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
“WHAT is it, Bash?” asked Tom Swift in startled alarm. His table companion suddenly rose to her feet, wide brown eyes staring over his shoulder at some strange something behind him.
“What is it indeed, Thomas,” she murmured, not looking at the young inventor.
Tom swiveled in his chair, following Bashalli Prandit’s mystified gaze through the open door of The Glass Cat and into the dim street beyond. It was nearing midnight; Shopton’s quaint coffeehouse, owned and run by Bashalli’s older brother, was an hour late in closing its doors. The two young people had been earnestly engaged in earnestly engaging, enjoying one another’s company as the clock ticked and the half-yawning door let in a dark night. And now it seemed the night had taken on human form.
A man—the shape of a man, at least—was crossing the near-deserted street. The streetlamp was behind him, making him a leaden silhouette. The beams of an approaching car briefly gave him a sliver of identity, peeled away and lost as the car passed behind. But in that moment Tom made out the edge of a face and the top of a head, and what he saw disturbed him. The man’s forehead was swathed in a bandage the color of dried blood!
The car had startled the man. His gasp was inaudible but visible. He staggered forward, his gait labored and stiff, yet determined. Two silhouette arms stretched toward the coffeehouse and the light.
“T-Tom,” whispered the pretty raven-haired girl, “he—he’s—”
The apparition from the dark had reached the near curb, but his feet betrayed him. Toes catching on the edge, he stumbled violently across the sidewalk, throwing forward his arms.
“Ohh!” exclaimed Tom, leaping up and springing to catch the man.
But as the man’s stumble thrust him into the light, one hand grabbed the doorjamb and held long enough to bring him up short. He stood there at the margins of shadow, trembling, slouching like a sack of potatoes, a heavyset man of older age, hair slate-gray with yarn-threads of white. His mouth twitched, but only silence came forth—silence, but for the wheezing of desperate breath.
The apparition slumped forward into Tom, sliding downward through the youth’s fingers. Tom caught the man under the arms and half-dragged him across the wood-planked floor, easing him down into the chair he had vacated. The man’s eyes were squeezed shut with pain or emotion, but as he felt the tabletop in front of him they struggled open and met Bashalli’s. She began a question. “Sir?—too much—to drink—?” But, staring, she interrupted herself even before Tom did.
“He’s hurt!” stated Tom. “He’s bleeding—there’s blood on my hand!”
The man summoned a wisp of strength. “F-fish,” he choked out, as if trying to speak while inhaling. “L-little... fish...”
“What did you say, sir?” asked Tom calmly. He looked up. “I think he’s trying to talk to you, Bash.”
“Yes,” she said in hollow wonder. “That is what he always called me. Little Fish.” She rounded the table and knelt down next to the man, whose head had rolled forward helplessly, resting on Tom’s supporting arm. “It is you, isn’t it? Mr. Qassarmi?”
“...fish...” repeated the man. His slitted eyes had lost focus.
“Who is he?” Tom asked Bash. “A customer?”
She shook her head, brows knit. “A friend of the family, in Pakistan. I was a little girl.” She touched the man’s shoulder. “It has been years, Mr. Qassarmi.”
Her touch was gentle, meant to soothe, but the man flinched and groaned. “He’s been knifed,” Tom pronounced. “In the back. Blood running all down. I’ll call the—”
“No... please...” wheezed Qassarmi. “It is you, Tom Swift... I came to see you, because... you are friends, you and...”
He coughed and Bashalli finished for him. “And your Little Fish.”
“Yes, yes,” he mumbled, a thick and accented mumble, yes more like ch’yezz. “Bashalli, she knows to trust me, and... and so you, you would trust me... Tom... and what I must tell you now... before I die.”
“No!” cried Bashalli in a rush of intense emotion. “We don’t give you permission to die, Mr. Qassarmi!”
Qassarmi clawed at Tom’s arm, forcing himself upright in the chair. “Death... will come, sweet little one, now or later. Tell Tom Swift... they say you know Tom Swift... if you see him, if you are alone with him...”
“He’s blacking out,” warned the young inventor.
“Tom is here with you,” said Bash desperately. “Tell him what you came to say.”
The man’s eyes rolled toward Tom. “Yes... you. I have come to tell you, only Tom Swift. Remember exactly—exactly!... write down... they will kill him. The arrow has been loosed from the bow...” The man twisted his neck to face Tom squarely, but his breath failed him and his voice dropped away. He mumbled some words, striving to articulate, failing, despairing. He coughed violently and shrank down into unconsciousness.
Still holding one shoulder with one hand, Tom fished out his unique cellphone, which startlingly quadrupled its flat face at a squeeze. “Dial, Police, One,” he told it, and it burbled the sound of its numbers.
“Not the medics?” whispered Bashalli.
“Already sent by touch, with my name and this address,” replied the other impatiently. “GPS... —Hello. This is Tom Swift. Yes, that one! A man has been stabbed here at The Glass Cat. I’ve sent for the paramedics, but I need to arrange for some police protection. I’m sure he’s in danger. Yes, yes, that’s right. Look—” He held the unit away from his face to capture the image familiar to the police, then panned over to show the unconscious man, limp on the tabletop—and the snailtrack of crimson. “Have them hurry,” he continued. “Whoever did this may still be nearby, on the street.” He clicked off and nodded toward Bash.
“I... I don’t know what to do...” she said with wide eyes.
“The paramedics will,” the young inventor assured her. Then, to draw her away from the blood and fear, he asked her, “Just who is this? You say you knew him in Pakistan?”
“Yes...” she answered, numb. “His name, what was it?—yes, Jimim Qassarmi. Every year, in winter, he rented a little cottage down the lane, and he became friendly with us, like an uncle. He was a merchant, a trader, something like that. He went to sales meetings, I think, in the big city, seasonal meetings. There are seasons for these things in our part of the world. Maybe not so much now.”
“No, Ugar’t. That is, from Ugarta. On the Mediterranean coast, by Syria.”
“I know,” Tom said. “Do you know how to contact his family?”
“No,” she replied. “Moshan might.” Moshan was the older brother who owned The Glass Cat. Bashalli lived with his family, their parents remaining in Pakistan. “Perhaps I should go rouse him... no. No, not now. I wish to remain. With Uncle Qassarmi.”
The ambulance came with a yowl, and the still unconscious figure was transferred to a stretcher cart, moved with great delicacy. Tom realized that what he had taken for a bloody head bandage, thickets of hair peeping out above and below, was actually a wrapped turban. Its stark red-black pattern contrasted sharply with the real blood on Qassarmi’s white shirt, which the lead paramedic was slitting open to the skin.
The medic looked up at Tom as an assistant fitted Qassarmi with an oxygen mask. “The stab wound is in back, left side,” he explained briskly. “Between the ribs. Pretty small, actually, but deep—might cut close to the heart.”
Bashalli shuddered. “I know that kind of wound. I have seen such things before, Thomas. It is made by a very thin blade, a stabber, not a slicer. It is used by common street thugs in Pakistan, Iraq, all over. It is called by its ancient name, biruktaw—the Persian word for the sharp beak of the hunting falcon. I think it is called in English a dirk.”
“Used in robberies?”
“Yes, nowadays—sort of a craze, Thomas, among boys of the street who must prove their dubious manhood by attacks and thefts and killings. By cowardice, which some call bravery. But by tradition,” she went on, “the tool of revenge.” She said the ominous word as the Shopton police arrived.
“A cinch we won’t be getting a statement from this guy very soon,” pronounced the lieutenant. He asked the paramedics to pause, and gently searched the man’s pockets, withdrawing a wallet. “Okay. Jimim Alyi ul-Qassarmi. Nonresident visitor. Age 61. Address in, what, something something Tul Golla, Emirate of Ugarta. You’re a long way from home, Jim.”
He took statements from Bashalli and Tom as the medics hurried off into the night. “We’ve checked the locality, the street,” he told them. “Some parked cars, empty. No lights. No one hanging around, far as we can tell. Which doesn’t mean a lot, I guess. My guess is he was dropped off—maybe shoved off—somewhere down the block. Blood already goin’.”
“Maybe,” Tom said. “But it seems he was headed here. He may have driven himself—”
“With a knife wound?”
“A great motivator,” noted the young inventor dryly.
“Yeah. We’ll tape off the sidewalk and the street, try to find the weapon. Doesn’t look like the blood trickled down far enough for a blood trail. Maybe we’ll get lucky. Never have, though.”
“This was planned,” pronounced Bashalli. “It is a plot against Mr. Qassarmi by someone who knew he was coming here. He tried to whisper something to Tom.”
“What did he say?” the officer asked Tom.
The youth shrugged in response. “I got the lead-in but not the main part—he was blacking out. Just mumbling, something about a bow and arrow.”
“Okay. Thanks. I’m having Smithson keep watch on the street—I see that electric car of yours parked far side, but look both ways before crossing, if you catch my drift.”
The police went off to their duties and mystery, leaving Tom to sit with Bashalli, whose face was stark ivory beneath her raven hair. “Oh my. He is important to me, Thomas. My family, in Pakistan, is very conservative. My older relatives did not approve of my independence as a girl—little Bashalli, all of ten, twelve. Ah, worse yet, an artist. Artists are difficult. Artists look at things too closely. The family found it disrespectful.
“Mr. Qassarmi was different. He was sympathetic and encouraged me. To keep looking, do you see? Of course you do—like you, Thomas, looking truth in the face.
“I became close to him, to his family when they were in town. His son, Sabbik, a few years older than Little Fish, but a good friend.” Tears rose into her eyes and voice. She suddenly gave Tom an intent look. “And what are you looking at, big guy? Are you waiting for me to break down? To scream?”
Her friend was startled by the vehement tone. “Bash, er... are you all...”
“Am I all right? No, Thomas, I am very much not all right. But I am also not a helpless, useless little girl! I have spent my life learning not to be afraid, not to flinch, not to scream! Whatever horror occurs, I will not, not—flutter and cry out and wave my dainty hands in the air—no! I will not scream, ever!” But as her voice broke despite her determination, she added listlessly. “I can’t.”
“We’ll uncover who did this, Bash,” Tom reassured her, covering her trembling hand with his own.
“Yes, as always, adventure, danger, this life of yours. But...” she added with a hint of scattered anger, “not so enjoyable to a dead man.”
“He’s still alive. There’s hope.”
“Yes. Hope. Always hope.” But her voice spoke cynicism.
Tom’s cellphone, prone on the table, bleeped.
“No identifier,” murmured Tom. “Hello?”
The man’s voice was quiet but deep and thick with the odd rhythms of a foreign tongue. “You have been awaiting my call, Tom.”
“Excuse me? What do you—”
“Ah, the look on your face!—priceless. Mystified, tantalized.”
The man could see him! Tom’s gaze darted through the big window, scanning the dark streets, the storefronts, the blank windows of parked cars.
“Oh yes, I can see you,” the voice continued. “And the girl. A night rendezvous. A pretty scene. Very nice.”
“Please. You do not expect an answer, do you? Yet surely you expected my call, and of course my threat. A custom. Do we not always do this? And you know well what I want, I should think, for you are known as a clever young man.
“I saw. He turned, the old man, almost touched your ear with his lips. I watched closely, with these fine electronic binoculars of mine. I saw his sweat of pain, the shine on his chin as he drooled, the crimson on his shirt. How well I saw—but I could not hear. And now, perhaps, you will tell me what he said. Oh, only perhaps: I am not hopeful that you will, Tom Swift. Never so easily, whatever the cost to you, to others. Our struggle will surely be a protracted and violent one. But I give you a chance, a courtesy.”
“Look, he started to say something, but he lost consciousness.”
“If that is true, if you have nothing to tell me—a regrettable eventuation. He comes to you such a great distance, to you especially, it seems, and he slides down through your embrace leaving you his blood. And you say that after all that, he somehow didn’t manage to tell you a few words, precious words. Odd. To be frank, we cannot afford to believe you. Alas.”
Tom nodded angrily. “Right. Then say it. You haven’t made your threat yet.”
“I have shown you my threat tonight. Deep in the back of another.”
“Lights off,” Tom hissed sharply to Bashalli. “He’s somewhere out there watching—maybe from one of the storefronts. He won’t let the officer see him.”
“Thomas... what did Mr. Qassarmi say to you?” Bash asked breathlessly.
“Something urgent, vital. Something I couldn’t quite make out.” The young inventor paused and went on grimfaced. “Something about death!”
TOM finally left The Glass Cat an hour later, after checking with the watchful police officer posted in the street. Bashalli retired to the upstairs apartment she shared with her brother’s family. “I’ll be as safe there as anywhere,” she told her friend. “And what about you?”
“I’ll be fine, Bash,” he replied unconvincingly.
“Why yes, protected by that nice magnetic alarm system.” The young Pakistani had recovered a trace of a smile, and the smile was rich in sarcasm; the Swift home’s alarm system had proven unequal to the task on many occasions, but some sort of pride or stubbornness prevented the inventive family from finding a better way—such as surrounding the residence with a garrison force the size of a small army.
Tom trotted to his electric sport car, his lean body tensed for mocking shouts or bullets. After remotely activating a self-scan system designed to take note of unauthorized technology along the lines of explosives or tracking devices, Tom clambered in. The feeling of hunted-and-haunted hung about him across town, into bed, and awaited him the next morning as he awoke.
At breakfast his pert sister Sandra shook her head with narrowed eyes as Tom told the family of the night events. “Typical,” sniffed Sandy. “But Tomonomo—”
“Right, San. ‘Be careful’.”
“For all the good it ever does,” said Tom’s mother quietly.
“It’s not that Tom isn’t careful,” his father put in. “It’s just that our adversaries fail to appreciate it.”
“I’m afraid I can’t smile,” stated Mrs. Swift. “But thank you. For telling us about the threat, Tom—this time.”
They all knew what the comment represented. Tom—as well as Sandy and Mr. Swift—had recently returned from the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, where the young inventor had faced and defeated a fantastic opponent of extraterrestrial origin. Deep beneath the dark waters, among the seafloor space pyramids, the lifeless cyber-brain called the Decider had taken control of Tom’s mind, his memories, his perceptions. Unable to comprehend what was happening to him or explain the mental incursion to others, he had recounted the exploit to his mother upon his eventual safe return to Shopton. Far from sparing her, Tom knew she had spent sleepless nights afterward worrying over what might have been.
Tom and his father drove separately to nearby Swift Enterprises. The famous science and invention facility, four miles to the side, was crosshatched with jet runways and futuristic lab buildings. It was in one of Tom’s small private labs, in the administration building near the office he shared with his father, that his close pal Bud Barclay found him—and his look of sober perplexity.
“C’mon, space boy!” Bud saluted jauntily. “It’s a great morning, the sun hasn’t exploded, the air hasn’t burned up, the Black Cobra hasn’t turned up—er, has he?—and you’ve even got an invention on the burner. Life’s good!”
Tom’s smile was very dilute. “Sure is. Or at least typical—to quote Sandra Swift.”
Bud plopped down on a lab stool. “I walked past the security office on my way. I know all about that latest in whispered warnings—and the usual followup threat. Phil Radnor told me.” Radnor was the assistant to the chief of Enterprises plant security, Harlan Ames, who was presently engaged in investigating a security matter at the Swifts’ nuclear research facility in New Mexico.
“I can see you’re all a-quiver with terror,” Tom commented wryly.
“Hey, I went diving down an antimatter volcano. Nothing scares me after that.”
“How about attempted murder by a knife in the back?”
“Okay. But that’s the only thing.”
Tom chuckled and recounted some details of the story that Radnor had not mentioned. “But right now I’m not thinking of the threat to me,” he concluded.
Bud grinned. “When do you ever? So what is on the Swift brain, hmm?”
“Another murder,” replied the crewcut prodigy. “One that might go beyond ‘attempted’! Bud, he said ‘They will kill him’. He had a very specific message to pass along to me—he may have come all the way to the U.S. to deliver it. As if, somehow, I could stop this plot that seems to be already in motion, an arrow loosed from its bow.”
“But why you? Why Tom Swift? Is it some sort of techno threat?”
The reply began with a shrug. “I have no idea, chum. Mr. Qassarmi was losing consciousness, becoming delirious. His voice was failing him, and I couldn’t make out what he said.”
“I see,” Bud nodded. “The man comes halfway round the world bearing vital words, and then he blows his lines at the last second.”
Tom rose from his workbench and paced thoughtfully, restlessly. “He’s unconscious right now—I just checked with the hospital. The heart muscle was bruised; he’s already had surgery. They expect him to survive, but they say the assault caused fibrillation; looks like he had a minor stroke. He could be unresponsive for a long time—weeks, maybe. No one knows.”
“And meanwhile somebody’s marked for death. Tom, you don’t think what he said was to be taken literally, do you? About the arrow?”
“If there was enough time to come tell me about it, it must be a really slow arrow,” snorted the young inventor. “Flyboy, a life is at stake. I’ve got to try to recover that message!”
The black-haired pilot looked skeptical. “But if you didn’t hear all of it—”
Tom held up a hand. “Maybe my ears didn’t hear all of it—but that doesn’t mean my eyes didn’t.”
“I was looking at him, at his face. Even if I wasn’t paying attention to what I was seeing at that moment, my eyes were wide open. I might’ve retained, somewhere in my brain, a mental image of his lip movements. And I’m pretty good at reading lips.”
Now Bud understood! “The thoughtograph machine!”
The thoughtograph imager, perhaps Tom Swift’s greatest leap of science, was not quite a mind-reader—but in some circumstances almost as good as one. By electronically scanning a small region of the cerebral cortex that the brain uses for cataloguing and “developing” visual imagery, the device could represent the content of the mind’s eye on a monitor screen. Still regarded as experimental and not yet available to the public, Tom had used the imager to resolve a crisis in Central Asia involving Russia and nuclear blackmail. As the device had proven its application to matters of international security, the government had requested that it be kept in restricted surroundings for the present, in Tom’s big underground lab.
Leaving the administration building, Tom and Bud hopped aboard a jeeplike nanocar and sped with an electric whir across the plant grounds. Without pause they drove down the slanting ramp-corridor that gave access to the vast underground hangar that was home to the Sky Queen, Tom’s famed sky-colossus. Down below, they parked and entered the lab.
Bud eyed the imager, with its peculiar antenna of bunched silver rods. “Time for exploratory brain surgery, Tom Swift style. Will you run it automatically while you sit in front of it?”
“I’ll need your help, pal. It takes human eyes to tell where to stop the backward-scan sequence. I’ll give you a five-minute refresher.”
After activating the imager and showing Bud how to adjust the settings, the young inventor sat in a chair directly in front of the antenna’s scan-focus “eye.” Bud asked, “Okay. So what do I look for?”
“I’ve given you the general description of what happened last night. You won’t have to go back very far. When you start seeing medics and police, continue backwards slowly.”
The process commenced—always somewhat eerie, this reverse-order peek into the funhouse mirrors of the mind. The individual images were still-frames, but as they supplanted one another they lingered long enough to produce an effect of staggery motion. “Looks like you didn’t dream much last night,” Bud commented. “Okay... going backwards... driving home... there’s Bashalli... from the way you’re looking around, I’d say this is when you were on the cell... guys in blue, in white—there!” The San Franciscan looked up at his friend excitedly. “Froze it—a guy in a turban-deal slumped on the table.”
“That’s him,” declared Tom. “Mr. Qassarmi. See the blood?”
“Sure do!—Jetz, it’s a river!”
Tom nodded. “My inventive brain is probably exaggerating—remember, it’s not a direct feed from my eyeballs. These are images of what I thought, not what I saw. Let’s hope we can figure out the difference.”
Bud now resumed the cataloguing sample-scan, inching back one thoughtograph frame at a time. “This must be it, Tom. You’re not looking directly at his lips, but you can see them at the edge. I can tell they were moving, frame to frame.” Reaching the start of the sequence, Bud now ran the device forward in “real time,” digitally recording the imagery.
When the process was concluded, Tom keenly reviewed the stored scan. Bud watched his friend’s face as avidly as he watched the screen, and saw a frown taking root there. “No go, Skipper?”
“No go.” Tom shut off the monitor in disgust. “Guess I should have expected this. The thoughtograph stills break up the action too much. The lip motion is too intermittent for me to make out what he was saying.”
They left the lab and rode back to the surface in the nanocar. Tom stopped in a parking spot near the corridor entrance. “Let’s walk back. I need to... I dunno.”
“It’s enough that you need to.” Bud knew his friend was sagging under the weight of life and death.
Avoiding the ridewalk conveyor system, they ambled along in the sunlight, watching aircraft as they came and went, greeting plant personnel that they knew—and between the two of them, they knew everyone they encountered.
“Man, there’s nothin’ more dead than a dead sound,” mused Bud, trying to ease the silence. “It’s in your ear for a split second and says its piece, and then—gone forever.”
“Unless you record it,” Tom added.
“Or thoughtograph it.” They walked along in tandem silence for a while, but it seemed Bud’s thoughts were grappling with something. “You know—what you see is the same way, isn’t it? The picture’s gone as fast as you know it’s there. But genius boy—
“You found a way to get around that with your retroscope camera. You can see into the past, see things that aren’t there anymore.”
“That’s true in a way,” Tom agreed, barely listening. “Not like we’re breaking the time barrier, but we can use electronics to reconstruct visual data by reading-off magnetic variations in the surface material...”
“So how about applying the same principle to sounds?”
Tom looked at his chum quizzically. “Use electronics to recapture lost sounds? The sound of the past?”
Tom shrugged. “Soundwaves aren’t embedded in objects the way the 3-D magnetization signatures are—the patterns the retroscope detects to reproduce eroded carvings.”
Bud stopped suddenly and grasped Tom’s shoulder. “Sure. Okay. But—the thing you’re working on now—”
“You mean the oscillotron?”
“You said it was some kind of super-duper amplifier, to pick up and analyze vibrations that’re too weak to be detected by ordinary gimmicks.”
Tom nodded, but added a half-shrug of skepticism. “True. The oscillotron uses quantum-wave interferometry to detect moving density gradients in arrays of molecules—solid objects. I haven’t determined a lower limit, but I already know that it’s able to resolve vibrational patterns thousands of times below the detection threshold of any sort of mechanical sensor or ‘microphone’.”
“And then the computer dopes-out what the pattern looks like.”
“Say, you were really paying attention, flyboy!” declared Tom with joking incredulity. “And you’re right. Back-projecting complex propagation vectors—patterns of spreading vibes in a physical medium—is a nightmare of statistical calculation. Can’t do it without a computer.”
“You said something about differential equations. I remember that from high school math—my creepy special school back in S’Fran. Of course, all I remember is that I didn’t understand it.”
The young inventor chuckled. “Don’t look to me to explain it—I leave the murky math to Dr. Kupp. But I know it’d take hundreds of hours of computer time to work it all out and get a result. Which is why I had to come up with the second major component of the oscillotron, the simul-comparator. It uses an analog rather than a digital principle to do what amounts to instantaneous pattern recognition involving a huge number of vector—”
Bud held up a hand. “Er, I’ll take your word for it. But the point is, we’re talkin’ about amplifying and distilling-out faint and mixed-up vibrations. And that’s what sound is!”
“The sound vibrations we’re interested in are long gone, Bud, dissipated in the air—gone with the wind.”
Frowning in thought, Bud intently looked Tom in the face, gray eyes to blue. “Yeah, gone. But not forgotten!—because all the solid matter in that room ‘heard’ those sounds and remembers them. Get it? The sounds are resonating and re-vibrating inside that tabletop even as we speak—echoing! But it’s too faint for the human ear to catch.”
“And how about an electronic ear?”
The young inventor found that he couldn’t dismiss the idea. An incredible challenge, seemingly impossible. But didn’t Swift Enterprise accomplish the impossible time after time, invention by invention? “Recapturing lost sounds—whispers!—hours or even days after they’ve been uttered...
“Ya know, Bud Barclay, inventor and athlete, there just might be a way to do it!”
“And you will do it, Tom—to save a life!”
AS THE police investigation continued, The Glass Cat was kept closed behind yellow tape that could not be crossed, leaving Bashalli and her brother’s family idle. Two days after Bud’s brainstorm, the black-haired youth joined the Swifts and the Prandits on a private pier jutting into Lake Carlopa, not far from the old Swift Construction Company and the home of Tom’s great-grandfather, now a State of New York historical monument.
“Children read of the first Tom Swift even back then, before Pakistan was made a country of its own,” commented Moshan Prandit to Tom. “What a young man he was! An inspiration to so many.”
“Oh, he was all right,” joked Sandy. “But this Tom—well, name one place he hasn’t been.”
“Cucamonga,” Bud responded.
“Sandra was inquiring of the Pakistani contingent,” said Bashalli. “You, Budworth, know where he has been. You are always with him. Mars, Aurum City, Brungaria, both polar regions...”
Tom shrugged, somewhat embarrassed. “I’ve been a lot of places, I guess.”
“Yes,” stated Bashalli musingly. “I guess so too.”
Tom’s mother came walking up, a wicker picnic hamper in hand. “Even if the reason is awful—it’s so good we could all get together like this.”
“Yes,” agreed Moshan. “A picnic on the lake—on the Lake literally. It’ll lift our spirits, I think. This business with poor Qassarmi... a sad thing. It is Pakistan, Mrs. Swift—Anne—yes, it is Pakistan. All these scorpions who wish to fight...”
“Me, I’d make a great fighter!” a childish voice piped up. “Ninja! I got the moves! Ya know?” The speaker was Rafir, Moshan’s 11-year-old son, Bashalli’s nephew. The boy demonstrated some of his moves, hopping and whirling like a dervish.
“Oh Raffi, you watch too much television,” Bashalli remonstrated.
“That’s a’ obscure concept, Aunt Shal,” the boy replied smugly. “No such thing as too much TV. Next you’ll be telling me to give up my Pod, weave my own clothes, catch my own hamburgers.” He grinned at Tom and Bud. “Aunt Shal’s pretty old-millennium.”
Tom grinned back. “Think so?”
“She is a modern woman,” declared Rafir’s mother, overhearing. “Dear Bashalli. Has she not grown up to be an American?”
Bashalli lost her smile. “And would you have me be more a good Pakistani daughter, Lalisha?”
“Ah, not me. But your parents—”
“Mother and Father speak for the Past. Let the Past speak for itself. Tell me, why should—”
“Saaay now,” Bud interrupted with unconvincing lightness, intercepting like a footballer. “Here comes the man with the pies.”
A rotund figure was waddling down the wooden stairs to the lakefront, bearing a carton in hand and a cowboy hat on head. Chow Winkler, an unvarnished former chuck wagon cook, had turned a henlike regard for his young friend Tom into a permanent role in the Swift family’s life, as Enterprises’ executive chef. “Hey ho, buckaroos, sorry I’m late,” he called. “Brand my sweet apples, figgered you’d start without me.”
“We did start without you,” murmured Bash, turning away from her sister-in-law.
Tom spoke to the girl quietly, with a reassuring touch. “The whole thing—Mr. Qassarmi—I know it’s hard for you.” She nodded.
“Wa-aal now,” said Chow as he approached, crunching across the sand and excavating deep footprints. “That there c’ntraption must the th’ boat. Not that she looks much like a boat. But all this Tom Swift stuff looks like what it ain’t.”
“They’ll put anything on the covers to sell those silly books,” teased Sandy, referring to the juvenile-market fictionalizations of her brother’s real-life exploits.
The group now walked toward what appeared, at first, to be an extension of the pier. The Swift family’s latest pleasure craft had been designed, in spare moments, by Tom and his technician cohorts. It was a broad, flat platform, somewhat tapering in front and encompassed by a rail. Like a sort of futuristic houseboat, the Lakelubber sported a small covered cabin at the mid-rear of the deck and a colorful sun awning.
“She’s made mostly of Tomasite,” Bud commented.
“Yeah, that there plastic stuff,” nodded Chow. “Floats like a bar o’ soap.”
“Inside the Tomasite shell she’s stuffed with buoyant Durastress foam, as we used for the skyway,” Tom continued. “Gravitex units keep her nice and steady.”
“And what makes her move along? I suppose an electric motor?” speculated Moshan Prandit.
Rafir gave a deprecatory chuckle. “Naw, bunch of midgets with oars. C’mon, Dad, you’re being old. Tom Swift is way beyond electric motors!”
“Well,” said Tom, “It is electrical—electronic’s the better word.” He explained that the Lakelubber made use of a propulsion principle he had first tested in his Mach-speed aquadisk. “Eight big fins, or vanes, extend down into the water from the flat underside of the hull. Each one contains the output electronics for my aqualytic amplitensor machine, which—”
“Don’t nobody blame me fer these fancified names,” huffed Chow under his breath.
“It strengthens the surface tension,” said Sandy. “The bottom of the boat, on top of the vanes, gets lifted up right out of the water. Then, oh, something about heaping up water on one side so it all slides forward.”
Tom laughed joshingly. “Exactly! And the thing is, it barely makes a ripple as it whisks along. Perfect for boating in a recreational lake like this one. Carlopa can get pretty crowded.”
“I suppose the Construction Company will be selling them,” Bashalli put in.
The group were hailed from the boat deck by Tom’s father. “Ahoy! Come aboard!”
“No gangplank?” asked Anne Swift hesitantly.
“Don’t need one,” replied Bud, “not with Tom’s gravity gizmos keeping everything steady as a clam. Just step right off the pier onto the deck.”
Mr. Swift held a remote-control unit, called a Spektor, in one hand. With the touch of a button he caused the Lakelubber to rise slightly in the water until the deck and the pier were even, with only a gap of inches between. “A most chivalrous boat,” pronounced Bashalli grandly.
They put out to “sea” almost before the picnickers had found places to stand. Under Mr. Swift’s control, the Lakelubber seemed to glide along as if sliding on smooth ice.
After a leisurely traverse, they came to a steady stop near the southern extremity of the crescent-shaped lake, like most of the lakefront a wooded area. “Hohhh-kay, hombres, time fer lunch,” Chow announced. He spread wide a big picnic blanket on the deck, which was covered with all-weather carpeting.
Relaxing the vanes and gravitexes slightly, Mr. Swift allowed the Lakelubber to settle downward and bob drowsily in the water. “Otherwise we’ll barely know we’ve left land,” joked Damon Swift.
Light talk wore itself out, and inevitably the grim subject of the stabbing reared up. “Now Tom, Damon,” began Moshan. “This oscillator invention—all these days later, you expect it to hear Qassarmi’s whisper?”
“Well, it’ll prove or disgrace itself tomorrow morning,” the young inventor replied, sandwich in hand. “You see, even mild ‘jostlings’ can persist in solid matter for a long time—in fact, mathematically, the molecular deflections caused by the passing compresion waves persist as long as the object retains its basic solid form. It’s like dividing a quantity in half. You can keep dividing from now till doomsday but some portion always remains. You never reach zero.”
“Indeed yes, like something I was taught when I learned English,” commented Lalisha Prandit. “It was a sort of saying—never can man get the last of the wine.”
Chow looked scornful. “People say that? Brand my tumbleweeds, ma’am, I finished off many a bottle o’ good wine in my time!”
“But you must think it through, Charles—Chow,” Bashalli urged. “You tip a wine glass and think you have taken all that is left—but when you tip it upright again, a few red drops remain at the bottom. Try again and you get a bit more, but always some portion sticks to the glass and stays behind.”
“Hunh. Guess that’s so, Bash’relli.”
“So genius boy’s oscillo-thing sips that little bit,” Bud enthused, “no matter how small a drop.”
Mr. Swift smiled. “The oscillotron is more a wine amplifier than a wine drinker.”
Tom grinned back at his father. “The internal oscillations—sound vibrations, that is—are still echoing back and forth between the surfaces of the table in The Glass Cat. Of course you couldn’t hear anything by pressing your ear against the tabletop. The vibratory energy is continuously dissipating as waste heat, and by now the wave-front ‘signature’ is as diffuse as a fog bank. But it isn’t undetectable to the oscillotron’s quantum ‘ear’ and the computer’s—”
“Hey!” interrupted Raffi. An unopened softdrink can had been resting on its side next to him, rocking and shifting slightly with the motion of the boat. Now, as he reached for it, it rolled away on the deck beyond his fingertips. Bashalli’s aunt laughed, but her son was annoyed. “Git back here!”
He tried to scurry after the can on his knees but couldn’t catch it. Rolling the breadth of the deck, it lunged overboard beneath the encircling rails. “I’ll gitcha another from the ice chest,” said Chow, standing up from the picnic blanket. But then, put off balance, he whirled his arms. “Whoa! Guess I—” He stumbled a couple steps before regaining his footing. “It ain’t me. Say, this here floor—”
“Good night, the deck is tilting!” gulped Bud, standing unsteadily.
The tilt, at first undetectable, was slowly becoming pronounced. “My goodness!” gasped Mrs. Swift. Cups and other loose objects had begun to tumble and bounce across the deck!
“We’re slumping to portside,” Tom declared coolly. “Dad, what’re the readings on the Spektor?”
The report was unnerving. “I don’t understand this,” replied Damon Swift. “The portside amplitensor vanes have gone dead—and—also the starboard gravitexes.”
“So nothing’s lifting us up on one side, and nothing’s holding us down on the other!” Tom said.
“Well then,” put in Bash sarcastically, “I would say we have the perfect formula for a tilting deck.”
Tom frowned at her as he took the Spektor unit from his father’s hand. “This is no joke. The Lakelubber’ll float on its own, but first she’ll be swamped over half the deck—we ride low in the water without the vanes lifting us.”
“We’ll end up clinging to the rails,” Moshan said.
Rafir laughed gleefully. “Wow! It’s like the Titanic!”
“But the ice is much smaller,” added Sandy, indicating the ice chest. “Oh Tom!—didn’t you at least test this boat before exposing your platoon of loved ones to the stupid thing? Gully-jeep, half the time we go out on this lake we end up drenched!”
“Calm down. It’s a handle-able situation,” muttered the youth with a certain brusqueness of tone. “I’m tuning the functioning gravs and vanes to minimum power. That’ll stop the tilting.” In a moment the entire span of the Lakelubber had settled flat on the lazy waters, the bobbing motion only slightly greater than before.
“Now I’ll get a new can,” grinned Rafir Prandit.
“Just to be safe,” said Mr. Swift quietly, “let’s go back to the pier.”
Bashalli arched her eyebrows. “We’re not shipwrecked?”
“Minimum power is completely adequate. But it’ll take most of an hour.”
“At least we can finish our picnic,” Bud joked.
“Ye-aah,” Chow agreed. “Food’s not ruined. This ain’t no tragedy.”
Not so far! Turning away, toward the lake, Tom spoke too quietly for even a Swift high-tech amplifier to revive the words.
The Lakelubber made its limping return to the Shopton pier. As the water-picnickers stepped across—now via a pier ladder—to the safety of the mainland, Sandy stopped and stared at the section of boat beneath the waterline. She moved closer, peering intently.
“What is it, darling?” her mother asked.
“There’s something on the side of the boat,” said the pert blond girl. “Tom, this could be a clue to what happened!”
“Jetz!” commented Bud wryly. “What’s life without clues?”
Bashalli had an answer. “Clueless.”
“It’s something stuck in place,” said Tom. “Looks like it’s held on by some kind of waterproof tape. I’m sure it wasn’t there when we left.” He turned to the others. “However weird this might sound—and melodramatic—I think we encountered a frogman out in the lake. Believe it or not.”
“Oh, I believe it,” declared Sandy and Bashalli in sour unison.
After a few gibes, Bud strode forward and crouched low, reaching into the narrow space between the Lakelubber and the pier deck.
“No, Bud, stay back!” cried Tom sharply. “Everyone stand back! It could be a bomb!”
THE INTRUDER CELL
“COOL!” exclaimed Rafir Prandit with enthusiasm. “Bombs! We’re havin’ a real Tom Swift adventure!”
“I just had one, thank you,” Bashalli noted coolly. “In the lovely Mediterranean. Come to think of it, we were exploded right off our feet.”
“Son,” said Damon Swift, “we have one of the small TeleTecs in the car.”
Tom fetched the compact camera device, which could penetrate water and other substances like a super X-ray. He focused it on the intruding object, which appeared to be a small, square packet held in place by opaque plastic tape that covered it completely. “Just a little thing—electronics inside. You know, I think it’s a cellphone.”
“Does anything suggest an explosive charge?” his father asked.
“No, Dad. But—”
“Wa-aal, I’m sure not gonna suggest it!” Chow gulped.
Raffi gleefully completed the ominous scenario. “When you flip ’er open—bam!”
“Yeah, or it could be coated with poison,” Bud said. “Or maybe it could electrocute whoever’s holding it.”
“Oh, Bashi, we have such a charming time on our outings, don’t we?” commented Sandy with well-rolled eyes.
“But I am not used to this,” quavered Lalisha Prandit. “You all may find it amusing somehow, but—I think of what happened to poor Mr. Qassarmi—”
Tom nodded briskly. “You’re absolutely right, Mrs. Prandit.” Turning to his father, he said: “I’m going to call Enterprises and have somebody bring RobiTec over.”
“RobiTec!” Bud repeated. “Man, I almost forgot about the little metal guy.”
“Your little rolling sniffer?” asked Bashalli.
Tom shook his head. “Nope, you’re thinking of the sensitector—we nicknamed it Rover Boy. RobiTec is a high-tech bomb snatcher and disposer. We’ll watch from a safe distance while it removes the thing from the hull and stows it in its blast-proof inner capsule.”
“That term blast-proof does sound reassuring,” said Mrs. Swift quietly.
“Bet th’ blame Pecos it does!” agreed Chow with a vigorous nod. “I been blowed-up more’n enough times in this here life!”
After a call and a half-hour wait, Enterprises employee Markham Wesberg arrived at the pier and removed the little robot-mobile from its crate. “Not a bark,” he grinned.
Tom didn’t grin back. Adjusting and activating the Spektor control unit, the young inventor rolled RobiTec up to the edge of the pier. Robotic arms with powerful, intricate fingers unfolded and extended themselves into the water. Tom and the other watchers, several score feet distant and up on the low bluff, waited tensely.
Eyes keenly focused on the small monitor screen, Tom guided the mechanical fingers, using swing-out blade tips to cut the menacing object from the tape. Finally, completely enclosed in a metal fist, the device was maneuvered into the machine’s cushioned and shielded inner compartment. “Assuming we’re not dealing with a pellet of antimatter, that should protect us.”
“S-sounds like my kind o’ assumin’!” gulped Chow. “I r’member what that anti stuff kin do!”
Bud swelled his muscular chest. “Doesn’t bother me. I went down an antima—”
“Please,” interrupted Moshan with a look at his white-faced wife, “can we not change the subject?”
“I’ll ride with Mark and Robi back to the plant,” Tom stated. “Let’s get this thing in a lab and find out just what we’re dealing with.”
“I’ll join you, son, after I’ve driven the others back,” said Mr. Swift.
Bashalli demurred, commandingly. “Not I, if you please. I wish to go myself to Enterprises. I will see right away what the cursed thing is, with my own eyes. I have to know what’s going on—no, please do not argue with me, any of you. Whatever this is for Tom and Bud, it is something—very tender to me. I need to know what I must do for Mr. Qassarmi.”
At Swift Enterprises the several watchers, joined by Phil Radnor, regrouped in the High-Energy Lab. The object was deposited behind a shielding window of ultrastrong metallumin, transparent as glass. “Okay,” muttered Tom, “let the thing blow up if it wants to!”
After the chamber was sealed, he pulled off the last of the tape using extensible manipulators built into the walls of the chamber. “Sure looks like a cellphone,” said Bud.
“A standard model, too. I can see the logo of the manufacturer.”
The robotic hands flipped it open. “Is it d-doin’ anything?” asked Chow.
“Nothing that—wait!” Tom scanned the monitoring panel. “According to the instruments, it’s ringing.”
“A soothing ringtone, I would hope,” commented Bash with false and wan humor. “Thomas, can you somehow answer it from out here?”
“It’s stopped ringing,” was the youth’s reply. “But we can have it dial-back the source of the call.” He added grimly: “It won’t be call-blocked. I’m sure that’s the whole idea.” After further scans of the cellphone with various instruments, Tom deemed it safe to be removed from the chamber.
Tom placed it on a workbench, staring at it as if it were a dangerous snake. “Okay...” he breathed.
Holding his tele-intercom, Radnor nodded at his young boss. “Mandel says we’ve got full area-scan. We should be able to pinpoint the source of anything incoming once it starts.”
“Go ahead, Skipper,” urged Bud. “Give ’er the old star-69!”
“Wait, please,” interrupted Bashalli. “Whatever you hear, Thomas—let us all hear.”
Tom nodded without responding, clipping a tiny microphone-repeater onto the cell. Everyone—including Damon Swift, who had just arrived—waited tensely as Tom had the phone dial back to the origin of the unanswered call. They all heard the ringing at the other end over the lab loudspeaker.
A click. The voice surprised the listeners—a woman’s voice! “May I azzume thees is Tom Swift?” she asked in polite tones, polished and exotic in accent, even somehow alluring.
The young inventor exchanged glances with his companions. “This is Tom Swift speaking.”
There was a noticeable pause. “Hello, Tom. How nice of you to return my call.”
“Who is this?” Tom demanded angrily. “Or do we have to play the usual game?”
Another pause. “My name is Pallida Mors. I am surely more pleased to meet you than you are to meet me. I have some things to tell you, Tom. It would be best not to interrupt me. Might I request that of you, please? If you would?”
“Whatever. Go ahead.”
“Please... as I say... do allow me to speak. It is in your best interests...”
“I said go ahead!” Tom snapped.
“Now then,” she said. “You may wonder why I used such an unusual—route—to get in touch with you. Did it all seem too romantic a gesture, Tom? Too theatrical, perhaps? But that, you see, is precisely the sort of person you are dealing with. My associates and I are little bound by convention. We make grand gestures. It is a habit.
“And so, my dear Tom, do not mistake us for persons truly rational. We are unpredictable. Thus, we are dangerous. We may do anything, merely on a whim. Or—if you displease us. Perhaps I am suggesting that you must humor us, as they say.”
Tom found he could not contain himself. “The sort of humor you used on Mr. Qassarmi!—?”
But Pallida Mors talked over his fury, calmly persisting without hesitation. “I do believe you see the point. If you and your people are trying to trace where this call comes from—where precisely—you will find it impossible. We have made it a puzzle. You will find that the signal comes from everywhere. You see? How theatrical! We are all around you, Tom, yet also we are nowhere.”
The silence that followed indicated she was awaiting some response. “All right, Miss Mors,” said the youth leadenly. “You’re wet, wild, and wonderful—and we’re supposed to take you and your cronies seriously. So let me be polite. How can I help you?”
There was another long pause, as if the mystery woman were thinking the matter over. “Now Tom, a man came into the shop owned by the Prandit family the other night. He was bleeding and might have died—may yet, in truth. That man had some information that did not belong to him, information he stole. He came there to speak to Bashalli Prandit, to arrange to speak to you, her good friend, the famous idol of your country. He came there that night to pass along his stolen... contraband. He entered that room alive and conscious. He would have allowed nothing, not even a wound, to prevent his attaining his goal.
“So I ask you now, Tom, to tell me what he said, what he communicated, the exact words. Exactitude counts a great deal. You surely wrote a note to yourself, a memorandum to remind you of this message. I insist that you retrieve that note—or plumb your memory in some other manner. In ten minutes you must call this number again. This untraceable, anonymous number.
“I will wait by the phone. But not long.”
Before Tom could protest, a click terminated the ominous call.
The youth glanced over at Phil Radnor, who shook his head. “No dice. Like the lady said, the signal seems to be coming from all directions at once.”
“How can they do that, Tom?” Bud asked.
“I can think of ten ways,” was the curt reply.
“She wants a callback, son,” noted his father. “What do you plan to tell her?”
Tom drifted away from the group, thinking. “I’m not going to tell her anything,” he said at last. “Right now I have nothing more to say—and I’m not inclined to play her game. If we know more tomorrow, after we use the oscillotron at The Glass Cat... well, I’ll put off the decision till then. It may be a violation of courtesy, but Miss Mors will just have to wait until tomorrow.”
“I’ll give Ames a full report in the interim,” promised Radnor. “Not that it’ll have much in the way of content. I don’t know what to make of it.”
“A right big poser, that’s shor what it is,” Chow added. “What kinda name is Pallida Mors, anyhoo?”
Mr. Swift asked Bashalli if it were a common name in Pakistan. “No,” she replied. “And her accent—she covered it well, but I heard enough to know that it is not from my own native language, Urdu.”
Tom looked at her soberly. “Is it the sort of inflection one might find in Ugarta?”
She gave a slight nod. “Yes. I think so. I am not very familiar with the language, but—I think so.”
“The language of Mr. Qassarmi,” Tom stated. He fixed an intense gaze on his friend. “What’s going on, Bashalli?”
Bud erupted in surprise. “Come on, genius boy, you think Bash would know? Jetz, even you and your dad don’t know—and that’s a lotta brain power!”
Bashalli did not answer, returning Tom’s gaze levelly, in silence. “Tom,” said Phil Radnor cautiously, “what exactly is on your mind? You’re not implying that Bashalli has some connection with whatever’s behind this?”
Tom did not answer. Bashalli broke her cold silence. “Or is that precisely what you do mean to imply, Tom?” She continued before Tom could speak. “But I’m not offended, for it is entirely reasonable, isn’t it? The man came first to The Glass Cat, not Swift Enterprises; his instinct was to seek me out, and Tom’s being with me at that moment was an unexpected benefit, perhaps. Indeed, of all of us here in Shopton, his only known connection is to me alone, to me as a young girl in Pakistan.
“Is that your thinking, Tom?”
Tom nodded without emotion. He said, “Let me drive you home.”
“Of course. If you think it safe.”
The two said nothing until they approached Tom’s bronze two-seater. The young inventor opened the passenger door, but his friend only leaned back against the open door, looking at Tom calmly. “Thomas, there is something I must tell you, it seems.”
“Let us say—something I would rather not bring up. Something I would rather not be true.”
Tom took her hand. “Bash, I know you’d never deliberately hurt anyone. Sometimes you like to come across as... a little...”
She smiled. “Perhaps brazen is the word. Not demure. Not ladylike. Not a submissive little—girl.”
“You know you can tell me anything,” Tom said gently. “Anything.”
“Yes,” she said. “Any truth. For you are, ever and always, a seeker after truth, Tom Swift. But perhaps there are truths one would prefer not to acknowledge. What if there is hurt involved? What if it leads to... complications?
“But of course you do not hesitate, Thomas. You yearn to know. Very well then. The truth is this.
“Tom—I am married.”
TO CATCH A WHISPER
TOM kept his face blank and immobile, as he had learned to do when the unexpected reared up in front of him like a cobra. But his face felt like it was desperate to leap from the front of his head and crash to the ground at his feet. “I... I don’t...”
Bashalli smiled. “Perhaps you are a little surprised?”
“L-let’s say I am,” was the wide-eyed reply.
The girl sighed quietly as she composed her explanation. “I do not say I am legally married, Tom—not in the United States, not even in Pakistan. Nor have I ever lived with my—husband. And yet, in the eyes of certain persons of importance...
“How to begin...
“I have never known what was, precisely, Mr. Qassarmi’s line of work. But it may have involved dealings that were not entirely within the law. This is common in what Americans like to call ‘the Middle East.’ In restaurants here you are expected to pay a tip; in Pakistan and elsewhere, the ‘tip’ is paid beforehand, and is called a bribe. Even in doing legitimate business, one becomes involved with shady characters.”
Whitefaced, Tom managed a weak nod. “Right. To buy and sell, you have to have what they call ‘access’.”
“That’s it exactly,” she confirmed. “Nice people have to do it to get along. It has always been that way, Thomas.”
“Bash... is it Mr. Qassarmi? Is he the one you’re—sort of—married to?”
She shook her head. “Let me tell the story. I will be like Pallida Mors and ask you not to interrupt.
“It seems Mr. Qassarmi ended up in trouble, owing a great deal of money to people whose methods of debt collection are best not described. His options were few. Yet—it seemed there was perhaps a way out. So—in shame and with great reluctance—he made contact with the elders of my clan.
“Clan-culture is, I will admit, very passé and old-fashioned. Yet it still exists, and it is important. My father is part of an old, well-established clan, a family of families, as it were; and as is the custom with such things, there are elders who have ‘the final say’. They are usually very, very conservative. Three ancient, dried-up old men—I have never met any of them—arranged a deal with Mr. Qassarmi.
“I was to be given, in an arranged marriage, to the Qassarmi family in Ugarta. Specifically, I was to be recognized as the designated husband of my playmate Sabbik, a sweet prize to be ‘collected’ upon my fifteenth birthday. He would then be eighteen. That is the custom. Whatever differences there were between the traditions of Pakistan and Ugarta were dealt with through business negotiations that were, I’m sure, very polite and civilized and efficient.
“Now even in Europe, one has the tradition of the dowry, a payment, now usually symbolic, that the family of the bride gives to the groom. In our clan traditions, the elders impose occasional assessments, getting money from the different families, and these are kept in a modern bank account, well invested by money-managers, for use in making such dowry payments—for the entire clan backs the marriage by giving the dowry. You see?
“So the rest is easy. Knowing that I would have relocated to the U.S. well before the age of fifteen, my father agreed to this mockery of a marriage—for things would not have gone well for him and my family if he were to insult the elders and defy the arrangement to which they had committed the honor of the clan. My parents regarded it as mostly a symbolic thing. But to Mr. Qassarmi, it meant a large gift of money, which he could then use to offset his debts.”
Tom nodded. “I get it. Everyone comes out ahead.”
“Yes, everyone is a winner,” Bash said bitterly. “And the elders, in their way, make an example of little Bashalli, who was known to be something of a rebel, an unsubmissive female. She is to be put in her place, a commodity to be sold and bought for a good price.”
“Oh yes, Thomas, I do agree. And it was a very rare thing even then in Pakistan, though I think it is taken more seriously in Ugarta.”
“Does your entire family known about this, Bash?” asked the youth.
“No,” she replied, “only my parents. I don’t know if Mr. Qassarmi has even told Sabbik, my ‘beloved husband’. And Mr. Qassarmi, back then at least, had no wife—Sabbik’s mother had died.”
Bashalli was quiet for a moment. Tom said thoughtfully: “The picture is clear, I guess—that much of it, anyway. So there’s an extra tie between you and Mr. Qassarmi. But that doesn’t explain why he suddenly sought you out as he did.”
“Nor does it explain the thrust of the knife,” the Pakistani agreed. “But the biruktaw is the weapon of revenge, Tom. Someone, perhaps the debt-collectors Mr. Qassarmi supposedly paid off, may feel cheated or, much worse, insulted. The deal went bad in some way, and they are going after the man.”
“And he was trying to warn you that the same people might target you as well,” Tom speculated. “And yet—he seemed to be saying that I, personally, had some ability to stop the... vendetta.”
She smiled and took her friend’s hand. “However we two wish to define ourselves—after all, am I not the demure and undemanding type?—you are known to be my protector. And of course, Tom Swift is everyone’s protector. King Arthur, Sir Galahad with a crewcut!” Tom nodded without a smile, and Bashalli added, “The worst of the story is over, Tom. Do unclench your face.”
“Bash, it may not be the shady creditors who are behind all this,” said the young inventor. “At some point the clan elders must have realized that you had no intention of emigrating to Ugarta and making their arranged marriage the real thing. They may feel you and Mr. Qassarmi tricked them.”
She nodded. “An act of defiance on my part, and a grave insult to the clan by Mr. Qassarmi—a foreigner, after all. Hideous though it seems, these creaky men may be willing to impose a great penalty on me. Perhaps even the ultimate penalty, Thomas. As you know, the monstrous custom of the ‘honor killing’ is still practiced in conservative parts of my portion of the world.”
“But there’s also another reason,” urged Tom gently. “Isn’t there?”
The girl’s dark eyes looked away, down. “I’ve... lost my breath a little. Not typical of me... is it...
“Yes. A very good reason. If I am regarded as married, then my closeness... with you...”
“Someone may think it’s a moral obligation to take me down. Punishment.”
“The demands of honor. Death to Tom Swift! Oh... Tom...” She began to sob, and Tom comforted the girl as best he could.
“Maybe we’ll know more tomorrow,” Tom whispered. “Maybe the oscillotron will tell us exactly what Mr. Qassarmi had in mind.”
The next morning Bud helped his pal load the new invention into an Enterprises transport van. “Genius boy, of all the things I’d never expect, this has to be the most!” boggled the black-haired youth. “Good night, you’ve been dating a married woman!”
Tom knew his pal was half-joking—only half. “Don’t rub it in. It may not be legal marriage, or even what we would call a true ‘debt of honor,’ but the situation feels—I don’t know—”
“Let’s just say dire. How many people are going to know about all this?”
“Just the bare minimum,” replied Tom. “Bash told her brother’s family last night. And you know I told mine.”
Bud nodded. “And then me. What about Chow and the rest of the usual Swift gang?”
“No need,” said Tom. “But I did tell Phil Radnor, and I just got off the phone to Harlan Ames. It has bearing on plant security. And of course I told Captain Rock, since the Shopton PD is investigating the matter as attempted murder.” The young inventor looked sheepish. “Well... I guess I did tell a lot of people after all.”
“Just don’t put Dan Perkins on the list of informees!” chuckled Bud grimly. Perkins, editor of the Shopton Evening Bulletin, was a friend but also a repertorial loose cannon.
But if the sensitive matter of cash and custom was kept from the news, Tom’s experiment was not. “I have no idea how it got out,” groaned George Dilling, head of Enterprises’ office of Communications and Public Interest, over the plant intercom as Tom and Bud made the final checkout of the loaded van. “Moshan Prandit or his wife may not have realized the importance of keepin’ the ol’ mouth on low blab.”
“It’s in the Bulletin?” Tom repeated with a groan.
“Front page stuff. ‘Swift Invention To Recover Details of Coffeehouse Incident.’ All about gasped warnings and secret messages and the usual sensational junk. And a mangled description of your oscillotron.”
“Oh well, maybe it won’t do any harm.” Tom glanced at Bud behind the steering wheel, who shrugged. “The papers have already been covering the attack itself. And in this case, the sensational junk is pretty accurate junk.” Despite his pal’s words, Bud could read worry on the face of his inventive friend. “We’re going to have to deal with this,” Tom went on in a murmur.
All bravado vanished as the loaded van drew close to The Glass Cat. The two Shoptonians groaned in unison. A large and animated crowd was pressed up against the stern authority of the yellow police tape, and a menagerie of media was in a frenzy of hoisted cameras and flashing lights. “Yep, there’s Dan,” commented Tom. “Front of the crowd.”
“Yeah—elbows flying,” Bud added wryly: “I just hope we can find a place to park!”
“We may have to parachute in.”
But there was an alley behind, and an inconspicuous back door. Soon Tom and Bud were engaged in setting up the young scientist-inventor’s newest miracle. The Prandit family, sobered by Bashalli’s revelations, stood aside and watched, and the Shopton PD stood just inside the street door looking wary and ready for combat. “Never liked these big media sensations,” grumbled Tom’s old friend Captain Rock. “You never know what a big excited crowd’s gonna do—or who might be using it as cover.”
Tom turned and flashed a grin of sympathy. “Long as somebody doesn’t lead a charge! But I don’t mind if a few people get to watch science in action. My oscillotron isn’t any kind of secret weapon. I’ve written about it on ForeSite.”
“That’s the Enterprises webzine?” asked Rock.
As Tom nodded, little Rafir Prandit called out, “It’s great! It’s better’n school!”
Bud gave Raffi a thumbs-up. “Gotta be better’n my old school!”
“Oh yeah,” Raffi said, “I read about that. You got stalked by a girl.” After a thought, he added, “But you can get anything on the Net.”
Tom Swift was a master of technological miniaturization, but nevertheless the prototype “beta” version of the oscillotron was as big and bulky as a camera from the early days of television. It was mostly a cluster of faceless Tomasite cabinetry on stilts, casters, and swivel-mounts, but one section—its “nose”—drew Bashalli’s attention. “Thomas, it looks like one of those modern energy-saving household lightbulbs. If I were the type to make jokes, I would say you are planning to shed a bit of light on this mystery.”
Tom laughed, touching the part in question, a helical metal tube coiling out to a length of about two feet. “It doesn’t take much power, in fact. The liquid helium inside almost makes it a superconductor—zero electrical resistance.”
“It’s made out of something called q-platinum,” Bud noted. “A metal alloy that ignores the fact that it’s impossible!”
“Like so many things Swiftonian,” smiled the young Pakistani.
Finishing the setup, Tom explained further. “The helix generates the—call it a quantum-resolution scanning field—that ‘reads’ the oscillation wavefront patterns in whatever it touches. In other words, the blurred trace-echoes bouncing around inside the solid mass. You know, of course, that relative motion produces a degree of foreshortening in whatever is moving...”
“Everyone knows that,” declared Bash, which brought a snort from Capt. Rock.
“Now up at the front,” Tom continued, “well... the human eye can’t make them out, but the tip of the helix has a bristle of thousands of flexible nanotubules that are brought into direct contact with the solid surface, allowing us to pick up whatever’s going on inside—in other words, whatever the scanning field has ‘resolved’.
“Then, after the basic reading—or listening—we feed the data through the processor component, the simul-comparator. The final audio output can be fed into whatever we want.”
“Will we be hearing Mr. Qassarmi ourselves, aloud?” asked Moshan.
“We sure will,” replied the youth, “through these speakers.” He glanced at the crowd outside and added in a muffled voice, “But it’ll just be audible to those of us here, in this room. I’ll be using a silentenna to create one of my sound-barrier walls between us and the crowd out there.”
“Smart idea,” stated Rock. “Whatever the man said counts as important evidence. Let’s think it through before handing it over to the wild public.”
“ ‘For your ears only’,” joked Bud, nodding at the Prandit family and the several police officers.
The coil was mounted inside a transparent cylinder of metallumin. Tom explained that the system produced a vacuum inside the cylinder to protect the detector from extraneous vibrations.
“But it appears to be unsealed, open at the front,” Bashalli objected.
“C’mon, Aunt Shal,” Raffi remonstrated. “Tom has this Inertite net thing that keeps out the air but lets big solid stuff go right through. He uses it for air locks.”
Bash looked a bit sour. “It seems I’ve fallen behind in my mandatory reading of ‘Tom Swift books’.” Tom thought: She’s in a bad mood. Can’t blame her. He realized that fear was part of the fuel for that mood.
Tom and Bud rolled the oscillotron mechanism up to the table and slanted the detector on its base column, bringing the terminus of the helix into contact with the target’s polished surface. Making some final delicate adjustments, he glanced up and said tensely, “All right, there it is—contact. Bud, switch on the speakers.”
Everyone leaned forward, unconsciously straining to catch the first sounds of the dead past—and its fantastic life after death!
WAIYAZ BRINGS DEATH
THE AUDIO SPEAKERS in the room uttered a weird, faint whine, not static but a sound like the tone of a bell that was about to give up ringing but somehow struggled on. It pulsated slightly. Studying an oscilloscope screen that seemed to float above the monitoring console—projected by a tiny model of Tom’s telejector device—the youth made minute adjustments to some sliding bead-levers.
The speakers spoke! “All right, there it is—contact. Bud, switch on the speakers.”
“How wonderful!” breathed Mrs. Prandit. “Why Tom, it sounds just like you!”
“Cool!” put in Rafir, adding. “Well, maybe a little tinny.”
Bud grinned. “You should hear how it first sounded! Genius boy spent hours with Arv Hanson and Hank Sterling giving it a cyber throat-massage.”
“Some of the ‘speaking’ technology comes from what we built for Ole Think Box,” Tom murmured absently, referring to the robotic canister designed to contain the energy-brain from Planet X.
Tom guided the machine backwards in time, by leaps. The listeners heard the words of Captain Rock, of the Prandits, sometimes the low sounds of passing cars. “The simul-comparator is programmed to skip over garbled noise and pure silence,” explained Tom. “We’re about forty-eight hours back right now.”
“Got almost ten days back in the lab,” Bud said in a near-whisper. “We played our usual invention-prank on Chow Winkler. The guy never learns.”
But as the oscillotron zeroed-in on the desired time-target, Tom’s frown of concentration became a frown of frustration. “The articulation profile is blurring out,” he declared tensely. “I’m afraid...”
There was no need to finish. The output speakers had fallen silent. “Aw maaan,” complained Raffi.
“Could the problem be in the speaker system?” asked Bashalli.
In response Tom cut the open-air speakers and donned a set of headphones. “I’m rescanning the critical period,” he told the others. “Unfortunately, each scan-sweep causes a degree of deterioration in the wavefront patterns.” After a moment he handed the headset to Bud, who shook his head.
“Let me try,” urged Bash. “A woman’s ear can be more sensitive.” But after a good listen, she also shook her head. As she removed the headset, she pronounced: “Just vague noises. I can’t make out any words.”
“But look, Tom, if it could go back ten days in the lab—I mean, this is just a few days ago,” Capt. Rock noted quizzically.
Switching off the oscillotron, the young inventor shrugged. “Some unexplained factor. Maybe something as simple as the particular wood grain and resin used for the tabletop. The system just isn’t powerful enough to disentangle the wavefront data.” He glanced at the crowd beyond the cafe door. Unable to hear what was going on inside, they nonetheless could read the expression on Tom Swift’s face, and the shake of his crewcut head. Many a face in the crowd shared Tom’s disappointment—as well as a degree of annoyance, as if an entertainer had failed to perform.
Tom switched off the silentenna. “Sorry to let you down, folks,” he called loudly in the direction of the crowd—with sarcasm.
“Oh, don’t let it bother you, Tom,” Dan Perkins called back. “Failure is a news story just as much as success.”
“I’m gonna go out and punch that stupid hat right off his head,” grumbled Bud.
“All ya gotta do is change ‘PRESS’ to ‘PUNCH’,” offered Raffi with the giggle of adolescence.
Tom and Bud began to carry the oscillotron components out through the back door, loading them into the van. As Bashalli joined them, Tom silently gestured her aboard, slamming the van door. “Okay,” he said. “The anti-sound system is activated. We’re sonically sealed-in.”
Bud held up a tiny ultra-high-density flashdrive stick. “This baby’s holding a lot of important stuff,” he said as he slid the drive into its waiting dashboard port.
“I made it out pretty well,” breathed Bash.
Responded Tom, “So did Bud and I. This digi-recording will give us a chance to hash it over together. From the reaction of our mystery foes, it seems every word counts.”
Before leaving Enterprises, Tom had devised a last-minute plan, communicated to Bashalli by cellphone on the way across town. By gradually decreasing the articulation function of the speakers, it would appear to the unprivileged watchers in the room that the oscillotron had failed in its duties. But in fact it had worked superbly: Tom, Bud, and Bash had heard clearly Mr. Qassarmi’s wavering voice, secretly recorded on the flashdrive chip. “I hate having to do it that way,” Tom had told Bashalli. “But the facts make it necessary. Word of the sound-investigation leaked out somehow. It may have been some careless remark by your uncle or aunt or nephew. Or one of Rock’s men could be a turncoat—I couldn’t avoid briefing the police. Or maybe there’s some kind of undetectable listening device in The Glass Cat. It wouldn’t be all that hard to sneak in and plant one.
“In any event, our bit of play-acting will keep the secret our secret—for now.”
They played the chip. Although there were odd distortions in the rhythm and pace of Mr. Qassarmi’s words, the intonation was clear to the ear. Qassarmi’s words—the staggering voice of a man who was in pain and lapsing into unconsciousness—were:
“Remember exactly—exactly!... write down... they will kill him. The arrow has been loosed from the bow... yes, what is it?... they chose the fourth option... in Ugarta, Tom... the secret traitors... you can find it, but... such regret... I am to say... that ‘hwiss’ brings death... oh, Little Fish, tell him to trust... trust me... what I am saying...”
Then a cough, some mumbled words, and no more from Qassarmi. “ ‘Such regret’ is right,” muttered Tom. “I think that’s all of it in English.”
“I really made my brain sweat, trying to remember everything exactly,” Bud stated. “And I got it right. Still, I’m glad we’ve got it on a chip!”
“What about that mumble at the end?” Tom mused. “Bash, could you make out...?”
“I don’t speak Ugar’t,” replied Bashalli. “But both Sabbik and Mr. Qassarmi taught me a bit of it. The first part sounds Ugar’t, and then he uses English again. I think the words are ‘If I could warn... no, cannot go on, no, cannot go on...’” Tears came into her voice. “Oh, he—he thought he was dying...”
Tom placed a hand on hers. “He’s still alive.”
“Yeah,” said Bud, “but by the time he snaps out of it, whatever he was trying to tell us could be useless. Sounds like a political deal—jetz, an assassination!”
Tom asked Bashalli, “That word, ‘hwiss’—however you spell it—do you know what it means? ‘Hwiss brings death’!”
“Could it mean a sandstorm or something?” speculated Bud. “Seasonal desert winds? There’s a term for that, I know.”
The girl shook her head. “I don’t know. It may be some sort of political movement—what they call the ‘Arab Spring,’ the popular revolutions, affect Ugarta as much as anyplace else. But also...
“Religion is a hot commodity in the Middle East. It always has been, since the days of the camel trade routes. It was the hub of western civilization. So religions have multiplied there and taken root.”
“Right,” nodded Bud. “Jerusalem gets to be sacred to Jews, Christians, and Muslims—talk about bad luck!”
Bash smiled, a bit sadly. “A nice cause for fighting. And even where one religion predominates, as in my Pakistan, the conflict deficit is filled by sect and tribe, Sunnis and Shiites, clans, dialects, ancient grudges...”
“It happens here too,” declared Tom. “Bash, do you think this ‘hwiss’ might be a religious sect?”
“Oh, I don’t know, Thomas. Perhaps you can find something on the Net.” The three fell silent for a moment. “But I do know this. If this message was so important to, to Uncle Qassarmi, important enough to come in person to America, to put his life at risk by delivering the message—Tom—” Her dark luminous eyes bored into his. “Put aside all my silly carping about your exploits and your habit of seeking danger, all that girlish fretting. This time...”
“I’ll do everything I can,” promised the young inventor fiercely. “You know I will. Even if it wasn’t coming from somebody so important to you—”
“Stuff about death gets our full attention,” Bud concluded.
Back in his office at Enterprises, Tom searched the internet with the advanced search engines he himself had developed. “Okay, ‘huh-wuzz’ doesn’t work. I’m just not sure how to spell it,” he told Bud, frustrated. “Transliteration from Arabic words into English is always hard—there’s no good equivalent for some of the sounds they use.”
“Plus, of course, this Ugar’t lingo isn’t Arabic anyway,” Bud pointed out. “Just difficult.”
Tom finally placed a speaker-call to the head of the Department of Mid-Eastern Studies at Grandyke University. After a brief and evasive explanation, Tom posed his question. “Hmm. Well,” responded Professor Hadjnal. “In Syria, my homeland, we know our little neighbor Ugarta very well. We once fought the Turks over it; Ugarta’s independence depends upon the local balance of power. She is very mixed-up, little Ugarta.”
“Have you heard of any group or person linked to anything sounding like that word?” Tom asked.
“I would suppose it is Waiyaz,” came the reply. The Professor spelled out the customary transliteration. “Let me see—how am I to explain this?
“Most of the Ugar’t are Shiite Muslims, about two-thirds. The rest is almost equally divided between Sunni Muslims, Zoroastrian refugees from Iran, and the Maronites, a Christian sect. But still, there remain many slivers, as in any country. There are Jews, Hindus, Buddhists—little pockets of people here and there.
“And then there is a sect called, using English, the Resurrectors...”
“Jetz! What do they want to do, raise the dead?” gulped Bud.
Hadjnal’s smile came across the audio link. “Perhaps at the end of time, and it will be the Mighty One who will do it. No, what they wish to resurrect is a sect of their ethnic ancestors, the people of ancient Ugarit, the city which gave Ugarta its name. We are now speaking of the second millennium BC, boys.”
“When you say resurrect,” Tom interrupted, “do you mean something imposed by force—a militant revival movement?”
“No, surely not,” replied the scholar with a chuckle. “In fact, it is more a sort of hobby among idle Ugar’t academics and, let us say, those who find value in the ancient past of the land, a culture that time has virtually obliterated.”
“Yeah, I get it,” Bud said. “Like those buffs who recreate Civil War battles.”
“Indeed, rather like that. People who are harmless, if annoying to converse with. But to finally answer the question, Tom, the Resurrectors are interested in understanding the worship of an ancient god of the region. His name is most commonly rendered in English as Oannes. But for the Ugar’t sect, the sounds would be spelled more accurately as Waiyaz. In fact, the Resurrectors are often called ‘the Waiyashib,’ a nickname.”
Tom asked if the group was regarded as dangerous, or treated as subversive. “Not especially,” said Professor Hadjnal. “They do not literally engage in worship—Waiyaz is about as dead as a god can be. But there may be some popular feeling on one side or another. We are dealing not only with matters of religion, but with pride. Some feel that old Waiyaz is more truly a source of Ugarta and its traditional culture than the newcomers—Islam, for example. Such views are blasphemous. Naturally, there is some feeling of rivalry between the sects. And of course the established religions do not take kindly to invidious comparisons.”
Tom thanked the academic warmly. Clicking off, he turned to Bud. “Well, flyboy, now we know how to spell it.”
“Uh-huh. And that’s about all we know. Except, of course, that the guy means death!”
Several days later, as Tom took the ridewalk conveyor across the plant grounds, his cellphone bleeped with an internal call. “Tom, may I interrupt you for a moment?”
“Any time, Sylvia. Something up at the Visitors Center? A sale on the blue-striped tees? Did that wax dummy of me come to life?”
“Nothing that exciting,” replied Sylvia Johnston. “But there’s someone here, at the reception desk...”
“Oh no no, but...” She lowered her voice. “Um, he... he’s very polite, but he’s quite insistent about speaking to you. I mean, he says he’s prepared to wait in the lobby until you come out.”
“Good night!” muttered Tom. He recalled several other such occasions. “Let’s have Security check him out.”
“That was the first call I made, of course,” she responded. “He seemed to understand and he cooperated, and Mr. Radnor said to tell you he’s ‘clean’. It’s just—”
Tom grinned. “He’s buggin’ you. Okay, Syl, keep the guy cool, calm, and dry. I’ll be right over.”
In moments Tom was striding into the Visitors Center, his hand extended to meet the hand of the man who was waiting for him.
It was the oddest looking man Tom had ever seen! And yet it struck Tom that he was familiar, somehow. Had he seen the man recently? He was sure he had!
“AH, MR. SWIFT,” the man said, with an accent that struck Tom as French—the mister seemed to want to be monsieur. “Do I see that you recognize me?”
“I, er, think so,” replied Tom warily. The man struck the young inventor as a scientific experiment in the making, perhaps one of nature’s new inventions.
“I saw you just this morning.”
“You see, I was one of the crowd, watching,” smiled the man. “Surely you could not fail to remember someone such as I!”
Now the youth recalled having noticed the figure at the edge of the looky-loo throng. He had reacted to the man’s peculiar appearance, but had suddenly been distracted by the need to recalibrate the oscillotron. “Yes,” said Tom, “I remember now.”
“Might we sit down together? These seats here will be adequate, I think.”
“Um—of course. Mister—?”
“Oh, pardon me,” replied the man. “I am Clementi Acuna.”
Clementi Acuna was quite a sight for sore eyes. The man was about Tom’s height, but constructed along the lines of a turnip. His feet were clumsy and oversized. His lower body, including his legs, was broad and plump, sagging. Yet rising from his wide hips was a midsection and torso that narrowed alarmingly. His shoulders seemed barely wider than his neck, and his head sat on his neck like a knob, with a single tuft of blond hair at the peak of an unnaturally small head.
“You need not conceal your stare, Mr. Swift,” said Acuna pleasantly. “I have had thirty-four years to become accustomed to it.”
“But I—I didn’t—”
“Please, please,” the man interrupted with a dismissive gesture. “I acknowledge having been drawn from the very bottom of the chromosomal barrel. They say it happens when one’s parents are older in years—my father was 71, my mother 44. Surprise! I am more popular than one might think, and I do not unduly frighten the little children of Geneva, where I live. Everyone is used to me. One may come to take for granted even the most surprising things, eh?”
“Er—you’re Swiss, then?”
“I am. And I have come thousands of miles to see you.” Acuna’s lips spread as wide as his pinched face would permit. “And I have seen, in the news, that I am not the only one to have made such a pilgrimage.”
Tom frowned slightly. “I hope your visit will be more pleasant for you than Mr. Qassarmi’s. How can I help you?”
“How rare is that nice sentiment,” he replied. “I appreciate it, and I do value your time. I came to the coffee-bar in hope I might beckon you aside, but it was not to be. So I came here.”
“Why not call in advance?” asked Tom pointedly.
Acuna made a movement that might have constituted, on broader shoulders, a shrug; in this case it was more like the squeezing of a toothpaste tube. “That would be the proper procedure. Yet surely an attempt by an outsider to secure an appointment, or even a moment on the telephone, would have been rebuffed. You are known by the world, the whole world, to be a rather busy young man!”
“True enough, sir. So you came here.”
“I have found that my imposing form attracts enough attention to, might I say, open many doors.”
“Mr. Acuna—how may I help you?” the young inventor repeated, not concealing his impatience.
“To the point, then.
“Perhaps you are familiar with the name Soueles Acuna? My late father?”
Tom thought. “I might have heard of him. In what connection, I don’t recall.”
Acuna leaned back and smiled, as if relishing a memory. “Ah, my papa!—what a man he was. As I say, I was what is called a late-in-life surprise baby, Mr. Swift. Most unexpected. Indeed, I was surprised myself! Yet though I arrived late in a distinguished career, my father cared for me warmly, and brought me up to appreciate his interests and, may I say, his peculiar genius. It has been nine years since he died at an advanced age; I miss him every day.”
“And what was his career?” inquired Tom.
“At first, as a young man, he was a parish priest. Then he was admitted to an order—a monk. But even there in the monastery he studied science, mathematics, philosophy. A very learned man with an agile mind.
“He left the monastic life behind and became known, in Europe, for his articles in scientific journals on various obscure aspects of Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity. No doubt you are—”
Tom smiled. “I’ve heard of it.”
“You have used it, its premises, in many ways, in many of your wonderful inventions. Now it happens to be the case that toward the end of life—burdened as he was by accumulating years—papa focused a great deal of attention on one particular subject. I refer to the propagation of mechanical energy along the worldline of physical objects.”
Tom’s smile had evaporated. “...worldline... That’s what they call the timewise extension of things.”
Acuna nodded. “Perhaps not the most fortunate choice of terminology. I believe it came from Minkowski, Einstein’s contemporary—teacher, in fact. It is the idea that, as we speak of the length, breadth, and height of some material object—a chair, say—we must also envisage its measure along the fourth dimension, time. In that dimension, its length is measured in years: it is as lengthy as its age—its total age, from its creation to its dissolution as an object. Thus, if we could but take a step aside and turn our gaze along the fourth direction, taking in the object as a whole, every object would have a wormlike form, a kind of squiggly line.”
“Yes,” said the youth. “From that angle the ‘thickness’ of the linelike shape would be its size in space, but its length in time would be much much greater than its thickness, using the spacetime constant ‘C’ as a yardstick.”
“A line of fantastic length that curves and wiggles as each particle of the object—that is, its existence at some particular moment—moves relative to its spatial position in previous and following moments. For example, the rotation of Earth around the sun means that its fourth-dimensional shape is a spiral with one end ‘at’ a moment billions of years ago, and whose opposite endpoint frays into nonexistence many billions of years in the future. Or so we must hope, eh?”
Ever the scientist, Tom could not help being fascinated. “But you mentioned the propagation of mechanical energy...”
“Yes indeed! And who has ever considered such a thing?” Mr. Acuna’s eyes took on a shine that Tom hoped wasn’t the start of a much-rehearsed diatribe. “The length of an object through time, its shape in that direction, is not something theoretical or mystical, my young sir. It is as real as the substance of the chairs upon which we sit. Every molecule, every particle, has its time-length, all those little threads woven together and intertwined by their various movements relative to one another. In a way, physical objects are not so much lines as cables, woven of tiny strands and filaments.”
“I understand the image, sir.”
“And my father asked this: If objects do indeed have such an extension in time, a solid physical extension differing only from the familiar shapes around us in that its direction is turned sideways to our moving consciousness and its sensory apparatus—why could mechanical vibrations not propagate along that length as well?”
Tom’s blue eyes, deep set, grew wide at the strange notion. “In other words, vibrations in an object that spread along the time extension in the direction of the future from some event in the past!”
Acuna chuckled. “Exciting, novel! What an idea! Perhaps as a child you played with ‘tin can telephones’? A pair of empty cans serving as both mouthpiece and speaker—”
“Tied together with a strong piece of string. Sometimes waxed.”
“Yes. And when it is kept taut, the vibrations of one can, caused by a voice, pass along the string to the other, producing corresponding vibrations—the voice is recreated for the ear! And so it would be, along the timewise ‘line’ of any solid object. If I were to tap on the arm of this chair...” Acuna did so, with his fingernails. “...some part of the internal vibrations thus generated will travel toward the chair’s future, while we too—our personal points of consciousness—travel along the timeline of our bodies from one moment to the next. Of course, there will be mechanical resistance in the medium; the oscillations will slowly give up their energies to waste heat and finally die out. And yet—and yet! Timephonics!—the past speaks to the future!”
“I know why you came to see me, Mr. Acuna,” Tom declared. “You sought me out because the news has reported my attempt to recapture sounds with my oscillotron.”
“Yes,” he said. “Precisely. Although I suspect the news was not as accurate, nor as detailed, as one might wish. Ah, the news! Papa and I faced much the same problem.” Tom pointed out that the experiment had shown the limits of the current model of the oscillotron. “So it would seem,” noted the Swiss. “Yet—my father gave me something of a scientific education, as did yours—I’m quite certain your device, with its quantum-resolution approach—would solve the trying technical problems that prevented Papa from giving proof of...”
Tom finished the thought. “Of his genius?”
“He was a brilliant man, Mr. Swift. Grotesque though my appearance may be, I wish to see his name—the family name—spoken with respect. If timephonic theory and method could be brought to life by your oscillotron, surely wonderful things would happen.”
Tom and Clementi Acuna continued their talk for some time, Acuna providing various journal references and promising to send the youth, electronically, translations of his father’s notebooks and a number of unpublished papers. “But I must admit, much of it is very mathematical,” the man pointed out with apology. “Alas, rather obscure.”
“We have here at Enterprises one of the world’s most obscure mathematicians,” Tom stated dryly. “And what Dr. Kupp can translate into standard scientific language, Dr. Franzenberg can render in the practical formulas of physics.”
“And then it will be up to the engineers, the technologists, eh?” smiled Acuna. “And to Tom Swift!”
That evening, Bud offered to take his pal to a quaint restaurant he had discovered in Sandport, a small settlement some distance around Lake Carlopa. “My treat, Skipper,” the black-haired pilot said jauntily as they piled into his red convertible. “All the times my mouth and I mooch off you Swifts—I owe it.”
The sun was half-below the hilltops as they drove along beneath arching trees. “So... this time-o-phone deal can make your vibration-catcher more powerful?” asked Bud.
“That could be the result,” was the reply. “Compared to the usual resonant vibrations reflected back and forth by the inner surfaces of a normal 3-D solid object—which we were picking up at The Glass Cat—the vibrations conveyed by the dimension-four extension are conducted much more efficiently. The theory says there’s very little energy loss or diffusion as they run along the object’s time-length toward the future; the vibrations are constantly reflected back toward the inside by the 4-D surfaces and remain ‘focused,’ so to speak. There’s a different basis of energy transfer when you tap four dimensions of propagation, not just the usual three.”
“And it all holds up?”
“Acuna’s papers and analyses seem to make sense,” Tom declared. “Of course he didn’t have the technical means to do much experimenting. And what he did come up with is subject to interpretation. It’s like the recent business about particles that seem to be traveling faster than light. Sometimes the most straightforward interpretation turns out to not—”
The young inventor’s mini-lecture was violently interrupted by events in the outer world! The two gasped at a sudden sharp sound, like a shriek. And then they flinched back in their seats as a shadow leapt across the hood of the convertible—followed by the plummeting body of a man!
A NIGHT TO FORGET
THE BODY thudded down violently on the hood, and Tom was sickened by a splash of crimson jetting across the windshield. As Bud swerved in helpless reaction, the body flapped and somersaulted, ending up against the convertible’s windshield with one arm splayed over the top—as if stretched toward Tom’s throat. A white face with bulging eyes stared into his own, pressed against the glass.
Bud tried to slow the car gently, to keep the man from rolling off onto the road. “G-good grief!” he choked out as he maneuvered TSE TSE FLY to a halt on the roadside. “At least the blood’ll match the paint job!”
Tom didn’t blame his pal for joking in the face of gruesome horror, but he wasn’t inclined to join him. The young inventor stumbled out of the car and stretched to examine the blood-gushing victim. “Bud—call Emergency... but...”
“I don’t think so... No, he’s gone.” The Enterprises medic, Doc Simpson, had given both youths enough training to make a preliminary assessment of life or death.
Bud made the call, then said to Tom in a low voice, “Skipper—it doesn’t take a Genius Boy to know that whoever shot this guy out of his tree—”
“Could pick us off next,” Tom finished. “Right. So why hasn’t he?”
“I guess we’re hard to see here under the tree overhang.”
“Chum, this guy was harder to see—he was hiding on that big limb up there.” The youth pointed toward a lumbersome tree some distance back along the road. “You can see the broken branches from his fall. The leaves hid him almost completely.”
“Yeah...” Bud nodded. “Is he armed?”
“No. But he was. I’m sure I saw a gun tumbling off into the underbrush. Let me see if I can find it. Stay with—him.” Tom crunched his way through the brush and pine-needles, paralleling the deserted country road—an old local road now little used. Finally stopping even with the skid marks made by Bud’s swerve, he leaned over and began searching. “I see it!” he yelled. “I’ll mark the spot with rocks.”
As Tom returned to his friend, Bud asked: “Maybe we should bring the gun back to Enterprises. Some of those Swift scanning gizmos might tell us a lot.”
The young inventor shook his head. “I don’t want to disturb evidence. The State Police won’t like it.”
“Yeah, you’re right,” Bud conceded. He added slyly, “I’m all broken up over the fact that I just picked the guy’s pocket looking for—whatever tree-climbing gunmen keep next to their lint.”
Tom couldn’t help grinning. “I’m sorry to say I was hoping you would. So what’d you come up with?”
With a sheepish look the black-haired Californian held up a small pocket comb and a few crumpled dollar bills. “Guess Shooter was traveling light.”
“No ID—and no car keys,” Tom noted. “He must’ve been dropped off by someone who’d be coming back for him; or more likely, they were going to rendezvous some distance—”
Bud suddenly clamped a powerful hand on Tom’s forearm! “Back in the shadows!” he hissed. As they drew back beneath the trees, Bud explained in whispers: “Up on the hill, that high one with some sun still on it—see?”
“The sun’s glinting off something. Glass! Tom, it could be binoculars or a telescopic gunsight!”
Tom understood the implication. The man who picked-off their would-be assailant was still around, watching the two! “Listen,” he said in Bud’s ear, “I know that hill. When I was a kid I used to go up there with Ted Spring—a dirt road leads up the side to a clearing by a drop-off. I’m pretty sure that’s where Mr. Glint is standing.
“Stay here, flyboy. Wait for the ambulance, and the Staties. I remember how to go around and sneak up on—”
“I know you’ve just had a shock,” said Bud with gray-eyed reproof. “But you’re on your last hinges if you think I’m gonna let you face down a rifle by yourself.”
Tom smiled. “C’mon, pal. According to the books I’m the hero!” And before Bud could wisecrack an answer, Tom had darted across a section of road that was in deep shadow and loped away into the woods.
The hill was separated from the road by rough bushy ground and a shallow gully choked with trees. Exposed roots snapped at the lanky youth’s legs like snakes. Good night, he thought, next time I go out to dinner I’ll wear hiking boots!
He made his way along cautiously and quietly. Whenever there was a gap in the foliage above, he cut to the side—but managed a peek at the hill and the height where the clearing was. There was no further glimpse of sun on glass. He tried to listen for the sound of a car, but made out nothing but the rasp of his scramble and the calls of birds greeting the oncoming twilight.
Arriving at the start of the swell, he began a wary climb. Seeing the dirt road ahead of him, he tracked along next to it out of sight, angling upward.
He halted abruptly and ducked back. Ahead and above was the edge of the clearing! He listened for long unmoving moments. Nothing.
Finally he drew closer and gaped at the clearing through some bushes. In the dim orange light it appeared deserted. But it isn’t a waste of time if I can find a clue left behind, he told himself.
At last, long minutes later, he rose and entered the clearing, keeping to the inner edge that met the downslope from above. He saw nothing interesting—perhaps some fresh scuffmarks in the dirt. “What did I expect,” he chuckled softly, “a business card?” But he was able to confirm that, from one spot, he could make out the distant tree that had held the slain gunman. A far-seeing instrument would have made the target easy pickings, especially if a light-amplifying device had been attached. Some sort of rifle with a silencer, he thought. But it’d sure take an expert marksman.
Or... markswoman? The strange name Pallida Mors rose into his mind.
He saw flashing lights on the far road, red and white. A stopped ambulance had come to life and was heading away. It occurred to Tom to wonder why he heard no siren.
He scooped his cellphone from his pocket. “Bud—”
“Sounds like you’re still with us, genius boy.”
“Yes, for what it’s worth. Come pick me up in TSE TSE, would you? I’ll give you directions to where the dirt road comes down.”
“Or... maybe you should wait for the State Police to get there.”
“Uh, no. Seems to me you’re in what we might call imminent danger up on that hill,” Bud stated firmly. “The Staties can deal with it—we’ll come back when I’ve got you.”
Soon TSE TSE FLY, dust-caked and blood-stained, had appeared on the dirt road. Bud looked over his stained, grungy, disheveled pal. “Mmm, maybe we’d better cancel our reservation.”
Tom chuckled and climbed in. “What did the paramedics say?”
Bud gave his friend an ominous look. “Ohhh, nothing much.”
“But they confirmed that the man was dead?”
“Not exactly, Tom.”
“But—when they examined him—”
“They couldn’t examine him.” Tom waited for Bud to continue. “See, uh, there was nothing to examine.”
“What do you mean?”
Bud shrugged. “Well, to put it plainly—ole Shooter’s body disappeared.”
Tom sat stunned for a moment. This was turning out to be quite an evening. “Okay, pal. In the interest of the fictionalizations—what’s the story?”
There was a sigh from behind the wheel. “You saw how we were parked. The man’s body was on top of the hood like a busted doll—the kind of doll that bleeds instead of talks. And man, he sure did seem to be dead.
“So after waiting an unendurable length of time, maybe 30 seconds, I got out the flashlight and walked back along the road. I started poking around in the bushes, closer to that tree. I avoided the gun and rooted around on the other side, away from the road. I didn’t see anything interesting, and when I got back to TSE TSE I saw even less. He was gone!”
Tom rubbed his chin. “Did any cars pass?”
“I didn’t see—or hear—a thing. I couldn’t see the car for part of the time, but if someone came down the road from the other direction, the Sandport direction, I’m sure I would have heard it.”
“You mean, if a car came down the road,” Tom corrected his chum.
“What else could freight away a body?” retorted Bud. “A helicopter? A blimp?”
“Beats me, flyboy,” Tom replied ruefully. “At least the police will have that gun to look over.”
“After standing frozen in stark incredulity, which struck me as appropriate given the circumstances,” Bud said, “I ran back to where you’d made that marker. Nothing anywhere! Jetz, someone hung around after they snatched the body—when I was back at the car—”
“—they saw a chance to grab up the evidence.”
“Gosh, Tom, what’ll we tell the police?”
“The truth. That Swift and Barclay make really lousy victims!”
Tom called Phil Radnor as the two drove back to Shopton for a quick bite. At home, after Bud had let him off, he gave his parents a detailed account.
“He fell from a tree... with a gun...” mused Mrs. Swift. “But Dear, even if some enemy was determined to—to remove the problem of Tom Swift—”
“I know, Mom,” said the crewcut inventor. “How could anyone possibly know we’d be driving down that road, at that time?”
“They could hardly have gunmen stationed throughout the roadside trees all around Shopton,” declared his father wryly. “So we do have a clue, it seems. Several, in fact. These Ugarta people, if that’s what they are, have access to realtime information on your movements, and are able to mobilize and position themselves at a moment’s notice.”
Tom shrugged. “It doesn’t seem possible, does it. But it couldn’t be a coincidence, obviously.”
“No, but...” Anne Swift spoke hesitantly. “Maybe I’m using some of that wild imagination Sandy inherited, but you only knew of the gunman’s positioning because someone shot him right off the limb just as you and Bud drove by underneath. Do you see what I mean?”
“Yes, I think I do,” replied Tom. “Maybe he wasn’t up there to do something to me, or to Bud, as we passed. Just because he was armed doesn’t mean he was planning to shoot us...”
Mr. Swift commented dryly, “I doubt he planned to swing down like Tarzan and commandeer Bud’s convertible.”
“He may have had some reason we can’t even guess. Maybe his only purpose was to let someone know when we passed, to alert someone to get something ready further up the road.”
“That could be.”
“And Mom’s theory implies something further that might be a sort of clue,” continued Tom. “That person up on the hill—he had to know, obviously, just where our ‘Shooter’ was hiding. He must have been watching him from a distance, maybe with a long-range infrared device or something similar.”
“And when you and Bud were about to pass underneath—” Tom’s mother began.
“That’s when the man on the hill took his shot.”
“Yes,” nodded Anne Swift. “Not just to prevent whatever he was about to do, but—”
“—to make sure we’d know he’d done it—by dropping the body right on top of us!”
“It seems to me our evidence suggests a scenario,” Damon Swift said thoughtfully. “The man on the hillside was watching the other man in order to act as your protector, Tom. But he also wanted to send a message, or perhaps reveal a clue, without exposing himself. But was he trying to provide you with the message without tipping his hand to your enemies—this Pallida Mors woman, we can assume—or was the message for your enemies, keeping the source a secret from us?”
Tom responded with a half-smile. “Great evidence, but... It seems to me, Dad,” he said, “that our evidence is mumbling!”
Tom spent the next day making his various reports, accompanied by Bud, and airing a theory or two. “But none of them add up to much,” he told his pal. “I passed along the reference in the message to ‘Waiyaz,’ and the connection to the Resurrectors group, to the State Department. No one’s commenting on that one.
“Security can’t find any hint, anywhere, of skullduggery by someone named ‘Pallida Mors,’ or anything involving Mr. Qassarmi. His remaining family has been informed of the attack, but they don’t seem to have any relevant information—he’s been living in nose-clean retirement in Ugarta for several years. Or so we’re told.”
Bud gave a characteristic snort. “Somebody wants to make his retirement a permanent one.”
“Maybe so,” Tom agreed. “We sent a team of Enterprises techs out to the site first thing in the morning and let Rover Boy sniff around. But there were no definite traces on the road, nothing indicating blood or a dead body. I’m sure the body was carried in, or on, something. Without direct contact with the pavement, the tracking traces are too diffuse for the sensitector to distinguish.”
“What about up on the hillside?”
“Whoever was there climbed down from the summit—and back up again. Rover can’t do anything in the midst of all that foliage.”
“Hmmph! Dumb dog.”
It was a pleasure for Tom to turn his attention to the oscillotron project. “My goal is to completely change the approach,” he told his key technical team, chief engineer Hank Sterling and modelmaker Arvid Hanson. “We’ll adapt the basic amplification and wavefront-extraction technology, but use what we get in a way that never occurred to any of us. In fact, it’ll be virtually a new invention, a timephonic oscillotron.”
“I like your notions about applying Acuna’s theories,” commented Hank. “I’m all for a little excitement in the gunmetal-gray world of engineering. Not that I really understand the physics—or metaphysics—behind it all...”
“You’ll get plenty of help from Dr. Kupp and Rafael Franzenberg,” Tom assured his friend. The plant’s resident master of obscure mathematics often worked with Enterprises’ chief physicist.
“And when do we ever sweat over theory anyway, Hank?” asked Arv joshingly. “We’re all tinkerers around here. All we have to do is make it work!”
As Tom drove home in the late evening, his head was chocked with equations and ghosts of circuit diagrams. The New York sky was overcast; only an occasional brave and nosy star peeped through. A few sprinkles dotted the windshield.
The young inventor approached the turnoff onto the Swift home’s curving driveway. Slowing, he reached for the button that would signal the security gate to open—and stopped with a gasp of surprise. A car, invisible in the shadows on the further side of the road, had suddenly erupted in light! Bright headlights shone in Tom’s face, then blinked on and off twice. Welcome? Or warning?
The headlights dimmed to a lower setting. A silhouette crossed from the driver’s side and strode Tom’s way—the silhouette of a woman!
Fascinated, frozen, the young inventor could only think two words—Pallida Mors!
THE woman rapped on the driver-side window and leaned down, bringing her back-shadowed face into view.
It was a face Tom recognized. He lowered the window an inch. “Late night social call, Amy? Or are you worried my blood pressure’s too low?”
“Why, Tom,” purred Amy Foger. “A less resolute woman than moi might find your tone uninviting.”
Amelia Foger was not only a resolute woman but a difficult one. Her grandfather’s brother Andy had been, as a young man in Shopton, a foil and perennial irritant to Tom’s famous great-grandfather, the “original” Tom Swift. Amy Foger shared with her family a degree of resentment at how her late relative had been villainized, particularly in the old books purporting to recount the original Tom’s exploits for young science-minded readers.
“Uninviting is a pretty good word for this moment, Amy,” Tom said dryly. “Whether this is business or pleasure, you’ll get further with an appointment than with flashing your... headlights... my way.”
The woman, rather older than Tom and his friends, only smiled her resolute smile. “They say rain’s on the way.”
“I suppose I should invite you in,” conceded the youth. “Give me a sec to switch off the alarm sensor—”
“Oh please, don’t bother. As I had no advance invitation, I’m perfectly content to sit and chat in this cute little electric car of yours.” Before Tom could protest she had marched to the other side and boldly ripped the passenger door off its hinges. Or so it seemed to Tom Swift.
She sat herself down, primly, her face illuminated by the beams of her car. “I’ll admit I should have respected your eminence as Shopton’s local celeb and called first. But why break your concentration any more than necessary?”
Tom groaned. “So this is necessary? I’m dealing with enough necessity at the moment, Amy.”
“So I gather from the Shopton Evening Bulletin.”
A provocative thought struck the young inventor. “Amy—is it you? Are you Pallida Mors?”
She looked at him coolly. “As an attorney I run across a lot of Latin terms, but ‘pallida mors’ isn’t a legal term I recognize.”
“So this has to do with legal matters?”
“I take it you don’t think I might just be feeling a tad lonesome?”
“Not having trouble with your—inventive boyfriend, I hope.” Tom referred to Peter Langley, Amy’s romantic companion for some time now, another “young inventor” based in the town of Thessaly.
“Pete and I are on hiatus, like a TV series,” she replied sharply. “Just a little vacation to take our bearings.”
“Please don’t think of me as a compass.”
“I avoid thinking of you at all,” Amy snapped. Then her expression softened. “I’m sorry. I should remember that all this bantering is something you do regularly with your little circle of friends.
“This has nothing to do with my work as an attorney—well, not my work for Wickliffe Labs, at any rate. I’ve been hired to...
“But let me tell you the story. —Tom, that expression on your face is not exactly polite.”
Tom’s deep-set blue eyes angled down toward the steering wheel, where his hands maintained a firm grip. “My apologies. It’s just that this’ll be the fourth urgent story I’ve heard in the last several weeks. I’m getting a little storied out.”
“Then I’ll just provide a lawyer’s summation,” she stated with sarcasm. “It has to do with Andy Foger.”
“Amy, you’ve got to stop blaming—”
“I’m not blaming anyone about anything,” she interrupted. “Not you, not your father. Certainly not those idiotic old books—the ones that ruined Great-Uncle Andrew’s reputation and led him into alcoholism and a desperate life in Mexico. No, I’ve let go of any and all resentments toward the Swift family for besmirching my family name. I’ll trust history to finally correct any misimpressions—long after those books have blessedly disintegrated into yellowed scraps and anyone who ever cared about them is under the ground.” She paused to calm herself, even manufacturing a smile. “Well. Andy Foger was married in Mexico, but after a few years abandoned his family. Stress can lead to unfortunate decisions, as I’m sure you’ll agree. He worked in the oil industry, got drunk a lot, got fired a lot, became unemployable, and finally took his own life. In Mexico, in a cheap hotel room. In a chair, with a gun.”
Tom tried to find sympathy for his voice. “That was fifty years ago, Amy.”
“I’m aware of that pertinent fact. In fact, it’s the reason I’ve come to you for—assistance.”
“Okay,” said Tom. A sigh was inevitable. “I can guess the rest. You want me to use my oscillotron to find out something—listen in on something—that happened years ago. Something involving Andy Foger.”
“Oh what a smart young inventor you are, Tom,” came the snide response. “You see, Andrew had a life insurance policy, issued by a company in Mexico that was purchased some years later by a big American firm. The provisions were the usual ones—no payout in the case of suicide.
“The family he left behind—now, of course, it’s their descendents—has looked into the case. They feel the old police records are ambiguous. The matter was poorly investigated and ruled a suicide in the face of contrary evidence.”
“They think it was foul play?”
“They have reason to raise the issue. The best reason being that they can really use the insurance money at this point in their ongoing poverty. Mexican law would compel a payout even after all this time if the adjudicators can be convinced that Andrew did not die by his own hand.”
“Which is where I come in.”
“You and your time telephone,” she nodded. “Pete and I know all about it, from your interviews in the news this week.”
“Amy, if you’ve been reading the Bulletin you also know—”
“Why yes,” said Amy brightly. “Your investigation of the incident in that quaint snack shop, where that sweet little girl works—oh, what is her name? Bacillus, isn’t it?—was a disappointment. Your machine lost its mojo. So you said. Perhaps not quite in those words.”
“So the Bulletin said,” Tom corrected her. He gave a sarcastic smile. “I hope you’re not suggesting that Dan Perkins got it—wrong—?”
“I’m not interested in these cover stories and intrigues of yours, Tom Swift,” she declared hotly. “You’re not going to leave matters as they stand. You’ll move mountains—worlds!—to make the thing work as well as you’d predicted in the various articles. You envisioned listening in on history, years back, decades.”
“True. It’s more my speculations than my science that they’ve been reporting, but that’s where the oscillotron could lead us.”
“It will happen. We know it will. Tom Swift solves all problems, hmm?”
“Ohhh Amy,” breathed Tom. “If you’re in a mood to rant, maybe you should consider spending some time with Pete.”
“I was merely stating the facts.”
“Fine. Then factually speaking, what are you asking me to do? And before you answer, I don’t have time!”
“Don’t you have a machine that makes time?” Her voice became sweet. “I wouldn’t dream of interrupting your current—plot. But after you’ve solved dear Bashalli’s problems—‘Thomas’!—and made the world safe for your next invention, do give me a call.”
“We really must get together more often,” the youth responded dryly.
“Yes, we really must.” She smiled like an attorney. “It’s been ages.”
As she opened the car door, Tom said abruptly: “Wait, Amy. You said... ‘pallida mors’ is Latin?”
“My gracious, all the Latin terms you use in naming your inventions—”
“Can you tell me what it means?”
“Of course, Tom. It’s a delightful little term. ‘Pale death’!”
Tom’s storied evening ended with another instance of story-telling, to his parents and to Sandy. “Miss Foger has no reason to be snide,” Sandy remarked. “We all treated her as a friend when she suddenly popped up at Enterprises. It’s not our fault if those book writers—let’s not call them authors!—made that juvenile delinquent Andy look like a complete jerk. Hmmph!—it must run in the family.”
“The rehabilitation of the Foger name will wait until later,” declared Damon Swift. “Son, we need to uncover the significance of this ‘pale death’ business.”
“It could be a coincidence that the woman’s name happens to sound like those Latin words,” Tom said thoughtfully. “She didn’t spell it for us. Maybe Security, or our government contacts, can come up with some connection to Ugarta and Mr. Qassarmi...”
“Not to mention bows and arrows and everything else,” finished Sandy. “Tom... Bashalli is terribly upset by all this.”
“I know, San. Oscillotron or not, I’m determined to get to the bottom of what happened. And what’s still happening!” He smiled. “Every now and then I’ve been almost as good a detective as you, sis.”
“Mm. Key word: almost.”
The next morning, awaiting comment from Phil Radnor on the ominous term pale death, Tom worked with Hank and Arv on the timephonic adaptation of his oscillotron, Bud looking on.
“Real progress,” Hank commented with satisfaction. “Franzenberg’s suggestions seem right on the money. To a degree, we’re applying engineering approaches developed for your time-transformer, the dyna-4 capsule, to isolate quantum energy states according to their fourth-dimensional vectors.”
“Who would have believed it?” grinned Arv Hanson. “Then again, Swiftboy here is always halfway into the future!—and now the past as well.”
Bud had been quiet for a time, not wanting to distract the men from their work. But presently he said, “Tom, if your brain feels like a little fresh air...”
“I just wondered—why hasn’t the Taxman filled you in on Pallida Mors and the whole Ugarta thing? I mean, those guys know just about everything when it comes to spies and agents and all that!”
Tom shot a grin at his friend. The man nicknamed “the Taxman” was employed by a government super-agency that sometimes called itself Collections. On many past occasions they had supplied Tom and his team with invaluable information, acquired by methods never explained. “We’ve never understood how they do their job,” replied the young inventor, setting aside a test instrument as Hank and Arv continued work. “Remember, they had some sort of internal crisis, going back to Asa Pike—when he went ‘rogue’ around the time we were working on the G-force inverter. After that our contact with them seemed... odd. Very limited.”
“But you met the Taxman on Spindrift Island,” Bud pointed out. “That was more recent.”
“Yes,” Tom nodded. “And don’t forget the situation he was dealing with at that time—what he called penetration of Collections at the highest levels. He was having to carry out his assignments as a free-acting agent, or so he said. It may be that the crisis hasn’t been resolved even yet. At any rate, we haven’t had any help from them since.”
Bud shrugged. “Oh well. Not like we have to understand all the cloak-and-dagger games that go on way up in the government stratosphere.”
“But still,” said Tom, “it’d be a relief if the phone would ring and the Taxman would—”
He started. The lab phone was ringing!
“Holy Mo!” gulped Hank Sterling.
Tom answered the phone. He held it to his ear, speaking quietly as a look of concern grew on his face. “Oh no!” he choked.
DOWN THROUGH TIME
BUD and the others exchanged worried glanced as Tom continued to speak, his voice hushing to intimate tones as he turned away from his friends toward the lab wall. His comments came intermittently. Finally he straightened and clicked-off the receiver.
“Tom?” asked Bud tentatively. The crease on his forehead deepened as Tom stood looking his way for several seconds, not answering.
“That was Bashalli,” the young inventor said. “Mr. Qassarmi didn’t make it. He never recovered full consciousness. She got word a few minutes ago.”
“That’s... awful. How’s she doing?”
“Not too well, flyboy.”
“She and the guy must’ve been close,” offered Hank Sterling.
Tom nodded. “I don’t think we ever realized how alienated Bash is from her folks back in Pakistan. It’s hard to be different from everybody else when you’re a kid...”
“You know,” stated Bud pointedly.
“Yes. I do,” Tom responded. His eyes showed his thoughts. “I know her parents love her, but loving doesn’t always mean accepting. I think Mr. Qassarmi was like a second father.”
“Tom, when you see her,” said Arv, “and I know it’ll be soon—tell her that we’re all with her, thinking about her.”
“I will. I’ll see her this evening. She asked me to give her a little while to—feel and think. She was trying hard not to cry, fellows. She’s told me she will never break down. Never scream...”
“Which doesn’t mean she’ll never need to,” Bud declared grimly. “And that’s something I know.”
Tom broke off work and left the lab. After a few minutes alone with his thoughts, he ridewalked to the administration building and told Phil Radnor of Bashalli’s loss. “It’s rough,” he said, “always rough. So now—”
“So now it’s murder,” Tom finished, grim and blunt. “Rad, I know you and Harlan—probably Mom and Dad too—will be telling me to stay clear of this, that it’s Bash’s loss, none of my business. But I’ll tell you right now, you’re wrong. The Enterprises team—”
“Meaning Tom Swift,” Radnor interrupted with a wry look.
“We’ve helped a lot of people in the course of being an ‘invention factory,’ as they call us. It hasn’t always been of cosmic importance. Sometimes it’s just little old ladies trying to get an inheritance, or getting Shopton a better water supply. I owe Bash that kind of help.”
“Yeah, Skipper, I know,” nodded the security man. “You’d help her even if you and she weren’t emotionally close. That’s the way it is with guys named Tom Swift.”
Tom gave Radnor a look of gratitude. “And there’s the other angle, too. Mr. Qassarmi is dead because he came to Bashalli hoping she would put him in touch with me. Trying to get to me—to tell me something—cost him his life. I owe it to him to try to uncover what’s going on.”
“What’s going on. As in, why are people falling out of trees? Why are cellphones getting taped to boats?”
“And what’s going to happen in Ugarta?—that only I can stop!”
Radnor conceded the point with a nod. “Harlan and I work for your dad; lest we forget, the CEO around here. Damon wants to keep his kid safe—the world needs you alive, Skipper. But we’ve learned not to waste breath shouting down an empty well.”
Tom had to smile. “Dad and Mom—and Bud—have learned the same thing.”
“As you know, we’ve been in touch with all the big movers and shakers in D.C.—the subcommittee, Wes Norris, whatsisname at the CIA, even Harlan’s cousin at JANIG. Everyone gets shifty-eyed and tells us somebody else is in charge of Ugarta. There’s behind-the-scenes diplomacy goin’ on, war-and-peace stuff. Ugarta may not be in the headlines, but it’s a piece of the Middle East puzzle and—”
“And one mystery murder in Shopton, and a boys-book-type ‘last-breath warning’, can’t be allowed to distract anyone from their duties.”
“I know Collections is out of the picture right now, Tom. What about Undersecretary Trane?” The man had directed a recent covert operation in Europe that had involved Tom and his thoughtograph imager.
Tom gave his friend one of his looks that exclaimed: You’ve got to be kidding! “I’m pretty sure he thinks dealing with Swift Enterprises isn’t good for his career advancement.”
“In other words—and pardon me!—the Trane has left the station.” Tom didn’t smile, and Radnor added apologetically, “Sorry, boss. This is too sad a day for that.”
At length Tom returned to the lab, working on the oscillotron into the afternoon. “Well, Skipper,” Arv Hanson said, “we’ve definitely made a start on teaching your cross-year ear the joys of timephonics. This test model shows a lot of promise.”
“I shoulda watched my language when I was talkin’ to Red Jones down here,” Bud admitted with mock embarrassment. “Like they say, words really do come back to haunt you—even three weeks later!”
Tom chuckled for the first time in hours. His best pal always lifted his spirits. “And it came through as clearly as if you were phoning from the next room. I’ll get in touch with Mr. Acuna to let him know his father is vindicated.”
“It may be quite a while before we can listen back over decades, as Amy Foger wants,” Sterling cautioned.
“I won’t be satisfied with decades—I want millennia! But closer to now, there’s something else I want to test,” continued the scientist-inventor. “This solid concrete floor, and these Tomasite-reinforced walls, are extremely rigid, ideal for preserving timephonic waveforms. But how well will the thing work in a more natural, less accommodating environment?”
“Like out in the open?” Bud asked. His gray eyes took on a gleam. “Because I have an idea of just the place for a test!”
“Bet it’s the same idea I have,” grinned Tom. “A certain stretch of road halfway between here and Sandport!” He was on the hunt for clues—and answers!
An hour later Hank Sterling’s big family car came to a halt on the old road, near the marker of rocks Tom had made. “We can test for sound-clues here, and further up where the police have put those marker cones—you can see the ruts where Bud swerved off the road,” Tom stated.
“Rubber I didn’t intend to lay,” remarked the San Franciscan.
They unpacked the oscillotron equipment, which Arv had already made smaller and lighter since the test in The Glass Cat. But the helical scanning tube for the device was virtually unchanged; the four-dimension resolving process was more a matter of subtle data analysis than raw mechanics.
They pushed the wheeled frame out onto the edge of the road and angled the oscillation receptor downward, turning a small handwheel until the end touched the pavement. Tom switched on the power, supplied by a Swift solar battery. “All right,” he reported, “the isolation matrix has stabilized. Let’s see—hear, I mean!” He adjusted the control panel and activated the open-air speakers.
“The isolation matrix has stabilized. Let’s see—hear, I mean!” Tom’s words, from moments past, were as lively as the cheers of three listeners—and a whoop from Bud!
The young inventor changed the control settings on the audio-receptor chassis. “Three days back, a bit less,” he murmured. “The screen pattern will show us the sonic highpoints as we work our way back, just as it did in the lab—I hope!”
The points of sound intensity were shown as peaks erupting from a wavy line of background noise. The peaks had different colors, intensities, and shapes, showing trained eyes the sorts of sounds the machine was skimming over as it slowly probed down into the past, like a book reader thumbing through the index at the back. As a check, Tom occasionally paused the device and listened to the “foreground” sounds. All were passing cars, or the sound of wind.
Finally they heard the clear voices of police officers, their cars, then at the approach of the critical span Bud’s voice speaking to Tom on the cellphone. “There I am, naive and clueless,” Bud snorted. “It’s embarrassing to admit you’ve lost a body!”
The oscillotron ran further, backwards through the minutes. They listened several times to anything standing out in a short time span between the metallic clunk! of the falling body and Tom and Bud’s shocked distant voices, and what seemed to be the sound of Bud poking about in the nearby bushes, looking for the gun that Tom had seen. “After your voice calling to Bud—nothing I can make out,” declared Hank impatiently. “Those foot-crunches could be Bud—or anyone.”
Bud gave a wry nod. “I was hoping for a voice gasping, Look! A Gun!”
“At least the unit works,” Tom noted. “I guess we should have realized that whoever spirited that gun away would have been quieter than a tree squirrel.”
“Probably came a-sneakin’ while you two were keeping an eye on the ridge,” Arv pointed out.
“Yep. He must’ve been just out of sight, in the brush, the whole time,” said Tom. “I can see how someone could grab the gun. But the body—!”
“Don’t rub it in,” complained Bud. “Let’s go on to the other spot, where the car was, and hear what there is to hear.”
They rolled the unit further down the road and set it up. “On the pavement again?” asked Hank.
Tom paused thoughtfully. “You know, the asphalt material of the road seems to be a good timephonic conductor, but it expands and contracts a fair amount as the temp changes—it’s really pretty soft and pliable, which has a muffling effect. Some waveform data may be falling below the oscillotron’s threshold.”
“So what’s the plan, Skipper? A tree trunk?”
“No, living organic matter would be even worse,” came the reply. “There are stones all over the place. Let’s ‘bug’ that big one over there.” As they rolled the machine into place, Tom said ruefully, “But if they whisked that body out of sight in a split second without Bud’s athletic ears hearing anything—”
“Obviously black magic,” joked Bud.
“Flyboy, I’m ready to believe just about anything.”
In moments they were eavesdropping on the past. They heard Tom’s and Bud’s quiet conversation, and the sound of Tom darting across the road to investigate the hill. They heard Bud cross the dirt and crackling weeds on his way to investigate the tree their would-be assailant—if indeed that was what he was—had fallen from.
As Bud’s footfalls faded into the distance, there was a long quiet pause. Only the breeze and birds of sundown could be made out through the speakers.
Then came another sound, a series of sounds, soft but distinct. “J-jetz!” gasped Bud Barclay. “There’s something I never thought of!”
HOWEVER unexpected, the sounds were easy to recognize—the lazy clop-clop of hooves!
“Holy Mo, so that’s how they did it!” Hank marveled. “Horse power!”
“Your mind isn’t the only one that didn’t get crossed, chum,” Tom said ruefully to Bud. “I should have remembered that horse riders use the sides of these old Lake Carlopa roads all the time. Let’s up the enhancement and listen more closely.”
They listened, beginning to end. The tale told itself. A horse had come clomping out of the underbrush some distance away, presumably several score feet down the road in the Sandport direction. The sounds grew louder—and stopped. Then came a human grunt of effort, and a sound that might have been a limp body being dragged across the hood of TSE TSE FLY. A few more sounds, an almost inaudible whinny and snort, and the hoofbeats receded—first along the edge of the road, then back into the brush.
“Now we know,” declared Arv.
Bud left the road and walked a dozen paces. “Yep, I can see horseshoe prints between the weeds. And here... off into the woods toward that rise.”
“Seems you would have noticed somebody riding a horse,” remarked Hank to Bud. “Even in the woods, something that high-up would’ve caught your attention.”
Tom answered for his pal. “Which is exactly why the horseman didn’t mount the horse until he was on the other side of the rise. I’m sure he just slung the body onto the back of the horse, then led the horse by the bridle, as he did while approaching.”
“Genius boy, do you think it was the same guy who ciped the gun?” Bud asked.
“I’d guess not. It’d be too much a risk to leave the horse alone someplace—horses don’t always know when to keep quiet—and whoever picked up the gun couldn’t have maneuvered a whole horse past you while you were standing by the car.”
“Don’t count on it,” responded the young pilot glumly. “I think my senses were down for the count.”
“Don’t blame yourself. Having a corpse dropped on you can be a little unsettling,” chuckled Hank.
They next attempted to drive up the dirt access road to the hillside clearing. The Sterlings’ family car was far too broad and bulky. “Good gosh, this isn’t a road, it’s a migratory route for mountain goats!” groaned Hank. “We’ll have to unload the machine and push it ourselves. Skipper... just how important—”
“Very,” insisted Tom with rueful apology. “If the gunner up there made a cell call, it’d sure be worth any effort to listen in.”
“Heave ho, guys,” Bud grumbled.
The four pushed and half-dragged the oscillotron set-up up the rutted dirt path on its small and halting casters, the work of more than an hour. At last, in the ledgeside clearing, Tom pressed the sound-tapper against a bare boulder protruding from the side of the hill. “All right,” he said tensely, tuning the apparatus. “These next sounds should be coming from the time period we’re interested in.”
But there were no sounds—nothing interesting. Bud sighed. “A few scuffs, snapped twigs. That’s it.”
Nodding, Tom re-scanned the time interval several times, carefully altering the oscillotron’s calibrations. The device found nothing distinct for a full hour prior to the moment Tom himself broke the silence, speaking to Bud by cellphone. “If it was Pallida Mors up here, she’s a mighty quiet lady,” remarked Arv Hanson. “Demure type. Except, of course—she’s a demure type who kills people.”
Tom and Bud were trading frowns. “Way too demure for what happened,” Bud said.
“What do you mean, exactly?” asked Hank.
Tom answered. “If we had a sharp-shooter up here who really did shoot sharply—where’s the bang of the gun?”
“Er... true.” Hank shrugged. “Maybe she used some advanced kind of silencer. Hey, maybe a Tom Swift silentenna!”
“It’s possible, of course,” the young inventor replied. “Or if she’s working for some international organization or gang of agents, it might be the weapon itself that’s advanced.”
“I see,” commented Arv. “For example, a solenoid track-accelerator gun—a pulse of electromagnetism sends the pellet on its way at multi-Mach speed.”
Bud was skeptical. “No whoosh though. No whistle. No sonic micro-boom. Speaking as a pilot, I don’t think you can get through air that fast without leaving a sound behind somewhere.”
Tom switched off the oscillotron. “Well,” he muttered, “at least we heard a horse.” He checked his watch. “Let’s start back downhill. I need to...”
“We know, Tom,” said Bud quietly.
They returned to Enterprises in a somber mood. After finishing a light supper provided by Chow with many cluckings of concern, Tom left the plant to meet Bashalli in town. The evening was long and low. At the end the Pakistani girl could only say, her voice faint and worn-out sad:
“Thank you, Tom. Thank you.”
Dogged work on the timephonic oscillotron over the days that followed was interrupted one morning by the two Swifts’ secretary, Munford Trent. “Mm, Tom... looks like you’re not doing anything at the moment...”
Tom sat behind his desk in front of his design tabputer, gazing off into brain-space. “Just letting my thoughts roll around. Did you want to ask something?”
“Oh, just a point of curiosity,” replied the slightly-built man. “For weeks I’ve been pushing papers and emails involving the Sky Queen, and I know you’re doing some kind of refurbishing work...”
Tom smiled. “Curious about what we’re doing?”
“Well—you know, people chatter and speculate, and I know you had some sort of consultant group making recommendations...”
“I see the grapevine is hungry,” said Tom.
“Gotta keep in the game. Anyway, the crowd of them trooped through the office more than once, and I had to prepare liability-exemption statements and that sort of thing. It seemed odd that you’d bring in outside people to give guidance on something you and your dad designed and built—and it’s not like the Queen hasn’t proven itself.”
The young inventor nodded. “She’s been our flying home-away-from-home. And that’s exactly why we don’t want to take her for granted.
“You see, Enterprises is many things, but one of those things is a business. Dad and I are both scientist-inventors and tinkerers—”
“And adventurers and explorers.”
“All manner of things that focus our attention obsessively. In a word, there’s a danger of getting tunnel-vision. We may lose sight of overall plant efficiency—that kind of thing. We might overlook opportunities to upgrade our system and our usual—accoutrements.”
“I suppose that could happen,” said the man who preferred to be called Trent.
“So we hired an outside team of professional consultants, people who specialize in looking over high-tech corporations of the R&D type. Hudson-Fox Associates has a fine international reputation; we let them nose around freely, and they came up with some good ideas—some so obvious that Dad and I are embarrassed not to have thought of them on our own.”
Trent eyed the model of Tom’s famous sky ship, sitting on a shelf with models of several other key inventions. “Ideas involving the Sky Queen, I take it.”
“Ideas we’ve been building into the Queen for most of those weeks of paper-pushing you mentioned. For example—” But the youth stopped himself midsentence. “In fact, the clearance log-ins you were processing are for today’s test flight, later in the afternoon. We’ve done short-hop tests, but this’ll be a real shakedown, out over the Atlantic—halfway to Europe and back by dinner.”
Trent looked at his young employer with frank admiration—and perhaps a trace of envy. His comment had more than a trace of sarcasm. “What an exciting life you lead, Tom. You—and Bud and Chow and your father and your engineering staff and probably the executive janitor—”
Tom laughed. “By any chance, Trent—would you care to join us this afternoon? Up in the air?”
The secretary exhibited a very rare grin, a thin one. “Delighted, boss. I do love my desk, but I’m not ready for a lifelong commitment.”
Tom and Trent rendezvoused hours later in the Flying Lab’s block-sized underground hangar, where they were joined by Bud and Slim Davis, a veteran Enterprises pilot who knew Tom and Bud well. “So whattaya think, Munford—er, Trent?” asked Slim, gesturing widely at the magnificent three-decker craft.
“Always a great sight,” replied the secretary. “But... really... to my eyes it still looks just like the little model. What’s different?”
“The differences are mostly on the inside,” Bud declared with enthusiasm, sending a proud look Tom’s way. “The propulsion’s new, the lab sections are all—” Then he paused. “But genius boy here is the one with the right to crow.”
Tom shrugged. “Long as I don’t have it for dinner later. Let’s see—the propulsion? We’re now using repelatrons—”
“Wait now,” Trent interrupted. “It’s not like I pay inordinate attention to the tech stuff, or would understand it if I did, but I had the impression you can’t use the repulsion machines so close to the ground. Just out in space...”
“There’s a lag effect that prevents the super-repelatrons—the kind we have on our Challenger moonship—from being re-tuned quickly enough within a few miles of the ground,” confirmed the crewcut young inventor. “We’ve found ways to work around that problem, though, by using fixed-setting models that affect single substances only. For example, the atomicars can fly by means of repelatrons that push around atmospheric air.”
Tom proceeded to explain that the small repelatrons just installed in the Sky Queen would push against the fuel and the jet-reaction products, not against the earth below. “In other words, we start with ordinary combustion-thrust, then make it much more powerful by accelerating the fuel-feed into the chamber, and reacting against the exhaust post-ignition. As a result, we can dial-back the fuel consumption by quite a bit. The flares from the jet lifters and the four tail engines will be much cooler—easier to control as well.”
“She’ll do Mach 8,” exclaimed Slim happily. “Eight times the speed of sound, about 5600 miles per hour!”
“A little faster if we get a tailwind,” joked Bud. “A little slower if we run head-on into a bird.”
“Other changes too,” Tom went on. “We’ve decreased the overall weight of the ship by a huge amount.”
“New hull materials?” speculated Trent.
“No, what we call antiballast. Basically, big masses of ingravitized matter from the G-force inverter—weights that fall upward!”
“What I like most is the new approach to the lab compartments on Deck Two,” Slim stated. “They’re completely modular now, self-contained cubicles made of Tomasite plastic.” The pilot pointed up at the silver-white side of the fuselage, then squinted and frowned. “Well, you can’t really make out the edges of the side panels, but segments of the middle-deck hull slide upward, and the units behind the panels come sliding out on tracks right into the open, like drawers in a filing cabinet. For trips with special science needs, you just switch-out the modules. The different modules—the extra ones will be stored here in the hangar—have all manner of inbuilt gadgetry specialized for one branch of science or another. Instead of unloading and reloading the instruments and equipment, you switch-out the lab itself!”
Trent nodded. “Well. Works for me.” He was duly impressed—or pretended to be—but not much of a science or engineering enthusiast. In fact, not at all.
“Let’s get going,” directed Tom.
From within the Queen’s broad control compartment, Bud sent the signal that caused the hangar’s overhead doors to open to the afternoon sun. As warning sirens blared, the skyship was lifted up even with the ground on its platform. Then Tom gave a nod to Slim.
The Flying Lab rushed vertically with a wonderful hush. Even outside the cabin, which was fully soundproofed, the craft’s customary jet whine had been replaced by something more like the whoosh! of winds.
They climbed rapidly, slowing to a hover in the mid-stratosphere. Then the ship turned its nose toward the east—and they were off!
“Two words—in-credible!” gulped Munford Trent. His supercilious calm had been left behind at transonic speed!
The State of New York galloped by far beneath them, clouds whisking past like streamers of cotton candy caught in a ripping tornado. As the Sky Queen accelerated, Mach upon Mach, the edge of the continent fled behind them. They were already over the Atlantic!
“Mach 6,” sang out Slim.
Before his words could fade, the passengers were distracted by a sudden change. A vibration seemed to run through the deck, a sudden shudder.
“I don’t like that,” muttered Bud.
“And it’s not stopping,” Tom commented. The vibration was getting more intense. His deep-set eyes scanned the instrument panel. “We shouldn’t be getting any jetstream inter—”
The stratonauts cried out as one! The Sky Queen jerked violently, first to one side, then the other. And then came a tremendous shock that batted them forward toward the ship’s prow!
“Oh-em-gee!” yelped Munford Trent in terror. “We’ve plowed into a wall!—up in the middle of the air!”
“NO,” hissed Tom. “We’ve haven’t hit anything. We’ve grown a pair of big ears!”
Trent and Slim Davis stared blankly. Bud gulped out, “Skipper, what in the high-flyin’ world—”
The lurching of the deck cut off the young pilot’s words. “Slim, let me take over,” barked the young inventor. “Everyone—all of you—strap in! Full emergency restraints! Bud, show Trent what to do.”
“Roger,” Bud called back, guiding Munford Trent to one of the control station seats.
“I’m cutting the gyros,” said Tom. “Brace yourselves as best you can. This next minute’s going to be rough!”
Tom’s hands, long-fingered like a pianist’s, hopped back and forth across the main control board. Rough turned out to be too mild a word for what happened next. The Flying Lab commenced to swing wildly from side to side, rocking like a cradle on a tree bough—in a hurricane! The four passengers were slammed violently against their restraints, over and over. Intense vibrations wracked the deck.
Good grief! thought Bud, we may not’ve hit a wall up here, but we’re sure jetting down an S-curved switchback!
But the end was near. Two mighty swerves, one to port, one to starboard, threatened to crack ribs—and suddenly it was over. The Sky Queen resumed her normal silk-smooth flight. Tom switched the supergyros back on, then turned in his seat to the others. They could see the shine of perspiration on his forehead. “Okay. You can set yourselves loose.”
Bud ran up to his pal, glancing at the boards as he passed them. “Hmm—smooth sailing. Nice. I do have a question, though...”
“What the holy heck was that about ears?—!”
“S-sabotage?” asked Slim with a tremble. “Some kind of listening device?”
Tom shook his head. “Nope, nothing like that—though some form of sabotage is another question.”
“But the ears—!” demanded Bud.
“Just being a little colorful,” was the answer, somewhat apologetic. “Our fuselage grew a couple great big ears—namely the Deck Two lab modules. They all came sliding out to full extension on both sides of the hull.”
“I don’t need to know much about the science of flight, though I did watch a special about it on cable,” Trent offered, “but I can see how having great big rooms sticking out of the hull could, mmm—be a little disconcerting.”
Slim snorted. “Yeah, ‘disconcerting’ to airstream stability in a major way.”
“In a critical way,” Tom amended. “The Queen can’t stop on a dime, and the turbulence from that much blockage in forward flight mode would’ve torn us apart.” The scientist-inventor added with a half-groan: “We didn’t hit a wall, Trent—we were the wall!”
Bud nodded, black hair limp with sweat. “But you handled it, Skipper. And I know how you did it. Those big swervy jolts caused the units to slide back into the hull, first one side, then the other.”
“That’s it,” Tom confirmed. “And it had to be a powerful slide, with enough force to slam the cubicles into the rail locking mechanisms so they’d stay put.”
“Really is just like sliding the drawers back in on a filing cabinet.” Trent pridefully tried to cover the fact that he was panting, and wincing with every pant.
“Doc Simpson will look us over when we get back,” promised Tom. “We all took something of a beating.”
As Slim moved to retake the controls and put about, Bud said: “And now for the stratospheric question of the day. What fouled up the slide-rail mechanism? I know the refurbished Queen has been flown, and the hangar boys must’ve thoroughly tested the new add-ons.”
“That’s the question, all right,” Tom agreed grimly. “I don’t see how it could be just an oversight. Someone—”
The word hung in the air for just a moment. “Um, Tom...” said Trent, clearing his throat, “pardon me, but... I think I might know who the someone is.”
Tom and Bud exchanged looks of surprise. “Oh really?” asked Tom.
Trent nodded, frowning slightly. “I see I’ve shocked you two, but I am competent in some areas, boys, even if science isn’t one of them.
“As I said, the consultants group came to my imperial desk several times. I never got to associate names and faces to any extent, but... well, just this morning a woman came by, a young woman named Charston Medleigh—”
“Good looking?” asked Slim humorously.
“I didn’t think so. Now here’s the thing. I recognized her name, and I knew I’d seen a woman of similar appearance with the group on other occasions. She told me—acting convincingly contrite—that’d she’d left her eCorder in the hangar the other week when the consultants had finished. She said she’d set it on some crates, and it probably slipped down behind them, out of sight. She was all fluttery about how it included vital notes, photos, all that.
“Now not to trade in stereotypes,” Trent continued, “but what sort of woman forgets what amounts to her purse, and doesn’t go after it for weeks?”
“You have a point,” agreed Tom with a winking half-smile.
“Admittedly, I didn’t dwell on the matter—committed clerical worker that I am,” the secretary went on. “I just punched-in a temporary access code keyed to her ID, so she could get into the hangar. But now...”
“Jetz!” Bud exclaimed. “When she was in the hangar, the Lab was still being inspected. She could easily have gone aboard—”
“And fouled the slide-rail control mechanisms,” Tom finished, “probably inserting an override and disabling the safety-redundance sensors.”
“Could she have set it off by remote signal?” asked Slim.
“Maybe. More likely it was keyed to a speed-and-pressure sensor, maybe reading our own instruments. The effect would be much harder to withstand high up, at multi-Mach speed.” Like the others, Tom confronted the thought of the murderous danger directed against him—and evidently against his friends as well. Was the impostor Pallida Mors? Or what seemed to be a second faction trying to block the first?
The Sky Queen, its crew still wary and nervous, landed at Swift Enterprises, where Doc Simpson examined them quickly. “Minor bruises,” he pronounced. “Your ribs are going to hurt for a few days, Munford.”
“Too bad,” replied the man. “I had an appointment with the stratosphere for another beating.”
“Wait a week.”
Tom reported the incident to Phil Radnor after directing the hangar tech team to re-inspect the lab module mechanisms. “The moment you described the changes to the Sky Queen,” said Radnor, “I thought: Great, a new opportunity for enemy saboteurs.”
Tom asked if there had been any new developments in the Qassarmi murder case—which evidently was connected to the incidents in the Carlopa woods and the latest danger to Tom and others. “Developments? Without putting it in so many words, the State Department has taken over the matter. And they get jealous.”
“Covert ones. Everything happens slowly, with unexpected blind alleys. Ames reminded me that we’ve dealt with that sort of thing on several occasions.”
Tom grinned ruefully. “But we don’t have to like it.”
“I sure don’t. At any rate, the subcommittee chair spoke to your dad while you guys were up earning your weekly hazard pay. They’re saying they’ve fully briefed the Ugarta government about everything, including Qassarmi’s warning about the arrow and the bow and—here’s a great word—death. According to King Faffaffa’s people—he’s the Big Chief there—Qassarmi was on a list of suspects.”
“What was he suspected of?”
“Possible contact with an anti-government movement. No specifics. But boss,” Radnor continued, “there is one thing...”
Tom’s eyes narrowed. “What?”
“Damon told me the subcommittee chair was dropping hints of some sort. Without making any kind of open accusation, some guys in D.C.—maybe in Ugarta as well—think Qassarmi may have passed you more info than you’ve told them. Other parts of his message.”
Tom was stung for a moment, and his face showed it. “Rad, Enterprises has a reputation for being one step ahead of the game—any game. I have an edge in science and technology, but these people seem to think I’m like a man from the future. All-knowing.”
“In other words, dangerous and powerful.”
“And they know we Swifts think for ourselves and don’t fall into line just because ‘the authorities’ tell us to. Undersecretary Trane certainly has evidence of that.” The young inventor paused, resuming thoughtfully. “And, you know, they’re right. I’m not relieved of my moral obligation to consider the effects of my actions just because bureaucrats and diplomats claim it’s none of my business. Whatever else, I’m still a human being.”
“ ‘You Swifts’ are a pretty radical and rambunctious lot,” agreed the security man. “Makes the big boys nervous. It’s entirely possible, even plausible, that you received some information, some part of that message, that your blond-haired brain is chewing over for the moment. Something you’d rather not pass along to... people... who might use it in ways you think are—wrong.
“Tom... is that what’s going on?”
Tom grinned. “Hmm? Can’t hear you while the brain is chewing.”
That night Tom discussed the day’s events, dire and annoying, with his father. “Everyone wants me to spill the beans—but only on them.”
“That’s clear,” said Damon Swift. “Son, it seems to me there might be a deep agenda to all this. A mystery, a plot involving danger and death, has been—literally!— dumped on top of you. Qassarmi came to Shopton to draw you into it. The shooters and saboteurs—”
“I’ve thought about it, Dad,” Tom declared. “Threats have been made, gunmen in trees appear as if to carry out the threats—yet something blocks their actions. It may look as though I’m being protected, but someone’s goal may be to cause me to go to Ugarta myself, to get involved personally. Because I’ll conclude that going to the source is the only way to put an end to it all.”
“Could it have to do with your new invention?”
“Who knows? Qassarmi said I was the only one who could stop the threat. And I do have a certain rep as an inventor. It could involve some sort of science-backed investigation, or—maybe they expect me to use a repelatron to stop a bullet!”
“Or your incismitter to remove one. It’s certainly possible,” nodded Mr. Swift. “Qassarmi was taken out of the picture before he could tell you the details, but someone out there may not realize that fact—or can’t afford to believe it without evidence.”
“Because they can’t get me to prove what I don’t know, they’ve given up asking nicely. Dad, what happened in the Queen may have been intended to scare and warn me, not kill me. Without exposing themselves openly, they’re finding ways to bait me into taking personal action—to travel to Ugarta, where I’ll be in their power!”
Mr. Swift was grim and troubled. “And I’m afraid your profile makes it easy to guess that you’ll rise to the bait.”
His son reacted vehemently. “I don’t intend to do what they want!” Tom grated. “I’ll help Bash find out what’s behind it—to give meaning to Mr. Qassarmi’s death. But I’ll do it here, in the U.S., not in the middle of all those fighting factions in the Middle East, in Ugarta...” His voice broke off abruptly.
“Dad... I just recalled... weren’t we talking about Ugarta a while back, even before Mr. Qassarmi came into The Glass Cat?”
Mr. Swift was puzzled. “Were we?”
“Maybe not you and I,” Tom went on. “No, Ugarta came up in a different context. I can’t quite bring it to mind—strange—as if I’d been discussing it in a dream.”
“A dream? Could it be connected with what happened in Aurum City? That Decider mechanism induced artificial dreams and delusions.”
The youth searched his mind. “Yes, I think that’s it. I had a delusional episode in which a woman, a scientist, said something about my going to Ugarta. I barely remember the details of the Decider’s creations, but...”
“Could it have been more than coincidence?” speculated the older man. “The situation involved what we often term ‘paranormal abilities’. Perhaps something was leaking in from—”
“From elsewhere,” Tom finished. “And we know that ‘elsewhere’ exists—we’ve encountered it several times. Jennifer December, Exman, the Black Window object...”
Damon Swift gave an affectionate father-to-son smile. “Is your resolve weakening?”
“No! Well...” Tom drew in a breath. “Just a little. I’m not going to think about Ugarta right now, Dad. I refuse to!”
“Then what is at the top of the heap?”
“My work!—an opportunity to give the timephonic oscillotron the test of fire,” said the young inventor with determination. “I leave tomorrow!”
ONE ROOM, WITH ECHOES
THEY stood before the small hotel, a crowd of figures clustered around a strange bulky object, next to the van that had conveyed them there from Mexico City’s international airport. The shadows growing long, they stood quietly for a moment, gazing at the hotel, Las Esperídas Maníficos, a shambling sun-faded kind of structure rising in stucco in 1946.
“I’d say the ‘magnificent aspirations’ didn’t go anywhere,” joked Bud. The place radiated sadness and cheapness.
Tom gestured. “That’s what probably attracted Andy Foger to it.” The corner of the ground floor sported a tiny cantina.
“Are we done commenting on my great-uncle’s character?” snapped Amy Foger. “Shall we get on with it?”
Tom smiled at the attorney. “I’m as anxious as you are, Amy. More.”
Bud had flown the newly-recertified Sky Queen to Mexico, with Hank Sterling and the oscillotron aboard. Amy Foger, at her own insistence, had travelled by commercial airline. She had met the Shoptonians at the hotel with something of an entourage—insurance company officials, Spanish-English translators, experts in audio technology and sound reproduction, and the present jéfe of the local police department that had originally investigated the death of Andrew Foger. “I will be deferential, of course,” Chief Barojas had told the others. “I am a professional. I represent the Policía. Yet may I say, Miss Foger, Mr. Swift—I am skeptical and hope not to waste too much of my time.”
“You think your guys got it right the first time, Chief?” asked Bud with a smile.
“The evidence was clear.”
“It was not at all ‘clear’,” declared Amy stonily. “The hotel manager stated that he had to force his way into the room, cutting the deadbolt, where he found Andy Foger in a chair shot through the head.”
“And the gun used on the floor where his limp hand had dropped it,” Barojas reminded her.
“So the man said. Yet it is on record that Mr. Foger had his room key in his pocket, as if he were about to leave.”
Barojas turned to the young inventor. “Have you an opinion, Mr. Swift? Do you think there was someone else in the room who murdered the man and staged the suicide?”
Tom shrugged politely. “I don’t know. Amy’s a friend; I hope things turn out as she wants. But my machine and I are just after the truth.”
“As am I,” stated Amy haughtily.
The present manager of the hotel prepared the way for them. Tom and his colleagues wheeled the oscillotron inside and up a flight of creaky stairs. “Man, I thought this’d be a nightmare, lugging your contraption upstairs,” commented Bud. “But now it’s no worse than carrying a cardboard box.”
“Thank the Skipper’s brain and my late-night work,” grinned Hank. “We stuffed in enough antiballast to bring the weight down to three pounds.”
“But we still have to maneuver my baby around her own momentum,” Tom noted. “The mass is unchanged.”
In a matter of minutes the timephonic device had been set up in a dimlit room with frayed, faded carpeting. The watchers lined the walls in a half-circle. “All right, Tom,” said Amy. “Here we are. What now?”
“Now we find a good solid object to link that back-when day with now,” replied the youth. He asked the manager a question, by means of one of the translators.
“He says he is quite sure the room is as it was in his father’s time,” conveyed the translator.
“I can believe it,” Bud muttered.
“Well, I wouldn’t count on these wood floor planks or flimsy walls to hold much sound data,” Tom stated. “Metal would be best. Despite what the man says, I’m not sure this metal bedframe goes all the way back. Furniture gets switched around quite a bit.” After some scrutiny, he decided to use the metal door hinges as his point of contact. “These haven’t been changed since the Iron Age,” he gibed. “Er, don’t translate that.” He pushed the tip of the helix against the flange. “Flyboy, sing me something.”
“Am I paid to listen?” joked Hank.
Bud sang a few bars of a popular song in the blunt instrument that was his voice. Tom adjusted the oscillotron, and Bud’s bit was repeated by the sophisticated speakers. The onlookers burst into applause.
“And this is not merely a recording?” asked one of the insurance men.
“It is the true voice of the past,” replied an audio technician. “If Tom Swift says it, I believe it!”
Tom nodded at the man in appreciation and turned to Amy. “Okay, Amy, I’ve programmed the backtrack target into the computer. Are you ready?”
She surveyed the crowd. Several held their own recording devices to confirm for later study whatever their ears heard. “Everyone’s ready. Go ahead, Tom. Let’s get this old mystery solved.”
Tom drew in a breath and activated his invention. A long wait ensued. There was nothing to hear, and nothing but the flicker of the monitoring oscilloscope to see. “It seems to be working properly,” Tom murmured. “According to the scatter-profile quotient, we’re now extracting acoustical energy originating more than thirty years back.”
“A marvelous tool for law enforcement,” commented the police chief. “We could pause at any point, I take it? Listen in to what was said and done in this room in, let us say, 1970?” Several in the crowd glanced toward the bed.
Tom’s look and tone were chiding. “We could. We won’t.”
Minutes passed, slowly forwards for the listeners, rapidly backwards for the timephonic oscillotron. “According to the meter, we just passed 1965,” Tom commented. “Give it another few moments. Then we’ll start zeroing in on the day and hour.” The others leaned forward involuntarily, and Bud chuckled a chuckle only his best friend could hear.
Tom touched a control slider. “All right. September 3, 1960. Amy, do you have—”
“Estimated time of death 7:30 PM,” she replied. “Give us a plus-minus of an hour or so.”
The youth nodded. “Shouldn’t be hard to find the bang—not this time.” As a test of the equipment, he sampled the sound environment of the following morning, when the hotel manager had discovered the body and called the police. Excited voices and mutterings drifted from the speakers, and the present manager said something in Spanish, tears overflowing his eyes. “He says it is the first time he has heard his father’s voice in twenty years,” reported the translator.
“Everything’s working well,” Tom pronounced. “Now to find a big sharp blip on the sound-scope.”
The machine found a sonic peak that nearly jumped the borders of the oscilloscopic image, floating over the console in telejected space. Tom audioscanned the minutes before and after, over and over, as the audience stood in silence. 1960 was on the air.
“I think we have heard it sufficiently,” said the chief at last. “But perhaps it is for you to say, Miss Foger.” Frowning deeply, Amy shook her head slightly. The chief shrugged. “Ay, very well, then permit me to give my analysis as an officer of the law—for it is the work of my predecessors, my department, that you have called into question.”
“What do you hear, Jéfe?” prompted one of the insurance men.
“I’ll play it again,” Tom said. “You can comment as we go along.”
“Proceed,” nodded Barojas. “All right. A key unlocks the door—this door—from outside. Door opens, door shuts. Heavy footsteps, surely just one person. Mumbling, one voice. Pacing. Staggering, I’d say, hmm? Clink of a bottle on the dresser, sound of pouring, gulping, a cough. More drinking. Legs of a chair scraping across the floor. You see, he is putting the chair in place.
“More pacing. He dials the phone. The old clickety-clack sound as the dial rotates back—we can derive the number called from that.
“Now he speaks, Spanish and English. To his ex-wife, Consuélo. Can she forgive him? He sobs. ‘My life, oh my life, what a mess it all turned out to be.’ Love to children. ‘Goodbye,’ he says, ‘had to tell you goodbye. I won’t bother you again.’ Hangs up. Sobbing. Drinking.
“Dresser drawer is pulled open. Fumbling sounds, metal—surely the gun. A click. Sob sob. Squeak of the chair.” He made no comment on the next sound, a sharp Bang.
“And after that, for hours, nothing at all—silence,” noted one of the insurance people. “No footsteps. The door does not open.”
“Mr. Andrew Foger, alone. The conclusion is suicide,” Barojas stated. “Can you disagree now, Miss Foger?”
She cleared her throat. “The key in his pocket—”
“You heard the clink after he closed the door. He absent-mindedly dropped it into his pocket, leaving it there. His mind was on other things, eh?” He turned to the others. “We are done here. Mr. Swift, we must thank you. We have the truth.”
As the crowd filtered out, their mood somber, Hank and Bud began to disassemble the components of the oscillotron for easier carrying. Amy Foger remained, deep in thought.
Tom approached and spoke to her quietly. “How about you, Amy? Do you thank me for the truth?”
She looked at him with eyes like metal. “Of course, Tom. Of course I thank you. I asked for the truth, and—that’s what you gave me.”
“Amy, I’m sorry that—”
“Quite a toy you’ve made, Tom,” she blazed. “From now on we’d all better watch what we say. No more secrets in this world. Every word is public property. A victory for the truth!—but whether Truth is as important as the freedom to be alone now and then, the freedom to be quiet...
“Well, no doubt the future is listening right now. Hello, future. How’d it all work out?” She turned abruptly and left the room.
The three from Shopton flew home. For better or worse, Tom’s invention had proven its worth and its power.
For days, working out of the public eye but with the necessary official permissions, Tom Swift probed history. He listened to the drone of warplanes over Pearl Harbor, the whoops and cries of the Battle of Little Big Horn, the dull clang of the Liberty Bell, even—without result—Plymouth Rock. But two recordings thrilled Tom beyond words. The first began with a shrill, rough-hewn voice saying Four score and seven years ago.
The second was a vigorous, excited young voice, a boy calling down to his father from fifty feet in the air: “Dad, she’s a success! The new gas is better than we hoped! The Red Cloud will do anything we can dream up!”
“My great-grandfather,” said Tom to Bud. The young inventor’s blue eyes held a trace of mist as he switched off the oscillotron, its sound-scanner touching the cement foundation of the barn next to the old Swift family homestead. “I’ve heard his voice many times on newsreels and the like, but he was older then, and everything was formal and prepared. This—”
Bud gave a squeeze to his chum’s lean shoulder. “I know, genius boy. It’s full-voiced reality. Tom Swift and His Air Ship—and you are there!”
They thought a good deal about the past as they drove the short miles back to Enterprises on the other side of Shopton. All history would lie open to the timephonic ear of Tom’s incredible invention.
But at Swift Enterprises it was the Present that awaited the two, with all its peril. “Tom, I have Bashalli Prandit on the line,” said the plant switchboard supervisor over Tom’s inside-the-walls cellphone. “It’s an international call.”
“International? From Bashalli?” Tom was puzzled—and instantly alarmed.
The familiar voice came on the line, hesitant and then speaking in a rush. “Oh, Thomas... I...”
“Bash, what is it? Where are you?”
“Where? Where do you think?—Ugarta! I, I came—oh, forget all that! Something has happened—he’s disappeared—he’s been taken! Rafir!”
THE AIRPORT IN UGARTA
BASHALLI had grown impatient with Tom Swift. She was irritated with him, and with herself for being irritated. Her friend—they were resistant to vapid teenage terms like boyfriend and girlfriend—seemed to have lost the thread of a matter that meant a great deal to her, the death—murder!—of her beloved Mr. Qassarmi. Uncle Qassarmi.
She had aired her feelings more than once. “But you can fly off to Mexico to help Amy Foger settle a family matter. A family matter, Thomas.”
“Bash, the next try—it’ll be a great practical test of—”
“Yes, yes, your new wonderful invention. That, of course, is of preeminent importance. The world awaits.”
“Bash... you promised to...”
“Be more understanding of ‘this is me’. How true. Yet one has expectations. I presumed I had a degree of prominence in the Me of Tom Swift.”
“Of course you do, Bash, and we’re all trying to solve—”
“The sentimental distractions of the little girl from the backwoods of Pakistan.”
“Good night, think before you talk! Do you really—”
“I do really! You are content listening to the clanging of an old bell and the speechifying of your revered Mr. Lincoln...”
“Bash, he emancipated the slaves.”
“Do not dare blame your country’s backwardness on me!”
“Okay. Okay. Look, the people who are at work on the thing are top professionals. Phil Radnor is investigating, the FBI, the CIA, the State Department, Capt. Rock, the New York State Police—”
“How about Chow Winkler?”
“If you’re going to get—”
“If you dare to use the word hysterical—!”
“I was going to say sarcastic.”
“It was irony, not sarcasm.”
“You’re making this some kind of, of personal issue between us. Things are getting all tangled—”
Her voice had suddenly grown hushed. It was as if a heavy blanket had thudded down on their heads. A cold blanket. “Tangled. Yes, Thomas. Things are tangled. Will you ever realize just how tangled life is for us mere mortals who are trapped into living it? Oh, I know I’m not being fair. I am angry. I am hurt. I am hurting! And where are you? Running around the continent with your, your chum, perfecting your machinery, making that Acuna man feel proud of his father, solving scientific mysteries, playing at this... inventive... manliness of yours while something of such sharp, tender importance to me—”
“No, Thomas. I... apologize. I have no doubt you are doing all you can. Let us not talk of this any further tonight.”
And she didn’t talk further—to Tom. The next day, as Tom and Bud flew off for another oscillotron test, she had said to Moshan, “My brother, I am stressed out. I am frayed in the nerves. You can see it. I must go away from it all, a week or so in more comforting surroundings. Yes, I have an idea...
“Raffi has not seen his grandparents for a long time. When they visited—when I was in the hospital—he was on a camping trip with his classmates. I know he has mentioned wanting a trip to Pakistan. Why not indulge him now? School is out. He has the time. He and I will fly home together, to stay with Mother and Father for a few days, a week. It will please Rafir. And poor Shopton will have me out of its hair for a while.”
“He consented readily, Tom,” Bashalli continued over the phone. “We two flew out on a great jet, for once not the Sky Queen. We had no need for a Lab, not even a Flying one.
“Raffi was terribly excited. As for me, I cherished my thoughts. The flight I so carefully chose had a stopover in, ah!, Tul Golla, the quaint and lovely and cancerously overgrown capital of Ugarta. I was, of course, living, or rather flying, a lie. It was not my intention to travel on to Pakistan. While little Raffi visited the home he had never been born in, I would remain in Ugarta—”
Tom interjected. “To do what, Bash? Search for clues?”
“I wanted very much to do one specific thing. I knew most of Uncle Qassarmi’s family relations had been informed of his death, and questioned. But they had not yet located his son, Sabbik, who works as an engineer in the Ugar’t hinterlands.”
“Sabbik,” Tom repeated.
“Yes, Thomas, my ‘husband’! But he was also my little playmate, a part of my past. By tradition, we had not been in touch since the contract was made. For it is forbidden, when the ‘beloved’ is only a child. I felt, feel, a need to speak to him,” she went on, “to look in his eyes. Does he yet know of his father’s death? Did anyone tell him?
“But also—I admit this with shame at my uppity impulsiveness—I wished to ask him questions, in private. If he must be interrogated to solve this matter, let it be me who does so, not the police apparatus of the potentate of Ugarta, the Emir. For they are not always... sensitive.”
“I understand,” said Tom. “So—”
Bashalli forced herself to speak calmly. “So just hours ago we arrived at the Tul Golla airport. What a big, new, magnificent thing it is, Thomas, all glass and steel with video screens everywhere! Oil money, a wonderful magic wand, two lubricants in one.
“There was a delay. We were told the wait might last as long as eight hours. I did not wish to leave Raffi alone among these foreigners who perhaps would speak no English, so we sat in the terminal, and after a time we went to eat in one of the airport restaurants.
“At our table we were approached, in a very polite and tentative manner, by an older couple, Mr. and Mrs. Graeme, a Dutch couple traveling in the Middle East before the Middle East becomes something less middle. Very plain, ordinary people, with accents.”
“They approached you...” repeated the young inventor, as Bud stood close, listening. “Did they want something?”
“It seems they did,” Bashalli replied sharply. “They said they had flown in from Holland within the hour, and found that their phrasebook was inadequate to their needs in making their way about the airport. They asked if I read Ugar’t—obviously because I look to Dutch eyes like a native. So I thought.
“I directed them to an assistance desk. They came back in a few minutes to thank me, saying they had a two hour wait. We drank tea together, spoke in summary fashion of our little lives while Raffi played his games on that silly box-thing he carries. Quite pleasant, really.
“But then—not so pleasant. My name was called over the loudspeakers—”
“Your name,” repeated Tom.
“Bashalli Prandit. Ring a bell? I was called to the desk of a terminal that turned out to be at the far end of the building.”
“I can anticipate,” Tom said. “No one knew anything about it.”
“Yes,” she confirmed. “A phony announcement. To separate me from Raffi, of course. When I returned he was not there. Nor the Graemes.”
“The airport must have security cameras.”
“Oh of course, Thomas, many of them. Everywhere! But useless to me, because—”
Bud spoke aloud. “Right, a threat—keep quiet or else!”
“Yes. Mrs. Graeme’s little handbag still sat on the table. As I looked around, not yet alarmed, there was—a ringing. Inside the handbag was a cellphone, and when I flipped it open, it spoke. ‘Bashalli Prandit.’ It was a man’s voice...”
“Mr. Graeme’s?” asked Tom.
“If so, he was disguising it. He spoke with something of an accent, Thomas—it might be the same man who called The Glass Cat after Uncle Qassarmi was stabbed by... by the biruktaw. He said my name, I made a small sound, and he said the sort of thing these people always say: ‘Do not be alarmed, Miss Prandit. Do not cry out, do not show fear. Let us stay very calm, for you must listen with care. Your nephew is with us now. He is unharmed and has been—quietened.
“ ‘Listen, he will be fed and well cared for. He will sleep comfortably and kept from undue fear. He will play the games on his little box, and will watch television. We will assure him, with smiles, that this is a momentary interruption in his life. He will not be far from you, Miss Prandit. We will not remove him from this country.
“ ‘I think you will not be surprised to learn what we wish, what it will take to return him to you. I see on your face—for yes, I can see you—that you have guessed it. Tom Swift must come to Ugarta. When he arrives—and it must be very soon indeed—it is to be a public fact, something we will read in the newspapers, not a secret visit that could lend itself to trickery against our interests. Yet the deeper purpose must not be revealed, not to anyone. No one! He is a bright boy; he will concoct some plausible excuse. Assure him that if there is trickery—if the true situation becomes known to the government, to any government—then, as we say, the shadows will run red. We who hold Rafir possess considerable powers of—observation. What Ugarta knows, we know.
“ ‘Tom Swift must come, here to Tul Golla. Take the cellphone with you, Miss Prandit, and guard it like the pupil of your lovely eye, for it is the lifeline connecting you to Rafir. You chose to come to Ugarta to involve yourself in these—ugly matters. Now you must remain, for not too many days, one hopes. Give such explanations as seem plausible to your parents, to your brother. But reveal nothing!
“ ‘Keep the cellphone with you at all times. It is untraceable, absolutely so; and do believe me when I say that our service contract is an excellent one and our “bars” are plentiful as trees. After Tom Swift has arrived, we will give our instructions.
“ ‘Again I must say this: do not inform airport security, or the police, or any sort of authority in the government of Ugarta—or anywhere. If we are forced to flee, we will not take the extra trouble to carry with us our brave little hostage.
“ ‘If you understand, nod twice.’ I did so, Tom. ‘Do you wish anything repeated?’ I shook my head. ‘Good day then.’ And he hung up. And now it is about eight minutes later, and I have called you.”
Tom asked Bashalli what she intended to do next. “To wait at the airport,” she responded, “for a little while. For who knows?—perhaps, perhaps this is all—” Her voice suddenly broke, as if her habit of strength had suddenly given way. “B-but surely, Tom, this is... is not a terrorist...”
Tom tried to give reassurance. “I’m sure it isn’t, Bash. It’s more of the same—they think this is the only way to force me to reveal whatever secret Mr. Qassarmi whispered to me. They want me there, under their control.”
“But—but Thomas—there is no secret. Just the warning and the plea to you, with no detail. Even your machine found only a few extra fading words, nothing of significance...”
“They—someone—can’t accept that. Even if I played the recording for them, I’m afraid—”
“They would call it a fake,” she spat out bitterly. “And it is my fault. My—stupid!—sentiments—”
“No... do not worry, Tom. I am all right. It doesn’t matter who is at fault, not now. I will wait here for a while. After that... well, I will end up in a nice downtown hotel. Where I will lie down but not sleep. And not scream.”
Tom exchanged glances with his pal. Both knew Bashalli’s call would ignite Tom, and Swift Enterprises, into action. “All right, Bash,” he told her. “We’ll be there with you in a few hours. Don’t let an hour go by without phoning in. Enterprises will relay your call to the Queen by means of the videophone satellites.”
Her words were bitter. “Then I will say in advance: welcome to Ugarta.”
The bitterness was contagious. After Tom ended the call, Bud exclaimed: “Jetz, pal, everything that’s happened since the guy came staggering into The Cat was leading up to this!”
Tom nodded angrily. “Ohhh yeah. It’s about Qassarmi’s ‘message’—but they’ve decided they can’t just take my word for it. They want me in hand, so they can—”
“Apply the local customs of questioning.”
“They’ve been angling to get me to go to Ugarta from the start. Qassarmi’s own message included it. I refused to take the bait, and—”
“They got better bait,” finished Bud.
Great and swift preparations were made, many calls, some leaping oceans and continents. Eighty-eight minutes after the click that ended Bashalli’s call, the Sky Queen was airborne and Ugarta-nosed, and beating the speed of sound by several laps.
“Er, now—this here airplane—she’s not gonna get all loopy and fall down on the job this time?” asked Chow hopefully and nervously, standing next to Tom as Bud piloted the giant skyship. “Fall down—mighty discouragin’ words, son.”
“We’ve found and fixed the problem, Chow,” declared Tom distractedly, “the sabotage caused by that impersonator.”
“A ringer, hunh?”
“The consultants group proved the real Charston Medleigh was on the west coast at the time. The woman who came on the grounds—she somehow faked Miss Medleigh’s patrolscope code-signature—was a phony. When she got inside the Queen and opened the insulation sleeve, she clipped on several tiny induction devices set to mess with the module extender controls at the critical moment.”
“Them’s smart enemies, t’ get th’ best of all this ee-lectrical stuff.”
Tom shrugged. “Smart? To a degree. Their monitoring tech is advanced. They know how to fake out our security radar, and how to make incoming cell signals untraceable. But this sort of sabotage was less about high technology than cunning and determination.”
“And a good knowledge of the Queen’s vulnerabilities,” Bud called back from the pilot’s seat.
“Right. She knew the exact points where the protective circuitry insulation sheaths can be flipped open, so the interceptor units could access the system. It’s about effective spy work, carefully applied.”
“Okay, boss—whatever on thet one. Always glad to jest serve th’ blame vittles and hang on! But, gotta wonder,” the westerner continued, “what’s gonna happen in this here camel country? Why’d you bring that time telephone along?”
Tom glanced at his friend with apology. “Sorry I didn’t take time to explain.
“Several things seem to be going on, Chow, and it isn’t yet clear just who’s involved or exactly what they want. We know the Pallida Mors people—for all we know, Bash’s Dutch woman may be Pallida herself, working with the man who cellphoned me after Qassarmi’s stabbing—are murderously anxious to know what Mr. Qassarmi whispered to me. Since the news only reported generalities, they probably think our government has asked me to hold back the details of the message.”
“So it’s one o’ them blame guvvermint deals?” asked Chow.
“Maybe,” said the young inventor. “There’s a death threat to someone, and it seems there’s some connection to a group in Ugarta studying the old ‘Waiyaz’ religion, scholar-hobbyists called ‘the Resurrectors.’ Qassarmi said only I could stop what was to happen—so if it’s to happen in Ugarta—”
“That’s where y’ gotta go,” finished Chow.
“But I resisted and seemed to be passing the mystery on to others.”
“Okay, got it,” nodded the cook. “They got wind o’ Basherelli goin’ there with that little boy, so they rustled him away. They knew you’d hafta come.”
“Yes,” agreed Tom grim-faced. “Have to.”
Chow fingered the broad blank prairie that was his bald head. “But—so—wa-aal, dudden that mean th’ kidnappers are th’ good guys, sorta? They want you t’ come so’s someb’dy won’t get killed—right?”
“They may plan to apply pressures that could kill me, to satisfy themselves that I don’t know anything crucial,” Tom mused. “But even if they don’t make me their prisoner, they may plan to watch my actions so they’ll get an inkling of what I know and might have passed along to the Ugarta government, so they can adapt their plot. At this point they probably wouldn’t trust anything I tell them about what I heard that night. They think what I do will show what I learned from him.”
“Or—another idea,” Bud put in, “maybe they plan to use you as bait—the world-famous Tom Swift! Could have something to do with why that tree-shooter, er—got the drop on you.”
“Hmm!” Chow nodded. “Okay—so how’s your machine gonna help things along?”
“By giving us a credible cover story,” was the reply. “Even though it meant having to get help from someone who’s been an enemy himself!”
WILSON HUTCHCRAFT had looked and sounded like an enemy when Tom and Bud had first encountered him in Yucatan, where the young inventor had exercised his electronic retroscope on ancient Mayan carvings. But in the end even Bud had grudgingly admitted that, obnoxious as the supercilious archaeo-philologist had been in his personal style, he had been innocent of wrongdoing.
“Ye-aah,” winced Chow, embarrassed, as Tom revealed the man’s name. “Guess I ’as more like a blame enemy than ole Hutch—seein’ as I dropped a pot on his head!”
Bud snorted. “Don’t worry, Chow. It’s pretty likely he did something to deserve it. Even if we don’t know just what.”
Tom chuckled. “We can all agree the guy’s personality is a little off-putting.”
“But he’s helpin’ us this time?” asked Chow skeptically.
“It wasn’t a sure thing, but he agreed when I contacted him.”
“Agreed t’ what, boss?”
“To getting us invited—publically—to come to Ugarta to test the oscillotron on an archaeological operation, led by someone in the field he’s worked with on other projects,” explained the youth.
Chow nodded. “Shor!—wangled a’ invite. Once got m’self into a fyew-nee-ral thet way. Wish’t I’d known the feller, way they went on about him.”
“I’d read about an archaeological team, headed by an Ugar’t scientist named Isfthan, investigating the remains of an ancient temple underneath a church. Hutch was willing—snidely—to ask the man to call me.
“It’s an intriguing project. The original inhabitants of Ugarta had a crude written language—carved symbols—but the bits of writing known to archaeologists are very sparse. The team thinks the buried remnants of the temple structure may be a more complete source of inscription samples.” Tom added that the scientists were already making use of a retroscope in their work.
“So Hutchcraft got this Isfthan guy to invite you,” commented Bud as the miles fled below.
“Yes, or at least opened the door,” Tom replied. “But it’s something I’d considered even apart from our needs right now. I read about the project last month, before this mystery came up—maybe the Decider’s dream-episode put something into my head. It’s thought that some elements of the ancient Ugar’t language may have persisted through the millennia by way of Sumerian, Akkadian, and several Semitic dialects. Dr. Isfthan hopes the writings will give clues as to how to separate Ugar’t from the others and, eventually, recreate it verbally.”
“Uh-huh,” commented Chow. “Jest like them religious guys want to bring back some tids ’n bits o’ that ole Why-ootsie feller. So that’s why yuh’re haulin’ the time phone along, right?”
“That’s right, pardner,” stated Tom with a smile. “The cover story I ‘sold’ to Hutchcraft and Dr. Isfthan is that we may be able to actually hear—timephonically—the ancient language spoken aloud. And it’s not a lie; I think it’s possible, if the materials from the temple have the right time-resonance properties. And by the way, most archaeology these days, in the Tul Golla region, has something to do with the era of the Waiyaz cult. Our cover story puts us in a good place to find out why Mr. Qassarmi had Waiyaz on his mind.”
Chow indicated, with a grunt, that he understood. Bud half-turned and added, “Of course the Pallida Mors gang knows very well why us enterprising mystery-solvers are going, old timer. But Bash has kept quiet about her Swift connections so far—has to. As far as the government is concerned, she’s just a traveler.”
“It’s best anyway—we’ll have more elbow room if the populace doesn’t know why we’re really in Ugarta,” Tom told Chow. “Naturally the government knows about the Qassarmi murder and the fact that I was present after the attack, but Phil Radnor thinks we’ll have a few days’ ‘window’ before the state security apparatus realizes that Bashalli Prandit, visitor, is the person Mr. Qassarmi sought out in Shopton. When the officials get involved... well, who knows how it would play out.”
“Wa-aal, I sure know sumpin’ fer sure!” declared the ex-Texan with prairie scorn and anger. “Wouldn’t put anything past kid-rustlers—or any-dang-body who’d drop a dead carcass on a car!”
Presently Bud announced that the eastern Mediterranean was ending and Ugarta about to begin. Applying rearward-aimed gravitexes, the Flying Lab began a smooth slowdown that made the decks feel like they had taken on mild slope toward the nose. As the other passengers—Hank Sterling, his lead technician Charla Kim, and a young man from the Enterprises security force named Jack Parry—gathered in the big command compartment, Tom pointed out some key landmarks of coastal Tul Golla. “That banana-bunch of skyscrapers is the new business district, nothing older than six years. The jumbled yellow-gray region all around—you can see that it spreads out for miles and miles—is the old city. People have lived in this area continuously since the time of King Solomon.”
Chow chuckled. “Ye-aah, stop yer jokin’, boss. Nobody could be that old!”
“It’s the diet of grape leaves and pomegranates,” gibed Bud, regretting it immediately as he thought of Chow’s penchant for experimental cooking.
Tom continued, grinning. “I don’t know if there are any official city limits—Tul Golla just goes and goes until it peters out—but foreign visitors are required to stay within the new district. They take the rule very seriously: they required that we leave all secondary craft, such as the cycloplane or the atomicar, behind in the U.S. Beyond Tul Golla, the rest of Ugarta is just small villages here and there in the deserts. Hardly any roads, except to the oil fields.”
“Guess you really studied the map,” remarked Charla Kim.
“A little. But I also spent a few minutes flying the megascope’s viewing terminal over the city. Nice way to get the feel of things.”
“What’s that?” asked Hank, pointing. “The Emir’s palace?” A spire, its sides draped in sweeping curves rising from a broad base, dominated the skyline.
“That’s the Grand Muraktab,” Tom replied. “The new convention facility and hotel. The palace—it’s the only really old building left in this new part of Tul Golla—is that big spread over there.”
“I’ve seen bigger,” sniffed Chow.
“Can Tom Swift Enterprises afford to put us up in a hotel like that super-skyscraper?” Charla asked jokingly.
“I suppose we could,” replied the young inventor. “But we’ll actually be staying in a private residence arranged by Dr. Isfthan for his archaeological team to use. It’s next to the project site, up the coast several miles.”
Chow groaned generously. “An’ that there site’s an old temple? Aw, brand my bunions. We gotta stay next t’ one o’ them blocky tumble-downs agin, like we did down in Mexico?”
Tom laughed. “Afraid so, pardner. Not in a hut this time, though.”
The big cook laughed too. But then he added, “Now wait—ain’t gonna be in one o’ them little Arab tents, is it? My ole back has enough trouble!”
“Er—there’s our landing field,” Tom noted.
The Sky Queen went to ground in a spot of barren desert adjoining the old villa in which they were to stay, within sight of a sprawling ruin of black and crumbling stonework, its sides shored-up by wooden beams and metal cables. “The ancient remains are a stone chamber, deep down, mostly beneath the church. The church itself is called the Capella di Ambrosio—the Chapel of Ambrose.”
“Should I know who Ambrose is?” murmured Hank.
“Saint Ambrose,” came the answer. “It was in the article I read. He was elected Bishop of Milan in 374, but didn’t want the job and made himself scarce. Local legend says he hid out here in Tul Golla for weeks. The original Ambrose Chapel was consecrated in his honor something like 200 years later.”
“Useta know a’ Ambrose,” Chow declared. “Ole Ambrose Smith. Someb’dy knocked out all ’is front teeth, every one. Quite a sight, Ole Ambrose was. Couldn’t eat nothin’ but mushed bananas.” The westerner paused. “Naw, wasn’t Ambrose. Amos. Ole Amos.”
With Jack Parry assigned to the ship to keep watch, Tom and the rest exited into a waft of hot wind. A dark-skinned middle-aged man in sweat-stained khaki approached them with hand extended. “Welcome, Tom,” he said with excitement. “And welcome also to your wonderful ear to the past!”
“Good to meet you, sir.” Tom introduced Hadou Isfthan to the rest of his party.
“Perhaps you would all like some hours of rest?” suggested Isfthan politely, nodding toward the villa. “After your long flight from America?”
“Actually, our long flight wasn’t all that long,” responded the Shoptonian. “If you don’t mind, I’d like to see the chapel site as soon as convenient for you.”
The archaeologist’s face grew shadowed. “Ah. Yes. But you see, first we must stop inside. It is just for a while. You see—it is required. The man from the Iynnat wishes to greet you personally.”
“Iynnat?” repeated Bud. “The local welcome wagon?”
“No,” stated Tom quietly. “The local national security apparatus. ‘Iynnat’ is the popular nickname.”
“A name not entirely complimentary,” nodded Dr. Isfthan. “They are very powerful, and much feared. One does not wish to cross their paths, gentlemen, madam. The man they report to is second only to King Faffaffa, may he be blessed.” Chow mentioned the word alfalfa under his breath.
The old villa was large and cool, with thick walls and modern amenities gracefully superimposed over traces of the 19th century. A sleepy-eyed young man, the current owner of the home, lazed out to greet them in the entrance hall, then disappeared with a slight languid nod. The visitors and Dr. Isfthan waited silently. Big buildup, Bud muttered to Tom, using sign language.
“Welcome, welcome, my friends!” came a sharp and deep voice, followed by a powerfully-built man with a goatee like a pointing finger and the many-colored head-wrap of the Ugar’t. His suit was European in style and seemed silken and expensive. Standing in front of Tom, he clicked his polished heels and made a slight bow, touching his two closed fists together in what Tom knew was a sign of formal greeting.
“Gentlemen and madam, may I present His Excellency Rullma Narjani, Superintendent of His Blessed Majesty’s Guardians of Righteousness,” gestured Isfthan. The Americans detected a tinge of irreverence.
“Merely the Chief of the National Police, may we say,” stated Narjani in perfect English. He shook the hands of the men, nodding to Charla Kim as he withheld his manicured hand.
“We’re honored, sir,” responded Tom Swift. “We hope to bring new distinction to Ugarta.”
“Surely your mere arrival confers honor in itself,” Narjani smiled.
“How do we look?” asked Bud mischievously. When the Superintendent paused, the youth continued: “We understood you wanted to look us over before setting us loose.”
“I see,” said the man crisply. “Mr. Barclay, for we of Ugarta it is custom and courtesy to greet those who have come so far—on behalf of His Blessed Majesty, may the mountain measure his length of life.”
“We understand your security concerns,” Tom said. “This part of the world—”
“Yes indeed,” interrupted Narjani. “ ‘This part of the world’! You have chosen an unsettled time to visit us. Our hospitality would have been much greater had we been given an earlier notice of your intentions.”
“I’m afraid our intentions didn’t become intentions until a few hours ago,” Tom responded coolly. “But as I understand it, your office has been fully briefed on our plans here in Ugarta. And in turn we’ve agreed to your... guidelines. We haven’t carried along our usual baby aircraft. We don’t intend to do any work outside your—what is it?...”
“The Wall of Respect,” stated Narjani. “A modern barrier surrounding the Progressive City, which includes this suburban area along the coast.”
“Hunh. Wall o’ ree-spect,” Chow repeated. “What’s it respectin’?”
Dr. Isfthan answered for Narjani. “It respects the values of the traditional culture of our people. His Blessed Majesty insisted that it be built, to separate his people from—”
“From European habits and customs that some might find offensive,” declared Narjani. He nodded toward Charla Kim. “For example, they might feel some discomfort at the sight of you, Madame Kim, walking about in the garb of a man, with your lovely hair uncovered. For some it is a religious matter. For others—perhaps they resent the participation of the modern West in our ancient land. There are those who regard it as a form of colonialism. But we may be thankful that His Blessed Majesty, King Faffaffa, has a daring and progressive mind in addition to his many years.”
“We’ll stay within the limits,” stated Tom. “We do hope we’ll have some freedom of movement within the wall. A friend happens to be visiting, and I’m sure we’ll want to consult some of the experts in your University and buy equipment—that sort of thing.”
“You will have perfect freedom,” the man nodded. “We place high value on courtesy to guests. We put no stones in your path. And there is no crime in the Progressive City. Our boulevards are safe, thanks to His Blessed Majesty’s far-sighted program of protective watchfulness by television.”
“Sounds like you have a good basis for a ‘reality’ TV series,” commented Hank blandly.
“I do make one recommendation,” Narjani said to Tom. He plucked a card from his pocket. “In any new city, one wishes to move about efficiently. You will surely wish the services of a driver. This certified agency will provide—”
Tom took the card and slipped it into his pocket without even a feigned glance. “Thank you.”
Narjani’s gaze became narrower and sharper. “Our ways are not those of your country, Mr. Swift. They may seem, perhaps, overbearing. But there are troubles all about us, are there not? My beloved Ugarta is woven from many strands, many religions, many tribes, many who compete with one another for power. Not all choose to labor in the cause of peace and national unity. Iran and Iraq would each like a bite of us. Syria too. The United States?—ah, but it would be rude and unpleasant to suggest such a thing.”
Tom’s face lost its trace of smile. “We’re here to see what my invention can do to help your country uncover its past.”
“But perhaps there are those who do not wish the past uncovered,” the man noted. “It is murmured at Court that young Tom Swift comes among us for many reasons, not all of them scientific. The man Qassarmi, a shady character—did he not seek you out? And die for his pains? One wonders what inspired his travels—and precisely what message he carried to your ears.” Tom did not respond. Narjani suddenly showed his teeth in a bare-fanged smile, as polished as his Italian shoes, and pointed to a small gold pin on his jacket. “This—the symbol of our security force. It stands for a certain word in our language. Perhaps you know what it is?”
Tom was sure he did. “ ‘Iynnat’.”
“I thought you might have run across it. The fierce, fatal beak of the falcon that swoops down and tears the flesh of its prey—and thus it has come to be attached to a certain sort of knife. I believe you have heard the more common name, the word in its Persian form. Biruktaw!”
“I’ve heard it,” responded the young inventor evenly. “And I know what it really signifies, Mr. Narjani. Revenge—and death!”
“IN A WAY, it is a point of pride, that name they call us,” declared Narjani with quiet menace. “We are the servants of His Blessed Majesty, and we are feared. It is well that we are. There will be no upheaval here. Peace shall prevail in Ugarta as we are led by gentle steps into our future.”
“If you’ll excuse me, sir, I believe I ought to inspect the dig site,” Tom stated coolly.
The man became fiercer and even quieter, ebon eyes boring into the young inventor’s. “Perhaps you have chosen not to disclose all that you learned from Qassarmi that night. Perhaps you have already cut a deal with certain elements in Ugarta that the man was intimate with. Or perhaps you feel yourself in a position of strength, Tom Swift, a position to demand certain rewards from His Majesty’s government.”
“Or perhaps, sir—everything’s just as I say.”
Narjani’s face suddenly took light and relaxed. “Yes! Perhaps so. Many perhapses, eh? You are here to honor us, not to make us regret our hospitality.”
“Then we understand each other,” said Tom.
“Indeed we do.”
Hank Sterling cleared his throat. “Uh—I’d guess—Mr. Narjani, Dr. Isfthan—let me show you the Flying Lab.”
“Yes, wonderful,” Isfthan said with haste. “I am sure you will enjoy it, zhra Narjani.” Tom knew zhra was the Ugar’t word corresponding to honored sir.
Narjani gave a crisp nod and followed Hank, Chow, and Charla to the door, Isfthan bringing up the rear, Tom and Bud trailing. As Dr. Isfthan passed through the doorway, Tom reached forward and quietly pushed the door shut, he and Bud remaining inside. “I wonder if we’ll be missed,” grinned Bud.
“I don’t care. I need to contact Bash.” After a thinking-pause, Tom said: “Let’s go out on the back patio, flyboy. In this country it seems every nook has camera eyes and microphone ears.”
“Curious people, these Ugarticans.”
On the back patio the youths stood in the hot shade as Tom contacted Bashalli. “Then you’re here!” she exclaimed with evident relief. “Oh, Thomas—”
Tom interrupted. “Bash, wait. Let’s keep in mind that it seems to be general policy in Ugarta to monitor everyone electronically--everywhere. The Emir is very security conscious.”
Bashalli grasped the point instantly—watch what you say! “No doubt he has ample reason to be.”
“Where are you staying?”
“A nice room in the sort of modern hotel that seems to be duplicated in every big city on this planet Earth.” She sent Tom the directions. “Really, you must come see me—very soon.”
“What would be a convenient time?”
“Mmm, I don’t quite know yet. Tomorrow morning, perhaps.” With those words Tom knew that Bashalli had not yet been re-contacted by the kidnappers.
“Well,” Tom replied, “if anything comes up—you have my cell number. We’re staying at the villa I mentioned.”
“I cannot help but hope, Tom—that something will come up.” The young inventor could hear the tension and sadness in his friend’s voice. He was proud of her courage.
Tom and Bud rejoined the others aboard the Sky Queen. Zhra Narjani appeared genuinely impressed and affected a friendly attitude. “What marvels America brings the world!”
“We do put out some pretty good TV programming,” nodded Bud.
“But perhaps, in some ways, we have better,” responded the man smoothly.
After seeing Narjani off, Chow and Charla headed toward the villa while Dr. Isfthan gave Tom, Bud, and Hank their first view of the interior of the Capella di Ambrosio. Other than the Ugarta team’s scientific equipment, there was nothing inside but ruin; it seemed blackened by fire and age. “Not much remains now, does it,” commented Isfthan. “Little respect for this place—looting, flooding, fires now and then.”
Tom knelt down, examining what remained of a stonework floor with curiosity. “So I see.”
“What we call the Chapel has actually been many things over the centuries—Christian church, Muslim mosque, a meeting place for the followers of the Persian God-Who-Dwells-In-Fire, whom the West calls the Zoroastrians... even, for many years, a storehouse for lentils. When I made application to our Ministry of Antiquities to have the Chapel unsealed—all entrances had been sealed by concrete for many years, to protect the interior—it was our Superintendent Narjani who raised various objections and delayed us.”
Tom shook his head thoughtfully. “But your team consists of professional archaeologists. No one could suspect your people of potential vandalism. Why would State Security want to block your work?”
Isfthan shrugged eloquently. “Ah well, this is Ugarta. You saw zhra Narjani’s defensive attitude toward you, Tom. Peace between the religious sects can be sundered by anything—even some discovered truth about the ancient Waiyaz cult. To show even scientific respect toward one religion is taken as a grave insult to all the others. For only my religion is the true one—eh?” His eyes twinkled with good-humored cynicism.
“What was here before the era of Saint Ambrose?” inquired Hank Sterling.
“For centuries, during the period before the Common Era—that is, during times marked ‘B.C.’—there were only scattered marble blocks and bases of columns, all that was left of a Greek temple dedicated to Minerva. It was a matter of great controversy, the suggestion that the Minerva temple occupied the site of what is mentioned in the most ancient records of the city of Ugarit, a structure called the Ni’mia’ktim Waiyaz’shee. It is not precisely a temple in the usual sense. The words are thought to signify, approximately, the teaching-place where spoke the man-fish-god Waiyaz.”
“Also known as Oannes,” Tom commented.
“Sounds like the guy was a real combo plate,” said Bud.
“The account, as well as the name, comes down to us from the ancient historian Berossus,” continued Dr. Isfthan with a tolerant nod. “The name may have derived from a Sumero-Akkadian term for ‘he who makes things wisely’. The story refers to the ancestral predecessors of the Chaldeans, who are said to have lived in a lawless way, like beasts.”
Bud filled the ensuing moment by murmuring, “I’m from San Francisco.”
Continued Isfthan: “One day a strange Being crawled forth from the sea and emerged into the sun. He had a body like a great fish, but legs like those of a man; and beneath his fish’s head was a second head, a man’s face with a mouth that could speak as humans can. I can almost quote the passage, so much have I studied it: ‘This Being was accustomed to pass the day among men; but took no food at that season; and he gave them an insight into letters and sciences, and arts of every kind. He taught them to construct cities, to found temples, to compile laws, and explained to them the principles of geometrical knowledge. He made them distinguish the seeds of the earth, and showed them how to collect the fruits; in short, he instructed them in everything which could tend to soften manners and humanize their lives. From that time, nothing material has been added by way of improvement to his instructions. And when the sun had set, this Being Oannes, retired again into the sea, and passed the night in the deep; for he was amphibious.’ Rather creepy, is it not, my friends?”
Hank said, “And this site is where the—the guy—supposedly appeared?”
The scholar laughed pleasantly. “Shall I resolve aeons of controversy with a single word, Mr. Sterling? Oannes is a myth of the Babylonians, of greater Mesopotamia essentially, which lies well to the east of Ugarta. But there is reason to connect that myth to what may have been an earlier tradition, one native to the trading city of Ugarit and this whole region, Ugarta.”
“We know there are scholars who think the Ugar’t version, Waiyaz, was important to the earliest religion here,” declared Tom.
“Yes!” Isfthan exclaimed with crinkly delight. “And I myself am one of those, who are called The Resurrectors by those who prefer English. We provoke amusement among the academics. But, so, okay, why not? We ourselves pursue the subject for amusement, to pass time around tables discussing what the old Waiyaz religion might have been like, how it might have shaped Ugar’t culture. You see? We do not resurrect the fish-man-god, only some knowledge of his followers and their lost ways. A mere pastime.”
“Not everyone seems to see it in that light, Doctor,” declared Hank.
Isfthan’s expression changed in some subtle way, showing sudden wariness. “Very true,” the scholar nodded.
Tom regarded the man silently. Bud spoke up: “But why, sir? Why would anyone care about your hobby?—other than for the science, I mean.”
“It upsets the applecart,” Tom said to Isfthan in a quiet, blunt manner. “Isn’t that right?”
“Of course it does, Tom. It is another instance of what I said before. There are many sects, many factions, and His Blessed Majesty cannot tolerate any sort of controversy in Ugarta having to do with religion or the most ancient traditions—for modernization here has required that much tradition be compromised, or left aside. The great clans and families burn with resentment. Everyone fears the single spark that might set off the violent struggles that so many men yearn to engage in, to prove that they are right without question, to prove that they are men. Even if no one knows much about Waiyaz, the simple fact that some of the educated class have gathered together to study what is ancient—”
“It can look like a conspiracy,” Tom pronounced; “one that might risk stirring up the people outside your ‘Wall of Respect’. King Faffaffa’s government is reacting like the Chinese government did to the Falun Gong movement, which was mostly a program of meditation through exercise. It was forcibly suppressed—stigmatized.”
“I fear it may come to that,” said Isfthan.
He led the three to a wide opening cut in the floor, then down a metal ladder some fifteen feet into the solid ground. Tom could see on all sides, in the glare of electric lamplight, shards of stone and bits of rotted wood soaked in black bitumen.
The ladder ended at the floor of a large subsurface chamber that extended some distance in all directions, beyond the foundations of the Capella di Ambrosio. There were electric floodlights with snaking power lines everywhere, illuminating walls of stone-gray block. Several men and women, Dr. Isfthan’s fellow researchers, were busily engaged in tasks that mostly involved digging with delicate spades or using metal-brush whisks to gently remove the crust of ages. A Swift Enterprises electronic retroscope stood with screens aglow. A ventilator system hummed in the background.
Bud, last down the ladder, gasped. He grinned at his own reaction. “Sorry—it’s not the archaeology, it’s the art.” His muscular arm indicated the big bas-relief carvings on the wall most exposed, showing lions in stylized form and odd perspective, followed by marching men with bows and arrows. Bud gave his pal a significant look—bows and arrows.
One of the men came up to Isfthan. The two spoke animatedly in what Tom presumed was the Ugar’t language. “My colleague here, Dr. Mehkheiza, tells me of much progress toward our current goal. Look.” Isfthan indicated a series of broad stone steps rising toward a recess in one of the walls. A few feet upward into the wall, the steps stopped at an irregular obstruction of stone, sand, and earth. “Our probe instruments—some of them are from your Tom Swift Enterprises, my friend!—tell us the steps ascend in a stairwell corridor to the surface. That is to say, they once did. Having now completed our studies and measurements, we have at last begun to clear away the rubble. The sun of day will again shine in the Ni’mia’ktim Waiyaz’shee! It will not take long.”
Tom nodded. “Opening that stairwell will be helpful. My timephonic oscillotron doesn’t weigh much, but it’d be hard to maneuver it down that ladder.”
“Whose head is that?” Hank inquired with a gesture. “Waiyaz himself?”
The wall held, not another carving in relief, but a kind of flat sculpture made of bits of shaped and welded metal. The image was like a cartoon caricature, the face of a man wearing a strange headdress, perhaps a crown. “As of this moment, who knows?” chuckled Isfthan. “ ‘Oannes’ taught the metalworking arts; perhaps the ancients chose to make a picture of him in metal to honor their tutor, though I see nothing of his fish-likeness. But next to the thing you can see some of the inscriptions that we labor to understand. I suspect this image honors not Waiyaz, but the reigning priest-king.”
A woman standing not far away spoke up. “You must not mislead our guests, Hadou. However much you chattering old men wish to tell stories over drink, nothing proves that this place had anything to do with the fish-man-god. We cannot be sure the name, Ni’mia’ktim Waiyaz’shee, goes back so far.”
Isfthan chuckled. “It is the self-chosen task of Byssa Gh’qalom, my most lovely co-worker, to keep me honest and scientifically respectable.”
“Nice to meet you, ma’am,” Tom nodded. He searched his mind. Did she sound at all like Pallida Mors? Not obviously, he decided. But that’s the point, of course.
After Isfthan had shown the Shoptonians various details of the carvings and inscriptions, he led them back up and out into the sun. “I feel confident the clearing of the stairwell will be a simple matter,” he said to Tom. “Perhaps you will be able to start using your time device as early as tomorrow.”
“I’ll be around,” said the young inventor dryly. “But now, some relaxation. Then—” He glanced at Bud with a trace of wink. “Then I guess we’ll wing it.”
Dr. Isfthan nodded. “Perhaps you will wish to visit our Progressive City, you and your party? Many fine restaurants, many bars and clubs for whatever harmless vice you of the West might wish to indulge. And we are told, are we not—all is safe in the city. For our wise and benevolent Emir guards us well.” He also had a wink in his eye.
“I’m afraid I don’t have any vices,” Tom stated. “I don’t have time.”
“I’m from San Francisco,” Bud repeated.
The three returned to the villa, Isfthan remaining with his work. Chow made his usual robust appearance from around a hallway corner. “Hey there, boys. Look what I got in my hand, boss!” He held a soup ladle. “A’ready at work in th’ kitchen! Big as Texas! This rich kid dudden have a reg’lar cook—says he eats out ever’ blame night. Leastways I kin cook edible grub fer you folks. Mean t’ say, I hear’d they eat fried ants in places like this!”
“Thanks for protecting our Yankee stomachs, Chow,” Hank grinned. “Don’t imagine they’d take to ants.”
“No? Wait’ll you taste ’em fried up Santa Fe style!”
Good fortune struck at that moment, by interrupting it. A servants appeared holding a large and ornate telephone. “One of you is zhra Tom Swift, is it so? A man calls for you.”
As the servant handed Tom the phone, the young inventor’s face was grave. He knew calls from his father or Enterprises would be routed, via the Flying Lab, to his cellphone.
“This could be it,” he murmured to his friends. “This could be the kidnappers!”
“THIS IS Tom Swift,” said the young inventor.
There was a slight pause, as if many switches were flipping and many relay circuits straining. “Tom? Tom Swift? Can you hear me?”
“I can hear you.”
“Ah!—This is Clementi Acuna.”
Tom was unsure whether to be relieved or impatient. The image of the man rose up vividly in his mind’s eye. “Where are you, sir? You were flying back to Switzerland—”
“Yes, my friend, I am in Geneva. It is already reported, on the all-knowing Net, that you have flown to Tul Golla to further perfect your machine. Of course I am curious to know whether my father’s theories and calculations continue to, as it were, bear fruit in practicality...”
“Yes sir,” Tom replied with a trace of irritation. His cover story threatened to overwhelm the reality it was covering! “We’re continuing to have great success. As I told you the other day, if conditions are right we should be able to go back many centuries.”
“There is... another reason for my call.” Acuna spoke hesitantly. Tom waited. “You see, upon much reflection, I—believe I may have something to do with much that has happened, including, alas, the tragic events that overtook to Mr. Qassarmi.”
Bud and Hank could hear Acuna. Their faces reflected their surprise and inevitable anger. “Mr. Acuna, just what do you mean?” demanded Tom as politely as he could.
“I...must explain,” Acuna began. “You see, my father was clearly, we may say, an eccentric figure. He was an outsider to the scientific community. Yet one does not wish to be alone, to labor in silence. He sought out other scientists, other thinkers who were also, in some ways, at the margins...”
“I understand,” said the youth.
“Of course you do. You yourself are, perhaps, ‘out there’.
“To get to the point, in his last years my father was in constant contact—by correspondence, by the internet—with a group of ‘outsider’ scientists and scholars in Ugarta.”
Somehow Tom knew, instantly, what was coming. “You mean the group interested in the ancient Waiyaz cult, don’t you. The ones called the Resurrectors.”
“Precisely, Tom,” confirmed Acuna. “Yes, those who study the Oannes myth in Ugarta. Father participated in their discussions as they tossed about ideas. He enjoyed brisk exchanges with other men called cranks by the world. He considered some of them friends—though friends whom he never met in the flesh.”
“Was Dr. Hadou Isfthan one of those friends?”
“Indeed so. And the project mentioned in these reports of today, at the Ambrose Chapel—it has been casually discussed for many years. Father often told Hadou how his timephonic theories could solve so many of the mysteries. And so the matter rested. Father died; I chose to maintain occasional contact.
“And then it was reported in the gossip of the world scientific community that young Tom Swift was developing a kind of ultra-amplifier, and I knew instantly that this way a chance to prove Father’s theories...”
“And you discussed it with the Waiyaz group,” Tom said.
“I did. Idle discussion, well before you yourself began exploring the ‘time-listening’ capabilities of such a sensitive device. I expressed confidence in your prowess, my lad—I said lightly that you could accomplish anything, that your oscillotron could be used in timephonic studies, eventually at the Ambrosio site. There was chuckling and speculation among these men and women, and then the conversation ambled on along its way, as idle conversations do.”
Tom’s words rushed forth. “Mr. Acuna, are you saying that some member of the Resurrectors—maybe of the project team itself—”
“I am!” asserted Acuna. “Though the news reports have few details, you have alluded to the fact that Mr. Qassarmi bore his message to Shopton for your ears specifically. Surely it was to ask you to lend your inventive mind, your scientific expertise—”
“He alluded to some threat or danger, and seemed to be saying—remember, he was losing consciousness and half-delirious—that I could stop it in some way.”
“A threat, Tom; and the man came to you from Ugarta. And now you travel suddenly—it was not among those things you mentioned to me, even yesterday—and there you are with your device in Ugarta, in Tul Golla, at the very site where Isfthan and many of the Resurrectors are at work!”
The young inventor took in a breath. “That’s great reasoning, sir. I won’t get into the details, but it’s fair to say that my scientific work here may have some bearing on the attack on Mr. Qassarmi.”
“Of course, Tom. And now you know that my own aimless speculations, about how your amplifier might be employed for timephonic uses, may have reached Qassarmi’s ears, and no doubt the ears of others in Ugarta. Thus he came to you. And thus he died.”
“You had no reason not to dream aloud, Mr. Acuna,” responded Tom. “It’s where discoveries—as well as risks—are born. Can you tell me who in the group you spoke to?”
“Oh, I can give various names, I suppose. But the conversation was quite general, sometimes by speaker-phone connection. I’m sure all the Resurrectors had their minds crossed by it; and then they told their wives and friends...”
Tom sighed slightly. “I’m sure the exact ‘route of transmission’ is beyond being pinned down. Right now I can just say thank you, sir, for telling me this. And please, don’t blame yourself for what has happened.”
The young inventor and his friends discussed the perplexing matter in whispers, and then, inside the Sky Queen, with Shopton via the Private Ear Radio. “I don’t know how to advise you, boss,” said Phil Radnor. “I’m not hearing anything from our Washington sources.”
“I doubt you’ll be getting any help from officialdom, son,” Damon Swift added. “I don’t know what would happen if the governments knew of these latest developments—the kidnapping and this call from Mr. Acuna.”
“I’m afraid I know what would happen,” declared the youth bitterly. “Calls and diplomatic cables and ‘back-channel discussions’—and in 24 hours we’d be getting Rafir Prandit back in a box. Whoever they are, I’m sure they don’t want anyone to question their ability to keep a promise of murder!”
“All I can tell you is to await contact from the kidnappers,” his father replied, “and trust those fine-honed instincts of yours.”
Chow prepared a late lunch, but Tom was unable to do better than pick at it. The hot winds shifted back and forth in a restless way, sometimes along the coast from the south, sometimes rushing out from the burning deserts to the east of Tul Golla. “Don’t mind it too much,” shrugged the Texas-born cook. “But it don’t feel right. Not s’much like the brush an’ prairies back t’ home.” The big cowpoke was already homesick.
While Hank and Charla Kim worked aboard the Queen to prepare the oscillotron for its great challenge, Tom found himself listless and distracted. “I don’t feel like leaving the villa, flyboy,” he told Bud. “I can’t think of anything but getting that call from Bashalli.”
At last the call came. “Oh, Thomas, he just called—he just hung up! It was—it—” She began to sob, and Tom knew how little she liked showing anyone that vulnerability.
“What did he tell you?” Tom asked after a moment.
Bashalli composed herself. “The very first voice was Raffi’s. He called my name. ‘Aunt Shal?’ I—asked in a rush many questions, like a babbling girl, and he said ‘I’m okay. I don’t know where I—” and then the voice of that man came on, the one who spoke to me before.
“He said, ‘We have come to like your brave little nephew, Miss Prandit. We wish him well.’ I asked what he wanted me to do. He said I was to tell you...
“You are to come the lobby of the hotel, my hotel, at 5 P.M., and must be prompt. I am to hand you the special cellphone. He said you may bring along just one other from your Shopton crew, who will be needed to drive Raffi back when the exchange is made.”
Tom’s fears were confirmed. “The exchange?”
“Yes, Thomas, he is very clear in his intentions. They will release Rafir safely, but only when you are fully under their control. That is—the deal. He said there must be no trickery—no beeping devices in your clothes, no secret trackers, no weapons, no contact with the government or the police. He said something about monitoring the villa electronically, and that they will know of any attempt to arrange a trap, and in that case... R-Raffi is to be—”
“I’ll be careful not to make them nervous. Bash, have you decided whether this man is the so-called Mr. Graeme you met at the airport?”
“I’m sure he isn’t,” she replied. “I could hear Mr. Graeme talking in the background, and the other one too, the woman who called herself his wife. She doesn’t sound to me like the voice on the tape though, the woman who called herself Pallida Mors.”
“We’ll follow their instructions to the letter,” Tom assured her. “You’ll have Raffi back by sunset—I’m sure of it. Then take the next flight out of Tul Golla.”
“Gladly!” she snapped. “Now, I will go down to the lobby and wait for you.”
The young inventor immediately waved Bud into the villa from the patio. Voice tense, he narrated the new development to his chum. “Hostage exchange!” Bud grated. “Jetz! Tom, there’s got to be a way around this.”
“The first priority is getting Rafir back.”
“Genius boy—it sounds like they’re treating him well. But you—if they think you’re holding back on something, they’ll torture you to get it!”
Tom’s face was white, but his steady voice spoke resolve. “Taking a celebrity hostage, much less torturing or killing him—there’s risk on their end of it too. This might be less than it appears, Bud. They might be making a last-ditch try to impress some third party, to bolster their reputation. I could end up released by the end of the day.”
Bud said one word. “Or.”
“ ‘Or’!” Tom nodded grimly. “Let’s arrange for a car. I think it’s best if we don’t tell Hank or the others anything about what we’re doing. We can’t waste time while they try to debate me out of it.”
Bud agreed. He added: “You’ve got that card in your pocket, that driver Narjani talked about.”
“Mm-hmm. Which is exactly why we won’t use him. I’ve had enough of feeling ‘secure’ in Ugarta. Let’s try our best to get off the grid.”
They sought out the wealthy young owner of the villa, who regarded the two Americans with slack eyes and an expressionless face. “You guys need something? I’ll play host. I can get you anything.”
“There is something, Mr.—” Tom stopped with a smile. “I’m sorry. I don’t recall your name.”
“Did I tell it to you?” The man shrugged and dug deep into his pockets, coming up with an embossed card that he flicked into Tom’s waiting hand.
Bud was looking over Tom’s shoulder. “Er—how do you pronounce that last name?”
“How? Like it is spelled, of course. Shaw-pay.”
Shaw-pay led the two outside into the afternoon heat, to a vast covered driveway where some dozen vehicles awaited, along with the servants who kept them polished like curvaceous mirrors. “You want to drive? To drive yourself? Ek, whatever, dudes. Inside the Progressive City, no problemo. The Emir—”
“We know,” Tom said impatiently.
“Outside in the country, you’d be best with a humvee. Better, a jet fighter! So look, take your pick. Keys are in the ignition.”
Bud’s eyes were wide. “A-any one? You mean—even—”
The man shrugged. “Why not? That one? That is the Vis-Viva Extrema.”
“Jetz, it must be next year’s model!”
“No, the year after next. I paid to have it made directly from the concept notes. That is, Dadda did. A wheedled gift. He’ll give me anything to shut my mouth.”
Tom and Bud entered the sleek, strange-lined craft through its angled gull-wing doors. Noting Bud’s swooning excitement, Tom took the pilot’s seat. “You can drive back,” he said bluntly, adding in thought: With Raffi.
Leaning out again the scientist-inventor half-stood and said to Chiapet, “What about a driver’s license?”
“A what? Ah!” The young Ugar’t dug deep in a pocket and produced a wad of currency. “Here, zhra. A driver’s license valid everywhere on Earth.”
Tom had to grin. “Thanks. We’ll take good care of this baby.”
Chiapet shrugged. “Do what you like. Wreck it if that’s your pleasure. I’ll just get another—or ten of them.”
With the youths sealed inside, the VV Extrema started at a touch. “Feels like real power,” Tom murmured. Bud nodded vigorously. “What’s this button here?”
“Full audio over-amp,” was Bud’s reply.
“For the radio?”
“For the engine. Makes it roar.”
“Don’t think we need that one.”
Activating the robo-map guidance system, they whooshed off the grounds and onto the highway to the heart of the Progressive City. Even from miles distant the spire of the Grand Muraktab dominated the Tul Golla skyline, ultramodern yet—sterile. “Doesn’t look like a real city at all,” Tom observed. “More like something created on a CAD monitor screen.”
The coastal highway was all but deserted, but the downtown streets were alive with bustle and business suits, with only the occasional turban. Bud reveled in the jealous looks cast their way by intent young men. “Good old Tse Tse never gets scoped out like that!”
They arrived at Bash’s hotel, insisting on self-parking, not valet. In the lobby they found their friend white-faced, clutching the enemy’s cellphone like the rungs of a ladder. “Here I sit, Thomas, Budworth, trying to think of nothing. But I fail, for I do think of things. I think of great hot deserts and mosques; I think of Pakistan. I think of what the old culture is like, what penalties it exacts on those who are different or new or merely themselves. What it did to my sister, Missarah.”
“I didn’t know you had a sister, Bash,” commented Bud.
“Yes,” she replied. She turned away from Tom and Bud.
Bud shrugged. “You don’t ever mention your sister. Just your brothers.”
“I don’t have a sister.” Bashalli’s face was unseen.
“Hunh?” The San Franciscan’s tone was perplexed. “You just said you have—”
Tom touched his chum’s shoulder and spoke very quietly. “No, flyboy. She didn’t say she has a sister. She had a sister.”
“I saw.” The Pakistani suddenly turned toward the boys fiercely. “And since that moment I will never scream again!”
The three stood frozen for a moment. Bashalli raised the cellphone. “Now I am to hit the call-return button,” she said.
But before she could do so, the phone bleeped! “They’re watching,” pronounced Tom angrily. He answered the phone with no politeness.
“And hello to you too, young Mr. Swift,” said the calm, accented voice that Tom had first heard in The Glass Cat. “Hello to Bud Barclay, and particularly to the charming Miss Prandit. And a greeting from this sweet little boy Raffi, who is so anxious to say goodbye to us.”
“What do you want me to do?” Tom demanded.
“I much appreciate this courteous attitude you now take, Tom,” said the man. “It is right that you do so, for you have come into my country. And also I shall show you courtesy, for you are a guest here, my guest, the guest of all the Ugar’t.”
“I intend to cooperate. I’ll do what I have to do to get Rafir back to his aunt safely,” Tom declared, adding, “But I won’t do it out of fear, whoever you are! Don’t waste time with the usual threats.”
The man’s sneer was audible. “Are threats now so common that they are to be regarded as ‘usual’? Surely each threat has its own character, its own tender quality. Is not a good threat like a well-crafted poem, invoking emotion, moving one to the depths?”
“Just tell me!”
“Forgive me, Tom, I am a romantic soul. Get back in the nice car provided you by that fool Chiapet, scion of the faithless and dissolute. Keep the telephone active but give it to your friend as you take the wheel—it is a traffic violation in Tul Golla to use a cell as you drive. Most unsafe.
“Outside the parking structure, turn right. I will give you instructions as you go along—you shall not know where you are headed until you see it before you.”
“And what happens when I arrive?” Tom asked.
“Please, shall your drive through our fine Progressive City be marred by anticipations? You will stop and get out of the car. Some dignified gentlemen will approach you, each with a hand in his pocket. After a few moments the little boy will be led to the car and gently released, with a lollipop. As for you, Tom Swift... We only wish to ask certain questions of you, to ask them probingly and with great clarity. And in a little while it shall all be over, and we shall be satisfied.”
“And how satisfied will I be?” inquired the young inventor bitterly.
“Ek-yah, who knows? Surely one man’s satisfaction is not another’s, mm? Now, zhra Swift, to the car if you please.”
In a minute the Extrema was negotiating the streets of the city again, Tom at the wheel, Bud holding the cellphone. “You are doing well,” said the kidnapper. “As you surely realize, we can see you, even as you drive about. Ahead, the next intersection, turn to the left, please.”
They turned, moving cautiously. The crowded boulevard was lengthy. “Yes, very good, a moderate pace. Enjoy the sights of the Progressive City provided by the Emir, known in your West as King Faffaffa. May his days be as many as the sands that blow and the men he has put to death. Take it all in as you pass: the office buildings, the endless windows of glass, broad sidewalks in concrete, women striding boldly in pants. Are we in Paris, London, Manhattan? No!—this is ancient Tul Golla, once called the Port of Sweet Palms. But what djinn would ever recognize it?”
“Swift Enterprises has nothing to do with all that,” snapped Tom. “No one invited us here except Dr. Isfthan. He’s trying to find what’s left of your ancient culture.”
“I honor you, and he, for that,” declared the cellphone buoyantly. “And indeed, do forgive us if it seems we have anything against you personally, or Miss Prandit, or her little nephew. You are all victims of a certain... state of affairs... as are we. As was Jimim Qassarmi, who was allowed to obtain some information which he chose generously to share with Tom Swift, the great boy inventor, the lover of his family friend from the past—no, do not interrupt, I insinuate nothing, Tom. There is no slur upon the honor of you two, practicing the closeness of a boy and girl in a culture that encourages such... conduct.”
“Let’s bleep over the moralizing!” Bud interrupted, face red with anger on behalf of his friends. “Where do we go next?”
“Ah, Bud Barclay—they do say you are impulsive and very frank, zhra. After the block you are on, four more, then left at the intersection.”
At the moment Tom was paying more attention to the spectacular rear-view mirror—widescreen—than to their guide. “Bud...” he whispered, very low.
“Behind us, near the last intersection—a motorcyclist...”
Bud twisted around. “See him. That bike’s an odd one.”
“Picked us up as we left the hotel. I’m sure he’s tailing us. He’s matched every lane change and kept his distance.”
“One of cellphone man’s goons,” snarled Tom’s pal. He said into the cell: “What’s with the biker? You don’t trust us courteous types to follow the rules?”
To the surprise of the two listeners, there was a long pause. “What do you say now, Barclay? That motorcycle, some ways back...” They could hear the man speaking to others, in his language. His tone became agitated. “Turn now, right, at this intersection you approach. Let us see what he does.”
“Not one of theirs,” Tom whispered, tightening his grip on the wheel.
They turned. As the Extrema began its turn, the cycle abruptly accelerated, almost frantically. “Made him nervous!” Bud exclaimed.
“You must lose this follower!” barked the man on the cellphone. “The packet on the front—do you see? Explosives!”
“Suicide bomber!” choked Tom. Blaring the horn in warning—an amplified phrase of a pop tune—the young inventor slammed down the contoured floor pedal. The Vis-Viva Extrema launched itself forward like a bazooka shell!
They tore down the long boulevard, screeching around anyone or anything daring to block them, raising honks and terrified shouts. “He’s matching us!” Bud cried. “That bike can outperform this barge!—Skipper, don’t slow down! Jetz, he’s getting—”
“Have to slow,” Tom gritted. “Gotta make the turn ahead without spinning out...”
As the next intersection approached, both Americans suddenly yelped in surprise. A plume of white streaked out behind the cyclist, blossoming in one second into a dragging parachute. As the cords drew taut, the helmeted rider leapt upward into the air, instantly jerked backward and upward by the chute.
“G-good grief, he’s bailed out!” gasped Bud unbelievingly. “The—the bomb must be about to—!”
THE FOURTEEN ENEMIES OF GOD
BUT there was no explosion, nor did the bike falter and tumble away. The riderless cycle continued to bear down on them, faster and faster! “A street-level missile with its own guidance system,” Tom pronounced. “Its system has locked on to us!”
“That rod sticking out in front—jetz, it’s a plunger to set off the explosives! When it rams us—”
“I won’t let it!”
Tom did everything he could think of to coax more speed out of their futuristic vehicle. But it was big with muscle. Streamlined as a javelin, blazing with power, their deadly pursuer clearly had the advantage. Contact was moments away!
The boulevard led straight to the familiar spire of the Grand Muraktab, its huge parking lot surrounded by a chainlink fence. No tires on Earth will hold us if we try to turn aside now! Bud thought desperately. We’re plowing right through that flimsy fence!
And they did, with a jolt but virtually no pause. Strips of fence went flying like plucked daisy petals. They tore into the lot, empty but for some parked bulldozers and construction vehicles. Tom muttered something that his chum didn’t catch—“...Parabolic...”
The next stop—an inevitable, real, and cataclysmic stop!—was the side of the huge structure. The end would be only slightly postponed by the fact that the lower parts of the building were spreading curves, starting flat to the asphalt, then rising smoothly and elegantly like draperies. Tom had registered, instinctively, that the mounting curvature of the architectural feature was in the form of a parabola.
Bud glanced behind. The extended “feeler” of the cycle was only two car-lengths away! And even as he looked, an unexpected swerve—vertical!—pressed him down into his seat. Still lunging forward at full speed, the Extrema had begun mounting the architectural curve as if it were an onramp!
The unforgiving laws of momentum and inertia took hold. As they curved into the vertical, their blasting horizontal momentum began to dissipate against the angled wall that pressed back against their tires. The youths were pressed downwards against their seats and simultaneously forward against restraint straps that bit into their skin. In the course of 100 feet their makeshift “ramp” became vertical. All their remaining momentum was now upwards, their nose pointing at the sky! They were driving up the side of the Grand Muraktab!
Bud said nothing—but grunted as the Extrema “bottomed out” against the upward curve that their wheels now pressed against. But the young pilot knew a good deal about cars and momentum. The clank they had heard was the death knell of what remained of their horizontal velocity. As whatever passed for shocks and springs in an Extrema sprung back into shape, the car would shove itself away from the wall, gently but mercilessly. As they continued to cannon upward, the tires would lose their grab, then drift away from the wall entirely. They would mount a little ways further on sheer momentum, then stop and hang in space for one awful moment, the apex of their trajectory. And then back downward, smack into the deadly motorcycle that was presumably following their rising course from only yards behind!
The faint rumble of tires against the wall of the Grand Muraktab suddenly fell away. Nose to the sky, they were gliding backwards away from the vertical wall.
Bud hadn’t time to shout as the motorcycle made its appearance, startlingly. By some miracle the laws of motion had moved the Extrema far enough away from the wall that the cycle could pass “between its legs”—brushing the tires, but without the extender-rod making contact. Zooming along with less friction and more propulsive energy, the start of its rebound came high above them, and came with a peeling tumble.
“It won’t hit us...” gasped—one of them.
But they were already falling, picking up speed, many stories up. The sky, still filling the forward windshield, was wonderfully tranquil, a pale blue, interrupted only by the edge of the building’s roofline.
As to what was next, Bud could see it in his mind. When the rear wheels, or the rear bumper, contacted the sloping cliff of wall waiting beneath them, the grinding friction would send them into a wild somersault.
Yet after a small flight of instants, Bud realized that it hadn’t happened—with luck wouldn’t happen. The outward-angling slope of the wall was just enough, as they met it, to compensate for the start of the tumble. All four tires now hit the slope—and bit in with a screech. The motor was still roaring away. The tires laid vertical rubber!
But Tom knew the added forces would be hard to steer against with his view a reverse angle. He desperately contorted his lean arms and managed to throw the Extrema into neutral. They were rolling downwards and backwards helplessly, back down the curve that they had ascended only seconds before.
Bud realized that they had suddenly, bouncingly become horizontal again, whirring tail-first across the asphalt lot. The center of gravity shifted. We’re going into a roll! shouted Bud’s mind.
Tom had commenced braking gently, trying to hold control. But it seemed control did not want to be held. The Extrema wavered back and forth on the asphalt, crossing the parking lot like a drunken snake, skidding tail first.
The next second was a full one. The car reared into a stack of construction materials, spiderwebbing the rear windshield and sending the Extrema into a final half-spin that ended when Tom’s side smashed into the pile. Cinderblocks rained down on the top and the hood, almost caving them in on the boys. The car rocked—and rocked again as the asphalt jolted from a deafening explosion somewhere nearby. The cycle-bomb had struck down, fortunately somewhere on the other side of the stacked materials.
At last came eerie silence, and a growing canopy of black smoke high above them. For a minute Tom and Bud sat limply in their skewed contour seats, panting, barely able to recognize the fact of their survival.
And then Bud realized, to his amazement, that he was still grasping the enemy’s cellphone. He lifted it to the side of his face. “H-hello?” he murmured weakly. Silence.
Tom leaned over and snatched the unit. “We’ll get back to you!”
“G-good grief, Tom...” quavered Bud, surveying the wreck of the sleek passenger cab. Then he snorted derisively. “Yeah, plenty of safety in Tul Golla! The darn airbags didn’t even—”
But then they did, like a pair of boxing gloves. Safety had arrived too late.
The next hour was crammed with sirens, medics, frantic calls, and scowling authority figures in uniform, armed with many questions and frowning suspicion. But as the shaken Shoptonians nosed their way through it all, dire events were unfolding elsewhere in the Progressive City, a chain that had begun just as Tom and Bud had driven away from the hotel—a chain beginning with Bashalli.
She stood listlessly at the lobby window, watching the Extrema pull out into traffic and hum away. And then she heard her name called softly, a near whisper—“Bashalli?”
She turned. The middle-aged woman, a scarf on her head, stood twenty feet distant in front of a low-lit alcove, beckoning. “Mrs. Graeme!” the Pakistani gasped with astonishment—which blazed into fury instantly. “What do you want now? What have you done?—!”
“Please, dear,” murmured the woman in a pleading tone. “I’m here to help you. Come closer—no one must see us.”
“Am I the next kidnappee?” snapped the Pakistani. But she warily approached, saying with scorn: “Ah, your accent has changed. The sweet and helpless Dutch tourist has become—”
“I am Ugar’t!” hissed the woman, drawing Bashalli further into the alcove. “Please—I have little time. My husband does not know I am doing this; he will be suspicious if I am late returning. He would not approve this rebellion of mine.”
“And of course ‘private eyes are watching us’,” noted Bash with a nod at the omnipresent videocams.
“I regret all of this, Bashalli,” declared the woman. “Please believe me. The little boy—we said one of the airport attendants had carried word that you were injured and calling for him. We three ran around a corner and then—it was made to look like one of the little filter-masks people wear over their noses, but it rendered him weak and helpless.” As Bashalli started to exclaim, the phony Mrs. Graeme held up a cautioning hand. “No, please—it did not harm Raffi, not at all. He is well. Very brave.”
“What do you want of me?”
“My husband, Azzid, is an angry and stubborn man. He believes in all this. He has, as we say, ‘swallowed his conscience’. But I—repent. It is too cruel, this way. Who can tolerate such things, even in a good cause? No, it is sinful. You must take the boy back before they carry him away, or perhaps something worse.”
Bashalli put a hand to her lips. “But—what are you saying? Tom is on his way now, to be exchanged for—”
“You can not believe them! The one in charge, the leader of the Tul Golla operation—he thinks himself a strategist, but he is full of pride and cannot allow anyone to get the best of him. Tom and his friend will be made prisoner and held captive outside the Wall of Respect, perhaps even across the border in Syria. The boy is not where they are being led.”
“Then where is he? Where is Rafir?”
“He is being held where ‘the arrow shall strike’—that is the code phrase for the action. He is in a side room at the Fourteen Enemies of God—he is there now, as we speak!”
“And what is this Fourteen Enemies?” demanded the raven-haired girl. “You say ‘God’—a church? A mosque?”
“You do not know of it? It is a great public auditorium, just a few blocks from here. It has been used for lectures, for performances, for ballet and opera. The first entertainment put before the public was the execution, by firing squad, of those men charged with fomenting the uprising against Faffaffa six years ago—it is government policy to call them the Fourteen Enemies of God. You see? And the hall bears that name.”
“The ‘arrow that strikes,’ Mrs. Graeme—whatever is to happen there must be what Uncle Qassarmi tried to tell Tom Swift about!”
“Yes!” replied the woman. “Yes, it is so! One of those lecturing tonight—less than forty minutes from now!—is to be assassinated by a gunman hiding in the balcony, in the dark. The one who is to be slain is a prominent and much-loved leader of the Zoroastrian sect here in Ugarta, and the murder will be pinned on the Shiite Muslims. There will be a new uprising, Bashalli, and a bloody repression. Do you understand?”
“You can not stop this?”
“One woman? In Ugarta? I can do nothing. It will happen. The cleric is as good as dead. Yes—the arrow is loosed from the bow. But listen, listen, there will be a great uproar, a panic, people running about wildly. I will tell you where the little room is. In the confusion, you may be able to reach Raffi and rescue him!”
“But—but surely the room will be guarded!” Bash objected. “Surely he will not be left alone!”
Mrs. Graeme placed a trembling hand upon Bashalli’s. “There are only a few of them at the Fourteen Enemies—they did not dare bring more into the building. Not even Azzid will be there. The business of the assassination—they all will be occupied with it, and with placing the faked evidence. They may leave Rafir locked in the room, but look, I have made a copy of the key for you! It is—”
“It is our chance,” said Bashalli, dully. “We are not permitted the luxury of more than one!”
The older woman’s expression was tragic and full of a sorrow that seemed genuine. “Oh, my dear, what a terrible thing. And you can tell no one, or they will prevent the rescue. They are able to tap in to all communications, to listen to whomever they choose in Tul Golla, to see what the government’s cameras see. You must not try to contact Tom Swift, or the hall superintendents, or any of the protective authorities, the security army we call the Iynnat. Here, let me give you these things that I have prepared for you...
“And now we both must run! Run!”
Bashalli Prandit ran. She arrived panting, heart pounding, at the ultramodern facade that fronted the hall with a name of raking ugliness—the Fourteen Enemies of God. Most of those who were to attend the lecture, which was a significant national event, were already inside. Calming herself, muting her breath, Bash showed the entry pass Mrs. Graeme had created for her, passed without comment through the electronic security gate, and mingled with what was left of the milling crowd in the lobby. The auditorium doors stood open. She noted that most of the men and women within were in European evening dress. But for this religious occasion, traditional Ugar’t costume was acceptable. There were even women whose heads were covered by the Islamic hijab, the head scarf. And some women were fully encompassed in the more conservative burkha or chador—Bashalli could not help shuddering The sat in groups, separated from men by velvet ropes and a firebreak of empty seats. Bashalli was seated just behind one such group, by plan almost in the last row of the auditorium, on the aisle, near a door.
Tens of minutes passed. According to the little diagram she had been given, Rafir was in a room on the second level, near the top of a flight of stairs. She thought of her nephew, of Tom and Bud, and of what she was about to witness. A man, perhaps a good man, was to die. And she remembered well what death looked like.
After a tense aeon the big lobby doors closed behind her. The lights dimmed.
Men appeared on stage, perhaps various royal officials, and there was applause and music. And then a man in a suit stood, pressed his fists together, and bowed his head. At the right of the stage appeared a walking figure, a bundle of colorful robes and a turban. He strode slowly to the center of the stage, acknowledging applause in a solemn, dignified manner. Bashalli’s heart was thudding. “In seconds he will be dead!”
Some movement, at the very edge of her vision, caused her to raise her eyes. There was a darkened balcony along the left side. One shadow seemed to be inching forward. And then she saw something faint and gray, gunmetal gray, against the dark. The barrel of a rifle.
“I cannot stop this! I can’t do anything...” But then her thoughts chose to accept the truth. “But I can! I can foul his aim, make a noise—”
She could scream.
The rifle barrel rotated into position and stopped there.
She forced herself up on her feet.
She pointed and tried to scream.
The scream died within her. One set of muscles fought a tug-of-war against another. Bashalli could not rip the scream from her throat!
I can not scream, she thought in horror.
I can not scream!
A SCREAM, pitched high and full of horror, tore across the packed auditorium of the Fourteen Enemies of God!
The nearby listeners flinched, startled. On the stage the cleric stepped forward, gazing out upon the audience, as other men behind him half-rose from their seats. Ushers pulled out the guns that were concealed discreetly in their outfits.
But Bashalli Prandit saw what was most important, what she needed to see. The end of the rifle had jerked aside, slightly but visibly, just before the flash and dulled report. The cleric’s turban hopped and did a half-turn on his head. But the man was uninjured.
Of course the audience—even the meek women in their coverings—rose in an uproar and surged toward the aisles and the exits. The guard-ushers waved their police pistols and shouted orders. Bash heard a couple pops of warning gunfire, and a glass pendant on a high chandelier exploded to shards. But the guards could do nothing but momentarily part the sea of panickers.
Bashalli was not the first out—she didn’t want to be taken for the gunman—but erupted into the lobby while it was still mostly empty. She sprinted to the broad, curving staircase, and up it, then whirling into a short hallway. At the nondescript last door, she paused. Was this the right one? Was Rafir imprisoned within?
And then she heard through the door a faint blip-bloop-bleep! “Thank you GameFrameUltra!” her thoughts exulted.
The room would be empty of enemies—or it would not. There was no way to avoid playing the odds. She shoved the key in the door, opened it hushed, and charged through.
“Raffi!” she sobbed, motioning at the same time for a whisper.
“A-aunt—!” They flew into each other’s arms.
The boy was alone in the big room. Bash eyed a closed door on the far wall. “Are they in there?” she asked in a desperate whisper.
“Oh, I—I don’t think so,” Rafir said. “There’s just the three men, and that woman—Mrs. Graeme—and... I saw them all go out.”
“But is there another entrance from the hall in the other room?”
“I didn’t notice. I don’t know.”
Bash glanced back through the door, still slitted open. She could hear shouts and thudding footsteps, but none close by. As she looked, she said tensely, “Listen, Raffi, we must walk down the stairs as if nothing is amiss. Do not react if you see one of those terrible men. I think they wouldn’t dare—”
Her whisper was choked off as Rafir’s grip on her arm became a sudden vice! She turned her face back to the room. The far door now stood open. Before it stood two men, a tall man in traditional Ugar’t garb, and a dirty-faced young man in jeans and T-shirt. The tall man hissed something, and the young man leveled the gun in his hand.
“So you have come to us?” said the tall man, half-smiling, eyes fierce and somehow contemptuous. “We will not permit you to leave our company.” Bashalli stared into the man’s eyes, silently. “The gun my friend holds is a special sort of gun, unnervingly quiet even without a silencer. It is a cruel gun as well, a clever thing. One shot for each of you will be more than sufficient. Tell me, was it you who screamed, who spoiled the aim of our hired gunman? He will pay a great penalty—his boasting of calm and courage was clearly a cloud of lies, eh?
“And you, Bashalli, here. Ah, but always you were brave and defiant, like a man.”
Now Bashalli spoke, her voice faint but confident and steady. “Many are the years, Sabbik.”
“Many the years indeed, Little Fish,” said her childhood playmate. “Is this how you greet me? Do you not wish to fly into the arms of your husband?”
“It seems Fate had other plans for me, Sabbik—than becoming the servant-wife of a criminal, a murderer!”
Sabbik lost all trace of a smile. “You dare judge me, Bashalli-ah? You dare presume to read my soul? You who have gone across the line, across to the faithless West, where all honor is to be bought and sold!”
“Honor?” repeated the young Pakistani. “You, who killed your own father!”
The man shook his head slightly. “No, surely I did not. Not personally. It was only a hired employee who slipped the biruktaw between his ribs, as he drove past just seconds after having left off the old man. I merely composed the scheme of events, the plan.”
“He was your father!”
“Was he truly? Does a true father betray his son, his family, his ancestors?” Sabbik paused, sneer on his face. “Make no sudden moves, Bashalli-ah. Both of you, over to the corner. My sentiment will not shield you from whatever harm you earn here in this room.”
“You were there, Sabbik!” she spat out with contempt. “Yours was the voice on the phone, the man who was watching that night! You watched him die!”
The man smiled. “No indeed. What a thing to say! I did not watch his death. Only his stabbing.”
“Aunt Shal,” murmured Raffi with wide eyes. “You know this guy?”
“No,” she replied coolly. “I do not know him. But long ago I knew someone with the same name. This cruel, bitter man, I have never met.”
“Yes, you have truly become a woman of the West,” said the Ugar’t. “You cannot bear to show deference to a man. And what do you know of things? He who was my father arranged with your clan elders an agreement, sealed with his honor. Did he not do this? Whatever misfortunes led him to that decision, the pact was made. You were given to me, Bashalli-ah. You were to become my wife here in Ugarta, as custom demands.”
“Your property!” she snapped.
“And who is not property, Little Fish? Of God, of one another? Or... perhaps...” he continued, “property of custom and honor, of the land, of the past! You fled to the West; I was shamed before my people. I have borne that shame for years. I feel the scornful eyes of others upon me.”
Bash shook her head slowly. “All this as a salve to your ego, Sabbik. Is that what it is, to be here in this land? With all its eyes?”
“You know nothing,” grated Sabbik. “My bitterness only tore open my own eyes to what is real. The West continues to plot against us. They took you, and they will slowly take everything. The weak and corrupt governments of the Middle East, as you call it, serve their interests—Faffaffa thinks only of his privileges, his comforts, his enforcers in the Iynnat, his mockery of a city here, surrounded by its wall. —Oh no, my dear little wife, I see how you try to edge back toward the door. Come closer to me and do not move. Perhaps it would be safest to have you lie down upon the carpet...? No? You would refuse your husband?...
“I work in the interest of the same movement that was led by the Fourteen Enemies of God—that is, the fourteen who are martyrs to faith. The Emir shall be given over to the justice of Allah in good time. And until that moment—”
“Do not toy with me as if I am a stupid, a mere, woman!” exclaimed Bashalli. “The purpose of the assassination was not an overthrow—I was told the real purpose. You will fake a broad conspiracy, foment a civil war in this country. Your purpose is to justify a counter-reaction, to strengthen the hand of King Faffaffa!”
Sabbik fell silent for a time. He muttered something in Ugar’t, and the other man smiled. “You think only of the short term, not of grand strategies. A more repressive, more militant government, a police state extended well beyond the Wall into the wider lands—this in itself will stir unrest and rebellion. And also, there will be changes inside the royal government. Some who now have less power will gain more. I myself may reside in the palace, or perhaps atop the obscenity called the Grand Muraktab. One must be close to the pig to slaughter it, yes?”
“And now, what are your intentions—‘husband’?” snarled the Pakistani. “Where are my friends? More victims of the biruktaw?”
“Truly, I don’t know where they are,” responded Sabbik with frankness and a shrug. “If they are dead it is not my doing. Some other force is at work, an adversary we have also contended with in America—on a country road. Down the hall is our office, our screens and microphones. That car, the Extrema, was being chased through the streets by something deadly. I left to give orders; when I returned the cameras could not find them. Perhaps they are where we all shall be in time. In Paradise. Or the place of punishment.”
Grasping Rafir’s hand, Bashalli stood facing Sabbik like a white statue—yet not quite like. Her delicate hand was subtly drifting downward with every word she spoke.
Sabbik’s expression suddenly changed. “But perhaps you are too brave, too calm as you stand here, dear one. Could it be that, as they say, something is up?” He spoke in Ugar’t to his comrade, who responded volubly and at length. “Yes,” Sabbik resumed, “Ullimim reminds me that the cellphones carried by friends of the abominable Swift family contain locator devices, all the better to trace and find pretty kidnap victims—or their lifeless bodies. Might you have one down in that deep pocket of your man-pants? Remove it very much slowly, Bashalli-ah. Show it to me.”
She did. “As you see, it is not opened up, not activated.”
“Which is not to say that the inner beacon may not be screaming even now, eh?”
Bash’s thoughts tumbled. “Very well, Sabbik, I shall shut it off.”
Her fingers moved slightly, and Sabbik suddenly barked, “No! Am I such a fool? Keep it closed and hand it to me.” He stepped forward—careful to leave an opening for the gun to find its mark—and plucked it from the girl’s hand. Stepping back, he studied its smooth surface. He tried to shake it open, without success. “Tell me, my dear, if you would—where is the latch to open it? Before I destroy it, perhaps there are some numbers stored within that I—we—would wish to have.”
Bashalli stood frozen, saying quietly: “On the one edge, the side, there is a little depression. Press and slide it upward with your thumb.” She grasped Raffi’s hand even tighter, giving it two squeezes and tensing her muscles.
Sabbik raised the cellphone to scrutinize the side, holding the little thing awkwardly between thumb and the ridge of his palm. The thumb moved.
The Swift Enterprises cellphone did what Swift Enterprises cellphones do!—it instantly spread out with an audible pop, doubling and redoubling its breadth! Sabbik exclaimed, startled, as the expanding device pushed itself sideways against his hand, virtually jumping into the air. Sabbik fumbled for it reflexively, distracting the man with the gun. Instantly the Pakistani hurled herself backwards toward the door, violently pulling her nephew behind her.
Ignoring the shouts she wedged herself through, into the hallway—and she and Rafir were yanked sideways and shoved by strong hands against the wall. Sabbik and Ullimim bolted out after the escapees—into thrown fists and the chop of disarming arms with muscle.
Bash gaped. “Oh my, my goodness!—Tom? Bud?” In her astonishment she was speaking in her native Urdu!
Tom kicked the fallen gun to Bud, who recovered it and aimed at the scrambling Sabbik. “I take it you’re the boss,” Bud exclaimed with undeniable glee. “I’m more than willing to fire you, pal!”
“Down on the floor, please,” demanded Tom. As Bud covered the kidnappers, he pulled out his Enterprises cellphone. “Let’s keep things quiet. I’m about to make some important calls.”
“Thomas,” gasped Bashalli, “what is this? How long have you two—”
Bud answered. “Long enough to catch most of the rant. It was great! See, we happened to be tooling along in the back of an ambulance when genius boy got a call on his cell by way of the villa. Some guy named Azzid had a conscience seizure and told us where Raffi was bein’ held, and what was about to happen. He said we could probably snatch him back during the confusion, when they brought him out of the room.”
Bashalli laughed. “Azzid!—that is ‘Mr. Graeme’! It seems the man and wife underestimated the morals of one another. Each repented in secret!”
“They should look into marital counseling,” gibed the San Franciscan. “Communication is everything, they say.”
Tom announced that the civic security squad was on its way—for better or worse. “I’d wonder if the security people were co-conspirators, but your husband’s face tells me he doesn’t want to meet them.”
“Do not call him that!” snapped Bashalli.
Rafir piped up, “Dude!—it’s sure lucky the ambulance driver didn’t squelch on bringin’ you guys here!”
Bud chuckled. “Tom had a lot of persuasive power... in a fat roll in his pocket.”
A dozen grim-faced men in helmets stormed up the stairway, guns drawn. They circled Sabbik and his crony, smooth as a ballet routine, and the circle tightened like a noose. Sabbik looked at Tom, listless. “Tom Swift. You stole my Little Fish, and now I shall lose...
“Ah, what an ingenious little device, that cellphone you’ve made. Lively as a rat. I give you honor. What do you call it?”
The bruised and bedraggled young inventor gave a suave grin. “An ExpAndroid.”
Sabbik and Ullimim were herded away, and Bash all but collapsed in Tom’s arms, with kisses for Bud as well. “We all have much to explain to one another,” she half-sobbed.
“Yes,” Tom nodded. “But I’m afraid it’s not over yet, Bash. Some questions are answered, one enemy is down, but—”
Bud completed the thought. “But!—Who is Pallida Mors?”
IT WAS the day following, at the villa, when Rullma Narjani provided more answers and explanations to the Enterprises travelers. “Of course we knew of these men,” said the much-feared chief of civic protection in a voice without feeling. “Jimim Qassarmi was not one of them, but he performed certain financial services for them, using his contacts to engineer backing for the conspirators without entirely knowing the purpose of his endeavors. In the end his son—such hate!—fed him false information about the plan to assassinate the Zoroastrian nemullah.”
“Good night!” Tom murmured. “Then what he came to tell me—”
“It would have misled you as to time and place, though some truths were included to make the matter credible.”
Chow Winkler scratched his head. “So th’ poor ole poke got hisself stuck fer nuthin’!”
“But what was the purpose?” asked Hank.
“They, the overthrowers, knew my forces already had some information about the plot—for we also have our planted informants, many who wish mercy when judged for their crimes. Sabbik and his masters wished to introduce this germ of disinformation into our network, you see, in order to cause my procured spies to reveal themselves by their actions in response.”
“To flush ’em out. Okay,” said Bud, “but why did they want to get Tom and Bash roped into all this?”
“They did not wish this,” stated Narjani. “Sabbik has already... volunteered... an account of what happened, which we have ample reason to think truthful. They could not anticipate that Jimim Qassarmi, who was also peripherally involved in arranging funding for the Capella di Ambrosio project, would hear—”
“I understand,” Tom interrupted. “It’s as Mr. Acuna thought. Uncle Qassarmi picked up on the armchair speculation, the Resurrectors’ idle hopes that the Acuna timephonic theory could be put into operation by my oscillotron to actually overhear the past.”
“And?” Bashalli said skeptically. “How would your speaking-through-time machine affect the conspiracy? Why did Uncle Qassarmi flee Ugarta and risk coming to America, to Shopton, to you?”
Not looking at her, a known female, Narjani raised a trimmed eyebrow. “But surely it is obvious. The information borne by Qassarmi was not merely false, which he did not know, but also incomplete, which he did.”
Tom picked up the thread. “He didn’t know the names of the conspirators, Bash, or how deeply his son was involved with them. He must have figured that if the assassination were blocked, these unknown men would come after him—after his son as well. I’m sure he was going to ask me to come to Ugarta with the improved, perfected oscillotron to tap months-old conversations in places he knew they had used for meetings with his son.”
“Right—their hang-outs. Revealing their names and other details,” Hank nodded. “Hopefully before the assassination could take place.”
“Which Bash ruined anyway!” grinned Bud. Then a thought struck him. “So I guess you could summon up a scream after all, Bash—in the right circumstances.”
But Bashalli shook her head. “No, Budworth, even then I could not do it. After so much habit, my muscles refused me. So I used my girlish little head instead of my mouth. I yanked the poor woman from the seat in front of me, tore off her head covering and tossed it into the aisle. More than sufficient to force a scream from a faithful Ugar’t woman!”
“Good-golly-Pecos!” whooped Chow. “That’s right smart thinkin’, Basherelli!”
“I’m sure you would have thought of it, Chow.”
“Naw. No true Texas gent’man could ever yank on a woman. Bred into us. Er—out of us.”
Charla Kim, listening raptly, now spoke up. “I feel stupid, guys, because I don’t follow all this. Qassarmi bolts to America, the bad guys follow to shut him up... But then they stab him on the street at literally the last possible moment...”
“Odd way to do things, isn’t it,” Tom agreed dryly. “I suppose Sabbik volunteered to lead the operation to prove his toughness—to show he didn’t have any weak sentiment to get in the way of his loyalty to the group.”
“He has indeed confessed as much,” resumed Narjani. “It all developed very quickly, in a matter of days. Despite the group’s ability to tap into my—that is, the Emir’s—national system of safety monitoring by camera, Qassarmi knew something about escaping detection; he was sometimes outside the law in his business affairs. They had little notice of where he had gone and what he intended to do; it was only by chance that Qassarmi relied on friends in your country who turned out to be better friends of the conspirators. They betrayed his whereabouts.
“Yet still, one asks why Qassarmi was allowed to virtually fall into in the arms of Tom Swift. He could have been dispatched by his driver—one of those false friends, truly a backstabber!—well before, in some private place. He has not quite explained this. We do intend to inquire, though.”
“I’ll bet,” muttered Bud.
Bashalli’s voice was all the more intense for being faint. “I looked into Sabbik’s eyes, and I know. It was because of me. An honor killing, his own honor at stake. I think he came to believe that my flight was an insult, that I would not have him. And thus, very logically, I deserved to see a loved one killed before my eyes, in the street—revenge! And... the biruktaw is the instrument of revenge.”
“It’s hard to believe, that kind of thinking,” said Hank.
Tom saw tears, of fury and sorrow, in Bashalli’s eyes. “It wasn’t your fault, Bash. None of it was. You’re as much a victim as Mr. Qassarmi.”
“As much?” she flared back. “I am still alive, Tom. But yes, we are both victims... of this land, its past—the inflamed egos of ‘men of honor’ who cannot bear to look at the truth of themselves!”
“Terrible!” Charla declared.
“The default condition of mankind,” agreed Bashalli bitterly. And then with a trace of a cynical smile she added: “It is enough to make you scream.”
“In any event, the slaughter of Qassarmi did not go quite as intended,” Narjani observed. “He lived a bit further—one must not trust the boasting of those who brag of their skills with the knife, yet fail to consider the difficulty in executing such skills from a moving car. And so Sabbik was compelled to wonder just what he had said to you two, whether he might have disclosed some truths, troublesome ones, in addition to the lies his son provided him.”
“But wait now,” said Chow. “I kin see the why o’ the stabbin’ and the phone calls an’ all. But, thing is—what about th’ lake? An’ the guy up in th’ tree?”
“In other words,” said Tom with a cool and steady look, “who is Pallida Mors?”
Narjani gestured dismissively. “As I have said, I know nothing of that name. I know of no person, no group called ‘pale death’ or anything similar. Have you considered, young Tom, that some lovely, lonely woman might have read of the assault in your newspapers and decided to gain your interest by a pretense? To tease and stalk you?”
Tom shook his head. “With scuba gear? With high-tech devices? Shooting a man from a tree with some sort of advanced rifle from hundreds of yards distant?”
“Ye-aah, an’ don’t fergit th’ horse!” added the local westerner.
The security potentate shrugged. “Do not ask me these questions. I have no answers.”
With a glance at his wristwatch, the young inventor stood suddenly and broke the silence. “Dr. Isfthan’s team finished clearing out the tunnel early this morning, and we already have the oscillotron set up in the underground chamber. After I position the setup, we’ll be ready to roll. Why don’t you join us, Mr. Narjani? What Oannes says is part of your country’s history.”
Narjani nodded and rose to his feet. “But alas, sometimes the past is silent.”
In the ancient chamber beneath Ambrose Chapel, Tom made delicate adjustments to his invention, bringing its sound-sniffing snout into contact with an ornate sculpted border that ran along the base of one of the walls. “Dr. Isfthan says those inscribed figures signify the original Waiyaz cult—according to the retroscope’s time dial, they were made at virtually the same time as the mortar between the stone blocks.”
“And thus we have a rather precise date for the start of the ritual use of this chamber,” noted Isfthan. “By the words of our young genius, his magic ear will scan the period of months thereafter. We will end with samples of the ancient worship-language of the Ugar’t, plentiful samples to assist our research.”
“And who knows?—maybe some educated croakings from the fish-man-god himself,” Bud said with excitement.
“It would be most interesting, such a result,” commented Isfthan’s assistant, Byssa Gh’qalom. “But still you must count me among the skeptics. I shall be most content with the words of man.”
Isfthan smiled. “In any event we eccentrics, we Resurrectors, will have much to quibble over amid our smoke and grape, eh?”
The crowded chamber—Narjani stood aloof in an island of space—fell silent and tense as Tom made some final adjustments and, without ceremony, started the timephonic oscillotron. “Dr. Franzenberg, at Enterprises, transmitted some code to me last night,” said the youth. “It’s an app that allows us to ‘jump back’ through time much faster. We’ll be going B.C. in minutes.”
The minutes ticked backwards. “We’re there,” Tom declared simply. “Good, readable waveforms. The machine is now sampling forward, in real time.”
“Might we hear them?” urged Bashalli, bringing vehement nods.
Tom “touched a button”—passing his finger through a small cube of light that the telejector caused to float above the control panel. The speaking, from men long dead and dust, instantly began to pour forth—chanting, the sound of a gong, a bleating howl that might have come from a ram’s-horn trumpet of the sort that brought down the walls of Jericho. Then, after a silence, words. “I can make some of it out, I think,” whispered Isfthan, “a word now and then. But the rhythm is typical. This is a priest reciting an invocation...” They all heard one word repeated over and over, something like—Waiyaz!
“Perhaps I was hasty in my early conclusions,” murmured Byssa Gh’qalom ruefully.
“W-wait!” gulped Chow. “Wh-whuzzat?”
It was a very deep, grating, raspy sound. It went on for nearly a minute, punctuated by interruptions that sounded suspiciously like gasps. The tortured breathing of an amphibian!
“By the ear of the Prophet, it is true!” hissed one of the researchers, overwhelmed with awe and dread. “Surely it cannot be, but it is! He speaks!”
“The voice of Oannes!” gasped Dr. Isfthan.
Tom made no comment as he went over the time span several times, carefully making his recordings. “We’re starting to degrade the wave profiles,” he said presently. “We’ll stop for the moment. We’ll leave it to you experts to decide if that noise was some sort of speech. Priests have been known to come up with holy voices when the real thing doesn’t show up.”
Isfthan nodded. “All too true. Yet what the oscillotron has done here is no less a wonder. To overhear sounds from throats that have not existed for thousands of years—!”
“Most impressive, young Mr. Swift,” pronounced Rullma Narjani.
Tom turned to face the man. “I have even more to impress you with, sir.” He spoke to Hank and the others: “Guys, let’s move the oscillotron upstairs, into the chapel.”
“Hunh!” Chow said. “Wanna hear some hymn-singin’, boss?”
Tom smiled. “Of a sort. But I don’t imagine Mr. Narjani will feel like singing along.”
The Superintendent regarded Tom unmovingly. “A jest? A humorous prank? Perhaps this is the American custom upon leaving one’s hosts—for surely we will soon see you depart.”
“I don’t find it humorous, sir,” replied Tom coldly. “I’m going to sound-scan the period of months prior to the opening of the Chapel to Dr. Isfthan. I don’t expect to hear much laughter.”
“Your inventive mind is clearly aflame with something, Thomas,” said Bashalli. “What is it?”
“A new theory, perhaps?” asked Narjani with mocking eyes.
“And theories require testing, Mr. Narjani.” Tom spoke as he disconnected the oscillotron components in order to move them. “I’d wondered for some time why you seemed to have made a special effort to keep the archaeologists away from the Capella. Was it just to keep the Waiyaz study from stirring things up? Or to show disapproval of independent groups like the Resurrectors?”
“Uh-oh!” blurted Chow. Bud nodded agreement with his usual boyish enthusiasm.
“I myself have wondered this, zhra Narjani,” said Dr. Isfthan. “I provided Tom with what I presumed were your reasons... but...”
“It is not for either of you to make inquiries about my judgments,” Narjani declared. “I deal with matters of state.”
“Skipper—tell us,” urged Hank. “What’s going on?”
Tom complied. “The problem for Mr. Narjani isn’t what the archaeologists might find down here in the Waiyaz chamber, but what might be uncovered in the chapel above us. The first time Dr. Isfthan brought me inside, I took a look at the floor and wondered why a place that had been sealed up behind concrete for decades showed signs of a very recent fire. And when I knelt down I saw some little things down in the cracks between the floor blocks. I didn’t think much about it. But while the rest of you went down the tunnel just now, I hung back for a moment and took another look. I had suspicions. They were right.”
“What were those little things?” asked Charla Kim.
“They look awfully much like human teeth.”
“Right. I get it, genius boy,” Bud burst forth. “People’s teeth were knocked out in that room up there! And then they torched the place to fry whatever was left of the evidence!”
“Zhra Narjani’s methods of extraction are reputedly very direct,” said Dr. Isfthan, shadows deepening around a frown. “And thus his force is called the Iynnat. But has not the world been told repeatedly that His Blessed Majesty Faffaffa does not countenance the use of torture, even against his adversaries?”
“It seems the world was misled,” dryly stated the Shoptonian. “I should have put things together right away, but the kidnapping of Rafir kept me distracted.” Tom turned again to Narjani, challengingly. “What do you think of my theory, sir? Shall we go upstairs to test it out?”
Narjani spoke with cool correctness and no fear. “It is not for you of the West to weigh on a balance our virtues and vices. This is not your land—nor shall it be. His Blessed Majesty will admit what is good of your ways in his own manner, gradually, safely quarantined by the Wall of Respect. He will not be overthrown by zealots and plotters, by infidels, by dreamy-eyed modernizers who are willing to risk civil war to establish the myth they call ‘democracy’. And I am his faithful servant. I do what is necessary, here or anywhere.”
“Including in the United States?”
“Thomas, what are you getting at?” asked Bashalli.
“Jetz! Pallida Mors!” exclaimed Bud.
“I don’t think there is a ‘Pallida Mors,’ flyboy,” Tom responded. “It’s only the name of a hoax!”
Eyes turned to Narjani. He produced one of his icy smiles. “You have, perhaps, a question? A further theory? Shall I engage in idle talk, speculation in the manner of the Resurrectors?
“Well then, zhra Swift, let us take a journey through a little dream. Let us suppose that like Sabbik’s faction I too have made many friends in your country, those who are loyal to this, the real Ugarta, the Ugarta of the royal family. Perhaps we knew of Jimim Qassarmi, his trip to Shopton. It would be natural, surely a duty, to arrange for certain specialists to induce you to reveal, in full extent and detail, Qassarmi’s message. For we must know what the overthrowers are up to, what information, false though it may be, will be used to—as young Bud has said—‘flush out’ our own people.
“One might imagine a woman of a certain kind of... international repute, shall we say, living near your town, a woman of many accomplishments—scuba diving, horse riding, technological skills—”
“And a real actress!” Bud inserted. “She can put on her resume her performances as Pallida Mors and the woman in the Hudson-Fox group!”
“A true professional,” nodded Mr. Narjani, “who must ever labor without the public acclaim she deserves.”
“But I ignored her phone calls and threats,” Tom continued. “I wasn’t giving in. So the new plan was to compel me to come to Ugarta, to more easily—debrief me, hmm? By the Iynnat’s methods.”
Bashalli objected. “But Thomas, it was the kidnapping, my call to you, that made you come here. It was Sabbik and the overthrowers who engineered it, not the government.” Tom smiled but did not reply.
“Say!” Chow blurted out. “Jest struck me like a blame tomahawk. Tom shows his Swift stubbornness, an’ both sides want th’ same thing—t’ get Tom to this here country so’s they kin get their claws into ’im!”
“You’re right, pardner,” noted Bud. “The idea of the bogus trade for Raffi was to take the Skipper prisoner so they could force him to talk.”
“Sometimes the snake and the scorpion will work together,” Isfthan observed. “But only for a moment—the time it takes one grain of sand to fall.”
Tom nodded agreement. “I doubt the overthrowers could have spirited Raffi away without detection. The Iynnat must have cameras hiding in every nook of the airport. Even if they didn’t strike a deal with Sabbik, they let it happen.”
Najani continued. “As we still are telling a mere story—would it not be understandable, a brief truce of advantage to both sides? Now and then, in your efforts, as you strive to be the first, you must do such things as well, Tom. You seek truth in your way. We who are responsible to others also seek truth, by certain methods of proven applicability. It is only the difference in subject matter that dictates how we approach our—research.”
“Fergit that stuff. Kin we get to the feller in the tree?” urged Chow.
“Want me to take over the story, Mr. Narjani?” asked Tom with forced politeness. “Earlier, back in the U.S., I’d imagine that Sabbik’s people were more pessimistic than you about getting me to talk, either in Shopton or Ugarta. They used their techs to overhear—”
“Aw jetz!” Bud exclaimed with a wince. “My call to Sandport, when I made the reservation!”
“So they sent a man with a gun to solve the problem of the young inventor who knows too much. But Mr. Narjani still wanted me alive—the optimist. So when some planted informant told him of the plan, he dispatched the sharpshooter lady to dispatch Shooter—right out of his tree!”
Narjani shook his head. “Allow me to amend this entrancing story. On the hill was a man with binoculars, an overthrower whose task was to watch the further reaches of that road, to inform the gunman in the tree to ready himself as your car came near. I believe you looked at the angle of the wound and assumed the bullet came from the hill. Ah, had you only considered that the shooter was surely lying flat, horizontal, clasping himself to a bough. The shot that killed came from beneath him, upwards, delivered by one whom he considered a reliable assistant—who was indeed the very planted informant who betrayed the plot to my people. She who is known to you as—”
“As Pallida Mors,” pronounced Bashalli. “No doubt she arrived at the rendezvous by horseback, and then snatched away the evidence, including the body. Strong lady! Her resume must include a talent for stealth.”
“A talent most useful to foreign agents,” noted Narjani. He dropped all pretense. “Our optimism waned; we too concluded you would not be affected by our threats, Tom, and wished you eliminated as a factor. Thus your Sky Queen was given its extra burden, which you beautifully surmounted. Great was our admiration.”
“Tom Swift has his own passel o’ talent!” huffed Chow.
Tom continued. “And then came Bashalli’s trip, and a real way to force me to Ugarta. An opportunity for both sides, too good to pass up.”
Bud suddenly looked perplexed. “Wait, Skipper. If the idea was to forcibly download you—with or without your teeth!—what about that drone motorcycle? It didn’t come from Sabbik, so—” His gray eyes shifted in fury to Narjani’s black ones.
“Don’t you get it, pal?” The young inventor’s voice was flat with disgust. “Yes, there I was all of a sudden in Ugarta as they’d wanted. But I brought along a machine that could make the past speak up—and I was working in the Iynnat’s convenient suburban service station for hammer-and-tongs.”
“A threat,” said Hank.
“And now this has all come to light,” Bashalli declared. “What do you do, Tom? And you, Mr. Narjani, what do you do? Blow us all up? Have us arrested as agents of the infidel West?”
Narjani merely stared at Bashalli. And then he shifted his cold gaze to Tom. He did not speak. “I know what I’m going to do, sir,” Tom declared. “I intend to make my time-recordings upstairs. And then they will be distributed to the world. As with that African warlord, you’ll get quite a personal internet following—of the sort not so good for you, or your Emir.”
To the surprise of the Americans, it was Dr. Isfthan who raised a cautioning hand. “No, Tom. No. You must think. It claws at my heart to say this, but—there are things even higher than truth.”
“What in the world can you mean?” spat out Bashalli.
“He understands,” said Narjani quietly. “Perhaps you will pause to listen to him.”
“Go ahead, sir,” murmured Tom.
“I ask you to consider the consequences of—decisions made by impulse, even by outrage,” the archaeologist continued. “Narjani—I say this to your face, zhra!—he is a scoundrel, a merciless man, an evil man, conscience choked with pride and ambition. But he knows our ways, the ways of this land. We are old and tired here. We have seen many things, century upon century. We fight and kill; and, Tom, we struggle against the world, a struggle we know we must lose. Change will come. One feels it coming. The walls about the Progressive City can not imprison it or make it dance to the old tunes. Faffafa will die and others will come, and with each generation new ideas will grow. But they must come gradually, Americans, in their own good time. If they are forced upon us, all these lands will break apart in chaos, in wars of pride. Have we not seen enough of this in the ‘Middle East’?”
“Good grief, what are you saying?” demanded Bud hotly. “Let the guy go ahead and torture his way to the future?”
“He is asking for that part of genius that counsels restraint,” Narjani said.
No one seemed to have anything to say. Tom continued uncoupling the parts of the oscillotron, silent. Then, still working, not turning his gaze, he spoke quietly. “I can take my machine back to America. I can burn it to the ground and delete the files and rip all my plans and notes to shreds. Your agents can kill us all, Mr. Narjani. But the ideas are out there, up there, for the taking. I took them and made the oscillotron. Others can do it as well. Now that we’ve demonstrated the principle, nothing can stop them from—from giving birth again and again.
“I’m sure our State Department knows all about what goes on in rooms like the one above us. They follow the philosophy Dr. Isfthan talks about. They negotiate behind the scenes and—I think—try to stop the cruelty and—what I would call madness. All right, then. Let them try. I won’t go into the chapel. I won’t make my recordings to spread around. I’ll go home to Shopton.
“But listen carefully—sir. Swift Enterprises has many contacts in our government, and I’ll tell them what happened here—everything! They will have the truth, and as long as they do—”
“As long as they do, we of Ugarta will have every good, sad reason to make it a truth of the past,” Narjani stated. “No longer a truth of the present. Or the future. Perhaps it is blackmail, my young inventor, but Fate has written it.”
“And so changes the world,” said Dr. Isfthan. “Slowly, bitterly, inevitably.”
The laden Sky Queen returned to Shopton.
Some weeks later Tom interrupted work on his new invention, his Resilientronic Shield, to fly in the Sky Queen to Geneva, Switzerland, at the behest of the peculiar man and worshipful son known as Clementi Acuna. Bud and Chow travelled along on the amazingly brief flight eastward.
“How wonderful that you have come,” the man greeted the party in his quaint home in the city. “And with your timephonic machine, Father’s ideas brought to life before my eyes!”
“We owe it to both of you, Mr. Acuna,” said the young inventor. “You say you want to listen to your father?”
“Oh yes, very much,” said the man, eyes moist. “To one conversation, at breakfast, with my mother—a certain morning decades ago. Father spoke of it so often, how they sat and talked of my future, their hopes for me. I have dreamed of hearing what they said.”
Assembled in the dining room, the oscillotron quickly zeroed-in on a day and a time. A man and woman spoke in the local Swiss dialect; Tom allowed Acuna to listen in the privacy of headphones. The episode was replayed several times.
Clementi Acuna took off the headset and walked slowly to the window, his face colored, his expression unreadable—but there was no joy in it.
“Mr. Acuna?” prompted Tom. “Did you hear—?”
“Yes, Tom Swift, I heard,” replied the man. “Indeed, I heard. They spoke. They argued. There were tears...
“Arguments, accusations. For you see... it seems—it turns out—the great Soueles Acuna was not, in point of fact, my father.” Clementi Acuna turned and offered Tom a stiff, silent handshake, then left the room.
The three exchanged glances. The oscillotron sat dismally. “Here I am, scientist-inventor, working my machinery to try to capture the truth, as scientists do,” Tom murmured ruefully. “And when it works and the truth is at hand—”
“It turns out that what people really wanted wasn’t the truth at all,” Bud said.
Commented Chow with a big shake of a big head: “Yep, buddy boy. That’s people all right. Say it agin an’ say it on Sunday!”