“Uh-huh, to the park. They wanted me to get as close as I could without bein’ seen, close enough to hear.”
“Making you an accessory to whatever scheme is behind this.”
“They say I’ll be okay because I’m a minor. Maybe that’s the—the only reason they keep me around. Me—me as me—I don’t matter. Grandpa was the same way with Dad, growing up.”
Tom carefully formulated his next comment. “What will happen to you when they find out you’ve spoken to me?”
Drew Bellarmin’s watery eyes grew wide. “They can’t find out! They’ll—I think they’d― ”
“Drew, I’ll do what I can to see that you’re protected from them. Look, you’ve made the decision already. It’s behind you—you’re here. Now make it worth it by telling me what’s going on.”
The boy was silent for a long moment, glancing at Tom, Captain Rock, and the other police officer, Petersen. “I don’t know about most of it. I’m just a dumb kid, right? They tell me t’ nose out.”
“We know about planting the silicon molecule on Bud Barclay,” Tom declared.
“Uh-huh. Th-they call it pixie dust! See, Grandpa’s a genius. He says he’s the most evolved man in the world! He made the dust when he worked at the plant in Colophon, in Texas—he keeps it in a sealed tank, and uses just as little as he can, ’cause he can’t make any more now and plans to use most of it for... I dunno. They just say The Cropdusting.”
The word carried dread. “And you don’t know what that means?”
“No. Just that they want to get it spread around to all your inventions, see? We followed your friend when he drove north, and then sprinkled stuff in the wind when he was sleeping—there’s something that makes it real sticky, and you can’t see it.”
Rock muttered, “Sure—magic invisible pixie dust!”
“But after a while it gets looser, and then it just sticks to, I dunno, electronic stuff.”
“They knew Bud would be a good spreader, and hoped to have a chance to dust me as well,” Tom pronounced. “Drew, you weren’t just spying, were you. They wanted you to spread the dust on anyone connected to me or Enterprises—and on me, if you could work it. Right?”
The boy looked away. “I lost the packet when we got back to Shopton. Couldn’t tell them.”
Captain Rock snorted authoritatively. “Lost it down the john.”
“Okay, yeah,” Bellarmin responded. “I just couldn’t do that stuff anymore. I lied to them and kept up the spying. They keep an eye on me most of the time, but let me be the point man cause they think a kid won’t get noticed as much. Kids act kinda weird anyway.”
“But this kid is kinda smart,” said Tom. “Do you have any idea why they targeted me and Enterprises?”
“Sort of. It’s all about that Loot Luxor guy.”
“Luxor!” gasped the young inventor. “Then Mr. Microchip is involved in it!”
But the boy waggled his head. “No! You don’t get it—he’s the target! It’s all crazy, Tom. See...
“Grandpa worked at the NykronCyber plant. He’s the biggest genius in the world, right?—and he goes berzerky when he thinks anybody doesn’t agree. You gotta bow down or he gets crazy. I guess somebody complained because he couldn’t get along with the other workers, and they passed him over for some big-money position. Man oh man oh man—!”
“Yeah, I can hear it now,” said Rock.
“He ranted and raved and said it was a conspiracy and, you know, nut stuff. It’s like this big obsession—it’s all he and Dad can talk about.”
Tom nodded. “Got it. He focused on Luxor and plotted revenge. But how was it supposed to work?”
“Oh, I dunno. Is it supposed to make sense, what schizo geniuses do? I guess the idea was that if the pixie dust got into what you Shopton guys make and sell, it’d ruin them—and then it’d come out that the parts came from NykronCyber, and Luxor would get blamed, put in jail—something.”
“Yes,” said Tom. “He and his company would be ruined. Along with Swift Enterprises.”
“He and Dad don’t care about anything but Luxor. I heard them say they hoped a few people got killed!—just to make a point.” A hesitation ended in a sob.
“Are they working with anyone else, Drew?”
“I think maybe they are. Sometimes Dad goes away for a few days—and when he comes back, suddenly we’re not poor anymore. We can live in a motel for a week. But I don’t ask questions.”
Petersen had been called out of the room. He now returned. “Captain, we’ve got a call from someone who says he’s Bellarmin Senior, Drew’s father. He says he’s in Mansburg on a cell.”
Rock frowned. “Yeah. Across the street, more like. What does he want?”
“He asked if there were any charges. I told him no, and he asked if we can set Drew loose, so he can motorcycle to Mansburg where they’re staying—something about their car being broke down.”
The Bellarmin boy looked about frantically. “Please—don’t make me go back! Can’t you just lock me up or something?”
“We have to release you to your legal guardian,” replied the captain. “It’s the law. We don’t have probable cause to hold you or deny custody to your father—not with you almost eighteen, my friend. It’d be easier if you were eight.”
Rock leaned closer. “So listen now, Drew. Your cycle’s sitting out back in the lot, which you can’t see from streetside. Oddly enough, the ignition seems to have healed itself. You’re released, and I officially urge you not to use this golden opportunity to head off for NYC at top speed. Because then you’d be a runaway and might get lost somewhere among the ten billion other runaways in the system. Which would be a shame, hmm?”
The boy jumped to his feet. “They won’t even file a report.”
As he rushed by Tom touched his shoulder and said, “Drew—good luck.”
“To you too. Seriously.”
Closing the door, Rock said quietly, “Well now. This casual, totally informal and off-the-record conversation wasn’t very productive. The kid mumbled—hard to catch what he was saying. Right, Petersen?”
The officer smiled. “Yeah. Frustrating, huh?”
And Tom also nodded. “I went a little deaf early on. But Captain,” he added soberly, “that means you don’t have any legal justification to go after Grandpa and Dad.”
“Realistically, I’d have a problem in any event,” he replied. “Some kid tells a wild story after breaking a window. Where’s the evidence?”
“And so,” Tom said at the family dinner table that evening, finishing his account, “we didn’t have the perpetrators, but at least we know—I think—what’s going on.”
Sandy shook her blond head. “A mad scientist and a revenge plot—but not against you this time, Tomonomo.”
“Bud and I, and Enterprises, are just being used as tools.”
“At whatever cost,” murmured Mr. Swift. “Tom, do you really think we can trust this boy?”
Bud, visitor to the dinner table, said, “Don’t you, sir?”
“I have a lot of skepticism. Obviously, the story’s fantastic—yet I know very well that there are paranoid, delusional individuals out there planning one sort of thing or another to momentarily quiet their racing minds.
“But I don’t see how Drew’s account fits the larger pattern of facts. What about the business in Russia? The q-platinum? Do these Bellarmins really have the capacity to have contaminated the Azov-441? It would have to have happened during construction, I would think.”
“But one of the workers, or a crew member might have been ‘dusted,’ Dad,” Tom pointed out. “And we know, from what happened in the exosuit test, that the xenocule was also being spread through components manufactured by NykronCyber—that’s how they plan to hang it around Loot Luxor. I have the impression the Russians use Luxor’s products quite a bit.
“But you know something?” Tom continued. “I agree that there’s a lot here that doesn’t work—and I’m not thinking about Drew Bellarmin’s story. Vladimir Cjarnosk may well have passed along a rumor he thought was true; but it was just an underworld rumor, after all.”
“Skipper—don’t you think the iceworm was sabotaged?” Bud asked in surprise.
“Oh, I think there was sabotage, all right. But the whole idea of somehow using the xenocule as if it were a bomb with a timer-fuse—that doesn’t seem possible to me.”
“I agree,” said his father. “It seems to get active in a more or less random way.”
“Whoever hoped to disable the Azov could hardly have expected it to happen according to some closely detailed plan. If Maznyrkov’s group wanted to get those samples before the government could, it’d sure be a lot easier to just snatch them up when the iceworm finally returned to base. I think the Commissar was as surprised as anyone when the Azov got stuck under the ice.”
Tom’s mother put in, “But then when it did he had to arrange for his men to steal your icecraft, because if the government salvagers got there first they would take possession of the ‘worm’ and the samples then and there.”
“Or maybe the icecraft got jacked from Santa’s Workshop before ol’ Mazzie’s boys could steal it!” Bud noted.
Sandy smiled. “In other words—there’s a second bunch involved! It could be connected to the guard who blew up that cable anchor.”
“And the Bellarmins make three, if I counted right,” said Tom wryly.
“Hey, don’t stop now,” gibed Bud. “We haven’t tied the Space Friends and the Black Cobra into it yet!”
Tom wasn’t in a laughing mood. “So far it’s been kept away from the solarplane project. We’ve got to keep it that way! Er—by the way, Mom—didn’t you say you were planning to invite Bash to dinner tonight?”
“Yes, Dear. I called her while you were in Shopton this morning.”
“But she― ”
“She declined the invite,” Sandy told him.
Tom’s sister had a smug look. “Gee, I don’t know. Guess you’ll have to puzzle it out, genius boy!”
“Oh boy,” muttered Bud.
Days rolled past without incident, days without sunset or sunrise for the work crew at L1. But at last Bob Jeffers announced to Tom that the new macromol formulation had been applied to the walls of the airflow scoops, and all sixteen solarplane units were now linked together.
Tom Swift nodded at the Private Ear Radio in his hand. “Then it’s time to start the long drop. And when she hits the air up above the Arctic Circle—I’ll be there.”
To watch—or to mourn!
ASSAULT IN THE IONOSPHERE
THE DESCENT of the solarplane platform from L1 was slow and delicate, a complex weaving of trajectory arcs that played out over nine days. Tom and his father maintained tense watch over the huge structure by means of the megascope space prober, and astronomers on the Enterprises outpost in space, and on Nestria, also kept an electronic vigil. “Perhaps the Space Friends are also watching,” remarked Mr. Swift.
“I’m sure they are, Dad. But if things go wrong, we can’t count on their helping out.”
Swift Enterprises’ resident mathematician, Omicron Kupp, obsessively checked and rechecked the changing parameters of the solarplane’s curlicue course, which began to resemble a Gordian Knot as it swung by the Earth.
At last the crucial moment—atmospheric insertion—was at hand. Bud confidently piloted the Sky Queen over the Arctic Circle and high into the sky to the selected rendezvous point above Baffin Island, north of Canada. “We just entered the ionosphere, Swifts!” Bud reported. “Jetz, it wasn’t so long ago that it was way out of reach for the Flying Lab.”
“The rebuilt engines have really proven themselves,” nodded Damon Swift. “We can almost climb right to the edge of space.”
His son also nodded, his voice tight. “I’m satisfied to just reach the altitude the solarplane will be x-flying at.”
Tom and his father anxiously climbed up to the small observation dome, which Bud extended from its bay within the upper fuselage. Tom commed down to his friend, “Status, Bud.”
“Radar confirmation. Altitude 57, downrange distance, oh, say 300, dead line.”
“Perfect. According to the Spektor readings, she’ll hit level at about 40 miles per hour—just as we’d hoped!”
“Can’t see her yet, though.” Mr. Swift grasped the intercom mike. “Bud, what about the weather scan?”
“Still a nice calm day up in the...”
As Bud’s voice trailed off, Tom and his father exchanged nervous glances. “Bud?” asked Damon Swift.
“Sorry, sir. Everything’s fine. A little something on the scope I don’t recognize.”
Tom took the microphone. “Tell me.”
It was obvious to Tom that his pilot was trying to minimize a puzzling situation. “Buncha blips, way down low and ahead of us. They’re truckin’ along pretty slow, Skipper—we’ll pass over them in a minute.”
Tom was not placated. “I’ll be right down.”
Below, on the control deck, Tom craned over his pal’s shoulder, studying the radarscope. “About a dozen.”
Bud Barclay shrugged. “No big deal. They’re at six thousand feet—well, they’ve climbed a little, now—and they’re not going any faster than a prop plane. Just cruising along.”
“Yes—but it sure looks to me like they’re accelerating as well as climbing. And if they keep it up, they’re on an intercept course with the solarplane.”
“Th-think so?” gulped the black-haired skyman in dismay. “But Tom, the scope says they’re small—tiny! Man, they can’t be more than a few feet long.”
Tom switched the advanced radarscope to imaging mode and zoomed in as best he could. The painted shadow, mostly silhouette, showed a fleet of oblong shapes with what seemed to be tail fins. “I’ve never seen anything like that,” he said quietly.
“Guess they’re not birds,” remarked Bud. “Hey—could they be UFO’s from the space people?”
Tom smiled wanly. “Well, they’re objects, they’re flying, and they’re sure unidentified.”
“Tom, and boy do I hate to say it—they’re picking up speed—a lot of speed.” In seconds the objects had been boosted to transonic velocity, as if rocket engines had suddenly come alive!
Tom grabbed the intercom mike. “Dad, we may be under attack by cruise missiles!”
“Good lord! Targeting the Queen?”
“More likely the solarplane.”
“Do we have enough window to― ”
The young inventor intercepted the end of the sentence. “The micro-repelatrons don’t have enough of a punch to maneuver very far very quickly. If those missiles keep accelerating, there may be nothing we can do.”
Tom began to signal the huge platform’s guidance system—a distributed network of intercommunicating devices, one in each module.
“She’s swaying from course,” Bud reported. “Can you guide her back up into orbit?”
Bud drove the majestic skyship higher and faster. “I think I can see the solarplane now, above and ahead. Yes!” commed Mr. Swift from the dome.
Tom replied, “And we can see the missiles up ahead.” The minute white specks were rising steeply now from below, their velocities more than sufficient to meet the descending solarplane. The two lines would cross in a matter of minutes!
As the Sky Queen’s nose came up, the solarplane suddenly inched into view like a downward moonrise, past the wide horizon of the ship’s upsweeping prow, which held the cockpit viewdome against its underside. Each unit of the platform was five-sided, and the crescent-shaped apertures that pierced through them were curved downward from the boys’ point of view—resembling the sad, howling mouths of the mask of tragedy!
The solarplane continued its descent as Tom tried desperately to swerve it sideways to safety by command signals. But as the Sky Queen settled into a position above and behind the platform, he moaned softly. “Oh no—the missiles are compensating.”
“I can’t maneuver her out of the way, not fast enough.” Tom sighed in resignation and despair. “Break off, Bud. We can’t do any more. Get us clear of the explosions. They win this one.”
Suddenly Tom’s pal swiveled fiercely in his seat, hand cutting the air in defiance. “Not on your life!” he grated. “Grab hold!”
Before Tom could protest, Bud flew at the controls. The Flying Lab abruptly jetted forward with cannonball speed!
Thrown backwards, Tom clawed the seatback in front of him. “Bud! You’ll ram the—!”
Keen gray eyes surveying the instruments, Bud made fine adjustments as the Queen lunged near. At the last possible moment, the young pilot edged the nose up and banked sharply to starboard. His chum boggled as Bud flipped a pair of switches with a single sweep of his hand. Good night! cried Tom’s frantic thoughts. He’s killed the aeolivanes!
Without the electronic assist of these devices forcing the airstream under the fuselage, the Sky Queen would falter and fall!
But before the thought was completed, the topside of the solarplane assemblage had flashed by them, mere yards below the Queen’s underhull. Bud banked again, circling back in an impossibly tight curve—and accelerated. Once more he streaked obliquely across the solarplane platform, clearing it by a heart-stopping margin.
“H-here they come,” whispered Tom, his gaze fastened to the radarscope. The converging missiles were less than a thousand feet away! Would they now hit the Flying Lab as well as the solarplane?
But dread became joyous astonishment!—the objects missed both, passing in front of the prow of the solarplane. For the briefest instant they were visible just above. Then the sky was crowded with flashing light and fire!
“Goin’ down!” gasped Bud. The deck tilted sharply, throwing both of them forward. Then, in a moment, he leveled again. All around them was a rain of tumbling, smoking debris—of the predatory missiles, not their vulnerable prey.
The Queen angled up again, this time sanely. Soon they were once more in sight of the majestic, unharmed x-flight platform, sailing along undamaged and serene.
Tom’s voice was faint and hoarse. “D-Dad?” he commed. “Are you—okay up there?”
“Yes, if battered constitutes okay. What about the solarplane?”
“It’s safe! Our fighter pilot down here got it to leap out of the way of the missiles!”
Bud was grinning—with a side of trembling. “Bernoulli’s Principle, genius boy. Fast-moving air over a surface pushes down with less force than the slower air underneath it—so up she goes! I figured our dainty Queen here would drag quite a load of wind along with it with the aeolivanes switched off.”
“The pressure shift shoved the platform into a bank, then yanked her sharp-sideways on the second pass. The micro-repelatrons could never have done that.”
“Call it a sudden bank job,” Bud chuckled in glee. Then he added: “See, Tom? I really do listen to those lectures of yours!”
His heart still thudding away, Tom used his Spektor device to check the readings from the solarplane. “She’s great—perfect! Just needs some minor course tweaking.” Then he gave his best friend a squeeze of gratitude and sheer admiration.
Mr. Swift now rejoined them, and the shaken three-man sky crew discussed what had happened in sober terms. “I take it there was no fix on where the missiles came from.”
“Sorry, sir, but no,” Bud replied. “They were already up and flying when I spotted them on the scope. It’s pretty obvious they were cruising toward position to ignite the rockets.”
“I assume Canada hasn’t declared war on Swift Enterprises,” commented Tom dryly. “They could have come from anywhere.”
“Even outer space?” asked Bud.
“More likely somewhere in Russia! Targets so small, slow, and low might’ve slipped through the defense nets of all the countries they flew over—even satellite tracking.”
“So now we know that your solarplane is also a target of our enemies,” murmured Damon Swift. “But why? And which of them?”
Tom snorted. “Attacking me and Swift Enterprises may be the one thing all three gangs agree on!” The Sky Queen immediately alerted the U.S., Canadian, and Russian governments of the incident.
They paced the slow-moving solarplane for several hours, and Tom reported happily that the heat-reflecting macromols were spreading in its wake exactly as intended. “Ozone, too.” But Tom’s exultation dimmed slightly as he suddenly thought about Bashalli and her disapproving attitude toward technological interventions in environmental problems. He only hoped the longterm result would change her mind. It was a doubtful hope.
At last they left the platform to instrumental monitoring and its own guidance system, swerving south-eastward across the ice and into the territories of the Russian Federation. Mr. Swift had joined the flight for more than the view of the solarplane’s debut: with many others he had received a formal invitation to visit Iskrya and participate in a week of scientific observation. As promised, the great fantastic stratosphere station was now open to the world. And crowing.
Bud asked his friend if he were sure the solarplane would be safe from further attack. “Sure? No,” replied Tom grimly. “But I doubt the enemy—enemies!—would alert us by a partial assault if they planned a reserve backup for further along. They’d throw everything they had into the first strike.”
“And besides,” added Mr. Swift with a hint of a smile, “we can’t mother our baby bird forever. The whole point of the experiment is to see if she can take care of herself way up high.”
Finally, discreetly escorted by Russian fighter jets, the ship came within view of Iskrya. Receiving final clearance they carefully approached the perimeter of the flying sky-island on jet lifters.
“I know the Queen’s pretty deft, genius boy,” Bud said; “but you don’t really think she can squeeze through those slots into the ‘parking garage,’ do you?”
“Pal, I’ve had enough harrowing situations for a day or two. Our official ‘handler,’ Mr. Ullamig, has worked out an alternative docking technique.”
The Flying Lab drew nearer with ungainly delicacy, bringing the bottom deck’s side hatch even with an enclosed “jetway” corridor that had been swung out from the wall they were paralleling. The two doors mated.
In moments Mr. Swift had walked across the pressurized bridge. The boys could see him standing with Petar Ullamig behind a wide viewpane. Damon Swift waved, and Tom and Bud waved back. “Glad something went smoothly,” joked Bud. “So where to—home, or the solarplane?”
“Home,” replied the young inventor. “But I’ve received approval from the authorities to take the long way back—with a short stop en route.”
Tom directed Bud to steer them almost due east for a supersonic trip of more than 2000 miles, deep into the great Siberian wilderness, the taiga. Though they had to hold back on speed to allow their watchful jet escort to keep up, they had reached their destination in less than two hours. “Okay, Skipper, welcome to beautiful Krasnoyarsk Krai,” Bud announced as he slowed the skyship for jet hovering. “And given that fact, where the heck are we?”
“That city we flew near was Mutoray on the Chunya River.”
“All I see now is pasture-land and forest.”
Tom grinned. “You might have heard of this place under its local name—Tunguska.”
“Never heard of it, hmm?”
But as Tom explained, Bud began to remember articles he had read, and speculations that were sensational. On June 30, 1908, the wild forests had been prey to what was known as the Tunguska Event—a torchlike flare of blinding light, bright as the sun, sweeping downward. The result was a thunderous explosion, a violent shock that jerked people off their feet and sent horses stumbling. “It’s usually called the Tunguska Meteorite,” Tom explained. “The dust it stirred up stayed in the sky for months!”
“Jetz! Good thing it didn’t come down on a city!”
“If it had arrived four hours and forty-seven minutes earlier, Bud, it would have hit St. Petersburg!” Pausing for a crossing thought, the young inventor added soberly: “You know... Bash is concerned about science and technology and ‘environmental impact.’ What happened here was a mighty big impact, and it knocked the environment for a loop! If other such things come crashing down on our heads, human invention and ingenuity might be the only thing capable of preventing deaths in the millions!”
Bud digested the horrifying scenario for a silent moment. “So... it was a meteor?”
Tom responded that the nature of the event had never been determined. Decades later, scientific expeditions in the isolated region had recovered microscopic silicate and magnetite spheres in siftings of the soil, and later in the resin of the trees. “Analysis showed high proportions of nickel relative to iron which is also found in meteorites, which suggests something meteorlike from space.”
“Meteorlike!” repeated Bud. “That’s what we always say when we talk about the message-missile the Space Friends sent to Enterprises!”
Tom shrugged. “All sorts of alternative explanations have come up, from a microsized black hole to an exploding spaceship. But the standard explanation is that a fragment of space rock—possibly buried in cometary ice—was the cause. It apparently burst in the air before actual impact, whatever it was. No definite pieces have ever been discovered.”
Bud studied the terrain through the downsloping viewpane. “Well, I sure don’t see a crater. I thought maybe there’d be a lot of old trees lying on their sides.”
“Whole forests were knocked down, in a radial pattern—but nearly all the signs have been rotted or worn away over the last 100 years.”
“I see. So just what are we doing here—celebrating the Centennial?”
Tom laughed. “Light some candles if you feel like it, flyboy. As for me, I’d like to take a few samples from the shore of a little freshwater lake, Lake Cheko. It’s fairly deep and has conical sides, and it’s roughly at the center of the blast area. Researchers think it might have been formed by an impact related to the event, and instruments have detected some sort of dense object buried underneath the lake bed.”
“Uh-huh.” Bud flashed his friend a wary look. “Please tell me you’re not planning on using Swiftian super-science to fish out an alien space capsule!”
“Naw, not right now. Gotta get home for supper! But I thought I’d pick up a few soil and rock samples to check the iridium ratios. Meanwhile, I’d like you to circle in the Sky Queen so the LRGM can make an automatic gravity-scan of the lake area.”
“Wilco!” The young pilot reached forward to program a descent to land, but Tom shook his head.
“No landing, Bud. There’s no open clearing and the lifters might set off a forest fire. Instead, I’ll drop down in a liftsuit.”
Tom’s liftsuits were one-man flight-assist devices that made use of “antiballast” to completely counteract the weight of the wearer. The negative weights were composed of ingravitized matter that Tom produced by means of his G-force inverter.
As the ship hovered some 200 feet above the lake, Tom soared smoothly out the side hatch, lighter than a feather, his flight controlled by the thrust of a pair of micro-repelatrons tuned to the composition of the air. Dangling from the liftsuit harness, he drifted down weightlessly to a soft landing on the lakeshore.
Tom began to take samples, the Sky Queen making big, high circles. But suddenly the liftsuit radcom buzzed to life. “Tom! Get back up here!”
“Why? What’s― ”
“I just got a call from your Dad! Something’s happening to Iskrya!—Jetz!—the whole thing’s falling to the ground!”
STRICKEN SKY ISLAND
BACK UP and aboard the Sky Queen, Tom breathlessly demanded the details. “Your Dad’s on the radcom—talk to him while I set course back to Iskrya!” replied the pilot.
Tom could hear a babble of Russian voices in the background as Mr. Swift explained the details. “I’ll tell you what Ullamig is telling me, son. Some fifteen minutes ago, radar picked up a flock of objects rising from ground level at multimach speed.”
“More of those micro-missiles!”
“They certainly appear to be the same sort of thing. They targeted Iskrya—not the platform itself, but the liftbag. Some missed, but most of them tore right through!”
“Tore through? But Dad, how― ”
“Never mind that, Tom,” interrupted Damon Swift. “The bag has multiple holes in it and is starting to collapse. The station has become unstable, and Ullamig says it’s losing altitude fast.”
“I see. But even several holes in that giant liftbag should only have a gradual effect, if they’re as tiny as those missiles.”
His father agreed. “But there are some extra factors. First, those holes aren’t staying small; the bag is ripping open above and below.
“The more acute problem is this. As the word spread, there was panic and confusion. The visiting scientists, and apparently many of the regular personnel, were frantic to get off the platform and back down to earth. They crammed into the three working elevators—whatever they like to call them—and started descending.
“The elevator cabs are several miles down now, and they’re stuck!”
“Ullamig says that the magnetic cables have become too slack as the platform has sunk down. As they’ve curved, kinks have formed above and below the capsules, and the magnetic induction system is sputtering out. Some of the engineers are afraid the columns will pull apart completely!”
“I understand,” said Tom. “How many people are we talking about?”
“No way to tell. Dozens—maybe close to one hundred over all, packed in tight and panicking!”
Tom choked off his horrified reply. Collecting himself, he said, “Dad, if the bag is literally ripping apart, you and the others still on the platform are in no less danger than the others.”
“Yes... I know, son. I tried to be one of the ones who didn’t panic, but it seems it won’t make any difference.”
“The Queen can pull off a rescue!”
“Of course you can,” was the cool reply. “You can rescue many of these people. You may have time for several ferrying flights. But the platform will eventually become too skewed for any pressurized docking maneuver. And they seem to be saying that the elevator columns could give way any time!”
“Dad—we’ll push to the limit—and over!—to get there as fast as possible.”
“Naturally. And—as Bud might put it—we’ll all just hang loose until you do.”
The Russian jet escort gave up trying to keep pace with Enterprises’ advanced super-plane. A radioed message informed Tom that the Federation government had authorized him to take whatever steps he deemed necessary to minimize loss of life on Iskrya.
Dancing about the Mach Four line, Tom estimated arrival at Iskrya in less than an hour.
“But what’s the truth, Skipper?” asked Bud fearfully. “What can happen during that hour?”
“Anything—everything!” grated his pal. “If that wonder plastic of theirs is actually ripping apart at the seams, they could be in free fall now!”
Bud sucked in his breath. “Okay, look, maybe the Challenger could go suborbital from Fearing and get to Iskrya even before― ”
“The Challenger is tens of thousands of miles up in space right now en route to the outpost. And the Starward is up at the L1 site working on solarplane number two.”
“Then I guess we’re it.”
“We sure are.”
As they finally neared the stricken sky island, decelerating the Queen from Mach Four at the last possible moment was itself a violent and dangerous procedure. At last they were hovering in position. It was obvious that the situation had deteriorated to a critical point. The slack elevator columns were curled and wrinkled like an un-ironed cotton shirt, and the platform itself—now miles down and visibly sinking—was listing at a dangerous slant.
“You can see the rips,” muttered Bud. “Jetz, the whole bag has started twitching in the wind.”
Tom gripped the radcom microphone. “Dad, the situation is too far gone to use the ship as a lifeboat—it looks like the station and the cables could give it up any moment now!”
“I concur, son,” came the thoughtful, reassuring voice. “I know you wouldn’t be saying those words unless you had an alternate plan.”
“I do. Please put Mr. Ullamig on the com.”
The man was near polite hysteria. “What do you say to us, Tom? We are to die?”
“Not right now, sir. I need you to put me in touch with one of your engineers, someone who is completely familiar with the exact composition and characteristics of the bag plastic.”
“Wh-what? I... you see... it is my own responsibility to answer all― ”
It was all the young inventor could do to suppress an undiplomatic shout. “Look! I don’t care about politics and levels of approval and whatever it is you think more important than saving yourself and everybody else—sir. I know your bag is mostly made of Tomasite. I just need to know the precise chemical composition. Now get me someone!”
Mr. Ullamig gulped audibly, and in thirty seconds a Russian engineer was on the line, Ullamig serving to translate the terse conversation.
Tom then gave Bud new instructions. “Here goes, Skipper. So—the bag plastic― ”
“About ninety-eight percent good old Tomasite, with a little chemical tweaking in the interest of national pride,” declared the young inventor. “It can take the heat.”
The Sky Queen lifted to the very summit of the vast balloon. All the rips and holes were thousands of feet further down. The Queen hovered. Then it began to edge down. In a moment all sixteen jet lifters were blasting at the liftbag material from inches away!
The bag shuddered massively under the jet onslaught, and the youths envisioned the effect on the platform and the dangling elevator cables. Yet there was no other way, risk or no risk. The only means left to save lives was to lift the entire structure back to its position in the stratosphere!
“It’s starting,” murmured Tom. “The bag’s become more taut.”
“No sign of melting. Man oh man, good old Swift Tomasite! No wonder they decided to bootleg it.”
Tom’s plan was daring—yet simple. The heat of the lifters was heating the air in the balloon bag. As the air expanded, the leaking balloon would develop a renewed lift, which Tom estimated would compensate for the continuous loss of the contained air through the holes.
But it would take a great deal of heat to make a difference in such an enormous volume. It would have been better to apply the heat close to the base of the balloon, but Tom knew the combined lifters were the most efficient torches, and they could only be applied with the skyship hovering just above the top; furthermore, he wanted to stay above the level of the punctures. He kept it up, minute after minute after minute.
At first there was no measureable effect. But after nervous aeons of anticipation came the jubilant report from Mr. Ullamig that the descent had drifted to a stop, and was now reversing. “We are rising again, Tom! The maglev cables—that is to say, magnetance lift columns—are straightening. One of the elevator capsules has been able to resume its motion.”
Tom collapsed gratefully into his seat.
By the time Iskrya had resumed an acceptable altitude, repair work had already begun. Small blimp-like vehicles began to carry work teams up into the newly hot air. They began the long, laborious process of patching the rips. But even slow progress lessened the danger, bit by bit.
At last the Sky Queen was able to back away. “Good thing,” remarked Bud. “The lifter fuel is starting to get low, Tom.”
“Russian military bases have it on hand. I’m sure they’ll let us make a refueling stop.”
“If they don’t― ”
“There’ll be an irate letter in Pravda tomorrow morning.”
After many exchanges of message with grateful Iskrya inhabitants, including Tom’s father, the weary youth directed Bud to one final task. As the ship hovered near one of the rips, Tom donned a pressurized and heated flight suit and had Bud extend the Queen’s underhull landing deck on its pistons. Standing at the edge of the deck, the young inventor extended a sensitive instrument on a long rod until it touched the torn, hanging plastic beneath one of the long gashes. After taking a minute sample, he went up to one of the lab cubicles to study it, while Bud flew the ship to a military base where they had been given effusive permission to refuel.
The nose of the Sky Queen turned to home, this time taking the westward route. Presently Tom joined his friend in the control compartment.
“What were you looking for in that sample, genius boy?” inquired Bud. “Planning to tag Russia for patent infringement?”
Tom shook his head. “Trying to solve a mystery. Bud, you know how tough Tomasite is. Even a supersonic missile shouldn’t have been able to punch a hole in it like that—it might’ve pushed the bag inward as far as the opposite side, but it would just spring back from air pressure and slough the missile off.”
“That’s true. And even if you could make a hole, it shouldn’t rip. Tomasite just doesn’t.” Then Bud added, “Maybe they just went a little cheap on their knockoff.”
“That’s what I wondered, and that’s why I took a sample.”
Tom’s tone was serious, even grave. “It had nothing to do with the composition of the plastic.”
“Did the missiles have a diamond tip or something?”
“Better than that, chum. They had incismitters.”
“Hunh?” Bud reacted in surprise. “You mean, like the icecraft has?”
“Yup—exactly like, though the units would have had to be miniaturized. The only explanation that I can put together is that each of the micro-missiles had a receiving incismitter ‘scoop’ on its nose, and an expelling one at the rear. In other words, the hole was made by transpositioning the plastic material from fore to aft and tossing it away in the air. Once the hole was created, it wouldn’t be too difficult for the missile to force its way through. Especially given what I detected in my sample just now!”
“Don’t leave me, er—up in the air! What?”
“The cause of the ripping. The Tomasite composite was degraded by a spray of acid, flyboy. And Tomasite is supposed to be invulnerable to all known acids.”
“Then it’s some unknown kind,” pronounced the other. “From outer space, you think?”
Tom couldn’t help smiling. “You’ve got space on the brain, pal. No—but it’s still pretty disturbing. According to my analysis the acid seems to have been developed from something we already know about: the anticrystalization chemical used by the Azov-441!”
Bud reacted angrily. “Then Maznyrkov and the Russian government must be behind it, just as we thought! They’re the ones that built the iceworm! Jetz, they already know all about the acid—and how to build a micro-missile to squirt it!”
But Tom didn’t endorse the conclusion. “The thing is, we don’t really know that Commissar Maznyrkov himself was directly involved in any of this. We’ve also suspected Yoz, remember? It could be a faction in the defense establishment, or maybe that environmentalist group Ullamig mentioned.”
“Or the remaining Bellarmin boys. Or Loot Luxor!”
Tom chuckled wryly. “Our line-up is way out of control! One thing’s sure, though, I think. There’s a tie-in to the q-platinum business.”
“How do you know?”
“Because platinum has some properties that make it an essential part of the incismitter mechanism if you want to miniaturize it. And those very properties are especially prominent in this new ‘quasi’ alloy. A good engineer would know how to use it.
“I think—and it’s more than just a thought!—that some people who know a lot about the Russian iceworm and how it works have been studying our own icecraft over these last weeks, taking apart the incismitter vanes and using them as models to create the penetrator missiles that hit Iskrya. They’ll build more, Bud.”
“Good gosh! Can’t we do anything?”
Tom nodded with determination. “New course headings, pilot. North to Ostrovskiya Lakrimon and Santa’s Workshop. And answers!”
THE HIGH TRAIL
THE FLYING LAB had scarcely touched the barren ground of the iceworm base when Tom and Bud scrambled out the hatchway to confront Commissar Maznyrkov, whose Santa Claus heartiness was more hollow than ever. “Boys! Now you are heroes all over again!”
“Then I take it you know what happened,” noted Tom coldly.
“I surely do! Though it may be a little while before the government decides precisely how to ‘spin’ the story for the public. Ah, politics, eh? But the two of you are well above such nonsense.”
Tom refused to talk of politics. “Sir, I’m here with a serious purpose. I’ve discovered some alarming implications from studying the missile attack. It could involve danger to the iceworm and icecraft, wherever they are now—and to your base here.”
“What! Really? My gracious goodness!”
“I’d say the word is tchkaida, Commissar,” Bud remarked.
“Your government has given me authorization to deal with this imminent threat to life as I see fit, sir,” Tom semi-exaggerated. “I’m asking you to call together, in your meeting room, all the guards and security personnel; also the base executive staff and your own assistants. The research and technical people won’t be needed.”
“There’s no time for me to make a presentation in written form, Commissar! It’s vital! Everyone’s life is at stake!”
Tom watched the man’s reactions keenly. Maznyrkov paled and burbled, but said sharply:
“Very well, Tom. I will make the announcement.”
Bud cleared his throat. “Say, Tom, it’ll be crowded enough in there—will you need me?”
“No, take a walk. Hit the snack machines.”
“Roger!” The black-haired youth mustered all his strength to avoid winking.
Tom’s presentation was truthful enough. It was also lengthy and somewhat confusing, interrupted every few words by translation. At last he took some halting questions, and Maznyrkov dismissed the crowded assembly. “This is surely dreadful,” he told Tom. “Little cruise missiles, like toys, with acid and—what do you call them?”
“Yes, yes. And so it is those same people that stole the American vehicle, and presumably the Azov-441.”
“I think so. You’ve had no word?”
Commissar Maznyrkov shook his big face. “Not a ploop. The Moscow boys have been searching all over by helicopter and snowcat—even on skis. No nothing, no demand for money, no threats, nada. It is a bad scene, most surely.”
“Have you heard from Miss... that is, from Yoz?” Tom inquired.
“That irritating little fat woman? Zhira, kak starushke—‘fat as old Granny.’ No indeed. We are spared that now.” But he added hastily, “Of course, the press and such must have freedom. It is the new cool Russia.”
Tom caught sight of Bud standing near the Sky Queen, who nodded his way. “I’ve done what I came here to do, sir. Everybody must be watchful.”
“By Dear Holy Russia, they shall be. I so order it. Now my friend, happy trails to you.”
“Until we meet again, Commissar.”
As the hatch closed behind Tom and Bud, they exchanged conspiratorial grins. “Genius boy, I really do like playing secret agent!”
“So you found him?” exulted Tom.
“Yep—Vladimir Cjarnosk, your biggest fan. With most of the watchful eyes off listening to you, I was able to get him to talk to me out in the hall. In whispers. He was pretty nervous.”
Tom nodded. “With good reason. Did he have something to say?”
“Just as you figured,” Bud said. “He took a trip back home for a few days, and sure enough, his lowlife pals had the latest word on the street.
“Vlad says there’s a secret gang of profit-hungry types—he called them a cabal—working out of the Ministry of Defense of the Motherland and something called the Federation Supreme Office of Science Advancement. The top government guys don’t know about it.”
“Nobody has any names, but he’s thought to be involved in it. The gang supposedly has both ice vehicles, and is panting to locate the main mother lode for that special platinum. They want to do some mining and selling before the government moves in.”
“How about the micro-missiles?”
“He just shrugged.” When Tom asked if Vladimir Cjarnosk had given any information about the hideout location, the reply was, “Nothing much. Somewhere in the ice. But there is a rumor that they purchase supplies at a little fishing village out on Cape Columbia.”
“That’s on the north coast of Ellesmere Island,” Tom mused. “Bud, we can’t wait for the authorities to get moving. The solarplane is passing through that area now, and the Spektor says it’s nicely on course.”
“Plan to drop by?”
“The plane moves so slowly that the gang may be tracking it from a radar vehicle down on the ice, or even by some guys on skis with handheld units—she’s a mighty big radar target.”
“I get it, Skipper!” exclaimed Bud excitedly. “We could track them from up high, above the clouds.”
“And just over the horizon, so they won’t catch us on their scope. They could lead us to their base! But if not, we could at least head north and see if we can run across the hideout and the vehicles with the LRGM and our penetradar.”
After informing Swift Enterprises of their intentions by means of the ultra-secure Private Ear Radio, Tom and Bud jetted away in the direction of frozen Ellesmere Island at the edge of the permanent Arctic ice sheet.
“Tell you one thing about global warming, Tom,” Bud remarked jokingly as he gazed down at the endless blanket of white. “It’d sure make it easier to spot hidden criminal fortresses up in the Arctic!”
The long supersonic flight led them upward into the ionosphere and at last within sight of the x-flight solarplane, surrounded by a faintly glowing halo from its macromol spray and ozone exhaust. “High altitude solar radiation energizes the molecules,” Tom remarked.
“It affects me the same way.”
The young inventor’s responding smile suddenly vanished. “The instruments—! Something’s wrong with the solarplane!”
Radar showed that the colossus was starting to swerve and shimmy! “Good night!” cried Bud. “Unless there are potholes in the ionosphere, it must be more of the missiles!”
“We would have picked them up on radar,” objected Tom. He hastily readjusted his Spektor unit to pick up a variety of channels of data from the solarplane. “It’s the guidance system, the interlinked computer network. The circuits are failing one by one, dropping out all over the platform!”
Bud’s gray eyes grew wide. “I hear you—but I don’t get it. You told me all those little brains are separate and independent, one for each of the platform modules. How in solar space could they all start― ” Then his own brain supplied the obvious, unwanted, frightful answer. “The xenocules! Tom, they’re eating the solarplane!”
BUD jetted the Sky Queen to a vantage point some hundred yards above the flying platform. The solarplane was visibly wavering, and the linked units were beginning to wobble side to side, front to back, held together by flexible couplings that could stand only so much stress before they buckled and broke.
Bud muttered, “She’s going to spiral out of her air-orbit, Tom.”
“That’s not the worst of it!”
“Jetz, there’s worse?”
“I can replace this solarplane if it crashes,” Tom stated. “Another one’s being constructed at L1 right now. But in any event, she’s not likely to crash very soon. The lift-thrust from the macromol fuel is a purely an energized chemical reaction that continues on its own, without external control. It’s like a fire with a log that won’t get used up for months! There’s no way to just switch it off. Given the way we’ve contoured and engineered the platform, she’ll cruise along at x-flight altitudes with or without a guidance system.”
“So how is that bad?”
Tom clenched his fists. “Now it’s clear as ice what the plot was! Those missiles were never going to hit the solarplane—they weren’t supposed to! They were supposed to burst above and in front of it and dust it with xenocules!”
“Which they did. Awww man!”
“So now we have a real xenocule Typhoid Mary on our hands. And we’ve completely lost remote control.”
“But Skipper, you’re saying she won’t go critical and crash.”
Tom nodded fiercely. “Not now. But she will eventually when the macromol fuel is exhausted—if she doesn’t shake herself to pieces along the way. Bud, if she goes down in the wrong place the electronics will get scattered to all points of the compass, and the world weather system will pick up the xenocules and infest the whole northern hemisphere—just as the dust did from the Tunguska blast!”
“Yeah, that’s worse, all right. Okay, wait, let’s think.” The athletic youth furrowed his brow with deep effort. “The computers are independent, you told me. Even if they can’t get coordinated and some of the circuits are failing, maybe... well, you must have some kind of redundant system on board to help her limp along for a while without flipping out too badly. We’ll have some time. Maybe?”
“Which is even worse.”
“Knock it off!”
“Listen, flyboy. We’ve jumped to too many conclusions. We can’t afford any more mistakes. The main goal may not have been to crash the solarplane, but, just as you say, to get it to fly along for a time—months!—out of control and off course! She won’t stay above the Arctic Circle; it won’t take long for her to drift over Russia, or northern Europe― ”
“Or North America! And if you blow her up or shoot her down, you just make it... you know.”
“The real crisis, the real plot, is this. The xenocules are probably sticking to the macromol ‘solid fuel’ sheathing in the scoop-apertures. As it keeps burning away, the exhaust will be spraying them everywhere, right and left, like―” Tom’s fury burst forth. “Good gosh—The Cropdusting!”
Bud shifted his pale face and panicked, desperate gaze toward the viewpane. Suddenly he reached out and gripped his pal’s arm. “Down there! I—it’s― ”
Amid the platform’s bucking, bouncing modules stood a human figure!
The boys gaped at the incredible sight. “He’s real, all right,” pronounced Tom. “And he sure wasn’t there before.”
“The gang must have flown him up and dropped him there, left him behind. Maybe he’s an informer or something.”
“Or maybe they needed a little onsite sabotage at the last minute! Whatever the reason,” Tom said firmly, “he’s a goner. Even if the plane doesn’t go down, it’s bucking so much he’ll be thrown off.”
Bud sighed. “So you’re gonna rescue him. One of your enemies.”
“You’ll have to stay clear with the ship—the lifters will rock the platform.”
“And we don’t have the baby planes in the hangar-hold.”
One minute passed. Two, three. And then Tom’s So became a lone figure in a liftsuit harness and pressurized garb, soaring away from the Sky Queen toward the rebellious sky raft and its captive population of one.
Tom called out on all channels through his helmet mike. “Can you read me down there?”
The trapped figure, pressure-suited like Tom, was mostly in the harsh black shadows that swung back and forth across the solarplane, made by the unfiltered sunlight of the upper atmosphere. Shading his eyes, trying to see through his visor, Tom desperately maneuvered about the shifting modules and finally landed nearby. Though the solarplane’s rocking made standing difficult, its slow forward motion and the thinness of the air made the airstream only a spare wispy breeze. For one absurd second he felt as if he were standing on the deck of a cruise liner in tropical sun.
The marooned iono-naut had backed further into the shadow, but the bulking pressure-suit was still plainly visible. Tom radioed again. “Speak English? Please, I’m trying to help you. Can you hear me?”
The response was clear and abrupt. “Why? Gonna say something interesting?”
“In the fat, Amerikanski Boy.” The woman tottered forward into the light. “You’re my hero and I kiss your picture every night, but, like, I don’t recall asking for help.”
The swaying caused them both to sink to their knees. “Yoz,” Tom choked, “we don’t have much time. One way or another, the platform is going to pitch you off.”
“Well hey! Not my problem. I mean, you know, my job’s all done.”
“Your job?” exclaimed the Shoptonian. “You trapped yourself here voluntarily?”
“Come awwwwf it, blue-eyes. Is anything really voluntary in this little life of ours?”
“Let’s not debate philosophy in the ionosphere!”
She laughed. “No? It’s a rarefied subject! Then I’ll just tell you something you might like to know, as this just might be my last opportunity—right?
“I hear our big-bellied bureaucrat wants to pin the theft of your ice-penetrator on me. Such a liar is he! But alas—this time, like the proverbial stopped clock, he happens to be right. One of those guards—I’m afraid the other one is no longer anything—is my own associate. Maznyrkov suspected but wasn’t sure, I gather. Poor distracted fool. He and his chumnikis are after some kind of, like, veirdnost metal way down on the floor under the ice.”
“Oooh yeah, all sorts of good—we have it now, along with the Azov-441. Such wonderful shiny stuff. Which means money, huh? Money for Maznyrkov’s boys when they sell it; also a nice advance from some folks in a bitty country on the Baltic who want to claim the rights before Mother Russia does.”
Tom caught his breath as the solarplane jerked him sideways. “Y-yeah. I get it—Kranjovia.”
“Big dictator Maurig has this thing about money and power. Which the secret entrepreneurs realized. So they approached him to finance a bit of a deal. So I’m told.”
“So who told you?” snapped Tom. “What is this group you’re working for?”
Yoz waved one thick, suited arm, holding on to the solarplane shell with the other as best she could. “Who? Oh Tom, I work for some very high-up people—the official security mob of the whole darn Russian Federation! It’s not just the black-market underworld that hears rumors. The Federation’s been trying to smoke out the moles for two years now. Key suspect: Maznyrkov. So they recruited me, planted me at the iceworm base, and told me to nose around― ”
“This is insane!” yelped Tom. “Come on—I have enough power to carry you across to the ship.”
“Whoa! Spiritual power? Strength of character? So go, already—or might you want to know just a few more facts? Don’t pass up this valuable opportunity!”
“Can’t bear to leave me? Okay then. So there I am, nosin’ around. And I get wind of the platinum thing, something the big government knows nuttin’ about. Hmm!—rocks my reality. Because, Tom, if anyone starts ripping out the bottom of the Arctic, things change that maybe shouldn’t be changed. As in, maybe the human race goes extinct.”
“From sticking a few more knives in the beating heart of Earth! No, sorry, sorreee—us Slavic people get histrionic.”
Tom Swift now understood, even as he fingered his controls for a quick escape. “So you’re one of the environmentalist radicals. Petar Ullamig mentioned the group.”
“Movement, please. Right, the life freaks, the save-the-North-Pole nuts. No mining, no industry up in the air, no more pollution. Soybean meal for breakfast. Sounds idiotic, right? Yep, that’s me. The mighty Government went and recruited a fanatical radical conspirator tree-hugging health-food nut to play spy for them!” The woman’s mocking account was beginning to become an unhinged rant.
“One of your Earth-loving friends blew up the Iskrya cable anchor. If we had died― ”
“Oh well, it’s not like we haven’t killed people before. You should learn, Tom, that some people earn the right to be killed. The guy’s a soldier—he follows orders like a well-trained robot. But he’s our robot; and you, Tom, are not.
“This solarplane of yours is a bigger criminal act than anything we could do. Here’s America, opening the sky to new kinds of pollution and official spying. And oh boy, nobody has to turn down their air conditioners!
“You and your friend and all your techno army troops make me sick!” she barked with sudden bitterness. “But!—not like I’m gonna shoot you, Tom. Fly, fly away.”
The young inventor stood and touched the liftsuit controls uncertainly. “How did you get up here? Why?” Yoz’s diatribe made him wonder if the xenocule infestation were the sum total of the sabotage efforts.
“How? Why, it seems we’ve also cut a few side deals with Kranjovia! They always play as many sides as they can, you know.
“You meet such interesting people in the game, don’t you? I have the impression you already know about this deranged control-freak the Kranjies put us on to, Bellarmin. Both Maznyrkov and the Federals would sooo love to know him. Supplier of mutant molecules and special storage equipment. The guy’s maybe just a tad warped by his personal grudges and obsessions—really, he should see a shrink—but those molecules are like an instant inoculation against the world’s machine. We don’t know or care what he’s into in America, but we sure like using his stuff, and he sure likes using our money. Bye-bye world technology—if luck holds out. Trying out the ‘pixie dust’ on the iceworm was a little innovation of my own. Just the right spot, salted it on. Maznyrkov!—I can’t seem to resist the urge to make him mad.”
So it was Yoz after all, not Maznyrkov’s platinum entrepreneurs, who had disabled the Azov on its outbound mission! “Fine. So how did― ”
“Oh, right-right, how did I get up here. Well now. Kranjovia happens to have a few high-altitude VTOL jetcraft—stole ’em fair and square. Willing to lend ’em out for a good cause, assuming it’s their own. Not that Ulvo Maurig cares anything about the Earth; but then again we don’t care anything about Ulvo Maurig. So who’s using who?
“My compatriots landed me up here because it turns out that your zoom-by maneuver messed up our plans for our compact and convenient cruise missiles. —Oh, have I mentioned that we’ve ‘turned’ some of Komzra Maznyrkov’s co-conspirators? No secrets in the New Russia! The missiles are more stolen technology, from Kranjovia with love, massaged by some of the same engineers who developed the iceworm, now working with us—giving us chemical formulas, helpful metal recovered from the Azov bins, details of those little matter-beamers of yours as they study your vehicle. Those lame little missiles, now mighty enough to take on Russia’s stratospheric monstrosity! ...um, where was I?”
Yoz was babbling fluently but hysterically; yet Tom found he could not break away. “The shoot was all carefully put together,” she went on. “But we didn’t expect you to be able to move the solarplane out of line. Bad doggie! You spoiled the angles. Most of the particle spray missed, see? The silicon-eaters got on the fuel, but we could tell the guidance circuits hadn’t been disabled. Still on course. And what’s the point of snuffing technology in the Arctic? So I—yes—volunteered to come up here to get into the brains the old fashioned way, by hand. I’m ashamed to admit my own techno background. Not so hard a job, though—just sixteen of them.”
Tom knew his voice expressed disgust as well as bewilderment. “Murder and destruction, justified by what, an abstraction? Have you ever weighed alternatives and consequences like a human being? You can’t grab hold of the world’s civilization and wrench it in a new direction without destroying people along the way—real individuals! Isn’t there anything you love today?—not just in ‘the future!’
“What about your own family, Yoz? Don’t you ever think of them?”
“No, kid, I think of your family. Nice and nuclear and safe over in—what’s it called?—Shopton.”
Tom shook his head. “Don’t kid yourself. You’re not about ‘saving the environment,’ you’re nihilists. To you and your group, it’s like a big game, a hobby. Saving the future by wrecking the present! Must really brighten your day. How about if these things are complicated? What if you have to plan and study and be patient? But no, you need some excitement in your life! How would you spend your time if the task of fixing these global matters weren’t fun?”
“By Rossya! Nice solid rhetoric, techno-boy. Now who’s philosophizing?”
Tom forced his mind back to practical matters—practical matters while soaring high in the sky near the edge of space! “When are they coming back for you, Yoz? This ride is getting bumpy!”
Yoz snickered. “Oh now, they’re not coming back. Nope, here I am, little chumniki, my little home up in the sky. Suicidal? Not unduly. But it’s occurred to us that Tom Swift, American hero and all-around good scout, might hesitate to knock down his great invention while someone is riding aboard. I was about to shoot off a flare and wave at you! I have supplies in my backpack, plenty of heat, plenty of air. I’ll ride along on Santa’s Sleigh for a day or two. Fun?—now that’s fun! It should be long enough to get us over Russia or someplace nice. Let Fate decide.”
Tom stepped forward. “Do you really think I’m going to let you stay here, Yoz?”
“Do you really think you can push around a fat lady, Tom? Shall we, like—dance?”
The young inventor tried to grab her, hoping wanly that the two guidance repelatrons would give the liftsuit enough extra power to freight her to the Sky Queen. But he couldn’t even get firm hold of the laughing, snarling woman.
It was not Fate but the solarplane itself that decided the issue. One of its wayward brains caused it to shift abruptly and wildly. Before Tom could react, Yoz stumbled backward and plunged down through the module’s main air aperture, the mouth of Tragedy!
Tom leaned forward in horror with fleeting thoughts of somehow zooming after her with his liftsuit. But then the distant, falling figure suddenly bloomed forth with what appeared to be a high-tech parachute of some kind, with flaps for maneuvering when it hit the denser atmosphere far, far below.
Guess she’ll kill herself another day, he thought.
Tom flew back on board the Sky Queen, white and trembling. Alarmed, Bud helped him into a seat in the control compartment. “I heard it all, Tom,” Bud said.
“If—if it had happened while my eyes were closed, I’d think it was a crazy nightmare!” Tom gasped weakly. “Money, power, patriotism, even family pride—at least those are things I can understand. But she’s willing to murder for an idea! Just some sort of notion, some kind of mood― ”
“Um, Tom, not to interrupt...”
“R-right—the solarplane. I’m a little shaken up, pal.”
“It’s drifting pretty badly off course.”
The young inventor was silent, ashen-faced.
“I know what has to be done,” said Tom dully. “The solarplane can’t be allowed to spread the xenocules.” He looked up at his friend. “Bud, I’ve never had to destroy my own invention before.”
Bud rested a hand on his shoulder. “You won’t have to. Just tell me what to do.”
The end of the solarplane involved a seemingly endless series of swooping passes by the Sky Queen. In fits and starts, the Bernoulli effect sent the platform twisting and turning—and ducking. Its downward chemical jet-blast, re-angled as the platform tilted repeatedly, began to work against it. It bit the thickening air with slanted surfaces that pushed it lower and steeper. Its ingenious design gave it great stability—it always began to right itself. But again and again it was undone by the deft maneuvering of the Queen.
It took agonizingly long to accomplish. At last, though, the solarplane touched the icy polar white, skimming almost flatly, her speed still modest. And then, suddenly, she was in tumbling pieces amid a riot of snow.
“The wind is minimal in this region,” murmured Tom. “The snow will cover the fragments quickly and wall in the xenocules. We can fly up in a fleet of Workchoppers and bury her in durafoam. A tomb.”
They flew homeward. The young inventor left the control to Bud and went up to the view lounge, where he mused silently over gray water. His thoughts were about what lay behind, not what lay ahead. Somewhere distant, beneath that same water, were things that would astonish him as never before—The Seafloor Space Pyramids. But now the water was only gray and cold.
Tom had contacted Enterprises and the authorities of several governments. Matters moved so quickly that even while still in the air, the Sky Queen received word that the Russians had found and stormed the hidden base of the platinum pirates. Commissar Leonid Maznyrkov had been seized trying to flee Ostrovskiya Lakrimon. Among the base personnel, one captured member of Yoz’s “movement” had yielded, under unspecified pressures, the location of Tom’s icecraft and Russia’s iceworm—abandoned. But documents found there allowed the police to finally arrest Frederick Bellarmin and his son two days later. The whereabouts of young Drew Bellarmin Jr., wanted for questioning, were unknown.
As were the whereabouts of Dr. Bvenantioz Fazgueue. “Something tells me she’s on ice,” remarked Bud.
Loot Luxor, Lord of the Microchip, called Tom as he sat with Bud in his office at Swift Enterprises. “I thought you’d like to know, Tom, that this silicon crisis is over. Now that we have Bellarmin’s notes, my people are sure we can easily work up a detection protocol for our manufacturing process. Thank gosh-to-goodness what’s already out there in the world goes bad fairly quickly—though the sort of big numbers involved in the ‘cropdusting’ bit would have done tremendous damage to the world.”
“So the world’s safe,” replied Tom without enthusiasm.
Luxor chuckled. “Safe? Not as long as there are guys like me and you at large, hmm?” he joked.
Bud could read his chum’s face as Tom clicked off the telephone. “They say grieving takes a while, genius boy.”
“The solarplane was just a machine.”
“But she was your machine.”
Tom sat down with a deep sigh, a kind of sigh Bud had never heard from Tom before. “Yoz was a lunatic, Bud, but some of what she said... What if she’s on to something? What if Bashalli’s on to something? Is all this tinkering, all the stuff we Swifts have done for generations—are we just kidding ourselves that we’re doing more good than harm? We see what’s here around us, but we don’t see what’s coming, the future. Fun, excitement, challenges... but maybe I’m just as guilty as anyone of trying to wrench the human race sideways.”
Bud drew up his stool close to Tom. “Want an answer? ‘You Swifts’ are born to do what you do. You’re designed that way—look at the blueprints! Sure, Tom, think about right and wrong. But you always do: that’s also written on the ol’ Tom Swift blueprint. ‘Look at what’s around us?’ Look out that window at Enterprises. Me, I see wonderful human things that keep us, all of us, on our toes and moving forward.”
“Even when we fall from the sky?”
“Come on, that’s what life is. Problems—and solving them!”
Tom finally smiled. It was rueful and faint, but there it was. “You’re pretty wise, for a wiseguy. Thanks, Bud. I don’t know what to say...”
“Oh, just put it like the Russians do. ‘Up your tailpipe, buddy!’”