TOM SWIFT LIVES!
TOM SWIFT AND HIS
This unauthorized tribute
Is based upon
the original TOM SWIFT JR. characters.
SOME STORY ELEMENTS ARE INSPIRED BY THE BOOK
“TOM SWIFT: QUANTUM FORCE”
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
THE SNOWFALL THAT WASN’T
“BRAND my blizzard!” muttered Chow Winkler to his nearest audience and closest confidant, himself. His ample-bodied amble across the grounds of Swift Enterprises had wound down to an unsteady halt. The big grizzled cook stood rubbing his knuckles on his big grizzled face, tanned and lined from his years under the sun of his beloved Texas. He was less startled than perplexed at the sight before his eyes—eyes that had seen many a strange sight since he had settled at the Swift family’s famous invention factory.
The former chuck wagon wrangler edged forward, branding his blizzard once more under his breath. In front of him floated—what?
A sparse, feathery snow was drifting down across Shopton, New York, and the tarmac of the Enterprises webwork of runways had turned dusky gray, sparkling in the wan sunshine that poked through the clouds now and then. The snowflakes, tumbling along like micro-sized tumbleweeds in the slightest of breezes, could hardly be seen—except directly in front of Chow. Here they had stopped falling. They hung in midair as if caught on flypaper, forming a sort of vaguely-defined transparent cube, its five visible faces dotted with snow that refused to move. A couple yards wide, wider than the stretch of two arms, the top face of the cube was about level with Chow’s crinkled eyes.
“Course they don’t bother to tell me about it,” grumped a voice not far away. “But who am I?—just the old lawncutter. And the lawn dudden amount to much in winter. So I guess Gerrold Funtz dudden amount to much, in the common estimation.”
“Hey there, Funtz,” Chow greeted the frowning man in stained overalls and fleece jacket. “Got us somethin’ of a snowfall t’day.”
“So I thought, mister. But that snow ain’t falling, unless these eyes of mine have turned amber yellow with whiskey. Nope. Just sittin’ in the middle of the air.”
Chow nodded. “Yep, sure looks that way.”
“One of his inventions.”
“Not like they’d warn me.”
“Expect me to be a professional greensman, but don’t bother tellin’ me what I’ll find sproutin’ up in front of me, makin’ my rounds out here. Out here—four miles square, Winkler. That’s four miles to a side, sixteen square over all. I don’t care how many helpers and fancy machines they give me, sixteen-square is a lotta space to be in charge of.”
“Mighty big spread,” agreed Chow distractedly, eyeing the mystery. His voice continued on momentum: “Er, well—it’s mostly covered up, ya know, jest now. Dead t’ winter...”
Funtz gave the cowpoke a fierce look. “I suppose you think I’m just a darn accessory this time of year. Ever hear of perennials, Winkler? Landscape don’t just go t’ sleep—”
“Never said it did!” protested Chow.
Funtz declined to be placated. “It’s that woman! It’s Minerva Tavrish. Has it in for me. Spreads rumors. Not like she doesn’t get plastered herself now an’ then, that old bag! Got what passes for her brain set on hirin’ someone younger. Some kid!—there’s worse than gettin’ drunk, Winkler. Want some kid high on drugs foolin’ around with your outdoors aesthetic?”
Chow didn’t reply. He walked around the cube thoughtfully. “Wa-aal, this here thing ain’t jest sittin’ on the ground,” he pronounced. “It’s comin’ up right spang outta th’ ground. Ground’s a little uneven—no effense, Funtz—but the block is dead-level. Goin’ right through th’ ground without a hole, like a blame ghost!”
Funtz stared, then said with disgust, “No time for this nonsense. Let ’em keep their fool gimmicks indoors.” He pivoted and stalked away, trailing puffs of breath-fog like a steam locomotive.
Chow barely noticed. He tipped off his snow-dappled cowboy hat and let it loose a few inches above the skyward face of the cube. The hat fell those few inches—and halted, as if resting on a perfectly flat horizontal shelf of some something that could not been seen.
“Okay now, buckaroo,” Chow said, bidding for his own attention. “Tom has that there indiviserble glass stuff. Cain’t see it from th’ front. But I ain’t looking at it frontwise, an’ if there’s a’ edge, I orta be able t’ make ’er out on the side. But I cain’t. So fergit that there perry-plex.” He then considered—and found reasons to dismiss—the effect of Tom Swift’s phenomenal repelatron, a selective matter-repeller. “Naw, Winkler, this here snow idden gettin’ pushed back, it’s jest plain stopped—all on a level, too. Besides, if th’ repeller’s set fer snow, my hat’d fall right through...”
“It’s up here all right, pal,” came a new voice, youthful and muscular. Chow turned to find the athletic form of Bud Barclay on the further side of the small open quad. The chef knew his young friend had just come up out of the ground, through the slanting corridor that connected to the enormous covered hangar that spread wide next to where they stood, down below ground.
Bud was speaking into a cellphone held close to his lips. “Right, right,” he said. “Looks like four, five feet up. Wide as the generator. Snow’s mounting up—yeah, perfectly level—I think I see some flakes trapped inside—and hey, Chow’s out here boggling.” Lowering the cell, Bud called across: “Old Timer, Tom says to come boggle down in the hangar lab. Don’t forget your—”
“Ye-aah,” responded the older man, retrieving his hat. “Shoulda figgered—this is jest one o’ your jokes on ole Chow, Buddy Boy, you and that other wild sprout Tom Swift.”
But Bud shook his head. “It’s no gag, Chow. It’s genius boy’s new gizmo. It’s called—ready?—a quantum-kinetic reverser.”
“Wa-aal, I call it trouble, pure an’ simple.”
“Let’s hope so. I can use some trouble.”
“Tell th’ truth, me too.”
Side by side they stepped onto the moving ramp, part of the plant-wide ridewalk system, that eased them down into the earth. In moments they stood in the huge hangar, dominated by Tom’s three-deck Flying Lab, the Sky Queen. “This here rebuster doodad some kind o’ flyin’ machine?” asked Chow.
“Not so far,” Bud replied. “Maybe when it explodes.”
“Uh-huh, they all explode at least once, don’t they.”
The two strode across to Tom’s underground lab, adjoining the hangar. They could see the young inventor through the long, low wall window of near-invulnerable metallumin. He waved and greeted them as they entered.
“Okay, boss, what’s this here snow-stopper thing yuh’re workin’ on?” demanded Chow with a slight edge to his voice—and a remaining trace of suspicion. He pointed. “That it?”
Tom nodded. “Sure is, pardner—my quantum-kinetic reverser. Or at least that’s what it hopes to grow into.”
Resting on the lab floor, the device was flat and square, as broad as the ghostly snow-cube up above but only a hand-breadth in vertical measure. It consisted of an open framework of criss-crossed struts and rods, the olive color of Enterprises’ wonder plastic, Tomasite. Within the frame were nestled ranks of interlinked metal rings, alternating between a horizontal and vertical orientation, a continuous chain set out horizontally in rows, like furrows in a field. The entire structure bristled with power feeds.
“Go ahead, Chow,” said Bud. “Tell us what it looks like.”
The chef scratched some lingering snowflakes off his brow. “Bed springs—like whatcha got under a mattress. Box spring, they call it.”
Bud smiled smugly. “Toldja, Skipper.”
“I’ve been running tests on it, pard,” Tom explained. “The effect it creates is confined to the space directly above it, like an invisible four-sided column with a flat top. As you saw, it penetrates right up through the ground at maximum power.”
“What I saw, boss, was stopped snow,” noted Chow. “Sittin’ in th’ air like flour on my kitchen counter. Put my hat on it, too—big nothin’, but it was a purty hard nothin’!”
“That’s the idea,” grinned the youth. “Want to know how it works?”
“Shor, but... mebbe tone it down a little. That there name sounds right complicated.”
“I does, doesn’t it,” Tom agreed. “Well—you’ve heard the terms ‘quantum’ and ‘kinetic,’ haven’t you?”
“Guess so.” But it was clear the westerner doubted the range of his understanding.
“The word kinetic refers to motion—specifically the energy of motion, usually. And quantum—remember my quantum telesphere?—refers to the way positional properties become indeterminate, blurred out, under the conditions in which subatomic—”
Chow interrupted with a wave of the hand. “Wait right there, son. Hold back a little. Turn down the dial a notch er two.”
Tom chuckled affectionately. “Sorry, Chow. I get carried away sometimes when I explain my latest offspring.”
“Ye-aah, jest like parents allus do. Then they drag out th’ baby pitchers.”
Tom thought for a moment; Bud could almost see him thinking. Reducing a Tom Swift invention to a few words was like shoving a doughnut through a keyhole. “Space, the whole spacetime continuum, has curves in it. The universe—”
“Aw, I a’ready know thet one. Go off straight in one d’rection and ya end up back where ya started from. Cept ever’body’s a million years dead.”
“That’s the theory,” Tom grinned, “a closed-in universe with no walls—”
Bud added, “Like living on the inside of a big balloon.”
“That supposed to help my thinkin’, Bud-boy?”
“Anyway,” continued the young inventor, “we’ve learned to create atom-sized twists and turns in the fabric of space—it’s the basis of the repelatron effect. And with the G-force inverter we found a way to rotate objects along the i-axis across the gravitation-dimension—”
Chow held up a meaty hand in protest. “Naw. Still a few notches too high.” He turned his gaze toward Bud. “Say now, whatta you call it? Yer nicknames us’ally get the idee across simple-style.”
Conceding the point with a nod, the black-haired youth answered, “Official Barclay nickname: the matter-mirror.”
After a contemplative silence, Chow muttered. “Nope.” He turned to Tom. “Okay, go on, boss.”
“Maybe I can put it this way, Chow. The reverser constructs a special kind of space above the extensor grid, a space full of... tiny curved chutes, smaller than the nucleus of an atom...”
“Yeah! Like a cheese grater, sorta. An’ they’re all over, like a cloud o’ m’skeeters? But you can’t see ’em?”
“The nano-warps are far too small to interact with light.”
The ex-Texan nodded, as if he understood. “Shor, got it. But what’re they for, Tom? Sumpin t’ do with the weather?”
“Well—that’s not the main purpose,” replied Tom. “Originally we were trying to see if we could find a way to reverse electrocharge polarity in bosons, changing protons to antiprotons or—”
“Mm, boss...” Chow made a motion suggesting turning a dial down.
“Sorry. What the reverser does is flip the momentum-vectors of moving objects, down to their atoms, by giving them a half-circle detour through—through a kind of space we don’t ordinarily use. They come back into normal space with no loss of energy, but with their direction of motion exactly reversed.”
“Comin’ instead o’ goin’, hm?”
“Right, stove-ranger,” Bud put in. “That’s why I call the thing a matter-mirror—it’s like light bouncing back at you from a mirror.”
“Okay, but wait now,” objected the cook. “That snow—”
The comment was cut short by the shouted bleep of the lab tele-intercom. Tom glanced at the readout and said, “Outside call relayed through the switchboard.”
“There she is,” declared Chow smugly. “Trouble comes ringin’.” Bud held up crossed fingers of hope.
Tom answered, mouthing silently to the onlookers: Captain Rock. The head of the Shopton Police Department was an old friend of Tom and his family. “Morning, Captain. What can I do for you?” The young inventor flicked on the speaker to make the call audible to Chow and Bud.
“A mystery, Tom—part science, I think. Up your alley,” said the gruff voice.
“Call it crime in the making. It’s a question of identifying an unknown someone who’s been seen walking around Shopton for a few days—suspicious circumstances, followed by a criminal payoff. Good reason to think he’s involved.”
“You can’t ID him?”
“Not from what we’ve got. No prints. Several eye-witnesses, though.”
“Nothing in your database? I know Lieutenant Linde is a great sketch artist, and you have face-recognition software.”
“Not much use in this case, Tom,” stated Rock.
“Because this guy doesn’t have a face!”
TOM pulled into the police station in sixteen hurried minutes, Bud next to him in Tom’s bronze two-seater, electric-driven by Swift solar batteries.
Inside, Captain Rock greeted the youths, intrigued and excited, with hearty handshakes. He seemed amused at the mystery he had dropped on Tom Swift, coyly refusing elaboration over the phone. “I suppose this sounds like a prank,” he said with a smile. “It isn’t, though. It’s—I’d call it eerie. Supernatural. Or at least high-tech.”
The three took their seats in Rock’s office. “I’m really looking forward to this,” Bud commented. “Our last thrill-packed exploit was a little too life-and-death for my taste.”
Life and death had indeed been in the balance in the Middle Eastern country of Ugarta, from which Tom and his pal had recently returned. As it eavesdropped on the past, the young prodigy’s timephonic oscillotron had made him, and his friend Bashalli Prandit, the target of murderous plotters seeking to overthrow the government by any means necessary. And before that, the seafloor space pyramids and the Decider robo-brain, Bud reflected. Jetz! What ever happened to counterfeiters and bank-robbers?
“I take it your man came to your attention because of his, er, lack of face?” asked Tom.
“Naw, Tom, that’d be way too simple for Shopton,” responded Rock with a smile. “Let’s see now—some background.
“This all started last week, while you two were in Switzerland. We started getting robberies and break-ins all along Jeweler’s Row—that’s Cooperman Boulevard, you know; still have some jewelry stores, but lately it’s mostly the gold-buying crowd. All the hits took place at night.”
“Yes, I read about it in the paper,” stated Tom, referring to the local Shopton Evening Bulletin.
“The Bulletin didn’t get all the facts, and the facts they did get were mostly wrong. Not that I’d expect Dan Perkins and the Bulletin to stun me by doing a professional job.”
“Big robberies?” asked Bud.
“Big enough if it happens to you, my friend. Enough to make quite a few people upset, and quite a few other people really nervous—biting their fingernails down to the knuckle. We tripled our patrol coverage on the Row yesterday. Which gave our perps the opportunity to pull a few nice jobs across town last night. The rep of the Shopton PD is suffering. I’m suffering. Chief Slater is suffering. And passing it along.”
“You said there were eyewitnesses,” Tom reminded him.
“Not to the robberies, but to a suspicious character seen walking around on the Row each day before the first bunch of night break-ins.”
“Casing the joint, hunh?” offered Bud.
Rock nodded. “That’s the thought. We don’t know who he is, but he’s become quite popular around here, Mr. Walker No-Face.”
“Come on, Captain,” Tom urged. “What’s the ‘no face’ business?”
“Was he wearing a mask?” asked Bud.
“Strolling around in a mask would account for my calling him suspicious, all right,” the officer replied sarcastically. “Yep. But nope—no mask. As the robberies started accumulating we did the sort of professional job the Bulletin can’t conceive of and began locating people who were on the street earlier in the day and just might have noticed something—someone. And sure enough, several pedestrians, some shop clerks, even one of my own guys came forward with mention of a man walking around in a heavy coat near all the locations...”
Tom asked what it was about the man that had drawn attention. “Was it the coat? Something about how he was walking?”
“No, not that,” responded Rock mildly. “You know, Shopton has its measure of international, maybe interplanetary fame due to some people named Swift—but still, amazingly, we’re a small town and we think like a small town. People know one another. People know their neighbors, their customers. This fellow Walker drew a few extra eyeballs because he wasn’t recognized. Nothing terribly odd about him; rather tall, big chest, pull-down woven cap, winter-weather garb. You might take brief notice of him as you pass on the sidewalk, just a little, and then make a mental shrug and move on. A quick note in the brain—saw a big guy who’s not one of us. And then you hear about some robberies on that street, and you remember: ‘Why yes officer I did notice someone’...”
Ever polite, Tom was becoming impatient. “Captain Rock, I was in the middle of testing something.”
“Aren’t you always, Tom?”
Bud spoke up with: “Tom’s always respectful to his elders, Captain, but you’re not all that old—and we’re getting old fast!”
Rock chuckled. “Can’t let me have my fun, hm? All right then. Shall I introduce you to Walker No-Face? We brought our witnesses in, got them to work with sketch artists, and—this is the result.” The lawman pulled out some charcoal sketches from a drawer and sailed them across his desk toward Tom and Bud.
The two frowned as they flipped through the sketches. “I don’t understand,” muttered the young inventor. Every sketch showed the suspect’s head and, often, his shoulders and a casual cold-weather cap pulled tight on his forehead and ears. But where the man’s face should be was a blank, barren stretch of paper!
“Same each time,” declared Rock. “Makes a guy feel a little—frustrated.”
“Okay, we give up!” Bud gibed. “Why didn’t your artists fill in the face?”
“For an excellent reason, Bud. Not one of the twenty or so people who saw him could recall anything at all about it! They would start off calmly and confidently. No one seemed perplexed or frightened at having encountered a man walking around who happened to have left his face on the nightstand. No one even noticed the oddness of the fact!” Captain Rock, paused, then added: “Me, I’d jump out of my overstretched skin if I saw something like that ambling down the sidewalk. Wouldn’t you?
“So they all came in, blithely assuming they’d have no trouble giving at least some information to the artist. After all, they’d already said they’d paid extra attention to the fellow because they didn’t recognize him...”
“I can see why they wouldn’t,” Tom commented dryly.
“They talked about the hat and the shape of the head and so on. Then we started to ask about eyes and nose and mouth, facial hair, wrinkles—usual stuff. Nearly every one started to say one thing or another, and then... stopped. Tried again—stopped. Start stop, start stop. They became upset, and we weren’t all that happy either. One guy actually started to slap his forehead.”
“Anything shake out?” inquired Bud.
“Dandruff. And at the end of the day—and as of fifteen golden minutes before I called you, Tom—this is all we had from them.”
Tom didn’t slap his forehead, but did rub his chin. “What about photos or videos? Places like that always have automatic alarms, minicams, all the latest.”
Rock shrugged. “Indeed so, including some high-tech stuff from your own company. Two problems, though. First, the actual break-ins all occurred at night, and the gang evidently had some techy equipage of their own. Alarms didn’t function, cameras blanked out, sensors went blooey. We’d be obliged if your people could look over the particular units—we know you’ve dealt with this kind of thing before.”
“Several times,” Tom agreed. “What was the other problem?”
The officer pivoted the monitor screen on his desk so the boys could see. “This. A second intro to Mr. Walker No-Face.” The Captain clacked a few buttons on his keyboard, and a “slide show” presentation commenced. “These images were taken during business hours, mostly by security cameras; a couple came from some fortuitous cellphone snaps—love those things. Our friend made a practice of browsing casually in the shops later hit, looking in the glass cases, asking a few innocuous questions. Nothing distinctive about his voice or what he said. Usually made some plausible excuse. Of course none of the clerks or counter people paid attention to the evident fact of a voice coming from a face without a mouth. Or anything else.”
Tom and Bud were barely listening, engrossed and astounded by the puzzle before them on the screen. The images, most of them moving video captures, showed the big man in coat and cap, various angles, a few full-face. But Walker No-Face continued to live up to his name. The figure had only a colorless blank where a face should be!
“Bud and I have seen a lot of strange things,” said Tom slowly, Bud giving a vigorous nod. “But this!—I can hardly believe it! Are you sure there couldn’t have been some modification of the original camera feed, or the digital recordings?”
“No evidence of that,” Rock replied. “Unless what we’re seeing, or not seeing, with our own eyes constitutes evidence of tampering right on the face of it—er, sorry.”
“I’ll send a tech team around with my oscillotron,” Tom promised. “We’ll see if the breaker-inners had anything to say to one another during the robberies.”
“They’d be mighty stupid to do so, in a town where the resident genius can listen-in on the past.” Rock added with a shrug, “I don’t expect anything. This gang is obviously far from stupid. I’d call them gifted.”
“I take it you don’t think it’s just the one guy who’s pulling the robberies,” Bud said.
“Several happened a goodly distance apart at the same time, according to the clocks connected to the failed security systems. Of course, who knows what other superhuman powers the guy might have. Maybe he can split like an amoeba.”
“I’ll do what I can, Captain,” Tom promised, “including the thinking part. And I’m not just being a good citizen. This has implications for Swift Enterprises security.”
After being given copies of the sketches and the camera snippets, Tom and Bud drove back to Enterprises within the speed limit, puzzlement—and some inevitable excitement—filling the air. “I was hoping for a mystery, and my order has been filled,” Bud remarked. “Jetz, a guy without a face! The fictionalizers will be able to do a lot with that one. But Skipper,” the San Francisco transplant went on, “what if the ‘guy’ isn’t a real guy after all? What if he isn’t human?”
“You mean an extraterrestrial? Like the simulacrum we had down in Aurum City?”
Bud shrugged. “I guess that’s a possibility, but what I had in mind was more along the lines of some kind of robot with high-tech insides. Maybe they ran out of funding before they finished the face!” Only the last sentence was a Barclay joke.
Tom was silent for a Shopton block. “Anything’s possible, chum. But I think the real mystery isn’t the absence of a visible face, but the weird reaction of those who saw him. Why weren’t they startled? Why didn’t they even notice? When they were asked to remember the details, they expected to be able to—and were shocked to discover that that particular memory wasn’t there.”
“Yeah, like some kind of targeted amnesia. An amnesia bullet!”
“But it works on electronic images, too. It affected us, sitting in Rock’s office. How could that be? How could—”
Tom’s musings were interrupted by the car cellphone.
It was the voice of the Enterprises medic. “Tom, when you pull in go straight to your lab, the one by the hangar—”
“What’s happened?” demanded the youth, glancing toward Bud.
“It’s Chow Winkler,” declared Doc Simpson. “He’s been injured—I think by your new invention!”
CHOW was lying spread-eagled on the lab floor as Tom and Bud came racing in. He lay on his stomach, which spread out beneath him on both sides like a plump round pillow stuffed into a brightly patterned pillowcase. To their surprise he was conscious, grimacing and talking—and his talking was grimacing too. “Dang blang bling this shenanigated doctor stuff!” he wheezed out. “Ole Doc here won’t let me move!”
“You’re not putting that weight of yours on anything, Chow, until I check you over,” Doc Simpson insisted.
“And give that mouth of yours a rest too!” snorted Doc. He turned and flashed Tom and Bud a frown. “One of the hangar workers saw him on the floor like this through the wall window.”
“He was like this when you came in?” asked Tom worriedly. “He hasn’t moved?”
“Only from unconsciousness to griping like a rusty hinge,” was the response. “He came-to quickly. I ordered him to lie still and called you—Munford Trent said you might be in your car.”
“I’m glad you called, Doc,” stated Tom as he eyed both his prone friend and the machine occupying the floor next to him, his quantum-kinetic reverser.
“Genius boy, you left it running,” Bud said quietly.
“I shouldn’t have,” declared the young inventor angrily. “I was distracted. I should have remembered that—”
“That Chow will be Chow,” finished Bud, which brought a resentful protest from the floor.
Doc scanned the cook with a hand-held TeleTec unit, a Swift invention with the penetrating power of an X-ray. “No obvious problems,” he pronounced. “No broken bones, no blood pooling. Pulse and pressure normal. But you’ll probably have a few bruises, cowpoke. Lucky for you your fall was cushioned by—”
“Aaa, you don’t hafta say it every blame time,” Chow interrupted with Texas indignation. “An’ I don’t exactly feel much lucky at this here moment!”
They helped the big man up and guided him to a lab chair. He landed in it woozily. “S-sorry boss,” he said in a low voice. “Did another o’ my stupid stunts. Seems I can’t help m’self.” Tom gently asked the older man what had happened. “Wa-aal,” Chow replied, “don’t rightly know all of it, beginnin’ to end. Pee-culiar thing. Loco!”
“It’s a good day for it, Chow,” joked Bud.
Tom urged, “Tell me.”
“Ho-kay. You two went runnin’ off, after that phone call. So there I was, all alone. An’ there was this matter-mirror contraption hummin’ away. Now boys, yew know I can’t much resist temptation—got th’ Snake in me, like they say. So...”
“What did you do?” asked Tom.
“Oh, wa-aal, I got to thinkin’, I guess,” came the reply. “Gotta stop doin’ that. That in-vistical block goes straight up from the thing, you said. When I looked more squint at it, I sawr you had some things jest settin’ inside it—bolts an’ marbles and the like, jest hangin’ stone-still in the air like they ’as on top of something.”
“It was part of the experimentation,” interjected the scientist-inventor. “Nothing can move downward toward the grid, no matter where you insert it into the antivector field. But masses can move freely sideways or forward.”
“Whut I figgered,” resumed Chow. “Or at least I thought maybe—so I stuck in a finger from the side, then my whole hand. Funny feelin’, like yuh’re slidin’ along on a flat shelf wherever ya stick it in. So then—I thought—”
“Right,” Bud snorted. “Tom, he tried to walk through it!”
“Didn’t seem like it’d hurt me,” Chow said sheepishly. “Didn’t hurt my hand. Hoisted m’self up on that metal chair—that bent one—an’ jest took a forward step—”
“Okay, then what?” Tom demanded.
“Wa-aal, seems like I kinda slid forward, like I ’as on a ice rink—cept it wudden jest my feet, but all through me sorta-like, belly an’ hat, too. Guess I musta slid right through an’ come out the other side—”
“And belly-flopped down to the floor,” stated Doc Simpson. “Now that’s undignified!”
“Cain’t argue thet one, Doc.”
Tom paced away and spoke musingly. “The QKR effect reverses the momentum vector of moving objects—you might say it turns momentum into anti-momentum—but only the part of their motions that lie along a straight line perpendicular to the generator block, the grid on the floor. Like the other objects, like the snowflakes and marbles, you couldn’t move downward at all, Chow—not a molecule. Every bit of you was suspended at whatever height it was at when it crossed the field perimeter, which is very distinct and focused.”
“Shor c’d move sideways, though.”
“Sideways, and forward parallel to the grid, is completely unaffected. But listen, pardner,” Tom went on soberly. “What you did could have killed you. Your blood stopped circulating. Your heart stopped beating. Your muscle fibers wouldn’t have worked right. Your body can’t function if movement in one direction is completely blocked throughout.
“Two things kept you alive, Chow. The suspension effect acted equally on every cell and molecule, so there was no immediate compression or distortion. And you probably passed through very quickly, less than a second.” Tom looked over at Doc Simpson. “I don’t think it was the fall that knocked him out, Doc. It was probably the brief halt in his blood circulation.”
Doc nodded. “Yes, that makes sense. A very brief ischemic episode.”
“First time I ever heard that there word,” Chow commented sourly.
“First time I ever heard you compared to a snowflake, old timer,” added Bud with a grin.
Doc took—almost dragged—the westerner off to the plant infirmary for a more detailed scrutiny. After shutting down the reverser, Tom bade goodbye to Bud, who had a cross-country delivery to make as part of his job as an Enterprises pilot, and ridewalked back to the administration building and the office he shared with his father. “Thanks for telling Doc Simpson how to reach me, Trent,” he said to his efficient secretary and receptionist.
Munford Trent gave forth one of his prim smiles. “Knowing everything is part of my job, Tom.”
Sitting at his desk and distractedly tending to some paperwork, Tom mulled over the events of the morning. High-tech thieves with a faceless scout... an invention that Tom was now compelled to regard as dangerous...
A tapping at the office door made him look up. “Hi, Harlan,” smiled the young inventor. “I heard you got back in town late last night.”
Harlan Ames, a former Secret Service officer who was the chief of security for Tom Swift Enterprises, responded with a nod, somewhat weary. “Yes, my work at the Citadel is done for now. Late as it was when I came through the door, Dodie and Ritt didn’t show up for two hours more.” Dodie was Ames’s grown daughter, Ritt Kincaid her fiancé. “Tom, when you get married, when you have offspring, take my advice...” The older man paused. “Come to think of it, I don’t have any advice.”
“As a creative thinker I learn new things every day,” Tom grinned. “Has Captain Rock called you—”
“About the Shopton robberies? Just got off the horn. I can’t wrap my mind around the no-face angle at all. Some kind of light-distortion technology?”
The crewcut youth shrugged slightly. “You could certainly blur out a person’s face with things we already have on the shelf, at least here at Enterprises. A telejector could project a blank covering layer, for example. If you could figure out how to super-miniaturize the polar-ray dynasphere, reflected light could be bent and the imaging wave-fronts could be intermixed and jumbled.”
Leaning against the doorjamb, Ames nodded. “I’m sure your periplex glass could be modified to cause such an effect. It could be worn over the face, like a mask.”
A new thought crossed Tom’s youthful face, one that disturbed him. “Harlan—Li Ching’s anti-energy sheathing has a similar effect.”
“In other words, the Black Cobra may have a stake in this. Not a happy thought.”
Comrade-General Li Ching, a traitor-fugitive from his native China, was notorious as an international purveyor of stolen technology in furtherance of his grandly mad political schemes. He had somehow acquired a crystalline material which, used as a coating, made the coated objects visually indistinct and displaced in space.
“A pretty unhappy thought,” Tom agreed. “Then again, this blank-out effect seems to work equally well with all angles and intensities of light, which isn’t characteristic of the sheathing material. Besides, Li has never pursued rinky-dink local robberies of this sort.”
“True enough. He’s into the big megalomaniac stuff. Unnecessary actions would expose his organization to—well, annoyances, at least. Expose too many cards.”
Tom went on: “And also, this isn’t just a matter of blanking out facial features. It’s more complicated and—stranger. There’s some kind of psychological impact—”
“Some kind of hallucinogen sprayed into the air?”
“With such a specific, repeatable effect?”
“Okay, boss,” the security man grinned. “For now I’ll gladly leave the high-level thinking to you!”
That night, after a light dinner, Tom sat in the big living room of the family home chatting with his vivacious younger sister, Sandra.
“You know how much I like mysteries, Tomonomo,” Sandy remarked smugly as she sat on the carpet playing with her pet bird Featherbee. “And the intriguing Walker No-Face sounds like a good one.”
Tom winked. “He may have a nice looking face, San, when he happens to wear it.”
“Oh, I’d imagine.” The girl frowned slightly, sharing a pouty look with both bird and brother. “It’d serve Bud right if I threw myself at some exotic super-villain. Honestly, he’s been just impossible lately.”
“It’s not that I have anything against compulsive male egotism. I suppose it comes packaged with the hormones. As a female I accept it; we have a whole repertoire of facial expressions you men never see. It’s the price we pay!—well, he’s just so enraptured with himself since that silly prank he played on Chow. You know, with your oscillotron time-telephone...”
Tom laughed at the memory. “C’mon, sis, it was pretty clever. Chow got a kick out of it as much as any of us.”
“Oh, I know. But... when I talk to Dodie and she goes on and on about Ritt—”
“Good night, do you really think you can make Bud Barclay into a romantic puppy like Ritt Kincaid?” teased the youth.
Tom could see that Sandy was a bit wistful beneath her pout. After a thought he leaned closer and whispered confidentially, “You know, blondie, it may be that you two need a little—pardon the expression—face time.”
Sandy listened. And a conspiracy was born.
The next day Sandy surprised Bud at the Enterprises airfield as the young pilot, returning from his overnight delivery run, crossed the tarmac. “Hey, San,” Bud grinned. “Here to welcome me? Or did your Pigeon Special run out of juice?”
“Let’s say I’m here to arrange some fun before you run out of juice,” replied the girl with a key item from her feminine store house, a cryptic smile.
“Er... cool,” said Bud. He wondered why he felt slightly uneasy. “I’ll change out of my flyboy togs—”
Sandy wagged a finger. “No you won’t, Buddo. You’re dressed for the occasion. Our fun will take place upstairs.” She pointed skyward.
Much as he loved the upper air, the innuendo in Sandy’s proposition made Bud’s blood run, if not cold, somewhat lukewarm. “Fine. If you say so.”
She led Bud to a ridewalk, and they crossed to a short, specially configured runway separated from the main airfield. Rounding a hangar corner, Bud smiled at what he saw awaiting him. “Hey, the paraplane! Now that is fun!”
Tom Swift’s paraplane had been given a baptism of fire—and supercold liquid helium—over the jungled lands of Yucatan. The compact craft was a jet with a difference: at the touch of a button, a helium-filled liftbag would belly-out from its pod along the top of the fuselage, allowing it to drift along like a guided balloon. Though its technology had been largely superceded by Tom’s later inventions, the paraplane was still maintained at the plant for its occasional use as an enjoyable perk for visiting dignitaries and VIP’s.
“I can’t think of a better place for two close friends to have a frank discussion,” stated Sandy, “than up above the clouds.”
“Frank discussion, hm? Planning to drop me in the lake?”
“We’ll see, Budworth. I’m sure you’re inflated enough to float.” Budworth did not feel sheepish yet, but he could see it coming.
They boarded, and Sandy took the controls. The gas bag popped out to full expansion in a split second, and the paraplane rose smoothly into the dappled sky. As they settled into a gentle cradle of air above the clouds, Bud dropped his attempt at lame smalltalk and asked, “Okay, Sandy, what’s up? Did I forget your birthday?”
“We Swifts don’t have birthdays.”
“Yeah. Makes it easy to remember.”
Sandy adjusted the controls as her companion looked on quizzically. “Down elevator, Buddo. I feel like nudging Lake Carlopa.” The liftbag began to deflate, and the blond ever-young girl, an experienced pilot and demonstrator of the Swift Pigeon Special miniplanes, revved the jets for aerobatics.
They descended—and suddenly the descent of the paraplane accelerated unnervingly. “S-San,” Bud gasped, “you’ve sucked-in the bag too much!”
Sandy’s petite hands fluttered over the levers. She looked across to Bud, eyes wide. “Something’s wrong! The connections are venting helium!”
“Switch over to the forward jets!”
“I can’t!” Sandy protested with a panicked voice. “Not with the liftbag still out there half-deflated—we’ll end up power-diving right into the lake!”
White-faced, Bud catapulted himself forward in his seat to seize the auxiliary controls. Then suddenly, with a teeth-jarring jolt, their downward lunge seemed to bottom out. The paraplane had stopped moving, its bag flopping limply to one side.
Bud’s breathless mouth gaped open. “Jetz! Wh-what—what in—” And then he stopped and his mouth clapped shut. Sandy was giggling!
“Oh, Bud!” she exclaimed. “Hold on to your face—I’ve got to catch that expression with my pic-cell phone!”
“Walker No-Face has it good,” Bud grumped. “Okay, San, ya got me. I suppose Tom’s down there somewhere holding us up with a repelatron or two.”
Sandy was blondly smug. “Not one of those antique repelatrons, dear boy, but with his new invention. He’s a few thou right under us, below the clouds, in a Whirling Duck, with the reverser aimed—”
Sandy broke off with a yelp as the suspended paraplane suddenly tilted. Bud joined in the yelp with: “Good night, we’re sliding sideways on the field surface! The plane’ll tumble right off!” He glared accusingly at Tom’s sister. “Sandy, this isn’t funny anymore!”
Sandy was afraid for real. “It’s not part of the joke! Something must be wrong with the machine—or with Tom!”
And below, in the Whirling Duck, her brother was on his feet, turned away from the craft’s control panel, gazing back into the interior of the jetrocopter in alarm and bewilderment. “All right,” he stated coldly, “you’re here. Now tell me who you are, and what you want. And how about one more thing—what in space are you?”
AS HE steadied himself, the Whirling Duck maintaining position under the control of the cybertron automatic pilot, Tom’s eyes angled downward toward the cockpit deck that extended behind the pilot seats. He blanched. “Good grief, what have you done?—! You’ve tilted the extensor grid!” Though the difference was only a matter of an inch, as if a shoe-toe had levered the lightweight chassis upward on one side, Tom knew that the angle would extend and the field-column stretching above would do some serious tilting. The paraplane could slide over into an uncontrolled fall!
The young inventor surged forward, and the reverser grid clomped down flat to the deck. Something had withdrawn further toward the rear of the jetrocopter’s crew compartment. But what on Earth is it? demanded Tom’s agile brain.
Tom was seeing—yet not seeing. Before his deep-set blue eyes was a patch of visual space, now ten feet distant, that seemed to elude those eyes. Thinking like a scientist, his immediate thought was: How could I describe it? He knew that some form, human-sized and vaguely human-shaped, occupied the space. Yet he was unable to see it—in any conventional sense of the term. It seemed more like an intuition than a “sight,” a phenomenon that registered on his brain when he looked in that direction, yet formed no visual image.
He mused aloud, “I can see you—yet I can’t. I can see right through you to the bulkhead—yet...” It dawned on him that something wasn’t quite right about the background image showing through the unseeable intruder. He had the impression, a kind of mental certainty, that he was seeing through to the bulkhead, that whatever might be standing in front of it was invisible. But when he tried to concentrate on the visual details of that part of the compartment wall, his gaze seemed to skip about randomly. It was the shape of this weird optical evasion that defined the perimeters of—whatever it was. My “seeing through” amounts to not seeing, not being able to notice that I can’t see the background! he realized.
“Tell me what you want,” the youth repeated in a strained voice, not hopeful of an answer. “By playing around with that device on the deck, you’ve endangered a plane flying above us. Or was that the idea?” Then a compelling thought struck him. This was probably Walker No-Face, with the No now covering his entire body! “How did you get aboard? Can you speak?”
The entity withdrew further into the shadows, and suddenly the beep! alert of an incoming signal made Tom whirl back to the control board. “Tom!” came the desperate voice of his sister as he switched on the speaker. “Tom, are you all right?”
“I’m here,” he replied curtly. “What’s your status, paraplane?”
High above, Sandy and Bud exchanged looks of relief. “We’re all right. There was a tilt and we started falling again, but Bud figured out how to do an emergency-reinflate on the liftbag.”
“I drained a little hot air from my notorious ego,” Bud declared glibly.
“But what happened down there, Tom?” asked Sandy. “Did your machine—”
“Let’s say it lost focus for a few moments,” came the grim response. “The joke is over. I’m shutting down the reverser. Let’s head back to Enterprises, sis.” If I can! Tom’s mind added. The Unseeable Man was still behind him in the cockpit!
Or was he? Resetting the cybertron, the young inventor grabbed a heavy metal tool and inched slowly toward the aft end of the compartment, carefully stepping around the reverser’s field-projector mechanism. He could “see” nothing of the stowaway. And a few long-armed swings of the tool failed to connect. “Good night!” he muttered. “What did he do, teleport himself away?” However it had come to be, Tom Swift was now the only occupant of the cockpit.
The Whirling Duck and the paraplane lited at Enterprises at almost the same moment, and the two crews met in front of the administration building. “Cute idea,” Bud declared to his pal. “But instead of making me more demure...”
“Sometimes cures have a paradoxical effect,” joked Tom. But the look on Sandy’s face—bravery covering fear—turned him serious. He explained what had happened in the jetrocopter.
“No suspects,” commented the girl. “I don’t think I even have any theories, Tomonomo.”
Bud tried for a lighter tone. “Come on, San, since when do Swifts lack for theories?”
Sandy only shook her head. “Tom, do you—do you think Bud and I were the real target? Was No-Face out to get us?”
“I don’t think so,” was her brother’s reply. “What sense would it make? What purpose would it serve?”
“True,” nodded Bud. “Kidnapping—now that I could get behind. But not knocking us out of the sky.”
“Unless...” began Sandy. “Tom, when we talked last night you mentioned the Black Cobra—the way his anti-energy sheathing can distort light... Well, if that’s who’s involved—he’s into revenge. It would be mighty good revenge to take out your sister and your best friend.”
Tom shrugged. “Okay, it’s a thought. But there’s just no evidence Li Ching is involved in this. The last we saw of him was winging his way out of Newfoundland with his jets between his legs. Lots has happened since, but he hasn’t reappeared. For all we know, he may be dead.”
“Tom—they never are,” was Bud’s wry contribution.
After reporting the bizarre incident to Enterprises security, noting that the Unseeable Man had evidently been able to sneak across the plant grounds and into the Duck, Tom spent the rest of the morning working with the quantum-kinetic reverser. At noon, as Chow wheeled in his cart, Tom looked up and said, “Say, pardner, Doc cleared you to work—didn’t he?” His older friend seemed wobbly.
“Aaa, I’m okay, son.”
“You don’t look okay.”
“Never did, did I?”
As soon as Chow had cleared away the lunch tray, the inventive youth turned to a different project—a light-hearted one. “Nice to see you,” he greeted Gina Emiliotti, Enterprises’ talented key technician in the plant’s microtechnics department. “We haven’t worked together since—”
“Yes, since you had me assigned to working out the kinks in your thermospectron identifier,” the lithe, attractive woman concluded. “But my little shop is way over by the test dynamics building.” She added teasingly: “After all, you have my rivals close at hand—Hank Sterling and Arvid Hanson.”
“Both on vacation,” Tom grinned. “You’re usually out keeping yourself in good tone, Gina—Bud tells me you’re quite a swimmer.”
“Among other things.”
“Bud’s a real expert at sports and athletics.”
“Among other things.”
Tom had lunched at his office desk with his father, who had excused himself to attend to business at the Swift Construction Company across town. The youth led Gina into the lab-workshop adjoining the administrative office. “So,” said Gina, “Project Christmas Cheer. Ready for the final touches?”
“Some final tinkering to wring out some late-arriving glitches,” Tom admitted. “I don’t seem to be getting anywhere, and the debut is tonight.”
“With town dignitaries in attendance,” nodded Gina. “Well, boss, I doubt I can improve on the great Tom Swift...”
“Newer eyes sometimes see newer things.”
What the young inventor had jokingly named Project Christmas Cheer was less an invention than an ingenious gift for his home town, whose citizens had endured a great deal over the many years since the days of the first Tom Swift, the youth’s illustrious great-grandfather. His “resin-resonator” was a compact device with little practical application and offering no scientific breatkthroughs—just some extra excitement for Shopton’s annual Christmas tree ceremony in the town square. By using a microwave setup and inducing what were called eddy currents in the resinous layers of a huge living pine tree, Tom planned to turn the tree’s blanket of pine needles into a haze of brilliant pinpoints of light—Christmas stars.
The two worked for several hours, testing the gadget on a potted pine bush. Finally Tom pronounced himself satisfied. “The intensity’s as good as I could hope for,” he declared, “and the thermals are under the limit. Thanks for the input, Gina. I guess this isn’t exactly, mm, as important as—”
“Oh, it’s a nice break, Tom,” she smiled. “I know Hank’s on vacation with his family, and Hanson is visiting his parents up north. I’m the lucky one this time of year—my relatives are all back in Sardinia, their old homestead. All I have to do is compose my Christmas letter. And of course the DVD that goes out with it.”
“I hope you’ll be at the ceremony tonight.”
“Probably. I can ooh-and-aah with the best of ’em.”
As it neared seven that evening, the dark sky laden with the threat of snow, the Swifts’ big family car pulled into a reserved space off the town’s central plaza, which fronted the quaint city hall. “Hello, hello, you Swifts!” Mayor Clyde welcomed them. “And happy holidays!—well, we’re a few weeks early for Christmas...”
“Two months, as a matter of fact. But I’m sure it’s some seasonal holiday or other today,” responded Mr. Swift dryly. He took Tom’s mother’s hand and the two drifted off into the milling crowd.
“Oh Tom... I wish Bashalli were here for this,” Sandy whispered to her brother. After enduring a dangerous situation in the Middle East, Bashalli Prandit, the Swift family’s very close friend, had decided to travel on to her native Pakistan with her young nephew. Her visit to her parents had already lasted several weeks.
“I’m sure she’s thinking of us, San,” Tom said. He jerked his thumb toward a knot of media hounds. “The web videos of all this should be playing in Pakistan within minutes of the event.”
Sandy smiled. “Well, I’ve got my little phone digicam with me to add an artistic touch.”
Bud arrived as Tom finished setting up the tree-lighting apparatus. “Walked over from my place,” the Californian explained. “So how’s this gizmo work?”
His chum grinned broadly. “By Christmas magic!”
“Good enough for me, professor!”
As Sandy wandered away to take her photos, Mayor Clyde and his ilk declaimed civic pride over the loudspeakers, and the big audience applauded. “I wonder if Walker No-Face is here,” murmured Bud.
Tom shrugged. “If he is, he’s got his face on.”
A gesture was grandly flung in Tom’s direction and, with a nod, the young inventor threw a switch. The entire tree became a galaxy of sparkling stars! The points of light grew ever more brilliant as the induced currents pumped energy into them. “Basically, the beads of surface sap are acting like leaky capacitors, discharging in pulses,” Tom remarked in Bud’s direction.
“Mm, did you say something, Skipper?”
“Not me,” Tom grinned.
The local high school band began its Christmas concert. As the audience applauded, Sandy appeared and rushed up to the two youths, a frown on her face. “Tom, look at this,” she said, holding her cell-digicam view panel in front of her brother’s face.
“Problem with the camera?”
“Problem with reality! Look at these first shots, up on the courthouse portico, at the left.”
Tom looked as Sandy clicked through several shots. “You’re taking pictures of the courthouse?”
“I thought the moonlight made a pretty effect. And with Bashi being an artist—”
“Why are girls always in competition with each other?” gibed Bud.
“Well... it’s a great pic,” Tom said curiously.
“Mm-hmm.” Sandy pulled the device away and did some more clicking. “I took this whole series automatically. Now I’ll run them forward from the first one. You’ll see when the tree-light comes on.”
Again she held the screen before Tom’s eyes. “Okay, San. Yep, the portico brightened up when the tree started-in glowing. The system produces more light than I expected.”
Sandy looked smug. “That’s not all that’s unexpected, big brother. Let’s look again. Here’s one of the first shots. As I said, look at the left side, the person standing there at the edge, right next to that column.”
“In the heavy coat? I see him,” Tom nodded. “At least most of him—he’s in the shadow shoulders-up.”
Bud had what might have been an idea. “Come on, Sandy. Are we talkin’ Walker No-Face? You can’t see his face because of the shadow. I mean, you know, you can’t tell that he doesn’t have a face unless you can see it. Er—see?”
“Keep your eyes on him, boys.”
They watched intently as Sandy advanced the images shot by shot. On the little screen moonlight draped the portico, bright and unchanging during the moments prior to the lighting of the big tree. The half-seen figure moved slightly, as if to step fully out of the shadow. Tom and Bud tensed, anticipating a glimpse of the man’s face—or perhaps his lack of one. But the sudden result was stranger yet!
“Good gosh!” Tom sputtered. “He’s gone!” The overcoated figure had vanished in an instant—as if he had blinked out of existence!
SECRETS IN THE LIGHT
BUD, boggling, drew back and craned his neck. “Nope—can’t see the portico from here, not with this crowd.”
“I could go back for some more shots,” Sandy offered.
Half-nodding to show that he had heard, Tom took the pic-cell from Sandy and studied the screen, clicking the series of shots forward and back. Arriving at the crucial pair, he toggled between the two successive images. “He moves from shadow into the moonlight—and he goes out! Out like a light!” He continued to click forward and his frown suddenly deepened. “But look—something just changed...”
Sandy smugged up. “You noticed!”
“The tree lights must have come on. The light on the portico is different.”
“Mm-hmm. And what else?”
Tom studied the screen. The overcoated figure was still unseen. But!— “What’s this here...?”
Bud pointed. “That little splotch? Maybe a smudge on the lens.”
Tom increased the image magnification on the high-def camera unit. The splotch grew into— “What? Some kind of colored streamer...” Then the young Shoptonian grunted. “No! Look, guys—it’s a part of our mystery man. Most of him turned ‘unseeable’ out in the open, but not this strip of his arm and shoulder.”
“Very suspicious behavior,” commented Sandy dryly. “His ‘cloaking device’ doesn’t quite do the job.”
“I think I see why,” Tom declared. “He made his visible image undetectable, somehow, while San was taking the series of shots. But this patch remained visible—” But then the youth corrected himself. “No, it returned to visibility, when the tree lit up. He’s visible only where the shine from the tree falls across him. I can tell that the glow from the resin-resonator effect reaches him here, just here on this narrow bit of his sleeve and shoulder. But the resonator shine on the rest of him is blocked by the courthouse statue.”
Puzzled, Bud brushed a muscular hand across his forehead, dislodging his perpetual whift of black hair. “Okay, genius boy, you’re saying what, exactly? The guy’s a techno-wizard but has major issues with artificial lighting? I know some people object to Christmas getting too commercial—”
“Oh, Bud!—don’t be so scientifically naive,” Sandy remonstrated with smugness intact. “Obviously the weird mix of frequencies from Tom’s organic lightbulb cancel out his—his whatever gimmick.”
“Yeah, I see,” acknowledged the young Californian. “Some kind of interference effect—Christmas static! He can de-visibilize in ordinary kinds of light, like moonlight or sunlight, but Swift light brings him back.”
“Partially, at least,” agreed Tom. “I wonder if he’s even aware of it? His own eyes, looking out from inside, might be unaffected by the unseeability effect no matter what kind of light he’s in.” Remembering Sandy’s offer, he turned her way and said, “No, sis, don’t try to take any more pics. It may be just dumb luck that he didn’t notice you before—just about everyone around here would know the Swift family and friends.”
“But Tom,” Bud objected, “if he doesn’t realize he’s partially visible, a closeup of that floating fragment of his could give us some meaty clues!”
The young inventor nodded, thinking deeply. He snatched up his own cellphone and speed-dialed a stored number. “Hi Gina! Are you here in the crowd?”
“Sure am! Tom, your tree lighting just—”
Tom interrupted. “Look, could you do something for me? Play secret agent a little?”
“It’s about time! What’s my assignment?”
“Are you anywhere near the courthouse?”
“Oh, about a third of the way ’round the tree from it. Where are you?”
“Could you sort of sneak over—it’s very important that you stay inconspicuous and casual—and take some high-def shots with your pic-cell? Use the maximum night setting. Try to cover the whole portico and the steps in front, even back into the shadows. There may be... something there, hard to see, that I’d like to study back in the lab.”
“I’m walking there now, Tom. And please don’t diss my deductive skills. This isn’t a scientific investigation of the light from the tree. It’s that ‘No-Face’ thief they’ve been talking about!”
Tom smiled but didn’t confirm Gina’s guess. “Thanks for your help, Agent Emiliotti. Even if you don’t notice anything unusual, please send the whole series of shots over to my device right away.”
As Tom clicked off the unit, Bud declared with enthusiasm, “That’ll wipe the blank expression off his no-face!—if he didn’t skip out on us.”
Sandy was frowning, perhaps miffed that she had been blocked from further evidence-gathering—by someone named Gina. “Right. ‘He’,” she repeated. “It couldn’t possibly be a female perpetrating this sci-fi criminality, mm? Us brainless girls are designed to function as eye-candy.”
“Aw c’mon, Sandy, you’re sounding more like Bash with that stuff,” the young pilot, Sandy’s usual date, jokingly protested. “I don’t think of you as eye-candy.” The statement earned a glare, and Bud added quickly: “No, I mean, you know, you’re full of—uh—intellectual—er—fiber. Too.”
“I see the point,” Tom smiled, “but Walker No-Face is pretty big and brawny to be a woman. Even just considering the parts you can see.”
“I know,” she conceded, “but you, celeb big brother, are pouncing on the conclusion that the portico person is the same person as the street walker—oh, you know what I mean. This one was mostly in shadow, and you can’t really tell how tall he—she—is. I didn’t even notice him—er, her!—until I was looking over the pictures as I walked away. A woman wouldn’t be out of place in a heavy coat like that. And besides,” Sandy continued, defiant in the face of two skeptical listeners, “this, this person isn’t just lacking in the face department. The whole body’s missing! Tom, it could be the unseeable intruder on the Whirling Duck. Walker and the Duck Intruder could be different people.”
Yielding, Tom gave a wry nod. “That’s true. And the second unseen person could be a woman.”
“Yeah—if that sky intruder was a ‘person’ at all!” added Bud.
“What I saw in the WD—maybe I should say, what I detected—vaguely suggested the shape of a human being. But the way it came and went sure wasn’t human. It was more like... I don’t know, like something projected, a kind of contoured force-field.” As he said this aloud, he also made a silent comment internally: Like the antivector field generated by the quantum-kinetic reverser! Could there be a connection?
In a minute Tom had received the new photos Gina had taken. Thanking her, he brought them up on the view-panel and scrutinized them. “Nothing there at all now,” he muttered. “Too bad. But maybe we can tease something out of the pixels in the lab.”
The three had had their fill of Christmas cheer for the evening, perhaps for the season. They walked backed to the car in musing silence, where Tom’s parents were waiting.
Tom told the story and showed his parents the two runs of images. “Son, you know,” began Anne Swift quietly, “Sandy may be on to something.”
“Thanks, Mother!” her daughter piped up. “Er—what?”
“We already know there’s a woman out there who’s a pretty talented criminal operative. And she has real technical expertise as well.”
“That’s right—I’d put her out of my mind,” Bud noted. “They never did catch Pallida Mors.”
Tom Swift’s development of his timephonic oscillotron had been attended by the usual perils and adversaries, and the most striking of them was a woman pseudo-named Pallida Mors—Latin for pale death. Her true identity unknown, never seen out of disguise, she had shown athletic prowess in several areas, had successfully outwitted Enterprises security, and had demonstrated the technical knowledge and training to have sabotaged the Flying Lab. Although the conspiratorial plotters had been ultimately unmasked, Pallida Mors—who seemed to be something of a “hired gun”—remained at large, with the FBI in hot but frustrated pursuit.
“She was able to disguise herself as that efficiency-review consultant, Tom,” commented his father. “That was one kind of false face. Perhaps she’s graduated to something even more effective.”
“Maybe so,” replied Tom. “She could be crony-ing up with Walker No-Face—which makes it even more likely that Enterprises is the ultimate target of this plot. I’ll ask Harlan Ames to pass the possibility along to our FBI contact, Brenner.”
The day following, Tom subjected Sandy’s and Gina’s photos to every mode of high-tech scrutiny he could think of. “Strange...” he told himself as he reviewed the data at his desk. “Interesting. Right here, where the guy is standing... Fourier analysis of the wavefront patterns...” He stopped talking to himself when he noticed Munford Trent giving him a curious, sharp look through the open office door. Turning to his electronic journal, he wrote:
Somehow the trigger effect is coded into subtle reflectance patterns that can be caught even on film or video though they form no image for the eye. We know patterned stimulation of the retina and optic nerve can set off epileptic seizures and other neurological reactions. I think viewers actually do “see” the face or form for an instant, but the light pattern—just the pattern configuration itself, no movement required—activates a part of the brain having to do with visual recognition—as if telling the brain to disregard and forget whatever is seen inside the perimeter of the covered area. It’s unconscious, pure neural programming. I’ve read about something similar called Charles Bonnet Syndrome...
Presently Doc Simpson strode into the office. “Don’t mean to break your concentration, Tom,” he apologized, “but I wanted to tell you about our big buddy Chow.”
“He’s all right, isn’t he?”
“I don’t see any obvious problems,” responded the medic with concern in his voice, “but when I managed to get through that tough Texas hide of his with a few pointed questions, he mentioned some dizzy spells, problems with balance while walking. That’s why he wasn’t at the tree ceremony.”
Tom nodded. “I can see how even a brief ‘blip’ in his circulation could cause damage. Do you think we should send him to a specialist?”
“I’m not recommending that at this point. He’d fight it like an angry coyote, anyway! But I told him—in my sternest medical voice—that if he wanted to stay on duty he’d have to get off his feet. He’ll be tooling around the halls in an electric wheelchair for a week, maybe two, until I can clear him.”
Despite the worrisome circumstance, Tom couldn’t suppress a grin. “Now that will be a sight to see!”
“And to hear too. Start limbering up your wince muscles, boss.”
As a clouded morning became a snow-dusted afternoon, Tom and his father received an intercall from Harlan Ames in the adjacent office. “Guys, we three—Phil Radnor, too—need to head down to the See-Hear room in about an hour.” This ultra-secure room, in the sub-basement of the administration building, was something new at Swift Enterprises. Surpassing the building’s standard teleconference room, the facility used an extended version of the quantum-link principle behind Tom’s Private Ear Radio, or parallelophone, to allow a visual as well as audio connection, one that was protected by the fundamental laws of physics from being broken in upon by secret listeners.
At present there were only two corresponding units linked to the Enterprises system: one in the Pentagon, and one in the West Wing of the White House. “Who will we be hearing from?” asked Mr. Swift.
“From an old friend of mine, Damon—Len Kelso, special assistant to the Director of the United States Secret Service.”
“Good night!” Tom exclaimed. “The Secret Service! Does this involve—”
“That’s right, Tom,” declared Ames in his usual dryly authoritative, imperturbable tone. “This matter involves the safety—and the life—of the President of the United States!”
THE FOUR soberly assembled in the small subsurface room known only as See-Hear, cut off from the world by layers of Swift Enterprises’ anti-detection sheathing as well as Tom’s sound-killing silentenna, used in this case to enclose the room in a cocoon impervious to sound.
Nevertheless, they felt an urge to converse in whispers. There was gravity in the air! “First time down here,” murmured Ames’s stocky assistant Phil Radnor. “That’s a telejector over there, isn’t it?”
“Right,” Tom replied. “But we won’t be seeing anything in 3-D. The quan-TV is instantaneous and un-tappable, but it can’t accommodate the huge amount of wavefront data needed to construct a real 3-D image.”
“Not so far, that is,” smiled Mr. Swift. “But the floating image, crude though it is, is adequate to visually identify whomever is on the other side. And that’s the point.”
A soft tone announced that the quantum connection had been forged. A flat image, life-sized, sprang into being in front of four pairs of eye, floating in space without a monitor screen. Though the human figure—torso and head—moved in a natural manner, it seemed more like a charcoal sketch than a picture from life.
“Seems to be working,” said the head atop the torso, a professional looking, thickset man who spoke from the White House over the spaceless, timeless link. “I see you four. Hello again, Harlan. When are you and Dodie going to pay a visit to us underground dwellers in DC?”
“Soon, Len,” Ames nodded. He introduced the others, then waited expectantly.
“All right, then,” said Kelso crisply. “I’ll give the bottom line first, if I may, then the explanation.”
“Something inventive?” speculated Tom. “To protect your boss?”
“Obvious, isn’t it? Our highest-tech listening posts—your old friend Bernt Ahlgren, as a matter of fact—has monitored some encrypted traffic. We’re not certain of the point of origin; it’s been fractiled and multi-relayed, as is usually the case nowadays. We suspect Central Asia.”
“A threat to the President?” asked Radnor.
“To the life of the President, and to world peace. Yes, I know it sounds melodramatic. But what’s at stake, ultimately, is the likelihood of war on the Korean Peninsula within one year.”
Tom drew in a sharp breath. “Nuclear warfare?”
“We can’t rule out that possibility,” was the grim response. “The ‘Hermit Kingdom’—and whatever they choose to say it really is a kingdom, dynastic succession and all—plays the nuclear card whenever they can. If we could assume basic rationality in their strategic calculations, we could live with the possibility. But some of our best thinkers have concluded that control of their arsenal is accessible to ideological fanatics who would just as soon incinerate their countrymen on both sides of the border as knuckle under to the imperialist West.”
“That’s surely a matter for the State Department,” said Damon Swift. “How is the safety of the President—”
“The life of the President, Damon,” Kelso corrected him sharply. “I’ll put this as succinctly as I can.
“The North Koreans don’t have a genuine ‘Defense Department’ in the sense we’re accustomed to in the West. All such matters are handled by the crowd in the ‘Cherished Leader’s’ compound, the self-perpetuating executive bureaucracy that really runs things—everything, including their titular boss. Naturally, there are specializations and ongoing rivalries that conclude with one individual or another holding all the cards with respect to some given area. The key man in charge of their stance in the cool-off negotiations that have been creeping along for years—much to the chagrin of some of their hottest hotheads—is a man named Nem O-ku. He holds no precise official position, but has near absolute authority in his area due to his personal association with all three generations of the Family. His Korean nickname is Wisdom-and-Purity.
“He is also very elderly and very ill. He’s likely to depart for the Workers’ Paradise in the Sky within months, perhaps even before the year is out.”
“Does this man pose some kind of threat, sir?” Tom inquired.
“No; some kind of hope. We are told, and have confirmed in our special secret ways, that Nem has become fixated on bringing peace to the two Koreas as his legacy, his place in history. A personal epiphany—inherently unpredictable. He intends to do this by direct contact between himself and the President when they meet at a formal ceremony in New York seven weeks from tomorrow.”
“Len,” interrupted Harlan Ames, “when you say direct contact—”
“Direct means direct, Harlan, gentlemen. For some reason, perhaps senility or late-in-life psychosis, Nem is insistent on—absolutely obsessed with—literally placing key defense secrets of his country in the hands of the President by passing to him, when they shake hands, something we call a dake. I don’t suppose any of you have come across that term—?”
“I have,” Tom declared. “Isn’t it a nickname? Something like ‘data flake’?”
Kelso shrugged. “Don’t ask me. I don’t know where the term comes from. I just know what it is, namely a tiny bugger about the size and thickness of a postage stamp, inscribed down to the quantum level with data. Its capacity is—well, you could easily fit the entire Library of Congress onto it twice over with room to breathe; so I’m told.”
Mr. Swift objected. “That kind of quantum storage technology has fundamental problems at the level of the laws of physics. It’s hard to believe—”
“Believe it,” stated Kelso bluntly. “We’ve had it for years; so have our adversaries. The manufacturing process is extremely intricate and subject to random errors arising from what I think is called quantum indeterminacy. It’s not a marketable technology at this point. To get a single functional dake you have to manufacture—slowly, one by one—tens of thousands of units. At that point you have a fifty-fifty chance of finding one usable unit somewhere in the heap. And good luck pulling that needle out of the haystack.”
“That’s something I plan to strenuously avoid thinking about,” Radnor joked half-heartedly.
“And I intend to avoid discussing any further,” Kelso replied. “The main point is that the mere fact of the West possessing this defense data, and being able to prove it to skeptics on the other side, means that Mr. Nem’s protégés retain the upper hand in the ‘royal court’ after he’s gone, and the current negotiations will lead to an acceptable peace treaty. But if this peculiar, rather ludicrous handoff fails to occur at that specified moment on that specified date, it’s all off—worse than ‘off,’ in fact. Because that ceremony signifies Nem’s retirement as an active advisor. After that, he and his allies are completely out of the loop. And when he dies, the new crew is likely to issue an ultimatum that will destabilize the situation.”
“I see where this is going,” Tom commented quietly. “Mr. Nem will only pass along the dake by the method he’s chosen, slipping it into the palm of the President’s hand at a certain point in the ceremony. But the President’s hand won’t be there to receive it—”
“If he has been assassinated on the way to the dais.”
“Good Lord,” breathed Ames. “But Len, if you know there’ll be an assassin in the crowd—”
“We know, from our intercepted intelligence, that someone is to be placed in that room with the means to murder the President of the United States.”
“None of this makes logical sense, Mr. Kelso,” pronounced Damon Swift as anger rose within. “If there’s a credible threat to the President, the obvious course of action is to call off the ceremony. Or at least cancel his appearance there.”
The Secret Service man glowered at the CEO of Tom Swift Enterprises. “I know where you’re coming from, Mr. Swift—Damon. It’s well known—they even mention it in that children’s book series—that you folks feel you’ve been manipulated by your government on more than one occasion to carry out assignments that officialdom can deny giving you.”
“For purposes not always fully explained,” Tom added coolly. “Oh, we understand the why of those situations. We don’t doubt that these are matters of critical importance, with elements that can’t be let out to the world. But we’re people, Mr. Kelso, real people and citizens of the United States. We’re not tools. We make machines here; we’re not machines ourselves. And pardon us if we’re tired of being treated as if we were.”
Harlan Ames spoke up. “Look, Len, are you asking Tom and his crew to function as unofficial agents of some kind, as they’ve done in the past? Are they supposed to get involved in uncovering the plotters?”
“Not at all,” snapped Kelso, his own anger simmering into view. “The larger dimensions of all this are being worked by those professionals trusted to do so—the FBI, CIA, Department of Homeland Security—”
“And Collections, of course,” Tom put in.
Unexpectedly, the man smiled, a certain kind of smile. “You said, what—‘Collections’? Tax law enforcement has nothing to do with this matter.”
Tom’s rejoinder was sharp as a stone. “Cut it, sir. I mean Collections, the high-level group of operatives that the government uses to counter extraordinary threats. It’s what we call them, as I’m sure you know. The same people who told you that your pet genius boy has come up with a momentum-reversing device that could be adapted to protecting the President in public.”
“And just how would we, or they, know of this advanced technology?” asked Kelso tauntingly.
“I have no idea,” Tom replied. “Why not ask the person sitting there in your See-Hear room just outside camera view?—the one you’ve been glancing toward whenever a tough question comes up? I suppose it’s the one I’ve been in contact with...”
“Ah, the one you call The Taxman?” Kelso’s smile had returned. “Never heard of him! But say, young man, as you brought up this new invention of yours—do you suppose it might be worth our time to consider whether it could be deployed to stop an assassination and prevent nuclear war in Asia?”
“You haven’t explained why you don’t—” Tom’s father began.
“The President refuses to cancel the ceremony or back out of his place in it. The possibility of receiving fantastically important info from this ancient eccentric is too important to your country and your planet to not at least try to let the handoff occur. And he’s not going to insult the guest diplomats by wearing a flesh-colored suit of armor or some other ridiculous gimmick. He’s made his decision, gentlemen. He’ll be there with his hand out unless we conclude, absolutely, that all protective options are inadequate, including the super-scientific options that Swift Enterprises usually manages to come up with.”
Kelso settled back in his chair. There was a moment of seething silence.
“All right,” said Harlan Ames. “Let’s get beyond the emotions and egos, shall we? I know the Swifts will do what they can. Are you saying the intercepted information doesn’t give a clue as to who will be functioning as the assassin, or what the method is to be?”
“I suppose it’s the North Koreans who plan to stop the handoff,” declared Phil Radnor.
Tom shook his head. “If that’s who’s behind it, Mr. Nem would be dead himself by now.”
“The North Koreans have no idea of what Nem plans to do,” Kelso confirmed. “We’re certain of that, and we’re putting a great deal of sweat into keeping it that way. No, the plot is coming from somewhere else, some group or country, maybe some terrorist band, who think they’d gain some advantage from hundreds of millions of burnt corpses on the Korean Peninsula. I could name a dozen off the top of my balding head. But that’s just a list of logical speculations, not a way to identify the rogue rat in that room.”
“If the goal is to prevent the handoff,” commented Mr. Swift, “I’d think Mr. Nem would be the better target for this faction.”
“No, no,” replied Kelso. “It’s cultural, some kind of Korean thing that actually overrides what we think of as common-sense politics. We’re told that if Nem were to be murdered prior to his retirement, no matter what the circumstance, various revered customs would give an advantage to Nem’s people even without the transfer of the secrets. Which is just what the assassins don’t want.”
The cross-continent discussion lumbered on, staccato, sometimes loud, unstoppable as a log bouncing down a hillside. Tom recapped it that evening at home, to his mother and sister, and to Bud, perennial guest for dinner. “Dad and I didn’t say everything we felt like saying,” Tom frowned. “Mr. Kelso may be an old friend of Harlan’s, but in his official role he’s a stereotype political bureaucrat. A stonewaller.”
“He may feel he has no choice,” Anne Swift suggested gently. “War and assassination—”
“I’d sure make me a little testy,” noted Bud.
“I’ll tell you what makes me lose my equanimity,” Mr. Swift declared. “The idea of our government using a private citizen—my young son!—to once again put himself in mortal danger in support of some ‘cause’ that is never quite explained. Not to our satisfaction, at least. We know nothing of these negotiations. How are we to assess the likelihood of any of these ‘possibilities’?”
“Oh Daddy, you’re starting to sound like one of those backwoods marchers,” reproved Sandy.
Tom sighed. “But we do seem to get ‘used’ a lot, San. If the Feds aren’t pulling our Swift strings, it’s Collections or the CIA or some other official group.”
“It’s amazing we can find time to deal with mad scientists and would-be world conquerors,” Bud gibed—or was he serious?
After a pause to enjoy the brownies in their hands, Sandy spoke up softly. “Tom, I know you and Daddy have thought of this, but—couldn’t Walker No-Face be part of this assassination plot? He—or maybe the Genderfree Entity you semi-saw on the Whirling Duck—has a pretty cool technology going if you want to slip into a guarded room with a weapon in hand.”
“Mr. Kelso alluded to that,” replied Damon Swift, “with a look on his face that suggested they were taking that possibility very seriously indeed.”
“All this didn’t just pop up this morning,” Tom pronounced. “The DC people obviously have had Mr. Nem’s plan on their plate for some time, even if the intercepted assassination info is new. Know what I think? I think the unseeable ‘entity,’ who or whatever it is, has been patrolling the Enterprises grounds and reporting back on anything under development that might be used to undetectably protect the President.”
“And foul their assassination plot,” nodded Bud. “Bet you’re right, Skipper. It’s all high-tech stuff, not some sniper up in a window. They’d have to know the only potential glitch in the plan is you! Even if they’re in the dark about the intel snatch, the usual inventive Swift solution is the only thing that could counter whatever inventive problem they plan to throw at the President.”
“But why use the unseeability device to pull off simple heists in Shopton?” objected Mrs. Swift. “Why call undue attention to their capability?”
“Maybe they need to raise money for the flight to DC,” Bud suggested in the way that made him Bud Barclay. “And hotel accommodations in the area can be pretty expensive.”
Sandy gave the flyer a withering look. Tom indicated agreement with his mother’s objection, but thought for a moment before speaking. “We may be dealing with two sets of plotters, or with someone who split off from the assassin branch in order to cash-in personally on some really useful crime technology. The profit motive usually trumps political ones.”
Bud snorted. “I tellya, some of these guys’ lack of dedication just makes a person sick!”
Sandy asked, “Tomonomo, couldn’t you make something that could defeat that unseeability shield of theirs?”
And then, almost visibly, light and lightning struck the Swift living-room. Tom Swift was suddenly the image of blue-eyed confidence! “I’m sure I can, sis. And I also have in mind a shield of my own, one that our side can use to protect the President!”
Bud grinned excitedly. “A shield against bullets?”
“A shield against anything, flyboy—any weapon on Earth!”
DEATH TO CAKES!
“WELL,” said Tom Swift some days later, with a taint of apology in his words, “I suppose I was overselling my idea a little. The resilientronic shield won’t stop any weapon. There’s always death-rays, lethal microbes, poison gas.”
“Wasn’t President Millard Fillmore killed by spoiled peaches?”
Tom shrugged at Gina Emiliotti, facing him from very close-by in a lab near his office. He didn’t know his American history in such detail. Of greater significance, he wondered why she had brought up Presidential death: he, and those in his personal circle, had agreed to spread no mention of the immediate need driving the development of his new invention.
Gina seemed to notice the look. “You said it was a government-solicited project, Tom. I don’t imagine it’s just for personal safety on the streets of Shopton.”
“It can protect our troops, like body armor,” he said, and it was true enough.
“Mm,” smiled Gina. “I can take a hint. So tell me, chief, what’s with ‘resilientronic’? Another fancy term Chow gave you, as he did with spectromarine selector?—not that it was less than apt.”
Tom was glad the hint had been taken. “Come on, I can come up with pseudo-words with the best of ’em! But since you ask, I didn’t want to call it something like portable personal quantum-kinetic reverser barrier—or worse. The name of a portable device should be as portable as the device itself!”
“So—it means ‘resilient electronics’? Something like that?”
“Yes, something like that.” Gina, who wasn’t involved in constructing the new device, had dropped by during her lunch break. She seemed to want to chat about Tom’s invention, and the young inventor wasn’t entirely comfortable with her visit. He had decided long before, since he had first become active at Enterprises, that Gina had developed an interest in the CEO’s son that the CEO’s son didn’t care to encourage. But Tom was ever the gentleman. “I can probably explain better by showing than telling, Gina,” he said.
Her smile was blandly insinuative. “Yes, I know you like doing that.”
He led her to a work counter, where a cylindrical object, looking like a large and bulky pen, rested vertically in an adjustable clamp of superstrong Durastress. “Arv Hanson got back to Enterprises just in time to help miniaturize the quantum-kinetic reverser—its key circuitry, at least—so it could fit inside this small portable shell. A solar battery supplies the power—a pretty substantial amount, though not in the same league as a repelatron.”
Gina circled the counter, bending close. “I suppose the extensor grid—your field projector—is just beneath the outer layer.” She looked up at Tom shrewdly with green eyes that gleamed. “Wonderful as always, Tom.”
“Er... thanks. Now stand back a couple feet and watch.” A weight dangled directly above the unit up near the lab ceiling, at the end of a thin cord that was looped through some pulleys. Tom loosed the cord by releasing a gripper-brake, and the weight whizzed downward, almost falling freely.
It fell to within about a foot of the field projector, then slowed abruptly, as if encountering a stretchable surface that could not be seen. It descended a few more inches, slower and slower, then stopped, suspended in empty space. But it only rested unmoving for a heartbeat. It edged sideways at a downward angle, as if sliding, and clomped down on the countertop a short distance from the base of the unit.
“I see what you mean,” said Gina, smiling. “It’s not like hitting a hard barrier, which is how so-called ‘force fields’ are usually portrayed on TV—you know, ‘raise the shields!’ It’s resilient, like something springy and compressible.”
“Yes,” Tom nodded. “Whatever enters the nano-dimensional ‘mesh’ from outside has the momentum worn off it by degrees. When all forward motion is nullified, the object—whether a bullet or a bazooka shell—just falls to the ground.” He explained that it had a slight horizontal arc due to the varied angles of the vector lines that radiated from the fixed field source. “All in all, there’s your resilientronic effect.”
“An impenetrable shield with a little give to it—so bullets and bombs don’t just ricochet off in all directions and perforate onlookers.”
“Exactly. The purpose isn’t to just shift the danger elsewhere, but to counter it in a—”
Tom’s words were interrupted—it seemed to happen to Tom a lot—by the lab door being shoved open. A small, sallow-faced man came gliding in. In his hands he bore a tray, and the tray bore what might have been a frosted cake. Of sorts.
The man, Russian born and sometimes too much so, was Chow Winkler’s culinary second-in-command—but hardly his assistant—Boris. “Yes yes, the crewcuticle boss! And—well, you have an Italian name, my ninotchka, which I will forbear to pronounce.”
“What do you have for us, Boris?” Gina asked. “Dessert for lunch?”
“Aha, it is so!” he cried theatrically. “Dessert! Something sweet! That which the Winkler, in his rough and hairy cowhide, has no native competence to produce.”
Tom suddenly looked nervous. “What, you disagree?” reproved Boris, glancing about for a place to set down his tray. “Has some agreeable sweetness ever come from the Winkler’s cowboy chucking wagon unless I, Boris, produce it behind his back? His big wide back?”
“Mm, Boris—” said Tom through a pinched throat.
“What, what is it, Tom? I have made more than enough of this fragile bit of artistry to...” Looking round, he noticed something, two somethings, at the edge of his vision. “...artistry... to...” On the tile floor, next to one another. “...to... that is...” Two toes, of two well-tempered leather boots. Cowboy boots. In front of the foot rest of a wheelchair. “...”
Boris’s thickly accented commentary ground to a full halt. Gina said, “Chow was here when I came in just now. He and Tom were talking about—something. I can’t quite remember... at this moment... what the subject might have been. In fact... I can’t quite recall what I’m saying right now.”
Chow sat silently. His eyes were bulging like, not the eyes of a bullfrog, but the belly of one. His face had taken on a strange pattern of colors, as if in imitation of his gaudy shirt. He stared, just stared at Boris; perhaps not so much at Boris as through him. Through his entrails and vital organs.
“Ch-Chow...” breathed Tom.
“Well, I shall leave now,” Boris announced rather stiffly. He set the tray down on a lab stool. “Yes. Goodbye. Enjoy cake. Traditional recipe. From Minsk. Someplace like that.” He backed out the door like an overwound toy soldier, somehow kicking it closed with the toe of his shoe.
Tom did not so much break the silence as bend it, cautiously and tentatively. “Um... now... Chow...”
Necessity being the mother of invention at Swift Enterprises, Gina came up with something. “Chow, how would you like to utterly demolish Boris’s creation? In the cause of science?” Chow’s catatonic gaze slowly shifted. Tom looked at her curiously. “This new invention of Tom’s, the resilientronic shield... Well, I don’t believe it’s been tested on organic—I mean, on edible—matter.”
“That... ain’t... edible,” came Chow’s voice, barely audible, a western ghost from another world. “Ten times out o’ nine y’ cain’t keep yer gullet around what that... ferrin hombre heaps t’gether...”
“Absolutely!” gasped Tom.
“...rough... hairy... cowhide...”
“Gina, what’s your idea? Tell us. Please!”
“Big... wide... back...”
“Please, Gina!” urged—begged!—Tom. The instruments in his laboratory were delicately calibrated. Some were one-of-a-kind, crafted by hand for particular uses. Tom knew they would never survive a volcanic, or nuclear, eruption.
Chow whirred forward in his wheelchair. “Don’t know jest where I get that repertation I got. I ’as Texas-born. Ever’one knows Texas folk are quiet, peaceable types. Never raise our voices. Never cuss. Never boast. Yew agree with that, doncha!—?” The westerner’s voice had taken on a ferocious glare. “Ya do? Course ya do. Wouldn’t lay one o’ my big fat fingers on B—B—... that there little feller. Who looks like a bottle o’ rat poison. —Did he spit out of his mealy Russian mouth somethin’ about my havin’—”
“Better calm down, pardner,” Tom ventured. “Doc Simpson—”
“Yeh yeh. Doc Simpson.” Chow huffed and made a great cowboy effort to rise below his bucking emotions. “Ohhh-kay, buckaroos. Now. What’s this talk about dee-molitioning that... thing?”
Gina gave a blithe smile. “All yours, Tom. What are the parameters of this experiment?”
“Uh—thanks.” Tom picked up the cake on its tray and looked at it. He flicked a tentative finger against it, noting the hollow cardboardy sound it made. And the absence of even a trace of resilience. “This is... a pretty firm piece of work. It’s more like a frosted pastry, like a roll—”
“Don’t bother describin’ the blame thing!” barked Chow. “Hard as a rock from the bottom o’ the Rio Grande! Jest whatta we do t’ get shed of it, boss?”
“Well... You could drop it down over the field extensorizer, as we did with the weight...”
Chow snorted. He was in bull mode. “Naa. Didn’t hurt th’ weight none. Jest set it off t’ the side, nice ’n easy. Son, do I look like I want nice ’n easy? That blang-blame object is a menace an’ I aim t’ destroy it! You git that?—!”
“It’s gat!” gulped the youth, as Gina stifled a giggle. “Okay, something different—
“Here’s an idea, Chow. Stick the generator unit right into the center of the cake, like—”
“...or a candle... and then drop the whole thing from above the counter. We’ll see how the resilientronic effect works to protect something when the field is moving right along with it.”
“Tom Swift, did these prairie ears hear the word ‘protect’?”
As the cook seemed to be simmering down, Tom ventured a smile. “It’s for science, Chow. After the test you can take a sledgehammer to it.”
“Yeah. More like one o’ them X-rasers.” But Chow was glad to get up on his feet for a few moments, and complied. After Tom thrust the cylindrical generator into the cake, with only a nub showing on top, he handed it to his friend as Gina took a few mockingly-cautious steps back. She seemed much amused, and her eyes were on Tom.
“All right, cowpoke. Stretch high and let it go. As the gradient will be moving away from your hands and arms, you shouldn’t feel anything at all.”
“Ye-aah,” said Chow sourly as he positioned himself. “Didn’t feel s’ much the other time neither. An’ now I’m corralled in a blame wheely-chair.” With a slight grunt he let the enemy object loose, at Tom’s signal that he had remotely activated the shield projector.
The cake fell freely one foot, two—and abruptly slowed as if plunging into molasses. It drifted down at feather-velocity and finally came to rest about a palm-breadth above the counter. It hung in the empty air, moving very slightly sideways as if on a slick surface.
“I’d call it a big success, Mr. Genius!” enthused Gina. “Is it creating some sort of repulsion force to keep it from falling further?”
Grinning with satisfaction, Tom shook his head and clapped Chow on his broad back. “No, we have repelatrons when we want that! What the shield is doing is nullifying the upward momentum of the counter top.”
Chow settled back down in his carcass-carrier. “But that table top idden goin’ upwards, boss. It’s jest sittin’ there.”
“But Chow, all motion is relative, you know,” Gina explained before Tom could part his lips. “When you shoot a bullet at a target, you could just as easily think of the bullet as standing still and the target rushing toward it at bullet speed.”
“Now why th’ hey-hoo would I think a fool thing like that?” demanded the cook.
“What Gina’s saying,” Tom declared, “is just the fact that as far as the universe is concerned—as far as the equations of motion and momentum—all that really counts is the rate at which the gap between two things is diminishing. You can take the totality of motion and divide it up between them as you please. After all, pard, what counts is just bringing the bullet and the target together—it doesn’t matter which one you want to say is ‘really’ moving.”
“Guess that’s so, Tom,” the older man conceded. “Don’t seem right.”
“Sure. We planet-dwellers are used to most things all around us appearing immobile—because they and we move along with the ground we stand on.”
Gina now appeared fascinated but bemused. “Still, Tom, when you describe how you work the gimmick, it seems as though objects that cross the field boundary—that move closer to the generator, in other words—get their momentum flipped one layer of atoms at a time, the first layer pushing back against the next layer until the object comes to a halt. But I don’t understand how somehow ‘halting the ground’, or the counter-top, would cause—”
Tom raised a hand, interrupting with a sheepish look. “I guess I’ve developed a bad habit. Sometimes my explanations—which usually start with Well, Bud—come out over-simplified.”
“Buddy Boy’s not here,” Chow reproved. “Yew don’t need to set th’ explainer dial all that low.”
This forced a grin from the young inventor. “Okay then. What counts in terms of the resilientronic shield effect isn’t moving toward the central point but the narrowing of the distance between the approaching objects—motion in either direction along the radius that goes from the field center to the intruding object after it crosses the perimeter of the field. Really, there’s ‘momentum flipping’ on both sides, but we only notice the nullification of velocity in things moving relative to our own positions. See, Chow? Think of the field area as a gradual, gentle movement freezer.”
The cook nodded Yes. But there was good reason to think that in this instance Yes meant No.
Tom smiled affectionately and said, “Experiment concluded. Time to switch off the shield and let the cake entity take its lumps.”
The youth slid his thumb across his remote-controller, called a Spektor, and the response was instantaneous and shocking. An explosive blast surged across the lab!
THE BLAST was powerful indeed. Chow was almost catapulted from his wheelchair. Tom and Gina were knocked off their feet. The delicate instruments Tom had been concerned to protect had only a fifty-percent survival rate.
Half-lying on the floor, Tom gasped out, “Everyone... a-are you... anybody hurt?”
“Welllp, there she was,” groaned Chow. “Got th’ danged explosion out o’ the way.”
“But it wasn’t an explosion,” said Gina as she struggled to her feet and smoothed her hair. “It threw us toward the shield-generator—an implosion! Look at the cake!”
They looked. What rested on the counter could no longer be called a cake even as a courtesy. It was a small black object, like a lump of coal but weirdly twisted and wrinkled. Wisps of smoke streamed upward from it, forming a tiny mushroom cloud.
“Gotta say, folks—Boris’s cookin’ never looked better,” Chow pronounced with sour glee. “This time th’ blow-up was worth it!”
Gina looked at her boss. “I take it that wasn’t supposed to happen.”
Tom said nothing. He searched for, and finally found, an undamaged instrument and began scientific scrutiny of the cake remains. “Yes... an implosion, obviously.”
“Good thing we three didn’t end up—like that,” Gina said.
“I’m pretty sure I know what happened,” stated Tom. “The mathematics predicted it all along. Shutting down the extensor unit doesn’t cause the shield to simply blink off and dissipate. It collapses toward the center, like a bursting balloon. The collapsing gradients—spherical layers like the skin of an onion—pass through whatever surrounds the generator. And what they pass through they drag with them! The body of the cake was pulled inward, super-compressed in a fraction of a second, generating a great deal of heat in the process.”
“But we were outside the perimeter of the field,” Gina objected.
“We were, but as the air inside the shrinking shield ‘bubble’ was forced inward as it sucked the surrounding air inward too. Guys, we just lived through a mini-hurricane!”
“Uh-huh. Thanks a lot fer that,” commented a gravelly voice. “An’ yew say someb’dy predicted it?”
Tom nodded. “But I thought I had compensated for it by building a limiter into the system to stabilize and cushion the effect—the resilientronic element. In fact, the limiter did work in the other tests. I’ll have to find out what went wrong this time.”
“Jest call it th’ Russian Cake Ee-fect,” Chow suggested as he whirred out of the lab, steering around the debris on the floor.
Tom looked at Gina and shrugged. She replied with her own shrug. “I thank you for a most engaging lunch break, Mr. Swift.”
“My pleasure, Miss Emiliotti.”
“And now,” she continued, “I’d like to push the envelope just a bit. Let’s unwind tonight, you and I.”
“You and I?”
“As in Us.”
“Mm, let’s go back to You and I. A garage band, the Yags, is playing at that club on the south beach, Lacunae. Been there? With Bashalli Prandit?”
Tom seemed to have difficulty with the question, and with his mouth. “Uh, I’ve... I’ve driven past... Bash doesn’t care for dancing... not much...”
Gina smiled. “What an intriguing girlfriend. Tom, my intentions are honorable. We’re coworkers. Let’s relax and blow off a little steam. Bashalli will come flitting back to Shopton to find all local virtue intact. I’m reasonably safe, boss. I was born in Buffalo. Only my ancestry is Italian.”
Tom found that no shield was strong enough, no invention clever enough, to allow him to escape this frontal assault. Besides, Gina’s nice—smart too, he told himself. There’s no rule against dancing with the technical staff. However, he did make a discreet call to Personnel and the plant’s legal department after Gina had left.
They drove to the club separately, parking some distance away from the jammed parking lot and meeting at the door. Tom arrived first. He stood inconspicuously at the edge of a roiling crowd. These guys are around my age, my generation, he thought. Yet he felt very separated from them, behind an invisible wall—which led to thinking about his resilientronic shield. He was still thinking, lost in mental blueprints, when Gina came up to him looking like an early Christmas.
Tom was suave, as always. “Uh... hi.”
Club Lacunae had a small restaurant, a long bar, and a huge dance floor. Gina had a drink, the name of which would never be allowed to appear in any of the “Tom Swift” fictionalizations. Tom, the real one, was persuaded to have a Mai Tai. But the mai was only a trace and the tai was left out entirely.
“I don’t drink, really,” he smiled.
“I think one’s do’s should always be more numerous than one’s don’t’s,” she responded. “You ought to consider changing your ratio.”
“I try to keep an open mind.”
“Now we just have to find something for your mind to be open about.”
Tom gulped. They danced. The band throbbed and gargled out a tangle of jagged frequencies. It was a garage band; Tom found himself wishing the garage door had been kept closed.
“You’re not so bad at the kinetic equation called dancing, Tom,” commented Gina. “You’re exceeding my experimental predictions. Do you feel the beat?”
“Beat?” Tom shook his head. “No, no, I have a lot of energy still.”
Yet even the energy sources of young Tom Swift had limits. At a pause while the Yags were being watered, the young inventor pulled Gina off the floor and sheepishly settled down on a cushioned bench. She descended, daintily, next to him. “Are you unwinding, Tom?” she asked playfully.
He wiped his brow. “I’m certainly blowing off steam.”
The Yags started another song. “Hey, that’s one of my faves,” Gina said. “Back on your feet, Swift!”
“Wait till I find them.”
As they started dancing again Tom noticed that Club Lacunae was even more crowded than before. He knew this was what clubs were like, compression and collision being part of the fun; it occurred to him to wonder if one of Boris’s cakes would make it across the dance floor intact. The two followed a splintered course constructed of truncated line segments, many abrupt captures and many breathless escapes. Their path resembled the flight of the bumblebee—or a rogue atomic particle. “I wish I had one of your personal force fields right now!” Gina shouted across to her companion, all of ten inches away.
The band was clearly rising to new heights of ear-shattering decibelity. Waving Tom off the dance floor, Gina said, “How about someplace quieter?”
“The outpost in space?”
“Mm, let’s go down to the beach,” Gina suggested. Tom thought there was something strategic, even tactical, in her suggestion. His senses were on full nuclear alert. Good night, most guys get over the awkwardness in high school! he scolded himself. Then he remembered that he had been home-schooled.
They started for the front door. Working their way through the crowd took some agility. Finally they made it outside, where the night air felt good. Tom watched as two cars pulled out of the Club’s parking lot with steamy windows. Aside from him and Gina no one else was around. Considering all the people who were in the club, it was unlikely that there were many left to be around.
The street seemed empty as they walked toward the wooden stairs that led down to the quiet beachfront of Lake Carlopa. Gina paused and uttered something or other about the view and the moon on the lake and related topics. Tom observed, scientifically, that visible wisps of vapor were rising from them, from all over them. They trailed personal clouds in the chilly night air.
Then Tom heard footsteps on the paved walk behind them.
Surprised, he glanced over his shoulder. An unnervingly few yards back were four large young men, scruffy in look, build, and demeanor—young toughs with, almost certainly, bad intentions. Tom had no idea where they’d come from, popping into ominous existence like—like the Unseeable Intruder had popped out! Perhaps it was his imagination, but he got the feeling the four were following him and Gina, particularly when he noticed their sneers, stares, and quickening pace. Still, the stairs were close—or would an isolated beach make for an exceptionally bad place of refuge from what looked like trouble?
A fifth man, big, swung into view in front of them, blocking the stairs.
“Not good, boss,” murmured Gina.
“I heard that,” said one of the toughs behind them. “Hey hey, Swift and company, let’s pause to enjoy the fresh air.” Tom and Gina turned away from the big man and faced the four. “Can’t blame you for bailin’ on that girlie-boy racket in the club. Not the right tone for a man and his... what shall we say?...”
One of the others prompted him with a term, a rude one. “Don’t help me, Oozy,” the leader snapped. “Tommy, let’s just say: your companion for a nice evening. Given up on Pakistanis?” Tom stood unmoving and silent. “As for music—” The young man produced a formidable switchblade. “—I’m into metal.”
The three lesser toughs chuckled. “Will you jerkweeds shut up!—? Retain focus!” snarled the man in charge irritably. “I told you, you gotta concentrate. This is professional criminality.”
“What do you want?” Tom demanded in a low, even voice.
“Er—what’d he say?” asked one of the toughs, earning him a glare of disgust from the leader.
Tom jerked a thumb over his shoulder. “But maybe I should be talking to the man in charge, not the hired help.”
The talkative tough smiled mockingly. “Go ahead. Say, Tommy—you might recognize him. He’s The Man, alright.”
The young inventor half-turned to gaze more closely at the man who stood silent in front of the beach stairs. He seemed powerful-looking, certainly large, in his heavy coat. His cap was pulled down low. His jaw was uncommonly broad. His face—
But of course he had no face.
TRAITOR TO A TRAITOR
TOM SWIFT reflected on the phenomenon, opening and closing his eyes several times as if to wipe clean the view. There was nothing immediately disturbing or unordinary about the Unseeable Man. He seemed complete, normal. When Tom looked at the patch where eyes and nose and mouth should be, he felt no particular alarm or curiosity. His keen eyes seemed to stare into a bottomless psychological void, but the lack of detail struck his emotions as perfectly familiar, even comfortable. Gosh, it’s as if I like the expression on his face! he thought in amazement. But he doesn’t have one! It was only when he shut his eyes or looked away that his mind could register—with great difficulty and reluctance—the bizarre and undeniable facts of the matter.
“Wild, idden it?” remarked the Lead Tough. “We were all pretty freaked when we met Mr. Walker No-Face. But it’s a great gimmick.”
“It could really revolutionize street crime,” observed one of the lesser lights. “Oh—sorry Chigger.”
“Don’t say my—nnngh!”
Facing the big man, Gina spoke up. “Are you No-Speak as well as No-Face, Walker?”
A chuckle floated out into air from the general direction of the absentee face, but beyond that there was no response.
“We’d like to get on with our evening,” stated Tom to whomever chose to listen.
“I can see why,” replied the guy named Chigger with a leer that focused on Gina. “Lemme see, you asked somethin’, didn’t you? Like, whatta we want?”
Tom smiled. “Just being polite.”
“And I appreciate it, guy. Then—”
Chigger broke off as a teenage couple, intermeshed, suddenly ambled into the moonlight from the shadow of a tree. They stopped, eyes wide. “Get lost!” barked Chigger. “There’s a robbery goin’ on here! Use th’ stairs on th’ other side o’ the club.”
“S-sorry—!” gulped the interlopers. They turned and trotted away.
“I was like that once...” murmured one of the toughs.
“We all got knives,” Chigger declared. “Just cause we don’t show ’em dudden mean we don’t got ’em.”
“Yes, of course,” said Gina. “You have to keep your hands free.”
“It looks to me like your evening may be cut short,” Tom observed, refusing to raise his hands.
Chigger grinned. “What, those two? On their cells right now, probably. But dude, this is Shopton. Those morons in blue don’t work after six.”
“You know who I am,” said Tom. “What you don’t know is that I’m always prepared for—confrontations. I have a quantum-link emergency signaler implanted in my... left molar. I’ve already alerted the Federal agents who keep watch on Swift Enterprises. They’ll follow my signal right to your backsides.”
“And what you don’t know is,” retorted the leader, “that I know that you can’t triangulate on a quantum link. I mean, seriously dude!—it’s in those books.”
“You mean to tell me you read the fictionalizations? Aren’t you a little old for that?”
“Old enough to know the value of before-the-event research, Swifto. This is organized crime!”
“We’re workin’ on our skill-set,” volunteered the guy called Oozy, a little sheepishly. “We all hope to be white-collar criminals some day.” Chigger sent a growl his way. Oozy muttered, “Sorry.”
Gina seemed calm, even entertained. “As for the triangulation thing, boys—Tom also has a GPS beeper in his right molar. And it’s way too late to remove his teeth. Not to give you ideas.”
The guy who was, at least, the squad commander took a few steps forward and pointed the knife at Tom’s chest. Even though his face was boyish in its grungy way, his eyes had a hard, pitiless look. “Enough of this canned comedy. You have something we want, punk,” he said coldly, “and we’re gonna take it—one way or another!”
Tom hated feeling helpless, but despite his teeth he knew he was outnumbered. “What do you want?” he asked Chigger, though his thoughts asked another question: What is Walker No-Face after? The young inventor sensed that the confrontation and robbery was more play-acted than real. What was behind it? Why was the weird Unseeable Man standing behind them, watching silently?
The young fellow glared at Tom, brandishing the weapon close to the youth’s face. “Your wallet, punk! We walk away with it, or you walk away with one eye!—Number Four, fish it outta his pants.” There was some stirring and glancing among the followers.
“Chigg—was it me or Morty who’s Number Four?” asked one of them, the stockiest of the mugger-wannabes, in a slow, rumbling voice.
“You get it!” exploded Chigger. “Whattaya I have t’ do? You slog heads! You’re all s’posed to be high school graduates!”
“C’mon, Chigg, you know I went to continuation school,” complained Oozy, adding under his breath: “Always gotta rub it in, man.”
The stocky guy stepped forward, positioned his feet carefully, and unleashed a meaty fist against the side of Tom Swift’s head. Stunned, Tom dropped to his knees as Gina cried out. Now a full-fledged mugger, the Assistant Tough searched the scientist-inventor’s pockets and pulled out a slim, streamlined wallet made of something transparent and springy to the touch. “This must be it—I think,” said the guy, both perplexed and impressed. “Cool! Is this stuff Tomasite? Or whatchacallit from, you know—the mini-moon up there?”
Downed and reeling, Tom made no reply. Gina, aghast, stood frozen holding her clutch bag close to her chin. But holding it protectively only served to attract Chigger’s attention. “I’ll take that too, little lady,” smiled Chigger, grabbing it from Gina’s white-knuckled grasp with his knife-free hand.
The four began to back away. Then Oozy nudged Chigger, whispering what was evidently a reminder. “Yeah, yeah, thanks...” responded Chigger. “Don’t tell no-one about this, you two, or—or else—” Oozy whispered something to prompt him. “Right... or else we’ll plant a bomb in your cars, two bombs, big big bombs, and blow you both to—uh—Albany! Or—well, yeah, Albany.”
The foursome suddenly turned and ran up the walkway to the street. A few seconds later Tom and Gina heard a car engine start. A squeal followed as the muggers made their getaway. Gina recognized the squeal. “I guess the big one got his finger caught in the door,” she pronounced with disgust. Her aghastment had fallen away.
Gina helped Tom stagger to his feet. They looked back toward the stairs; Walker No-Face was also gone.
But was he gone? “Boss,” Gina whispered, “over by the tree—something’s moving, like—now you see it, now you can’t! Just as you described!”
Tom looked, but could make out nothing—in any sense of the word. “I’m woozy,” he groaned softly. “But I guess Walker has expanded his technology beyond the reach of his face. Or—maybe the other one was watching too, the full-figured Unseeable Whatever from the Whirling Duck.”
“In other words, the spy at Swift Enterprises,” declared Gina grimly. Noting the expression on her companion’s face, she said, “Tom, there was nothing you could do. Nights like this happen to—er—everyone. Well, maybe not. Let’s just catch our breath a minute and then—Oh, look, a police car.”
The cop car had pulled over to the curb. An officer called out, “Hey, any problem here? We got a cell call from a couple—”
“We’re okay, officer,” Tom replied with a wince. “Just dancing.”
“With a switchblade,” Gina finished.
Soon Gina and Tom were giving their report to officers Dale and Eckert, whom Tom had met before. “Pretty fair descriptions of the suspects,” Dale said after they were done. “Most people who’ve been mugged can hardly r’member a thing afterward—talk about yer Walker No-Face! You said the leader of this bunch was called Chigger?”
Gina nodded. “He was the one who looked like he was about our age, younger than the others. And please do refrain from pointing out that I’m obviously older than Young Inventor here.”
“Oh, age is just a number. I hope I look as good as you do when I get up around your age. But trust me, ma’am,” Officer Dale said. “He’s a lot older than that, Chigger is.”
“You know who it is, Ron?” Eckert asked.
“C’mon, how many guys run around with the name Chigger? That’s some kind o’ lice or somethin’, right? It’s gotta be Smegma Grimes. He just got outta prison last month. I figured he’d turn up back in Shopton sooner or later. Grimes used to hang out in the old Gaslight District, and he still has some pals around there—at least three, as you saw. We’ll start looking for him, but he has a way of disappearing when he wants to.”
“He’s not the only one,” noted Tom dryly.
Dale chuckled. “Yeah, dude, you’re so right.”
“You kids best go on home now,” Eckert suggested. “Er—just being humorous, not patronizing.”
Tom was still angry, and humiliated, and angry at being humiliated, as he walked Gina back to her car. “Those guys could never have done that to us if we’d been wearing the portable shield generator, the personal force field,” he said, slamming her car door shut. “Don’t you see? It’s the perfect anticrime device!”
“I’m sure you’re right,” Gina said, and now it was she who spoke dryly, “but right now let’s just get away from here and go home and—take a bath.”
“Separately. In our own homes, of course.”
“I’ll follow you. Uh, anyway.”
Tom lingered for a few unexciting minutes on Gina’s doorstep, scanning her house with a radar-like device that could register motion—especially of the human sort. “Not that we know whether—”
Gina concluded the thought. “Whether it would work on the Unseeable Man. Or woman. Or—thing. But at any rate...” She surprised and relieved Tom by extending a hand. Tom shook, noting that Gina had a strong grip for a young lady. “There, you see? Nothing scandalous. Just a relaxing night out. And so good night... Mr. Swift.”
“Good night, Miss Emiliotti.”
The Swift home was on the opposite side of Shopton, and Tom drove the streets slowly, mulling over the events of the evening. Whether trying to build a rep or not, no band of crooks with any IQ at all would take on the celebrated young inventor just for some credit cards and a handful of cash. What was the real purpose? To find and steal something else? Did the local underworld know already about the portable shield device he was developing and think Tom might have had it on his person? “But we’re not dealing with the local underworld,” he reminded himself. “We’re dealing with the big boys, probably the same group that has targeted the President!” If they knew about Tom’s planned invention, barely tested, still unperfected—could anything be kept from them?
The protective gate at the front of the Swift driveway had just clanked shut when Tom was startled by a beeping sound. “Hunh! The PER!” he murmured. He had decided not to awaken Harlan Ames; Tom was willing to wait until morning to exhibit his chagrin. Who could be trying to reach him in the middle of the night?
He glanced at the readout panel on the front of the Private Ear Radio, noting that the icon marked Hank Sterling was illuminated. The cartridge quantum-matching the one in Hank’s personal unit had been activated. Hank’s still off on vacation, he thought in alarm. Gosh, this must be a real emergency!
Tom pulled the bulky parallelophone unit from its cradle and answered the call. No response! “Is anyone there?” he asked. “Hank?”
Then at last the silence was broken. “Yes, it is surely you,” said an accented voice smooth as snakeskin. “Tom Swift. It has been too long.”
Tom’s reply was flat and chill. “Not long enough, Comrade-General. As far as I’m concerned.”
“In my venerable culture, that of China, we value courtesy to those who are older,” reproved Li Ching, the Black Cobra, mildly.
“You’re a traitor to your venerable country,” Tom declared. “I wouldn’t call that courtesy.”
“Perhaps you have a point, of sorts.”
“What do you want, Li?”
The reply was mocking. “Is it not enough to assure you that I am alive and well?”
“Get to the rant, please. I’ve had a lousy night.”
“I should suffer dismissal because you had a bad night? I hope you don’t think I had anything to do with those four hoodlums, Tom.”
The weary, aching youth was well beyond being startled by Li Ching’s instant knowledge of current Swiftian events. “If you don’t care to get to the bottom line, sir, how about some boasting? For example—how in the name of quantum physics are you able to call me on my PER unit? One cartridge can only link to its sole, unique counterpart. No way to break in on the link.”
The Black Cobra did something beyond the powers of most snakes—he chuckled. “Your poor extraordinary brain must be weary indeed if the obvious method fails to occur to you. I have arranged for Hank Sterling’s unit, with its cartridge, to be removed from his possession and delivered into my well-manicured hands. Was that a gasp of dismay, Tom? Please don’t worry yourself. No harm has come to your friend, nor to his family. I doubt very much that Mr. Sterling has yet noticed that the unit in his luggage is a mere simulacrum, a dummy.”
“All right, Comrade-General. I’m listening.”
“But of course you are,” said the man suavely. “Then shall we proceed?
“Perverse as it will surely seem to you, I am calling to ask a service of you. A favor! An odd turn of events, mm?—given our long and intimate history, in particular my several attempts to end your brief life. How fortunate that I did not, thus far, succeed. For now here I am, asking, in the nicest and humblest way, for your help. Yes!—The temerity!—the audacity.”
“Great space!” the youth snarled, “you must be kidding!”
“Do cobras kid? I think not. No, I am gravely serious—and gravely is surely the word. You see, something has happened that I will not tolerate. It ‘sticks in my craw,’ as your cowboy friend might put it. Though some may consider me—me!—a traitor to my country due to my manner of making assertive claim to my hereditary rights, in fact I do not respect traitors. Treason is a vile matter,” hissed Li Ching, “an insult to the principles of courtesy that bind our race together. What would mankind be without trust?
“But I have been betrayed, Tom. A traitor walks the earth. He has fled the Khanate with something, something vital that belongs to me—an ingenious contrivance, a device of the highest sort of technology.”
Tom was sure the Black Cobra was referring to the device that made Walker No-Face all that he wasn’t! “I take it you want me to find the thing,” Tom said. “You want it back.”
There was a silence that seemed to reflect an evil smile. “Oh no, Tom, you underestimate me. This is no petty matter of mere property. We must rise above material things! I am asking you to balance the scales of morality, to honor Honor itself. My simple request is that you track down the traitor and kill him!”
BUD BURNS ONE IN
THE SILENCE that followed was long, hard, and cold. Tom waited until he could speak in level tones. “Comrade-General,” he said quietly, “what’s your purpose with me tonight? No one has ever denied that you’re a smart man. You’re shrewd and calculating. You obviously know that the likelihood of my accepting your, your request—is zero. Less than zero!”
“Ah now, young Tom, let us not banter probabilities when there are actualities to consider,” was Li Ching’s jovial response. “Do you really suppose I would request such a favor without—”
“Without a threat!”
“But of course.” Yet it seemed the threat was to come lazily, in its own time. “I will require proof of your completion of the task, naturally. That’s hardly too much to ask, is it? I must know beyond doubt that the traitor is dead. But as long as the proof is definite and unquestionable, I am flexible as to its form. You are also a smart man, Tom—to return the compliment—and will certainly be able to come up with the sort of proof I will need. I don’t intend to offend your sensibilities beyond necessity. You need not send me his head. Some fingers, one nose... there are many bodily parts he will have no use for in whatever ‘next world’ you will send him to. DNA is rather a good convincer; I’m sure you agree. I maintain complete biometric records on all my employees, as such data is sometimes helpful in identifying misplaced... flesh.
“But whatever you provide me must be such as could not have been faked, even by your celebrated inventiveness. No doctorable photos, no mere fingerprints, no DNA samples from loose bits of dandruff. To convince me—I fear that must be regarded as the most important aspect of the favor you will perform.”
“Get to the bottom line, please!” snapped the young inventor.
“Mm? The bottom line? Oddly enough, there is a very similar expression in Mandarin Chinese.” The Black Cobra seemed to enjoy toying with his prey. “Mightn’t you like to know the name of your target? The man is named Rogg Krozze, a native of Latvia. Does he use an alias in America?—there would be no need, as he does not interact with the authorities or the general public. He has not applied for a Drivers License or credit cards. Or life insurance.”
“He may not have an alias,” Tom retorted, “but he does have a nice nickname—Walker No-Face!”
Li Ching laughed. “Figured it all out, have you? Yes, the traitor Krozze decided to flee with what one might call one of the Khanate’s key weapons of defense. Have you given it a name in English, Tom? Surely your friend Bud has done so by now. What we choose to call it, in the language of the Khanate, is not easily translatable.”
“I don’t care what you call it,” the youth said. “I know you and your trained monkeys didn’t come up with it.”
“It’s too far beyond Earthly technology. This is some elaboration of extraterrestrial science! You’ve been hinting all along that you too are in touch with—well, I won’t call them Space Friends!”
Tom could envision the Cobra snapping off one of his brisk nods. “You call them ‘the Others,’ don’t you? Competitors—adversaries—of your Planet X contactees.”
Some time before, Tom had been contacted by the superiors of the friendly aliens to recover an object, a “memory crypt,” of tremendous value and equal menace. Buried for aeons beneath the floor of the Pacific, Tom had sought the crypt in his subocean geotron, trailed by Li Ching acting in the interests of a rival group of extraterrestrial intelligences. “Of course the oceanic project required a good-faith advance payment to procure our services,” the Cobra continued, “lest the Helmsman, I myself, be thought a fool. You may be certain that the Khanate possesses a number of secrets unknown to even the miracle-makers of Shopton.”
“Getting rid of this Krozze won’t prevent us ‘miracle-makers’ from examining his device,” insisted Tom wearily. “We’ll learn to extend its use for our own defensive purposes—for our country’s.”
“And of course develop some sort of counter-weapon, eh? Well, well, I already accept that the mechanism, as embodied in the crude prototypal form stolen by Krozze, must be ultimately discarded as outmoded, useless. Too bad. It would have conferred a great advantage. But now, young Tom, consider it a gift from me to you—an incentive, a reward for a job well done.”
“I won’t murder a man for any reward, Li!” grated the young inventor.
“Mm-hmm. But wait, there’s more!—more to the incentive plan than I have yet disclosed. Ah yes, Tom—the threat!
“A simple one, direct. If I have not received my proof of Krozze’s demise by, let us say 5 PM—is that not the close of business hours in America?—on Friday of the week following this one... something dire will occur. At 6 PM Shopton time on that day, and on each day following, ten people will die. Ten lives will end because of your refusal to cooperate, Tom, your sentimental reluctance to apply your genius to a practical, if idiosyncratic, end. Who? Where? How?—you will know when it happens, when it is too late to be forestalled. It will have my signature, so to speak.”
“One of your calling cards, I suppose,” Tom said in bitter disgust.
“Just be well assured that you will know very well whose handiwork it is. There will be no doubt. And I insist, with the typical inscrutable logic of a megalomaniac, that culpability will rest upon your youthful shoulders. A burden to bear for whatever might remain of your life.”
Tom drew in a shaky breath. “I understand what you’re saying, Comrade-General. And I understand that you use your insanity to make sure the world doesn’t take lightly your psychotic threats.”
“Mm, you honor me, young sir.”
“I’m not making any deals with you.”
“Why of course, Tom! I’d think the less of you if you did. We won’t call it a ‘deal’. Here we have a natural phenomenon presenting palpable danger—you deal with such things, mm? You will act, scientifically, to neutralize the danger. And I swear to you, upon my honor as Helmsman of the Great Khanate, that Rogg Krozze is not only a traitor but a murderer, a particularly vicious one.”
“On your instructions, Li?”
“You needn’t waste time with impudence. Not that your surmise is incorrect.”
The young inventor sighed deeply, lengthily. Why was he born into this family? Was it too late to become the sort of person series fiction is never written about? “What am I supposed to do, Li? How am I supposed to find this man Krozze? I have no idea where ‘Walker No-Face’ is hiding himself! What can you tell me?”
“Little or nothing that you do not already know,” was the Black Cobra’s chill reply. “He clearly resides somewhere within reach of your quaint little town of Shopton. Judging from the reports of the robberies, he has assembled a squadron of acolytes. If they include persons with a technical background, he may have progressively improved the function of the device.”
“He may be field-testing it,” Tom speculated, as if suddenly, bizarrely, having a calm discussion with a fellow scientist.
“No doubt. And that, young Tom, brings us to the end of our pleasant colloquy. Keep your friends close, and your quantum telephone closer; how fortunate it produces no signal upon which to triangulate. But I am at your service, sir; please don’t hesitate to call. And do not allow the deadline to slip your prodigal mind. With that—good night.”
Tom didn’t replace the PER in its cradle, but took it in with him and set it beside his bed, where he failed to sleep.
The next morning brought an early phone call. Harlan Ames joined the Swifts for breakfast and Tom’s latest tale of strange happenings. “Nice detail,” he said through his eggs. “You’ve given Radnor and me a lot to chew on.”
Tom’s mother, pale, had little to say. “It’s horrible.”
“Yes,” agreed Damon Swift. “Horrible. Sadistic. Insane. And that’s the sort of person Li Ching is.”
“Hardly my idea of a person, Daddy,” put in Sandy with arch disgust. “But look—did everybody catch the interesting little clue in what Mr. Slither said to Tom? One little detail about ‘hoodlums’?”
“That’s right, San,” Tom nodded. “He said ‘four hoodlums’—four, not five. He doesn’t realize Walker No-Face—Rogg Krozze—is connected to that bunch and was present during the mugging.”
“His acolytes,” pronounced Ames.
“But surely not any sort of technical or scientific backup,” Tom’s father noted thoughtfully. “Not those boys. Why would Krozze risk capture by working with rank amateurs?”
Sandy half-giggled. “Rank is right!—but don’t count them out as techies, folks. Remember the social impairment of cyber geekdom!”
“I don’t find it funny, darling,” said Mrs. Swift softly.
“I’m sorry, Mother. You’re right.”
There was a short silence, filled only with the crunch of toast. “I’ll call Len Kelso on the quan-TV as soon as I get to work,” Ames stated. “He’s asked that all reports and requests go through him in the White House. It’s a disturbing protocol, but Len and his Secret Service personnel—and the President himself—are very concerned about the North Korea thing getting spread too widely, even among people who are supposed to be adept at Top-Secret matters. Even sworn agents of the United States government.”
“Too much is at stake,” Tom acknowledged. “I’ve already talked to Captain Rock about the holdup business and the possibility that Walker NF was involved—I don’t know if it’s exactly true that I recognized him!—but I didn’t mention that I’ve been contacted by the Black Cobra. As to WNF’s identity—”
“Why don’t you let Harlan handle it, Tom,” advised Damon Swift. “He can let Rock know that our ‘confidential sources’—he’ll assume the Collections group—think it’s a Latvian national named Rogg Krozze. We’ll see what the SPD can come up with.”
“Find this Chigger creep,” declared Sandy pertly, “and you find everything. Including Gina Emiliotti’s handbag!”
“Probably.” The young inventor nodded, but with no enthusiasm. “And then the real problem begins. Preventing ten deaths a day and the assassination of the President and the lawless murder of Li Ching’s craw-sticker—and, by the way, nuclear war in Asia.”
“Well,” smiled Mr. Swift, “time to go to work!”
At Enterprises an hour later, Tom crossed paths with Bud between the executive parking lot and the administration building. The San Franciscan was amazed at all that had happened over the preceding 24 hours! “All I did was get my poor car tuned-up and work-out at the gym! Jetz, chum, I should never leave your side!”
“All this and the Black Cobra too,” Tom said with a wry shrug. “Flyboy, I have to put the other junk on my mental back burner for the rest of the day. Protecting the President and making sure the dake transfer happens has to be the big priority right now. As I zoned out in bed last night, I came up with some ideas to make the resilientronic shield portable and wearable—”
“And Presidential,” Bud urged jokingly. “There’s a dress code for these ceremonies, I hear.”
The two friends elevatored up and headed for the laboratory-workshop adjoining the administrative office. Passing the reception area, Tom advised Munford Trent to regard him as off the grounds, location unknown; he didn’t want any interruptions that day. But to Tom, Bud was not an interruption but an inspiration. His pal’s quips and naive questions seemed always to force Tom’s thoughts in fresh directions.
Later in the day Arvid Hanson, newly returned from his Alaska trip, brought by a test model of the portable force field projector, based upon drawings and diagrams Tom had sent him only hours before. Tom was bouncing a tennis ball against one of the lab walls when the big-boned modelmaker entered. “I see you boys are hard at work,” Hanson joked.
“Just testing a little momentum,” chuckled Tom.
“You know, Arv,” Bud added, “that kinetic stuff. With a smidge of quantum thrown in.”
“I’m sure I’ll be hearing all about it. Knock yourselves out, fun seekers,” Hanson replied with a grin as he left the lab.
Tom carefully examined the small, squarish unit that Arv had made. It was designed to snap into place on a simple chest harness of crisscross straps that Tom had fabricated with Bud’s help. “It’ll have to be miniaturized a lot more,” said the young inventor. “I’ll adapt the same kind of flexible circuitry we use for the hydrolung diversuits.”
“So that little thing makes a protective bubble around you?”
“Yes. But I’m trying something new with this model. If it works as it should, the resilientronic shield will follow the general contours of the wearer’s body pretty closely, even when you bend over or extend your arms. The user will be able to extend or contract the zone of quantum-kinetic reversal; the default setting will have a spread of about a foot from the wearer’s skin.”
“Ah, but will it still crunch evil cakes?”
“I’ve made the buffer-delayer electronically isolated, with multiple redundancy and its own self-monitoring control setup. The circuit leakage that caused the ‘cake problem’ I told you about is sidestepped.” Tom noted that the unit now had a reserve solar battery that would take over to power-down the field gradually in case the main battery failed.
“That should handle it, genius boy. Anything to keep Russia on our good side.”
Bud watched, fascinated, as his chum gave the field-projector a thorough testing with his lab instruments. “And now, hotshot, how about a game of catch?” he asked Bud presently.
“Sure,” Bud replied. “And I know ‘game of catch’ won’t be just a game of catch. It must have some kind of Greek-letter significance in Swiftonian language.”
Smiling, Tom slipped on the harness and activated the micro-tech unit. “Okay, Bud, stand over there by the leptoscope and toss me the tennis ball.”
“Want a baby toss, professor?”
“Slow and gentle. And you know what? No matter how easy you make it and how hard I try, I’m betting I won’t be able to snag it!”
The inventorly youth was right. As Bud slowly upped the force and speed, toss after toss led only to the bright green ball coming to a dead stop a few inches from Tom’s outstretched paw. As if ramming into a resisting cushion, the ball came to a quick halt in the air. It hung inert for a split second—Bud termed it the flypaper effect—then slid lifelessly down to the floor and rolled away, all energy spent.
“Your field sucks the life right out of it!” Bud exclaimed gleefully.
“The momentum, pal,” Tom corrected him happily. “The flipped-over masses at the fore-edge of the ball enter the reversal zone first and end up pushing back against the trailing parts—until all relative motion is cancelled out.”
“Not much motion so far, Tom,” Bud pointed out.
“It should work with any degree of motion,” stated Tom. “However much momentum, the field just turns it back against itself—sort’ve spacetime judo!”
“Okay then, brace yourself. Let’s see the shield hold against a little more Barclay kinetic energy.”
Bud was an athlete. Though at the trim, lightweight end of the spectrum, he had won something of a name for himself in high school football. But baseball hadn’t been neglected. He knew how to burn ’em in.
The pitch he loosed was perhaps more forceful than he’d intended. There was just a glimpse of a greenish streak whizzing across the lab toward Tom—and then came a fiery flash and a burst of intense heat!
“Bud!” Tom cried, wincing from the explosive flare and tottering backwards against the wall.
Bud’s hair and clothing were dotted with flame!
The black-haired youth gasped in pain and staggered backward, holding his big hands over his eyes and face. Smoke wisped about the back of his wrists! “S-Skipper—!” he choked.
“I’m here, pal!” Tom exclaimed reassuringly. In a single frantic motion he deactivated the shield and hurled himself toward one of the walls of the lab, where he snatched a fire extinguisher from its clasp-cradle. In a moment he was spraying his friend with a cooling foam, a special extinguisher foam laced with Tomasite and Asbestalon.
As Tom cut the spray, Bud leaned back against a lab table, scooping the clingy foam away from his face. “Wow!” he coughed. “That was supposed to be a fastball, not a fireball!”
“Sure. I... I guess. Just a little singed.” Bud ran his fingers over his forearms. “Okay, all 433 hairs present and accounted for. Say, why’d you use the foam-sprayer on me? Don’t I rate one of those repela-extinguisher gadgets?”
Relaxing, Tom chuckled. “Well, I figured you might not care to have the air punched right out of your mighty lungs. That’s how the repelexers work, remember?”
“Yeah.” Bud glanced around the lab, squinting and woozy. Though he could see no live flames, the air was heavy with pungent smoke. “Jetz, these labs of yours can be hazardous to my health! What happened to the tennis ball?”
“Foul ball,” replied Tom wryly. “Look.” He pointed toward the floor next to where he had been standing during the test. A smoldering blob lay on the tiles like a fried egg.
“You mean—that’s the ball? What’d your machine do to it?”
“Got a little harsh in applying the laws of physics,” answered the young inventor. “Remember, the shield doesn’t nullify motion instantly, all at once. However rapid it seems from our slowpoke point of view, it takes a little while as rank after rank of particles penetrate into the field perimeter and get momentum-flipped. The ball ran into itself, so to speak.”
“Right—judo. But why—”
“Heat is motion, chum. All that Barclay kinetic energy couldn’t just vanish; the retained momentum caused the ball to get compressed, along the path of motion, so quickly the energy became explosively disordered in the form of heat. Incidentally, most of what hit you was conducted through the air or by the spatter of pieces of the ball. There was little radiative heat. And if you were worried about my fate, flyboy, the shield worked fine in protecting me from anything spraying my way.”
“Actually, Tom, for a fleeting moment I wasn’t thinking about you at all!” Suddenly Tom saw a flicker cross his friend’s gray eyes. Bud glanced toward the further wall of the lab, then half turned away from Tom. “Mm, c’mere for a sec—look at this.”
Tom approached. Bud held his hands close to his waist, so that only Tom could see their movements. He was speaking in ASL—American Sign Language.
“We are not alone—think I see it next to lab door.”
Tom gulped but censored his reactions. He turned as if surveying damage to the room, glancing back toward the door. It seemed that Arv Hanson hadn’t pulled it completely closed when he had left; now it stood half-open. And next to it—!
The youth again thought of the sheer strangeness of the unseeability effect—unseeability that definitely was not “invisibility.” Near the door, at the edge of the big chassis of the leptoscope matter-scanner, was a rounded patch of space that presented paradox to his eyes. He felt sure he was looking at some something standing there. Yet at the same time he felt equally confident that he was seeing straight through to the leptoscope setup and the wall next to it. He could almost feel his brain grappling with the problem, in a whirl, trying to resolve the conflicting ideas. Tom’s eyes and brain could make nothing of the fantastic figure!
With sudden resolve, without warning, Tom strode rapidly across the lab to yank the door shut, pressing a fingertip against a small rectangular plate on the wall next to it. “There!” he said sharply, turning toward the Unseeable, which had moved a few feet further away. “I don’t know if you can hear me or understand me—or if you’re even a you!—but you’re not getting out through that door.” He took a cautious step closer, and the Unseeable edged away in response, closer to the whiteboard that filled most of the wall. “It’s a person, Bud,” Tom pronounced. “I’m sure of it. I can make out... sort’ve... something like the outline of legs when he moves.” And for the first time Tom noticed something else—the intruder cast a shadow! Sure! he thought. Light doesn’t really pass through it—the idea that I’m seeing the wall beyond is an obsessive delusion induced in my own mind! It seemed the delusive effect wasn’t strong enough to compel him to mentally delete a moving shadow.
The being now stood entirely in front of the whiteboard, which Tom had covered with equations and notes in grease-marker pencil. And suddenly Tom realized something eerie and perplexing. Most of the writing and symbols on the board could be easily made out and understood. But where the Unseeable seemed to be standing, the markings seen through that part of space were unintelligible. Astonished, intrigued, the scientist-inventor spoke half to himself: “Good night!—I get how it works. My brain is filling-in the optical image with a pseudo-image that simulates the missing piece based on the parts of the board around it—its ‘best guess’. Writing—but it’s not real writing, just something that looks like writing but has no meaning.” He recalled dreams he had had now and then, seeming to himself to be reading down a page in a book, with “words” that were perfectly clear and even in what seemed to be English, but were indecipherable.
“That’s how it works, isn’t it,” Tom said to the Blob of Paradox. “Your mechanism somehow compels the brain to overwrite a section of the visual field, the section you’re standing in, with some selfmade image plausible enough to repress any special attention, something the brain can accept as ‘normal.’ It’s like overwriting part of a computer file.”
“I don’t think he’s in a conversational mood, Tom,” Bud said in a voice filtered through awe. “Between us... we can corner...”
Tom waved Bud off and addressed the Unseeable again. “Look, I don’t know that you mean any harm. I don’t think you’re the one committing those robberies in Shopton—you’re too short to be Walker No-Face. What you did up in the jetrocopter... you probably didn’t realize the effect of prodding my invention. So... if you could just tell me what—”
Tom stopped—the Unseeable was in motion! A new portion of the whiteboard became incomprehensible for a moment, and there was the slight sound of a grease-pencil at work. Then the figure seemed to stand aside, and words, real words this time, appeared before the eyes of Tom and Bud.
I AM PALLIDA MORS
Bud exclaimed and Tom sucked in his breath. His mother’s guess had been right! “All right—ma’am—it wasn’t so long ago that we spoke on the phone. What are you after? What have you been hired to do? Are you working with the man we call Walker No-Face—who we think is named Rogg Krozze?” The putative woman, a dangerous and deadly one, stood unmoving and made no answer. Tom sensed somehow that she was poised to dodge any attempt to capture her. “Look, cooperation is your best bet right now. I’ve sealed the lab door electronically and I left the beeper-key in my office—the only way to get out of here is by my touching the DNA-reader pad. I’m not doing that until you’ve explained yourself.” After a thought he felt impelled to add: “You don’t realize how much is at stake right now—Pallida. Bud and I will do what we have to do to find out why you’re doing this. Believe it!”
“She’s thinking it over. I can tell by the expression in her eyes,” Bud remarked sarcastically.
The self-proclaimed Pallida Mors backed further away from Tom, and in a moment new writing appeared on the board.
OH TOM CAN’T WE BE FRIENDS? I LIKE YOU AND YOU WOULD LIKE ME IF YOU GOT TO KNOW ME. EVEN A SWIFT YOUNG GENIUS CAN USE SOME HELP NOW AND THEN.
“I don’t really want to get to know you that well,” pronounced Tom dryly—and coldly. “If you’re who you say you are, you’re a murderer and a spy and—you put my friend Bashalli in a horrific situation. I can make better friends.”
BUT DO THEY KNOW HOW TO STOP THE KILLING OF YOUR PRESIDENT?
This purchased a gasp from the boys. Then it was true!—there was some connection between the several users of the unseeability device and the dake-transfer plot against the President of the United States! But that must mean the Black Cobra is involved in it, Tom thought. Was Li Ching the outside party the Secret Service had intercepted? Or was the plot something Krozze was pulling off on his own—perhaps the reason he had left Li Ching’s mad employ?
“What’s the punchline?” Tom demanded of Pallida Mors. “How do you propose to help me?”
I KNOW WHERE KROZZE AND GANG HIDE THEMSELVES. I WILL TELL YOU BUT YOU WILL NEED TO GO THERE YOURSELF EXACTLY WHEN I TELL YOU TO AND USE YOUR FORCE SHIELD MACHINE FOR PROTECTION.
“If you’re prepared to turn him over, why not give the info to the police or the FBI?” asked the youth suspiciously.
SILLY BOY. NOT IN MY BEST INTERESTS TO HAVE AN ARMY PRESENT. I WILL HAVE MY OWN MISSION THERE DURING OUR NICE PARTY. BUT WHAT I DO WILL NOT HURT YOU OR THE PRESIDENT. INTERESTED NOW?
“How can I not be?” Tom said acidly. “But are you really going to just take my word for it?” This brought about a flurry of erasing and writing.
OH NO NEED TO GIVE YOUR WORD. I KNEW WALKING IN HERE THAT YOU WOULD HAVE TO ACCEPT MY OFFER. LIVES AND GOVERNMENTS ARE AT STAKE, SO THEY SAY. YOU WON’T RISK FOULING THE DEAL. DON’T WANT AN HYSTERICAL WOMAN ON YOUR TAIL. WE CAN BE SUCH PESTS. YOU’LL BE A GOOD BOY, TOM. I KNOW YOU WILL.
Bud had been on the move during the fantastic confrontation, trying to edge into a better position to launch himself from. “Tom!” he called out suddenly. “She’s going for—” What little could be made out of the eye-defying silhouette had left the whiteboard wall and was hurrying toward the door.
The young inventor regarded the situation calmly. “You’ll get out when I’m ready, Pallida,” he declared. “The door can’t be unlocked without my okay, and we have some more conversation to make.”
The paradoxical form seemed to have stopped in front of the door. It stood there unmoving for a moment. Then came a familiar sound. Click!
“What’s she up to?” Tom muttered impatiently. The lab door remained solidly shut...
Except it wasn’t! In the blink of an eye the unreal closed door was replaced by the real one—open!
“We can catch her!” Bud cried, at last launching himself toward the door, Tom at his heels.
The two burst into the hallway, turning toward the nearly inaudible padding of running feet on the carpet to their right. They hurled themselves in pursuit! Then came the sound of a crash further along the hallway, and a file tray came whirling into sight from Munford Trent’s desk in the office reception area. The secretary whuffed in surprise.
Tom and Bud approached the intersection of a side hallway—and drew back at the sound of a shriek! Rounding the corner, Tom exclaimed, “Gina!” Eyes wide, hair disheveled, the microtechnics engineer was half-sprawled on the floor!
“Tom, I—I—” she gasped. “S-something pushed me over—oww!” Then understanding hit her. “It was him, wasn’t it?—! The—the Thing!”
Tom helped her to her feet as Bud said, “Except it’s not a Him, it’s a Her! It’s Shopton’s fair femme fatale, Pallida Mors!”
“You mean—the one you warned us about? When you were testing your oscillotron?”
“That’s right, Gina,” replied the young inventor grim-faced. “The one who murdered the tree-sitter who had targeted me and Bud as we drove along. She’s lethal—and smart.”
“Genius boy, I know why we couldn’t see her opening the lab door,” Bud said. “She was standing in front of it—”
“Forcing our brains to overwrite the realtime visuals with the imagined ‘default’.”
Gina looked at Tom questioningly as Bud nodded. He went on, “Right, but how could she have got it open to get out? You sealed it electronically, by the DNA lock-pad!”
Tom sighed, frustrated. “I sure did. Which means she unlocked it electronically—she must have her own beeper-key. She would have been able to get into the lab even if Arv hadn’t left the door ajar.”
“But Tom...” began Gina. “Only the top personnel—the plant executives, department team leaders, the high-confidence workers—are issued beeper-keys. Isn’t that right?”
“Sure it is,” said the youth. “The trusted long-timers. But we already know Pallida has pretty extensive access to the Enterprises grounds—she must have a patrolscope amulet or something similar, since she doesn’t set off the security radar.”
“Maybe she was able to scan one of ’em when she impersonated that consultant the other time,” Bud suggested. “She could have made a duplicate.”
Tom shrugged. “That’s not supposed to be possible. But Pallida Mors seems to be able to pull off a lot of ‘impossibles’.”
Gina moved closer to Tom and spoke quietly. “Tom—boss—there’s another possibility, a pretty lousy one. I don’t want to acknowledge it either, but let’s face it—the easiest explanation is that ‘Pallida Mors’ is the cover name for someone who already works here as part of the regular work force.”
Tom nodded raggedly. “And not just an employee, guys. With that beeper she must be one of the higher-ups, someone we trust—someone we work with every day!”
“You know, pal... we may know a lot less than we think we do,” Bud pointed out. “Do we even know, really, that she’s a woman? ‘She’ didn’t speak aloud, this time or on the Whirling Duck, and we’ve never seen Pallida out of disguise or, you know—seeable. Nobody has! Some slightly-built guys can pull off a female impersonation so well it’s scary!”
“That’s true, Bud,” agreed Gina. “Even the voice.”
“Well, don’t look at me,” Munford Trent huffed, retrieving his tray and scattered papers from the floor. “I may be built along the lines of a string, but I don’t do drag—not even for Halloween.”
Tom grinned. “You’re not a suspect, Trent. You were sitting at your desk when Gina was run into.”
Bud suddenly said, “Skipper, wait a sec—look. Gina, move your foot a little...”
He pointed. Tom crouched down and plucked a small slip of paper from the carpet. He read the neat lettering on it. “It’s an address. Pallida must have intended to leave this in the lab for me.” He looked up excitedly. “This is it!—the information she planned to give me, the hideout where we can find the purse-snatchers, Chigger Grimes and his thugs. And Rogg Krozze—Walker No-Face!”
GINA EMILIOTTI stared at her young employer, then broke into a smile. “Oh, Tom, it’s just a silly purse. You don’t need to hunt it down.”
Tom forced a half-smile of his own, but his mood was grim. “Not that I’m not a chivalrous kind of guy,” he responded, “but a lot more is at stake than getting your purse back. I’m sorry, but I can’t give you the details. I have to go myself, by myself, and... apprehend... Walker No-Face. Chigger’s ‘posse’ is just a bonus.”
“All by yourself? I don’t understand,” declared Gina. The she stopped herself with a sigh. “But I suppose I don’t need to. Secrets are always percolating around here—Tom Swift Enterprises is basically an intrigue manufacturing plant.”
“And crisis center,” Bud gibed.
“Whether that’s a good thing, I don’t know.”
“Well, it keeps the books selling,” Bud noted lamely.
Gina paused before leaving. She fixed Tom in a cool and curious gaze. “Tell me, Tom. If I were your sister, or... Bashalli Prandit... would you share the details then?”
Frowning, in no mood to reply, Tom turned away. “Talk to you later, Gina. You took a fall—you might have Doc Simpson look you over.”
“Sure, boss,” she said. “Now and then I like being looked over.”
As the elevator door slid closed Bud started to make a Budlike joke, but Tom clamped a hand on his shoulder. “Flyboy, the only thing that counts now is preventing multiple murders. I’ll force myself to keep working on the shield for now, but only because it might prove necessary.”
“And not just to protect the Prez,” Bud said into his chum’s ear in a low voice. “Like it or not, Sir Galahad Swift is gonna go charging into a nest of snakes—that’s a mighty safe bet. And the shield is the best suit of armor around!”
Bud followed his friend back into the lab. Tom shut the door and showed Bud the piece of paper—a small stiff card, like a business card.
2762 N. Lompas.
warehouse in back.
connecting door from empty suite F
will be unlocked.
ARRIVE precisely midnight
NOT EARLY, NOT LATE
you alone or no deal
Bud snorted. “Printed out! Maybe she had a hundred run off to get the big-order discount.”
“She didn’t want to give us a sample of her handwriting,” Tom pronounced. “Notice how she wrote in all-caps on the wallboard?”
“Sure,” Bud nodded. “Pal, that’s the Tuesday of next week. Does that give—”
“It’ll have to,” stated the young inventor with his usual determination. “I’ll have the portable unit tested out by then—and not making things incinerate. And then the resilientronic shield and I will—” He suddenly broke off. Bud could see perplexity and desperation in his chum’s blue eyes.
“You’ll work it out, Tom,” Bud said, resting his big hand on Tom’s forearm. “You always do. Know how I know that? Because I always see you doing it.”
“Work it out? Without murdering Rogg Krozze to satisfy Li Ching’s demented ego?” The youth rubbed a hand through his spiked crewcut. “But if I don’t, others will die—maybe even the President. So just how do I work it out?” His voice turned bitter. “Any ideas, Bud?”
“Your big brain is smarter than me, genius boy,” was Bud’s reply.
“Sometimes my big brain is smarter than me,” retorted the owner of the famed Swift brain.
Tom informed onsite security of the intruder, unseeable and likely uncatchable. Later, after Bud had left and the young inventor had checked through his lab, he went to discuss the new developments with Harlan Ames and Phil Radnor, out of the office during the earlier drama. “So she claims she’s Pallida Mors. Unconfirmed. But we have to take seriously what Gina said, the likelihood of a turncoat among us,” Ames advised him. “When Pallida Mors impersonated that consultant woman, we checked all the digicam records we could find. No one tricked up like the consultant entered through any of the gates.”
“Nor anyone other than the usual work force,” added Radnor. “My gosh, we keep beefing up our security technology... Now we even have your analytracers at all the access points—we’re supposed to be able to sniff out trouble when it comes round the bend.”
“She appeared—as the fake ‘Charston Medleigh’—stepping out of a blindspot in the system,” Tom reiterated. “Two cameras failed at the same time.”
“Mm-hmm. ‘Natural causes,’ your guys said,” Harlan pointed out. “Happens now and then.”
“Sure it does,” replied Tom. “But around here the ‘natural’ sometimes isn’t! Remember, in those robberies in town the security systems suddenly failed in the same way, and our techs haven’t been able to give the police a lead on the cause.”
Ames nodded. “True. And it makes sense, doesn’t it? Krozze has the stolen visual-blanking system; so does Pallida. So maybe Krozze has other stolen samples of Li’s technology as well, like some kind of alarm-sensor ‘fritzer’. And it seems Pallida has that one too.”
“And evidently has had it for some time, at least as far as the security-device killer,” noted Phil. “Maybe she’s been working for the Black Cobra all along, even during the Ugarta business! Two clients at once!—not a bad way to do business.”
Tom smiled wanly. “Makes dirty work almost profitable! But maybe she stole the techs from the B.C.—or from Krozze, since she seems to know a fair amount about him.”
“Oh? What do you mean, boss?” asked Ames, eyebrows up.
Tom kept his face as blank as Pallida Mors’s, but he groaned inwardly. No one but he and Bud knew about Pallida Mors’s “deal” and her proffered information about the Chigger gang. He was determined to keep the printed card, and the location of the gang’s hideout, a secret. “All I mean... is that she was there watching during the after-dance ‘mugging’ by the lake,” he said. “She must have had a reason to be there; she must have known about the plot in advance. She could have been following Krozze.”
“Or she could have been following you, Tom,” Radnor pointed out.
“Well, I didn’t... mm... detect her earlier. I was on the alert, guys.”
“I don’t doubt that,” Rad went on, “but if you don’t mind a factual footnote—you didn’t actually ‘detect’ her later, either. You told us Gina thought she saw her from a distance, but you weren’t sure.”
“Okay, forget what I said,” snapped the youth impatiently. “What counts is the fact that she—or at least someone using her moniker—was able to invade my lab today.”
“Purpose unknown,” said Harlan Ames quietly. The lean agent sat for a moment looking at his young co-boss. “Let’s do ifs. If I were Tom Swift, for example. If Madame Unseeable dropped by to, let’s say, pass along some key info about Rogg Krozze, I probably wouldn’t tell Ames and Radnor about it. If I were a brilliant young thinker like Tom Swift, I might think that said security men might feel a professional and legal obligation to take action—to inform the Federal authorities, at least. And such action could screw things up, hmm? Because Li Ching seems to be insistent that Tom Swift personally engineer the death of Krozze, do it all by his lonesome. A few people around Shopton might gently advise you against any lunatic attempt to handle it on your own. Those people might even... get in the way. So telling us what Pallida said might end up making you—sorry, me, if I were Tom Swift—personally responsible for ten deaths a day. Mm? At least that’s how you’d feel, Tom.
“What do you think of my reasoning?”
Tom did not reply. His face was composed and ashen. He rose from his chair. “She didn’t say a word.” He turned and left the office.
The young inventor was isolated in his dilemma, sharing it with Bud but no one else, not even his family. “I know, I understand,” Bud said. “You know you’re going to have to come up with your own answer, genius boy. Something off-the-wall, probably dangerous, probably completely insane and completely wonderful. Tell anybody and they’ll jump in with both feet.”
“Including you, Bud.”
“Absolutely. And my feet are pretty big.”
“It’s not like I have a plan.”
“You never give up on me, flyboy.”
Bud grinned. “C’mon. Swift Enterprises offers a great dental plan. Little stingy on vacations, though.”
All Tom could do was work and wait—wait for a solution to show up in his mind and demand his attention, some Swift inspiration to untie the knot. But few days remained before the twin deadlines separately decreed by Pallida Mors and Comrade-General Li Ching. Tom Swift was caught between a snake and a blank face.
He worked incessantly, compulsively, on the resilientronic shield, each day descending to the See-Hear room and reporting progress to Len Kelso. “Take it from me, our special client is very grateful, Tom. The portable force field tips the odds in our favor, obviously. You say you’re about done with it?”
“I am, sir,” Tom replied. “But I won’t pass it along until I’m satisfied that it won’t just stop bullets or bomb fragments, but do it without sloughing the danger off onto others in that room, including Nem O-ku.”
“Our adversary doesn’t seem to want Nem dead. Might be some faction in the inner circle who’d benefit by Nem’s quiet retirement. But if Nem himself falls dead in front of their agent, he’d be quick to snatch the dake away, for selling back to the North Koreans if no other reason.”
“I’m trying to make the shield as versatile as possible. As you’ve said, no one knows how the enemy—whoever it is—plans to work the assassination. The shield has to be able to handle any kind of ‘incoming’. At least... whatever has momentum.”
“You’ll get a medal for this, young man.”
Tom’s answer was blunt. “Pardon me, but I really don’t care.”
He took to sleeping at Enterprises, in the little apartment he maintained there. Chow—at last back on his feet—fed and fussed over him, Bud cheered him, Arv Hanson assisted him. In the absence of Hank Sterling, Gina Emiliotti provided occasional technical insight, as well as a degree of personal consolation, not asked for, warily accepted. She’s trying to score points with me, but I can’t afford to be distracted, he told himself. Not now. Then he wondered just what he was implying with the mental word now. He made dutiful calls to Bashalli in Pakistan, feeling guilty for no reason he could understand—guilty if he made them, guilty if he didn’t.
And, with disgust and dread, he inevitably spoke to a phantom over the Private Ear Radio. The phantom replied with cool disdain. “Kindly do not demean yourself by taking a pleading tone. Tell yourself daily, I am strong, I am resolute, I will not yield. Repeat it when you retire to bed, again when you arise.”
“I don’t want to be anything like you, Li!” Tom snapped.
“Mm, let us avoid taking a deprecatory tone, shall we? It does you no good. It is merely cheap impudence, a moment of self-indulgence, disrespect for the man who has—can you face it?—finally shown himself your master. Do not doubt me, Tom. Ten deaths a day, young sir. Ten.”
“I don’t doubt you—sir. It’s your nature. The snake does what instinct tells it to do. You stopped being a real human being long ago.”
“A neat observation, concisely put. Make sure it appears in the fictionalizations. Now, if I may be so bold as to suggest, back to work. For the hours, Tom Swift, are few. And they are your enemy. As am I.”
Two days before the day of dread reckoning, the day Pallida Mors specified for Tom to take on Krozze and his henchmen, Tom and Bud drove into Shopton.
“It wasn’t enough, testing the thing at Enterprises?” Bud asked. “You made Franzenberg trip. Chow stumbled into a wall—”
Tom shook his head. “No, flyboy, not good enough. We don’t know exactly how the New York ceremony’s going to play out. We’re talking about a Presidential event. There’ll be a crowd—inside the room, before, after. If something happens, it could set off a panic.”
“Right. Which may be the plan.”
“It could be. In the turmoil—well, who knows? I want to test the shield in a public place, with a real crowd. Now that we know it’s physically safe, I want to know how people are likely to react to its effect.”
“Jetz!” chuckled the San Franciscan. “I don’t know how I’d react, Skipper—getting pushed around by an invisible bubble.” The word invisible clung to the air between them. Would Walker No-Face, or Pallida Mors, be lurking somewhere in the street crowd today, unnoticeable, unseeable?
The crowd-drawing event was the opening of a gallery downtown, a dedication ceremony honoring the famed artist known as Gio Blackwhite, born in Shopton as Joseph Andrade. With his artwork on display in the gallery, his appearance was certain to draw a large—or at least a dense—crowd to Gladstone Avenue.
Tom parked his electric two-seater three blocks distant and slipped on the new field-projector. Flat and flexible, it fit like a vest, inconspicuous beneath Tom’s cold-weather jacket. He slipped the Spektor remote-control into a deep side pocket.
Bud gave his chum an elbow-tap with his hand. “Okay, genius boy, switch on the Swift Defense Department!”
Though tense and weary, Tom permitted himself a grin. “Just did!”
“Oh yeah? I don’t feel anything.”
“Because you’ve been standing still. Try one of your bone-crusher handshakes!”
Bud’s handshake didn’t even make it out of the gate! His gray eyes widened, his powerful muscles bulged, but hand and forearm seemed frozen in space, caught like a mosquito in invisible amber. “Oh man, what a strange feeling,” Bud gulped. “I can slide it sideways, back and forth, all I want, but I can’t push it forward even an inch. Can’t even open my hand!”
“You can’t move your fingers, or anything, in my direction,” said the young inventor; “not from inside the shield ‘corona,’ which starts about an inch from my skin and extends about four more—that’s the setting I’m using.”
Tom showed mercy and Bud drew back his arm. “For something called resilientronic, it’s not very resilient. It doesn’t have any give to it at all.”
“Not when you start off inside it, as your forearm did. But something penetrating the perimeter from outside, such as bullets—or Barclay fastballs—does slow down over a small distance and then rebound slightly. The momentum and counter-momentum fight a shifting tug-of-war until all motion along the critical vector is damped out.”
“Er—it won’t statue-ize the Prez, I hope. I mean, he’s a politician—gotta move his jaw, at least!”
The scenario made Tom laugh. “That’s the idea behind that inch of inner space, pal. There’s a repelascope-type sensor that keeps mapping the outline of the wearer’s body as it moves, bending and contouring the field to keep pace.” The youth added that the same system adjusted the shield boundary to permit his feet to contact the ground while walking. “Otherwise this’d turn into a slip-’n-slide bout!”
“Sounds like fun!”
As they neared the fringes of the milling crowd, Tom pulled his knit cap further down over his forehead. Shopton’s most famous inhabitant, international hero, interplanetary traveler, was blessed with ordinary-guy good looks; with only the least concealment he could go around unnoticed even without the Cobra’s anti-recognition technology!
“Okay, Skipper. It’s greased-pig time.” As Bud stood well back, the test began. Tom started walking among the attendees along the sidewalk. Even though the art lovers and artist-groupies were packed together as tightly as neutrons in a nucleus, he had no trouble making his way through them. Bud’s description of Tom as a greased pig had been right on target. Most of the people were already used to getting pushed and shoved and didn’t even feel the slight nudge of the resilientronic cushion as Tom slipped past. Those who did seemed not to notice the empty space between themselves and the passing young prodigy. The young inventor noted a few puzzled looks, but no one said a word. Of course, art enthusiasts think about the world in their own way, he noted. And then he thought of Bashalli, an artist in training. And then of Gina, who wasn’t—no more than was Tom Swift.
Tom went up and down the street twice, Bud in tow, continually adjusting the effective field breadth from half an inch up to twenty inches, the maximum for the present test. On his second trip he noticed that a few yards away from Bud a man was walking against the flow of the crowd. He strode purposefully into the venerable Vigilance Bank of Shopton. A businessman, Tom thought; not everybody out on the street today is an art lover.
Gio Blackwhite had evidently finished whatever he had had to say to Shopton. The artist withdrew into the gallery at the head of a bushy tail of enthusiasts, so many that most of the crowd had to stand in line on the sidewalk. Many gave up. As the mass dissipated, Tom noticed officer Dale among the police officers providing security for the event, which had been well-advertised. Dale nodded Tom’s way. Wonder where his partner is, came a fleeting thought. What was his name...?
Then suddenly—and it always happens suddenly—the mutter of the departing crowd was split by a sharp sound. “Jetz!” exclaimed Bud. “That sounded like a—”
It was! The “businessman” Tom had seen enter the bank exploded out the door onto the street, swinging an evil-looking gun right and left. “Drop it!” shouted officer Dale, leveling his own weapon.
The bandit paused in the middle of the street. Then, unexpectedly, he began to amble, casually, jauntily, in Tom’s direction, as if it were a lovely day on the streets of Shopton. And as he walked he raised his gun—and calmly aimed it. “Great space,” gasped the young inventor in stunned disbelief, “he’s going to shoot me!”
The bang! came as expected. Tom felt his whole body jerk backwards a couple inches, moving uniformly as one—as if he had been shoved by a thousand tiny hands working in perfect synchronization. The shove distracted Tom, but an instant later his ears told him that something small and metallic had clinked down to the street next to him. The resilientronic shield had performed as advertised, stopping a deadly bullet in its tracks.
Unfazed, the outlaw continued to walk, again taking aim at Tom. Bang! —but it wasn’t the bank robber who fired. Officer Dale, reacting to the mortal threat, had fired to stop the advance of the would-be shooter.
Tom saw something very quickly; one blink would have missed it. A shining speck, bright as a magnesium flare, hovered unsteadily in midair, inches from the robber’s shoulder. Then it tumbled carelessly down to the pavement, making a clink of its own. A bullet—the bullet just fired by the police officer!
“Good grief!” cried Bud. “Tom!—he’s got one of your force fields!”
Bud’s exclamation seemed to attract the man’s attention. His gun swerved toward a new target—Bud Barclay!
And this target had no shield to protect him!
WHITE-HOT IN THE STREET
BUD stood as if paralyzed, unable to leap aside to at least try to escape the bank robber’s deadly aim. But Tom Swift didn’t have the luxury of paralysis. Thinking without thinking, he dug in and charged the man—hoping he could be, somehow, faster than a speeding bullet!
Tom’s powerful shoulder rammed into the gunman’s upper right arm... but not exactly! The wouldbe collision became a scrunch formation, lifting both on tiptoe and bending their torsos away from one another, bodies up against each other even though a space of several empty inches separated them. They were poised in that stance for a split instant. Then came the resilient rebound! Tom again felt a full-body shove that slid him violently backward, this time for more than a yard. He glimpsed the man and his gun recoiling similarly in the opposite direction.
Then the young inventor’s heels came up against the curb and he tumbled backwards, landing on his back with the sensation that he had fallen onto a smoothly yielding cushion. He slid across the sidewalk at a three-inch altitude. He heard shouts from all directions, gunshots—and then Bud was helping him to his feet, levering upward against the field with powerful arms cupped beneath his chum. “Tom!” gasped the Californian. “Did he—did he hit—”
“No, he... didn’t touch me...” murmured the youth weakly. His breath was heaving.
“Thank God the guy’s a lousy shot!” Officer Dale snapped from a few feet away, holstering his police revolver. “He zeroed in on you dead cold, Swift, and missed! Of course,” he added ruefully, “you could say the same about me. I shot at him four times and just made him flinch.”
“You didn’t miss, officer, and neither did he,” stated Tom. “He and I were wearing... a new invention of mine that protected both of us from flying bullets.”
Tom didn’t reply but asked, “Where is the guy anyway?”
“After you battering-rammed him, he stumbled off around the corner,” answered Dale. “One of my guys, Ericksen, took off after—” He interrupted himself. “Here’s Ericksen.”
The other SPD officer came trotting up. “Had a crony waiting for him just outta sight, car door wide open. That scent of peeled rubber is them peelin’ away down Garis Street.”
“You’d better keep the crowd back, officers,” Bud advised, gesturing. The street was littered with spent bullets—still white-hot from their arrested motion and melting smokily into the asphalt.
The officers began to take statements, from Tom and Bud, from the remaining crowd, from those in the bank. The outré incident had another twist waiting! “Our pal’s not just a bad shot but a really lousy bank robber!” began Dale. “He—”
Tom interrupted. “I can guess. He went inside, made some noise, shot at the ceiling, and came barreling out onto the street without even a sack in his hands!”
The policeman was astonished. “Great grief, now you’re a Sherlock Holmes as well as an inventor?”
Tom shrugged listlessly. “Maybe so. I think this was all just a ‘realtime’ test of the capabilities of the device they stole from me. They didn’t want to rob a bank today—just wanted to know if they could.”
“In other words, to see if the thing was working as they wanted it to,” Bud declared. “Then the guy sees genius boy himself, and decides to give ’im the old bullet test.”
Tom subtly motioned for his chum to walk with him away from the crowd. After thirty steps the youth spoke quietly. “What you say may be exactly right, pal. But it’s also possible that Pallida Mors, totally unseeable and at large at Enterprises, picked up on my plan to be here today with the shield vest and passed the info along, maybe to buy some credibility with the man she’s betraying, Krozze. One of the goals today might have been to fake an incident to test out the parameters of my shield.”
“Uh-huh. And I suppose you noticed—”
“Uh-huh!” stated Tom grimly. “I noticed my not noticing—not being able to mentally register the robber’s face!”
“A weird thing, Tom,” Bud said. “It wasn’t till after he’d rabitted away that I could even wonder if I’d seen his face. But now I know. Maybe he didn’t rob the bank, but my memory bank for that face has been cleaned out!”
“Same with me,” Tom nodded. “We know one thing, though—the fake robber wasn’t Walker No-Face, and he wasn’t Pallida Mors either. From his overall size and contour and the way he moved, I’m sure it was the mugger from the other night, Chigger.”
“Who you’ve got a midnight rendezvous with, coming up soon. And now you know the Walker dude has generously shared the goodies with his henchmen.”
Tom didn’t drive directly back to Swift Enterprises, but stopped at the SPD station to confer with Captain Rock. “I heard about the bank incident from the field,” Rock said. “Not that I’ve digested it one darn bit. So now the big guy with the blank face has thusly endowed Mr. Smegma ‘Chigger’ Grimes, upwardly mobile young thug. He’s graduated from liquor-store stickups to banks.”
“At least he’s aiming high,” smiled Bud.
Rock’s return smile was a sour one. “Tom, I know that detector-bloodhound deal of yours couldn’t track No-Face and his jewel heisters, but maybe this time—”
Tom shook his head. “We can try again, but I’d be amazed if Chigger didn’t use the same chemical powder today as they used those other times—some kind of fancy compound that confuses the sensitector’s scent circuits.”
“Right. Deodorant for techno-crooks. We-llllp, we’ll keep collecting whatever manages to turn itself up at the crime scene... including what I’m told are melted bullets. So much for that evidence! New invention of yours?”
“That’s right,” confirmed the young inventor. “And now the other side has ahold of it.”
Captain Rock, a big man, rose from his chair like a lazy balloon and half-paced across his office. “Slater’s making things warm for me, boys. Chief Slater—gets huffy if we don’t use the chief, even though he’s just the seat-warmer in charge of Shopton law enforcement on the City Council. Got it in for me. If I have to call in the Feds... again...
“Well, nothing you can do about it, my friends. We’ve come up dry, checking out Chigger’s old haunts here locally. Can’t find him, can’t find Mr. No-Face...”
Tom avoided any glances Bud’s way, and vice-versa. Right or wrong, the scientist-inventor was unwilling to risk sharing all he knew about the whereabouts of the SPD’s quarry, his enemies. He knew well that his silence was bending, maybe breaking, the law. “We’ll be going now, sir.”
As they drove back to Enterprises, Bud said to Tom, “Skipper, I know you’re an expert at getting at the bad-o’s—you’ve done things like climbed skyscrapers to do it. Butcha know, there’s no need to go in for hand-to-hand combat against the guys. I mean... you could teleject an image of a monster to panic them, or repelatron them flat to the ground, right?”
“Sure, or land the Sky Queen on top of them! I could do a lot if I wanted to lug a truck’s worth of equipment with me. But I have the feeling I need to be stealthy and nimble, given all the variables—all the things I’m supposed to accomplish by the end of the night. I’ll have an impulse gun. I’ll try to get the drop on them, maybe shoot right through the wall...”
“Okay, but they have the protective force field—”
“The i-gun’s electric pulses aren’t solid, flyboy. The momentum-reverser effect won’t faze them.”
Bud persisted, his youthful face knotted with intense emotion. “Right. I’ll just hang loose and watch TV somewhere while you’re... Tom, I’ve got to try one more time—”
“Look, I don’t care what you’ll be wearing! Super-electro-vest or not, you’re gonna be betting your life on a little machine gadget full of wire-spaghetti circuits. Gadgets have glitches! Circuits—short! Things break down! When you face-off against those creeps, someone’s got to have your back—”
Tom gripped his steering wheel tighter. “Pal, please accept what I say. I’ve decided. Final answer. You’re the only one who knows what was on the little card. I haven’t told Security; I haven’t even told my family. And believe me, if I could use Li Ching’s anti-recognition device to delete that from your memory bank, I would! I don’t know exactly what I’m going to do when I get inside that warehouse. I... I might have to kill Krozze in self-defense, and argue with myself afterwards whether I was just conning myself, pretending I didn’t set it up subconsciously. But I, I—I refuse to put anyone else in that dilemma. I chose this life, Bud. Or maybe it chose me...”
Bud touched his friend’s arm. “Okay, Tom. I won’t ask again.”
Tom shot Bud a sharp glance. “It’s not the asking that’s the issue, flyboy. I don’t want you there. I don’t want you following me. I don’t want you anywhere near! Promise me, Bud. Promise me—on our friendship!”
Bud gulped. “Word of honor, Thomas Edison Swift. Nowhere else will I be but in my little apartment or at Swift Enterprises. Sulking.”
In the office at Enterprises and very alone, Tom tried to finish out his day. Now that he knew the enemy had somehow duplicated the resilientronic shield, what could he do? Could he find a way to nullify or deactivate his own invention when used against him? “But good gosh!” he breathed. “If they were able to acquire the plans for the shield, any counterweapon I come up with could wind up in their hands as well!” And what if the enemies used the shield-defeating device to nullify the President’s protective shell at the critical moment?—!
Tom was resting his head in his hands when a sharp sound roused him. The Private Ear Radio!
The cartridge indicator told him immediately who was calling. “What do you want, Comrade-General?”
“Oh, just to express a bit of sympathy for the dilemmas of life,” replied the sinuous, accented voice. “And to say one word. Barcelona!”
“Barcelona? What do you—” But the PER’s speaker bespoke its silence.
Puzzled and worried, he set the unit down on his desk—and looked up, startled, as his father came rushing into the office he shared with his son. “Tom! It’s on the news—! The authorities in Spain—”
“Barcelona.” The young inventor said the word with grim certitude.
“Yes, in Barcelona! Ten bodies were dumped in the city plaza—all pinned with cards bearing the symbol for—”
“I know, Dad,” stated Tom, without heart or hope. “The Black Cobra!”
SNUFFED BY SCIENCE
JOINED by Harlan Ames, Tom and Mr. Swift watched the news reports from Spain over the big videophone wall-screen in the Swifts’ office. “Seems the B.C. decided to impose his penalty early,” pronounced Ames coolly. “The clock was supposed to keep ticking until Friday evening, wasn’t it?”
“We can’t expect a snake not to lie,” snapped Tom. He snatched up the PER and selected the cartridge being used by the Cobra, wherever in or out of the world he was located.
The comrade-general didn’t bother with Hello. “I am always very precise in making my point, Tom. Am I not?”
“You told me—”
“I made no promise, Tom. Surely I would have remembered if I had. No, I only said what I was going to do. I refrained from promising not to provide a vivid sample beforehand.”
“You’re as much in love with death as with yourself, Li,” spat Tom disgustedly.
“But you see, my oh-so-young man, the distinction is not as easy to make as you think. I do what is necessary, no more, no less. Forethought and efficiency, the keys to success; both applied ruthlessly. Yet I wouldn’t want you to distract yourself with tender sentiment. As the news will soon disclose, those ten men were petty criminals, murderers, local malefactors that Barcelona is well rid of. I should get a medal from the city fathers, eh? In any event, they were my employees—one uses the material at hand—and subject to the tactical decisions of the Great Helmsman. That is to say, I myself. Their lives were mine to ennoble. By granting them a meaningful terminus.”
“What possible use—”
“I am not inclined to waste breath explaining myself to you, little thinker,” interrupted Li coldly. “You too are nothing but raw material to be shaped into something useful. Surely you now realize that fact. I intend this exhibition to stoke your energies. No doubt it has.” And he was gone.
Strong hands grasped Tom from behind. “Son, there’s nothing you can do. People have died, and it may be that more will die. Li Ching may tire of it. Or more likely, he’ll decide that enforcing his threat exposes his organization, his ridiculous ‘khanate,’ to unnecessary risk.”
“Dad, how can I just—”
“What can you do, Tom?” spoke up Harlan Ames. “You can’t perform the B.C.’s ‘execution’—you don’t know where Rogg Krozze is. Right?”
Tom felt that Ames was studying his face keenly, and he felt himself redden. “Right.”
“And you’ve told Li that fact, haven’t you?” asked Mr. Swift.
“Yes,” Tom said. He added truthfully: “I told him that when we first spoke on the PER that night.”
“Try to let it go, Tom,” his father urged gently. “Focus on perfecting the shield device. Len Kelso knows about the deadline and the threat, and Harlan will report to him what the Cobra just said to you on the parallelophone. He may be able to make progress by working with the authorities in Barcelona, and with the government of Spain—with Interpol. Li Ching may be defeated before he can murder anyone else.”
Tom moved his head in what was not quite a nod. “I’ll do as you say, Dad. I’ll continue working.”
But days of work did not remove the threat that hung over Tom Swift. It lay across him like the shadow of a coming storm.
And then, too soon, came Tuesday the 22nd, a quarter to midnight.
Tom had told his family that he would be working late at the plant that night, sleeping there as he had been doing for days. He did work late, but most of his effort was directed to preparing his electronic armor and arsenal for his midnight raid against the No-Face Gang. If, as promised and hoped, Rogg Krozze were there with Chigger and the others, Tom would do his best to immobilize him and make him the youth’s prisoner. He would not execute the man—another name for murder. He could only hope Li Ching would find some efficient and logical reason to revoke his threat to kill many if Tom failed to kill one. But he only pretends to be logical, Tom reminded himself dismally. He’s beyond seeing what he really is.
He had phoned Bud at his apartment, reminding him of his promise, which the pilot had acknowledged in a voice almost inaudible. He wished Bud were at his side—and yet was glad he wasn’t. Nothing left but paradox, he thought.
Tom took one of his silent, electric zoomcycles rather than his sporty two-seater. He pulled to a stop in a narrow, shadowed alleyway that he had discovered while surveying the area earlier in the day with his megascope tele-viewer. Dismounting the cycle, he had it fold down to its self-protective compact mode, switching on the gravitex that made it unstealable—immovable. The night above was heavy and very dark; it wasn’t snowing, but his boots crunched against a skin of snow already on the ground. He activated the resilientronic shield. Even at a low setting, close to his body, the quantum-kinetic reversal effect made his footprints in the snow broaden and blur out as he began to walk.
He glanced around at the shadows, the gaunt and bare buildings. Prosperity had avoided this mean corner of Shopton. Tom shivered with cold, with emotion, with dread. He clung to the many patches of darkness that the ugly yellow streetlights scattered about. Wish I had one of those nice unseeability machines, he thought. The thought led to another: Pallida Mors could be anywhere, following me. He comforted himself by the lack of visible footprints beyond his own trail.
He came to a corner with a street sign—Lompas Street—and pivoted leftward onto it. Reaching the 2700 block, a row of blankfaced warehouses, Tom left the street and entered the alleyway that ran along behind them. No moon, no stars, but Tom Swift could see as if it were a sunny noon; the glasses he wore resembled sunglasses, but an invisible radiance made the scene bright to the wearer. It was a version of what he called his spylamp, miniaturized by Arvid Hanson. The latest in stylish spywear, he told himself.
The young inventor had memorized the megascope’s look at the alley wall of Suite F of the warehouse unit, at the rear of number 2762. He found it, stopped, and tried its shabby rear door. “Locked!” he murmured under breath that made a puff in the chill air. But there was a ripple-glass window, open a crack. Switching off the shield so as to allow his fingers to grip and pry, he slipped his gloved fingertips into the space and used his hand like a lever. The window swung out to its rusted narrow limit, stubbornly but without a sound.
Tom lifted the spylamp glasses off his nose for a moment and confirmed that all was dark and dead within suite F. He scrunched his lean body and shoved it upward, twisted half-sideways, through the opening. Inside, the glow of the spylamp revealed a big rectangular room, grimy and mostly empty, but with rusted metal barrels clumped here and there. He reactivated the force field.
He saw the connecting door, the one that Pallida Mors had promised would be unlocked. Approaching it, he removed the glasses again and noted a line of light beneath the door, which was wooden and slightly warped.
And there were voices, men’s voices, casual and careless. “Dude’s late.” “Maybe he’s already here.” “Hunh?—naw, Chigger, why’d he keep it goin’ in here with us?” “You think too much, Elf.” “Stop callin’ me that!” “Don’t tease him, Grosso! Switch on the snuffertech. Rogg’ll blow his stack if we don’ test it out every day like he wants.” “Yeah, well, seems to me it was Elf who ’as gonna—” “You call me that name again an’ I’ll cut ya!” “Aaa, you ain’t cut nuthin’ but th’ cheese since you got old enough t’ shave!”
What was a “snuffertech”? The unseeability device? Or a nickname for the bootleg resilientronic shield?...
Tom focused his thoughts on what was about to begin. He checked his watch—midnight! He pulled out his pen-sized radar-visor and scanned the adjacent room through the wall, the readout scale indicating four mansized figures in lazy motion and their approximate positions. Four dangerous blips. But it seemed Walker No-Face was late to arrive—
The radar-visor readout suddenly went blank. A half-instant later, so did the room, as far as Tom was concerned. The spylamp system had gone dead! And then the youth remembered how the gang had nullified the security setups during their break-ins. It suddenly occurred to him what a snuffertech might be!
He jerked his small i-gun, which utilized a disabling pulse of electricity in place of bullets, from its holster-clip on his right thigh. He had hoped to knock out the gang by firing the impulses right through the wall. But now the tiny LED sliver was dark. The i-gun was dead.
Desperate to ward off the panic that was starting to rise, Tom tried to lean against the wall. He couldn’t—his forearm came to a soft but unyielding halt one inch away. Thank goodness! he thought. But sure—the nullifier must be tuned not to affect the shield circuitry. They don’t want to knock their own force fields for a loop!
He couldn’t leave with his mission uncompleted. I-gun or no...
Contracting the force field skin-close, he touched the door knob, warily. Taking a grip without rattling the knob, he slowly turned it. It yielded easily—the door was unlocked as promised. Would it squeak as he edged it open?
What did it matter?
Tom threw the door aside and surged into the room. The door banged violently as it hit the wall.
The four men of the No-Face gang were startled—and, it seemed, thoroughly confounded. They stared at Tom without moving more than their eyebrows.
The hulking one Tom recalled was named Morty—and probably nicknamed Elf—was on his feet, holding something the size and shape of a laptop computer. “Hey!” he exclaimed. “What’re you doin’ here?” He turned to his superior officer. “Chigger, that’s Tom Swift!”
“You think maybe I don’t know that, braindead?” snapped Chigger Grimes contemptuously.
“Guys—listen—that gun—I think it’s one o’ those Tom Swift things—you know, the electric deal that’s like a taser—you know?” The speaker was the kid named Oozy.
“I know what it is!” bellowed Chigger.
“I’m glad you know what it is,” said Tom, trying to sound nonchalant. “Because then you also know that it can drop you in your tracks.” If they realize the i-gun is dead, he thought, I’ll be too!
One did realize. “That thing couldn’t quiet down a cat, Tommy,” leered Chigger. “Cause we got a better thing that snuffs-down the electronics to pure zero! Which is why—” He made a broad gesture, and it registered on Tom for the first time that the room was lit by kerosene lanterns.
“You’re here t’ get back that lady’s purse, right?” Morty asked dumbly. “Guys, we might as well let ’im have it. Nothin’ much was in it, an’ I’m sure not gonna carry it around wit’ me. It’s for girls!”
“Well, Tom, now we’ll just have t’ kill you,” declared Chigger in nose-wrinkled disgust. “Can’t let it get around that I’m surrounded by complete morons!”
“We’re tryin’ to build up our rep,” said the fourth man meekly.
Tom held up the i-gun in front of his face as if turning the matter over in his mind—and suddenly hurled it straight at Morty’s bulbous, if somewhat truncated, head! The man yelped in surprise and tried to ward off the projectile, fumbling the snuffertech device to the floor. If Tom could shut off the nullifier—!
The young inventor leapt and dove for it, but Chigger Grimes was already in motion. The criminal charged Tom—and then choked in surprise as his forward motion stopped dead and he slid sideways. “He’s wearin’ that shield o’ his!” he shouted. “Get ours goin’, Number Two—that’s you, Retchy!”
“Wh-where is it?” asked Retchy. “When you took it off—oh, yeah, I see it on th’ shelf—”
Meanwhile Chigger was gesturing frantically. The gist of the plan seemed to be for the others to box Tom in, overcoming the advantage of the shield and perhaps forcing the youth into a corner of the room. Tom didn’t wait for the plan to unfold. He tried to crouch down and scoop the snuffertech transmitter from the floor. But his invention worked against its inventor! As Tom stretched out his hand, the device slid away on the floor, eluding his grasp and keeping its distance!
Oozy and Morty were on top of him, but they fell across him like a pair of shadows, without weight or force, as the shield sloughed them off effortlessly.
Oozy slammed into Chigger, knocking him down. “Git offa me, lard vat!” Chigger howled. “Retchy! Pick up the snuffer b’fore you—” The idea was to get the box behind the protective shell to keep it from Tom’s hands.
But Retchy’s brain was overheating and he couldn’t grasp the idea—nor the snuffertech box. “Hunh?” sputtered Retchy. “Ya mean—whattaya mean?” With a shrug the man, baffled by the command, switched on his own resilientronic shield. The effect was dramatic! It seemed that Retchy’s device had been set to its maximum radius, which overlapped Tom’s own field. Instantly the two of them were thrown in opposite directions, violently. And as the field gradients moved about, such loose objects as chairs, the snuffertech box, and the other hoods were shoved and tumbled in all directions!
The room and its occupants were in complete disarray. Tom and the four muggers slid and flopped like fish across the old linoleum floor. None of Tom’s adversaries could grab him or land a punch, usually ramming one another instead. The main danger to the young inventor was Retchy, whose force field converted his random thrusts at Tom into battering resilientronic lunges that sent both young men staggering about randomly.
It was slapstick comedy—but Tom Swift wasn’t laughing. He knew Walker No-Face was due any moment. Tom’s shield, which he had set at its shallowest configuration, protected him from the others, but also prevented him from getting his hands on the snuffertech, which was stifling the i-gun, his only weapon against the gang.
Yet if Tom shut down his shield generator for even a moment to poke at the snuffertech’s controls, it would be a chink in his armor—an all-encompassing chink that would leave him at the mercy of his adversaries. And the four thugs, and No-Face, needed little time to shut him down for good!
PROOF OF COMPLETION
TOM SWIFT had a two-track mind. Even as he struggled through the wild melee, some part of his brain remained calm and analytical, considering the situation, computing the options.
At last track two delivered an answer. Only thing left to do, decided Tom’s thoughts, is to punt!
Tom skidded up to the snuffertech box, now lying in the middle of the floor, and half-crouched. In a continuous motion, sweeping his right leg in a half-circle, he rammed the heel of his boot against the device with all his speed and strength. The heel—devoid of the anti-momentum field in order to allow the wearer floor traction—connected squarely. The box jetted across the floor like a puck on ice and slammed into the wall, raising a dust of old plaster. A corner of the square device had crumpled, and as it flopped back down to the floor from the impact, a forlorn bleat told of its death.
The LED on Tom’s i-gun, lying half-hidden on the floor, flashed to life! Switching off his resilientronic generator, he scooped it up. “Sorry, fellows,” panted the young inventor, “I know you need a break, but I’m all charged up!”
The silent, invisible pulse-bolt dropped Chigger, Oozy, and Retchy, whose shield of force afforded no defense against momentumless electricity. Morty watched the others go down one by one with wincing resignation. As Tom turned the i-gun his way, Morty said glumly, “Yer girlfriend’s purse is over on that shelf, just sayin’. Jeez, take it a’ready! I told Chigg it wuzzen worth goin’ af- ...” And then he fell silent—and fell.
Tom felt like playing the part of gunslinger and blowing the smoke from the barrel of his gun.
He cautiously checked over the four thugs. “Nice breathing,” he murmured. “Good pulses.” He knew the knockout effect would last about five minutes, but for a half-hour or so they would be too dizzy and groggy to pose a threat.
Tom retrieved the snuffertech box and—with a smile—Gina’s clutch bag. Then he extinguished the lamps, leaving one lit to give Krozze false confidence that all was well in Suite E.
But where was he, anyway?
His nervousness crept back. He radar-scanned the room for unseen presences, then the next room. A moving blip, standing, was in the next room!
Tom gulped. Was it Krozze? Had he just arrived—or had he been watching through the doorway during the entire struggle? And more to the point—was he armed?
As Tom lifted the i-gun to pulse through the wall into the next room, he moaned silently as it once again went dead, along with all his other equipment except the shield unit. Puzzled, he examined the snuffer box in his hand. Had he accidentally jarred it to life? He fingered some buttons, but there was no change. Someone must have activated a second device, he self-said in resignation. The figure in the next room? Rogg Krozze?
Whoever it was, he could only see by the light of the single remaining lantern. Should he extinguish it? Was there any point to trying to complete his night’s mission against Walker No-Face?
Before he could make a move, he saw something in the light from the lamp, streaming into the next room through the open doorway. It fell on the side of a metal drum. Words had been smeared crudely into the grime!
HI YOUNG INVENTOR
COME ON IN
“All right, Miss... Pallida,” said Tom grimly. “Time for us to meet face to face?—with both our faces? Or does the game continue?”
Tom switched his force field back on, adjusting its shape to a few inches beyond his skin, and entered Suite F, turning sideways to allow the lamplight to stream past him. The doorframe creaked as he passed; the dust on the floor moved aside. No one was visible, and he no longer had use of his radar-visor. He glared into the wavering shadows.
Suddenly he glimpsed movement—something had budged on the floor, barely poking out from behind a hedge of stacked drums. “Showing me your toe, Pallida?” He approached slowly, rounding the stack—and shock forced a gasp from his lips!
A motionless body lay on the floor!
It was the body of a man, a big man, broad shouldered, barrel chested, lying flat on his back. He wore a heavy winter coat and a woven cap. The formerly Unseeable Man was now easy to identify. Rogg Krozze!
Something dark shone on the side of the man’s head in the slant of lamplight. It seemed to be inching along like a snake. Tom bent closer—and suddenly flinched back, disgusted. Blood! Krozze’s left ear had been cut from his head!
He heard a sound from nearby, the scuff of a shoe. He twisted around and thought he glimpsed a shadow sliding across the floor. But then it was lost in the dimness. “So that was the plan,” Tom pronounced. “I take care of the Chigger gang while you take care of Krozze. I suppose you were here in this room all the time. You murdered him when he slipped in through the hallway door—right, while we were making a racket in the other room. And what now? Am I of any more use to you, Pallida?”
The youth heard some creaks, the sound of rubbing. Suddenly writing in large letters, hastily scrawled, appeared in the layer of dirt on a further wall.
HE WAS DEAD IN A CORNER WHEN YOU
WHAT A THRILL, SEEING YOU CLIMB INTO
A DANGEROUS SITUATION
THAT I CREATED FOR US TO SHARE.
AND I THANK YOU FOR THAT THRILL.
O MY TOM I KILLED HIM FOR YOU.
YOUR MORAL DILEMMA IS SOLVED.
LI CHING WILL GET AN EAR
AS PROOF OF COMPLETION.
SEE YOU SOON TOM.
BUT YOU WILL NOT SEE ME!
“So is this a romantic rendezvous, Pallida?” The young Shoptonian snarled at the dark, empty air. “Then you’ll understand when I say I can’t let you go!”
He flung himself toward the open door to the next room, but fast as he was he saw traces of footprints materializing on the floor ahead of him and heard clomping footsteps. She bumped the edge of the door and it rattled. Tom thrust forward to arrow through the doorway after her—
He came to a halt so suddenly he gasped. The wall around the doorway creaked on both sides, and the flung door itself quivered. Tom was suspended in space for an instant, the open doorway slightly ahead of him. Then he felt the backward full-body shove he expected. He had run into a resilientronic shield! Did Pallida now have one of her own?
He tottered backwards into a fall, but immediately felt the pushback of an invisible cushion. Good gosh! he thought. It’s my own field that’s keeping me back! Somehow the vector-reversal radius had been increased to such an extent that he could no longer fit through the doorway! It’s the second anti-techno device, he realized. Somehow it’s let her override my shield controls!
Tom heard the door in the next room fumble open and then shut loudly. “There she goes,” he muttered dejectedly. “Nighty-night, Pallida Mors.” But—the snow would reveal her every footstep. If he climbed out the window and ran up the alley—!
He made for the narrowly open window, adjusting his vest controls as he ran, resetting the protective field to its minimum. But as he neared the window he wavered to a stop and could force himself no closer. It hadn’t been just a momentary override—his own controls no longer affected his shield unit. Desperate trying told him that he couldn’t even deactivate it!
Everything outside the expanded field was beyond his reach. “All right,” he said, “all right.” He calmed himself. No doubt Pallida Mors was long gone. But he could already hear the four thugs moaning and sputtering next door. Soon they would find their feet. He had to escape!
The young inventor had set down the kerosene lantern on a crate in the other suite, and the wan light reminded the Shoptonian that he had forgotten what was in his left hand, inside the barrier of force. The gang’s broken snuffertech! He forced thoughts through his brain: The snuff-out effects don’t work on the devices themselves. This one is dead because I broke something inside it. But what if...
With trembling fingers, working by the dim lamplight, Tom opened an access panel on the case and looked over the circuitry. The components were peculiar, the configuration unfamiliar, but he saw at once where the crumpling had forced a chip component out of its socket. He clicked it back into place with his thumbnail—and flickering LED’s showed that the “snuffbox” was alive again! In an instant Tom fingered his vest controls, relieved to find that he was again able to shrink the field to its minimum. Paradoxically, with two nullifiers running, they nullified each other. He had broken Pallida’s grasp!
In seconds he had scrambled out the window and sprinted down the alley into the street—deserted and dead in all directions. It had begun to snow; the foot trails of any Unseeables were now as unseeable as they were.
Backing against the wall of the building, Tom plucked out his cellphone, thankful that it now worked, and texted the night crew at the Shopton PD under its “encrypted user” setting. He labeled his message “anonymous tip” and spoke of “four messed-up robbers, one dead body missing an ear.” He provided suitable warnings and as many details as were necessary, and ended by stressing the urgency of the matter. As he clicked off he realized that he was probably breaking the law in some way—but he decided to reserve that worry for the day after what he prayed would be a foiled Presidential assassination.
Trotting a half-block, Tom switched-off the box in his hand and found that it was no longer needed—he was, evidently, beyond the range of the other device. As he hurried back to his zoomcycle he found himself hesitating now and then, glancing behind him. Had he heard the crunch of someone following him in the snow? Had he glimpsed a trace of a form ducking behind the edge of a building? Had Pallida Mors remained, to shadow and stalk him?
Another half-glimpse led him to a different conclusion. “Okay, come on, Bud!” he called out.
Bud strode into view. He was more defiant than sheepish. “Right, Tom. Here I am. Got to the warehouse address even before you did.”
“That’s right. Behind a dumpster. Right in front of the building.”
“So what was the plan, ‘genius boy’?”
Bud looked fierce, as he often looked when he felt embarrassed. “I didn’t have one. But I brought an i-gun. I thought if I heard something... But anyway, the i-gun—”
“Yeah. But anyway. The gang had something that kills the electronics, in a selective way.”
“Tom...” The impulsive young San Franciscan found the words, but they weren’t easy to say. “I didn’t want to interfere. I know I broke my promise to you. If, if it ends our friendship—so be it. What counts is protecting you.”
“For the world’s sake?”
“For my sake, Tom.”
Tom had already relented, even before his best friend had begun to speak.
Then the young inventor rolled his blue eyes as two more figures suddenly stepped from the night shadows across the street. “After all, boss,” said Harlan Ames, brandishing yet another i-gun. “You didn’t order us not to be here. Matter of fact, you somehow neglected to even mention it.”
“So we didn’t know where we were going,” Phil Radnor added with a slight grin. “We didn’t know when either, but we figured it would happen on a night you stayed at the plant—and before Li Ching’s Friday deadline. So we had the grounds patrol, mm, keep us current.”
“I get it,” Tom said. “You followed me.”
“No,” Ames corrected him. “We followed Bud. We assumed you wouldn’t get into it without him.”
Tom had to smile. “Know what? You were right!”
“I thought I was a one-man army, me and my i-gun,” Bud told the security men sheepishly. “But the gang had some electronic something that reached right through the walls and left it for dead, lights out. The gun’s working now, though.”
“I was able to nullify the nullifier—with another one,” Tom reported. “But I thought I’d only cancelled out one part of its function, which allowed Pallida Mors—as it turned out—to override my shield controls. You say your gun came back online?”
“Our guns weren’t affected in the first place,” interjected Ames. “We were across the street from the building, stake-out configuration.”
The young inventor nodded. “About 80 feet from their device. I get it now. Walls don’t stop the ‘snuffbox’, but distance does. What I did in the warehouse must have interfered with the selectivity of the nullifier, but didn’t damp down the overall effect. I was lucky it gave me momentary access to the controls.”
Tom headed back to Enterprises, to talk and then to sleep there, late. Awake mid-morning, he returned a call from Captain Rock. “My guys got a texted tip last night, Tom. We now have Chigger Grimes and his three cronies nicely under wraps—also the booty they heisted during their customized crime wave.”
Tom played innocent. “What about Walker No-Face?”
“He’ll be walking no more, Tom, with or without his face.” Rock gave a summary rundown of the night’s police invasion of the hideout and what had been uncovered. “We also found some equipment you’ll want to look at, I’d think. One of them was foolin’ around with it when the officers charged in, but he was all messed up. They all were—drugs, I guess.”
“They should’ve just said No. Anyway—at least you’ve got them off the street. Are they... talking?” asked Tom warily. “Do they admit to killing Rogg Krozze?”
“Like I said, they’re messed up, groggy. Bruised, like they were in a fight. In fact,” the chief continued, “I’d call them dazed and confused—they keep getting their no-face boss mixed up with you, of all people. ‘The weed of crime,’ right Tom?”
“Hallucinogenic fruit, Captain,” agreed the scientist-inventor. I’ll see that they don’t end up with a murder rap, he told himself. Of course, Chigger will get charged with attempted murder—and assault on a resilientronic shield!
“Now comes the real work,” Rock continued; “namely the investigation. Before you ask, Tom, public-minded citizen that you are—let’s wait a bit before deploying any of your Enterprises inventions, like the oscillotron or analytracer or whatever. Give my trained and seasoned department professionals a chance to show their stuff. Right? Slater’ll give me open-heart surgery through my feet if I start off by calling in help. We’ll work the evidence in our own way.”
“I understand, sir.” The matter of Tom’s personal involvement was postponed for the present.
Later, clenching his insides, Tom told his parents and sister how he had handled the matter. “You disregarded my advice, son,” stated Mr. Swift. “But I thought you probably would. You were put in a moral bind. I can’t blame you for wanting to keep the burden on your own shoulders.”
Tom’s mother was less forgiving. But she had developed a specialization in accepting the reality of being a Swift—as had Sandy.
And one other needed to be informed, by Private Ear Radio. “You’ll be receiving the confirmation you required, Comrade-General,” Tom declared coldly.
“Indeed, I have made the confirmation already, by means of my representatives in your area,” the Black Cobra replied. “It appears you had some assistance from your pathetic local underworld, Tom. Tell me, would you—did you yourself perform the execution? And the—surgery?”
“I’m not going to answer that, sir.”
“Mm. Well, perhaps it matters little. Krozze has been repaid for his disloyalties. On behalf of the Khanate, I shall of course keep my promises to you—reputation matters greatly in this world, does it not? The decree of ten deaths is cancelled. And as promised, you have the neuro-optical device to study, to counteract in some clever manner. I expect to possess better technology in due course.”
“And to see me dead, Comrade-General.”
“In due course. And by my own hand, before my own eyes. You surely understand this, Tom. You have dealt with madmen before. For that is how you regard me, noble son of a decadent world. Goodbye. Oh, and thank you, of course.”
As contact ended, Tom knew those particular paired quantum cartridges would never work again.
The matter of Walker No-Face and the Black Cobra was concluded. “But Li Ching was wrong about one thing,” Tom noted to Bud, chatting about the business some days later. “Someone—Pallida, I’m sure—was careful not to leave Krozze’s face-blanker behind for us to take apart.”
“Right,” Bud nodded. “Because if you figured out how that unit worked, you could find a young-inventorly way mess up Pallida’s. So now she has that advantage, in addition to whatever ‘add-on app’ lets her get remote control of your shield-maker.
“And by the way—forgot to ask you—just how did you know that switching on the second snuffer machine, the one you had with you, would knock out the effect of the other one?”
Tom shrugged wryly. “I didn’t know, flyboy. But I thought maybe the two units would overload or cancel-out one another. To have such selective effects, I figured they must be pretty tightly calibrated.”
“Good figuring!” grinned Bud. “And now on to today’s main topic—a little two-step amble—”
“—across 22,300 miles!”
“WE’VE BEEN working toward this ever since I started developing the quantum-kinetic reverser,” Tom said to the small group assembled in the vaulting underground hangar. “The technical modifications built into the resilientronic shield have brought us to the point where we’re ready to give it a try.” Pride and instinct led his hand to tap the surface of the big structure next to him, his revolutionary transportation system called the quantum telesphere—not a “matter-beamer” but more than equal to the task nonetheless.
The group—Bud, Arv Hanson, Gina Emiliotti, and Hanson’s assistant Linda Ming—nodded as one. “It’ll be a fantastic achievement,” said Linda. “But boss, why all the extra security for this telesphere experiment? Is Kranjovia threatening to teleport an army into Flushing Meadows?”
“Jetz, they would if they could!” joked Bud.
As Tom hesitated before giving an answer, Gina said: “Is this about little miss Invisible Girl, Tom?”
Tom nodded—still hesitant. “You all know that the agent who calls herself Pallida Mors has been active within the Enterprises walls. I wish I could circulate a picture, but—as you know—she’s using the same ‘unseeability’ technology as the No-Face Gang to slip in and out undetected.”
“And she’s a killer,” Arv noted soberly.
“She’s killed more than once,” agreed Tom. “But right now the main concern is that she might dig into some of the new techs I’ve developed to protect the resilientronic device from hostile remote control.” Tom envisioned the danger to the President at the fateful ceremony—ten days away!
“Of course, she’s already ripped the basics—passed it on to the Faceless Five,” Bud chuckled—then gulped immediately, realizing that he had blurted out more information than Tom might have wished.
“We can all read between the lines on the news reports of the faked bank robbery,” declared the young inventor quickly. “I’m sure you’ve all doped out that Chigger Grimes’s immunity to bullets came from his own personal force field, a bootleg resilientronic device.”
“Then what exactly are we protecting, Tom?” asked Linda Ming.
Tom cleared his throat. He didn’t like misleading his loyal employees, all of whom were also good friends. “As some of you know—” He couldn’t help glancing at Gina, who smiled in a supercilious way. “—we’re working on a U.S. government project that uses the shield to... handle some security concerns. There’s been a... tip... that Pallida has developed some high-techs of her own that somehow override the dedicated control unit in the shield harness. In other words she can get control of it and manipulate the field from a distance, making it unreliable and useless. I’ve come up with a quantum-encryption system, kind of a shield-within-a-shield, that should make her keep her sticky fingers to herself.”
“So. You’re afraid she’ll map out the new anti-interference system and come up with a way to overcome it. Maybe at an awkward moment.” Gina nodded agreement with her own comment. “She does seem pretty adept. And they say us refined ladies are never much good at engineering!”
“I think they’ve stopped saying that,” remarked Linda dryly. “Then again, I’m not so awfully refined.”
“At any rate,” Tom intervened, “that’s why we’ve taken repelascope ‘signatures’ of the molecular patterns of all of us who’ll be testing the new telesphere application today. The resilientronic system doesn’t block the spectron spacewaves, of course, and the alarm will sound if any unrecognized person, visible or not, enters the area of the experiment and trips the repelascope perimeter. Only we five, and my father, will have free access.” As the others indicated understanding, the youth added, “I’ll be using the same system to protect the lab in Tower Three, where I’ve been testing out Arv’s microsized prototype of the anti-interference gimmick as part of the portable shield generator. With the threat from Krozze and Grimes eliminated, she isn’t getting a free pass to pry out any more secrets.” Or to come up with her own counter-counterweapon, his thoughts amended.
“Hey, Pallida, if you’re here in this hangar listening,” Bud called out humorously, “give it up, lady!”
With the security perimeter established, Tom and his associates began work on the day’s crucial experiment. “Gina, you weren’t involved in the original development of the telesphere, as Arv and Linda were. Did I give you a good enough—”
“Tom wants to know if his well-Gina met the usual high standard of his well-Bud,” grinned Bud.
“It was a most stimulating presentation,” Gina responded. “We are adapting the newest version of the resilientronic system to act as a cosmic catcher’s mitt—a backstop ‘cushion’—to deal with momentum shear. As our young inventor terms the differential between the momentum vectors here, at the location of the departure telesphere, and there—”
“The arrival sphere up in the space outpost,” Linda finished.
“Seems strange that something in synchronous orbit above Ecuador has a different speed and direction from us Earthlings down below,” remarked Arv, “but the rate of orbital rotation is a whole ’nother thing from how fast something is actually moving, and where it’s pointed.”
“I am aware of the distinction,” declared Gina primly. “Everyone on Earth participates in the same rate of rotation, one turn per twenty-four hours. That’s something like a speed of 1000 miles an hour at the equator. But even just along the equator, the direction of motion varies continuously from instant to instant and spot to spot. On opposite sides the velocity is aimed in opposite directions, so the relative speed between them is 2000 mph.”
“And it’s those differences that matter when you quantum-step from one point in space to another,” Tom said as he began to distribute the tools and instruments. “The outpost is roughly 22,300 miles out, which means it needs a speed of almost three thousand miles per hour to keep pace with the surface below—with Equador, at the equator. And the difference with our speed here in this hangar is greater still!”
“You were able to come rescue me in Newfoundland by telesphering from northern Alaska, but that pretty much pushed the limit of your kinetic-absorption setup,” added Hanson, for Gina’s benefit. “The resilientronic approach should allow transport between any two spots on the planet.”
“Or off the planet by 22,300 miles!” chortled Bud excitedly. “And someday the moon, Little Luna, Mars—even the way-out planet where the Space Friends come from!”
“But today is today,” the young inventor cautioned his friend soberly, his mind in many places.
Earlier in the day Tom had received word that the Space Kite, a compact manned space vehicle usually hangared at Enterprises, had docked at the outpost in space. The two veteran astro-pilots aboard, Bob Jeffers and Neil MacColter, had delivered the equipment for the new resilientronic buffer system to the technical team devoted to ongoing telesphere experiments in space. “Bud and I have already run some basic tests,” Tom noted. “The biosim unit was transpositioned back and forth with no ‘catch problems’, and we just finished a series of plant and animal tests before the other three of you arrived.”
“What, then, are we to do?” asked Gina. “With the repelascope running, you surely don’t need a lookout?”
“The Skipper needs a few of us high-minded types to help him monitor the instrumentation,” Hanson explained jokingly. “The monkey made it through okay, but Bud here always poses some special problems.”
Bud laughed and added, “Ignore him, girls. He’s kidding. The monkey doesn’t go through until after me.”
Though the young inventor tried to disguise it with a bland smile, he found himself tense and worried. Pallida Mors—pale death!—had shown herself as uncannily adept at outwitting Enterprises’ security measures as evading the human eye.
His thoughts were interrupted by Bud’s quiet voice next to him. “Thinking about the other time, genius boy? Up north?”
Tom nodded slightly. “I thought... we’d lost our best pilot for good.” For a brief but terrifying time Bud had been helplessly suspended in quantum space between here and there.
Bud nudged his pal. “Read the books. Same cliffhanger never happens twice.”
The moment arrived, and Tom contacted the head of the outpost technical operations team, Leotis Kintell, across many thousands of empty miles. “The arrival sphere is ready and waiting, Tom. The r-tronic field contours are perfectly stable. So, catcher’s mitt in place—go on and burn one in!”
“Let’s avoid that expression,” Tom muttered to himself. He nodded at Bud, who entered the telesphere with a stretched stride and stood at its center.
“We’re locked on,” reported Arv. “Linda?”
“On the mark.”
“Nominal and steady.”
“All right, Bud,” Tom said with dry lips. “See ya!” He threw over the master control lever, and his chum was suddenly—gone.
Tom stared at the PER unit in his left hand. Its silence dragged on for millisecond after millisecond. Then: “Hello down there, mortals!” Bud’s voice!
Tom exhaled tremulously. “Figured we’d hear from you one of these days! Anything interesting happen on the way?”
“Naa. Might as well o’ stayed home.”
Tom conferred at length with Kintell and the other scientists. “All in all, perfect. This is one of those historic days to mark on your calendar, Tom.”
“My calendar’s pretty full-up,” replied the youth wryly.
In moments Bud had taken his second step across space, standing again in the Enterprises telesphere. “I’m getting used to this business of going places without moving,” he declared. “But it’ll never replace jetting around in the sky. Sometimes a guy wants momentum!”
As Tom and his team began their final survey of the monitoring instruments, a bleep! came in on Tom’s tele-intercom. “Internal call,” Tom noted. “Hello, this is Tom.”
“It’s Gachter up in the space communications room.”
“Good grief, don’t tell me the space friends have decided to message us!”
“No, not them,” replied Nels Gachter. “But it is coming from space!—coming in over the magnifying antenna, normal Swift Enterprises transmission channel. It shows as originating at the space outpost.”
Tom eyebrows rose in surprise. “Oh? I was just talking to the telesphere crew up there on the PER. Is it from Ken Horton?”
“No,” Gachter replied. “Here, I’ll pipe it over to your com.”
Giving his friends a few words of explanation, Tom switched the mini-unit to speaker mode. “Mm, hello. Might this be Tom?” It was a woman’s voice.
“This is Tom,” responded the young inventor.
“And surely, Tom, you know who this is?”
Tom’s face drained of color. “We haven’t had all that many conversations, Pallida!” The others in the room exchanged gasps and glances.
“You sound perturbed, little man. Are you annoyed that I found my way from that dirty warehouse to this lovely, sterile oasis in space?”
Tom forced himself to answer. “I’m learning not to underestimate you, Pallida.”
“And I am learning not to overestimate you, Tom. Your foolish protective measures—repelascopes, quantum encryption!—so much effort wasted keeping me from you. Yet here I am. I can be where I wish to be, Tom—one place, two places, everywhere, nowhere. And now you know that you can’t stop me. Which is delightful, my dear, because where I want to be is—with you.”
“What’s it all about, Pallida? You’ve done your killing. Your boss the Cobra must have given you a raise.”
“I am my own boss,” she replied mildly, her voice slightly accented. “And really, I just thought I’d give you a call, a jingle, on the spur of the moment. I do miss you, Tom. Your playmate Bashalli can’t see you as I do. She cannot appreciate you. She sees only what you choose to reveal. But I see you as you are, whenever I like, every secret moment, while I myself remain a mystery. Have I not attained what every woman desires? To render a man utterly helpless?”
“Your mystery routine is wearing pretty thin,” Tom snapped heatedly. “I don’t know how you managed to stow away to get yourself up there to the space station, but I’m giving orders that nothing will be coming back down to Earth until—the deadline has passed. You’re stuck up there in space for the next couple weeks!”
“Oh? As I was trapped in the lab, sealed with DNA? Or in your helicopter? No, Tom, rid yourself of all illusions. You will find me at your side much sooner than you think.”
Tom tried to pursue the conversation, but it seemed Pallida Mors had broken off communication. With Gachter’s help, he contacted Ken Horton, who commanded the space outpost for Swift Enterprises. “No, amigo, nothing amiss up here in Sky Haven. You’re saying this spectral spy lady was using our transmitter?”
“I don’t know what transmitter she was using,” Tom replied. “We only know that her transmission was coming from the outpost.”
“Could she have stowed herself on the Space Kite and used its inbuilt radio?”
An unseen shrug was Tom’s response. “Unless she can make herself miniaturized as well as unseeable, I don’t see how she could have ridden up there in the Kite. But it’s possible, I suppose, that she hooked into the Kite’s conventional radio once she arrived there. She wasn’t using a PER.”
“We’ll start an immediate search, boss, but—the outpost doesn’t have all that many hiding places.”
“I know,” Tom replied. “Then again, any place is a hiding place for someone who can’t be seen in the first place. My main concern is keeping her bottled up until a security situation is resolved here on Earth—about ten days, Ken. I’ll get my father’s approval, but I don’t want any traffic between the outpost and the earth until the date has passed. Bob and Neil won’t mind; they were planning a three-week stay to help with the sun-scan project anyway.”
Next Tom spoke to his father, reporting the situation and receiving approval for Tom’s directive. “And I’ll contact both Fearing and Loonaui for you, son,” Mr. Swift assured him. “We’ll trap the deadly Miss Mors yet.”
“I sure hope so, Dad. But... her capabilities may be just as she claims. I’m beginning to believe the space technology Li Ching was given really does allow her to transport herself any distance—even be in two places at once!”
“Because she found a way to reach the outpost?”
“More than that. She mentioned ‘quantum encryption’ as a protective measure, and no one but you and I knew about that approach I was developing until less than an hour ago, when I mentioned it here, in this secure area!” The Shopton youth’s voice was freighted was amazement. “It’s as if she were here, undetected—and then, in an instant—there!”
As Tom clicked off, Bud broke the silence. “Genius boy, instant travel is what the telesphere does. Could she have stowed away with me, invisibly, when I was—sent?”
The young inventor shook his head, frustrated and, in a way, resentful. “How? She’d have to defeat the repelascope sensor perimeter to even get near. Even if she used one of those techno snuffbox machines, an alarm would sound if the system went down for even a second. Besides, the telesphere itself would detect any unanticipated extra mass inside its—”
“Tom!” The sudden interruption came from Gina Emiliotti. Tom looked her way—she was pointing. A strip of bright green paper was stuck to the telesphere control board, dangling from a scrap of tape!
Bud impulsively tore it loose and held it before his gray eyes. “It says... ‘Your father will be disappointed, Tom, for I’m as hard to trap as a wandering electron. Horton can search all he likes, but I’m down here now. When will you learn? I can get to you wherever you are, dearest inventor!’ ”
“Then it’s true, Skipper!” gulped Arv Hanson. “She was talking to you in the outpost within the last ten minutes—and wrote that message for you just now!”
THE LAB fell silent. Useless though it was, the five couldn’t stop their eyes from darting about. Was their unseen enemy present with them even now?
“Gina...” Tom began with faint voice, “just what did you see?”
The microtechnics engineer passed a hand across her eyes. “We were all just standing looking your way, Tom. You were talking to Bud. I, I guess I saw some movement from the corner of my eye—I glanced over and there it was on the control board.”
“She was probably blocking it with her anti-visible ‘silhouette’ while she wrote it and taped it in place,” Tom observed. “Anyone looking toward the board would just ‘see’ the default view they expected to see—until she moved aside.”
“It definitely wasn’t there while you were running the board, boss,” declared Linda Ming. “And... her comments—”
“I know. She’s clearly referring to things that were said in the last few minutes!”
“Not to sound too girlish,” said Gina, “but—oh my gracious! Can she see the future, too? Travel through time?”
Bud spoke up. “You may think you’re kidding, Gi, but we may be dealing with a lot more than we’ve realized! Tom, maybe she isn’t just using extraterrestrial technology—maybe she’s one of them!”
Arv Hanson glanced back and forth between Bud and Tom. “One of them? You mean—”
“Bud means an extraterrestrial,” stated Tom bluntly. “An alien agent operating on Earth, simulating a human for some reason.”
“We dealt with a human simulacrum in Aurum City, Skipper,” Bud reminded him. “One of the Space Friends ‘transcribed’ himself—itself!—into a replicated human body composed of synthetic materials.”
The young inventor rubbed a tense fist through the cutting edge of his crewcut. “Gosh, who knows what’s possible? But it’s sure a bizarre thought that incredibly advanced beings like the Planet X race, or the ones we call the Others, would work as a hired gun for petty human bosses like Li Ching or the faction we dealt with in Ugarta.”
“I wouldn’t suggest making too long a running jump at a conclusion, Tom,” Gina said, her mouth tracing out a slight smile. “It’s not utterly impossible that a mere woman might have figured out how to scam you. Do you really know that she was up in the space outpost just now? Or even in the Whirling Duck with you that time?”
“If she can make you not see her,” Linda pointed out, “she could probably make you think you have, too.”
“Jetz, Linda,” Bud exclaimed. He waggled the message paper in the air. “This isn’t an illusion!”
The five went their ways, Tom into a meeting in the security office, then down to the See-Hear room to report to Lenning Kelso in the White House. “All very unnerving, obviously,” declared Kelso. “We know this Pallida Mors character is aware of the threat to the President. If she learned of it from the Black Cobra—”
“My intuitions don’t count for much against your professional judgment, Mr. Kelso,” Tom offered, “but for what it’s worth, I don’t think the B.C. is involved in the Korea plot. Evidently he had hired Pallida to track down Rogg Krozze and keep him informed, but it seems she wasn’t keeping him informed after all. She didn’t let him know that Walker No-Face was present that night during the mugging near Club Lacunae, and she knew the location of the gang’s hideout but kept it from Li—or Li would have passed it along to me.”
“True. Li Ching obviously wanted the job—the ‘execution’—done as quickly as possible. Come to think of it, if Pallida had told him that she knew where Krozze was, Li wouldn’t have bothered asking his old enemy Tom Swift for help. He’s not the kind of fellow who cares to humble himself without some strategic necessity.”
Tom agreed, continuing: “Pallida clearly has some connection to the dake-transfer plot, sir, and if she can add the ability to neutralize my resilientronic shield to the protection the unseeability device gives her, she becomes—”
“The perfect assassin,” Kelso finished grimly. “Completely unstoppable. But Tom—”
“I know, sir. We must stop her!”
After a light supper in his office, Tom ridewalked across the Enterprises airfield toward Tower Three, Bud at his side. The last of the winter sun had vanished. The corded clouds were still touched with orange and pink here and there, reflected by the snow covering most of the plant grounds. But the crisscrossing runways were snowless, protected by batteries of fine-tuned repelatrons.
Bud was scrutinizing the small flat box Tom had handed him, about the size of a deck of cards. “The new shield generator, hmm?” Bud said. “For the Prez to wear under his best blue suit?”
“It’s version 5, made yesterday—and already outdated!” replied the young inventor. “Arv’s latest prototype, v6, will be ready tomorrow morning. That’ll be the one for the ‘Prez,’ we hope.
“Still, this one’s fine for my Tower Three tests. Squeeze it, pal—it’s not only light and flexible, but moldable. The whole assembly can be pressed flat against the President’s chest and held there by a bandage.”
“How’ll he turn it on? A mini-switch in his Old Glory flag pin?”
Tom chuckled. “It’ll be turned on by a coded signal from a Spektor controller unit, probably in my own hand—Kelso wants me on the scene in case my ‘genius’ is needed.”
Bud was quiet for a moment. When he spoke there were nerves in his voice. “Tom—even with whatever you’ve been working on to keep Pallida from remote-controlling the thing to death—so much depends on this little gadget. The shield can protect itself from solid-type stuff like bullets, and you’ll probably be able to neutralize that snuffer thing, but—look, pal, couldn’t something like an EMP blast knock out the shield circuitry by brute force? We did it to that torpedo from our dinky jetmarine, remember, and we sure didn’t have to use any fancy alien science.” As recounted in Tom Swift and His Jetmarine, the adventurers had countered a scientist’s doomsday torpedo by producing a crude electromagnetic pulse effect that had overwhelmed the torpedo’s internal electronics.
“Well for one thing,” Tom began in reply, “we have Inertite now, which seals the r-tronic generator’s innards against electromagnetic invasion.”
“Didn’t stop the gang’s snuffbox machine. Or however Pallida got control.” Bud handed the shield generator back to his pal.
“True enough. Even with two of the gang’s boxes in my possession to study, I haven’t been able to dope out the basic science. The emanations aren’t electromagnetic in nature, but more like the backlash-force those beacon-objects put out, the ones that came to Earth with the Memory Crypt.” These aeons-old artifacts, machined by unknown space conquerors, had added to the danger and mystery of Tom’s subocean geotron exploit. “You know, flyboy, it was right at that time that the ‘Others’ contacted Li Ching, to recover the Crypt for them. They might have been able to analyze the beacon transmissions and the electronic effect, passing devices based on it along to Li as payment.”
When Bud didn’t comment, Tom glanced at his pal, and then followed Bud’s gaze onto one of the nearby runways. A lone, lanky figure was striding their way in the pale twilight, grinning a greeting. “Hank!” Tom called with pleasure.
Hank Sterling called back, “Hi, you two! Just got back an hour ago—dropped off the brood and thought I’d see if boss and buddy felt like dinner in—”
The sentence remained incomplete, blocked by the growl of an engine. A big aircraft fuel truck had come to life and was cutting across the airfield, arrowing straight at Hank Sterling!
The young engineer stood paralyzed as if unable to believe what was happening. The truck’s headlights were dark, but its deadly intention was obvious. “Jetz! Hank! Get going!” Bud yelped. “Tom, he’s gonna run him down where he stands!”
Tom’s feet moved faster than any words of reply. The young inventor dashed forward madly—not in Hank’s direction but directly into the path of the truck!
As the roaring vehicle bore down on him, Tom’s lean, powerful right arm arced toward the runway. Bud could make out something small whirling through the air like a thrown grenade.
The shield-generator unit didn’t hit the tarmac. Its arc was suddenly arrested. It hung in space, slipping sideways aimlessly, a foot above the surface. Twenty feet to one side was Hank; fifty feet the other way—then forty, then thirty!—was the nose of the truck as it barreled along. The generator, a tiny, vulnerable speck, was now the only thing separating Hank from death!
But it was enough! The truck rammed into the invisible barrier of Tom’s resilientronic shield. The barrier, yielding though it was, had been allowed only minimal “give.” With a thudding boom! the tanker-truck halted in its tracks, its front bumper caving in, its hood slightly crumpling. A blast of furnace-like heat surged out in all directions from the gap between the unit and the truck, and an oval pattern of fine cracks spread through the tarmac for several-score feet.
As for the generator unit, it rebounded lazily. As for Hank, he suddenly sat down on the runway. His legs had had enough.
Bud sprinted up to Tom and gestured toward the truck. Motor racing, its tires had been skidding helplessly against the tarmac, straining to overcome the reverse-momentum force that held it back. Then with a sputter, its engine cut out.
“Tom!” Bud gasped. “If she’s inside—we can trap her!”
BUD BARCLAY was already in motion. He jetted around the front of the crumpled truck to the far side, Tom covering the nearer side, eyes focused keenly on the windshield and the doors. There was not sufficient light to see into the cab, but the pattern of cracks in the glass stood out like a silver spiderweb—two patterns, for Tom could make out not only the effect of the back-push of the windshield slamming into the edge of the field generated by his thrown unit, but also a radiating pattern that seemed to come from an impact from the inside, beyond the field perimeter. He noted grimly that Pallida Mors—or whoever had been driving—might well have been killed.
He knew something else, too. If the driver were alive and armed, he and Bud might end up breathless and flat on the tarmac!
Tom frantically sought out an angle next to the truck’s big tank, out of the line of sight from the cab. Then, even as he pressed tight against the cool metal, he heard Bud call out: “Skipper! Come on around to my side. It’s... okay.”
“Good night,” Tom murmured, “is she dead?”
He circled the back of the truck, joining his chum. The muscular San Franciscan stood at the door of the truck cab, wide open. But what he was indicating wasn’t inside, but scrawled on the side of the door—in pink!
IMPULSIVE OF ME
Tom rubbed a knuckle across one of the letters—and snorted. “Lipstick.”
“She must’ve written it before she got rolling,” Bud declared. “But what was she trying to do?”
Tom shrugged. “Beats me, but what she seems to be saying is—she saw Hank crossing the field and decided on impulse to run him down.”
Tom didn’t hesitate with a grim reply. “To hurt me, Bud. I think her feelings toward me are messed up, conflicted.”
“Yeah, you might have somethin’ there,” responded Bud with wry sarcasm. “Love and hate and craziness—been there, done that, pal.”
Tom nodded. “I know. Anyway, I think we’ll find a driver over by Hangar B with a bruise and a headache. She was probably already in her ‘unseeable’ mode when she saw Hank enter the airfield. Wouldn’t have been hard to sprint over, knock the guy out, and grab his keys.”
“Not hard if you’re trained and fit—a lady with muscle,” Bud observed. “Pallida’s a real Jill of all trades!”
“And mistress of all! Also,” Tom added, “as impulsive as Bud Barclay.”
“Yeah, I was waiting for that one.”
After carefully checking over the seemingly empty truck cab with four outstretched arms, the boys saw to Hank Sterling, agitated but unhurt. “H-holy mack!” he gulped. “And I was thinking how lucky I was, a vacation with no more of an inconvenience than a luggage break-in and a dummy PER! So the No-Face business you told me about is still going on?”
“I’m afraid so,” Tom confirmed. “And without the special detection setup I’ve put together, she can pop up anywhere. She could be standing a few feet away right now, listening! But I think we did learn something from this encounter,” he went on thoughtfully. “She must have her own resilientronic generator, and she probably keeps it with her at all times.”
“Why do you think so?” asked Bud.
“Just look at the cracks in the windshield, flyboy.” Tom pointed. “Something hit the glass from the inside, with a lot of concentrated force—her head, probably. But no sign of blood.”
“Right, I get it. Your shield stopped the truck by creating a barrier that the front ran up against, but Pallida was sitting further back. The truck stopped—she didn’t. The only way she got through it alive was—”
“By having her own shield. It was the force field around her head that hit the windshield; the resilience effect cushioned her.”
Bud looked again at the pattern of cracks, and winced. “That’s resilience? Jetz!”
Tom swiftly made his usual reports—to Enterprises Security, to Mr. Kelso in Washington, to his father that night at home. “Unseeable—and now nearly invulnerable,” Damon Swift mused. “If her ‘impulsiveness’ makes her part of the plot against the President, how can she be stopped? They’ll have to cancel the event, at whatever cost to peace and diplomacy.”
“And that may be the main idea in the first place!” Tom declared with anger. “The Black Cobra, or Rogg Krozze, or Pallida Mors—or someone!—has created a big enough, weird enough threat to block Nem’s obsessive need to play hero for the history books. The President doesn’t have to be assassinated to prevent the dake handover. Cancelling the ceremony works just as well!”
“But Mr. Kelso says the President is determined to go ahead...”
“Right up to the last minute. Dad, if the thing gets cancelled because the Secret Service can’t guarantee his safety, it won’t happen before his hand is on the doorknob!”
The following morning, icy but bright with sun, found Tom and his father skimming the lower stratosphere in his ultrasonic cycloplane, the SwiftStorm, as Bud piloted them toward a rendezvous in rural Illinois. “They won’t try to shoot us down, will they?” joked the jokester. “I mean, it’s an Air Force Base, right?”
“Was an Air Force Base, Bud,” corrected Mr. Swift with a smile. “Valdes AFB was decommissioned by budget cuts about ten years back—so the news told us. Actually, the government continues to operate it as a ‘theater’ for testing the big-engineering items that don’t make the papers, the ultra-secret technological developments. Perfect for Kelso’s Secret Service testing of the shield device.”
“And besides, flyboy, why worry?” grinned Tom. “We’ve got the v6 model of the Swift resilientronic shield to swat down any hostile fire—right?”
“Right. But still, I’m glad I forgot to take v5 out of my pocket yesterday. Double protection!—you never know.”
The whirling cyclocyls lowered them gently to the edge of the airfield, mere steps from the control tower building. They were met by Mr. Kelso and another man, young and fresh-faced behind his dark blue glasses and wearing a black suit, crisp white shirt, and azure tie. “This is agent Wilcox, gentlemen. He’ll be our live test subject when we get to that part of the agenda. Young and strong, fine health—we’ve recorded his full bio range for comparison.”
“We’ve never seen any trace of a medical problem, sir,” Tom noted. Of course there was Chow... Use only as directed, Tom thought.
“Nevertheless, we’re planting your device on the President of the United States. Everything gets a thorough live test, in advance, or no go. Policy.”
“Yes, Kelso, we understand,” stated Mr. Swift. “What’s first?”
“Indoor tests,” replied the agent. “Shooting range, that sort of thing. And, uh, this young man, Barclay...”
“Bud’s our technical assistant,” Tom explained hastily. “He needs to be present.”
“I’m aware that he’s been vetted and cleared,” continued Kelso with narrowed eyes. “Harlan vouches for him. All right, then. Let’s get on with it.”
The indoor tests, conducted and observed by various unspeaking persons who were never introduced, proceeded without incident. The series ended with Agent Wilcox donning the shield harness and taking a dead-on shot to the head!
“Still alive, agent?” called Kelso.
“How’d it feel?”
“Not much of anything, sir.”
“Good. We don’t want the President distracted. Mustn’t make him nervous. Onward, then—outside.”
Nearby, on the airfield, a slanting metal stairway—like the boarding stairs for an airliner—had been rolled into place. As Wilcox stoically mounted the stairs, Kelso explained: “The Protocols Review Group dreamed this one up. What if the attack weapon is an explosive device?—POTUS—that’s President of the Unites States, you know—could be blown right off his expensive executive shoes—blown into the air!”
“Mr. Kelso, I don’t think you fully understand—” Mr. Swift began.
“I know, I know, Damon, the shield will stop any flying shrapnel or burning materials. But you’ve noted that this momentum-flipping ‘mesh’ of yours is discontinuous down at the molecular scale.”
“Yes sir, that’s right,” Tom conceded. “Air passes through freely. It’s how the wearer is able to breathe.”
“In other words, atmospheric concussion would still be a danger,” continued the Secret Service chief, eyes squinting at Agent Wilcox on the platform atop the stairs. “We need to know how the shield deals with secondary shocks—being thrust into a wall, for instance; in this case, falling twenty-two feet onto the pavement. Not my idea, gentlemen, but the bosses have to convince their bosses that they’re earning their pay. Think it’s pointless and stupid? Absolutely. And I’d add contrived. Don’t quote me.” Kelso had Tom adjust his Spektor unit, re-extending the field to eight inches and sculpting the contour to include the bottom of the agent’s feet. The watchers could see Wilcox rise several inches off the platform, balancing himself awkwardly near the edge. “All right, Wilcox,” Kelso called out. “Big flying leap.”
“I could have done this test,” Bud whispered to Tom, who grinned. “Looks like real fun!”
Wilcox flung himself into space with a “Wahoo!” and made a nice arc as he fell, landing on his feet like a cat in a dark suit. But he didn’t land. Instead of settling down on the tarmac as expected, he rebounded, hurtling straight up!
“Hm,” sniffed Kelso. “Doesn’t look like what you gentlemen described.”
“No, sir,” responded Tom uneasily. “Let me check the readings on the controller.”
Wilcox seemed to be thumbing his nose at the laws of physics. The summit of his bounce was higher than the level of the platform he had jumped from—which was now well beyond his reach. Again he plunged downward, slowed almost to a stop—and once more rebounded with violent speed.
“Son, you’d better power-down the field,” suggested his father.
“I’ve been trying!” Tom murmured. “I can’t access the shield generator!”
Damon Swift turned pale. “You mean—Pallida Mors is —”
“Good night, she couldn’t have stowed away in the SwiftStorm!” Bud exclaimed. “Tom, you checked the entire fuselage with the repelascope scanner right after we sealed the hatch!”
“It may not be Pallida. More likely some simple malfunction, nothing deliberate.” The young inventor explained that the Spektor itself seemed to be functioning unimpeded, and was receiving diagnostic telemetry from Wilcox’s shield generator. “From what I’m seeing, I’d say there’s a failure in the generator’s own control circuitry, the unit’s internal mechanism.”
Agent Wilcox had now undertaken his repetitive journey several times, each bounce lifting him higher. “S-sir!” he yelped. “Is the—is the test concluded—?”
“It seems we have a flubber scenario, agent,” Kelso shouted back. “How are you bearing up?”
“Uh... nominal... sir...”
“Speak freely, Wilcox.”
“G-getting a little carsick—er, bounce-sick...”
“The guy’s turning green,” Bud commented.
“The field’s resiliency is cushioning him, but it has enough give to allow his insides to get shoved around. He feels every bounce.” Thoughts energetic and intense, Tom was frowning deeply. “If we don’t land him, he could suffer serious internal damage.”
“Whatever is going on is getting worse, not better,” declared his father.
“According to the Spektor, the reverser bubble is expanding—that’s why his bounces are getting higher.”
“Well, this is yours to take care of, Swifts,” Kelso stated, seeming more annoyed than worried. “I need my agent back on duty in one piece.”
Bud suggested, “Why doesn’t he just switch it off by hand as he comes near the ground? If the Spektor can’t access the unit, I know there’s a secondary control set built into the harness box itself.”
Agreeing, Tom called out instructions to Wilcox—but the approach failed. “The internal cyber-technics are ‘looping,’ somehow. The standard control commands can’t break through. But... ” A solution had dawned on Tom Swift. “Bud, give me the v5 unit, the one in your pocket.”
Bud fished it out eagerly. “Sure, I get it! With two generators running, er... actually, chum, I have no idea what you’re planning.”
“I’ll explain after it works! —I’m getting airborne in the cycloplane.”
“You mean—snatch him in midair?” asked Bud. “Skipper, you won’t be able to touch him while his—”
Faced with skepticism and an agent who was turning colors, Tom quickly explained his idea to the others. And then Bud had another idea! “You’re not doing this, Tom—I am!”
“I’m better at this kind of thing,” insisted the muscular youth. “I mean, man, I dangled from the monorail track over the Grand Canyon!”
“I had to rescue you.”
“Don’t get technical.” Before Tom could reply, Bud had grabbed the Spektor from his chum’s hand and was racing toward the SwiftStorm.
As the cyclocyls revved up, Kelso called out, head tilted back and hingeing: “Agent, how many bounces is that?”
“Um—I—I—haven’t been counting—sir.”
“What did you eat today, Wilcox?”
The cycloplane mounted skyward at a slow but deliberate pace, coming to a stop a couple hundred feet directly above the hapless, oscillating agent. “The plane’s cybertron will keep her steady,” Tom told his father and Mr. Kelso. “Bud’s used the radar-updated topographic emulator to hover exactly above Wilcox’s line of motion.”
“Precision counts,” nodded Kelso. “After all, he’s bailing out of an aircraft without a parachute.”
“Yes sir,” Tom said brusquely. “Precision counts.”
“All in the cause of security. Your friend’s taking quite a risk, isn’t he?”
“His resilientronic field will protect him.”
“Of course. Then again...”
“I know, Mr. Kelso. That’s what we said about Wilcox’s field.”
Bud was in position. With a wave and a gulp, he flung a leg over the edge of the SwiftStorm’s hatchway, touched the switch on the Spektor strapped to his forearm—and headed groundward!
LIGHT ON THE SUBJECT
AT TOM’S DIRECTION, the three watchers—Tom, Mr. Swift, and Kelso—had assumed their own positions around the spot where Agent Wilcox had been almost-landing, standing at arm’s length like the points of a triangle. Even as Bud jumped from the cycloplane, Wilcox had bottomed out and was beginning his rebound.
The falling Barclay met the rising Wilcox halfway. As the watchers watched tensely, craning their necks, the aerialists came near, a matter of a few feet, and the mutual-repulsion effect that Tom had first experienced on the streets of Shopton came into play. In his mind’s eye Tom could see the two fields overlapping—and suddenly the shield-nauts were in full ricochet, Bud straight up toward the cycloplane, Wilcox straight down toward a circle of waiting arms.
Wilcox was no longer engaged in a lazy bounce. He was zooming downward like a bazooka shell! As he hit bottom his great velocity overcame most of the field’s cushion effect. The agent squished down as if landing on a giant wad of discarded chewing gum, giving the three enough time to close their arms around him.
Momentum, and anti-momentum, were not easily defeated. The rescuers’ couldn’t force their arms any closer to the man’s body than a couple feet all around, and Wilcox seemed as slippery as a freshly lubricated fish. The vise of arms was closing in somewhat above the agent’s shoulders—the contoured field curved inward there, fortunately, and the shield couldn’t force its way through. He was caught! Nevertheless, there was a long moment of thrashing oscillation.
The oscillation dissipated—and suddenly Wilcox tumbled down flat to the tarmac. “As I thought,” Tom panted. “Constraining his momentum cancelled the looping effect inside the unit’s ‘brain.’ It finally recognized the deactivation command.”
The agent somehow struggled to his feet. “How do you feel, Wilcox?” asked Kelso. The agent’s reply was forceful and nonverbal, down the front of his white shirt.
Kelso turned to Tom. “I assume this is a fixable problem?”
The young inventor had already removed the little generator chassis from Wilcox’s harness and had flipped open the service panel on the side. He studied the threads of light on the inner surface of the panel. “The circuit-logic diagnostics tell the tale. It was a programming error in the deactivation buffer. The mistake was mine.” Tom looked up at his father sheepishly. “Sorry, Dad.”
Damon Swift gave a reassuring smile. “I don’t expect you to be perfect, son. Just flawless.”
Bud, having gently landed nearby without rebounding, had switched of his field. “Piece o’ cake, fun-seekers!” As he used his Spektor to guide the cycloplane to a landing, Tom clapped his chum on the back.
“Another great entry for your fictionalized biography, flyboy,” Tom chuckled. “Now to fix my programming error and retry the test.”
“Mm-hmm.” Bud gave Tom a wry look. “Remember what I said about wanting to do the test myself?”
“You got it.”
There were no further problems in the run of tests, and Len Kelso pronounced himself satisfied. “I expect full authorization,” he told the Shoptonians. “As of now, we can assume that the ceremony will go ahead as planned. I thank you on behalf of your President and your country.”
“Don’t forget world peace,” said Tom dryly.
One the way back to Shopton, Bud observed, “Looks like your girlfriend Pallida stayed away from this one, Skipper.”
Tom groaned. “Please don’t call her that.”
“If I’ve followed your progress closely enough, son,” said Mr. Swift, “there’s little further to do in perfecting the v6 shield.”
The youth nodded. “It’s ready for the President. All that remains—we can call it v6.5—is to plug in the new protective system, the ‘inner shield’ to keep Pallida, or anyone, from gaining override control remotely. Even if I can’t get a handle on just how the snuffbox devices work, we know they’re very selective in what they affect. The anti-remoter should make the circuitry ‘read’ as an entirely different device.”
Back at Swift Enterprises, the young inventor worked diligently throughout the afternoon and into the dark of the evening. As a light snow began to dapple down from the skies, his efforts were interrupted by the Chow Winkler foghorn. “Figgered you’d still be brain-bustin’ up here, boss,” declared the cowpoke chidingly. “No sundown vittles, and it’s hours after sundown—right near 10!”
Tom eyed Chow’s food cart distractedly. “Oh... is it? Didn’t I already have supper?”
“Naw, thet was a poor excuse fer a late afternoon snack. Don’t like spur o’ the moment put-togethers like that. Might as well o’ had that ol’ Boris whip it up fer ya.”
“Right, Boris—say, I don’t think I’ve seen him lately.”
“Me neither, son. Seems like he’s been of a mind to stay outta sight. Nervous like.” Chow gave a broad, blandly mischievous smile. “Wonder what made ’im so shy all of a sudden.”
“I—er—couldn’t guess,” replied Tom.
“Best not to,” the westerner advised.
After dinner, Tom continued his work in the office, sometimes pausing to review all the strange twists and turns of events since Captain Rock had first brought the eerie Walker No-Face to Tom’s attention. The case seemed concluded. Krozze was dead, Chigger’s gang in jail, Li Ching apparently quiescent for the moment. But Pallida Mors... Tom thought. Does she still have “pale death” in mind for someone? For the President? For me?
His tiny SwiftCell, perched in place above his ear, chirped to announce an in-plant call. “This is Tom.”
It was Gina Emiliotti, her voice tense and urgent. “Tom, I’m standing next to the ridewalk by the big dynamics test tank—look out your window.” Tom did so, and could make her out easily against a drift of snow. She waved at him. “Listen, I think—I’m sure the Phantom Lady is pulling some stunt up in Tower Three!”
“Great space!” Tom gasped softly.
“I was working late over in my ‘shop’ and took a glance in that direction. I seem to be able to see the silhouette of the effect these optical-replacer things produce; I did the night we were mugged, remember? Something about my beady little eyes, I suppose...”
“You saw her?”
“It seems to me I saw something moving along against the falling snow, in front of the Tower Three entrance door. And Tom—a minute later the lights came on in the top floor lab, the—”
“The lab where I’ve been working on immunizing the shield controller from remote interference!” Tom grated. “No one should be up there right now!”
“I know she’s able to defeat the lock systems...”
Tom could see the tower building from his window. “The light’s still on. It’s a good bet she’s inside—spying or sabotaging!”
“Shall I call Security? The night crew?”
“No, Gina,” was the terse reply. “Ames and Radnor have gone home, and I’d rather not leave this to the late-shift guards. Look—get yourself away from the situation. It could be dangerous.”
“You’re going to try to trap her yourself, aren’t you, Tom.”
“I have a few tricks up my sleeve.”
“Please... be careful.”
“Gina, thanks—now go!”
Pausing only a moment to gather his wits and some support equipment, the young inventor elevatored to ground level and hastened to the Tower Three building, taking a roundabout way so as not to be seen from the elevated lab’s big wall window. The overhead lights in the lab still shone brightly—and it seemed to Tom that something passed by the window as he looked, something his eyes couldn’t quite catch!
Reaching the tower’s top floor, he slipped cautiously from the elevator and padded as silently as possible to the lab. Though the door was shut, Tom could see that the electronic lock was in the “open” mode. She’s inside! Tom thought. Pallida—we meet again!
The youth slipped through the door and made two quick motions, one to shut the door, the other to kill the overhead lights. “You know, Pallida,” he said aloud, “your unseeability effect isn’t quite perfect. There’s enough light coming through the window for me to make out that you’re standing there, in front of the shadows on the wall.” As he spoke his hands were working behind him, feeling their way along the door frame. “But don’t bother to move and hide—definitely don’t bother to shoot me or cut off an ear or whatever you like to do for fun.” A slight metallic click came from behind Tom. “Because, see, I’ve enhanced the electronic lock on this lab door with something more traditional—an old-fashioned padlock requiring an old-fashioned key! Know what that is? It’s hidden here in this room. You won’t find it easily. And I’m pretty sure, seeable or unseeable, you won’t care to be discovered in here with a dead body when Security comes looking for me. An employee ‘made’ you, Pallida, and saw the light come on.” The silhouette moved slightly, and Tom took up a new position across the lab, near a workbench.
“Pardon me, ma’am,” he continued. “I know this is the big confrontation, and the evil genius is expected to do a lot of ranting and explaining. Mind if I take your turn? After all I’ve been through, I deserve a chance to brag!”
Tom heard a sound—a muffled giggle.
“I know how you faked those ‘teleportation’ incidents. Up in the Whirling Duck I didn’t know what I was dealing with—but Pallida Mors has shown real athletic prowess, and it’s easy to figure out that you just did some skillful crouching and twisting to avoid me. And you exited the chopper through the door in the normal way, just as you did when you got aboard.
“As to your phony bilocation in the space outpost, all you had to do was patch into the space antenna in the communications room, maybe even as Nels was working there. You were here at Enterprises the whole time. You’re obviously a high-level employee with wide access— I suppose you planted an audio bug in the hangar, so you could hear my end of the conversation and respond appropriately—”
A faint whisper interrupted. “No.”
“Oh? Well then, we have an interesting conversation ahead of us.” Tom suddenly reached out a hand, putting his finger on a button on the workbench. “This lab was an unlucky choice to do your dirty work in—doubly unlucky if you’re dumb enough to turn on the light. Because, Pallida, ever since the night of the Christmas tree lighting, I’ve been working to duplicate the particular phase-frequency mix that—this may be news to you!—overcomes the unseeability effect, fills in the blank. My special lamps are all set up and ready. Don’t you think it’s time I feasted my deep-set blue eyes on your lovely form?”
Tom pressed the button, and the lab was flooded with a strange glow, its eerie coloration intense and disconcerting to the eye.
Across the room, Pallida Mors stood revealed!
“And what do you think, my sweet young inventor? Am I as you imagined?”
Tom could not answer—he was stunned!
“YOU CAN’T imagine what a relief it is to drop that exotic ‘foreign’ accent,” said Pallida Mors with a pretty smile. “But of course I just had to make my voice match my exotic name.”
It took Tom long moments to find his voice, and then his voice was faint, almost musing. “Pallida Mors—actress, athlete, impersonator. Expert at guns, scuba diving, horse riding... and technology, electronics...”
“Nanotechnics, specifically. Micro-engineering, cyber circuits, even quantum applications nowadays.”
“You’ve been with us for—”
“Years, boss. Before you, your dad. Before Swift Enterprises, the Swift Construction Company.” Pallida Mors—Gina Emiliotti—kept her smile, but her voice took on a rueful, even bitter, tone. “Top talent, absolute trust, patrolscope amulet, electronic master key, and my own space in the executive parking lot. And yet, Tom... why is it so unfulfilling? I’ve been overlooked in this company of clever men, this big scientific boys club. I’ve been overlooked by you, Tom. Don’t deny it. Am I so much older that you, pretty boy, can’t possibly find me attractive?”
“Gina,” Tom said earnestly, “if we’ve—I’ve—somehow... hurt you, or made you feel—”
“Forget it,” she snapped. “It doesn’t matter. I’ve been overshadowed and exploited by men all my life. My three brothers were praised for their ambitions; I was told no woman could ever get ahead in the world of engineering and science. Small-minded males!—I made something of myself. I didn’t need your permission. Men paid me for my services—spy, thief, assassin!”
“Do you really think the Black Cobra respected you, Gina? As a woman—as anything?”
“Mmm, Comrade-General Li Ching,” she replied without emotion. “He paid me well to try to track down Krozze. And all the while I stole from him. I tracked down Krozze, cut a deal, collected my fee for passing along some wonderful Swift weaponry—and then, only then, did the job Li had originally hired me to do. He presumed to think I’d failed! —Who mastered whom, Tom? He knows I outwitted him, defeated him—that’s respect enough.
“Well anyway,” continued Gina, “it seems in this case the tables have been turned. You’ve trapped me, you and your silly padlock. That element was unexpected, Tom. A bad hair day on my part.”
“But...” A disturbing thought rang in Tom’s mind. “It was you yourself who got me up here. You wanted me in this room.”
“Why yes!” She nodded. “Sure did. That word ‘wanted’... Let’s think about everything that word can mean. Love, hate—don’t you think both are really guises for the same thing, passion? How could I satisfy either one unless I caused you to come to me, to stand in front of me? By strange fate, I had planned to switch off the neuro-optical device anyway, to let you see me for a moment, and then—but now there’s no reason to tell you. And I certainly can’t show you!—now.”
Tom pulled up his heavy fleece sweatshirt, revealing the resilientronic shield generator attached to his belt. “Already running, of course. Contoured to within a few inches of my skin. I didn’t intend to rely entirely on logic to keep you from shooting me.”
She laughed. “Of course. After all, I’m really just another silly woman; who says I’m logical? You can only be sure I’m deadly. And in my encounters with men—always well prepared.” She pulled from a deep pocket a small square device—another shield generator!—and flicked the activation control with the nail of a delicate finger. “So now it seems our intimacies are to be foiled by a double wall of, mm, protection.
“Or would you like a kiss, darling? Tell you what—you drop yours and I’ll drop mine!”
“Not tonight—‘dear’,” retorted the young inventor. “Enough playing around, Gina. With or without the shield, you’re stuck in here until I get the key—or let Enterprises personnel cut through the door with an X-raser. I think you’re realistic enough to know when to negotiate. I can’t hold back the law, but it buys you something if you tell what you know about the plot against the President.”
“Now that’s a good point, Tom,” she said mockingly. “It seems I ought to surrender to you. You’re the boss, aren’t you? Mr. Swift?
“But we don’t want to end this too hastily, do we? I haven’t yet boasted about the locator beacon in my clutch bag, which I had to wave around a bit before that dull-witted mugger finally took it. Made it boringly easy to find their hideout. Though my nominal employer, the Great Helmsman, was left in the dark about it. No points for guessing that I faked my ‘sightings’ of Unseeable Pallida. I did skin a knee when I enacted being knocked down in the hallway, though. Shall I explain why I didn’t need a bug in the big hangar that day?”
“You had a TeleVoc on you,” said Tom.
“Yes indeedy, vocal transmission without opening one’s mouth. Easy enough to converse with you, by way of the space antenna patch-in. Incidentally, I had no idea the lighting effects produced by that resonator—we worked on it together!—could override my unseeability advantage. Well, that’s alien technology for you. Unreliable.”
Tom was tense, sensing that there was still a struggle to come. “Enough of this. Will you cooperate? That padlock is made of magtritanium; you won’t be getting out through the door.”
“Mm, magtritantium. Yes,” she replied, “I think you’re right. No door. So it’ll have to be the window. Won’t it?”
“You’re nuts!” barked Tom with more certitude than he felt. “We’re eight stories up! And anyway, that’s a Tomaquartz pane. Even hitting it with the full force of your shield wouldn’t shatter it.”
“Very true,” nodded Gina Emiliotti. She moved her fingers over her generator box. “But what about a combined effect, hmm? What about shooting a swift projectile at it—surrounded by its own shield?”
Tom’s hand instantly went to his shield controls. The expected bleep! of deactivation didn’t come. He was unable to switch off his shield!
“Staying turned on? Very flattering. It also shows the advantage of looking over your shoulder as you designed that Tom Swift invention that was supposed to defeat my control-intruder. Seems I’m in control right now after all.” She backed up slightly against an anchored lab table, as if you brace herself. “I can imagine your feelings, Tom. Men just hate a powerful woman! They have such nice words to describe us.
“But I suppose I can’t hold you responsible for your neural programming. At this point in our relationship... well, we need to give each other some space.” With her thumb, Gina made some adjustments on the front of the box in her hand, which evidently was linked to the hidden techno-override controller device. Instantly Tom could see—almost—her field expand, jostling against loose objects as it leapt toward him. He tried to stand his ground, but knew when her shield had touched his, feeling a slight quivering pressure from the recoil effect.
Gina spoke again. “It’s not too late, Tom. Shall I drop both our force-fields for some quick lipwork? You’d enjoy it more than anything that Pakistani girl can come up with. Over the years I’ve been told more than once: ‘I love your work!’ —But no, you’re just not in the mood. Sigh-sigh, the moment has passed. This modern world of ours... always just hello-and-goodbye.” She waggled her fingers at Tom with her free hand. “Oh, stop frowning, sweetie. No need to think anymore. All done now. Only eight floors. Spectacular nighttime view of your family invention factory, all sixteen square miles. You’ll enjoy your fall, the rush of wind against your neck—which you’ll feel keenly all the way. Because as soon as you’ve broken through your ever-so-manly Tomaquartz window, I’ll shut off your resilientronic shield... forever, you know. Just like love.”
Gina giggled, then gave her victim a strange and serious look. “Oh well. I’m being silly. Tom Swift, alas. We’re about to have a really ugly breakup.”
Her thumb moved. Tom felt himself caught up in the repulsion-reaction between their two fields, felt himself shoot backwards helplessly as Gina’s field surged out to its maximum radius. A bit of the lab flew by, then a blur where the frame of the big window was—was formerly, now just a sound, loud and sharp, more a bang than a crash. He saw glinting, whirling things all around him, sliding along the contours of his shield as he sloughed them off.
He saw a gray night sky, shadowed by winter. He saw, somewhere or other in space, dark runways, thin mats of snow, lights, strips of pathways that flowed along like water. And the snow, little shreds, floating all about him, reflecting, now being left behind as if falling upward.
He heard jet engines, the whisper of air, then something more, the bleep! that announced the deactivation of his shield. Short and high-pitched. Yet it had a keening sound, a note of mournfulness.
It was a goodbye.
Tom was eight stories up. And falling.
WHAT DIDN’T HAPPEN
“LIE STILL, Mr. Swift. I’ve called Medical.”
“Frank Milo. Can you read my tag? Vision all right?”
“I—guess so, Frank.”
“You cold? Starting to snow again.”
“No... my face, a little...”
“Afraid I don’t have anything to bundle around you, Tom. Please don’t move. Did you really—I mean, I saw you falling... You didn’t even black out!”
Tom gasped a little, gazing up at the snowy sky, partially blocked by the looming face of the Enterprises security patroller. “Got through it okay, Frank... all eight stories. I think I did, anyway—or are you an angel?”
The man smiled down. “I’m from Pittsburgh.”
Tom was checking, mentally, the inputs from his various limbs. All was well. “Don’t get shook, Frank... I’m going to move my hand. Th-there—just shut down my device, my invention...”
The man named Frank nodded. “Knew it had t’ be something like that. Some kind of plastic-wrap cushion around you? Couldn’t get my hand closer than a few inches...”
Tom didn’t answer the question, but said: “Listen, someone else may have fallen too, a woman. Look around. Do you see—”
The man stood to full height for a moment and looked about. “Nobody in sight. But a little ways away there’s a big oval mark in the snow, sorta like the one around you.”
“Well... maybe. Snow’s filling them in.”
“She’s using the neuro-optic machine,” the young inventor murmured.
The guard seemed concerned by his young employer’s mumbling. “Er, yeah, well... talk to me, Tom. What happened? Tell me. Some kind of test?”
“That’s what it turned out to be.” Tom suddenly grinned. “I’m trying to enhance my rep. Some day I hope to be a professional scientist-inventor.”
Tom went on, talking as much to himself as to Frank Milo. “Gina... Pallida... she used her controller-interrupter to shut down my resilientronic shield... as soon as she’d used me to break through the window. As I fell... see, Frank, I... kept thumbing the switch, like some kind of reflex. But I think part of me had it figured out, Frank. Her machine has a limited range, see? We found that out. Forty feet, fifty feet—whatever. I was falling away from her, and as soon as I passed out of range I, I knew my shield generator would be able to be activated again. Except... wh-what if she jumped after me right away?... She might be too close all the way down... in range... I remember hearing the beep, though, and... suddenly... like I was sinking deeper and deeper into a feather bed...”
Lights were flashing and darting all around. “The night medic team is here, Tom. Dr. Simpson has been called—”
“Security—tell Security—Pallida Mors...” A stretcher was eased into place under Tom. He was lifted up. “No, please, I feel fine!” And then the white of snow became blackness that covered him.
Tom awoke already talking. “I—I’m sorry, Doc. What was I saying? Where am I?”
Simpson smiled patiently. “The plant infirmary, Skipper, to remind you for the fifth time. Recovering from a sudden deceleration that fortunately fell well short of a splat. And here’s your Dad.”
Damon Swift’s head moved into view. “I just called your mother, son. Thank God I had good news.”
“Th-thanks, Dad...” said the scientist-inventor woozily. “Or maybe—I’m sorry—for attracting insane stupid situations... like falling eight floors.”
“The insanity was all on Gina Emiliotti’s side,” insisted Mr. Swift grimly. As Tom began to speak, his father said: “No, you don’t need to talk. You’ve told us the whole story—bits and pieces. Your shield saved you, of course. You described her attitude during the confrontation.”
“One conflicted lady,” put in Doc.
“One can but wonder—did she spare you deliberately, son? Did something hold her back?” Mr. Swift answered himself with a shrug. “Perhaps inducing fear was enough for her.”
“Then she pretty well got her money’s worth!” declared Tom.
It soon became clear that Gina Emiliotti had left Enterprises immediately, driving her car off into the winter night before the alarm was raised. Her home in Shopton was found abandoned and in disarray, with no clues to help the police, the FBI, or any of the tight-lipped crowd that descended upon it in the hours and days after the incident.
Had Pallida Mors evaporated? No one could afford that rash assumption.
“But my higher-ups have signed off on going ahead, Tom,” Len Kelso stated over the quan-TV. “Now that you’ve deleted this Emiliotti woman’s bio-signature clearance—whatever you call it—from your scanning device, the risk of her interfering is low enough to be acceptable—given the stakes. No chance of any long-distance override of the shield controls, I take it?”
Tom replied carefully. “Mr. Kelso, I can’t say, honestly, no chance. It’s a risk. But I’ve continued to study the two nullifier units we took from the gang. I have no idea—yet!—how to reverse-engineer them, but I’m confident that my ‘camouflage chip’ in the shield generator and the Spektor will make them ‘unseeable’ to the interrupter function.”
Kelso smiled slightly. “Unseeable—that’s the word for the whole affair, hm? But now we know how to make the unseeable seeable, don’t we—Christmas lights! Good Lord and God-a-mighty!
“At any rate, the President will proceed with the ceremony as scheduled. The North Koreans have confirmed—quite a diplomatic coup. We’ve kept participation in the ceremony to the very minimum Nem seems to require—just enough to make him the historic peacemaker he wants to be. Small room, minimum crowd. I hope your father, your friend Barclay—”
“They understand, sir. This isn’t some sort of adventure, it’s—”
“Let’s just say not fun—and not meant to be thrilling!”
The day popped-up at last, and the sun greeted it by shining in a bright blue sky—A pale sky, Tom thought silently, but no trace of “pale death”! Tom flew to New York in a company jetrocopter, Harlan Ames at his side. “Apparently I’m classified as adjunct security personnel,” chuckled the older man. “I appreciate Len’s invite. It’ll be good to see him, and some of the agents I used to work with will be there too.”
They landed at the leased Enterprises pier on Long Island and motored to the location of the ceremony, the Korean Cultural Historical Society building in Manhattan. As they arrived by taxi, Harlan Ames stealthily pointed out the various watchpoints and plain-clothes agents along the block. “There’s Harve—I trained him—and the lady with the shopping bag is Heather McQuairre.”
The two arrived and were ushered into a side room crowded with Secret Service agents in various modes of dress, some scrutinizing small monitors. “Security in all makes and models,” chuckled Lenning Kelso, greeting them heartily. “Quite a bit of it is Enterprises stuff—Eye-Spy cameras, analytracers, little repelatrons to knock rude stage-rushers off their feet... And of course your ‘big reveal’ lights and repelascan sensors—500 foot radius for those.”
“Some day you boys will have to start using our i-guns,” smiled Ames. “Makes life a lot easier.”
“Mm-hmm, ‘less work for mother.’ Got to repeal the special restrictive statute first, Harlan—nervous people in Congress, and two big lobbies that agree—miraculously!—that government agents shouldn’t go beyond laser pens on American soil.” Kelso motioned Tom and Harlan closer and lowered his voice. “Okay, two things.
“Tom, go in, sit down in your reserved seat, and then switch-on the President’s shield—good thing your control signal works through walls; he’ll be in the Safe Room next door. He’ll enter, listen to the talking, do some talking, motion Nem over, and stick out his hand.”
“That’s when I contract the shield contour around the President’s hand,” Tom nodded.
“Wait until their hands are close—we’ve put you at a good angle to see. When Nem pulls back his hand, close-up the envelope. Remember, none of the Koreans know anything about the whole business, including your force field. And then POTUS will immediately leave the presentation area—there’s no dais—and get hustled back to the Safe Room—it’s something of a violation of protocol, but we’ve managed some diplomatic excuses. Do not deactivate the shield, Tom—do not!—until you and I are in the Safe Room with the President.” Kelso grinned. “And then he wants to shake your hand, kid!”
“Understood,” replied Tom.
“You said there were two things, Len?” prompted Ames.
“Well, yes. As it turns out, this whole business is probably unnecessary.”
The mouths of the two Shoptonians formed the word “What!—?” as they dropped open in amazement!
Len Kelso had a wry look on his face. “Yes sir. Bernt Ahlgren’s unit has intercepted traffic indicating that the ‘third party,’ the ones trying to stop the dake transfer, have called off the hit—evidently because they’ve learned about our Swift protective technology and don’t care to risk the exposure.”
“It’s been confirmed?” asked Ames.
“Alpha-2 confidence, Harlan—you remember. Highly confident, but don’t kennel the dogs. We’re going forward with all security protocols.” One of the agents whispered to Kelso, who checked his watch. “All right, gentlemen. Take your seats—Randall here will play usher.”
The Library was an inner room with no windows. The audience was small—Tom counted twenty-two in the chairs, another ten, black-jacketed, standing next to the walls and doors; he wondered how many were from the mysterious Collections unit. Nem O-ku, beaming, sat with stone-faced dignitaries next to the open area where microphones had been set up.
Tom and Ames were motioned into their chairs, and Tom instantly activated the pre-programmed setting in the Spektor that he held, as inconspicuously as possible, in his damp hands. There was no sound this time, but a welcome LED flicked on. The President’s resilientronic fortress had been established!
The wait seemed lengthy, but at last the President entered to a dignified, muted reception. The customary speeches, some translated, followed, and then Nem O-ku was introduced. A frail, wheezing figure, he was led toward the President. Two open hands advanced toward one another.
As they came within inches, Tom touched his control. He was confident in his invention—yet couldn’t help stiffening, then exhaling with relief, as the historic handshake took place. As Nem stepped back and Tom sealed the barrier again, the President looked directly at the young inventor and grinned broadly. Tom knew the meaning of that look—the tiny flake of data, one big key to world peace, had completed its perilous journey to American hands!
As planned, the President was guided from the room, leaving with a wave. The audience endured the remainder of the ceremony. Then at last it was over. As the listeners filtered out, Kelso entered grinning and clapped Tom and Ames on their backs. “Perfect! And what’s really sweet is, it’s behind us! Now follow me into the Safe Room—don’t touch that dial just yet, Tom.” He led the Shoptonians down a short hallway and into a two-room suite, a small reception room opening into a larger room where the President was submitting to the concluding ministrations of his Secret Service. He waved jauntily through the doorway toward Tom and Harlan, calling out: “Can’t quite close the deal until you drop the wall, Tom.” The young Shoptonian knew the dake, like anything else, couldn’t penetrate the invisible shield, outbound as much as incoming.
“Go on in, Tom,” said Kelso, gesturing. “I know you’ve shaken his hand before, but Presidential handshakes are real collectibles.”
The young inventor took a few steps into the room and paused, lifting the Spektor in his hand to signal the invisible wall to fall. He looked at the control unit—and stopped. His long fingers hovered over the buttons and slider-switches. Tom’s brow furrowed. Seconds passed.
“Go ahead, Tom,” said Kelso, behind his back in the reception room, Harlan Ames at his side.
Abruptly Tom turned and looked back, staring and silent. “Tom?” asked Harlan.
“Don’t keep the boss waiting, Tom,” urged Mr. Kelso. “Switch off the shield. It’s time. The danger has passed.”
The youth looked down at his Spektor again, then again at Kelso. Tom’s fingers seemed frozen. Kelso’s face darkened. “Oh, great day, Swift, I’ll do it for you.” He strode forward and, before Tom could react, grabbed the unit from Tom’s hand, pivoting like a soldier and marching back into the reception room.
“No!” choked Tom. “Harlan—don’t let him push that button!”
Ames’s strong hand shot out and clamped onto Kelso’s wrist. “Wait, Len. Wait a moment.”
Kelso reddened—and yet his tense face seemed to bear a half-smile. “This is ridiculous.”
As Kelso’s free hand moved toward the unit, Tom made a desperate dash, stretching to seize the Spektor. Kelso reared away from Tom, trying to shake off Ames’s hand. “Agents, restrain Mr. Swift and Mr. Ames! They’re interfering with the program!”
Harlan kept his grip and barked: “Harve—Ed—you know me! If Tom Swift says the button doesn’t get pushed—it doesn’t get pushed.”
Tom tried again—and failed again—to grab the Spektor. “Everyone—agents—listen to me—if Kelso switches off the force field, the president will die! Harlan—”
Ames’s eyes met Tom’s. “It’s Kelso, isn’t it.” Ames spoke stonily—and then struck like a cobra on the attack, violently wrenching Kelso’s forearm upward and knocking the Spektor from his hand! As Tom plucked the tumbling unit from midair, Ames forced Kelso’s arm behind his back. “Stand down, Len. I mean it.”
Len Kelso’s muscles suddenly lost their resolve. “Agents Frye and Minton, Protocol Ninety, Immediate,” he ordered his men briskly.
“But—Mr. Kelso—do you mean—” protested Agent Frye.
“I do, agent. Unholster your weapons and place me in status-one custody. —Well, go on, Ed, that’s an order.” The agents drew their guns and Ames released his grip on Kelso, turning to Tom.
Hands trembling, Tom had already flipped open the service panel on the Spektor unit. “As I thought. Harlan, the chip containing the power-down buffer circuitry—the command component that moderates the field-collapse problem that causes a catastrophic implosion—has been replaced by a dummy. I’ll have to send the power-down command sequence by hand.” He looked up at Ames and the others. “If he’d switched off the shield generator, the President would have been crushed!”
“As in the lab accident you told me about,” nodded Ames. “I suppose you suspected it when you noticed that Len was hanging back—staying in this room to avoid the inrushing air blast.”
“I guess I did notice that subconsciously,” replied the young inventor. “That’s why I hesitated—something felt wrong. But the real giveaway—”
“Oh yes, I know,” declared Kelso bitterly. “I kept urging you to switch the fool thing off. Raising the intriguing question, How does this man know the invisible field is still active?”
“You knew—because the President was still alive,” Tom stated.
Len Kelso spoke to his old friend. “Something you want to ask me, Harlan? Such as—Why? Bribery? Lunacy? How about this possibility: a dedicated American patriot becoming convinced, bit by bit, that a negotiated resolution of the nuclear arms situation on the Korean peninsula would lead to a false sense of security, a weakening of our defense posture. We need our foreign threats, boys, to force us to keep our muscles toned, our guard up. We’re the last line of defense, Harlan, Tom. You two know better than anyone in this city that the real danger isn’t North Korea, it’s...” His eyes flicked skyward. “Up there!”
“You were the planted assassin?” demanded Agent Frye icily.
“Are you impugning my honor, Frye?” Kelso snapped back. “I had nothing to do with that foreign-intrigue business, Ahlgren’s third-party plot. They abandoned it, thank the Lord. We protected the President like the professionals we’re sworn to be! No, my personal epiphany was sudden and recent.”
“You found a way to make contact with Pallida Mors, didn’t you,” said Tom. “She told you about the implosion and offered to switch-out the component—unseen, of course.”
“Purchasing her services must have cost you a pretty penny, Len,” Ames said with scorn and pity.
“Yeah. But you know, they do say we government employees are way overpaid.”
As Kelso was led away, Tom was finally able to dissolve the shield and shake the President’s hand. “Next time you’re in D.C., drop by my house. It’s painted white, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.” The Chief Executive grinned broadly. “I do believe my wife would like to kiss you!”
Some days later, back in Shopton, in his office at Enterprises, Tom told the story in as much detail as the guardians of national security would permit. “I see the world of Tom Swift keeps turning and churning even in my absence,” commented Bashalli Prandit dryly, eyes bright beneath her raven-dark hair. “And so this old hag, this Gina—she is still at large?”
In response Tom swiveled a computer monitor to face his friend. “This came in yesterday,” he said. “Untraceable—but it’s obvious who sent it.”
TOM SWIFT, YOU NEED HAVE NO CONCERN ABOUT THE FOOLISH WOMAN WHO TROUBLED YOU. I DO NOT TOLERATE BETRAYAL. THOSE WHO DARE MOCK THE KHANATE DO NOT DRAW A SECOND BREATH.
“Well, I suppose that settles that,” said Bash with raised eyebrows. “And now, Thomas, what new wonder are you inventing to keep yourself in danger—and far away?”
Tom’s eyes twinkled. “It’s not really my invention. Hank Sterling’s been working on it for years—sort of a hobby for his free time. I don’t hold exclusive rights to the title of Young Inventor, you know.”
Tom produced a series of sketches, marked with the name of Hank’s invention. “If Hank is the inventor,” said the Pakistani, “surely you should leave it to him to test it out?”
“Well... there were a few odds and ends that I, er, consulted on.”
Bashalli nodded. “No doubt. And I’m quite sure that the fiction version will be entitled Tom Swift and His Junglemobile. Hank Sterling will have to wait for his moment of fame.”
As Tom laughed, Chow Winkler entered with snacks. “Say there, you two, did you get your invite to th’ big weddin’?”
“Wedding?” repeated Bashalli.
“It’s Gerrold Funtz, the plant groundskeeper,” Tom explained.
Chow nodded. “Marryin’ his boss, Minerva Tavrish. Not like it’s a big blame surprise,” he continued. “Ever’body knew it all along, fer all his cussin’ and belly-achin’ about her. Had t’ be love! Cain’t keep it a secret howsomever much ya try.”
“Oh yes, it’s true,” agreed Bashalli. “Strange are the ways of love. And that’s one thing no shield, resilientronic or not, can protect you from, Chow—and Thomas. Cupid’s arrow!”